April 2, 2013 at 11:06 AM
A more detailed look at one critical at-bat in last night’s Mariners win
Better to wake up the morning after a win rather than a defeat in a game that really could have gone either way for the Mariners. We spent some time last night discussing the baserunning of Dustin Ackley and Brendan Ryan in the fifth inning, when all of the game’s runs were scored.
But I want to switch to the pitching side of the ledger now and one critical series of events in the eighth inning after the Oakland Athletics loaded the bases with two out.
First, there was the hitter the A’s chose to send to the plate. Instead of John Jaso, who had doubled off of Felix Hernandez in the fourth inning and then battled him in a 10-pitch at-bat in the sixth, the A’s felt they had to go to the bench and bring in pinch-hitter Derek Norris.
That’s because Mariners manager Eric Wedge finally found himself on the more comfortable front of the Jaso platoon-splits question that tends to surface late in every game. Last season, Wedge was reluctant to use Jaso as a pinch-hitter late out of fear his opponent would merely wait until Jaso was officailly entered into the game, then bring in a left-handed relief pitcher to neutralize him as an option and burn him from any future use. The other teams knew Wedge would be forced to let Jaso flail away versus their lefty reliever, or else replace him with a right-handed pinch-hitter and end his night before Jaso could even take one swing.
All the other team would have to do to prevent the Mariners from even thinking of using Jaso would be to have a left-handed pitcher start loosening up the moment any Seattle runners got on base in a situation that might necessitate a pinch-hitter.
Last night, it was the opposite. Wedge went to Charlie Furbush with two on and two out in relief of Hernandez, knowing the A’s had two left-handed hitters and a switch-hitter due up next and that Furbush can work to multiple batters. With Jaso the second of those three hitters coming up, Wedge knew that if the first batter reached base, he’d either get a good lefty-on-lefty matchup against a tough at-bat in Jaso, or — more likely — that he’d force the A’s to get him out of the game.
Just like Seattle would have done last season.
In the end, the A’s like Norris as a right-handed platoon partner for Jaso, so it’s not like they had to reach all that far in the back of their minds for a pinch-hitting option from the right side. But still, Jaso hit .328 with a 1.013 OPS last season in 162 plate appearances with runners on base.
If there’s one guy who knows how to leverage a situation and work a count in his favor late in games, it’s him. That’s not the guy you want up in that situation if you’re the Mariners.
And because of Jaso’s platoon splits, the Mariners never had to face him. Last year’s AL Manager of the Year, Bob Melvin, knew the odds against a lefty just like Wedge did last season. So, even though Furbush wound up walking his only batter, the Mariners still won the larger battle just by having a lefty on the mound breathing the air. It was enough to get arguably the most dangerous late-game threat the A’s potentially have out of the ballgame.
But that was only the first part of what had to be done.
Norris is younger than Jaso and doesn’t work at-bats and counts nearly as well, but he’s still the type of guy who’ll pop a grand slam in a situation like that if a pitcher goes in there doing what the scouting reports say he will.
Last year, that would have meant upper-’90′s fastball heat from Stephen Pryor, the right-hander Wedge countered with to face Norris. And believe me, Norris knows how to sit dead-red and hunt a fastball the way most hacking youngsters with some power do.
So, the first thing Pryor did? Threw Norris an 86 mph slider. The pitch was inside and taken for a ball, but that’s not really the big deal here.
The next pitch was a 96 mph fastball again taken outside for a ball. Not all that hittable as a pitch, which was good, though the 2-0 count probably isn’t what you want in that situation. Here’s the thing, though: because of that first-pitch slider thrown by Pryor, if you’re Norris, you don’t really know what’s coming next.
Sure, you’re assuming it’s a fastball for an attempted strike. But a pitcher with the confidence to throw a first-pitch breaking ball can also have the confidence to throw one when behind in the count.
Pryor ultimately did throw Norris a fastball on the third pitch and the hitter missed it. He fouled it off. Did Pryor “showing” Norris the earlier breaking ball cause the hitter to hesitate with just enough indecision? We’ll never know. Maybe he just missed a hittable pitch, the way Jaso usually doesn’t.
In any event, in a 2-1 count, a hitter might expect either pitch and this time got a 97 mph fastball right down the middle. Instead of crushing it, Norris rolled over on it and grounded into a force out.
Again, in the game’s key at-bat for the A’s, they did not get to see a hitter with late-game ice in his veins work the count, nor do something with those last two hittable pitches. That’s because Jaso was out of the game and his replacement, Norris, could not do anything with two hittable fastballs down the middle once he’d worked the count to 2-0.
And quite possibly, Pryor showing something other than fastball heat early in the count caused enough indecision in Norris’s mind to throw a younger hitter off. Pryor said it’s “definitely” important to show hitters something other than a fastball to get their minds wandering.
“This spring training, everytime I got into a 3-2 count, I was trying to throw it,” Pryor said of his breaking ball. “Just to work on it in a situation like that. Coming in like that, and being able to throw it…it wasn’t for a strike, but I still had the confidence to throw it.”
In the end, we’ll never know what Jaso might have done, or how Norris may have fared had Pryor simply thrown four-seamers the whole time. But it turned out to be a pretty interesting sequence of events in a game where runs were at a premium.