Clutch Treat

Times Staff Writer

Nearly five years later, Luis Gonzalez can close his eyes and return to that early November night.

He can locate the baseball high in Mariano Rivera's fingers, track its path to his bat, feel himself change its course.

And the thought returns, as it has almost every day since.

"I can't believe this is happening to me."

He sees the glory of it still, going on those five years, amused and grateful that it lingers in his memory, and in his hands, and that he has been allowed to take it with him.

Gonzalez won the 2001 World Series with a single in the bottom of the ninth inning of the seventh game. It beat Rivera and the New York Yankees, in his ballpark, in a city that hadn't seen that sort of thing before.

"Floater!" the television guy had shouted. "Center field ... the Diamondbacks ... are world champions!"

By now, Gonzalez is fairly certain he has heard from every person in the ballpark that night, shook their hands, learned what it looked like from the box seats, the top deck, the right-field bleachers.

It is the nature of the clutch performance, which baseball most efficiently refined to a pitcher and a batter and one last chance, and then its life span.

Over 16 days in June, David Ortiz ended three games with three flashes of his bat. A three-run home run beat the Rangers on June 11, a two-run home run beat the Phillies on June 24, and two days later a 12th-inning single beat the Phillies again.

In his career, he has ended 10 regular-season games with walk-off hits. He did it three times in a single postseason for the 2004 Red Sox. Within the game, Ortiz -- Boston's round, affable Big Papi -- has become the preeminent hitter when the air is still, and the outs are few, and the curfew is near.

"Extra innings," Ortiz said with a grin. "I don't like to play extra innings."

It has become a major league phenomenon, and A.J. Pierzynski first witnessed it in Fort Myers, Fla. First game of their Class-A season together, extra innings beckoning, Ortiz won it with a home run.

"That was the start of his legend growing," Pierzynski said. "He enjoys it. He enjoys the moment. He enjoys the pressure. Game on the line, there's nobody I'd rather have up there than David, since A-ball. By far he's the best guy in the clutch."

They all have their shots at it, of course. It is the nature of the batting order, the managers' preferences, the pitchers' courage, all contained in a sport where a few outs a game can still amount to overall excellence, yet one mistimed pop-up can amount to career-defining failure.

While the consensus is that most -- if not all -- clutch hitters are good hitters, it is unanimous that not all good hitters are clutch hitters.

Rivera buried his share of both during 23 consecutive postseason saves between Game 4 of the 1997 AL division series and Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, and still does.

"There are a lot of great hitters," he said, "but not a lot of clutch hitters."

Put another way, Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon Webb said, "A good hitter, he'll hit a home run in the ninth inning down 15 runs. But if he comes up in a one-run ballgame with a guy on third base, he can't get him home. That's the difference."

Sandy Alomar Jr. homered against Rivera in the 1997 playoffs, he and Gonzalez accounting for the blown saves bracketing those 23 successes for Rivera, and those three World Series titles for the Yankees.

As he stood in the box in the ninth inning of Game 4, the Indians a run down, Alomar remembered to take a breath. While he did, he recalled something Rod Carew once told him.

"Whenever you face a closer with a dominant fastball," he thought, "always think high. You can react low."

On the brink of elimination when Alomar swung, the Indians instead went on to eliminate the Yankees, and eventually advance to the World Series.

"Believe it or not," he said, "I remembered that in that at-bat. I said, 'I'm going to do what Rod told me.' And I tomahawked that ball. I was like, 'Wow, look what I did!' "

As Ortiz advanced his celebrity for hitting in the clutch, and as Ryan Zimmerman began to show a similar knack for the Washington Nationals, and as Nomar Garciaparra was reborn in Los Angeles, and even as Michael Young tripled home two runs with one strike left against Trevor Hoffman in Tuesday night's All-Star game, big hits are big as ever in the big leagues.

"To do it on this stage is a lot of fun, something I'll never forget," Young said. "I think that's why it's so rewarding to come through right now."

The game's best hitters, recognized as such for their production in game situations extreme and routine, believe the hits come because they expect success, dismiss failure, and wait their turns to hit again. And then they let the moment carry them.

Though his "clutch" statistics are down this season -- .280 with runners in scoring position (38th in the majors) and .295 with two out and runners in scoring position (10th), compared to .352 and .368 last season -- Ortiz remains the standard.

"The concentration is kind of deeper," Ortiz said. "You know you're not going to have too many opportunities to win games at those times. So, you want to put everything you have right there, everything you can at that moment, and if you come through, you come through."

Derek Jeter, who has more postseason hits than any other player, said it is a matter of making critical situations feel normal.

"First," he said, "you've got to be a good hitter. Then you have to be in those positions, practiced in those positions. Then you have to be successful. Every time you do something, you know you can do it again."

