Joe took a look at the ten biggest hits of the 2009 regular season last week, and I felt it was appropriate to follow up with a post about the most important pitching performances. Unlike big hits, which are singular events that come unexpectedly and can happen at literally any time, big pitching performances are a bit more deliberate. We watch them unfold over several innings and we know exactly who’s delivering it. They lack the excitement and surprise of their batting counterparts, but dominant pitching performances give us a chance to sit back and appreciate what we’re witnessing.
Despite relying on a core of four starters all season long, seven different pitchers managed to crack my list. And let me emphasize that this is my list. These are my ten biggest pitching performances of the 2009 regular season. Chances are you’ll disagree with me, and I encourage you to tell everyone about it in the comments.
I managed to find a picture from each game, so know that they aren’t some meaningless stock photos I came across. They’re all legit. So, without further ado…
It was a relatively meaningless September contest because the Yankees were already up nine games in the division, though the team still had no idea who was going to serve as their fourth starter in the postseason. Joba Chamberlain held that title by default, however no one felt comfortable with him given his second half performance. Enter Gaudin, who at the time had a 4.04 ERA and an .808 OPS against since joining the Yanks in August. He had made two starts in pinstripes prior to this one, and they were both pretty much so-so.
Tampa Bay came to town losers of their last six, so all the stars lined up for Gaudin to grab hold of the fifth starter’s spot. He retired 10 of the first 12 batters he faced and took the ball into the 7th inning for the first time in a month and a half. Gaudin’s pitching line was not spectacular (6 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 6 K), but he only needed 76 pitches to record 18 outs. The outing was enough to earn him a rotation spot the rest of the way, and even though the playoff schedule made a fourth starter unnecessary for the Yanks, Gaudin was always on call if needed. It took almost all season, but the last rotation spot was finally settled following Chien-Ming Wang‘s epic meltdown.
Photo Credit: Bill Kostroun, AP
9. Al Aceves saves the day with four innings of work (video)
It’s hard to believe that the Yankees were in second place as late as mid-July, and it took a major run earlier in the month to close in on the Red Sox. The team showed up to the ballpark on the afternoon of July 5th having won 9 of their last 10 games, shaving their deficit in the AL East down to one lonely game. Both Mariano Rivera and Phil Hughes were unavailable after pitching the last two days (four of five for Mo), so everyone was hoping for a nice big blowout that the B-team could close out.
Things looked good when Blue Jays’ starter Brett Cecil allowed seven runs in 3.2 innings, that is until Joba Chamberlain did him one better by allowing eight runs in the exact same number of innings. The Yankees took the lead when Derek Jeter took B.J. Ryan deep in the 5th, except now Joe Girardi had to coax twelve outs from a bullpen lacking it’s two aces.
Enter Al Aceves.
The Mexican Gangster marched in to start the 6th, and he retired the heart of Toronto’s order on just 14 pitches. Out he went for the 7th, and down went three more Blue Jays on eight pitches. After Alex Rios led off the 8th with a single, Aceves sat down the next three batters on nine pitches. Still up by two, Joe Girardi sent Ace back out for the 9th with his pitch count of just 36. Aaron Hill grounded out weakly on the second pitch of the inning, Adam Lind swung through the fifth pitch of the inning, and Scott Rolen was caught looking for the final out of the game. After striking out five in four innings, Aceves had his first (and only career) save, and Girardi had himself another reliever in the Circle Of Trust™.
Photo Credit: Bill Kostroun, AP
8. A.J. Burnett takes it to the Mets (video)
The Yankees were just starting to find their identity when they visited their cross town rivals in late June, but more importantly, their number two starter was just starting to get on a roll. A.J. Burnett posted back-to-back strong starts after a nine game stretch in which he posted a 5.50 ERA and a .859 OPS against. The Mets were still just 1.5 games out in the division at the time and hadn’t quite started their free fall.
Burnett started the game off by retiring 14 of the first 16 batters he faced, and it wasn’t until Alex Cora led off the 6th with a single that the Mets got into the hit column. That’s all the offense they would muster in the game. Burnett ended the night with one hit allowed, three free passes issued, and ten men struck out in seven innings. Brian Bruney and David Robertson wrapped up the game with a pair of perfect frames, and the team from Queens was held to that lone hit as the Yanks inched closer to the Red Sox in the standings.
The game kicked off a six start stretch in which A.J. held opponents to a .567 OPS against with a 2.01 ERA.
Photo Credit: Frank Franklin II, AP
7. CC Sabathia tells the ChiSox that’s all they’ll get (video)
Having dropped the first three games of a four game set in Chicago, the Yankees watched as their lead in the division shrank from 3.5 games to just half a game over the weekend. Staff ace CC Sabathia was coming off a 4.62 ERA during July, and the bullpen was worn down after neither Sergio Mitre or Burnett managed to make it through the 5th inning the past two days.
