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Yankees Sequence of the Week: Clay Holmes outlasts Justin Turner (6/10)

Holmes wins a tough battle against a tough hitter.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Clay Holmes returns to Sequence of the Week! After a nightmarish April, Holmes has found his groove along with the warm weather, and also his ability to win tough at-bats where not quite everything is going right. The ninth inning of Saturday’s win against the Red Sox was uneventful, but at a different time this season, it very well might have been. Let’s take a look at the nine-pitch tug-and-pull between Holmes and Justin Turner to get a glimpse at how he’s working to get hitters out when he can’t quite fully overpower them like he did at his peak last season and the one before.

Turner came up to hit with two outs and a runner on, but Holmes seemed to have been feeling relatively good to that point in the inning, dotting his sinker on a called strikeout of Jarren Duran and an easy groundout induced from Masataka Yoshida. But as has been the case for most of the year, he still didn’t quite have his A-1 command, and he had already gotten burned by Alex Verdugo when he left a fat sinker middle-up.

Even in the midst of his worst campaign since his pre-Dodgers days, Justin Turner is not a hitter with whom one can be cavalier with a fastball, even one as effective as Holmes’ demon sinker. Turner has long been one of the game’s best fastball hitters, and his swing is built for getting on plane with and crushing balls with downward movement when they catch too much plate. So even though Holmes is going to start him out with two sinkers, he takes care to put them in nearly unhittable spots, both in the good sense (a first pitch that beautifully scrapes the inside corner for a strike) and in the better-a-ball-than-down-the-middle sense.

After using the sweeper as his primary breaking ball last season, Holmes has mostly shelved it in favor of a slider when he needs a breaking ball this year, perhaps because, in light of his general control issues, it’s simply an easier pitch to throw for a strike. Needing to avoid falling behind Turner but also not wanting to show him three straight sinkers, he executes a more or less perfect slider on the outside corner that Turner can only just get a slight piece of:

Now ahead in the count with three more balls to work with, the logical move is to try to put another slider on the outside corner, knowing that Turner is liable to chase it and also liable to do damage on a fastball that catches too much plate. Turner is a smart hitter, though, so rather than go along with conventional wisdom, Kyle Higashioka calls for another fastball, this time setting up decidedly outside to try to catch Turner napping with a backdoor sinker. Unfortunately, as he did on 0-1, Holmes yanks it just a little too far to the arm side to threaten the zone.

Okay, now we can try the thing that worked the first time. And even though it was a worse slider than the first one, hooking all the way into the opposite batter’s box, Holmes comes oh so close from getting Turner to sell out on it:

Now the count is full. Holmes is clearly confident in his slider feel, though, and Higashioka has no hesitation calling for it even with the risk of putting the tying run on base. This time, he sets up just a hair further inside than before, and Holmes, erring on the side of not walking the hitter, misses badly over the plate. However, after four straight pitches on and off the outside corner, Turner just can’t turn on it quickly enough to take advantage:

The situation is the same, and it seems like Holmes might be running out of tricks, because the way Higashioka sets up for this pitch reads “just put a sinker in the zone and make him do something with it.” Holmes puts it in a pretty good spot, but Turner does what good hitters can do on a such a pitch: spoil it and give himself a chance to hit the next one.

As it turned out, the next one was a pretty good pitch to hit. And hit it Turner did — just not quite how he wanted to.

In a vacuum, that’s a pretty terrible pitch, but it ain’t a vacuum, and even in a full count against a tough veteran here, there’s a bit more going on than the final location. Keep in mind, this is the ninth pitch of the at-bat, and six of the previous seven have been low and away. And remember, Holmes’s sinker has some of the heaviest downward movement of any in the game at that velocity. After only having thrown them low in the zone, with the only pitch above the belt being a hanging breaking ball in the high-80s that Turner couldn’t get his swing on plane with, a 97 mph bowling ball that starts at the top of the zone is a hard adjustment for a hitter to make. At this stage in his career, Turner just might not have the reaction time and bat speed to do anything else but hit the top half of the ball and chop it into the ground.

After a brutal start to the year, Holmes has now allowed just a single run in his last 18 appearances, covering 18.1 innings. Though his walk rate is still up, he’s commanding his arsenal well enough to win battles like these in deep counts with quality hitters, which certainly wasn’t the case in April. An increase in walks is to be expected when you start throwing more breaking balls, like Holmes has this year, but if those breaking balls are as effective as they were against Boston in conjunction with his sinker, it might not even matter.