Cliff Lee, Andy Pettitte, and the Role of the Veteran Stopper

201304041851678871948-p2One of the most vital tasks for any veteran pitcher worth his salt to master is the ability to will his team out of losing streaks. That means taking the mound knowing the bullpen is overworked and in need of rest and delivering a big performance. It means efficiently working through 7 or 8 innings while shutting down the opposing lineup. It means throwing everything plus this kitchen sink to get your team the win. On Thursday night a couple of crafty lefties in Andy Pettitte and Cliff Lee were able to do just they. They were able to be the veteran stopper, putting both the Yankees and the Phillies among the ranks of the victorious. Let’s take a look at each pitcher’s performance:

Cliff Lee

Lee was handed the unenviable task of slowing down a Braves offense that has been firing on all cylinders through the first two games. The Phillies had already given up 16 runs in the series thanks to an impressive display by Atlanta’s powerful lineup. But Lee wasn’t intimidated, holding the Braves to just 2 hits over 8 innings while striking out 8. He was at his most dominant over the final 6 inning of the game, allowing just 1 hit on just 65 total pitches.

The Braves had been very aggressive at the plate against Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay earlier in the series and Lee was able to use that aggressiveness to their detriment. After the game he had this to say:

“They seemed really aggressive and were swinging the bat pretty good the first couple of games,” Lee said. “I just tried to allow them to see the fewest amount of pitches as possible and attack the zone in good locations. For me, the key is to limit the amount of pitches they can see by throwing strikes and allow the defense to make plays.”

Lee was able to get quite a few awkward swings at his change-up thanks to this over aggressiveness. That made his cutter and 2-seam fastball more effective when they were thrown and it’s not like either pitch really needed much help. Both of his riding fastballs were dancing all over the corners of the plate, making life tough on Braves’ hitters.

Lee’s 4th inning strikeout of slugger Jason Heyward is evidence enough of how just how precise the left-handed starter can be with his fastball. Lee started the at-bat throwing Heyward a perfectly located fastball on the outside corner. After missing on a fastball upstairs, Lee then returned to the lower half of the strike zone, framing a perfect pitch right on the inside corner. Lee went back to the cutter to finish the job, this time framing a perfect pitch high and outside to Heyward. That’s spot Heyward struggles to lay off of and after a feeble swing he was headed back to the bench.

When Lee is locating his fastball that well the rest of his pitches fall into place and he becomes one of the most dominant hurlers in the game. Or as Braves managers Freddi Gonzalez said “He sure made it look pretty easy.”

imageAndy Pettitte

Pettitte’s outing wasn’t as dominating as Lee’s in a traditional sense but it was every bit as important to the psyche of his franchise and the arms in his bullpen. After losing the first two games of the series to the Boston Red Sox and after seeing yet another Yankee (Hiroki Kuroda) go down with another injury (albeit a minor one), New York seemed to be ready to panic. The Yankees had spent most of their first two games being thoroughly run off the field by the Red Sox in every facet of the game.

But Pettitte’s 8 strong, efficient innings off work changed all of that thinking, at least for one night. He was able to keep the Red Sox off-balance with an assortment of sliders, cutters, curves, and slurves, rarely allowing solid contact. According to Brooksbaseball.net, Pettitte through the Red Sox 22 sliders, 17 curves, 7 change-ups, 9 cutters, 14 2-seam fastballs, and 25 4-seamers. Each of those pitches has unique spin and a unique break, which makes it impossible for Red Sox hitters to sit on anything. And when Pettitte locates as well as he did Thursday night in the Bronx (he threw just 94 pitches, 64 of them strikes), base runners can be tough to come by.

And when the Red Sox were able to muster a base runner Pettitte was also able to use the pitchers best friend — the double play — repeatedly to avoid trouble. Thanks to his fantastic pick-off move he was able to keep runners close to 1st base, buying his defense crucial time to turn the twin killings. The 3 double plays turned by the Yankees defense kept the Red Sox off the scoreboard which is a big boon for an offense missing so many of its key ingredients.

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These kind of veteran performances are crucial over the course of the Major League season. They take the pressure off the offense, save the bullpen innings, and they bring positive momentum into the clubhouse. That goes doubly so for teams looking to make the playoffs and outings like the ones from Cliff Lee and Andy Pettitte go a long way toward that goal. Now that each of these franchises has their first win the pressure will subside and they can focus on more important things: competing out east against some of baseball most talented teams.

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