SweetSpot: Yusmeiro Petit

Loss in 18 puts Nats on cusp of elimination

October, 5, 2014
Oct 5

It was the longest postseason game in Major League Baseball history, in terms of time (the old record was five hours and 50 minutes, set by the Braves and Astros on Oct. 9, 2005). And with 15 relievers used -- seven for San Francisco, eight for Washington -- it was the kind of game that can get people frothing over in-game tedium if it happens in August and raving about the drama when it happens in October. But most of all, there was more than enough in this game to leave Nats fans seeing red by the time this one finally ended after more than six hours of baseball. Because down two games to none, coming up short in this particular game might be how they have to remember this season.

But the defining moments? You have to start with what set it all up …

1. The Giants tie things up in the ninth inning. Jordan Zimmermann had a shutout going, and he was an out shy of a complete game. Then he walked Joe Panik on his 100th pitch of the evening, leading Nationals manager Matt Williams to go to the pen.

Williams brought in Drew Storen, but the Nats’ late-season answer to their closer question responded by giving up back-to-back base hits to Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, allowing the tying run to score, with the potential lead run (Posey) thrown out at home to end the inning. The play was close, made closer still by Bryce Harper’s throw from the left-field corner to the cutoff man, and it was necessarily reviewed. But both the home-plate ump and the review got the call right: Posey’s lead foot looks like it missed the plate, and the tag beat the trailing leg.

The ninth inning ruined all sorts of stuff that different people were rooting for, for different reasons and on different levels of seriousness: A postseason game under three hours, a Madduxian pitch count for Zimmermann, or something as simple as a Nationals win. It also automatically created no end of questions for Matt Williams in the hours, days and weeks to come over the Nationals’ newly reheated closer controversy. It might also be the moment likely to be synonymous with regret in D.C. baseball history for years to come, perhaps the single biggest moment of diamond disappointment in the District since Walter Johnson gave up five runs in the seventh and eighth innings for the Senators to blow Game 7 of the 1925 World Series.

2. Brandon Belt’s home run in the 18th. To win the game, on a no-doubt blast to right field after a full game’s worth of fans shrieking at every fly ball that got within 50 feet of the wall, hoping for release. Belt has been somebody the Giants, their fans and a significant portion of the stathead community have been waiting on to break out. After an injury-wracked 2014 season, this wasn’t the year, and after his 0-for-6 in this game, it didn’t seem like this would be the night for it either. But just like that, he got a pitch from Tanner Roark he could tear into and instantly erased months of disappointment.

3. Yusmeiro Petit throws a quality start in relief. If you weren’t already a believer in Petit’s value to the Giants this season as an old-school swingman, bouncing between the rotation (usually subbing for an ineffective Tim Lincecum) and middle relief, his spinning six shutout innings eliminated the need for Bruce Bochy to pitch matchup games and place too heavy a demand on his bullpen in this one game. Not that it might mean much with Madison Bumgarner on deck to start Game 3, but after seeing an ace lose this game, you don’t want to surrender any potential advantage. Belt might get the signature moment for the decision, but Petit’s pitching made it possible.

4. Asdrubal Cabrera and Matt Williams have a cow. The last thing you need in a game like this is to lose a player or your manager over a late-game freak-out, but after blowing the game in the ninth, you could understand how tensions were running high in the Nationals’ dugout. However, when Cabrera flipped out over getting called out on a strike in the 10th, it automatically cost the Nats a position player, forcing Danny Espinosa into the game, initially as a pinch runner, because why burn anyone else? It also meant leaving in-game decision-making to coach Randy Knorr & Co. after Williams ran interference and got himself ejected, as well, on the off chance that his intercession might help preempt a Cabrera in-series suspension. As if that wasn’t galling enough, Cabrera didn’t even really have a legitimate complaint:

5. Zimmermann throws 45 pitches to get through five innings. I’m cheating here, because this wasn’t a single moment so much as a blur of incredible efficiency on the mound as Zimmermann wound up retiring 20 straight men before that ninth-inning, two-out walk to Joe Panik. That sort of performance generated its fair share of in-game wonder …

