Call to the Pen

My very first column, this was when I was the one-man sports department for what was then called The 49er Times at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, was named "Call to the Pen." I thought that was so clever. Get it? It's a call to the pen, like a baseball bullpen! But it's also a call to the PEN, as in the writing device! Ha ha. So good. Call to the pen.

It really is quite astonishing that anyone ever let me do this for a living.

Anyway, on Friday night, something happened that only a couple of years ago would have been utterly unheard of: Clayton Kershaw took a two-hit shutout into the ninth inning of the Dodgers' home playoff game against the Braves. The Dodgers led 3-0 at the time. Kershaw had thrown just 85 pitches; it was as easy and breezy a performance as you will ever see.

The Dodgers sent Kershaw to the mound for the ninth in what would have once been considered a no-brainer, a non-decision -- I mean, two-hit shutout, 85 pitches, three-run lead, OBVIOUSLY you send him out there for the ninth. But then they did the obvious 2018 thing: They pulled him from the game. They had sent him out as a ceremonial thing, so that he could get the cheers from the crowd. Closer Kenley Jansen came in, he gave up one hit, he struck out Freddie Freeman to end the game, and that was that.

In other words: We might never see another complete game in postseason baseball.

Well, wait: As the Bee Gees and Justin Bieber and James Bond have taught us in scripture, you really should never say never. Justin Verlander threw a complete game in last year's postseason, and Verlander has earned the sort of old-school respect that if he's in that position again, the Astros might let him finish what he starts. If the Giants ever get into the postseason again, they would probably let Madison Bumgarner go nine. Someone might have a no-hitter or a perfect game going. It COULD happen.

But it will take something extraordinary -- not just an extraordinary pitching performance, but an extraordinary series of circumstances -- for us to see another complete game in postseason baseball.

[caption id="attachment_23285" align="aligncenter" width="478"] If Kershaw can't throw a complete game, who can?[/caption]

I'm not saying that this is good or bad -- this is important. In this piece, I'm not saying ANYTHING is good or bad. I'm not interested in that argument right now. We can argue good or bad later.

What I'm saying is that because baseball is evolving naturally and nobody really has a hand on the wheel, stuff is happening without us even CONSIDERING if it's good or bad. Nobody looked at baseball and said: "This would be a more exciting or interesting or popular or thrilling or wonderful game if starting pitchers never went the distance." No. Baseball's roster rules are lax enough that teams began carrying more and more pitchers. Experience demonstrated that pitchers who throw in short spurts throw harder and are generally more effective. Analysis showed that starting pitchers are generally not as effective when going through a lineup a third and fourth time.

And so, the complete game went away. Maybe you miss it. Maybe you don't care one bit.

But the truth is: You never had any say in the matter anyway. It just happened.

* * *

The other day, I got a text from my pal Mike Schur saying this:

"It's that classic Game 1 NL Playoff pitching matchup we've been waiting for: Brandon Woodruff vs. Antonio Sezatela."

That was the Brewers-Rockies game, the bullpenning thing, with 25-year-old middle reliever Brandon Woodruff matching up against 23-year-old swing man Antonio Senzatela in one of the most important games in each franchise's history.

Mike, as you know, is a guy who cherishes modern baseball, who loathes traditional nonsense, who co-founded "Fire Joe Morgan" for crying out loud. He'd be the first one to tell you that the bullpenning thing works, that it's generally a winning strategy, and sure enough, Woodruff threw three scoreless innings, and Senzatela pitched well other than the home run he allowed to the hottest hitter on earth, Christian Yelich.

In all, you would have to say -- and Mike would concur -- that the Brewers-Rockies bullpenning thing ended up being a more effective strategy than the old-fashioned, super-exciting, heavily anticipated Corey Kluber-Justin Verlander duel in the Cleveland-Houston Game 1.

Even so, Mike couldn't help but feel that something was missing.

That, I think, is baseball's great challenge. There are passionate fans all over America who still love this game, but can't help but think that with all these changes, something is missing. The game follows the path of winning, and let's be honest: The path of winning can be a cynical path.

"It's no trick to make a lot of money if all you want is to make a lot of money."

I have often written before that the Tecmo Super Bowl video game had a glitch in it where one play -- a Dan Marino quick pass to Mark Duper, I believe -- was unstoppable. I mean, maybe someone somewhere figured out a way to stop it, but we spent countless hours on it and finally determined that, like the crane kick in The Karate Kid, there was no defense. So the path of winning: If you wanted to do it, you could run that play over and over and over and over and over again, and you would always win, because the play could not be stopped.*

*Adding a JoeWord/Phrase here: throw-to-Duper (verb): The act of cynically doing whatever you need to do to win the game, even if it's boring or infuriating. Example: "The Marlins decided to throw-to-Duper and intentionally walk Juan Soto, even though the game meant absolutely nothing."

Well, what fun is that? Not fun. So we made a rule that if you played with the Dolphins, you could not use that play (well, you could use the play itself, but you couldn't just do the quick pass to Duper).

Baseball mostly doesn't make such rules. The game goes where the entrepreneurs take it. Free market. And since major league teams basically have only one incentive -- just win, baby -- they will throw-to-Duper endlessly to win. You want to scientifically devise defenses to help bring batting averages to 45-year lows? Fine. You want to use five pitchers in every game, and even more come playoffs? Fine. You realize that stolen bases are generally not worth the risk, and so you just take them out of your offense? Fine. You want to make starting pitchers into bland "relief pitchers who just happen to start the game?" Fine. You want to let the game move in a direction -- with high velocity on the pitcher's side, and launch angles on the hitter's -- so that there are more strikeouts than hits? Fine.

Please don't misunderstand what I'm saying here: All of these things make sense from a winning baseball perspective. Do they make sense from an entertainment perspective? Remember: I'm not looking for an answer here -- maybe they do, maybe they don't -- I'm just saying that it seems as if nobody is asking those basic questions about baseball:

  • Do we want more stolen bases, or are we happy with them in a more limited supply?

  • Do we want starting pitchers to be special, or does that not matter?

  • Do we want pitchers to intentionally walk the best hitters in the biggest moments? Is that smart strategy or an anti-competitive loophole?

  • Do we want more triples, what many call the most exciting play in baseball? Or does that not matter, do we get enough?

  • Do we want a virtually unlimited number of pitchers in each game (especially in the postseason), or do we want pitchers to have to get out of their own jams sometimes?

  • In general: Do we want higher batting averages, more balls in play, more action on the bases? Or do we want the game to go where it naturally goes, in the belief that things will even out as the teeter-totter goes up and down?

In the end, like Costner to Lancaster, I'm just asking. It struck me on Friday night, watching the Dodgers not even THINK about letting Kershaw finish that game (and, realistically, why would they?) that the complete game is dead. But we never held a funeral. And I'm just not sure how I feel.