Labour Day looks and lamentations

2019-09-02 WashingtonNationals

Brian Dozier (9) has a feature spot in the Nationals’ dugout dancing. But can baseball’s version of Dance Fever dance themselves into the postseason?

Maybe you did figure on things like this coming. Maybe you didn’t. But it might still be fun to consider them anyway. Prowling around early morning on Labour Day, you can discover, among other things recent past and present:

Looks Aren’t Everything Dept.—Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto looking as though someone spiked his Raisin Bran with castor oil as he arrived at the mound and saw the bullpen gate open. Realmuto calls it poor timing, and we’ll take his word for it, but the Phillies’ bullpen isn’t exactly disaster free.

Mercy, Mercy, Me Dept.—You really want a mercy rule after Dodgers catcher Russell Martin threw the final inning of a blowout shutout? According to the irreplaceable Jayson Stark, no position player turned that trick since 1917.

Merciless Dept.—Royals shortstop Alex Gordon started a game as the cleanup hitter and finished it pitching two innings. The previous men to start a game hitting cleanup and end up pitching more than one inning in the same game? Ted Williams (1940) and Babe Ruth (1919). Gordon has bragging rights on Martin and a passel of other pitching position players now.

The Basement Tapes Dept.—Six teams came into September with excellent chances of finishing 35 games or more out of first place in their divisions. Two have better chances than that of finishing 40+ games out of first. And one (the Royals) stands to finish 35+ games out of first in the American League Central without being in last place.

But six that far out of first never happened before in the divisional play era. And, according to Stark, it only happened twice before that: in 1906, when the Cubs won 116 games; and, in 1954, when the Indians won 111. (And, when the Yankees won 103—but finished second.)

Houston, We Have No Problem Dept.—The Astros have their third straight American League West title pretty much in the safe deposit box. There’s only one good reason for them to keep grinding aside from their comparatively simple schedule the rest of the way: home field advantage in the American League Championship Series.

The other American League guys who rival the Astros for the greatest ratio of 2019 success to injured list crowding, the Yankees, also rival the Astros for gorging on home cooking: At this writing, the Astros are 51-17 in Minute Maid Park and the Yankees are 49-20 in the House That Ruthless Built.

And only one team since the advent of the wild card has played .700+ lights-out at home without winning a League Championship Series: the 2001 Mariners.

Bronx Bombing Dept.—When it was time to awaken on Labour Day, the Yankees needed one more ninth-inning home run to become baseball’s first. team. ever. to get at least twenty homers on a season in every inning, first through ninth.

Strike The Stage Dept.—With Justin Verlander throwing a fourteen-strikeout no-hitter Sunday, the Astros got closer to setting a precedent: they could finish the season as baseball’s first. team. ever. whose pitching staff will lead the game in strikeouts and whose hitters will finish dead last in striking out.

St. Elsewhere Dept., Continued—Looks like I wasn’t kidding about the Yankees being the American League East’s best and baseball’s version of a M*A*S*H post-op section. Gio Ursehla hitting the injured list with a groin injury Friday made for the 29th Yankee to go to the infirmary this year, breaking the record of 28 by the Dodgers three years ago. Paging Dr. Westphall . . .

Twin City Rockers Dept.—Maybe the Twins can bomb their way to the American League Central title. They’re now baseball’s most prolific single-season smashers with 268 clearing the fences, passing last year’s Yankees. And they’ve also re-gained a five-and-a-half game lead over the Indians as of this morning, with the Indians both a half game behind for the first AL wild card and only a half game ahead for the second card.

It Ain’t Over Until It’s Over Dept.—The Braves went 19-9 in August including an 11-2 finish to the month. The National League East is still theirs to lose right now. But could they lose it? They could, theoretically—to the Nationals. You know. The guys who were among those left for dead before 23 May.

But since 23 May, according to The Athletic, the Nats have a better record (58-27) than the Braves (56-31) and have thus been baseball’s best team since that date. Unfortunately, that 19-31 season opening counts, too. And guess who get to play each other for seven games early this new month?

By the way, the Nats since the All-Star break are 30-16 and the Braves are 30-17. If there’s a time for the NL East leaders to be overthrown, it starts with a four-game set in Sun Trust Park 5 September and could continue with three in Nationals Park starting—wait for it!—Friday the 13th.

