Monday, May 1, 2017

Ellsbury's Slam Saves Yanks

Ellsbury's 100th career homer was also his first grand slam (New York Daily News)
In the seventh inning of Friday night's wild slugfest at Yankee Stadium, which New York won 14-11 in 10 innings despite trailing 9-1 in the sixth and 11-4 in the seventh (way to go, Orioles bullpen), Yankee center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury did something he'd never done before in a Major League game.

New York trailed by seven runs when Ellsbury stepped to the plate with the sacks full and one out in the bottom of the seventh. The Yankees were threatening, but they desperately needed a hit from their cleanup man, who was 0-for-3 to that point (why's he hitting fourth in the first place?!). Their chances of winning were three percent, and it was starting to get late real early in the Bronx.

Hoping to keep the rally going, Ellsbury got himself into a 2-1 count against lefty Vidal Nuno, who was looking shaky after allowing Chase Headley to double and walking Matt Holliday to load the bases. Now Nuno needed to throw a strike, and everyone in the park knew it.

But as he lifted his right leg and aimed a 92 mile-per-hour fastball towards home plate, the possibility of a grand slam seemed remote. For starters, Ellsbury has never been much of a power hitter, reaching double digit homers only twice in 11 seasons. When he does go yard, it tends to be against right-handers and in the second half. The platoon split has become even more pronounced recently, as he managed just one homer in 196 plate appearances against lefties last year.

Career vs. RHP: 1 homer per 39 at-bats
Career vs. LHP: 1 homer per 75 at-bats

Career before July 1st: 1 homer per 71 at-bats
Career after July 1st: 1 homer per 34 at-bats

He also homers less frequently from the seventh inning on (about once every 54 at-bats), but the gap there is less substantial.

There was also the fact that Ellsbury had as many career grand slams as the nearly 37,000 non-Major Leaguers in attendance that night. He had hit 99 home runs, but none with ducks on the pond. He'd plated 73 runs in 106 bases-loaded plate appearances and amassed 478 career RBIs, but never four at once.

So, to recap: Ellsbury hitting a home run at all -- unlikely. Ellsbury hitting a home run off a lefty in April -- even more unlikely. Ellsbury knocking a grand slam out of the park -- unprecedented. The only thing working in Ellsbury's favor was Nuno's propensity for serving up long balls (career 1.5 HR/9 rate), but even that doesn't mean much when you consider that he's only thrown 340 innings in his career.

But that's the beauty of baseball. There are so many games and pitches and at-bats that crazy things happen all the time. Just this weekend, Anthony Rendon went 6-for-6 with three homers and 10 RBIs, the Dodgers drilled three straight homers before walking off in the bottom of the ninth, and Jacoby Ellsbury finally hits a grand slam.

How could he not? That pitch from Nuno was a meatball, straight as an arrow and right down Broadway. A batting practice fastball just begging to be crushed.

And Ellsbury crushed it alright, launching it 417 feet into the right-center bleachers -- his longest homer of the season by 35 feet. The scoreboard read 11-8, the Stadium was rocking, and New York's chances of victory had soared from three percent all the way to...10 percent. The psychological shift, though, was much greater. Teams almost never come back from seven-run deficits, particularly in the late innings. There's just not enough time, and bullpens are too deep nowadays. But get a few men on in an inning, and a three-run lead can disappear with one swing.

Sure enough, Ellsbury's blast proved to be a turning point in the game. The Orioles were so demoralized that after piling up 11 runs in the previous five innings, they managed only one baserunner over the next three frames. The rejuvenated Yankees, meanwhile, rallied to tie the game with three runs in the ninth before completing their epic comeback with three more in the tenth.

It took more than 5,000 plate appearances over 11 years for Jacoby Ellsbury to hit his first grand slam. At that rate, it might also be his last. But if it is, at least he made it count.