Yesterday we looked back at the five biggest hits of the Yankees’ season using WPA, and today we’re going to flip the coin and look at the five biggest outs recorded by the pitching staff. This list may not be as sexy or dramatic as Raul Ibanez’s many mega-clutch homers, but a pitcher escaping a jam can feel pretty awesome in its own right.
June 27th: Rafael Soriano vs. Asdrubal Cabrera (WPA graph & box score) (video)
The Yankees were still very much in “destroy everything” mode come late-June, and they were on the verge of sweeping the Indians on this Wednesday afternoon. Soriano was pitching for the fourth time in five days though, and the workload started to show. Staked to a two-run lead with three outs to go, the first two hitters of the ninth inning (Lonnie Chisenhall and Shin-Soo Choo) reached base via a single and a walk to put instant pressure on the New York closer. Casey Kotchman lined out to left for the first out, but Lou Marson punched a single through the left side of the infield to load the bases. Johnny Damon pinch-hit for Aaron Cunningham, though Soriano was able to retire him with a hard-fought seven-pitch strikeout. The Yankees were one out away, but the tying run was in scoring position and the go-ahead run was on-base.
With his pitch count already up over 20, Soriano walked Michael Brantley on five pitches to force in a run and move the tying run to third. All of his pitches were missing up in the zone and he looked completely gassed. Asdrubal Cabrera, arguably Cleveland’s best hitter, stepped to the plate with a chance to not just tie the game, but give his team the lead with a base hit. Soriano started him off with another pitch up and out of the zone, but the second pitch — a 92 mph fastball — was ticketed for the outside corner until Cabrera lifted the ball out to left. Dewayne Wise caught the can of corn about 10-15 feet in front of the warning track for the final out of the game, a stress-free catch to end a stressful inning. WPA: +0.23
August 9th: Soriano vs. Detroit Tigers (WPA graph & box score) (video)
I have to cheat a little here, because three of the biggest outs of the five biggest outs of the season all came in the same inning. The Yankees were mired in their second half slide and had already lost the first two games in Detroit, but they rebounded to take the third game and the duo of Mark Teixeira and Eric Chavez put the club in position to steal game four as well. They hit back-to-back solo homers off Joaquin Benoit in the eighth inning to turn a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 lead.
David Robertson was unavailable due to his recent workload, meaning eighth inning duties fell on the shoulders of David Phelps that afternoon. He managed to retire Miguel Cabrera with fly ball to leadoff the inning, but Prince Fielder followed with a single and eventually moved to second on a balk. After Phelps got Austin Jackson to fly out to right for the second out, Joe Girardi went to Soriano for the four-out save. He ended the inning with a Jhonny Peralta fly ball.
After the Yankees went down 1-2-3 in the top of the ninth, the bottom half got instantly messy as Alex Avila doubled down the left field line on Soriano’s second pitch of the frame. Two pitches after that, Omar Infante lined a single to right and moved pinch-runner Gerald Laird (!?) to third. The Tigers had men on the corners with no outs and the tying run was on third. The Yankees were looking at another tough loss in a stretch of games that already had way too many of them.
Rather than wilt, Soriano bore down and managed to escape the jam with the lead. Ramon Santiago slapped a little line drive right at Robinson Cano for the first out of the inning, a ball that wasn’t crushed but was hit hard enough to fall in for a hit had Robbie not been positioned perfectly. Quintin Berry worked the count to 2-2 but popped up weakly to shortstop, a harmless play for the second out. With the tying run still at third, Andy Dirks hacked at Soriano’s first pitch and flew out to shallow center to end the game. It was a huge escape job featuring three of the five biggest outs of the season to give New York a much-needed win. WPA: +0.20 (Dirks), +0.26 (Berry), +0.20 (Santiago).
June 13th: Cody Eppley vs. Martin Prado (WPA graph & box score)
Bet you weren’t expected to see Eppley here, were you? We’re going to have to cheat again and for a slightly different reason this time: the biggest out of the season was actually two outs on the same play.
The Yankees were on the NL park leg of their interleague schedule, and they still had not yet welcomed Robertson back from his oblique strain. Cory Wade had just slipped into full meltdown mode and Clay Rapada had appeared in each of the last four games, leaving Girardi with a very short bullpen in the series finale against the Braves. Curtis Granderson’s two-run homer off Tim Hudson in the sixth inning gave the Yankees a one-run lead, and Girardi (wisely) went to Boone Logan against Atlanta’s middle of the order bats in the seventh inning.
That left a one-inning gap to bridge between Logan (24 pitches in the seventh) and Soriano in the ninth. The ball went to Eppley, who was only recalled a few weeks prior when Mariano Rivera blew out his knee. He immediately allowed a single to leadoff man Andrelton Simmons, putting the tying run on-base. Pinch-hitter Jack Wilson botched two bunt attempts but still got the job done with a weak ground ball to third, which moved Simmons to second in exchange for the out. Michael Bourn swung at the first pitch of his at-bat and singled through the left side. The Braves had men on the corners with one out and the tying run at third base.
Now, men were on the corners but they weren’t necessarily going to stay that way. Bourn is one of the game’s great base-stealers and it was a foregone conclusion that he would try to steal second and get himself, representing the go-ahead, in scoring position with less than two outs. Eppley threw over a few times but the hitter (Prado) couldn’t be ignored forever. The first pitch of the at-bat was a botched squeeze attempt that was fouled off to the first base side. The second pitch was a regular old swing and another foul ball for strike two, this one off towards third base.
Eppley was still throwing over to first and stepping off between pitches to keep Bourn close, and it paid off. The 0-2 pitch to Prado was a sinker on the outer half that he reached out and tapped to short for the tailor made 6-4-3 double play. Prado was out by at least a full step, maybe even two. The Yankees and Eppley — making just his 27th career appearance in the show — escaped the jam and Soriano went on to nail down the save in the ninth to finish off the sweep. MLB.com doesn’t have a highlight video of the double play, but don’t worry. Here’s a .gif. WPA: +0.33
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The Yankees recorded just one (really two) other out worth +0.20 WPA this season, and that was CC Sabathia getting a 5-2 double play with the bases loaded against the Blue Jays on August 29th. Kinda random, but you might remember the play because Jayson Nix made a real sweet turn at the hot corner. Here’s the video, and that play checked in at exactly +0.20 WPA.
Personally, I think the biggest out(s) of the season didn’t even register as a blip on the WPA radar. I think they were Nate McLouth and J.J. Hardy in the eighth inning of Game Five of the ALDS. The Orioles had the bases loaded with one out and the tying run in the scoring position against a tiring Sabathia, who then struck out McLouth and got Hardy to ground out to end the threat. Both outs checked in at +0.13 WPA, but c’mon. They were enormous because the season was as close to being on the line as it gets right there. If you’re going to force me to pick a regular season event, I’ll go with that Soriano inning against the Tigers. Sabathia’s outs in the ALDS Game Five were far, far more important however.