One night in the San Diego zoo

Will Smith

Will Smith had no idea in the moment that the game-tying homer he hit in the eighth Wednesday night would lead to hoisting Manfredball and enough of the old school by their own petards.

There it was. An extra-inning game that went sixteen innings and exposed both the worst possible side of Rob Manfred’s would-be new-school tinkerings and the worst possible side of the old school’s ongoing romance with insisting the worst bats in the lineup hold a place in the order.

What do you call a game in which each team got a free cookie on second base to open each extra half inning and, for five full innings straight, none of those cookies got eaten? That’s right: ten cookies on second to open ten half-innings in San Diego on Wednesday night, and not a one of them came home.

Zombieball? Manfredball? Your Sham of Shows? Monty Python and the Holy Hell? The Smothered Brothers Comedy Hours? A ballpark named for a pet store chain as the world’s largest zoo arena—with the animals holding the keys?

Until the Dodgers’ A.J. Pollock hit a leadoff two-run homer (that sounds bizarre to say, right, but that’s the Zombie Runner Era for you) in the top of the sixteenth, the longest extra-inning game since Manfred imposed the free cookie on second to open each extra half-inning was thirteen innings.

Pollock’s blast pretty much finished a 5-3 Dodger win in which Padres manager Jayce Tingler outsmarted himself with lineup maneuverings that brought his pitchers into batting behind Fernando Tatis, Jr., Manny Machado, and Jake Cronenworth with his bench emptied out previously.

It compelled Dodger manager Dave Roberts to do exactly what the now-retired Thomas Boswell pointed to as one of his prime reasons for finally deciding the designated hitter needed to be universal and permanently so:

It’s fun to see Max Scherzer slap a single to right field and run it out like he thinks he’s Ty Cobb. But I’ll sacrifice that pleasure to get rid of the thousands of rallies I’ve seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the AL, you must pitch your way out of it, not ‘pitch around’ your way out of it.

Roberts forced Tingler’s hand twice—in the thirteenth, when his empty bench forced him to send pitcher Ryan Weathers out to the plate after intentional walks to Machado and Cronenworth to load the pads (Victor Caratini opened as the cookie on second); and, in the fifteenth, when Tingler had no choice but to let reliever Daniel Camarena bat after Cronenworth was handed another free pass.

Weathers at least made contact: a bouncer back to the mound that ended in an inning-ending force out at the plate. Camarena, a relief pitcher in his first Show turn who somehow managed to pick up a base hit in two previous unlikely plate appearances, looked at a full-count third strike.

“I liked the pitcher-versus-pitcher matchup,” said Roberts, after the Dodgers finally ended the sixteen-inning, 5-3 Dodger win. Show me a manager who wouldn’t love a pitcher-versus-pitcher matchup, knowing how often it won’t end in game-breaking hits, walk-off wins, or even absurd transient pleasures, and I’ll show you a manager in search of a job.

As of Friday morning the pitchers in 2021 posted a .109/.148/.140 slash line and a .288 OPS. The only “strategy” involved Wednesday night—remember, the Old Fart Contingency insists that keeping pitchers in the batting order keeps “strategy” in the game—was the opposing manager maneuvering his opponent into sending pitchers to the plate for all-but-automatic outs.

Wasn’t the game fun otherwise? Sure it was. Sure it was a kick watching Walker Buehler and Blake Snell duel like James Bond vs. the Green Hornet. Sure it was a kick watching Tatis guarantee a sixteenth inning when he smashed a one-out two-run homer in the bottom of an inning in which the Dodgers broke the elongated one-all tie with back-to-back RBI singles.

So how much fun was it, really, to watch the Dodgers hand out eight intentional walks during the game . . . all of them from the eleventh through the fifteenth? I didn’t think so, either.

Trivia, courtesy of the irrepressible Hall of Fame writer Jayson Stark: The Orioles—who stupefied everyone else by following their nineteen-game losing streak-ending 10-6 win over the Angels Wednesday night by bludgeoning the Angels 13-1 Thursday night—have issued eight intentional walks while facing 5,168 batters in the last full calendar year. Whatever else is wrong with the Orioles, handing out comps isn’t one of them.

On the other hand, how much real fun other than a belly laugh that you might not weep was it to notice that Cronenworth reached base six times in the extra innings without once having been in the batter’s box?

Bottom of the eleventh: intentional walk. (Remember: the pitcher doesn’t have to throw four wide ones to do it anymore.) Bottom of the twelfth: he’s the cookie on second. Bottom of the thirteenth: another free pass. Bottom of the fourteenth: he’s the cookie again. Bottom of the fifteenth: another free pass. Bottom of the sixteenth: he’s the cookie yet again.

