Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Pitching In

Randy Johnson was absolutely brilliant through 6 innings. No hitter. Where have you been all my life Big Unit....uh....I mean that it the most Yankees-related, Randy Johnson contextual way possible.

The end result of his outing wasn't nearly as pretty as the bulk of his 6+ innings of work, but I have to say that I was a bit worried about all the time he spent in the dugout as the Yankees laid it on the White Sox at bat. Johnson's big issue is his 6'10" frame and the narrow spine and musculature that are supporting it at age 61. He's got a lot of mileage on that frame of his and sitting in the dugout for long stretches doesn't help it any. I'm guessing that was the final straw in his poor showing to start the 7th. The Yankees managed to wiggle out of it thanks to a little miracle by Ron Villone. I wondered "aloud" at Bronx Banter if it would be best to bring in Mariano Rivera with the bases loaded, no one out, and the tying run on deck in the 7th. Villone made that point moot.

Farnsworth's 100 mile an hour assortment of "where will it end up this time?" made things way too interesting, and Mariano had to come to the rescue with a little adventure of his own. Glad we have him and not Johnathan Papelbon, who blew his second coonsecutive save against the Royals to help the Yankees take a 3 game lead (4 in the loss). All is right in Yankeeland.

From the hitting side of things, Abreu continues to be blistering for the Yankees. With the Bombers in 8 games, Abreu is .412/474/.588 (1.062 OPS) with 3 doubles, a homer, and 3 stolen bases. He isn't even taking his walks yet. He has 3 walks to 10 strikeouts in pinstripes, so you know there's more to come. Eat your heart out Theo Epstein. Cash money is magic.

I watched my home prefecture's entry in the Koshien National High School Baseball Tournament at work today. In Japan this event is like the Final Four, and then some. Everyone stops what they're doing to sit in front of the television (and a big fan) and support their local team. In the teacher's break room, 7 or 8 of us gathered to watch the Honjo (Akita Prefecture) High School team take on the powerhouse Tenri High School (Nara Prefecture) club. Honjo is not a regular visitor to the Koshien tournament, and looked to be an overwhelming underdog to the perennial power Tenri. I took this as a great opportunity to pick the brains of Japanese baseball fans about the peculiarities of their style of play.

Right away Tenri scored 2 runs to put Honjo on its heels. The Honjo kids were resilient and got runners on base with no outs in the 1st two frames. What did they do next? Yup. They bunted. That's what they do here. It's the WAY baseball is meant to be played you see. It's an asthetic. It's tradition. I kept quiet.

Tenri proceeded to turn the game into a laugher with their superior pitching and power, as the starter finished the 4th inning with a no hitter working, before the bats came alive for 5 runs in the top of the 5th. The Tenri manager saw the two lead off batters in the 5th reach safely and then we all knew what was coming. Bunt. The thing is, the first pitch was bunted foul. I cringed and asked the teachers why they would bunt an excellent hitter with no one out and two runners aboard. The Honjo pitcher was wild and on the ropes. They said to me in Japanese, "This is not baseball. This is yakyu. And, it's Koshien.", to which I replied, "But the point is to win."

They laughed and shook their heads knowingly. They said, "No. This is high school yakyu. And, it's Koshien. The point is to play the right way." I knew they agreed with me on many levels, but they know the reality of the tradition and the pattern that must be followed. The second pitch was on its way and the batter squared again. This time, however, he pulled his bat back at the very last second and laced a rope over the right fielder's head which rolled all the way to the wall. 4-0 Tenri. The throw to the infield was off base and the runner advanced to 3rd. The next batter roped a double off the left field wall making the score 5-0. Still yet, the following hitter strode to the plate an impressive physical specimen for a Japanese high school kid and did what all good cleanup hitters do. He cleand up with a 2 run monster shit into the left field stands. After the next hitter reached on a little single, the starting pitcher was yanked. He gave up 7 runs in 4+ innings and was getting shelled.

The number 6 hitter came to the plate and bunted the runner over to second. The next two hitters made out. So much for the bunt, but it seemed to be a moot point. The non-bunt that started the scoring went a long way to helping make my point about not giving up outs. It would rear its ugly head again in this game though.

The Honjo kids scrapped 2 runs across in the bottom of the inning. Two hits led to runners on 1st and 2nd with 1 out. The pitcher came in hitting 9th and bunted the runners over to 2nd an 3rd with 2 outs. I still felt funny about it, bunting when you're down 7-0 in the 5th, but the pitcher was hitting a buck-something on the year and I figured it was better than the double play. All of us kind of looked at each other knowingly as the sacrifice was successful. National League style ball in effect. The lead off man came through with a big hit to make the game 7-2. The inning ended with that score.

The next inning Honjo got the #3 hitter on base after a lead off error by Tenri. The clean up man for Honjo followed suit by cleaning up with a triple to make the game 7-3. We had a little ballgame in the works. The next man reached base on a hit to left field scoring the man from 3rd, and the no out rally continued. The #7 batter came to the plate with a robust .556 batting average in local/prefectural/Koshien tournament play, and Tenri changed pitchers. You know what .556 hitters do with a runner on 1st and no outs, when they are followed by .125 and .200 hitters in the lineup don't you? Yup. They bunt. Even my co-workers were rolling on the floor at this turn of events. The next two guys went down weakly, as their averages would predict, and the rally was ended at 7-4.

That was all for the scoring in the game until two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the 9th when the lead off man for Honjo hit a "backscreen" home run to make it 7-5. The next batter swung at the 1st pitch and popped out to short.

My observations on this event...great drama. Real spirit. Hometown loyalty in effect. Bad baseball. Too much bunting. No one works the count at all. Pitchers catch the return throw from the catcher and almost immediately start their windup again, even if they are struggling with their control. The pace never changes. Umpires are nearly robotic as they make their calls. Every call is picture perfect as if it came from the illustration in the umpiring manual about how to call "safe", "out", "strike", etc....kind of funny, but refreshing.

I have a theory I'm going to run with about Japanese baseball. The #1 thing to understand about the game is that pitch counts mean absolutely nothing at the junior levels. High School pitchers will throw 150, 180, 200, 250, pitches in one game. Recently, in a regional tournament game, a guy pitched the Koshien clincher one day with over 200 pitches, and had to come back to the mound the next day to pitch again and the 1st days game went into darkness, tied in extra innings. He won the game in the 12th inning, after amassing 350 pitches over 2 days. For one thing, that's criminal and some one needs to put a stop to it. The second things is, I think it affects the style of play a lot.

Think about it for a second. In the US pitch counts are a big thing. You know a guy is toast when he hits 100 or 115. Hitters will work counts and prolong at bats to wear the starter out. Guys make careers out of fouling off pitches. The way the game is taught today is a lot different in the US than it is in Japan. You take a pitch in the US. Many times you'll take 2 pitches. At the high school level you can guarantee that a pitcher will get wild at some point and taking pitches will earn you valuable base runners. In Japan, pitch counts mean absolutely nothing, so why would anyone worry about prolonging their at bat? Sure you get a better look at the pitcher, and your OBP increases with every pitch over 6, but guys see their pitches and swing at them. Nothing wrong with that, but sooooo many guys swing at the first pitch they see. A lot of times, players will work the count in their favor and swing at the strike that's low and outside instead of waiting for their pitch.

It's partly because they're young and haven't developed their eye completely, but it's also partly because no one is thinking about making a guy throw a lot of pitches.

That's my take on the Japanese game for today. More another time. Mussina versus Vasquez tomorrow. Big night for Johnny Damon? Go Yanks!