In 1944, Frank Sinatra recorded one of his classic contrast songs, a jaunty swinger with a melancholy lyric. “Saturday night is the loneliest night in the week/I sing the song that I sang for the memories I usually seek,” goes one couplet.
Astros closer Ken Giles might have held onto a couplet like that after Game Four of the World Series.
On Saturday night, Giles waited until he had the clubhouse all but alone, other than the reporters around his Minute Maid Park clubhouse locker. Then, the former Phillies righthander who looks a little jaunty himself when everything is right in his world spoke plainly. “I didn’t do my job,” Giles said. “Plain and simple. I let my team down.”
No excuses. No plea that he entered the game with a stacked deck against him, a righthanded pitcher facing one righthanded hitter in between three lefthanded hitters, even though Giles on the regular season was almost as stingy to lefthanded hitters (they hit .196 against him) as he was to righthanded hitters. (They hit .200 against him.)
He went out to open the top of the ninth with the Dodgers and the Astros tied at one. He threw Corey Seager an inside fastball, and Seager fisted a cue shot through the Astros’ infield shift and into right center for a leadoff hit. He walked Justin Turner on five pitches, four of which were borderline on the corners.
Up stepped Cody Bellinger, who’d scored the tying run in the seventh after his one-out double sent Astros starter Charlie Morton out of a game he’d pitched brilliantly against Dodger starter Alex Wood. Giles started Bellinger with a down and in slider that missed by a hair for ball one.
The next pitch was a fastball just off the middle of the plate. Bellinger drove it deep to left center to break the one-all tie, and Giles’s night was over. Manager A.J. Hinch brought in Joe Musgrove, who’d been a starter in the season’s first half before being moved to the bullpen in July, where he flourished as a middle-innings man.
All Musgrove had to do was keep the deficit to 2-1. He struck out Yasiel Puig and put Logan Forsythe on intentionally to load the bases for a double play prospect. But he threw Austin Barnes a meaty fastball down the pipe and Barnes hit a sacrifice fly. Then he threw Joc Pederson a slightly up, slightly in fastball on 0-1 and watched it sail over the right field fence.
“Right where I wanted it—fastball up in the zone,” said Musgrove after the game. “He just beat me to it. You get away with plenty of fastballs down the middle that guys foul off. You throw one up out of the zone where you want, and they beat you.”
Musgrove finally retired the side when he threw Enrique Hernandez a pitch very similar to the one Barnes hit for a sac fly, and Hernandez lined out to left fielder Marwin Gonzalez. But it’s Giles who has Astroland ready to build him a gallows.
The unhappy lot of a major league closer is he’s noticed far more closely when he fails than when he succeeds. Will Harris and Chris Devenski combined for an inning and two thirds of shutout relief before Hinch handed Giles the ball hoping for the tie to hold. His 34 regular season saves hasn’t really saved him this postseason, and they wouldn’t save him now.
The analyst tells you that if the tie did hold, what was ultimately Alex Bregman’s excuse-me solo homer off Dodger closer Kenley Jansen in the bottom of the ninth would have put the Astros at a 3-1 Series advantage, on the threshold of a Dallas Keuchel-Clayton Kershaw rematch in Game Five.
The analyst would also tell you that, since Giles did get hit for the tiebreaking run, if Musgrove had done his job all the way through and gotten the double play he sought when putting Barnes aboard, Bregman’s bomb would have sent the game to extra innings at minimum.
But Musgrove doesn’t have the glamour job description, Giles does. It’s bad enough to struggle most of a postseason. It’s bad enough when you can’t keep a tie game tied. But what happens when you have to watch your successor surrender what you left behind? The talk is going to be more about the runs charged to you than those surrendered on your dime, as often as not.
He’s hardly the first closer to find himself lost for getting rid of postseason enemy bats, and he won’t be anywhere near the last. Relief pitchers who haven’t established their greatness should only be allowed to dust themselves off and either show what their made of the next time out or, if it happens at a World Series’s finish, next season out.
“This game’s hard. They’re not out there trying to fail,” says Astros center fielder George Springer, who’d hardly hit half his weight until his two-run homer off Brandon McCarthy broke yet another Game Two tie to stay in the eleventh inning. “I hope [Hinch] keeps giving ‘em the ball. I have the utmost confidence in them, and I’m glad they’re on my team.”
That’s the hardest part for Joe and Jane Fan to deal with. They don’t want to know how hard baseball really is. They don’t like to be reminded that the one rule of sports you can’t amend is that somebody has to lose. They don’t get that, no matter how much your paycheck reads, you could throw the best you have to throw and the guy at the plate still has a 50-50 chance of making your best look like the worst in one irrevocable instant.
