Cincinnati — It’s the essence of baseball, really. It’s a team game, but the outcome is often decided by a series of individual battles.
The Tigers beat the White Sox on Sunday, 3-1. Nick Castellanos’ two-run home run off James Shields was the big blow, and some stingy work by four pitchers made it hold up.
But the pivotal individual battle came in the third inning, and it was between Tigers starter Blaine Hardy and White Sox slugger Matt Davidson.
“That,” Hardy said, “was the most stressful at-bat of the game.”
Davidson, in the second inning, had walloped an 0-1 curveball and sent it into the left field seats. Of the 575 curveballs Hardy had thrown in his big-league career to that point, only 171 had been put in play. And of those, that was just the second one that left the yard.
Last season, Davidson had hit a home run off Hardy’s change-up.
So, when Davidson came up in the third inning Sunday — with the Tigers up 2-1, runners at the corners and two outs — Hardy was feeling some anxiety. Besides the two home runs, Davidson is also hitting .500 against Hardy in his career.
On top of that, the Tigers had blown a golden scoring chance in the top of the inning, after they had runners on second and third and nobody out. So when Hardy faced Davidson with two on and two out in the bottom of the third, the game was going to swing one way or the other.
“He’s now hit my change-up and my curveball out of the ballpark,” Hardy said. “I told Mac (catcher James McCann), we’re just going to go fastball and cutter and see if that works.”
Hardy had been throwing his cutter between 83 and 85 mph on Sunday and his four-seam fastball about 88-89 mph.
“I was going to make him beat me going the other way, to the opposite field,” Hardy said, explaining his thought-process going into the at-bat. “And the two pitches I know I can get him to either go the other or way or get him out with are the fastball and cutter — just stay hard away.”
He started him with him two cutters, one was a ball and the other was fouled off. Those were thrown at 85 mph and they had some downward action on them.
Hardy then missed with an 89-mph fastball and got a called strike with another cutter. That one was a little firmer, 85.8 mph.
On the 2-2 pitch, he decided to throw a change-up, that missed.
“Just to get him off the cutter,” Hardy said.
The 3-2 pitch was another cutter, the firmest one he’d thrown — 86.3 mph. It was located up and on the outside corner, and Davidson swung right through it.
“It wasn’t even that good of a cutter,” Hardy said. “But the fact that instead of darting down, it stayed true. I think that kind of screwed him up … That was the biggest at-bat of the game.”
Hardy works so fast, especially on a steamy day like Sunday, you’d never know the mental gymnastics he goes through in those situations.
“You want to have it in the back of your head what the hitter has done that day, what pitch they swung at and kind of analyze their swings,” he said. “It’s kind of a chess match. He hit this pitch last time, now he might not be looking for it because he hit it and doesn’t think I’ll throw it again — so I’m going to throw it.
“Or maybe he just reacted to it last time, so I shouldn’t throw it this time. It’s a chess game between myself and my head.”
The blessing in this at-bat was that Hardy and McCann took most of the thinking out of it with a definitive plan of attack.
“He’s a good hitter and he battled hard,” Hardy said. “But this time, it worked out.”