I spent the better part of the last two nights watching some amazing pitching by the likes of Vicente Padilla, Brandon Duckworth, Rheal Cormier, Jose Mesa and Terry Adams of the Phillies and Jarod Washburn, John Lackey, Brendan Donnelly and Troy Percival of the World Champion Angels. Two tight, taunt games, where a clutch hit here, a defensive play there and either team could have gone away with two wins.... or two losses. Instead, in an evenly matched series, they have split the first two games. Fair enough. But is there something deeper here, "a game within a game," so to speak? Was there one fundamental truism...there is that word again.... that separated winning from losing? I think so - and it is that first pitch strike that was thrown so often by Padilla and Lackey, and not by Duckworth.
While applauding the performances of Washburn and Lackey, this is not an Angels site so I will restrict my current line of reasoning to the resident Phillie starters of the past two nights, Padilla and Duckworth. In reviewing their performances, there was much to like about both of them. Both had electric stuff, with fastballs in the low 90's and enough control of their breaking pitches to keep Messrs. Erstad, Anderson and Glaus off balance and at bay. In fact, only a Tim Salmon triple dented the Phillies tandem to any extent and it was this triple that led to the winning run in a 2-1 ballgame. But there was one fundamental difference in pitching between the two, a difference, which may seem small when put through the microscope of any individual batter, but a game breaker when put in the context of the entire game. While Padilla continually threw "first pitch strikes...Strike One" on the batter, Duckworth continually labored from behind. In fact, of the first nine hitters Ducky faced, he started eight of them with ball one. So what, you may say, he eventually retired most of them. Well, true enough, but baseball's beauty is its timelessness, until 27 outs are recorded the game is not over. No stalling like in basketball, no running fullback slants up the middle as in football. Nothing happens until that pitcher throws the ball and where he throws it determines much over the course of a game.
In speaking of Phillie truisms, here is unquestionably one of them - "there are no pitchers on the Phillie staff that manager Larry Bowa must preach to more about a first pitch strike than Padilla and Duckworth". The veterans, Millwood and Wolf instinctively know this, while the youngster, Brett Myers, pitches beyond his years...he was born old. Not so with Padilla and Duckworth, they both tend to nibble and fret, unsure that their stuff is good enough to beat solid major league hurlers. This is unfortunate because no less an authority than the reigning Phillie pitching guru, Joe Kerrigan, insists that their stuff is not only good enough to win.... but also dominate. For one night, Padilla proved Kerrigan a genius as his first pitch strikes became second or third pitch outs, allowing his pitch count to remain low, the Phillie defense to stay solidly on their toes (to the tune of five outstanding plays) and give the bullpen a bit of early inning rest. Oh, and not so coincidentally, a Phillie win, 3-0.
Not so with Duckworth. Though my eyes told me his stuff was solid, as Angel hitters consistently swung late at Duckworth's rising fastball to the tune of lazy opposite field fly balls, something else was happening. Duckworth was consistently pitching from behind...ball one, strike one, and ball two...and so on. His pitch count began to rise, he walked an occasional batter, the Phillie defense suffered a momentary lapse and a Salmon fly that might have been catchable wasn't caught. Salmon ended up at third, and a Duckworth wild pitch cost him the game.
Would the outcome have been different had Duckworth pitched from ahead instead of behind? Possibly. The Angels first run came after a base on balls, and a Scott Spiezio single, not inadvertently after Duckworth fell behind in the count. Salmon's triple was also struck after a first pitch ball. This occurred in the sixth inning, an inning Duckworth could not finish, after laboring for over 100 pitches.
Any further proof of the effectiveness of the first pitch strike was clearly demonstrated by reliever Terry Adams. Facing the same hitters, in the same environment, he made short order of the Angels over the final two-and-two-third innings by resorting to the pitchers best friend...the first pitch strike. Unfortunately, the Phils continuing Achilles Heel, lack of clutch hitting, made this game unwinable. It is a mathematical impossibility to turn around a 2-1 deficit if you fail to score any runs ....sad but nevertheless a baseball truism!
Now that I at least have your attention about the advantage of the first pitch strike, you probably want some empirical proof, of which I am unable to offer any.... except this. Watch how many hitters take the first pitch, regardless of the location. I am saying the first pitch strike is like a basketball free throw...its there for the taking. Throw the pitch over the plate and you have… strike one. Though the batter does not yet realize it, he is now at a distinct disadvantage. A foul ball, a called strike, or a swing and a miss immediately puts him in an 0-2 hole, of which it will be near impossible to recover from if the pitcher uses this advantage at all.
There is NO hitter alive who likes to hit 0-2; this is just too much advantage for the pitcher. Our Phils saw this first hand late in the 2-1 loss. A budding rally late in the game came to a crashing halt when slumping Pat Burrell fell behind 0-2 to fastballer Brendan Donnelly. Viewers knew at this point that Burrell was in deep trouble, and sure enough, Donnelly quickly struck Burrell out. We will never know how the outcome might have been if Donnelly's first pitch was a ball. Unfortunately for our Phils it was a first pitch strike, swung at viciously by Burrell that quickly put him in a hole that he was unable to extricate himself from.
Baseball truisms......."lefty hitters have trouble with lefty pitchers". "Your best outfield arm plays right field". "Pitchers can't hit". And the newest one to add to your collection...."a pitchers best friend is not the double play but the first pitch strike....Strike One"! I trust my eyes on this one.
Columnist's Note: Mail, I get mail, and it is always appreciated. Comments, questions, or suggestions regarding CtD articles welcome. Kindly e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond! CD