Basbeball’s long string of games is built from thousands of at-bats, but these aren’t a test of endurance. They’re a test of adaptation.
Batter and pitcher are usually so evenly matched that the advantage arises from finding one small point of weakness, chipping away until it’s visible and then pouncing.
Today the Marlins and Reds concluded their series, after the Reds won their home opener and the Marlins claimed victory last night. The final game of a tied series may not mean much at this stage of the season—if we can call the trickle of games played so far a stage at all. But as managers busily calculate the pace they must flog their horses to emerge atop a division in October, winning the series is the benchmark to heed.
The Marlins send up Carlos Zambrano, the pitcher rescued from his weird captivity in Chicago. He spent 2011 having tantrums, “retiring” from the team, and intermittently claiming that he’d solved his anger management issues. Needless to say, one doubts that a pitcher like Zambrano will emerge calm and collected, even given the benefit of a brand new team and a manager who is especially good at distracting the media from his players by having outbursts of his own.
Zambrano has a first inning that should go in the cautionary tales video collection for major league pitchers. First innings are a special trial for many pitchers, for a hitter is more likely to arrive ready to make contact than a pitcher is ready to organize his full catalog of pitches into the mix that baffles or defies.
Zambrano is a tall, big man who seems to mutter on the mound. He has an angry energy that some might celebrate as competitiveness but that I always see as loathing—for the hitter, even for the game. He rarely seems happy about anything that happens on a baseball diamond.
And so when his first pitch, to Brandon Phillips, is firmly singled to center, you sense Zambrano’s joylessness climbing a degree. Now he faces Zack Cozart, the rookie shortstop who has begun this season with a homer and is batting .675 over two games. Ah, the distortions of the small sample size at the beginning of the season. Cozart is, for now, striding like a titan. So he takes a strike from Zambrano and then launches a double to very deep left center, which scores Phillips easily. Three pitches from Zambrano and it’s 1-0 Reds.
Joey Votto, a solid power threat, is the beneficiary of Zambrano’s mood plunge, drawing a walk. The pitcher has little better to offer to cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick: walk number 2.
Jay Bruce is up with that most golden situation: bases loaded, no outs, and a pitcher on the rails. On a 2-1 count, he offers up a measly infield grounder that the Marlins can’t quite convert into a double play ball. It scores one run, erases the runner at second, and leaves the Reds with two on, one out, up 2-0.
Zambrano, I assume, is reaching meltdown temperature. His pitches and his fielders are deserting him. Miguel Cairo, however, is not in great command of his at-bat, but his ground out to third scores the third run of the inning. Zambrano finally escapes with a strikeout to Drew Stubbs.
My memory can’t be definitive here, but as I think of this inning as whole, it seemed to me the Reds swung at any pitch Zambrano placed in the strike zone. Plenty of his offerings moved well out of it as the inning decayed. But if a pitch crossed the zone, a Reds batter made contact. Zambrano’s velocity is well down from his heyday. He’s trying to make 86 mph work, and he didn’t appear comfortable building his game around location and pitch selection.
In short, the Reds were feasting. It looked like it might be a laugher of a day, with the score run up and a homer or two launched over the riverboat smokestacks.
Meanwhile, Bronson Arroyo starts for the Reds. He is an immensely beautiful pitcher to watch. So much so that I am guilty of failing to understand how mediocre are his results. Last year he was 17-10 with a 3.88 ERA, allowing 59 walks to 121 strikeouts. Put all that in a blender, and it comes out a 1.145 WHIP. Nothing to build your fantasy team around, but I think his delivery makes up for it.
Arroyo is 6’4”, slender as a skewer, and his legs are so long he verges on standing on stilts. His signature move is a high leg kick. His left leg rises to ninety degrees, as effortlessly as a flag run up a pole, and then it hinges cleanly downward as he completes his throwing motion. There is an otherworldly elegance to the balancing point he achieves.
In the stuff dimension, however, he has a little less working for him. His approach is simple, and heartily recommended by many pitching coaches: throw the first pitch for a strike. Make the count work for you.
This sensible approach is going to include giving up a good number of hits, but Arroyo isn’t surrendering them in bouquets. The Marlins scratch at him for three innings but never mount a threat.
In the fourth, though, a lightbulb goes off somewhere. If he’s offering a first pitch strike like a toaster with every new account, we might as well collect. The Marlins begin swinging at the first pitch, quite certain of what they’ll find. Three singles and they’ve scored a run, then manage another in the sixth. They’ve cracked the code.
On the other side of the scoresheet, Zambrano has done the very thing I expected least. He has not only settled down, he has made his own use of the first pitch strike principle. He doesn’t seem content on that mound, but he has found a way to bottle up the Reds. He retires 12 straight. That sweet streak ends with a Jay Bruce homer to nudge Cincy up 4-2.
The score tells a story based on the damage the early runs did, but I saw the tide of adjustments inexorably moving in favor of the Marlins. And in the seventh, they got their three runs to take the lead. Arroyo did not adjust, but the hitters did. Two of the hits in the inning were on first pitch swings, and the others came after foul balls.
After an interim reliever stopped the bleeding, the Reds brought in gangly flamethrower Aroldis Chapman for the eighth and ninth. He mowed the Marlins down in a holding action while the Reds offense collected themselves for an assault on that one-run deficit.
The Marlins relief corps appears undistinguished to me, but it takes a long time to see enough work from middle relievers to know them. What I do know is that they brought in Heath Bell, a prize new acquisition, in the ninth. Bell saved 42 or more games in each of the last three years for San Diego, so one imagines a one-run lead, frail as it is, can stand up.
Jay Bruce leads off, and works the count to 2-1 and then scalds a homer to left. Game tied.
Now, for pure strategy, one would prefer a man on base to a dinger. Bell retires the next batter, then sees Stubbs send a liner to Hanley Ramirez, still getting accustomed to the hot corner. Ramirez leaps and reaches but can’t time the move and the ball clips over his glove for a single.
Bell makes some pickoff attempts, and he’s wise to worry about a runner getting to second with only one out. Who’s to say if his zeal on this point blinds him to the batter, but Ryan Hanigan does indeed produce a single. Stubbs is running hard for third, and the ball from the outfield is over thrown. If Bell hadn’t backed up the play and snared the ball, the game would have ended right there, with Stubbs scuttling home on a wild throw.
But that would have deprived venerable Scott Rolen, now in a pinch-hitting role, of a shining ninth inning opportunity. With Stubbs at attention on third and the game tied, Rolen punctures Bell’s first save attempt with a simple single and the Reds win.
Whether it will be true next time or not, I saw a pattern today. Arroyo is a pitcher that hitters can figure out. He’s a soft tosser with some good ideas about approaching hitters, but he can be dissected and beaten. Zambrano is able to rebuild his concentration after adversity, and is actively exploring ways to work around his reduced power.
The Marlins hitters were able to adapt to Arroyo, while the Reds mashers appeared puzzled at how their prowess deserted them. It came back, of course, when it really counted but it felt more like luck than cunning in that ninth inning.
And I had to adapt too. What I thought I knew about Carlos Zambrano was, today anyway, dead wrong.