One at-bat doesn’t ease the concerns about Carlos Pena’s struggles this season. But Saturday’s pinch-hit, game-winning home run showed that Pena can still hit a fastball now and again.
In the eighth inning of Saturday’s game, Kevin Jepsen was throwing heat for the Los Angeles Angels. He had thrown a perfect seventh inning–including two strikeouts–after watching the Rays erase an eight-run deficit. To start his second inning of work, the 27-year-old was met with a leadoff single from Jeff Keppinger. With the right-handed Sean Rodriguez due up, Joe Maddon dipped into his reservoir of left-handed bench bats.
Invoking the Danks Theory against Jered Weaver left Maddon with four left-handed bats to choose from: switch-hitters Elliot Johnson and Jose Lobaton along with natural lefties Matt Joyce and Carlos Pena. Lobaton and Johnson would have been no match for Jepsen’s electric fastball, thus leaving Joyce and Pena.
Truth be told, Joyce, as the better overall hitter, was probably the best option for Maddon. Although, when considering defense (pinch-hitting for an infielder) Jepsen’s best weapon (the heater), and the outs situation (none) Pena’s all or nothing approach was an acceptable plan B.
Referring back to R.J. Anderson’s article from last week, the odds of an offensive rebound from Pena are limited. This is especially true if the opposition continues to throw him pitches that bend. On the flip side, the 34-year-old can still turn on the fastball. Pena has 82 hits this season with 52 coming against the fastball including 22 of his 33 extra-base hits.
The fastball is king for Jepsen. This season, he has thrown his fastball more than 70 percent of the time. He does throw variations of a breaking ball (curveball and a slider/cutter), but those are secondary pitches by the very definition. This is especially true when the count is even or in favor of a left-handed hitter.
Behind in the count versus left-handers, Jepsen has thrown a fastball 98 percent of the time this season according to brooksbaseball.net. With an even count, 91 percent of his pitches remain fastballs.
After sitting on the bench for seven innings, Pena was greeted with a pair of 97 mph fastballs from Jepsen. Both pitches were taken for a ball, giving Pena the 2-0 advantage. True to form, Jepsen kept pumping fastballs. Pena fouled off a 98 mph offering before whiffing on another pitch thrown with the same velocity. Now even, Jepsen stayed the course with the fastball.
On the fifth pitch of the at-bat, Pena spoiled off a third 98 mph heater to keep the battle going. For the next pitch, the Angels battery of Jepsen and catcher Chris Ianetta opted for another heater instead of throwing Pena a curveball with two strikes, something Jepsen he has done nearly a quarter of the time against lefties this season.
Prior to the decisive sixth pitch, Ianetta setup on the outside corner (top image). Jepsen reared back for another 98 mph fastball, but missed the intended target. Instead of tickling the outside corner, the fastball is located down the middle of the plate (bottom image). With one massive swing, Pena deposited the pitch into the right-field stands, putting the Rays ahead for good.
At one point in the game, the Angels had a 99.5 percent chance of winning. After Pena’s blast, their win expectancy dropped down to 11 percent. Although he had just one at-bat during the historic comeback, Carlos Pena continued ability to hit fastballs proved to not only change the game, but swayed the balance of an entire series.