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Winning Ugly

Posted By Cliff Corcoran On May 20, 2005 @ 11:37 pm In Bronx Banter | Comments Disabled

Wait a second, Kevin Brown and Victor Zambrano faced off in a game that included five errors and thirteen walks and it was just 3-2 going into the ninth inning?

Yup. Both starters belied their shoddy reputations, despite exhibiting the same tendencies that typically get them in much bigger trouble. Zambrano walked six, but allowed just three runs, two earned. Kevin Brown, meanwhile, escaped a bases-loaded jam in the first (single and two walks) by striking out Doug Mientkiewicz on three nasty pitches low in the zone. He then survived a lead-off single in the second and a lead-off walk in the third and a one-out walk in the fifth. The only run he allowed all evening came in the fourth and it was unearned.

Despite cracking a double into the left field gap to lead off the fifth (he was stranded), Brown was pinch-hit for during a sixth-inning rally, leaving him with a strong 5 IP, 3 H, 1 R (0 ER), 0 HR, 5 K line despite walking four and throwing a mere 54 percent of 90 pitches for strikes.

Suddenly, it seems Brown has figured out how to compensate for his struggles (primarily, keeping his pitches down, where they’re the nastiest), posting the following line in his last three starts combined:

18 IP, 16 H, 6 R (3 ER), 0 HR, 5 BB (4 last night), 10 K.

As the unearned runs and K/BB ratio(s) indicate, he’s not quite where he should be, but as he’s currently the Yankees fifth starter, he’s certainly getting the job done.

For his part, Zambrano followed the script, allowing just four hits in 5 1/3 innings, but walking six. Like Brown, he survived a one-out single in the first, a lead-off walk in the second, and Brown’s lead-off double in the fifth, adding a 1-2-3 third for good measure. Also like Brown, the fourth was where he ran into trouble.

That inning began with the first of two walks drawn by Tony Womack on the night, which leads to a developing theory of mine regarding Womack’s walk rates. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Tony Womack, despite his abysmal walk rate, sees as many or more pitches per at-bat as the rest of more “patient” Yankees (save Giambi, who’s off the charts). Watching his at-bats, it’s clear that Womack is not a hacker. He swings at strikes and takes most everything else (including some strikes), often fouling off pitches and battling the pitcher. So why doesn’t he draw more walks? Is there really a difference between taking the first three balls and taking the fourth?

I don’t think there necessarily is. One reason Womack doesn’t walk more is that that his methods get him into as many two-strike as three-ball counts, and when in that situation, he’s more likely to swing at borderline pitches, as well he should be (see: Giambi, Jason). More significantly, I think that given Womack’s slap-hitting ways, pitchers are unafraid to groove one to Womack, who has never slugged above .385 in a season and has just 35 homers in his eleven-plus years in the big leagues. Thus, when a pitcher gets three balls on Tony Womack, he’s not going to nibble at the corners for fear of giving up an extra-base hit. He’s going to throw a strike as the odds are in his favor that Womack won’t get anything more significant than the one base he would have gotten from the walk, while his chances of making an out rise dramatically. As a result, I think the only pitchers who walk Tony Womack are not the ones who won’t throw a strike, but the ones who can’t.

Victor Zambrano is one of these men, and he started off the top of the fourth of last night’s ballgame by walking Tony Womack, who took three straight pitches after getting ahead 3-0, guessing correctly that Zambrano couldn’t throw three straight strikes. Womack then stole second, moved to third on a Sheffield fly out to center, and was doubled home by Hideki Matsui, who is officially out of his slump having gone 12 for his last 30 with five doubles and a hit in each of his last six games.

Kaz Matsui (with the help of Derek Jeter) returned serve in the bottom of the inning. With one out, Jeter attempted to backhand a David Wright grounder only to have the ball take a high bounce and kick off the heal of his glove for an error. Matsui then double deep into the gap in left (a nice back-handed running play by Hideki had robbed Kaz of a hit slightly less deep in the gap in previous at-bat) and Wright was waved home. Matsui did a great job of getting the ball back in to Jeter, and with a typically strong and accurate Jeter relay throw, Wright would have been out by the length of at least one Luis Sojo, but Jeter launched his throw well up the first base line and past Posada (who, as you know, lurks there anyway) to the backstop. Tie game.

Inspired by Jeter’s two fourth-inning errors, Kaz Matsui (Warning: Kazerdous Materials) and the Mets got in on the act in the sixth. Hideki lead off with a single, then took second on the napping Zambrano. E-Rod walked, Tino grounded them both over. Zambrano then walked Posada to load the bases with one out.

Batting eighth in front of the pitcher’s spot, where he extended his hitting streak to eight games, Robinson Cano in this at-bat reverted to his grounder-to-second ways with a perfect double play ball to Kaz Matsui that the smaller-headed Matsui Bucknered, then bobbled when trying to get Cano at first. One run in, still one out, bases still loaded.

Joe Torre then pinch-hit for Brown with Ruben Sierra, who was just activated before the game (replacing Andy Phillips, the only Yankee bench player with options, on the roster). Sierra worked a full count, then hit a roller to first that could have been a first-home-first (3-2-1, 3-2-3, 3-2-4, whichever) double play, and should have been one out for sure. Instead, Gold Glover Mientkiewicz pulled a Jeter by popping a backhand into the air with the same results as Matsui’s bobble. Another run in, still one out, bases still loaded.

Willie Randolph then called on Heath Bell, who struck out Jeter (who was 0 for 5 with 3Ks and six men left on base in addition to his two run-producing errors) on three pitches and Tony Womack on five to end the inning.

Trailing 3-1, the Mets got one back in the seventh against Tanyon Sturtze when Jose Reyes smoked a one-out double down the first-base line and scored on a two-out Carlos Beltran single.

Finally, the Yankees put it away in the ninth against Roberto Hernandez, who walked Tony Womack (who again took three pitches after getting ahead 3-0) to start the inning. Gary Sheffield followed with a grounder in the shortstop hole that scooted under David Wright’s glove and into Jose Reyes’s. With his momentum going into the hole, Reyes was unable to get his throw to first in time to retire Sheffield. Meanwhile, Tony Hustle was on second by the time Reyes righted himself and took third on the long throw, putting runners on the corners with none out.

Hideki Matsui followed with an RBI grounder, plating Womack and replacing Sheffield at first. E-Rod then singled to put runners on the corners again and Tino lifted a sac fly to left that scored Matsui to put the final score at 5-2 [1].

Stanton (who finished Sturtze’s seventh inning), Gordon and Rivera finished the Mets off, allowing just one walk by Gordon over the final 2 1/3. The fifth error in the game was an ultimately harmless one when Tony Womack made and ill-considered dive for a blooper to very shallow left off Gordon that allowed Mientkiewicz to reach second on what was most likely a tweener single for which Minky didn’t receive credit.

With last night’s win, the Yankees are assured of coming back home with a .500 record. Meanwhile, with the Blue Jays having lost to Minnesota on Thursday, but beaten the Nationals last night (anyone else think they should restructure the “natural rivalries” so that the Nats play the O’s, and the Phillies the Pirates?), the Yankees have finally moved into a tie for third in the east and are now in a three-way tie with Toronto and Texas for the sixth best record in the AL, 2.5 games behind the Red Sox and Angels.

Today at 1:10 Randy Johnson and Kris Benson kick off the FOX season with the Game of the Week (“MLB on FOX” my arse). Here’s hoping Randy strikes someone out this time.

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[1] 5-2: http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/boxscore?gameId=250520121

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