The Nats may have the slightly tougher tuneup for the first set, though: the Mets haven’t looked as good in the last two weeks as they did coming out of the All-Star break, but they’re not exactly pushovers just yet, either. And the Nats get to tune up for the Braves against the Mets at home before hitting the road. The Braves get a two-game tune up against the Blue Jays before greeting the Nats.

Too Little, Too Late Dept.—Unless they have a not-too-likely third wind in them, the Mets’ season may be cooked. They were 24-10 after the break and before they swept the Indians last month; they’re 2-7 since, thanks to a sweep by the Braves, in games they could have won, and thanks to a followup sweep by a Cubs club that sometimes hasn’t looked quite as good or at least as consistent as their record.

The Mets had to prove they could hang with the big boys after fashioning that staggering post-break run against mostly the also-rans and the never-woulds. But getting swept by the Braves at a moment when they could have turned the NL East at last into the dogfight everyone predicted out of spring training hurt. So did the followup sweep by the Cubs. They’re four out for the second wild card. Their postseason hope is slimmer than a thread.

Taking two of three from the Phillies in Citizens Bank Park this weekend wasn’t exactly meaningless, but they get three with the Nats in D.C. this week and another set with the Phillies at home this coming weekend. And even if their post-break record is 29-17 (one less win than the Braves), and almost wholly dependent upon how everyone else still in the picture does, this is crunch time for the Mets, whose postseason odds still sit at a seven percent chance at the postseason. This makes or breaks them.

Monsters of the Midwest Dept.—The Cardinals’ self-resurrection makes life even more interesting for the Cubs, who now sit in the second NL wild card spot and only three games behind the Cardinals for the NL Central. And other than two sets to come against the Cardinals, the Cubs have as cream puff a schedule to come as you could ask. The worst the Cardinals seem to face the rest of the stretch is a set with the Nationals starting 16 September.

So at least one and possibly both the sets to come against each other could find both the Cardinals and the Cubs in duel-to-the-death mode. But don’t rule out the spoiler factors to come, either. Pride still counts for plenty among the also-rans who’d like nothing better than to be the ones who make life miserable, or at least more challenging than it ought to be, for the big boys.

Brief Candles Dept.Who says Astros strongman Yordan Alvarez can’t walk home for the year with the American League’s Rookie of the Year award? Only 62 games, you say? It isn’t exactly unprecedented. I can name you a Hall of Famer who won a Rookie of the Year award despite playing in only (count them) 52 games the year he copped the prize: Willie McCovey, 1959.

Aside from which, Alvarez is liable to play in just about all the Astros’ remaining regular season games, giving him possibly 85 games. Ryan Howard copped an ROY playing 88. So if the Rookie of the Year should be the guy who does some of the most unheard-of things you ever heard of among rooks, Alvarez ought to have the award in the bank the same way it looks as though the Mets’ Pete Alonso does in the National League.

It’s just a shame in that regard that the Astros have a great chance of reaching the World Series and the Mets need the rest of the league to drop dead to get there, just about. Because the idea of Alonso and Alvarez tangling in a Series with their rookie credentials and plate firepower would be . . . forget must-see TV. It’d be damn-well-better-see TV.

He’s the Greatest Dancer Dept.—Remember the Sister Sledge disco hit of that name? If they gave that award out in baseball, this year’s Nats—those Dancing Fools, those  Tighten-Uppers, those Dance Fevered, who turn dugout celebrations into Arthur Murray clinics and Nationals Park into the Land of a Thousand Dances—would win the prize without even a sliver of competition.

But if they get to the postseason, would the Nats think of doing the Stroll for their on-field victory celebrations? Why the hell not?

Lord, have mercy—no mercy rule

2019-08-17 MikeFord

Mike Ford had a ball pitching Thursday night—but his Yankee manager was anything but amused over using a position player to pitch.

Baseball Reference defines a blowout as a game won by five runs or more, which seems a particularly liberal way to define it. By that measurement, though, the Yankees—nestling quite nicely atop the American League East with a season-high ten-and-a-half-game advantage—are 20-11 in blowouts this season.

