The Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves were knotted at one run apiece after six innings on Thursday afternoon. Jon Lester began the top of the seventh inning set to throw his 80th pitch. Len Kasper, longtime Cubs’ play-by-play man, even noted that Lester’s pitch count was in good shape.
Up to that point, Lester had been cruising, allowing just five hits through six. He surrendered just one free pass and had eight strikeouts. The only one of those five hits that mattered was a bomb off the bat of Freddie Freeman.
Journeyman outfielder Jeff Francoeur led off the seventh inning for the Braves. He promptly hit a single to center to put a man on first with no one out. While facing Tyler Flowers, Lester uncorked a (wild) pitch down-and-in, that David Ross had no chance to corral and it deflected off of his shin guard and up the third base line. That allowed Francoeur to coast into second.
Flowers walked and the Braves had runners at first and second, nobody out. It seemed as if Lester was coming apart at the seams, particularly with what ensued in the very next at-bat. Erick Aybar bunted an 0-1 fastball right back to Lester. Lester gloved it, had all the time in the world to spin and throw to first to nab Aybar, but just held the ball. Maybe he didn’t feel he had the right grip to make that difficult throw to first. Nonetheless, he had really worked himself into a bases-loaded jam and still not a single out recorded.
After receiving counsel from manager Joe Maddon, Lester got Drew Stubbs to strike out on the eighth pitch of the at-bat. Granted, that shouldn’t be a huge surprise, since Stubbs has a strikeout rate of just about 50 percent. Where it hurts, however, is the hit in Win Expectancy the Braves suffered — with Stubbs’ strikeout and the rest of the inning. Before Stubbs swung and missed, the Braves had a 75.9 percent chance of winning this game. By the end of the inning, a negative 34.4 percent swing in Win Expectancy had befallen the Braves.
Jace Peterson was called upon to pinch-hit for starting pitcher Aaron Blair. He struck out on four pitches, getting called out on a 94 mph fastball on the edge (legitimately a strike, though). If you look at the Leverage Index, Peterson’s strikeout is tied for the second-highest leverage play in the game. And now this brings us to Nick Markakis.
After that four-seamer caught the bottom corner of the zone — to the right-handed batter’s box side — and Peterson looking, Lester went severely down-and-away on his first pitch to Markakis. Markakis, a smart hitter and on-base machine (.360 career, .412 for the season coming into this game), didn’t even flinch at Lester’s 100th pitch. On the next pitch, a 94 mph heater, center and slightly up in the zone, Markakis fouled it off; one ball, one strike. The very next pitch is the one I take umbrage with, and I believe I’m not alone.
— Cubs Strike Zone (@CubsUmp) April 29, 2016
CB Bucknor calls it strike two. Markakis immediately turns to chirp at Bucknor, who almost seems to give a sheepish look through his mask.
Even Kasper and Jim Deshaies agreed, as Kasper noted, “Markakis hated that call and Pitch Trax didn’t like it either.” So, this call was so bad that the home team announcers, whose team is helped by this call, couldn’t get behind the call completely.
Kasper further said, “That is potentially a huge swing pitch in this at-bat,” to which Deshaies agreed. So does the FanGraphs Win Expectancy graph, as a little over 12 percent of that 34.4 percent swing in the top of the seventh came about, in part, because of Bucknor’s deplorably wide strike zone.
Markakis would end up lining out to first, right into Anthony Rizzo‘s glove. That would strand three, killing a giant chance for Atlanta. Atlanta’s starter, Blair, who went toe-to-toe with Lester, was out of the game and the Cubs’ potent lineup would finally pounce on the Braves’ bullpen. In the bottom of the eighth, Chicago broke it wide open with five runs.
Now, I’m not saying that that one atrocious call is solely responsible for the Braves losing this game. They’re pretty horrible at 5-18, but that may have been their best chance to knock Lester out and take a lead late in a tight game. What I am saying is that one bad call was a knockout punch to Atlanta’s chances to collect just their sixth win. And it came in a very high leverage situation, which seems to beg for higher efficiency in umpires’ ball and strike calls.
Again, the technology is there to get the call right and in moments like this, why in creation aren’t we using it?!?