Some players described an anxiety that builds to those at-bats, others an anticipation. More than a few, probably, see the game leading to them, and wish it wouldn't.

"I'm excited," Jeter said. "I'm excited I'm in that situation. I never think about failing. You just have to feel that way, that you're going to get that hit. It's not going to happen every time, but you have to think it will."

Gonzalez called those plate appearances "almost like an out-of-body experience."

"You know everybody is focused on that situation," he said. "And then it's a 50-50 shot. Either you do it or you don't. When they say, 'clutch,' it's more about what the situation is, rather than the result."

The definition varies, just as the batter's triumph may also be viewed as the pitcher's choke, depending on where one's loyalty lies. Summer becomes fall, and the small acts of midseason become the major scenes of the late- and postseason. Statistics such as average in late-inning pressure situations, average with runners in scoring position and the simple RBI, among others, help identify the clutch hitter. To borrow an old line, however, you can't necessarily define a clutch hitter, but you know one when you see one.

It's the skill. The calm. The theater. A little luck. Maybe lots of it.

And it's personal preference.

Rivera hated to face Edgar Martinez. Webb would rather avoid Ray Durham and David Wright. Alomar admired Eddie Murray and Albert Belle, the way they got after late, pressure at-bats, along with Paul O'Neill ("It seems like he hit every inning," he said). Gonzalez thought Albert Pujols. According to STATS LLC, it is Garciaparra who leads the majors with a .493 average from the seventh inning on, and who seemingly hasn't missed a fastball for two months.

Yet, the conversations invariably return to Ortiz, whose bat, attitude and place in the Red Sox order (in front of Manny Ramirez) have made him clutch, which is better than good.

"It's the person who can allow himself to be the same hitter," Blue Jays outfielder Vernon Wells said. "Ortiz amazes me. By far, he's the best."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

End games

In the last three years, David Ortiz has 13 walk-off hits, including eight walk-off homers. A look at the eight homers:

*--* Date Pitcher Inning Final Sept. 23, 2003 Kurt Ainsworth 10th Boston 6, Baltimore 5 April 11, 2004 Aquilino Lopez 12th Boston 6, Toronto 4 Oct. 8, 2004* Jarrod Washburn 10th Boston 8, Angels 6 Oct. 17, 2004* Paul Quantrill 12th Boston 6, N.Y. Yankees 4 June 2, 2005 B.J. Ryan 9th Boston 6, Baltimore 4 Sept. 6, 2005 Scot Shields 9th Boston 3, Angels 2 June 11, 2006 Akinori Otsuka 9th Boston 5, Texas 4 June 24, 2006 Tom Gordon 10th Boston 5, Philadelphia 3

*--*

*-- Postseason

Source: MLB.com

*

When it's close and late

The leading hitters during the season's first half in close and late games (seventh inning or later, with the team batting leading by no more than a run, the score tied, or the potential tying run at least on deck), ranked by RBIs:

*--* AMERICAN LEAGUE Player Team AB H HR RBI BA 1. David Ortiz Boston 52 13 8 19 250 2. Justin Morneau Minnesota 48 13 4 17 271 3. Johnny Damon New York 54 21 3 14 389 3. Ty Wigginton Tampa Bay 44 12 5 14 273 5. Melvin Mora Baltimore 47 16 3 13 340 5. Vernon Wells Toronto 42 13 4 13 310 7. Michael Young Texas 46 20 1 12 435 7. Jose Lopez Seattle 60 18 2 12 300 7. Johnny Gomes Tampa Bay 40 10 3 12 250 10. Mark Loretta Boston 39 12 1 11 308 10. Jermaine Dye Chicago 35 10 3 11 286 10. Joe Crede Chicago 46 12 3 11 261 10. Mark Teixeira Texas 47 11 3 11 234 10. Eric Chavez Oakland 40 7 3 11 175

*--*

*

*--* NATIONAL LEAGUE Player Team AB H HR RBI BA 1. Jeff Francoeur Atlanta 64 19 6 21 297 2. Albert Pujols St. Louis 36 14 7 17 389 2. Ken Griffey Jr. Cincinnati 41 11 4 17 268 4. Carlos Lee Milwaukee 54 22 6 16 407 4. David Wright New York 61 20 2 16 328 4. Chad Tracy Arizona 50 16 2 16 320 7. Nomar Garciaparra Dodgers 30 13 3 15 433 8. Andruw Jones Atlanta 53 18 3 14 340 8. Ryan Howard Philadelphia 55 16 4 14 291 10. Geoff Jenkins Milwaukee 52 19 2 13 365 10. Shawn Green Arizona 51 18 3 13 353 10. Chase Utley Philadelphia 60 17 2 13 283

*--*

Source: ESPN

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
54°