If  you define a blowout as a game won by a larger margin than five, say eight runs or more, the Yankees have won four such games and lost four such games this year. The latest of those: the 19-5 destruction laid upon them by the American League Central-contending Indians Thursday night.

By Baseball Reference‘s definition, the Indians are 22-16 in blowouts this year. But defining a blowout as an eight-run difference, the Tribe is 4-3. And the Yankees recovered nicely enough from the 19-5 beatdown to beat the Indians 3-2 Friday night.

Yankee manager Aaron Boone is still not amused over Thursday night’s thrashing. Or, what it compelled him to do the better to spare his actual bullpen in a lost cause.

He sent one of his non-pitchers, rookie first baseman/designated hitter Mike Ford, assuredly no relation to a certain Hall of Fame Yankee pitcher, for the final two innings of the massacre.

Rest assured, Boone wasn’t exactly thrilled that the Indians battered Ford for five runs in three consecutive plate appearances in the top of the eighth, on an RBI infield hit, a three-run homer, and a solo homer.

Rest assured further that Boone probably doesn’t want you to remind him that Ford somehow retired the Indians in order in the top of the ninth, half an inning after Gleyber Torres hit a one-out solo home run to close the Yankee deficit to a mere fourteen runs. Or that Ford isn’t the first and probably won’t be the last, rookie or otherwise, to take one for the team on the hill where he doesn’t normally work.

But rest assured, too, that Ford had far more fun on the mound than his skipper had having to put him there. Ford had a blast, even if he did get blasted in the eighth. Boone by comparison almost had kittens.

That blowout began the same weekend during which the Little League World Series will be played. Little League Baseball features a mercy rule: a six-inning game ends when one team leads by ten or more after four innings, or fifteen or more after three innings. Boone would kinda sorta like to see the Show implement a comparable rule.

“If you get to this point after seven innings or whatever,” Boone told a news conference Friday, “there might be something to that, some merit to that and worth exploring. Because it’s not fun to have to put in a position player in that kind of situation.”

Try asking the position player himself. Ask Pablo Sandoval how much fun it wasn’t to put him in that situation against the Reds in May. With his Giants on the wrong end of what finished as a 12-4 blowout, Kung Fu Panda ran, hit, and pitched his way into the record book.

Sandoval stole third in the third and hit a three-run homer in the sixth. With the game too lost a cause for Giants manager Bruce Bochy to even think about kidding himself, he let Sandoval pitch the eighth. And he didn’t get murdered, either.

Kung Fu Pitcher plunked his first batter, got a fly out, and then lured an Area Code 6-4-3 for the side. He faced three hitters, got three outs, and didn’t let one Red cross the plate against him. The fact that he resembled a Venezuelan Jumbo Brown only heightened the entertainment value.

The fact that he became the second Giant ever to steal a base, hit a home run, and pitch a shutout inning in the same game—Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson did it in 1905; that he was a pitcher and threw a complete game shutout at the Reds seems a mere technicality—was gravy.

But the entertainment value sometimes works the other way, too. On Thursday night the Mets in Atlanta started blowing out the Braves early and often enough to have a 10-3 lead after seven innings. Think of the fun the Braves would have missed, never mind the aggravation the Mets and their faithful would have missed, if the Braves could have evoked the kind of mercy rule Boone kinda sorta wants to see.

Think of the optics, too, in a pair of division leaders invoking mercy rules when they’re on the wrong end of an occasional big blowout. Try to imagine the great white shark telling the bluefish to pick on someone his own size.

As I write the Yankees and the National League West-leading Dodgers share baseball’s best record thus far, 84-42. Baseball Reference‘s blowout definition has the Dodgers with a 33-10 blowout record this year. My less liberal blowout definition shows the Dodgers with a 5-4 blowout record.

For the sound enough reason that managers don’t want to waste their bullpens in apparent lost causes, you won’t see position players on the mound unless their teams look to be getting blown out big time. A five-run deficit isn’t as likely to prompt a manager to reach for his bench to pitch; an eleven-run deficit is something else entirely.

One fine day last year, the Cubs faced a fourteen-run deficit in the sixth inning against the Cardinals. So manager Joe Maddon, unwilling to subject Randy Rosario, Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson, Pedro (Razor) Strop, or Carl Edwards to any further misuse or abuse in an apparent lost cause, turned to three position players—Tommy LaStella, Victor Caratini, and Ian Happ—to just get them through to live to play another day.

