Thursday, July 31, 2008

Walk Off Strikeout

The walk-off home run is one of the most spectacular plays baseball can offer. There are plenty of ways to end a game, of course. There's a blog dedicated to one of them- the walk-off walk. That's got to be pretty embarrassing for the pitcher. For the catcher, an even more embarrassing event has to be the walkoff strikeout- there, the pitcher has just dominated a hitter to get the strikeout.... but wait! The ball is bouncing around the backstop! The game-winning run scores!

How often does this kind of humiliation occur? Well, it just happened in a minor league game-- the Toledo Mud Hens beat the Pawktucket Red Sox 5-4 after Timo Perez swung at a ball in the dirt, and Freddy Guzman raced home with the winning run. In the major leagues, however, the event is somewhat rare. Unfortunately the Play Index won't let me run the search all at once; I had to check each year in the database individually. The results, in reverse chronological order:

August 3, 2005- With the game tied, a runner on third, and one out in the bottom of the ninth, Lou Pinella instructed Cubs pitcher Mike Remlinger to intentionally walk both Chase Utley and Bobby Abreu to load the bases. That brought up Pat Burrell, and Remlinger was replaced by Michael Wuertz- because apparently, going to the closer in a tie game on the road is ill-advised. Anyway, Burrell swung feebly at the first two pitches, and then Weurtz wasted a couple, including one in the dirt. On the 2-2 pitch, Weurtz got Burrell swinging, but the pitch got away from catcher Michael Barrett. According to this recap, Barrett panicked and threw to third rather than chasing down Jimmy Rollins, who was halfway between third and home. Rollins scored easily with the winning run. Barrett later claimed that umpire Dana DeMuth "did us a favor really by calling him out. If I had just eaten the throw and run at him, it would've been a different ballgame. I can't blame [DeMuth]. The place is so loud. I was expecting a foul tip call and didn't get it." Barrett was not alone in making a mental mistake in the game, but his was the most costly.

September 27, 2003- Late in the season, in front of a paltry crowd of 14,277, the worst team in over 40 years avoided tying the modern baseball single-season record for losses in a season by beating the Twins on a walk-off strikeout. The Detroit Tigers had rallied to tie from down 8-1 with a three-run seventh and a four-run eighth, but still needed a lot of help. With one out, Alex Sanchez drew a walk. With William Morris batting, Sanchez went to work- stealing both second and third base. This ESPN recap says that the 2-2 pitch went to the backstop, while Morris swung and missed. Sanchez scored easily, preventing the Tigers from losing their 120th game, which would have matched the 1962 Mets for most losses since 1900. Like Michael Barrett in the game above, Sanchez "thought it was a foul ball, but everyone in the dugout was yelling for me to go, so I took off. As soon as I started running, I knew we were going to win the game. That's when I put my arms in the air."

September 22, 1997- Walk-off strikeouts are not reserved only for poor teams; this time it was the 101-win Atlanta Braves who stunned the Expos in the eleventh inning. It had been seven innings since a run had crossed the plate, when Expos pitcher Shayne Bennett got into trouble-- a single, sacrifice bunt, and intentional walk gave runners on first and second with one out. Unfortunately, Bennett walked the next hitter, Greg Colbrunn, which brought up Mike Mordecai. Steve Kline was called from the bullpen, and quickly got to an 0-2 count. After wasting a pitch, Kline got Mordecai to swing on the next pitch, which was wild and Denny Bautist scored from third with the winning run.

June 16, 1986-
The largest gap between walk-off strikeouts so far, more than ten years back to this game between the Rangers and Angels. With California trailing 1-0 in the ninth inning, Texas starter Charlie Hough was still going strong. The knuckleballer got pinch hitter Rupert Jones to strike out looking, and then another pinch hitter, Jack Howell, hit a line drive to left field. George Wright, who had entered the game in the ninth, presumably as a defensive replacement, botched the catch, which went for a three-base error. Wally Joyner singled in Howell, and advanced to second on a passed ball. After a strikeout and an intentional walk (of Reggie Jackson), it brought up George Hendrick. Hough is credited with a strikeout of Hendrick, which should have ended the game. But catcher Orlando Mercado is credited with a passed ball, and Joyner scored all the way from second. Mercado was generally a solid catcher, with only sixteen passed balls in his 247 career games, but six of them came in 1986-- his only season catching Charlie Hough. So perhaps we shouldn't heap too much blame on Mercado for this one; he probably wanted to wait for it to stop and pick it up. Still, this is the first of the games I've looked at where the walk-off strikeout should have been the third out; it also is the first game I've seen where the winning run scored from second.

August 15, 1970- Sixteen years, back to a classing pitching matchup between the Mets' Tom Seaver and the Braves' Phil Neikro. Seaver was still pitching in the ninth inning, his team up 2-1. Unfortunately for Seaver, it all began to fall apart-- a single (Tony Gonzalez), flyball, and infield single (Rico Carty) brought up pinch hitter Hank Aaron. The famous slugger drew a walk to load the bases for Bob Tillman. Seaver managed to get Tillman to strikeout for the third time in the game, but the pitch was wild. So wild, in fact, that it ended the game. The first run is charged to Seaver's wild pitch, but Rico Carty scored on an error by catcher Jerry Grote. So this game is interesting because the tying and winning runs scored on the strikeout, but it was an error that was ultimately responsible for the end of the game.

And that's all for the play index. Fifty-two years, and in just five games has there been a walk-off strikeout. We've seen it happen to good teams and some of the worst teams, good pitchers and bad. It probably won't make it into the memoirs of anyone involved, but their feats are stored here for all posterity.

2 comments:

max said...

You can add the 2010 Mariners to this list - they just lost by walk-off strike-out to the Rangers.

Just John said...

Not only that, but today's Mariners outdid the rest of baseball history. The winning run scored from *first base* after the Seattle catcher threw the ball into right field trying to throw out the batter. A historical first. Yay, I think.