In the little picture, Wednesday’s was a perfectly sensible conclusion. The better baseball team clinched the World Series, on its own home field. One of the truths about the MLB playoffs is that the format doesn’t always reward the best team in baseball. This time, though, the Red Sox have a hell of an argument, and they’re a more than deserving champion. In the big picture, also, Wednesday’s was a perfectly sensible conclusion. The Red Sox won their third title in a decade. They’re always thought of as a powerhouse. The magic is in the medium picture. The picture in which you realize the Red Sox did go from worst to first. Just one season ago, the Red Sox lost 93 games. This season, the Mariners lost 91 games. The Mets lost 88 games. The Padres lost 86 games. There was a lot of talent already in place, but the Red Sox badly needed some work, and the franchise identity shouldn’t blind people to the near improbability of the turnaround. No World Series champion has ever had a worse previous season.
For Sox fans, this was another opportunity to celebrate, and an opportunity to celebrate a Series win at home for the first time in almost a century. For Sox fans and all other fans too, this made for a relatively stress-free game by the middle innings. The top of the seventh offered a glimpse of possible stress, but there was no real stress to be felt after the Sox went up 3-0 in the third and double that in the fourth. Stephen Drew‘s homer put Boston’s win expectancy over 90% and it never sank back down below. For several innings, the Sox all but had the clincher in the bag, after chasing the un-chase-able Michael Wacha.
I don’t need to explain who Wacha is, and I don’t need to explain what Wacha had done recently. I’ll confess that I didn’t even know all that much about him before a month ago, but he’s been impossible to avoid in October, mostly because his pitches were impossible to not avoid, for bats. Wacha didn’t get into the Cardinals’ rotation for good until the third of September. In his last start of the season, he threatened to throw a no-hitter. In his first start of the playoffs, he threatened to throw a no-hitter. Before Wednesday’s Game 6, Wacha had allowed three runs in five starts, and there was reason for the Cardinals to believe he was the right guy to have on the mound with no more ground to give.
Wacha left in the fourth with the score 4-0. He’d get charged with another two runs, and he was so upset upon leaving the mound he doesn’t even remember what Yadier Molina told him to try to calm him down. One of the facts of the matter is that the Cardinals scored just one run. But another one of the facts of the matter is that Wacha knows he put his team well behind, and it’s going to take a long time for him to be able to forgive himself completely. The unhittable Michael Wacha proved to be too hittable at too unfortunate of a time, and so when Wacha departed, the game was all but decided.
So then one wonders: what happened? Wacha was effective the first time around, also pitching against the Red Sox in Boston. Why is it that Wacha got lit up on Wednesday? By my count, Wacha allowed six hard-hit balls. This is where we have to begin, and now here are those six.
Five of those actually came in a span of six batters. It’s notable that the Red Sox surged in a hurry, and it’s also notable that Wacha was aces early on. The game began for the Red Sox’s hitters with a three-pitch swinging strikeout, and the FOX broadcast remarked that, already, Wacha looked settled in. He didn’t get in trouble until the third. He didn’t get out of trouble in the fourth.
It’s convenient that this was Wacha’s second start of the series, against the same team in the same ballpark. It allows for comparisons, and in one of those starts, Wacha was good, and in the other, he was not. After Game 2, it was up to the Red Sox to try to make some adjustments. But then, a pitcher and a batter don’t just allow themselves to get adjusted to; it’s up to them to try to anticipate adjustments, and adjust back in preemptive response. It stood to reason Wacha wouldn’t look quite the same in Game 6 as in Game 2.
And even just eye-balling things, it’s clear there was a change in Wacha’s approach. He possesses a good fastball. His best secondary pitch is his changeup, which can sometimes be fantastic. His curveball is a work in progress. In Wacha’s first start, he threw 34% changeups, and 9% curves. In his second, abbreviated start, he threw 16% changeups and 15% curves. Wacha’s changeup is known to be a strength of his. Wednesday, he didn’t throw it very much, preferring instead to go with more curves and also to go with more heat.
