I was talking with my pitching coach one day, and I said that I knew he didn’t win all the time, that he lost games every now and then, and I wanted to know how he would react to this. His reply: "Oh, I’ve lost games, but how I react depends on the loss. I’ve been belted around, 9-3, 11-2, 8-0—and although I don’t like it very much, I’m not all that upset by it, because all those scores tell me is just that I didn’t have my good stuff those days. What gets me is the close ones—2-1, 3-2—and after one of those defeats I’ll often sit in the locker room and chew myself out for letting the game get away from me. It’s at times like these that I wish I’d just gone fishing."
That’s the key—not letting the game get away from you.
If you’re pitching one of those close games—late in the game, with a one-run lead to protect—you have to think like a closer. Like Mariano Rivera. You have to zero in on one thing: get the batter out. And that involves knowing the batter’s strengths as well as his weaknesses. You have to go by this one thing my coach—a veteran major-league pitcher—once told me: “Figure out what the batter is looking for—and don’t give it to him.” You have to extend this thinking to include “don’t let him get on base”.
Let’s take a look at the scenario you mentioned. Eighth inning. There’s one out, runners on first and third. The batter is one of those guys who will go after anything he can get a piece of. Now here’s where some good solid strategic pitching comes into play. And that means don’t give him what he wants—and what that batter usually wants is a nice juicy meatball, right down the middle or middle in, maybe a bit high—right in his wheelhouse. DON’T GIVE IT TO HIM. Go after him with a good breaking pitch, perhaps in on his fists—I used to like to start such batters off with a knuckle-curve or some such, and they would swing and miss by a mile. Get that pitch in for strike one—this applies not only at the beginning of the game but also in the late innings. Make him go after what YOU want him to hit. And keeping the ball down means that if he goes after such a pitch he’ll hit it on the ground, if he hits it—and if your infield has set up for a double play, and you get it, boom boom, you’re out of the inning without being scored on. A batter can’t get a home run on such a pitch, right?