Losing focus – and then losing the game

A lot can be written about the Cardinals/Rays game on July 1, 2011, and undoubtedly will be.   I look forward to reading bout what others saw, searching for the game within the game.  For many, the pivotal point in the contest happened in the eighth inning with the walk to Lance Berkman.  That’s true, but there is so much more you can learn by watching it again, and again.

Rays reliever JP Howell

After retiring the first two batters (Jon Jay and Matt Holliday) with long loud outs, reliever JP Howell walked Lance Berkman on a 3-2 count.  Rays manager Joe Maddon was ejected from the bench for continuing to yap about it, well after the home plate umpire told him to stop.  Apparently Howell and Maddon seemed to have totally missed that the Rays reliever got away with a bad pitch to both Jay and Holliday, both of whom could have hit the ball out of the ballpark.  Don’t start playing the Sandy Koufax card when you got lucky on your first two outs.

Did Joe and JP have a legitimate beef with the umpire on the Berkman walk ?

Yes, and no.   Even the Fox Sports Midwest guys got this wrong.   The problem was not the 3-2 pitch, it was the one just before.

Let’s look at the PitchFX data and instead of worrying about the 3-2 pitch (6), take a look at the one Howell threw on the 2-2 count.   That ball was clearly a strike, nicely over the plate on the inside corner and at the knees.   A check swing was appealed to the first base umpire, and Doug Eddings said no swing.

Berkman should have been out on strikes.  Howell thought he had gotten out of the inning, and a second look shows that he was right.   He probably thought he made two brilliant pitches, and he did.  One was a strike, and one was far far too close to take, but Berkman did.  That was exceptional pitching.

Joe Maddon didn’t quite see it that way, and was ultimately ejected for arguing balls and strikes.  There are two things you cannot do in baseball, argue balls and strikes, and make things personal with an umpire by saying “you”.  That will come in to play in a moment.

One of the things that makes baseball a beautiful sport is the human element of the umpires.  It is frustrating when a call goes against you, and you sigh in relief when it goes in your favor.  If you can step back from the moment, most of these controversies balance over the long haul, but we don’t think about that when the game is on the line.  Ask any Cardinals fan old enough to remember Game Six of the 1985 World Series.

For a home plate umpire calling balls and strikes, absolutes truths are like searches for a unicorn: a noble effort but ultimately a fruitless folly.   What you really hope for is an umpire that is consistent in his calls.   That benefits a starting pitcher, who has the luxury of multiple innings in which to learn where the umpires strike zone really lies.   For a reliever, the task is much more difficult.

The same can be said for the batter.  Just ask David Freese, who saw the exact same pitch on 0-2 that Berkman got on 3-2.  Freese exhaled and mouthed “wow”, thinking he should have been wrung up on that third pitch.

That pitch wasn’t a strike to Berkman, and it wasn’t a strike to Freese either.   We can go back to the earlier pitches from Jake Westbrook and Wade Davis to see if they were getting the call, but that doesn’t particular matter in this instance.  In the Howell appearance, the home plate umpire was consistent on the inside part of the plate.

Playing the game forward just a bit, Howell ended up walking David Freese, but not before committing a balk – and this is extremely important.   Howell started his motion, but before he came to his set position, he stepped off the pitching rubber.  Every hurler above the age of 5 knows this rule, and for Howell to do it in a game situation is a clear indication that Howell has lost his focus.  If Maddon had not been thrown out of the game, he might have come to the mound at that moment to take Howell out of the game.  But he couldn’t, because of the earlier exchange with the hope plate umpire.

Back to the Freese at-bat.  Pitches 4, 5 and 6 were nowhere near the plate, and Howell’s body language clearly showed a player that had been beaten.  He had no business making another pitch in the game.

An unfortunate confluences of events kept Howell in the game, and the results were disastrous.  The reliever warming in the bullpen was not ready to enter the game.  Instead of some sort of delay tactic, like a coaches visit or an equipment malfunction, bench coach Dave Martinez let Howell pitch to the left-handed hitting Colby Rasmus.  Howell had the lefty/lefty advantage, right ?  Wrong.   Howell leaves a pitch on the lower part of the plate, and Rasmus got all of it, and the three run homer gave the Cardinals a 5-0 lead.  Another lapse in concentration – you never throw a pitch down there to a left-handed hitter, especially one with power like Rasmus.

Howell should have been ejected immediately when he threw his glove on the ground in anger. Home plate umpire Vic Carapazza showed a lot of patience not doing so, even after Howell bats away a ball that Carapazza tossed to him for the next batter.   His patience ran out when Howell continued his tirade, and it probably included the word, “You”.

Two more ejections were given to David Price and Elliot Johnson, although neither were in the game.   Both players were barking from the dugout, and first base umpire Doug Eddings had just had enough.  They are fortunate that more ejections were not given out.

The irony for the Rays is that they managed to get all three of those runs back in the home half of the same inning.   And the difference in pitching approach between JP Howell and Lance Lynn could not be more different.

The Cardinals Other Lance, Lance Lynn

Like Howell, Lynn was a single pitch away from getting out of the inning.   He threw a good pitch to Evan Longoria, who let if go as it sailed just outside of the strike zone.  On the next one, Longoria hit a pretty good pitch to the outfield wall for a run scoring double.  It was a good pitch, but tip your cap to Longoria who won that battle.

The inning would be extended and Matt Joyce would eventually hit a two run homer off a high fastball.   In retrospect, it was a very good pitch and Joyce did an excellent job getting his bat to the top of the strike zone to get the ball.   Lynn had gotten away with that pitch several times already, so there was nothing wrong with going back again.

In all of this, Lynn was clearly disappointed in giving up the three runs, but he never quit.  He went right after BJ Upton, and got the young outfielder to harmlessly fly out to centerfield, ending the inning.

If you only read the box score, you might come away with the impression that Lynn blew up on the mound.  Watching the game, you have a different impression.   Lynn continues to be impressive.  It will be interesting to see how he rebounds from giving up a handful of runs in his first late inning appearance, but I expect to see the big right hander right back out there in the next late game situation.

Lost in all of the eighth inning festivities was a brilliant outing from Jake Westbrook.  Westbrook was not good at the start of the season, and has continued battle inconsistency, but the recent trend line is certainly heading in the right direction.   If this outing is any indication of what to expect from the veteran right-hander going forward, it should be a fun summer to be a Cardinals fan.

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