Physical, emotional meltdown haunts Hunter Strickland, costs Giants
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Wednesday marked Hunter Strickland’s 52nd day in the big leagues. It didn’t go well.
When the 25-year-old Giants reliever entered Game 2 of the World Series, its outcome remained in doubt. Starter Jake Peavy had kept his club in it, even though he had trouble topping 91 mph with his fastball, but ran out of whatever gas he had in the bottom of the sixth, allowing a leadoff single and a walk. Another single, against reliever Jean Machi, allowed the Royals to take a 3-2 lead, and then Giants manager Bruce Bochy tapped southpaw Javier Lopez to induce Alex Gordon to fly out to left for the inning’s first out.
With runners on first and second and a pair of righthanded hitters due up, Bochy turned to Strickland. His first two pitches to Salvador Perez went well enough: a pair of 97 mph fastballs put him ahead in the count 0-and-2. Then came the meltdown.
Strickland’s third pitch was a curveball that catcher Buster Posey could not block and the runners advanced to second and third. His fourth pitch was another 97 mph fastball, but it was over the heart of the plate, and Perez — who had broken out of a postseason-long slump with a late solo home run off Madison Bumgarner the night before — drilled it to deep center for a two-run double that made the score 5-2.
After a first-pitch ball to the next batter, Omar Infante, Strickland’s sixth delivery of the night produced a 98 mph heater that was up and in, but not nearly up and in enough. Infante crushed it over the leftfield fence for a two-run homer. Now it was 7-2 and the outcome of Game 2 was sealed.
Then, for good measure, as Infante was about to trot across home plate, Strickland began yelling at a perplexed Perez, who seemed to be doing nothing more than waiting at home plate to congratulate his teammate. “Shut up, boy,” he appeared to shout. “You wanna go?” Soon, both benches and bullpens had emptied, though no punches were thrown.
The damage had already been done. The results of Strickland’s six-pitch night: one wild pitch, one double, one home run, four runs allowed and an embarrassing display on his sport’s biggest stage.
After it was over, reporters and television cameramen crowded around Strickland’s locker in the visitors’ clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium, a half dozen deep. Juan Gutierrez, who occupied the locker to Strickland’s right, quickly extricated himself from the scene. Machi, whose locker was to the left of Strickland’s, wanted no part of it at all. A clubhouse attendant cut through the throng to grab Machi’s pink jeans and plaid shirt for him.
To his credit, Strickland promptly emerged from the showers and began to talk while still wrapped in a pair of towels. “Guys, please let him dress first, please?” a Giants staffer implored. “Give him five minutes.”
Strickland had little trouble explaining what had gone wrong with his pitches. He didn’t have a feel for the curveball that had gotten away from him and had poorly located the fastballs that Perez and Infante had hammered.
“I was just trying to execute and keep the ball down, but obviously I left it over the plate,” Strickland said.
As sweat began to bead on his temples, he had a more difficult time explaining what, exactly, Perez had done to set him off. “It was a miscommunication,” he said. What had been miscommunicated? Did he think Perez had circled the bases too slowly after Infante’s homer? No, he said, it wasn’t that. Had Perez said something to which he took offense? “I don’t speak Spanish, so I don’t know what he said.” Why had he gotten angry, then? “I thought that he must have thought I said something to him. It’s just the way it is.”
Perez, for his part, was mystified. “I don’t know what happened with that guy,” he said.
The answer, it became clear, was that Strickland had simply lost it. “I was mad at myself,” he said. “It is what it is. I got caught up and obviously I didn’t control my emotions like I should have.”
A more important question, perhaps, is why Bochy had tapped Strickland, who has a total of seven regular-season innings on his resume, to work such a high-leverage situation to begin with. Strickland is by far the hardest thrower on the Giants’ roster, but this postseason he hadn’t put his heat to much good use. He’d allowed runs in three of his first four outings, and Bochy had attached perhaps too much significance to the result of his perfect fifth appearance, which came in the ninth inning of a Game 1 the Giants were winning 7-1.
“Great outing,” Bochy said of that garbage time inning. “Had to do a lot for his confidence.” Bochy, however, had to know the experience of pitching an inning late in a blowout is very different from being asked to come into a very tight ballgame.
Nonetheless, Bochy bypassed pressure-proven options, including Jeremy Affeldt, Sergio Romo and Yusmeiro Petit. Bochy even passed over his former ace Tim Lincecum — who hadn’t pitched since September but worked 1 2/3 hitless mop-up innings on Wednesday before departing with lower back tightness — in favor of the untested promise of Strickland’s power arm.
It didn’t work, spectacularly so. Strickland crumbled physically, and then he crumbled mentally.
“He showed his emotions, but it’s an area he probably has to work on because you’re going to give up a home run occasionally,” Bochy said. “These are things we’ll talk to him about.”
Some even-handedness is in order, as it usually is. The Royals deserve credit for persevering through a very frustrating first several innings against Peavy — they consistently hit him hard, but without much to show for it — and then for exploiting a reliever who does throw with great velocity, even if at times to the wrong spots. And Bochy is a superb manager who has led underdog teams to three World Series appearances in five years, and has rarely made a misstep in doing so.
Even so, it’s fair to question Bochy’s attachment to Strickland, who, despite his stuff, might not have reached the big leagues until he was a member of his third organization for a reason. Bochy keeps trying to make Strickland work. This October, it keeps not working, most notably so on Wednesday.
“He’ll be back out there,” Bochy said of Strickland going forward, and Strickland expressed his hope that his manager still has faith in him.
“I hope he would call me,” Strickland said. “Obviously, I’d given up four [homers] previous to that home run and he’s still called me.”
It is, however, a safe bet Bochy will not call Strickland’s name in any of the three games now guaranteed to be played in San Francisco, at least not in a situation that really matters.