Eight innings, three hits, two earned runs, one walk and nine strikeouts; this was A.J. Burnett's final line. However, if you were at the game or watched it on T.V., you knew for about two hours Burnett was unhittable; seriously unhittable. With a no hitter already in his back pocket, Burnett went to work on the mound at Tropicana field and kept zero's across the board until the sixth inning. He did not surrender a hit until a six pitch at-bat in the seventh inning against Carl Crawford ended with a line drive single to left field. Burnett would give up two more hits and two runs, but was just fantastic on the evening.
Here is how he did it.
Fastballs and curveballs; it's that simple. Burnett threw 103 pitches last night with a combined 98 of them being one of those two pitches. He threw 58 four seam fastballs which stayed around 93 mph, but reached 95 to 96. His curve sat around 80 mph with an occasional breaking ball reaching 83. Besides the fantastic change in velocity, it was the way he switched up his pitches that gave the Rays problems and allowed him to get 9% of pitches for swinging strikes.
Burnett was not afraid to use his curveball often. By my unofficial count he started 13 of his 27 at-bats with a curveball. It didn't always get called for a strike, but the constant change kept the Rays hitters off all night. He also mixed it up depending on the handiness of the batter. In the first few innings he would throw a first pitch curve to righties and a fastball to lefties. However, the next time through the order he went first pitch curve to lefties and almost exclusively first pitch fastball to righties except to Jason Bartlett, who saw a ton of curveballs. He also fed lefty Aki Iwamura a steady diet of fastballs, again showing a wonderful ability to mix it up.
Looking at the charts on brooksbaseball.net, it's easy to see why the Rays hitters were often fooled and either fouled off a lot of pitches or just took the pitch looking. With similar release points on both pitches(within 0.5 inches), the fastball and curveball took similar flights to the plate. The curveball, however, takes a tremendous drop over the final 15 feet, but it's already too late for the hitter to adjust. Most of the night the Rays hitters were left guessing and this is what brings us to the seventh inning.What was different about the seventh inning that the Rays were able to get three consecutive hits?
Fatigue may have played a small part in it. Burnett finished the sixth inning with 77 pitches thrown and he was still reaching 93 consistently. However, from pitch 80-103, he maxed out at 93 and was living more 90-91 showing a little sign of being tired. He also became predictable which is what really helped the Rays. As I mentioned above, during the latter part of the game he was working curves to lefties and fastball to righties. It's no surprise then that Crawford, a lefty, saw four curveballs in his six pitch AB including the first pitch and the final pitch which he laced for a single. Crawford battled Burnett by fouling the first five pitches off before connecting one.
After two pickoff attempts, right handed batter, Evan Longoria would jump on the first pitch and also hit a line drive single to left. As the pattern shows, Longoria's first pitch should've been a fastball and it was, a 92 mph heater. With runners on first and second and no outs, the Rays best prognosticator, lefty Carlos Pena guessed correctly on a first pitch curveball and hit a line drive of his own to right field driving in the Rays first run. After a coaching visit to the mound, Burnett changed his pattern once again and started the next batter, a right hander with a curveball and once again became unhittable.
We did a lot of discussion this offseason about one pitch, two pitches, three pitches and most often we found out that most successful starters use at least three pitches. However, on this night Burnett was the exception and almost made history with just two.
I'm glad he didn't.