Sampson outlasts Sanchez in epic at-bat
Reliever needs 17 pitches to retire former batting champ
PITTSBURGH -- If people look back at the box score from the Astros's 6-3 victory over the Pirates on Thursday afternoon, they'll simply see that Pirates second baseman Freddy Sanchez flied out to center field off Chris Sampson with two runners on and one out in the bottom of the seventh inning. But as is often the case the game of baseball, that would only tell a partial story, missing the game within the game, the long battle within the war.
Had Sanchez come through with a game-tying home run, it would have gone down as a classic confrontation. Sampson needed 17 pitches to retire Sanchez, as he fouled off pitch after pitch, many coming with a 3-2 count.
"That was a tough battle," said Sampson, who was removed for lefty Tim Byrdak after the confrontation. "We kind of smiled at each other a couple times during the at-bat. That was a lot of fun. Luckily I came out on top and got him to fly out to [Michael] Bourn."
Just an inning earlier, in the sixth, the Astros had broken out of a 3-3 tie on Lance Berkman's three-run homer. Had Sanchez come through, the momentum could have shifted back to Pittsburgh in a hurry.
"You see it every once and a while, not too often," Pirates manager John Russell said about the at-bat. "It would have been better, obviously, if he had gotten a hit. He battled. That's all you can ask. It was a big moment in the game, and it could have changed the outcome at that point. That would have been a big momentum burst for us if you get a hit. You can't fault the effort. He just didn't get the ball in play where he needed to."
So often in those instances, the hitter eventually wears down the pitcher and does come up with a big hit. But Sampson never wavered throughout the 17-pitch ordeal.
"You can't give in," Sampson said. "You have to keep battling. He's going to keep battling. That's the nature of the beast. Somebody was going to win. It was a long battle, that's for sure. I think they brought in a whole new case of balls for that AB."
When you throw 17 pitches to one hitter, there's a need to get a little creative. Sampson threw everything plus the kitchen sink at Sanchez to try to get him out.
"I threw everything, my whole repertoire," Sampson said. "I threw curveballs early in the at-bat. I threw sliders, sinkers, fastballs, four-seamers. I wondered what pitch I could invent to throw up there. I thought maybe I should go sidearm or throw one up underhand just to get him to put it into play. But it was fun."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.