It’s crunch time. Or getting close. Two and a half months remain in the 2012 baseball season, and so many teams are still in contention for a spot in the postseason. In the American League, only the Mariners, Royals and Twins are ten or more games out of the second wild card. In the National League, all but the Phillies, Cubs, Astros, Padres and Rockies are still vying for a chance to play deep into October. Sure, each of the 162 games counts the same. Each win a win. Each loss a loss. But with the standings so close, and so much at stake, it just feels like the games now matter more.
And so, as we head down the stretch, we’re tweaking the focus of the Impact Index just a bit. Instead of highlighting just the unheralded bench guys and relief pitchers who had a good week, we’re going to hone in on game-changing pinch-hit at bats and relief-pitcher appearances for the teams making a push for the postseason. The ones where, at the end of the season, fans look back and say: “Ah, if only he’d gotten a hit in that one at bat,” or “That strikeout with the bases loaded saved the game, and the season.” Okay, maybe not all of the confrontations we highlight will be that memorable, but each will be critical to the team’s ultimate success this season.
This week we focus on three pinch hitters: the good, the meh and the ugly.
The Good: Allen Craig, St. Louis Cardinals
Heading into Saturday night’s game against the Cubs, the Cardinals sat at 48-45, five games behind the Reds in the National League Central but only two games out in the wild card. The game was scoreless through six innings. Cardinals starter Jake Westbrook blanked the Cubs in the top of the seventh. St. Louis had a runner on first with one out in the bottom of the inning when manager Mike Matheny sent Allen Craig up to pinch hit for Westbrook.
Craig doubled, unleashing a torrent of doubles, walks and runs. When it was all over, the Cardinals had scored twelve runs. Twelve runs. The Cardinal sent so many batters to the plate in the inning (17!) that Craig pinch hit twice. Two pinch-hit at bats, two doubles. It’s hard to have more of an impact as a pinch hitter than that.
The Meh: Jordany Valdespin, New York Mets
There’s not much meh in Jordany Valdespin’s game right now. How can there be meh for a guy named Jordany Valdespin. Having a bad day? Just close your eyes and think about how cool it is to have a name like Jordany Valdespin.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of meh — a whole lot of meh — surrounding the Mets. The team from Flushing is 1-9 since the All-Star break and now eight-and-a-half games behind the Nationals in the National League East. So even though Jordany Valdespin was magnificent this week, his magnificence wasn’t enough to carry the Mets to victory.
But Jordany Valdespin!
On Tuesday, the Mets were playing the Nationals in Washington, D.C. New York trailed 2-0 heading into the ninth. With two runners on and one out, manager Tim Collins sent Valdespin to the plate to pinch hit for Jason Bay.
Valdespin gave the Mets the lead, but neither Bobby Parnell nor Tim Byrdak could hold it, and the Mets lost 5-4
Valdespin was back at it on Saturday. With the Mets trailing the Dodgers 7-4 at Citifield, Valdespin to the plate as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the seventh, with one on and one out.
It was not enough. Right now, the Mets have a whole lot of “not enough.” But Jordany Valdespin!
The Ugly: Brooks Conrad, Tampa Bay Rays
Last Monday, July 16, the Rays kicked off a three-game series at home against the Indians. The Rays sat at 46-43, well behind the Yankees in the AL East but right in the thick of the AL wild card race. The Rays trailed the Indians by one run heading into the bottom of the eighth. With runners on the corners and two outs, manager Joe Maddon sent Brooks Conrad up to pinch hit for Jose Molina. Conrad battled to a 3-2 count.
Called third strike.
Inning over. And the Rays lost the game 3-2.
Conrad had a chance for redemption on Friday night when the Rays were taking on the Mariners at Tropicana Field. Again, Conrad came to the plate in the bottom of the eighth, this time with the scored knotted at three. With a runner on first and no out, Conrad got ahead in the count 1-0.
A week grounder to the second baseman, who turned a double play.
The game went to extras tied at three, and remained that way until the 14th inning. Conrad had two more at bats with runners in scoring position. Strikeout. Strikeout.
The Rays eventually overcame Conrad’s futility and won the game 4-3. But it was a miserable week for Conrad. It was, in fact, downright ugly.