What Wacha might’ve figured was that the Red Sox would gear up for his change. Alternatively, maybe he just didn’t have a good feel in the cold weather. He started a few more plate appearances off with curveballs, something the Red Sox wouldn’t be looking for. Then there was a big change with two strikes — where, before, he threw 19 of 30 changeups, Wednesday he threw six of 17. Wacha actively moved away from his best secondary offering.
And in response, the Red Sox were aggressive against Wacha’s fastball. The first time, they swung at 40% of his heaters. The second time, they swung at more than half. They took some heaters for balls, and they took some more for called strikes on the edges, but seldom a heater went by over the plate that the Red Sox didn’t swing. It was against that pitch the Red Sox got all their hits.
Before proceeding, it’s important to note that Wacha didn’t necessarily have things conclusively wrong. Again, he was pretty strong through the first two innings. Jonny Gomes‘ single wasn’t very well hit. Shane Victorino’s walk was drawn from four borderline balls. In the first, Wacha struck out two and very nearly struck out David Ortiz. The second ended with two pop-ups and a strikeout. Later Wacha was done in by something other than just stuff, and this is where we re-visit the well-hit balls the Red Sox recorded.
In the bottom of the third, Ellsbury pulled a fastball:
In the bottom of the third, Victorino pulled a fastball:
In the bottom of the third, Bogaerts pulled a changeup:
In the bottom of the fourth, Drew pulled a fastball:
In the bottom of the fourth, Ellsbury pulled a fastball:
In the bottom of the fourth, Pedroia went the other way with a fastball:
Five of those six were hit against fastballs. The one hit against a changeup was pulled right down the line, as if Bogaerts was a little ahead. And all six pitches have something in common: they were thrown more or less over the middle of the plate. Four of the fastballs leaked to Wacha’s arm side. One wound up too elevated, and the changeup was even more elevated. What did Wacha in was the simplest and most understandable of issues: his pitches got too much of the plate. Pitches over the plate don’t always get hit hard, but they get hit hard more often than pitches elsewhere.
There’s really no mystery. Said Wacha afterward:
“You’ve got to make pitches when it matters. I just didn’t do that,” Wacha said. “I left some balls over the plate and they made me pay for it.”
Not all of Boston’s well-hit balls went for hits, but enough of them did. The big blow, obviously, was the Victorino double, where Wacha was gunning for the low-away corner. That double drove in one runner who hit the ball well, one runner who was put aboard intentionally, and one runner who reached on a hit-by-pitch when Wacha let a fastball get away. His command wasn’t terrible, but it failed him at the wrong times, and the Red Sox, in turn, didn’t fail to take advantage. Wacha might’ve gotten a worse fate than he would’ve most of the time, throwing the same stuff, but it’s hard to claim bad luck when you make mistakes over the middle.
After Victorino, the Red Sox got to Wacha more. The hits and runs counted, but they might’ve been unnecessary. This game certainly could’ve gone differently — the Cardinals actually wound up with a couple more recorded line drives than the Red Sox. But one team won by five, which means the game wasn’t close, even if it could’ve been close, and it wasn’t close because the Red Sox got to a rookie dynamo who had himself an off night. The power was there for Wacha to succeed. He had a plan, which might’ve worked, given how the first two innings went. But you can accomplish only so much if you don’t hit your spots, and if you miss in the wrong places, and Boston’s isn’t a batting order that’s very forgiving. Hence maybe the longest night of Michael Wacha’s life.
If it’s any consolation to the Cardinals, they didn’t let David Ortiz beat them. Not on Wednesday. He hardly had the chance. They were beaten instead by many of the rest of the Red Sox, because it’s a great team and a deep team, the one team we might still refer to in the present tense given that there’ll be a parade before Jacoby Ellsbury gives a whole lot of thought to being a free agent. And the Cardinals were also beaten in part by their own failures to execute, but so much of failure can just be the other team’s success, and at the end of the day, the Red Sox are better. It’s never pleasant to lose in the World Series, but if nothing else, the Cardinals made sure to lose to the best. The Red Sox provided hope for an entire region. And their story, at least in the medium picture, provides hope for baseball fans everywhere else.
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