The good news: Happ pitched a scoreless ninth with only one hit off him. The bad news: Before that, LaStella got the final out of the top of the sixth but surrendered a leadoff homer in the seventh before pitching scoreless the rest of the inning. And Caratini, a catcher by trade who knows a little something about pitching, shook off a leadoff single to get two swift ground outs before surrendering a two-run homer and then retiring the side.

There’s no record of Maddon calling for anything resembling a mercy rule.

Nor was there one known to have come from Mariners manager Scott Servais last month, when the Angels—playing their first home game since the unexpected death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs in Texas—not only threw a combined no-hitter at the Mariners but blew them out, 11-0, in a game so emotional all of baseball cast their eyes upon Angel Stadium and nobody accused the Angels of being bullies.

Some position players itch for the chance to pitch even once, to even one hitter. The Cubs’ All-Star third baseman Anthony Rizzo was such a player. He’d only hankered to pitch to even one major league hitter his entire career when, on the wrong end of a 7-1 loss, last 23 July, Maddon granted his wish.

Caratini started pitching the top of that ninth, surrendering a leadoff single and luring a double play. Then Maddon sent Rizzo to the mound. To pitch to Diamondbacks relief pitcher Jorge de la Rosa. The count actually went to 2-2 despite the slop-tossing Rizzo, before Rizzo threw de la Rosa something that approximated Rip Sewell’s once-famous eephus pitch, and de la Rosa flied out to center.

Despite the likelihood of the Cubs finishing the loss they started, Wrigley Field went nutshit the moment de la Rosa’s fly landed in center fielder Happ’s glove and Rizzo began walking off the mound with an even bigger boyish grin on his phiz than he normally flashes in moments of joy.

In 2016, a Cub catcher named David Ross, on the threshold of retirement after a fine career, made up for an error in Game Seven of the World Series by hitting one over the center field fence an inning later. It was the final major league hit and homer in his final major league at-bat for a man whose first major league home run was hit against a position player in a blowout. Grandpa Rossy may be the only major league player to hold that distinction.

On 20 September 2002, rookie Ross’s Dodgers entered the top of the ninth blowing the Diamondbacks out 18-0. Ross took over for Paul Lo Duca behind the plate in the seventh and came up to bat in the ninth. Diamondbacks first baseman Mark Grace, who wasn’t in the starting lineup, volunteered to take one for the team and manager Bob Brenly assented.

With two unexpected fly outs to open that inning, Ross checked in at the plate against Grace. He hit Grace’s first float ball over the left field fence. “His first major league home run, and he hits it off Mark Grace,” Grace cracked after the game ended 19-1, “I feel sorry for that kid.”

What was then known as Bank One Ballpark shook with unexpected amusement over the sight of Grace on the mound. He got big laughs on both sides of the field and from the stands when, at one point, pitching from the stretch, he performed a dead-on impersonation of veteran reliever Mike Fetters, a portly fellow with the countenance of a grizzly bear suffering indigestion when taking a sign from his catcher.

The crowd didn’t even seem to mind one bit that Ross piled onto that severe a blowout with a shot into the seats.

“Position player pitching opportunities raise the likelihood for weird baseball stuff,” wrote’s Jake Mintz, “without significantly reducing the potential for close and competitive game action.”

Position players also aren’t likely to even think about busting moves on the mound such as trying to throw ungodly fastballs or big sweeping curve balls. They know how to stay within their selves and their limitations. Boone may be admirable to worry about injuries, but position players on the mound are actually brainier than that.

If you’re looking to make and keep baseball fun again, well, who says it isn’t fun to see the big boys humbled by a real blowout now and then? Who says it isn’t fun to see even Yankee position players having to take one for the team now and then?

Apparently, Boone isn’t amused. There are times you’d think the greatest comedians in history couldn’t amuse the Yankees. Let a Yankee position player take the mound on the wrong end of a blowout and actually have a little mad fun with it, and don’t be shocked if he’s fined for conduct unbecoming a Yankee, the poor guy.

Let’s not let those sourpusses from the south Bronx spoil our fun. Lord have mercy, the Show doesn’t need a mercy rule. It needs more fun potential.