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Sunday, October 2, 2011
Nothing worked for Brad Ziegler in 6th

By Jorge Arangure Jr.
ESPN The Magazine

MILWAUKEE -- From behind home plate, Arizona catcher Miguel Montero could see how quickly things were unraveling for pitcher Brad Ziegler. Still, he did not know what he could do about it -- there was no easy fix. The Milwaukee Brewers tagged Ziegler's sinkers in quick succession, reminding Montero of targets getting plunked down in a shooting gallery.

"It was like boom, boom, boom, boom," Montero said.

The Arizona Diamondbacks fell behind 2-0 in the National League Division Series against Milwaukee in a matter of nine pitches to five hitters in the decisive sixth inning of the Brewers' 9-4 win. Ziegler came on in relief of starter Daniel Hudson after he had allowed a leadoff double to Jerry Hairston, but without retiring a batter Ziegler gave up four runs on three hits and two walks. It was essentially the worst outing of Ziegler's career. Only once previously, on Aug. 28, 2009, had he allowed as many as four runs. But in that outing against the Los Angeles Angels, Ziegler at least retired two batters.

What made Ziegler's outing so peculiar on Sunday was that he said he didn't feel out of synch, and there are reasons to believe him.

"I felt calm," Ziegler said. "I don't feel like it was nerves or even execution. It was just results weren't there."

Three of the four pitches that were hit were down in the lower half of the strike zone. The only exception was a high sinker that Ryan Braun tagged for a single. Ziegler was not so wild as to, let's say, throw a wild pitch. The balk that was called on Ziegler during an at-bat came on what he called his regular move.

"That's the move I've done every other time," Ziegler said. "I've never been called on that before. I'm not even sure what I did. In a way I'm somewhat curious as to what happened because I felt like when my left foot came down it hit the top of the rubber and therefore I had cleared my other foot. You have that parallel line you just try to get your foot across. I know when I hit the rubber I'm across that line."

It's easy to assume the balk, which put Hairston on third base, caused everything to unravel but the evidence doesn't prove it. Four of the five balls Ziegler threw out of the zone, excluding the intentional walk to Mark Kotsay, were to Betancourt, whom the Diamondbacks were pitching around anyway. The Diamondbacks were hoping Betancourt would chase a bad pitch, certainly not a absurd notion.

The only sign of trouble came when, on a 2-0 count, Ziegler threw Betancourt a slider that swept way past the zone and landed far outside. For Ziegler it was a troubling development.

"I didn't have a good feel for [the slider]," he said. "I tried throwing one to Braun and didn't have a good feel for it. That limited me a little bit because I felt like could only rely on my fastball and they may have sensed that too."

PitchFX data from Brooksbaseball.net shows that Ziegler's release point varied when he threw the sliders, by as much as a foot difference as to when he threw the sinkers that were struck for hits. Simply put, Ziegler's mechanics were out of whack when he tried throwing the slider, which essentially made him a one-pitch pitcher.

"I will change [my release point] on my own just trying to get different types of movement on the fastball," Ziegler said. "They should be fairly minor differences, but that pitch to Betancourt was up high and I jerked it a little bit."

The Brewers, the most aggressive team in baseball who saw a league-worst 3.71 pitches per plate appearance, simply keyed on his fastball.

"To be honest I wasn't even thinking they were going to be that aggressive," Montero said. "Ziegler is a ground-ball pitcher and he didn't even get a ground ball."

Certainly, Ziegler was at fault for his botched play on Jonathan Lucroy's safety squeeze bunt following Betancourt's walk, which scored Hairston, the go-ahead run. Prior to the pitch, Ziegler turned to third baseman Ryan Roberts and told him to look out for a bunt.

Jonathan Lucroy
Anticipating Jonathan Lucroy's squeeze didn't mean Miguel Montero could prevent it.

From behind home plate, Montero thought to himself: Here comes the safety squeeze.

"I knew it man," Montero said. "It wasn't like he fooled me or like I didn't know."

Yet neither Montero, Ziegler or Roberts did anything about it. When Lucroy pushed the ball to the right side, Ziegler flipped the ball back-handed to Montero. The ball rolled to the backstop and Hairston scored easily. It's unlikely that Ziegler would have gotten the out even with a good throw.

"I just didn't realize how far down the line the guy was," Ziegler said. "If I had known that, I would have just flipped it to first."

After the intentional walk to Kotsay came the the succession of hits off the bats of Hart, Nyjer Morgan and Braun.

"When we find decent pitches to hit," Hairston said, "we're going to be aggressive."

Only now after having time to digest what had happened could Montero think about an adjustment. When it happened, there had seemingly been no time to think.

"Right now, I know I should have done something better," Montero said. "I probably should have gone out there and told him, 'Let's try to make this pitch right here something else.' And I didn't. We learn from our mistakes and believe me it won't happen again to me. I'm going to make sure to let him know what I'm thinking."

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.