By the way, Tatis and Pollock became the first players to hit multi-run homers in the fifteenth inning or later since David Ortiz and Mark Teixiera did it in 2015. On the other hand, Pollock’s was the first by a Dodger batter since Hi Myers—in 1919.

Now, on to the further absurdity of crediting one guy for everybody else’s work, also known as the pitching win. You’d better sit down, kids: The Dodgers used ten pitchers in the marathon. Nine of them surrendered no earned runs. The guy who surrendered two runs, one earned, Corey Knebel, got credit for the “win.”

“So has that ever happened?” asked Stark. “A game in which 10 pitchers or more show up on the mound for any team, at least nine of them allow no earned runs and the 10th (the only one to get scored on) vultures the win?” Then, he answered:

Since I’m only a glutton for so much punishment, I merely checked games before September — but did go all the way back to 1901.

And how many other games did I find that fit this description? If you guessed none, you win!

Knebel served the game re-tying meatball Tatis sent over the right field fence in the bottom of the fifteenth and gets the “win” when he should really be giving Pollock half the win for hitting the two-run leadoff blast in the top of the sixteenth.

The other half-win should have gone to Shane Greene, who took his 8.84 ERA into the bottom of the inning and—with Cronenworth taking his third turn as the inning-opening cookie on second—got two swinging strikeouts before a grounder to short finally ended the marathon. Greene did 67 percent of the work in the bottom of the sixteenth . . . and got a “save” for a clean inning in which he had to pitch his way out of an artifically, arbitrarily-created jam. Some save.

If Jacob deGrom earning back-to-back Cy Young Awards despite not being a “winner” wasn’t enough to convince you how fatuous the pitching “win” really is for telling you how well a guy really pitches (Jacob deGrom’s issue wasn’t that he “didn’t know how to win.” It was that he didn’t know how not to be on the New York MetsAnthony Castrovince), maybe something like that will finally start giving you the a-ha!

Maybe something like Wednesday’s game will start giving you the a-ha! too about the futility and stupidity of letting pitchers continue to hold places in the batting order, if the aforementioned slash line or their historical futility at the plate doesn’t. (I’ve pointed it out before, I’ll say it again: since the final decade of the Dead Ball Era, the pitchers have hit a collective .166.)

Maybe the absurdity of Jake Cronenworth reaching base six times from the eleventh through the sixteenth without once truly checking in at the plate will give more people the a-ha! about Manfred’s beyond-insane free cookie on second to start the extra half innings. I’d suggest it might give Manfred himself the same a-ha! too. But I don’t believe in that many miracles.

Salami on special at the Slam Diego Deli

Rookie Jake Cronenworth joined the Padres’ grand slam parade Saturday.

A spectre may be haunting major league baseball—the spectre of San Diego. The Padres, usually renowned for a checkered history, lots of ugly uniforms, a handsome ballpark where hitters usually go to die, and a seeming genius for watching as many as three top-of-the-line players depart for every one or two they could find. Rudely interrupted by a couple of pennants.

That was then and this is now: The Padres now wear uniforms that are passable, if unlikely to put them on the best-dressed men’s lists. They make the right headlines in the press and hash in the National League West and elsewhere. They also make hash out of the National League leader board, where you’ll find them as of this morning at the top for total bases, stolen bases, walks, slugging, OPS, and home runs.

Previous generations of baseball’s big bopping teams have earned colourful nicknames: The Bronx Bombers, the Pittsburgh Lumber Company, Harvey’s Wallbangers. To those add now Slam Diego. These Poundres don’t just hit home runs, they hit conversation pieces. Especially with the bases loaded. The Slam Diego Deli is the Show’s first to grind salami on special in four consecutive games.

When rookie shortstop Jake Cronenworth saw and raised center fielder Trent Grisham’s three homers in a Saturday burial of the Houston Astros by slamming Astros reliever Humberto Castellanos, it was the fifth San Diego slam in six games while they were at it.

The 13-2 win was also the Padres’s sixth straight win overall and raised their record in interleague play to 6-0 so far. These are not your grandfather’s, your father’s, or even your big brother’s Friar Ducks. Sitting, that is.There’s nothing like a not-so-little beatdown laid upon last year’s American League pennant winner to redeem a five-game losing streak that ended when the Poundres flattened the Texas Rangers 14-4 last Monday.

