Yanks' patience pays off in another grueling Red Sox marathon
BOSTON -- The Red Sox-Yankees rivalry breeds long, methodical games of attrition in which the anticipation between pitches at times seems to supersede the action in four-hour sporting events more commonly expected when taking to the links for a round of 18 holes. That no doubt made PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley and four-time major winner Phil Mickelson right at home for their ceremonial first pitches they threw before two of the games this series.
The three games of this series -- none of which extended beyond nine innings -- were played in an average 3:52 per contest despite less than nine combined runs per game.
On Thursday night New York sent seven men to the plate in the first inning, and five of them saw at least six pitches, part of a 43-pitch, 25-minute opener for Red Sox starter Jon Lester, who later exited after 114 pitches in only five innings. The Yankees' game-winning rally in the seventh inning came during the second inning of work from Boston's long reliever, Alfredo Aceves.
"I thought we set the tone for the rest of the ballgame," Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long said. "That's certainly going to enable us to get into their bullpen, which is exactly what we did."
After losing 10 of their first 12 games to the Red Sox this season, the Yankees won two of three in this series, pulling within a half-game of Boston in the AL East with the division and home-field advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs at stake. New York manager Joe Girardi acknowledged that his team didn't play well in the first nine games of this year's series with Boston, but in this series and especially on Thursday, he said, "Our at bats got a lot better."
While the average major-league games needs 290 pitches and sees 3.81 pitches per plate appearance; the three games of this series saw an average of 332 total pitches and 4.12 per plate appearance.
Sure, the length of games is also attributable to regular pitching changes and some wasted time when players dawdle outside the batter's box, but the real culprit is the players' elongated and indisputably effective approach at the plate. The Red Sox and Yankees rank first and second in the majors in pitches per plate appearance, on-base percentage and slugging, all of which incrementally contribute to the most important stat: they rank first and second in runs scored.
The two primary effects of working deep counts are an increase in walks and an increase in the likelihood of knocking out the starting pitcher. In all, the Red Sox threw 203 pitches and 36 of them were thrown to Yankees leftfielder Andruw Jones, who walked three times -- a 10-pitch drain on Lester in the first inning, a seven-pitch free pass in Lester's fifth and final frame and a colossal 14-pitch walk to start the big rally in the seventh.
"I was trying to make contact," Jones said. "We faced a couple tough pitchers today, and I was just trying to battle."
Long said of Jones, "For a guy who walked three times today, he made as much of an impact on that game as anybody."
Only three of the game's 83 combined plate appearances were over in one pitch, and one of them was unintentional, as Mark Teixeira was hit by the first pitch in his fourth time up. In 26 plate appearances, at least six pitches were needed.
Slumping Yankees starter A.J. Burnett had a breakthrough start, allowing only two runs over 5 1/3 innings and he got in trouble when he didn't throw strikes.
If a pitcher starts a batter with two strikes, that 0-2 count means a hitter's average in that at bat has fallen to .169 with a dismal .450 OPS. If a pitcher starts a batter with two balls, that the average major-leaguer bats a robust .288 with a .987 OPS. And if Burnett starts an opposing hitter with two balls, that batter morphs into a superstar-caliber slugger with a .383 average and 1.308 OPS.
So it should have come as no surprise that when Burnett started Boston's Nos. 3 and 4 hitters, Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia, with consecutive 2-0 counts in the fourth inning on Thursday night, the former doubled and the latter homered as the Sox scored their first two runs of the game.
Call it a baseball version of the Butterfly Effect, the tenet of chaos theory that suggests that slight changes in pre-existing conditions can have complex effects, which, when applied to baseball, is a fancy way of explaining the importance in the count in an at bat.
The Moth Effect, an altogether different corollary of chaos theory, was introduced Wednesday. The age-old axiom stats that a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a hurricane on another continent; the new twist is that a moth flapping his wings can cause disrupt baseball played in another month.
Just after the Yankees took a 5-4 lead in the top of the sixth inning, young Red Sox outfielder Josh Reddick batted second in the bottom half of the inning and worked an eight-pitch walk, with the decisive ball four occurring when a moth flew into the right eye of New York starter Phil Hughes as he delivered the pitch. The resulting base on balls led to a three-run inning that proved to be the difference.
As important as the moth's flight, of course, was that Reddick battled back from a 0-2 count by fouling off a pair of two-strike pitches.
"Don't try to be a hero and go 'big fly' on a 0-2 swing," Reddick said of his thought process. "That was one thing I did in the past. Especially in this lineup, I'm not the guy who needs to put everybody on his back. I've learned to accept that and understand that, to make the adjustment that I just need to be the guy who gets on base and scores runs as opposed to hitting them in."
Had the Sox not won that game, the Yankees would hold a 1 ½-game divisional lead, a two-game swing that could make the difference in deciding home-field advantage throughout the postseason.
So while at times the players' plate patience may try the attention spans of viewers at home and fans in the stands, everyone better get used to it, if they're not already. The approach works, and October in the Northeast promises to have many more long games and late nights.