Keep in mind, this was immediately after the Nationals had taken the lead in the third, making this look like a dead ball-era special. Considering that two of those innings (the fourth and the seventh) involved getting the heart of the Giants’ order -- Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence -- out one-two-three, that’s especially impressive. It was even more impressive considering that Sandoval and Pence had both owned Zimmermann up to that point on their careers, going a combined 14-for-33 (.424) with two homers. So yeah, that no-hitter he threw on the season’s final day? Just a bit of a suggestion that somebody is ready to roll this time of year. But the Nats are first going to have to advance to the NLCS for that to be something for anyone to have to worry about going forward, and right now, that doesn’t look very likely.

Something extra: Anyone else wondering about Anthony Rendon’s steal in the eighth inning? It might not seem like a big deal, but if Rendon doesn’t steal, does Bochy let the right-handed Jean Machi face Adam LaRoche? With two outs, LaRoche getting a shot at doing some extra-base damage against right-handed pitching was probably the Nats’ better chance at generating a potentially critical insurance run, having slugged .501 versus right-handers on the year but just .336 while hitting .204 against lefties. With a runner in scoring position and even with a Machi strike on LaRoche already on the board, two outs or not, Bochy wasn’t taking any chances in a one-run game, calling for a southpaw and counting on Matt Williams’ offensive indifference. Giants situational star Javier Lopez had already whiffed LaRoche eight times in 11 plate appearances without allowing a hit. Spotted a strike, Lopez notched another whiff at LaRoche’s expense, making it a matchup to keep in mind for the remainder of this series. The steal effectively took the bat out of LaRoche’s hands when you want him to get to hit against non-star, right-handed help. He won’t get many more chances like that in this series after being the Nats’ key Steady Eddie on offense this season.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

Five things we learned Tuesday

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10

Don't forget to check out the Hunt for October for standings, playoffs odds and upcoming schedules for all the playoff contenders.

1. Don't go burying the Oakland A's just yet.

Ahh, America: We love to jump on a bandwagon and then crush it as soon as we can. Witness the A's. Remember back on June 21? That was when they beat the Red Sox 2-1 in 10 innings. It was an exciting walk-off victory. They were 47-28 after that win, the best record in the majors, on pace for 102 wins. They had a six-game lead over the Angels and were still weeks from acquiring Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. We all loved the A's back then, praising this team that had overcome injuries to two-fifths of its projected rotation, writing our "Billy Beane has done it again" stories.

Then came the trades. Then came the losses. Then came the Angels and the loss of the division lead. Then came those two defeats on Sunday and Monday -- blowing leads in the ninth inning -- and even though the A's were still in the wild-card lead, we were ready to put them 6 feet under. Enter Jon Lester on Tuesday against the White Sox. Considering the somewhat dire straits of the bullpen, the A's needed a big game from their new ace and Lester delivered with eight innings of two-run baseball. The A's piled on seven runs over the final three innings to turn it into an 11-2 laugher, but Lester was the key guy in this one.

Lester has been as good as any pitcher in the American League this year not named Felix Hernandez or Chris Sale. And considering Hernandez has been shaky of late, Lester might be the best starter going right now on any of the playoff contenders in the AL. Meaning: The A's might have blown the division, but if they can hold on to win the wild card and have Lester ready to go, he's still a good bet to get them into the next round.

Of course, one game doesn't mean the A's have suddenly turned things around, but it has to feel good after the previous two defeats (and knowing Sale is on deck to start against them on Thursday). The A's are still in the wild-card lead with 18 games left in the regular season. You can jump back on the bandwagon if you wish. No hard feelings.

2. Drew Storen pretty much locks down the closer job for the Nationals.

A few days ago, following the recent struggles of Rafael Soriano, Matt Williams announced he'd go with a closer by committee. Well, Storen has pitched the past three games, faced nine batters, retired all of them and picked up three saves. He has a 1.29 ERA. See you in the seventh inning, Rafael. Oh, and with two straight wins over the Braves, the Nationals not only got that "unable to beat the Braves" monkey off their backs a little, but pretty much wrapped up the NL East title with a nine-game lead now.