Joe and Jane Fan sometimes know that under baseball’s loudest and brightest lights men who aren’t anywhere much beyond ordinary sometimes touch and get touched by greatness. They may still remember Moe Drabowsky, a flaky journeyman pitcher who looked like a Hall of Famer on one day of his life—striking out eleven in relief in Game One of the 1966 World Series. That’s one example.
And they don’t like to be reminded of how many Joe and Jan Fans wouldn’t have the stones to go out there and try, anyway, with 45,000 people watching right there in your office, and maybe ten million watching on live television. Relief pitching especially makes loneliness possible in the middle of audiences like that.
Neither Giles nor Joe and Jane Fan wanted to know Saturday night that even the greats, even Hall of Fame relievers, were human enough to be beaten at the wrong times. With the Series tied and the Dodgers managing to wring back home field advantage for a Game Six at minimum, Astroland might find another tropical storm more of a relief.
But that was Mariano Rivera, a Hall of Famer in waiting, who surrendered a World Series-losing base hit to Luis Gonzalez in Game Seven, 2001. He’d already established his greatness; he was secure enough to know that he might have just committed an epic fail but that the flip side is—there will be times when the other guy is just plain better.
The Mariano simply acknowledged he’d just played in the best World Series his team had yet played since he came aboard, dusted himself off over the offseason, and went on with his Hall of Fame-in-waiting career.
Dennis Eckersley gave up Kirk Gibson’s game-ender in Game One of the 1988 Series. He faced it dead on afterward with his usual combination of stand-up candor and wit, and continued with what turned out a Hall of Fame career. Including a World Series ring the following season.
Goose Gossage couldn’t keep a deficit to one when Gibson hit a three-run homer with one out in the eighth, Game Five, 1984 Series. Gossage simply faced his music, shook it off, and went on with his own Hall of Fame career, including a Series ring from 1978, even if the years that wrote his plaque were already behind him.
Lee Smith, whom many think should be a Hall of Famer, who’d been holding a five-all tie in Game Four of the 1984 National League Championship Series, threw the wrong pitch to Steve Garvey with Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn aboard and one out in the bottom of the ninth.
Garvey drove it over the right center field fence, sending San Diego into a frenzy and setting up a fifth game, another Cub letdown, and what turned out to be Gossage’s moment in the cooker. Smith, too, shook it off and went on with a mostly successful career.
Giles may or may not get one more chance at redemption before this World Series finishes. If he doesn’t, there’s always next year. The Gossages, Smiths, Eckersleys, and Riveras had the comfort of knowing their teams had their backs, because their teams—whatever their vicissitudes—knew one thing above anything else: Baseball players are only human, too.
“I’m gonna have my ups, I’m gonna have my downs, and right now I’m down,” Giles said after Game Four. “But the only way to get back on track is to get up, dust myself off and be ready to go.”
He has the right attitude. But then so did Byung-Hyun Kim after the Yankees ruined him twice in the 2001 Series—a series Kim’s team went on to win. His teammates had his back, and Kim proved resilient during an off-season of ferocious scrutiny. The righthanded submariner came back with a lights-out, All-Star 2002.
But as a Red Sox in 2003, weakened by the effects of an early-season ankle injury plus shoulder stiffness, Kim got into a division series game, surrendered a walk, and manager Grady Little hooked him at once. Confidence blown to bits. Managed to eke out a career between starting and relieving for a few more years, with scattered flashes of the pitcher he could have been, but never again as good as he looked in 2002.*
Every relief pitcher who ever played the game knew going in that, from the moment he stepped on the mound, no matter how far he shoved the thought right out of his mind, there would only ever be one pitch between himself and disaster. And, it was what he did in disaster’s aftermath that showed more of what he was made of than what he accomplished before disaster struck.
The Astros have a fine line to walk with Giles even as they have a World Series yet to play out. They can’t afford to blow Giles’s already fragile confidence, but with their already tenuous bullpen—out of which starting pitchers are doing far better than actual relief men—they can’t afford to send him to the mound without gilt-edged insurance.
But there’s more crying in baseball than there is gilt-edged insurance. Especially for relief pitchers, with or without “closer” on their job descriptions. And, except for the reporters he faced like a man and not a mouse, Saturday night was still the loneliest night of the week for Ken Giles.
* It turned out that Byung-Hyun Kim had a serious flaw—overworking himself. Stories emerged in due course about Kim’s habit of throwing at every chance he could get between appearances and even after appearances, sometimes regardless of his physical health.
The Red Sox subsequently acknowledged that the Diamondbacks warned them about that practise before they dealt for Kim in 2003. Teammates alluded to Kim and other Korean pitchers throwing as frequently as possible, all year round. It’s entirely possible that, between that and shoulder and ankle injuries he suffered in 2003, Kim’s was a burned-out arm long before his eight-season major league career ended.