Is it possible for a pitcher to throw too many strikes?
According to Cliff Lee and manager Charlie Manuel, the answer is no.
But in the Phillies’ 5-1 loss to the Washington Nationals on Wednesday night at Citizens Bank Park, Lee’s pinpoint control could have been his downfall (see Instant Replay).
Lee threw a remarkably efficient 76 pitches in seven innings in the loss to the Nats and of those only 12 of them were called balls. That means nearly 85 percent of the time, the Nationals had a pretty good idea where Lee was going to put the ball.
As a result, the Nationals pounded a pair of back-to-back homers off Lee. The first set of homers came in the fifth when No. 7 hitter Anthony Rendon clubbed an 0-2 pitch over the fence in left. The eight-hole hitter, Wilson Ramos, followed by stroking another homer just two pitches later.
To open the sixth inning, Ryan Zimmerman drove an 0-2 pitch to deep left-center field followed by a first-pitch blast to left by Jayson Werth. Against Lee, the Nats got four runs on four homers over a span of nine pitches.
Did Lee throw too many strikes?
“Not really. Occasionally it can seem that way,” Lee said. “Over the course of a season if you’re throwing strikes, good things are going to happen. I feel like as a starting pitcher it’s my job to throw strikes and keep the defense on their toes. That’s what I did tonight. As far as throwing strikes, that might have been the best I’ve done in a while. And they weren’t just strikes, they were quality strikes.”
Lee was uncanny with his control on Wednesday night. In his seven innings he faced 29 hitters and threw 25 first-pitch strikes. He had three two-ball counts and zero three-ball counts. He got seven hitters to put the ball in play on the first pitch and six others to put the second pitch in play. Of those 13 hitters to put the first or second pitch in play, eight made outs.
Meanwhile, Lee had six strikeouts with four of them coming on three pitches. Another whiff came on the fourth pitch and only one hitter got as many as six pitches in a plate appearance.
That’s a lot of strikes.
But was it too many strikes?
“I don’t know. I’ve seen him when he’s like that and nobody hits him,” Manuel said.
“As far as throwing too many strikes, if you get them out ain’t nobody going to say nothing. Once they hit you, you say just don’t make them too good.”
Still, the Nationals did not get a hit with runners in scoring position off Lee and had two runners on base in an inning just once. In other words, unless the Nats went deep, they weren’t going to get a run off Lee.
That’s what they did.
“They hit four solo home runs. I feel like I was throwing strikes and working ahead in the count -- locating,” Lee said. “Actually, all four of the home runs I felt like were decent pitches. It was just one of those deals that when it’s hot this time of year the ball carries. I have to do a better job of inducing ground balls. They put some good swings on some decent pitches and hit them out of here.”
Added Manuel: “When you’re pitching that good it’s kind of hard to criticize him. He was that good.”
The Phillies’ hitters were not very good against Nats lefty Gio Gonzalez. The former Phillies farmhand allowed a run on six hits and two walks in seven innings. The only run came on a two-out homer from Darin Ruf in the seventh inning.
The Phillies had more than enough chances to score, though. They got the leadoff man on base in the third and fifth innings, and left men in scoring position in the second, third, fifth and seventh innings. However, the Phillies stranded seven runners -- five of them in scoring position -- and went 0 for 7 with runners in scoring position.
As a result, the Phillies fell to 11-36 this season when scoring three runs or less.
“We had some chances,” Manuel said. “But we just couldn’t get the big hit.”
The Phillies also had a chance to improve to .500, too. At 45-47, the Phillies have had 12 chances to improve their record to .500 and they are 3-9 in those games.
The Phillies and Nationals close out the four-game series on Thursday when Kyle Kendrick (7-6, 3.90) looks to bounce back from a rough outing against Nats righty Jordan Zimmermann (12-3, 2.57).
Last time out, Kendrick gave up six runs on 12 hits and a pair of walks in a 13-4 loss to the Braves. Kendrick is 0-1 with a 4.26 ERA in two starts against the Nats this season and 4-6 with a 4.63 ERA in 21 appearances during his career.
Zimmermann beat Kendrick and the Phillies at Nationals Park on May 24, allowing just two runs and six hits in seven innings.