Real or Not? Sale’s exit costs him a shot at 20 K’s

When Roger Clemens first set the record with 20 strikeouts in a nine innings in 1986, he threw 138 pitches. When he did it again 10 years later, he needed 151 pitches. Kerry Wood threw 122 pitches, Randy Johnson 124 and Max Scherzer a relatively efficient 119 pitches when he fanned 20 in 2016.

How many Colorado Rockies could Chris Sale have punched out? Would he have set the record? Would he have fanned at least four batters with six outs to play with?

We’ll never know. Sale was magnificent on a February-like night at Fenway Park, striking out a career-high 17 batters through seven innings. He would not pitch the eighth inning. Nolan Arenado had broken up his shutout with a two-run home run in the seventh, so maybe Alex Cora saw some fatigue settling in, but Cora also saw the pitch count: 108. The 21-strikeout game remains an elusive ambition.

Sale’s season high in pitches is 111. His season high last year was 116. In 2017, it was 118. Leaving him for a shot at the record would have required another 30 pitches or so, given his game average of 15.4 pitchers per inning. That kind of pitch count is unheard of in today’s game — only Mike Fiers in his no-hitter and Trevor Bauer (twice) have reached even 120 pitches this season. Last season, a starter threw 120 pitches just 12 times and only Sean Newcomb, in a no-hit bid, threw 130. It just doesn’t happen.

I have no doubt Sale was strong enough to set the record. After the Arenado home run with no outs, he fanned the next three batters on 12 pitches. It certainly appeared he had enough left in the tank. Cora played it safe and probably played it smart. It’s a long season after all and those would have been high-stress pitches. Still, when Sale didn’t come out for the eighth, there was a twinge of disappointment. Maybe one more inning, Alex?

You know, for all the changes in recent years — the shift, the advanced analytics available via Statcast data, all the home runs — the biggest change in the game over two decades is pitch counts. In 1998, the year Wood struck out 20 batters, a starter threw 120-plus pitches 498 times. That’s 10.2 percent of all games compared to 0.2 percent last season.

That doesn’t mean the 21-strikeout game is impossible — Scherzer had a shot at 21, but James McCann managed to ground out — but the strict limits on pitch counts make it more difficult and less likely than even a few years, even with strikeouts on the rise. Scherzer threw 96 strikes out of 119 pitches (80.7 percent) and actually allowed six hits, but throwing 80 percent strikes is almost impossible. Sale was at 68.5 percent, 74 of 108 pitches. (The highest strike rate this season is Kyle Hendricks at 77.8 percent in his absurd 81-pitch shutout against the Cardinals.)

Anyway, the Rockies got the last laugh in this game: They won 5-4 in 11 innings. After Sale departed with a 3-2 lead, the Rockies scored twice in the eighth on Charlie Blackmon’s home run, the Red Sox tied it, and then Mark Reynolds drove in the winning with a two-out single. Yes, in 2019 baseball, you can strike out 24 times and still win the game.

Sale is the 42nd pitcher to strike out 17-plus in a game (since 1908, via Baseball-Reference.com). He’s only the eighth to not get the win. Remarkably, four of the previous seven were Randy Johnson (plus Pedro Martinez, Steve Carlton and Bob Feller). Yes, we need to list those games:

• May 5, 2001: 9 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 20 SO, 124 pitches. No decision as the game went extras.
• June 30, 1999: 8 IP, 7 H, 2 R, 0 BB, 17 SO, 134 pitches. Lost 2-0 as Ron Villone allowed one hit.
• June 24, 1997: 9 IP, 11 H, 4 R, 0 BB, 19 SO, 142 pitches. Lost 4-1.
• Sept. 27, 1992: 8 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 4 BB, 18 SO, 160 pitches. No decision in 3-2 loss.

Vladdy Jr. hits one out: In his 53rd major league appearance and 48th at-bat, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. finally homered and fantasy owners can take a deep breath. It was a beauty, in the top of the first:

Guerrero’s slow start hasn’t been via some bad luck. According to Statcast data, he had “barreled” just one of 35 balls in play prior to Tuesday’s game. Twenty-one of those 35 outs had been ground balls. Pitchers have been showing him a lot of respect — just 40 percent of the pitches he’d seen were in the strike zone — but he hadn’t done much damage against the strikes he did swing at. He’ll be fine. Just lay off those breaking balls off the plate, kid.

Indeed, after I wrote that blurb, Guerrero did this in the sixth inning:

Astros still good, Marlins still bad: On Monday night, I wrote about the historic levels of greatness and ineptitude we’ve seen so far from the Houston and Miami offenses and, well, this happened on Tuesday:

• The Astros hit three home runs in an 11-4 victory over the Tigers, giving them 33 in their past 11 games. George Springer hit his 16th homer (an inside-the-park job!), part of a 2-for-3, two-walk game. In his last 11 games Springer is hitting .488/.538/1.023 with seven home runs, 15 RBIs and 18 runs. Imagine what this offense might do once we get into summer and pitching staffs get beaten down by injuries and fatigue — plus, have you seen the pitching in the AL West this season? The last team to score 900 runs was the 2009 Yankees, who scored 915, an average of 5.65 per game. The Astros are at 5.58 runs per game.

Springer was all smiles:

• The Rays blanked the Marlins 4-0 as Charlie Morton and friends spun the six-hit shutout. The Marlins are not averaging 5.58 runs per game. Avisail Garcia clubbed a 471-foot home run, the longest for the Rays in the Statcast era and … wow, it looked even longer:

Sell your Nationals stock: The Mets beat the Nationals 6-2 as Noah Syndergaard took a no-hitter into the sixth and pitched eight strong innings (his one mistake was Victor Robles ‘ two-run home run). Wilson Ramos hit a grand slam off Jeremy Hellickson in the first inning, but the key play came with one out and a runner when the Nationals failed to turn a routine double play on Robinson Cano’s grounder. Shortstop Wilmer Difo’s relay throw was off target — but catchable — and outfielder-turned-first baseman Gerardo Parra stretched and dropped the ball. Inexcusable.

“Like I’ve said before, we’ve got to play clean baseball,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said after the game in the ridiculous understatement of the season. “We really do. Got to give us a chance.” Dead man talking? Probably. The Nationals are now 16-25 and, injuries or not, playing bad, sloppy baseball. This tweet from a self-described huge Nats fans sums things up:

It’s time for a Mitch Garver highlight: The part-time catcher for the Twins cranked his ninth home run in a 4-3 win over the Angels and Byron Buxton preserved the lead when he threw out Shohei Ohtani at home plate in the eighth. Here’s the home run, with Garver looking like he was barely swinging hard:

Garver, hitting .329/.418/.747, left the game after Ohtani slid into his ankle, so let’s hope he’s OK. After all, he’s part of the MVP catching trio for the Twins.

Brewers call up Hiura: Congrats to Keston Hiura for going 2-for-3 with a walk in his debut for the Brewers. The team’s top prospect hit seventh and singled in his first at-bat:

The first of many. The interesting scenario here is what the Brewers will do once Travis Shaw returns from a little wrist injury that has been bothering him. If Hiura hits well out of the gate, do you send him back down? Shaw has struggled all season, but has back-to-back 30-homer seasons. With Hiura at second, Mike Moustakas is also back at third base instead of forced into learning second. Let’s see if the kid hits, of course, but my prediction is he ends up playing more games at second base than any other Brewer the rest of the season.

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