The art of pinch hitting isn't as celebrated—or as necessary—as it used to be, especially in the American League, where the DH is a kind of full-time pinch hitter. ( National League teams used an average of 261 pinch hitters last season, compared with only 114 for American League clubs.) Nonetheless, a number of players still excel at this perilous pursuit.
What little limelight is being directed at pinch hitters this year is falling mostly on Harris (12 for 37 as a pinch hitter through Sunday) as he pursues Mota's mark. Last year Hansen (103 career pinch hits) got the attention when he established a single-season record with seven pinch-hit home runs. "I promise you they were seven singles that happened to go out," says Hansen. "No pinch hitter can deliver home runs on demand." This year Hansen has been hampered by a broken left middle finger suffered in spring training, and through Sunday he was only 2 for 10. Two other good men in the pinch have been the Phillies' Jordan, who was hitting .400 (6 for 15, with a homer and five RBIs), and Chicago Cubs first baseman Julio Zuleta, who was batting .350 (7 for 20), with three homers and 13 RBIs.
The Diamondbacks have the major leagues' highest PH level. Indeed, they present what amounts to a 13-man lineup these days. First baseman Erubiel Durazo ("the shiniest tool in the box," as manager Bob Brenly puts it) blasted four pinch-hit home runs in April; through Sunday he had run that total to five and was batting .435 in the pinch. Dellucci was at .300 with two homers, and Danny Bautista, a part-time outfielder, was at .364 with one homer. The only Arizona pinch hitter who isn't tearing it up is Colbrunn, the one who was considered the most reliable at the start of the season. Before going on the disabled list on June 6 with a bruised right knee, Colbrunn was 1 for 18 as a pinch hitter; the one hit, however, was a home run. The four pinchmen, who last season wore T-shirts proclaiming themselves THE STUNTMEN, are seeking a new moniker this year—the Four Amigos? Four Diamond(backs) in the Rough? Four Guys Who Would Rather Be Playing Regularly?
Arizona's pinch-hitting scheme is fairly set. "If we need a pinch hitter leading off an inning, it's going to be either, depending on who's pitching, Dellucci [a lefthanded hitter] or Bautista [righthanded]," says Brenly. "If we have runners in scoring position, and a home run or an extra-base hit won't tie it or win it, it's probably going to be Dellucci. If I need a home run or an extra-base hit, it's going to be Durazo [a lefty] or Colbrunn [a righty]." Brenly admits that when Durazo kept going yard in April he factored that into his strategy. "It got to where I was going to save him until a home run would tie it or give us the lead," says Brenly. "That's how specialized it became."
Not that Brenly is complaining, but late in a tight game he does have to consider more options than most managers. During the pregame he scrutinizes the makeup of the opposition's bullpen. "If the other team's got two or three lefty relievers available, it's going to be hard for me to get Durazo in the game against a righthanded pitcher," says Brenly. So against the Braves early in the season, Brenly used Durazo as a pinch hitter in the fourth inning against righthanded reliever Jason Marquis, and Durazo responded with a sacrifice fly.
Pinch hitters would prefer that their managers spend time figuring out how to get them into the regular lineup. Those who become regular players are rather like community-theater thespians who get plucked for Broadway. They are the envy of their erstwhile fraternity brothers, a status currently being enjoyed by Pirates rightfielder John Vander Wal, who over the years has fretted about being used mainly as a pinch hitter, and San Diego Padres rightfielder Bubba Trammell, who recently proclaimed pinch hitting to be "the hardest thing I ever did." A number of great hitters might concur. Ty Cobb batted .367 for his career, .217 in the pinch; George Brett, with a .305 career average, was at .219 as a pinch hitter; and five-time batting champion Wade Boggs's numbers were .328 and .207, respectively.
Pinch hitters say that the most difficult aspect of the job is overcoming an inferiority complex: If you're by definition a pinch hitter, you're by definition not good enough to be a regular, and that gnaws at you. "Many players who are given a pinch-hitting role won't accept it," says Gross. "They end up sabotaging themselves."
Hansen agrees. "About three years ago [when he was with the Cubs], it came to me that pinch hitting was why I was up here," says Hansen, who has played all the infield positions and in the outfield during his 11-season career. "I decided to release all that hardheadedness. I was mad about not being an every-day player instead of accepting the fact that I could be a major league player as a pinch hitter. That's when I started to get good at it."
Pinch hitters estimate that they face a closer 90% of the time. Moreover, they're coming in cold against that 95-mph fastball or wicked splitter. They'll take a walk, but in the typical pinch-hit situation it's not as if the hitter has the luxury to work the count. "Athletes live for the excitement and the adrenaline," says Hansen, "but, man, when you consider the typical pinch-hitting situation—ninth inning, men on base, closer on the mound, game on the line—sometimes you get a little bit more than you need."
Further, Vander Wal (116 pinch hits and 16 pinch homers, the most among active players) has a theory that a pinch hitter gets only one good pitch to hit per at bat, which means one good pitch per game. Colbrunn agrees. You take or foul off that one pitch," he says, "and you've got an uphill battle."