ATLANTA – The modern baseball fan is best advised to accept the inevitable.
Whether or not you love or loathe the way the game is planned, played and managed, the sport is entrenched, for the moment and perhaps much longer, in a world where pitchers just ain’t what they used to be. They throw harder than ever, are more heavily scrutinized by opponents and trying to retire hitters more discerning and dangerous than ever.
This truism has been a painful/enlightening reality for almost a decade for those who closely follow the game. Yet the World Series tends to bring out the casuals, and if you’ve watched the first three games of this occasionally stultifying Fall Classic, you might be unsettled by what you’ve seen.
And to the uninitiated, perhaps Game 3 was a low point of sorts.
Sure, it was tough to watch the first two games in Houston, during which Charlie Morton suffered a broken fibula, Max Fried was fried before he barely scraped out five innings and Framber Valdez, the Astros’ nominal ace, retired six batters and allowed nine baserunners.
Cut to Friday night, Series tied 1-1, Braves clinging to a 1-0 lead, Ian Anderson nursing a no-hitter through five innings despite throwing nearly as many balls (37) as strikes (39).
“Keep him in!” say the drive-by fans.
“Hit the showers!” says common sense and the modern doctrine that dictates starters are best served avoiding the opposing lineup a third time in a row.
Coming up in the top of the sixth for the Houston Astros: Leadoff batter Jose Altuve, he of the 22 career postseason home runs and about to see Anderson for a third time.
And the controversial decision was no decision at all, really, for Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker. Even if it involves a talented 23-year-old with a shot at history, who put up the perfunctory “Leave me in” argument but concisely captured how this sport has been turned on its head.
“Ultimately,” Anderson said of a four-man relief relay that would follow him, “those are the guys that are going to get this thing done.”
Smart kid. A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson, Tyler Matzek and Will Smith each put up a scoreless inning, two of them without realizing a no-hitter was intact. Matzek had the temerity to give up a bloop single on a ball left fielder Eddie Rosario probably should have caught; Smith yielded a seeing-eye single to a di–minished Alex Bregman in the ninth.
You play to win the game, as the saying goes, and win, the Braves did. Their 2-0 triumph gives them a 2-1 Series advantage, though the bill has come due for their starting pitching crisis: They face two “bullpen games” after coming into this best-of-seven match one starter shy.
Morton’s injury – with no adequate replacement – merely exacerbated the shortfall.
Yet organized chaos is the order of the day almost any week in a major league season, what with any listing of probable pitchers littered liberally with “TBA.”
Why should “TBA” be deprived of their star turn just because it’s the World Series?
Indeed, less than 20 hours before Game 4, Snitker, at least publicly, was not sure who’d be his starter come Saturday night. The Astros declared Zack Greinke their starter after they were assured Game 3 didn’t get too weird on them.
Snitker, 66, and Astros counterpart Dusty Baker, 72, may be two to three decades into AARP eligibility, but they are sharp of mind and nimble of foot when it comes to yanking starters when the modern overlords suggest they should.
“The me of old, probably a couple years ago, would be, ‘How the hell am I doing this, quite honestly?’” Snitker acknowledged. “But the pitch count was such that (Anderson) wasn’t going nine innings. He wasn’t going to throw a no-hitter himself.”
Baker has been accused, often unfairly, of leaving starters in too long. Yet the game that still haunts him – Game 6 of the 2002 World Series against the Anaheim Angels – went awry after he removed starter Russ Ortiz with a 5-0 lead and two on in the seventh inning. The Giants lost that game and the next and Baker only this week made it back to the World Series.
Friday night, Baker’s starter, Luis Garcia, was slogging through the damp evening, giving up an RBI double to Austin Riley in the third, stranding a pair of runners in the second and three more to end the third.
Yet after two quick outs in the fourth, Garcia was at just 72 pitches. The bases were empty. He was only trailing 1-0, and the Astros, too, had to concern themselves with Games 4 and 5 with no off day.
No matter. Garcia was about to face – you guessed it – the top of the Braves’ order a third time.
So he was gone after 3 ⅔ innings, and on this night, both managers mastered the process and the outcome. Houston’s bullpen did not yield until Kendall Graveman gave up a solo homer to Travis d’Arnaud in the eighth.
It was not the most artful 2-0 World Series game you’ll see. Should the Braves win this World Series, it will be Matzek and Minter and Smith, and not Maddux and Glavine and Smoltz, immortalized.
Perhaps it’s not what we’re used to seeing. But it’s where the game is right now.
And in Game 3, Snitker and Baker both played it optimally.
“The no-hitter is cool and all,” says Matzek, who has struck out 10 and walked none in his last 6 ⅓ innings, “but what it comes down to is we want to win the game. That’s what it’s all about.”
And that’s one thing that will never change.