The Yankees jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead in the second, though Sabathia gave it right back and then some in the 3rd by serving up back-to-back jacks to Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome. Upon returning to the dugout following the inning, CC told catcher Jose Molina “That’s all they get,” and he wasn’t kidding.
One-two-three went the ChiSox in the 4th, and then again in the 5th. Sabathia coaxed an inning ending double play out of Carlos Quentin to end the 6th after giving up a single, and then escaped the 7th without allowing a ball to leave the infield following a Chris Getz triple to lead off the frame. Phil Hughes took over for CC in the 8th after Gordon Beckham led off with a double, and although the inherited runner came around to score, Sabathia shut Chicago down after his 3rd inning implosion long enough to keep his team in the game.
Sabathia’s final line wasn’t pretty (7 IP, 10 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 0 BB, 5 K) and Melky Cabrera’s cycle stole the headlines, but CC had had enough, and showed it the rest of the way. In his next ten starts, he went 8-0 (team went 10-0) with a 1.62 ERA and a 0.89 WHIP as the Yanks pulled away from the Red Sox.
Photo Credit: Nam Y. Huh, AP
6. CC shuts down the birds (video)
With a sub-.500 record and a negative run differential going into their game against the Orioles on May 8th, the Yankees were ecstatic to get their cleanup hitter back in the lineup and get things rolling in the right direction. While it will forever be remembered as the day Alex Rodriguez returned to the lineup and homered on the first Major League pitch he saw in over seven months, just as important was Sabathia busting out of his shell following a 4.85 ERA in his first six starts.
The game started off exactly how Sabathia and the Yankees didn’t want it to, with a pair of singles leading off the 1st. Instead of buckling and giving in with the O’s 3-4-5 hitters due up, CC escaped the inning without allowing a run, and didn’t allow another hit until the 9th inning. In between, he struck out five batters and walked just one, allowing him to waltz into the final frame with a cool pitch count of 93.
Looking to complete his first game in pinstripes, a near necessity with an unreliable and heavily taxed bullpen behind him, Sabathia took the mound in the 9th with a comfortable four run lead. Much like the 1st, the first two batters in the 9th lead off with singles. Mariano Rivera was unavailable after working the last two games, so things started to get a little tense in the dugout. Sabathia calmed everyone’s nerves not just by retiring the next three batters, but by not even allowing them to make contact. Adam Jones went down swinging on four pitches. Nick Markakis went down swinging on five pitches. And then Melvin Mora went down swinging on five pitches to end the game, prompting a roar from Sabathia.
The Yankees won, and even though they were still a sub-.500 team in third place with a negative run differential, the real CC Sabathia finally showed up. And the masses rejoiced.
Photo Credit: Rob Carr, AP
5. Joba tames the Tigers (video)
It was the first series after the All Star break, and even though the Yanks took the first two games of their series against the Tigers, neophyte righty Joba Chamberlain had some questions to answer. With a 5.05 ERA and a 1.73 WHIP in his final seven starts before the break, no one was sure how reliable Joba would be as the Yanks tried to chase down the Red Sox in the second half.
It looked like more of the same when Joba allowed a hit and walked a batter in the 1st, needing 23 pitches to record the first three outs. It looked like even more of the same in the 2nd, when he walked another batter and balked him over to second. Same deal in the 3rd; another walk, but a zero tossed up. Joba’s pitch count stood at 54 after just three innings, and he finally caved a bit when the immortal Clete Thomas took him deep to lead off the 4th.
That was it, Joba had enough. He retired the next three batters to end the inning, and sat down 9 of the next 13. After walking three and striking out two in the first three innings, he sat down five of the last six men he faced via the strikeout. The offense managed to push some runs across to take the lead, and Joba exited the game with two outs in the 7th, eight strikeouts to his credit, and 107 pitches thrown. After a frustrating first half, Joba reminded everyone what he was capable of in the final few innings of this game, and the Yankees were just two games away from overtaking Boston for first place.
Photo Credit: Seth Wenig, AP
4. Andy Pettitte flirts with perfection in Baltimore (video)
The Yankees were in cruise control by the time they played their final game of August, though Andy Pettitte still had something to prove after struggling with injury in the second half of 2008. He had been rock solid all season long, and all that was left to do was stay sharp and get ready for the postseason. On this night, Andy may have been sharper than ever before.
