Turner's Take: The Payoff Pitch

Turner's Take: The Payoff Pitch

By Turner Walston 

There’s a reason they call it the payoff pitch. The count is full at three balls and two strikes. Another ball and the batter has earned a walk. Another strike and he’s walking back to the dugout. A batted ball forces the defense to make a play. On a 3-2 count, whether it’s the hitter’s patience or the pitcher’s persistence, something is about to pay off.

Such was the case late Saturday night in Durham (ten minutes to midnight, to be exact), in Carolina’s thrilling 18-inning victory over NC State. Beginning in the bottom of the ninth inning, the top-seeded Tar Heels, the visiting team as a result of a coin toss, had no margin for error in a tie game. If they wanted to win, they would have to score. And if they didn’t score, they’d have to keep the Wolfpack off the scoreboard in the bottom halves of all those innings.

In the top of the 13th, Carolina had gotten runners to the corners with two outs. With ACC Player of the Year Colin Moran coming to the plate, NC State went to their fourth pitcher of the game, junior left-hander D.J. Thomas. A month earlier in Raleigh, Moran had gone 0-3 against Thomas. On this night, he swung at the first pitch he saw and popped out to left field.

In the bottom half, Tar Heel sophomore Chris McCue relieved freshman Trent Thornton on the mound. Thornton had thrown a brilliant 6 2/3 innings, not allowing a hit, walking just two and striking out seven on 91 pitches. McCue and Thornton, once high school teammates at Charlotte’s Ardrey Kell, are now two of Carolina’s most reliable bullpen arms.

A year ago, McCue had been a freshman flamethrower tossing heat in the low to mid-90s. He was effective, mixing that fastball with a sharp curveball, but he wasn’t really a strikeout pitcher. His changeup, a pitch intended to look like a fastball but fool hitters into swinging early, wasn’t slow enough. 

When former Tar Heel Bryant Gaines came back to Chapel Hill as an assistant coach last fall, he took stock of the Carolina pitchers and their strengths. Gaines identified McCue’s changeup as something that, if improved upon, could make him a complete pitcher. “We want it to look like a fastball coming out of your hand,” Gaines said. “We want fastball arm speed, we want fastball finish, and that’s where it gives it the deception to get hitters to swing and miss. He’s got such quick arm action, and he throws low 90s,” said Gaines. “When you bring in an 80 mile an hour changeup, not only does the change of speed fool you, but when you add depth and cut and sink, it makes that pitch that much harder, because the looks are so similar.”

So they changed McCue’s grip, offsetting the ball and moving it farther away from the strongest part of his hand, to the point that it was almost uncomfortable to hold. “He just took to it like a duck to water,” Gaines said. “It began to sink, and it was significantly slower than his fastball, and it kind of snowballed from there. Never did I think that it would become such a deadly pitch to hitters, but it ended up being something that really helped him out this year.”

Late Saturday night, in the bottom of the 13th inning of a 1-1 game, McCue took that changeup to the mound against NC State. The first batter he faced, Wolfpack shortstop Trea Turner, singled on a 1-1 pitch. “I left it over the plate, and he just got a good barrel on it,” McCue said. Turner is nimble on the base paths, having led the nation in stolen bases in 2012, and he represented the game-winning run. Perhaps distracted, McCue issued a five-pitch walk to Jake Fincher. “I think I was more concerned about Turner stealing,” he said. “I kind of shortened up a lot with it, and I wasn’t really getting my pitches where I wanted to over the plate.”

Brett Austin then laid down a sacrifice bunt to get the winning run to third. McCue said he didn’t try to pitch around the bunt. “They’re giving us a free out; we might as well take it. I just try to throw whatever’s called,” he said. 

1-1. Bottom of the 13th. Runners on second and third. One out. A base hit wins the game. A fly ball deep enough to the outfield wins the game. The Tar Heel coaching staff elects to intentionally walk Tarran Senay. “You have to have a force out at the plate,” associate head coach Scott Forbes said while reviewing film of the game. “It can’t be a tag play, so we intentionally walk him.”

Wolfpack third baseman Grant Clyde was the next man up. He was 1-5 on the night, but that one hit was a double off of Hobbs Johnson that had driven in NC State’s only run of the game. Carolina quickly made a change in right field, subbing Zach Daly for Parks Jordan in case a deep fly ball provided the opportunity for Turner to tag and attempt to score. Against Clyde, Forbes elected to go with McCue’s best pitch. He signaled catcher Brian Holberton to call for the changeup.

