By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 25, 2008
CHICAGO, Aug. 24 -- After the game ended, and after two of baseball's most similarly dissimilar pitchers had finished their jobs, Rich Harden talked about what he did right and Jason Bergmann talked about what he must change. Both rank among the most pronounced fly-ball pitchers in the game, but Harden strikes out so many that it doesn't matter, and Bergmann allows just enough too-long fly balls that it often does.
Sunday afternoon, the gap between Harden and Bergmann was, at once, narrow and substantial. It was substantial because Harden won and Bergman lost; both supplied the critical performances in a 6-1 Chicago Cubs victory over the Washington Nationals. Harden allowed one run, struck out 11 and walked none over seven innings. Bergmann struck out six in 6 1/3 innings, but walked four and allowed four runs. Aside from their proximity on the list of baseball's most fly-ball-prone pitchers, the difference between the two was starker than even the team's lineups. Harden never allowed the Nationals a chance.
Harden (4-1), an ace for the National League's top team, electrified even those who expected it. His totals since becoming a Cub in midseason: Eight starts, eight runs. No National League starter since July 8 -- the day he swapped leagues in a trade from Oakland -- has a lower ERA. Though Harden served up an Austin Kearns home run in the third, he was almost unhittable before and after, mixing high heat with a demonic splitter. In his final inning, he treated Washington's 3-4-5 hitters to a strikeout-strikeout-strikeout masterstroke. Then he exited stage left.
"Every time he goes out there," Chicago Manager Lou Piniella said, "he gives you a consistent effort."
Bergmann (2-10), though modestly effective, made just enough mistakes to contradict consistency. Five innings into the game, the right-hander had allowed just two hits. But both were home runs with the wind blowing in. One of those homers, from catcher Geovany Soto, came right after a five-pitch walk.
"It's extremely important not to walk guys regardless of whether you're a ground-ball or fly-ball pitcher," Manager Manny Acta said, "but in this stadium and with the lineup they have, you don't want to be walking guys. When you walk guys, the home runs hurt you more."
For as long as he's been a pitcher, Bergmann has also been a fly-ball pitcher. He doesn't quite know why. Part of it comes from the trajectory of his pitches, another part from his tendency to throw high. But Bergmann knows this much: He doesn't want to be a fly-ball pitcher. That's daredevil territory, every risk heightened by the inevitability that a ball in the air travels too far for an out. No pitcher on Washington's staff has given up more homers than Bergmann's 22.
Mention the fly-ball tendency to Bergmann, and he talks about it as a drawback; it's an uncomfortable part of his identity. The probabilities shape his logic. Four infielders and a pitcher are likelier to field a sharp grounder than three outfielders are to glove a line drive. And right now, Bergmann said, he's relying on three outfielders only.
Still, the fly-ball-heavy style is not defective by rule. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings this season, the three highest fly-ball ratios belong, in order, to Scott Kazmir (who gets 1.57 fly balls for every groundout), Bergmann (1.57) and Harden (1.54). All have thrown between 121 and 126 innings this season, making their primary difference shine even brighter. Kazmir, with a 3.27 ERA for Tampa Bay, has 134 strikeouts this year. Harden, who has recorded double-digit strikeouts in five of his starts with Chicago, has 162. Bergmann, who can be a strikeout pitcher on his best days, has 89. In other words: More so than other fly-ball pitchers, he gets his outs with fly balls.
And that's why he struggles to embrace the fly-ball identity. For the first few innings Sunday, Bergmann made an extra effort to keep the ball low and use a sinker. He didn't want to get burned by high fastballs. Harden showed no such worries.
"You know how many fastballs up in the zone he threw? A lot," Bergmann said. "But he strikes a lot of guys out. It's power stuff. The first three innings, he threw, like, one breaking ball. All of his fastballs were up in the zone, and he was getting guys to chase them."
And for Bergmann?
"I want to be a two-dimensional fly-ball pitcher with the ability to get a ground ball when I need to," Bergmann said. "Say I walk a guy. If I'm a fly-ball pitcher, I need three fly-ball outs. But with a ground ball, you can get two outs on one pitch. So it's something I've been working on."