Ethier's streak reaching treacherous territory

Ethier's streak reaching treacherous territory

Ethier's streak reaching treacherous territory
Andre Ethier has planted his flag atop one of the rarest peaks in Major League Baseball's range. Congratulations. It's all uphill from here.

By continuing the marvelous, virtually season-long monotony with a base hit in the first inning of Friday night's game in Citi Field against Mets left-hander Jonathon Niese, the Dodgers right fielder extended his hitting streak to 30 games.

A real rarity: This is only the 53rd hitting streak of that length in a history that covers 17,538 players and 135 seasons.

Now up goes a real roadblock: 20 of those 53, a stupefying 38 percent, ended right there. The modern roadblock is even stiffer: Since 1960, 11 of the previous 23 streaks to reach 30 games didn't see 31.

In journalism-speak, "30" has always been the traditional code to signify the end of a story. The code apparently crosses over into the realm of hitting streaks.

In the Boston Marathon, it is Heartbreak Hill. In swimming's 400-yard medley, it's that sixth flip-turn. In the days of 15-round championship boxing matches, it was Round 12.

The Wall
The day after -- hitting streaks that made it to 30 games, but not beyond.
Player Team Year The end
Cal McVey CHI (NL) 1876 0-for-4, BB
Elmer Smith CIN 1898 0-for-4
Tris Speaker BOS (AL) 1912 0-for-4
Goose Goslin DET 1934 0-2, 2 BBs
Stan Musial STL 1950 0-5
Ron LeFlore DET 1976 0-4
George Brett KC 1980 0-3, BB
Jerome Walton CHI (NL) 1989 0-4, BB
Nomar Garciaparra BOS (AL) 1997 0-3, SF
Sandy Alomar Jr. CLE 1997 0-4
Eric Davis BAL 1998 0-3, BB
Luis Gonzalez ARI 1999 0-4
Albert Pujols STL 2003 0-5
Willy Taveras HOU 2006 0-3, 2 HBPs
Moises Alou NY (NL) 2007 0-3
Ryan Zimmerman WAS 2009 0-3, 2 BBs
Andre Ethier LAD 2011 To be continued ...

They all have The Wall. For hitting streaks, it appears to be thrown up at No. 30.

How come? What is the mystical effect of getting to 30?

Luis Gonzalez, who clipped off his 30-gamer with Arizona in 1999, conceded a possible letdown upon getting to 30, which is such a privileged number. Historically, 31 streakers were stopped at 28 or 29, unable to take that last step or two into the charmed circle.

"It's like hitting .299 or driving in 99 runs," said Gonzalez, now in the D-backs front office as a special assistant to club president Derrick Hall. "There's a big difference from .300 or 100. That last one is a big digit.

"When I got to 30, there was almost a feeling of relief. In the 20s, everyone started to pay attention. Like most players, I was superstitious and didn't want to talk about it. But that's all anyone wanted to talk about. Then, getting to 30 was just a significant number. Also, I was just exhausted mentally."

The streaks of Ron LeFlore (1976) and Ryan Zimmerman (2009), incidentally, share something further unique with Ethier's: Each clipped off their 30s within their first 31 games of the season.

Gonzalez out-did them all. He opened the 1999 season by hitting in his first four games, took a collar, then embarked on his 30-game streak, meaning he had a hit in 34 of his first 35 games.

Batting streaks are correctly perceived as the fortuitous product of good bounces, advantageous matchups, favorable game situations. Even getting to 30 usually takes a great deal of luck.

Two players had "hitless" games amidst their streaks of 30. In 2007, the Mets' Moises Alou was on an inconspicuous six-game streak when he appeared as an eighth-inning pinch-hitter on Aug. 30, and walked. In 2003, Albert Pujols wasn't even streaking yet -- he'd hit in one game -- when he reacted to being plunked in the first inning by San Diego's Adam Eaton by charging the mound and getting ejected.

Rules are rules: Walks and HBPs can't be streak-busters; Alou went on to hit in his next 24, and Pujols in his next 29.

Or how about Gonzalez, at 23 games and 0-for-3 with a walk on May 11, when the D-backs tied the game to force extra innings against the Montreal Expos? Gonzalez repaid getting the extra rope with a rope of his own -- a walk-off homer in the bottom of the 10th.

"Right into the pool [of Bank One Ballpark] (as Chase Field was then called)," Gonzalez recalled. "Now that was exciting. So you can see how game situations have a lot to do with streaks, as does where you hit in the lineup. I hit third, and most guys with the long streaks also batted in the top third of the lineup."

At 30, most bets are off. Moving beyond it becomes prohibitive. The odds compound the longer you go. That is why Joe DiMaggio's 56-game streak of 1941 is considered the game's most untouchable record. Get anywhere near it, and you'd feel like you're trying to scale Mt. Everest in flip-flops.

That, at least, is the layman view. Mathematicians apparently beg to differ.

A couple of years ago, as Zimmerman's streak reached 29, a San Diego State University professor and statistician took it upon himself to calculate his odds of continuing on to tie DiMaggio. Jim Lackritz's conclusion: 1 in 414, relatively manageable considering the prof pegged the start-out chances of matching DiMaggio at 1 in about 10 million.

Here's a little context for that number: According to the National Weather Service, your chances of being struck by lightning in any given year are more than 10 times greater. Odds on that: 1 in 700,000.

At 30, routine game situations tend to be viewed through the prism of the individual pursuit.

Consider Zimmerman on May 13, 2009, in AT&T Park. He was 0-for-2, and had drawn a walk, when he faced Giants left-hander Barry Zito with two outs and men on first and second in the seventh inning of a game the Nats lead, 2-0. Zito had to pitch to him -- but not after his first pitch was wild, advancing the runners and leaving first base vacant.

Intentional walk to Zimmerman. After a groundout in a last, ninth-inning chance, end of his hitting streak.

Willy Taveras' 30-game streak came to a similar, more painful end: On Aug. 29, while going 0-for-3, he was also hit twice by Brewers righty Tomo Ohka.

"It was a little tough to lose it that way because I didn't have the opportunities," Taveras said. "It was a little frustrating to get hit twice. I would have liked to have had clean at-bats."

Deep into a hitting streak, the pressures become exponential. Each at-bat takes on a life of its own.

"It was certainly easier if I got a hit early in the game," said Gonzalez, who found the opposite to also be true. "That day in San Francisco, after the first couple of at-bats, I really felt that was it."

Candlestick Park was Gonzalez's Waterloo. On May 19, he swung through third strikes from Kirk Rueter in those first two at-bats, then had a meek grounder to second before ending his day, and his streak, with another whiff against Alan Embree.

Gonzalez also went hitless the next day and then, with the pressure off and questions over, he hit in his next 13 games. At that point, he'd hit safely in 47 of 50 games that season.

"I had a great run. It was fun," Gonzalez said. "I got to 30 games. I finally got into an elite group with a bunch of great ballplayers."

Even if he doesn't get over The Wall, Ethier will always also be able to say that.

Tom Singer is a national reporter for Follow @Tom_Singer on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.