That just so happened to be the same game in which the Slam Diegans’s gigastar-in-the-making, Fernando Tatis, Jr., provoked this year’s first major debate over the Sacred Unwritten Rules—when he faced Juan Nicasio in the top of the eighth, with the bases loaded, one out, a 3-0 count, and a 10-3 Padres lead in Globe Life Hangar, and hit something too meaty to resist over the right field fence.

Baseball’s boring old farts screamed about Tatis’s lack of manners. Rangers manager Chris Woodward, who harrumphed after the game about how offensive Tatis was for daring to swing 3-0 late in the middle of a blowout, lifted Nicasio for Ian Gibaut, who threw right behind Manny Machado’s rump roast immediately to follow.

The problem was that, this time, most of baseball applauded Tatis and decided the SURs a) were patent nonsense and b) don’t cover when a hitter as good as Tatis is fed something Ray Charles could have hit for distance. Apparently, so did Commissioner Nero, suspending Gibaut three games.

The further problem, once Padres manager Jayce Tingler got over his own dismay at Tatis violating the SURs, is that the whole hoo-ha just put rocket fuel into the Padres at the plate. The following night, they could only muster a 6-4 win over the Rangers but Wil Myers joined the deli crew in the top of the first, with the bases loaded and two out, clearing the left center field fence and staking the Pads to an immediate 4-0 lead.

The night after that, back in Petco Park, the Padres and the Rangers wrestled to a tenth inning ted at two. After the Rangers snuck an unearned run home in the top of the tenth, Machado checked in with the bases loaded on the free cookie at second to start their bottom of the tenth, a dubious-enough sacrifice bunt (sorry, I still say you don’t give outs to the other guys, especially with a man in scoring position gifted you), and back-to-back walks.

Machado re-opened the Slam Diego Deli by hitting a full-count meatball over the left center field fence. The night after that, Eric Hosmer checked in with one out, the Padres in the hole 2-1, and the pads padded on two base hits and a walk. Hosmer nailed Rangers starter Kyle Gibson with a drive down the right field line and into the seats. The Padres needed every morsel of that salami even more this time; they had to build and then hold on for the 8-7 win.

When they beat the Astros 4-3 Friday night, there may have been some wags thinking the Padres were on the threshold of disaster. The deli stayed closed. The Padres didn’t even load the bases once against five Astros pitchers. Don’t tell us the magic was gone before we really had a fair shot at it sinking in at maximum depth.

Thank God for Cronenworth. Be so [fornicating] glad the Poundres have Cronenworth. In the bottom of a second inning that began with a 2-1 lead and already added five runs on a leadoff bomb (Myers), a three-run homer (Grisham), and an RBI single (Ty France), Cronenworth tore into a Castellanos fastball on 3-1 and tore it over the right field fence.

“It’s somebody different every single night stepping up,” Cronenworth said after the Saturday night massacre. “Grish has three home runs tonight, Manny hit a home run tonight, Wil [Myers] hit a home run tonight, [starting pitcher] Zach Davies had an incredible outing. It started with him shutting their offense down and getting us back in the dugout as quick as possible.”

Don’t ask about his turn behind the San Diego Deli counter, though. The bad news is that the kid has the boilerplate mastered: “Put a good swing on a good pitch. Just keep my approach up the middle. Just happened to put a good swing on it.” Thank you, Friar Obvious.

Institutionally, the Padres have a few reasons to thank the Astros. It was the Astros who got them into San Diego in the first place, after that lovely city by the harbour and the Pacific hosted the Pacific Coast League Padres for generations. (Including a local kid named Ted Williams playing his minor league ball there, in the era when the PCL was the a major league in everything but name.)

The National League’s second expansion intended for Montreal and Dallas to have new teams. The Astros’s founding owner, Judge Roy Hofheinz, banged a gavel and said, “Not so fast, buster.” Hofheinz would rather have blown the Astrodome to smithereens than sanctioned a rival team playing a hop, skip, and bronco-busting bull’s jump up the road from (as then-Yankee first baseman Joe Pepitone called it) the world’s biggest hair dryer.

So the National League’s lords relented and, with no little help from Los Angeles Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley—who needed a place to dump his general manager Buzzie Bavasi, when O’Malley son and heir Peter was ready to graduate to the Dodgers’ front office—what was meant for Dallas ended up by the southern California seas.

Once upon a time, another Padres owner, Ray Kroc (McDonald’s mastermind and magnate), took to his own public address system to commiserate with fans over “the stupidest baseball playing I’ve ever seen.” Who the hell needs a Big Mac when you’re running the National League’s least-expected delicatessen lately?