Baseball is a game of giving and taking, exploitation and adjustment. It is a progression of actions and results, reactions and consequences. Perhaps this is why the game is so enduring: each player is on the precipice of success and failure with each pitch. The game requires steadfast patience, yet every moment is dire in its own way.
Two moments in tonight's Nats-Braves game illustrate this characteristic of the pastime. Fittingly perhaps, these two moments involved two individuals - a position player and a pitcher - whose big league futures are in tension, whose every success and failure alter that future in ways, somehow, simultaneously certain and inchoate.
In the top of the second inning, Ryan Church came to the plate with two outs and nobody on base. Church took a Chuck James fastball for a called strike on the inside corner. On the next pitch, Church flailed and missed at an offspeed pitch slightly away and way low.
Double, double, toil, and trouble, those witches from MacBeth would cackle. Church not only faced a lefty with an effective offspeed repetoire that features command and movement (a combination the team has considered deadly against Church), but he faced this combination on an 0-and-2 count, which has proven a deathknell for Church in his big league career to this point. In past posts, I've pointed to Church's numbers both on 0-and-2 and after such a count; while no one's a world beater in facing such adversity, Church's feableness after falling behind 0-and-2 has been extreme. I am certainly not the only one to notice this, of course.
So James delivered an 81.5 mile-per-hour pitch, as clocked by MLB.com's Gameday function, and the pitch sailed low and away from the strike zone. Church went with the pitch and pushed it to the left side; he did not hit the ball with particular authority, but then again he made solid contact. The ball bounded into the hole between third and short, and Edgar Renteria's hurried, off-balance throw arrived a step late to peg a hustling Church.
The lefty swinger, so encumbered in adverse situations just like this one in the past, became one-for-two on 0-and-2 counts for the young season and a total of two-for-five in plate appearances after facing such a count. Church's placement was certainly a little lucky, but he was also good enough. And in baseball, "good enough" is good enough regardless of (or because of) the luck involved.
For two solid months, Jerome Williams has fought for his major league life with every pitch. I do not feel this statement is hyperbole. Signed as a minor league free agent, Williams arrived in Viera with no guarantee he would make the Nats' rotation - only an expectation he would, and the expectation was subject to rebuttal by his own poor performance. For his first couple of appearances, Williams pitched himself into significant peril. There existed no better opportunity to make a big league rotation than in Washington, and he was still falling behind lesser lights like Jason Simontacchi and Jason Bergmann. This is a pitcher who debuted with the Giants at age 21, posting a 130 ERA+ in 131 innings pitched, and who went 10-7 the following season. His fortunes had fallen far since those optimistic days.
Williams righted himself with some time to spare, and perhaps the Nationals never would have exposed him to waivers anyway. But maybe they would have, which is precisely the point. Williams needed to earn his shot in April, and he did; however, his status was, and still is, quite tenuous.
And so Williams mired himself in the second inning of his second start, already tagged with a loss last week and down a quick two runs after Chipper Jones whomped him good in the first inning. To start the bottom of the second, Williams walked Scott Thorman on four pitches - the second consecutive inning Williams issued a free pass to the leadoff batter. Eighth place hitter Ryan Langerhans singled to right field, and James, the pitcher, ambled to the plate expecting to lay down a sacrifice bunt. That didn't work out, so Williams proceeded to walk James on six pitches.
The bases loaded, the lineup turned over with nobody out, Williams was clearly laboring as Kelly Johnson settled into the batter's box:
- First pitch: Fastball outside; one ball, no strikes.
- Second pitch: Offspeed, low and away; two balls, no strikes.
- Third pitch: Fastball on the outer half, fouled off; two balls, one strike
- Fourth pitch: Fastball well outside; three balls, one strike.
Williams's fifth pitch to Johnson was a fastball, clearly low. But Johnson swung. Johnson chopped a grounder to Dmitri Young at first, who stepped on the bag to retire Johnson and then awkwardly threw home to Brian Schneider, who retired Thorman with a nifty swipe tag. Double play. Runners at second and third, but now with two outs.
At the risk of being melodramatic, Johnson's swing and meek grounder - and the consequent ability of the Nats' rightly belittled defense to turn two without surrendering a run - was the key moment in Williams's outing and, at the risk of being even more melodramatic, perhaps a watershed moment in Williams's season. If Johnson had taken ball four, Williams would have trailed by three and, with the bases still loaded with still no one out, the Braves could have reasonable expected to tack on between two and three more runs in the inning (based on the run expectancy data contained in Baseball Between the Numbers). Of course, a run expectancy is not an entitlement. On the other hand, a Johnson walk would have brought Renteria to the plate with nowhere to put him and nowhere Williams would have wanted to put him, other than out. The Jones Boys were to follow, with Chipper on deck and Andrew in the hole. Quite conceivably, Williams's outing could have gotten out of hand in a hurry. Presumably, Williams would have an opportunity to make good five days later, but a humbling departure in the second inning is never a good thing.
But Johnson did swing, and the defense did come to Williams's aid. When Renteria came to the plate, the Braves' run expectancy had been reduced to less than two-thirds of a run. Williams jumped ahead of Renteria 1-and-2, which greatly augmented the pitcher's odds of success. Renteria fouled off a pitch, then popped up for the third out. Williams had escaped, thanks in no small part to a swing on the most crippling of potential ball fours.
His pitch count inflated by his struggles in the first two innings, Williams lasted only five frames, compounding the bullpen's burden during the first week-and-a-half of the season. But he did not surrender another run and, other than a couple of self-induced hiccups (inexplicably walking Francoeur in the fourth and sailing an ill-advised throw past second base in the fifth), he ended his outing on a strong note.
Williams ended the night with an 0-2 record and a 4.91 ERA. If those numbers sound poor, consider his ERA could have been more like ten had events transpired differently in the second inning. Reduced to its essence, Williams's fortunes (as Church's before him) turned on a single pitch.