The Pirates’ near-perfect new pitcher
Of all the players who were traded in recent weeks, a cast including CC Sabathia, Rich Harden, Mark Teixeira, Ken Griffey Jr and Manny Ramirez, you wouldn’t have expected a pitcher acquired by the Pittsburgh Pirates to be stealing the headlines. Jeff Karstens is making Pirates GM Neal Huntington look pretty clever at the moment.
The right-hander got off to a promising start with his new team on the first of August. His debut came in a day game at Wrigley Field, facing a Cubs team that had just swept the Brewers in a four-game series in Milwaukee. Karstens pitched six scoreless innings, holding the potent Chicago lineup to just five hits and setting up a 3-0 victory for his team. With his next start scheduled for 6 August against the Diamondbacks, the Pirates would have been more than happy for a repeat performance. What they received was far beyond their expectations.
There are many news items that you wouldn’t expect to see flashing back at you on the home page when logging on to MLB.com during the evening. ‘Carl Pavano is welcomed back with open arms by the Bronx faithful’. ‘Clemens and Canseco join forces to launch a new chain of drug stores’. ‘Selig admits his mistake and scraps interleague play’. The likelihood of seeing any of the above is slim to none, but prior to last Wednesday you probably would have said the same thing about a story that did appear: Jeff Karstens was pitching a perfect game heading into the seventh inning against Arizona.
Having retired the first twenty-three batters in order, Karstens’ bid for baseball immortality was broken up by a Chris Young double down the left field line with two outs in the eighth. The Chase Field crowd rose to their feet and applauded, as much in appreciation of the opposing pitcher’s efforts than the relief of finally seeing one of their players get on base. And arguably the most impressive part of Karstens’ performance was still to come. After the deflation of seeing the perfect game slip from his grasp, he kept his composure and pitched the final 1.1 innings to record a two-hit complete game shutout.
Two starts for the Pirates, two wins and no runs conceded over the fifteen innings pitched. As far as first impressions go, Karstens couldn’t have done any better.
The Pirates acquired Karstens in a trade that saw Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte head to the Yankees. In the media’s eyes, it was primarily a transaction centred around who the Yankees received; the four players that went in the other direction were something of an afterthought. The reaction was understandable in Karsten’s case. He hadn’t been overly impressive in his brief Major League forays with the Yankees during 2006 and 2007. Last year in particular was a bit of a nightmare for him, having a comebacker break his right leg and putting up a 11.02 ERA. At 6-4 with a 3.80 ERA over twelve starts, he hadn’t been dazzling in Triple-A this year either, but the Pirates saw something in him that made them believe he could contribute to their club. Two games in and they have to be happy with how things are going.
If we’re being honest, Karstens isn’t a strong bet to maintain this startling form. Pitchers who can’t miss bats with regularity in the Majors have to accept that they will be unceremoniously knocked about every now and then. Even in these two most recent starts, Karstens only struck out six batters combined over the fifteen innings and his Major League strike out ratio of 3.36 K’s per nine innings doesn’t bode well. Extreme groundball pitchers can get away with a low strikeout rate, indeed such pitchers are quite happy for the batters to put the ball in play. Karstens is no Brad Ziegler though, with close to fifty per cent of the opposition’s plate appearances ending in a flyball being belted off his pitching.
Despite these facts, Pirates fans shouldn’t be too pessimistic. Karstens’ track record prior to these two games suggests that he’s a back-of-the-rotation starter, possibly a handy long relief option out of the bullpen, and every team needs a pitcher or two like that on their team. Accept him for what he is and you won’t be disappointed. The fact that he isn’t the type of pitcher who will shutout teams too often doesn’t diminish the impact of his first two starts. If anything, it makes them all the more enjoyable. It’s great to see the top pitchers in the game performing outstanding feats, but it’s just as fun to witness a less-heralded player having his moment in the sun.
What’s more, this time last year the Pirates, under the leadership of former GM Dave Littlefield, traded for the washed-up and expensive Matt Morris. Signing Jeff Karstens is a definite sign of progress, whichever way you look at it.
Week 19 wrap-up
Cleveland (65-51) were able to take full advantage of a White Sox loss to the Red Sox last night. The Tribe beat Kansas City to leapfrog into first place in the AL Central, leading Chicago by half a game. The Rays (70-46) maintain a 3.5 game lead over Boston in the East, while the Yankees have lost their last two games against the Angels to fall back to 7.5 games out. With those two victories, the Angels (73-43) have extended their lead in the West to 14 games. Needless to say, none of their division rivals are seriously in the running for the wild card. Boston have the fourth post-season spot at the moment, leading Chicago by two and the Yankees by four.
There has been little significant change in the senior circuit over the last seven days. The Phillies (63-53) are continuing to hold off the Mets and the Marlins by 1 game and 2.5 games respectively. The Brewers have won their last four, but they still trail the Cubs (70-47) by 4 games in the Central, with St Louis a further 2 games back. The D-Backs (59-58) have lost their last four to allow the Dodgers to close to within half a game in the West. The Brewers hold the wild card right now, with the Cardinals (2 games back), the Mets (3.5) and the Marlins (5) putting up a fight.