May 26, 2006
Mastering art of the prolonged at-bat: Game's most patient, resilient steadily disrupt pitchers' plans (Tom Singer, 5/26/06, MLB.com)
You've doubtless seen at least one classic duel between irresistible pitches and immovable hitter. The count reaches two strikes, and the batter refuses to be counted out. He starts wasting strikes and can't stop ... and eventually the scoreboard begins tracking the pitches, with the entire house screaming the countup.Posted by Orrin Judd at May 26, 2006 5:09 PM
Usually, such standoffs become consequential, not just memorable. We saw it just last Saturday, in Shea Stadium, where Yankees rookie Melky Cabrera punked veteran Mets closer Billy Wagner.
Wagner is accustomed to blowing through ninth innings, closing out lights; only the night before, he had struck out the side on 12 pitches. This time, Cabrera stayed rooted in the batter's box, fouling off pitches until he'd worked an 11-pitch walk -- the centerpiece of a Wagner meltdown, as he went on to blow a four-run lead.
On such occasions, baseball is reprising its role as a metaphor for life.
Alex Cora served as such inspiration on May 12, 2004, when he fouled off 14 consecutive Matt Clement pitches before punctuating an 18-pitch at-bat with a two-run homer.
The next day, Cora appeared on NBC's network news, and Tom Brokaw described the incident to the nation as "a moment that transcended sports."
Cora's recollection of the battle captured the essence of all such standoffs: "It was tough; he was throwing good pitches. When they put it on the scoreboard, that put me under a little bit of pressure. I had to stand back and regroup."
At 18 pitches, Cora fouled his way into rare territory. While there is no gospel when it comes to this stat, according to various Internet sources Cora's at-bat was the third longest of the last quarter-century. Only longer: Ricky Gutierrez's (Astros) 20-pitch affair with Bartolo Colon (Indians) on June 26, 1998, and Kevin Bass' (Astros) 19-pitch epic with Steve Bedrosian (Phillies) on July 23, 1988.
But forget those oddities. Far more common, and as disruptive, are those 10-12 pitch at-bats that alter a game's course.
"Any hitter who works the count is a pain," says Bud Black, the respected Angels pitching coach following a career as a successful American League left-hander. "Being able to foul off pitches makes him even more of a pain.
"As a pitcher, you're trying everything ... in and out, up and down ... and he keeps fighting balls off. You feel as though you're making good pitches, and he keeps fighting them off. You start thinking, 'What do I have to do to get this guy out?'"
Black sighs. "It's not a good feeling."
Because even if the pitcher wins the battle, he is closer to losing the war. Or, at the very least, his place on the mound. Both Clement and Colon (Bedrosian was a reliever) were removed immediately following the aforementioned marathons.
Clement, who had thrown 86 pitches before Cora stepped in, was taken over that 100-pitch wall to 104, a spectacular example of emptying a guy's tank.
Among today's players, the consensus identifies the best at that as Texas' Michael Young, Oakland's Mark Kotsay, Bill Mueller of the Dodgers, Ichiro and, of course, Eckstein.
As far as the St. Louis dynamo is concerned, his at-bat doesn't even begin until he's got two strikes; that just gets his attention.