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MLB Playoffs 2018: Dissecting Scott Oberg’s four strikeouts

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The Rockies reliever is living a renaissance that took center stage Tuesday night

It hasn’t always been this easy for Scott Oberg, but the 28-year-old right-handed reliever is living a breakout season for the Rockies this year. On Tuesday night when the Rockies needed a closer, Bud Black made sure he saved Oberg for that moment.

Oberg lived up to it. The former pariah, the former up-and-down reliever who looked like another farm-arm burnout, became a playoff hero — something the Rockies don’t have many of in their short history.

Oberg faced four batters on Tuesday and he struck them all out. He used sliders for all four Ks but the way he used them was different; the sequencing he took to get there changed. Scott Oberg’s four strikeout pitches were each incredible, individual stories in themselves. These are those stories.

Pitch #1: Kris Bryant, 3-2 count

It’s the bottom of the 12th and after an outstanding performance from Chris Rusin, Bud Black brings in Oberg to finish off the inning and Kris Bryant. Bryant is batting ahead of Terrance Gore, who is batting in place of Anthony Rizzo, so there is a little potential strategy to this at-bat that has played out for the first five pitches.

Oberg knows he has Gore waiting, a guy exclusively used for his legs and not his bat, so he doesn’t have to give anything the Cubs superstar third baseman can hit. The broadcast notes this as Bryant comes to bat with Olney and A-Rod both stating that Bryant won’t see a pitch in the strike zone. He doesn’t see one for the first five. Shockingly, Bryant swings at two of them.

Bryant’s swings in this AB are surprising only in that he seems to be the only person in the building who thinks he’s going to see a strike. Vasgersian states that Bryant’s first swing (a check swing on a low slider) was even probably gamesmanship in order to coax Oberg into grooving a fastball or something. That’s how unexpected that swing was — the broadcast was coming up with storylines to explain it. Bryant’s check swing is followed by two more sliders, Bryant swings at one of them. Then, he gets a fifth slider and he sits on it. The count is 3-2.

Kris Bryant has seen five pitches and they have all been low sliders. This isn’t Blackjack; the probability he is going to see another slider is probably around 80% at this point. Oberg both 1) doesn’t want to throw a pitch Bryant can hit and 2) doesn’t care if KB walks because it’s Terrance freaking Gore next.

Scott throws a sixth slider.

Bryant sits on it. It’s probably out of the zone, borderline at least. But the ump has been giving that outside corner since the third batter of the game and it’s cost batters on both sides, so if he doesn’t give it now it’s more egregious than not giving it. He pumps his fist. Strikeout.

Oberg executed this pitch to perfection. He could’ve just chucked a dirt slider and let Bryant walk to first. Hell, that’s what I thought was going to happen, and that’s probably what Kris Bryant thought was going to happen. Oberg decides to do what he’s done the last five pitches and see if Bryant will be caught off guard by having a pitch close.

This could do a couple of things. It could prompt Bryant to swing at it to try and protect (something we’ll see later) or it could catch just enough of the zone (with expert framer Tony Wolters behind the plate) that it gets a strike three call.

The latter happens. Scott Oberg placed it perfectly, it couldn’t have been better. Bryant takes a step towards first before he hears Guccione yell for him to turn around.

KO.

Pitch #2: Terrance Gore, 3-2 count

So we’re at 3-2 again, this time it’s the 13th and the Rockies are in the lead. Oberg lost a pitch on 2-2 and crossed Wolters up; it got past his glove and hit the umpire. Gore tried to say it hit him, but even he didn’t believe those shenanigans (and who would). Anyway, the point is Oberg has now worked himself into a count that he really shouldn’t have. Gore is not a good hitter and is really only in this position because the game has gone on much longer than either manager wants.

The real problem is Gore’s legs. If he gets on, he’ll steal second. All of the sudden it’s a runner on second and nobody out for Javier Baez. Basically, the whole thing is about to go off the rails if Oberg doesn’t make this pitch.

