Thursday, May 26, 2011
Wilson Valdez latest unlikely mound hero
By Stephanie Liscio
The Phillies' victory in the early hours of Thursday morning was initially remarkable for how it started, with Roy Halladay on the mound against a Reds team he'd no-hit in the National League Division Series last year. But people won't easily forget how it finished, 19 innings later.
When infielder Wilson Valdez stepped onto the mound for the Phillies in the top of the 19th inning, he wasn't just being asked to do something out of the ordinary. True, Valdez was coming into a tie ballgame, which was unusual enough for a position player. But he was also facing as formidable a group of sluggers as the Cincinnati Reds possess, a trio that any full-time reliever would be worried about: reigning National League MVP Joey Votto, frequent All-Star Scott Rolen and Jay Bruce, who had hit his 13th home run of the 2011 season in the 10th inning.
Even though Valdez hit Rolen with a pitch after getting Votto to fly out to center, he managed to retire the side because he got to face Reds pitcher Carlos Fisher with two outs and that one man aboard. As a result, when the Phillies scored in the bottom of the 19th on Raul Ibanez's bases-loaded sacrifice fly, Valdez had earned his first win as a pitcher.
Valdez was not the first position player called upon to pitch in a bind, nor will he be the last. In fact, there are a number of memorable pitching performances by position players, but many of them took place in the midst of blowouts, rather than long extra-innings affairs. Of all of these, Valdez was the only player to earn a W for his efforts:
On April 13, 2009, Nick Swisher of the Yankees was called in to pitch during the eighth inning of a 15-5 loss to the Rays. After walking the leadoff man, B.J. Upton, and allowing a base hit to Willy Aybar, Swisher retired the next three batters in order. He even earned his first major league strikeout when he threw a 78 mph fastball past the swinging Gabe Kapler. Swisher claimed that he had previously pitched as a freshman at Parkersburg High School in West Virginia.
On August 19, 1997, David Wells allowed 11 earned runs in three innings for the Yankees against the Angels. Manager Joe Torre wanted to preserve the Yankees' bullpen, and originally considered third baseman Charlie Hayes as a relief pitcher. After several Yankees players pointed out that Wade Boggs had a great knuckleball, Torre instead called upon the future Hall of Fame third baseman. Torre was initially afraid that Boggs would be uncomfortable with the request, but it turned out that Boggs -- who often practiced his knuckleball before games -- was thrilled with the opportunity. Boggs faced four Angels batters in the eighth inning, and he got all of them off to 0-2 counts, allowing one walk and no hits during the appearance.
By the eighth inning on June 17, 1993, the Rangers had already scored 18 runs against the Angels. Angels manager Buck Rodgers turned to outfielder Chili Davis. Davis pitched both the eighth and ninth innings, and although he hit Jose Canseco with a pitch, his performance was otherwise perfect. Davis joked that he had about seven different pitches he was able to use at any time, but that the only one working that night was his fastball.
One position player pitching performance that is notorious for all the wrong reasons was when Canseco pitched the eighth inning for the Rangers on May 29, 1993. Texas was being clobbered by the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, so Canseco convinced manager Kevin Kennedy to let him pitch for an inning. Canseco allowed two hits, three walks and three runs during the 15-1 loss and blew his arm out, requiring season-ending surgery. Canseco was scheduled to make $4.8 million to make his living as a hitter that season, so that became one of the single most costly relief innings ever thrown.
After Valdez's success in the top half of the 19th, perhaps the Reds might have envied the Phillies for using a position player to pitch when their half of the inning rolled around. However, Dusty Baker had already emptied his bench of position players, although he had a pair of swingmen, Sam LeCure and Matt Maloney, still potentially available instead of sending out Fisher for a sixth inning of very long relief.
However, the last time Baker sent a position player to the mound for the Reds, nobody involved enjoyed any success: Shortstop Paul Janish came into a blowout against the Milwaukee Brewers on May 6, 2009, and allowed five additional runs to add an exclamation point to a 15-3 loss.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Sometimes your reach exceeds your grasp, but Ian Kinsler gave it his best shot.