Death by singles. It’s an ominous term, not just because of how it sounds, but due to what it represents. Death by singles is a prime example of the old adage that, no matter what happens, the final outcome of a baseball game is out of a player’s hands. More specifically, out of a pitcher’s hands. People will always seek and covet control in their lives, and that is no different for athletes. For a pitcher, it’s comforting to think that something like a swing and miss allows them to control the outcome of the at bat. But when you’re not missing the bat, things are up for grabs. It doesn’t make a difference how talented a pitcher is or how weak the contact is, anything can happen once the ball is put into play. Death by singles epitomizes this concept in the most negative way. It is when a pitcher is lit up on the mound, despite not being hit hard.
A single can happen a number of ways: from a screaming line drive to left field to a weak ground ball that trickles past the mound and into no-man’s land. The former result is something that hurts for a pitcher—it means they did something wrong—but it’s also an acceptable result. The batter made hard contact and got a hit. The latter situation is something that can haunt pitchers… despite making an excellent pitch in an ideal count, the batter still got on base. The pitcher couldn’t have done anything better, and yet he failed.
Possibly the best example of this troubling phenomenon came on June 1st, 2013. Matt Cain, who was widely considered to be one of the best pitchers in baseball, took the mound against the St. Louis Cardinals. He’d had a rough start to the season, with an ugly 5.00 ERA in 11 starts. A star-studded track record eased the concerns of most fans, though a good start was important for the ace.
Cain began to put his troubles behind him in the first two innings by breezing through six batters. He struck out three and didn’t allow a baserunner. The string of success came to an abrupt end, though, at the start of the third inning. Daniel Descalso started it off with a very hard hit ball–a double into the right-center gap. Up strolled Pete Kozma, who managed to shoot a ground ball into the outfield. Both plays could have ended in an out if defensive placement was different, though Cain wasn’t blameless.
Next came Shelby Miller, who managed a sacrifice bunt to make it second and third with one out. That at bat was relatively unremarkable, but a prescient quote from the booth resonated: “Remember just in early April the Cardinals were facing Matt Cain… he was mowing them down. And then all the sudden it’s like he hit a wall. The Cardinals, in the blink of an eye, had nine runs put up against Matt Cain in one of his worst outings of his career.”
Up next was Matt Carpenter, who continued to parade on Cain’s bad luck with a softly hit ball that landed in front of the left fielder. It very easily could have turned into an out, but it didn’t. Instead, a run crossed home and Cain was to blame. On the first pitch of the next at bat Jon Jay hit a seeing-eye groundball past the second baseman for another RBI single.
Cain then struck out Matt Holliday, making it two outs in the frame. He had a chance to escape the inning alive, and still make it a very good outing. Then came Allen Craig, who—you guessed it—hit a broken bat blooper into shallow left field to make it 0-3, Cardinals. I’ll spare you all the gory details, but then Matt Adams hit a single, followed by a single from Tony Cruz, followed by a, you guessed it, single from Daniel Descalso, and a final single by Mr. Kozma. A Shelby Miller strikeout ended the inning, but the Giants were now losing by seven runs. This, is death by singles.
Eight singles and a double effectively rendered the game a blow out, but the Giants left Cain in for mop up duty. Naturally, he found his form from the first two innings. He went another three innings, facing the minimum nine batters and not allowing a baserunner. Incredibly, Cain had faced 12 batters in the third inning and nine batters in the next three combined. He exited the game after six innings and 109 pitches, leaving with five perfect innings and a seven-run frame. While some might view this as an almost-inspirational story of a pitcher finding a way to rebound from a bad inning, I don’t think that’s the case.
Cain never lost his talent, his pitches, or his control during this game. He was the same player during his perfect innings as he was during the ugly one. It’s interesting because Cain never really seemed to change during the game, and five of his six innings were pristine. But somehow he was destroyed to the tune of seven runs in the third. Death by singles doesn’t discriminate against talent or circumstance, it’s a random but devastating occurrence. Often a pitcher can control his performance, but this was a rare moment when, in spite of talent and “good stuff,” the game was out of a pitcher’s control.