Shohei Ohtani didn’t just flirt with perfection Wednesday, he almost seduced it. A twelve-punchout performance on the mound; a two-run double to finish the first-inning carnage against Astros starter Jake Odorizzi; a perfect game broken with one out in the seventh. And his Angels in sole possession of the American League West’s penthouse. For now.
But right before Astros catcher Jason Castro fisted a base hit over second base into short center with one out in the Houston sixth, their own second baseman Niko Goodrum tried to break the would-be perfecto in a manner that usually brings the wrath of the Sacred Unwritten Rules chauvinists down upon the miscreant. On 0-1 leading the inning off, Goodrum tried to bunt an Ohtani slider up the third base line.
This time, the chauvinists didn’t rain acid down upon Goodrum. For one thing, the Angels put an overshift on against the lefthanded-hitting Goodrum. Just why the Angels thought a .133/.133/.200 slash line on the season to date required an overshift escapes for the moment.
But Goodrum did exactly the right thing receiving so much free, delicious real estate upon which to hit. His team down six, and knowing he wouldn’t be wasting an out with a bunt, Goodrum did absolutely nothing wrong sizing the scenario up and dropping a bunt toward that free territory—except the ball bounding over the chalk into foul territory halfway up the third base line.
Which was the spot to where Angels third baseman Anthony Rendon ran from his positioning adjacent to second base and grabbed the ball just in case, with Ohtani also bounding over from the mound. Back on the mound, Ohtani and Goodrum wrestled to a 2-2 count before Goodrum swung and missed at a nasty curve ball hitting the outer edge of the zone.
Maybe if Goodrum had pushed a successful bunt up the line and landed on first base practically on the house, the SUR chauvinists would have gone nuclear. Maybe. It’s become a little more acceptable according to the SURs to drop a bunt if the other guys are silly enough to think an overshift is a good way to keep a batter below the proverbial Mendoza Line from breaking it up the old fashioned way.
Come to think of it, Ohtani himself put on a demonstration of one of the only other times it’s wise to bunt—if you think you can get a base hit out of it without a full shift against you. With one out and nobody on in the Angels’ sixth, against Astros reliever Cristian Javier, the lefthanded-hitting Ohtani faced a slight overshift, slight enough to move Astros third baseman Alex Bregman to a more standard shortstop positioning but still leaving him room to move if he wanted to drop one.
On 1-2 Ohtani chopped a beauty toward the third base side of the mound and blasted out of the box. Javier pounced as best he could but he threw a rising sailer over and past the upstretched mitt of leaping Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel. It was an exercise in futility, considering Ohtani would have beaten a cleaner throw by about a step on the play, and considering the Angels stranded him on first for the inning.
Goodrum and Javier have a teammate who understands, ahem, perfectly about perfecto-breaking bunts. Justin Verlander had it happen to him, while still pitching for the Tigers on 21 June 2017. He took a perfect game bid against the Mariners into the sixth, with the Tigers up 4-0 to that point.
With one out, Seattle’s swift center fielder Jarrod Dyson squared, bunted one between the mound and first base, and ran himself into a base hit. Unlike Goodrum’s attempt Wednesday, Dyson’s successful bunt that day kicked off a three-run Mariners inning that pushed Verlander out of the game. It also preceded a four-run Mariners seventh at the expenses of Tigers relievers Shane Greene and Alex Wilson.
That was the part that roiled Verlander far more than any perfecto-breaking bunt ever could. “It was a perfect bunt,” Verlander said of Dyson. “That’s part of his game. I don’t think it was quite too late in the game given the situation to bunt, especially being how it’s a major part of what he does. So I didn’t really have any issues with it. It wasn’t like I got upset about it.”
Goodrum played smart baseball, even if his bunt bid bounded foul before he finally struck out swinging. Even if the Angels finished what they started, a 6-0 shutout to take two of three from the Astros in Houston after losing three of four at Angel Stadium to open the season. At least neither manager, Dusty Baker (Astros) nor Joe Maddon (Angels), fell asleep at the proverbial switch Wednesday.
That dishonour belonged to White Sox manager Tony La Russa in Cleveland earlier in the day, in the first game of a doubleheader. Despite a well-enough rested bullpen thanks to a week-opening pair of rainouts, a pen that hadn’t exactly been overworked in a preceding set against the Rays, either, La Russa inexplicably left his veteran starter Dallas Keuchel in to take an early ten-run beating on a day Keuchel’s stuff didn’t exist from the outset.
Keuchel had enough trouble trying to shake off a first inning during which a pair of White Sox defensive miscues helped cost him a run before he surrendered a hit. He never got out of the second alive: a leadoff throwing error; four straight singles two of which pushed runs home with the bases loaded; a grand slam; three straight singles more, a wild pitch advancing the first of those Guardians to second and the third sending another run home; a run-scoring ground ball turned into another White Sox error; and yet another RBI single.
Finally, La Russa got Keuchel out of there and brought in Tanner Banks. He got a prompt step-and-throw double play at first and a ground out right back to the box for the side.
Joe and Jane Fan can bleat all they want, as one or two I saw aboard social media did, that sometimes you just have to take one for the team, sometimes you just have to try to “save” your bullpen even if it means getting murdered, and it’s just one April loss against a long season to come, and the goal is to win two of three, innit?
“I’m 100% certain LaRussa knew Keuchel didn’t have it,” said one such fan, in fact. “Sometimes the decision to leave guys in or take them out is more about 162 games than 1 game. As is the case here. He was hoping Keuchel could survive that inning and make it thru an inning or two more.”
A Hall of Fame manager, even coming out of retirement for one more turn, knows he should be thinking of every game until or unless his team is eliminated mathematically from a pennant race. He should know well enough when his starter doesn’t have it. Knowing that, and knowing he had a reasonably rested bullpen, just how does a conscientious manager not get that poor starter the hell out of there before the game goes from a small leak to a flood?
Keuchel came into the game throwing little more than meatballs and matzo balls as it was, before Jose Ramirez—the Guardians third baseman flush with a yummy new contract extension—stood in in that second inning with the bases loaded, three Guard runs in, nobody out yet, and sent a hanging 1-1 cutter over the left field fence.
If La Russa “knew” Keuchel didn’t have it before that, it shouldn’t have been allowed to go there in the first place. Especially if he was going to go to Banks to clean up the mess. Banks hadn’t pitched since the previous Sunday. He also hadn’t surrendered an earned run in his three previous relief gigs. And what did he do when La Russa brought him in?
After getting that step-and-throw double play to end the second inning before the Guards could have made the case against their human rights violations any worse, Banks threw three more hitless, shutout innings, before Matt Foster and Anderson Severino finished with only one further Guards run to come—when Steven Kwan singled Myles Straw home off Severino in the ninth.
There was a time when La Russa would never have let a game get that far out of hand that soon if his starter didn’t have it going in. That’s part of how La Russa became a Hall of Fame manager with three World Series rings in the first place. “The manager didn’t get them ready to play,” La Russa said of his team after that blowout loss, and before the White Sox lost the nightcap, 2-1. “I take the heat for that.”
Lucky for him and them that there is still a long season to play yet.