3. Yusmeiro Petit keeps Tim Lincecum in the bullpen.

Petit threw 84 pitches in a complete-game, 5-1 win over the Diamondbacks. How efficient was he?

Oh ... the Dodgers lost, so their lead is back down to 2.5 games.

4. Not so soon, Michael Wacha.

You don't want to read too much into Wacha's rough outing -- six runs, four extra-base hits and three walks in four innings in a 9-5 loss to the Reds -- since he's barely pitched after coming back from the stress fracture in his shoulder. Still, it suggests the Cardinals' playoff rotation -- yes, I'm assuming they win the division -- isn't settled yet, with Wacha and Shelby Miller presumably battling for the fourth spot behind Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and John Lackey.

5. Brewers, Braves ... still alive!

The Brewers lost again, 6-3 to the Marlins, as closer Francisco Rodriguez served up a two-run homer and then a solo shot with two outs in the ninth. Brewers fans were not happy. They've lost 13 of 14. AND THEY'RE STILL ONLY 1.5 GAMES BEHIND THE PIRATES FOR THE SECOND WILD CARD. The Braves have lost seven of their past 10 and have hit .193 and average two runs per game during that span. AND THEY'RE STILL ONLY 1.5 GAMES BEHIND THE PIRATES FOR THE SECOND WILD CARD. I mean ... even the Marlins are only 3.5 behind the Pirates.

Yay, wild card?

Last year, Yusmeiro Petit came within one out of a perfect game -- Eric Chavez hit a 3-2 fastball for a soft line drive to right field -- but now he got his name into the record books anyway, retiring his 46th batter in a row in Thursday's start against the Rockies.

Petit's streak goes back to July 22, when he retired the final batter he faced in a start against the Phillies; it wasn't a good one, as he allowed five runs in five innings. After that start, he was back in a mop-up role in the bullpen, before starting for Tim Lincecum on Thursday.

Here's the play-by-play of all 46 outs:

July 22 versus Phillies
1. Grady Sizemore grounded out to the mound.

July 26 versus Dodgers
2. A.J. Ellis flied out to center.
3. Clayton Kershaw grounded out to shortstop.
4. Dee Gordon struck out swinging.
5. Yasiel Puig struck out swinging.
6. Adrian Gonzalez grounded out to second.
7. Miguel Rojas struck out looking.

July 28 versus Pirates
8. Andrew McCutchen flied out to right.
9. Gaby Sanchez struck out swinging.
10. Neil Walker lined out to center.
11. Russell Martin grounded out to second.
12. Gregory Polanco popped out to third.
13. Brent Morel grounded out to shortstop.

Aug. 7 versus Brewers
14. Khris Davis flied out to deep center.
15. Rickie Weeks struck out swinging.
16. Mark Reynolds flied out to deep center.

Aug. 10 versus Royals
17. Omar Infante popped out to first.
18. Salvador Perez struck out swinging.
19. Billy Butler lined out to center.

Aug. 19 versus Cubs
20. Kyle Hendricks struck out swinging.
21. Chris Coghlan struck out swinging.
22. Javier Baez struck out swinging.
23. Anthony Rizzo struck out swinging.
24. Chris Valaika struck out swinging.
25. Luis Valbuena grounded out back to the mound.

Aug. 23 versus Nationals
26. Denard Span flied out to left field.
27. Anthony Rendon struck out looking.
28. Jayson Werth popped out to second.
29. Adam LaRoche flied out to left field.
30. Ian Desmond struck out swinging.
31. Bryce Harper popped out to shortstop.
32. Wilson Ramos lined out to right field.
33. Asdrubal Cabrera grounded out to first.
34. Jordan Zimmermann struck out swinging.
35. Denard Span struck out swinging.
36. Anthony Rendon flied out to deep right field.
37. Jayson Werth struck out looking.
38. Adam LaRoche grounded out to shortstop.