Brian Roberts, Cesar Izturis, and Adam Jones went down on 11 pitches in the 1st, then Nick Markakis, Nolan Reimold, and Melvin Mora went down on 12 pitches in the 2nd. The pattern continued into the 7th inning, as Pettitte retired the first 20 men he faced on just 77 pitches. His bid for perfection ended when fill-in third baseman Jerry Hairston Jr. misplayed a grounder, and the potential no-hitter was gone when the very next batter singled through the hole on the left side. Pettitte would allow a run on a Mora solo jack to lead off the 8th, though it was the lone blemish on this night, which ended after allowing just two baserunners and one run against eight strikeouts in eight innings.
In the grand scheme of things, the win was meaningless. However, Pettitte gave everyone a look at what he’s capable of on any given day, something that gave Yankee fans a nice warm feeling with the postseason just a month away.
Photo Credit: Rob Carr, AP
3. Sabathia dominates the Red Sox (video)
After declaring “that’s all they get” in Chicago, Sabathia took to the mound against the Yankees’ biggest rivals in his next start in what may have been the biggest series of the season. The Yanks were still just 2-8 against Boston, and even with a 5.5 game lead in the division, they had something to prove.
CC retired the first three men he faced on 16 pitches. Then he retired the next three on 13 pitches. And then the next three and then the next three, and before you knew it, it was the 5th inning and no Boston batters had reached base. Kevin Youkilis grounded out weakly to start the frame, though the perfect game came to end when David Ortiz walked on a questionable call. Sabathia retired the next two batters to end the inning, and the first two of the 6th inning to get to within ten outs of a no-hitter.
Jacoby Ellsbury dunked a single into center to end the no-no, but CC continued to roll and handed the ball off to Phil Hughes with two outs in the 8th. His final line on the day was 7.2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 9 K, and the Yanks’ bullpen held on for the win, pushing the in the AL East up to 6.5 games.
Photo Credit: Frank Franklin II, AP
2. Phil Hughes returns to Texas (video)
More than two years after he took a no-hitter into the 7th inning against the Rangers in his second career start, Phil Hughes returned to Texas fighting for his rotation spot. He had allowed 18 runs and put 38 men on base in 15.2 IP over his previous four starts, and Chien-Ming Wang wasn’t far from coming off the disabled list. If he didn’t start producing, Hughes would have found himself back in Triple-A with questions about his ability to retire big leaguers.
Whatever they have in the water in Texas, it seems to agree with Phil Hughes. After retiring the side on 12 pitches in the 1st, Nelson Cruz led off the 2nd with a double and Hank Blalock followed that up by getting hit by a pitch. Instead of relinquishing the team’s 2-0 lead, Hughes recovered to strike out Marlon Byrd, Chris Davis, and Taylor Teagarden to end the inning. He sat down 18 of the next 21 batters he faced, including the last nine in a row.
With his pitch count sitting at 101, Hughes expected to go back out for the 9th with a chance to record his first career complete game shutout. Instead, Girardi pulled him, citing the fact that the temperature was in the mid-90’s and that he would have plenty of chances to complete games during the rest of his career. Even though he would make just one more start on the season, Hughes had earned his spot on the Major League roster, and stuck around to serve as an invaluable member of the bullpen instead of toiling away in the minors.
Photo Credit: LM Otero, AP
It’s only fitting that the man who started the most important game of the postseason (year) would also turn in the biggest pitching performance of the regular season as well. The Yankees were coming off their first win of the season against Boston, however their ledger still stood at an ugly 1-8 vs. their biggest rivals. The division lead stood 4.5 games in early August, hardly insurmountable. So the Yanks handed the ball to Burnett, who had allowed 13 runs and 21 baserunners in his first two starts (7.2 IP) against the Red Sox.
Lead off hitter Jacoby Ellsbury started the game off with a single to shallow center, and before you knew it the Red Sox had the bases juiced in the 1st. Things looked ominous, and everyone was bracing themselves for another A.J. stinker against Boston. But then a strange thing happened. Burnett got the corpse of David Ortiz to ground out to second to end the inning unscathed, and he went on to throw 6.2 more innings without allowing another hit. That’s it, just one hit on the night against six strikeouts and six walks. He would bend, but not break.
Unfortunately for the Yanks, Josh Beckett matched Burnett zero for zero, and the two teams played on until A-Rod ended the game in the 15th. Hughes followed A.J. and retired the only batter he faced, and Mo followed him with a scoreless inning featuring two strikeouts. The Mexican Gangster charged out of the pen to strike out three over three scoreless, and even Brian Bruney contributed two frames to keep the game at 0-0.
The win on the stat sheet ultimately went to Phil Coke, who struck out one in a perfect 15th inning, however the win in the big picture went to the Yankees, who from that point on looked invincible. They went 7-1 against the Red Sox the rest of the way, and the division lead was stretched to 5.5 games. They simply never looked back.
Photo Credit: Frank Franklin II, AP