A-Rod says something interesting before the pitch — he notes that 3-2 pitches are only in the zone about 50% of the time. Pitchers would rather walk someone than give up an extra base hit and that shines through in that stat. You’d rather have a guy walk to first than walk to every base on a home run after you groove one just trying to make a strike.

A-Rod says this to set the mentality of both of these players. Baseball is a team sport, but it’s defined and built by about 75 individual face-offs every game. This is another one. A-Rod is setting the scene that Oberg is probably not going to throw a strike and Gore is probably thinking he needs to take a pitch here.

Gore is 100% more valuable to his team if he takes this pitch regardless of its location. If he watches a fastball down the middle that’s just one out, but if Oberg misses the zone and Gore trots to first, he’s become the ultimate weapon to tie this game.

Oberg also just lost the grip on a pitch and has to think about that too. Nothing ever easy in October.

So he is probably not going to throw a strike and Gore is definitely not going to swing, case closed on this one, right? Until Scott Oberg decided this game was a little too clean and needed some filth.

Slider, dirty, off the plate. Gore can’t help himself, he doesn’t pick up the spin. He’s fooled immediately and thinks Oberg put one in the zone to try and catch him napping. He swings. Ball is in the ground, strikeout.

KO.

Pitch #3: Javier Baez, 1-2 count

This is the best one.

Baez is an MVP candidate, the guy has all but single handedly carried a tired and broken Cubs offense to 95 wins. He tied this game by getting a barrel to an Adam Ottavino 0-2 slider. He’s a grade-A hitter and this is his moment.

Only, and he doesn’t know this, it’s actually Scott Oberg’s moment. It always was and always will be. Javier Baez is a bystander in another man’s heroic tale this time, and he’s about to find out why.

Scott Oberg did something this at-bat he did not do to Kris Bryant (or Terrance Gore really) — he threw a fastball. A four seamer made the count 1-2 and now Baez has to be thinking he’s been setup for Oberg to be going back to the outside edge with a slider. It’s the obvious strategy. Oberg probably wants to do that too, honestly. It’s gotten him two strikeouts already. Why not just go back to it for a third?

But Oberg knows that Baez knows he’s going to do that. So he decides to move into Javier Baez’s house and marry his mother. Scott Oberg has taken this moment to become Javy’s dad. He spins this slider and backs it up like a cement mixer. Maybe he didn’t mean to, but this thing doesn’t move like that. This thing has gas. Oberg brings this pitch all the way back inside and catches Baez completely off guard. He gets his doors blown off, he swings so late that if this pitch were a Broadway show he would’ve missed curtain.

Baez, by the way, is an MVP candidate in the midst of his career year. Did I mention that? Scott Oberg doesn’t care, and he gets to watch the ball go around the diamond as he walks the mound. Strikeout.

KO.

Pitch #4: Albert Almora, Jr. 0-2 count

They say the last out is usually the toughest. But for Scott Oberg and this inning, he made this one look so easy I almost believed I could do it.

He opens to Almora with a fastball (whaaaaaaaat??) and gets him to foul it off. Then a slider away and it’s 0-2 within a heartbeat.

Almora knows what’s coming here. I know whats coming here. Half of Wrigley is looking for that little red dot that pops up when you catch the spin on that slider. The whole world knows what Scott Oberg is going to throw and where he is going to throw it. It does not matter.

Almora swings. He has to, because Oberg put this slider in a spot that he can’t avoid. He has to cover the outer half because there is one thing worse than striking out swinging to end your season, and that’s striking out looking to end your season.

This pitch dies like a wet bean bag. It floats from the knees to the ankles in about four feet and Almora’s bat doesn’t even get a kiss.

Strike three. Ballgame. KO.

★ ★ ★

Scott Oberg may never have a season as good as this one again. But in a year of instability and missed investments in this bullpen, his breakout campaign has been about as well received as any. That came to a legendary climax on Tuesday night. Scott Oberg pitched the lights out of Wrigley Field in October. Even if he never throws another good inning, he’ll have these four pitches.