Sunday, July 13, 2014

Game of the Day (7/12/14)

Pirates 6, Reds 5 (11). Pittsburgh's Charlie Morton and Cincinnati's Mike Leake are both solidly in the realm of average-or-slightly-above. Neither of them has yet thrown 200 innings in a season, but both of them likely will this year if they remain healthy. The most notable thing about either of them is the fact that Morton threw a mere 116 innings last year - and still led the NL by hitting 16 batters. And he's hit 16 again this year in roughly the same number of innings, leading the majors so far. If he remains in the rotation for the rest of the year and keeps up anything approaching that pace, Morton may end up hitting more batters than any pitcher in over a century.

It was Leake who hit a batter in the first inning, however, which helped Pittsburgh score the game's first run. Travis Snider singled with one out, Andrew McCutchen was plunked, Neil Walker walked to load the bases, and Russell Martin added a sacrifice fly. Pedro Alvarez walked to load the bases again, but Leake struck out Gaby Sanchez to end the inning.

Morton allowed a single and steal to Todd Frazier in the first, but left him at second. Jordy Mercer started the second with a single and was bunted over by Morton before also ending the inning in scoring position; Ryan Ludwick singled in the bottom of the inning and was erased on a double play.

The Pirates extended their lead over the next two innings. McCutchen led off the third with a double, advanced on a groundout, and scored on Martin's second sac fly of the day. After a spotless third from Morton, Sanchez and Mercer started the fourth with singles, Morton bunted them over, Sanchez came home on an errant pickoff throw from Leake, and Gregory Polanco singled Mercer in for a 4-0 lead. Snider singled to put runners at the corners, but Leake retired McCutchen and Walker to stanch the bleeding.

Morton countered a Ramon Santiago single with a double play in the bottom of the fourth, and Leake did the same with Martin's fifth-inning single. Polanco walked, stole second, and moved to third on a hit by Snider in the sixth, but McCutchen grounded out to leave them both at the corners. And then came the bottom of the sixth, when the metaphorical roof caved in.

Zack Cozart walked to start the inning, and pinch hitter Chris Heisey followed with a two-run homer to halve Cincinnati's deficit. Billy Hamilton singled and stole second, Santiago walked, and Frazier clouted a go-ahead three-run shot. Morton managed to retire the next three Reds, which was cold comfort indeed after turning a four-run lead into a deficit within the minimum possible number of opposing hitters.

Logan Ondrusek threw a perfect seventh for the Reds, while Jared Hughes allowed a leadoff hit to Brayan Pena, then retired the next three hitters he faced. Sam LeCure yielded singles to Mercer and pinch hitter Josh Harrison in the top of the eighth; Manny Parra and Jumbo Diaz then relieved and recorded an out apiece to end the inning with the tying run at third. Mark Melancon permitted only a Jay Bruce single in the bottom of the eighth, keeping his team within a run.

Jonathan Broxton took over for the save situation in the ninth, and opened the inning facing the reigning NL MVP. McCutchen had stepped to the plate four times to this point, coming out with one double, one HBP, and one run scored. But his team was still trailing despite those efforts, so he went ahead and threw in a game-tying home run on top of them. Broxton retired the next three Pirates, and Tony Watson allowed singles to Ludwick and Cozart before stranding both men to send the game to extras.

JJ Hoover worked a flawless top of the tenth; Ernesto Frieri made things rather more interesting in the bottom of the inning by walking Santiago and Frazier on a total of ten pitches. Justin Wilson took his place and allowed a single to Bruce; Polanco fielded the ball in right and cut down Santiago as he tried to score the winning run. An intentional walk loaded the bases, but Wilson then struck out Ludwick and Pena to keep the game tied at 5.

It did not remain tied for long. With two outs in the top of the eleventh, McCutchen homered against Hoover to put Pittsburgh in front, and Jeanmar Gomez set Cincinnati down in order to end it.

It's not uncommon for players to establish their career-highs in WPA in one of the games that I write up; my method of selecting games is based around large swings in win expectancy, which also tend to produce high WPAs for individual players. But a career high for a generic scrub is one thing; a career high for a player who's had what may end up as the first five and a half years of a Hall of Fame-quality career is slightly more significant.

Andrew McCutchen hit a home run to tie the game in the ninth (+.35 WPA), and homered again to take the lead in the eleventh (+.42). Throw in a leadoff double and an HBP early in the game, and it climbs to a total of +.833. It's the best game to date for a player who has been in the league for five and a half years - and has been in the top 10 in WAR for position players in each of the last four (his 2014 total is obviously incomplete, but he hardly seems likely to fall from #2 to outside the top 10 after the All-Star break).

In other words, a player who is ordinarily outstanding at baseball was even more outstanding than usual in this game, and in such a way as to make the game highly exciting. Which exemplifies both the reason I do these writeups, and the reason we watch baseball in general.

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