Clyde swung at a pitch out of the zone for strike one. “I probably wasn’t thinking about a strikeout right out of the gate until he looked so bad on his first changeup,” Forbes said. “We threw him the rest, and we punched him out.” The second one crossed the outer edge of the plate. Called strike two. Out of the hand, the third pitched looked low in the zone. Clyde offered. The ball dove into the dirt, where Holberton held on. Strike three.

Two outs. Bases loaded. Game-winning run at third base. Brett Williams approached the plate. Williams had struck out twice in three at-bats against Thornton, in the sixth on a fastball and on a slider in the 11th. Given Williams’ tendencies to swing hard, Forbes knew he had his best man on the mound. They stuck with the changeup.

McCue’s first offering started outside the zone and stayed there. Holberton stopped it again. Ball one. Williams was out in front of the next pitch. 1-1. The next changeup was low again. 2-1. Williams chased again and missed to make it 2-2. Williams fouled off the next pitch into the NC State dugout. “You knew right then that he didn’t see it good,” Forbes said. “He fouled that ball off, but he was running like he hit the ball fair.” 2-2. Another changeup down, another foul ball.

Williams came around on the next 2-2, a pitch that rode in on the right-handed batter. He hit it sharply foul down the third-base line. An offering low and in ran the count full.

Two outs. Bases loaded. Game-winning run at third base. 3-2. The payoff pitch.

“The thing about a changeup is, a right-handed pitcher against a right-handed batter, you see fastball,” Forbes said. “If it was a slider, you see slider. Curveball, you see curveball. Me and Holbie were constantly communicating. He didn’t look good on any of them. He swung and missed some ones for strikes, he took the other ones, so we stayed with it, even on 3-2.”

“I knew if I could throw another good changeup somewhere down, he’d probably chase it,” McCue said.

“His biggest focus when he’s throwing that pitch to Williams is to have more extension, so he’s really trying to work to finish that pitch toward the outer third of the plate,” Gaines said, “because if he throws it and just finishes it middle, it’s going to run right back into his bat.”

Out of the hand, the pitch looked ‘fat,’ as Gaines calls it, like it was there for the swinging. Williams took a cut . . . and whiffed. The ball spun out of the zone and into Holberton’s mitt. Williams had swung all the way through it. Strike three, inning over.

“It is about making pitches, but at the same time, it’s looking at what they’re going to chase, too,” McCue said. “Those are hard pitches that you don’t want to take in that situation. I knew that batter was going to be aggressive so I thought there was a good chance if I could throw a good changeup and stay through it that he’d swing at it.”

“I think Brett Williams was telling himself to take it,” Gaines said. “He knew it was coming. I don’t have any doubt in my mind that he knew it was coming but when it comes in it looks so fat that you have to swing at it and that’s what makes Chris’ pitch so good. It looks fat and then it falls out of the zone and you swing at it, and then you see where the ball ends up being.”

“He swung at ball four,” Forbes said of Williams. Then again, it’s not ball four until the last ten feet or so. “He threw it where you’re supposed to throw it with two strikes, but I mean that’s why he swung at it and missed it. He sees fastball.”

McCue had thrown three changeups to Clyde for the strikeout, and eight more to Williams to get out of the jam and continue the inning. Forbes and Holberton wanted McCue to stick to his best pitch, and he delivered. “You can’t fear the walk,” Forbes said. “We talk about it every time. If you say ‘I can’t walk him,’ you lay one down the middle.”

“I didn’t want to leave it too much over the plate, just because I knew that if he’s sitting on it, which most likely he was, he would get a good piece of it,” McCue said. “I tried to really throw it on the outer half of the plate. Maybe I wanted it a little bit closer, but at the same time, they were chasing it all night.”

It would take another five innings - another two hours - before Cody Stubbs would single in Landon Lassiter for the go-ahead run, and Chris Munnelly would then slam the door shut on the Wolfpack. But McCue’s changeup in the 13th that ended the Wolfpack threat was a game-winner nonetheless. The payoff pitch paid off.

“Let’s say Brett Williams takes that pitch and we walk him,” Gaines said. “At least we can say they beat us on our best pitch, he had a good at-bat and we just tip our hat to him. But it didn’t happen. And that’s a testament to Chris McCue.”

Turner Walston is the managing editor of Tar Heel Monthly.
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