Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Century-Old Strategy Befuddles Fox Newcomers

I should have known better than to watch Game 5 of the NLCS with the sound on. The partnership of Joe Buck and John Smoltz has seemed like the uneasy alliance between two drunks at opposite ends of the bar, one gruff and grumbling, the other grinning and idiotic.

Listening to John Smoltz during last night's interminable Game 4--13 innings which took five hours and 15 minutes to play--was to behold the process of a nervous breakdown. After hours of enduring some kind of Chinese uppercut-swing torture, after marveling at the growing ratio of strikeouts to base hits, he finally cracked in the last inning. "We've seen 13 hits in 13 innings!" he blurted, like a man who just wasted hours looking for firewood in the desert because someone told him it was there to be found.

In fact, people on the East Coast who were willing and able to stay up until 2:30 AM to watch the turgid affair play out saw quite an accumulation of numbers, though four suffice to sum up Smoltz's torture: 315 minutes, 381 pitches, 15 base hits, 32 strikeouts. No doubt he realizes that if he were in his prime today, he'd have a shot at Nolan Ryan's record. He rightly lamented the Brewers' failure to move a runner from second to third with nobody, begging them to bunt, and the failure to advance the runner cost them dearly.

I felt embarrassed for Smoltz's public breakdown, which lasted an incredulous hour or two, so I hadn't planned to listen to today's game. (Joe Buck? What's my beef with him? Apart from general principles, he pissed me off this week when he said of Bob Uecker, "He won the Ford C. Frick Award, which means he was inducted into the Hall of Fame." Joe, you ignorant slut! Like your father, Uecker is not "a Hall of Famer," and you either know better and don't care about the truth, or you're a public idiot.)

But there I was in that wild bottom half of the first inning, when Craig Counsell sent a shockwave through the broadcast booth by removing starting pitcher Wade Miley after one hitter (a walk). Buck and Smoltz identified the strategy soon enough. The Dodgers had started mostly right-handed hitters, so after the southpaw Miley walked the leadoff hitter (one of two lefties in the lineup), out he went, replaced by right-hander Brandon Woodruff, who would get to face all those right-handed hitters.

I was able to listen to only a few minutes of the ensuing discussion before I was forced to cave in the tv screen with a copy of my Neft-Cohen-Deutsch book about the World Series. The absurdity of their analysis reached the stage where Buck wondered whether there might be some kind of rule needed to require a certain duration by a starting pitcher. This was some kind of bizarre 21st-century aberration, another sign of the times, and they should keep an eye on it.

Eventually their researcher found one other post-season game in which the starter faced only one batter, but that was because of an injury. What all of them missed--and what would have given their discussion some basis in reality--was that this strategy has been used before in the post-season. The idea of replacing your starter with an opposite-handed pitcher in order to mess with the other manager's starting lineup was unveiled. . .ready?. . .in 1924.

The twerps at Fox Sports missed it because in 1924, the starting pitcher faced two hitters before leaving. Why two? Because the second batter was a switch-hitter. It happened, by the way, in Game 7 of the World Series, when the idea is to "pull out all the stops" in the effort to win the title. On October 10, 1924, at Griffith Stadium in Washington, the Senators hosted the New York Giants. For John McGraw's New Yorkers, it was their fourth World Series in a row. For the Senators, it was a first in the franchise's 24-year history, and more than that was seen as a belated showcase for 37-year-old idol Walter Johnson.

The Giants didn't cooperate, beating Johnson in two starts, but the Senators evened the Series in Game 6 when manager/second baseman Bucky Harris drove in both runs in a 2-1 victory. With Johnson unavailable for a Game 7 start (one day of rest), Harris' logical choice for starter was 16-game winner George Mogridge, who had won Game 4. Instead, he went with right-hander Warren "Curly" Ogden, whose major league resume consisted of 11 wins. It seemed to be a case of trying a rested pitcher (he hadn't seen Series action yet) at the end of a long, arduous Series.

But it wasn't that at all. Harris did the same thing Counsell did. After Ogden struck out Fred Lindstrom and walked Frankie Frisch, out he went, and in came the southpaw, Mogridge, now looking at four lefties in the next five hitters. Harris hoped that McGraw would jettison some of those lefties, since he still had Johnson as his ace in the hole.

McGraw didn't bite, with mixed results. The main one was that Mogridge took a 1-0 lead (on a Harris home run--the "Boy Wonder" did everything!) to the sixth inning, having allowed just three hits. But two lefties--Ross Youngs and George Kelly--got on base, so McGraw finally made a substitution, replacing Bill Terry with Irish Meusel, who singled in a run as the Giants went ahead, 3-1. As I write this, Brandon Woodruff has closely duplicated Mogridge's performance.

In this age, when we seem doomed to watch history repeat its worst, I may be a bit of a grinch to begrudge Joe Buck the innocence to think baseball is a phenomenon of his lifetime only, but Joe. . .This has happened before, and for the same reason. Take a look at baseball history and see how beautifully its symmetry endures.

                                                     LATER THAT SAME EVENING

The game is over, so I can finish putting Counsell's bold move in its final perspective. In an eerie parallel, both Mogridge and Woodruff made it safely from the first inning to the sixth before weakening a bit. Both ended the sixth inning trailing 3-1, suddenly subject to being the losing pitcher.

Mogridge was saved by Bucky Harris, who again came through with the big hit, a bases-loaded single that sent the game into extra innings. Harris unveiled his secret weapon, Walter Johnson, in the ninth inning. Four shutout innings later, Johnson became a World Series champion when a bad-hop hit drove in the winning run.

Woodruff could not escape his fate, largely since he had the misfortune of facing Clayton Kershaw on the night when Kershaw lived up to his credentials. In another piece of 21st-century baseball managerial maneuvering, Dave Roberts used four pitchers to preserve a 5-1 lead over the final two innings, removing Kershaw after letting him bat in the seventh (he walked to start a two-run rally).

I'm sure Joe Buck and John Smoltz had an opinion about Roberts' strategy. But I'll be damned if I care what it was.

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