Aug. 28 versus Rockies
39. Charlie Blackmon lined out to right.
40. DJ LeMahieu struck out swinging.
41. Justin Morneau flied out to center.
42. Nolan Arenado flied out to center.
43. Corey Dickerson struck out swinging.
44. Brandon Barnes struck out looking.
45. Jackson Williams struck out swinging.
46. Charlie Culberson struck out swinging.

The streak ended when opposing pitcher Jordan Lyles doubled down the left-field line.

Petit isn't known as a big strikeout pitcher -- although he's striking out batters at a career-high rate this season -- but 21 of the 46 outs came on strikeouts. Not surprisingly, only seven of the outs were ground balls; since grounders go for hits more often than fly balls, a record like this requires strikeouts and fly balls. Plus, of course, excellent command, something Petit has always had.

Anyway, it's a pretty cool achievement. The previous mark of 45 was held by White Sox starter Mark Buehrle, set in 2009 over a three-start stretch, the middle one being his perfect game. The previous National League record of 41 in a row was set by Giants pitcher Jim Barr in 1972. Barr retired the final 21 batters on Aug. 23 and the first 20 on Aug. 29.

One of the fun things about the long baseball season is the crazy, random events that will happen. This is one of those, although in this era of dominant pitching, maybe it's not a surprise that Buehrle's record was broken. But I don't think anyone would have predicted Petit to be the one to do it.
Back in my former life, I worked as a writer/editor at Baseball America. And in 2005, I was responsible for ranking the top 10 prospects in the Mets' organization for a November issue.

The Mets' farm system was pretty underwhelming at the time, and there was one prospect who no one could seem to figure out: Yusmeiro Petit.

See, if you looked at a stat sheet, Petit was as dominant as any pitcher in the minors, striking out 200 batters in 139 1/3 innings across three levels in 2004. But if you talked to scouts, they always said: "I don't know how he does it."

And if you watched Petit come within one out of a perfect game on Friday night against the Diamondbacks, you probably thought to yourself at some point: "I don't know how he's doing this."

Similar to his repertoire in 2005, Petit's fastball topped out at about 88 mph on Friday night. That's fast enough to get the flux capacitor to work, but usually not anywhere close to a velocity that will strike fear in the opposition. He has a respectable slider and changeup, but nothing that is going to buckle any hitter's knees.

You hear scouts talk a lot about "profiles," and Petit's profile is that of the classic tweener: the right-hander who isn't particularly tall and who doesn't throw particularly hard, but who commands his fastball well enough to dominate minor league hitters. Only once in a generation does that pitcher turns into Greg Maddux, but he usually turns into, well, Yusmeiro Petit.

The D-backs were clearly fooled by the 28-year-old on Friday, as he was right around the zone with everything, needing just 95 pitches to get through nine innings while striking out seven. Those in the Mets' organization who used to believe Petit could become a dominant pitcher probably once dreamed of nights like this.

Of course, Petit never got the chance to prove himself in New York, as right after I ranked him right behind Lastings Milledge (remember him?) as the No. 2 prospect in the Mets' system in that 2005 issue, he was the centerpiece of the trade with the Marlins that brought Carlos Delgado to Flushing. (Fun fact: Philip Humber, who threw the most unlikely perfect game in history in 2012, was No. 5 on that prospect list.)

Turned out the Mets were wise to sell high on Petit, as his stuff was an illusion after all. Whatever it was that worked on hitters in the minors -- one scout theorized that his gut allowed him to hide the ball better -- did not work in the majors. Since that trade, Petit bounced around from the Marlins to the D-backs to the Mariners and then to the Giants, with a stop in the Mexican league in 2011 before he got to San Francisco. He had a 5.37 ERA in 251 1/3 major league innings before tonight.

Most likely, Friday will probably be the high point of Petit's career. But he is in the midst of a very good year. He now has a 2.05 ERA in 26 1/3 innings, with 30 strikeouts and four walks, which doesn't look out of place next to his 2004 stat line. So maybe he has figured something out, or maybe his gut is fooling batters again. Who knows.

But if this turns out to be just a small-sample-size blip, he'll always have this near-perfect game, and those years he spent befuddling evaluators across MLB.

Here’s a little more background on just how unlikely Petit’s near perfect game was: