How can you not be romantic about this game?
I just watched this generation’s best pitcher give up a certain win in a playoff elimination game. On two consecutive pitches. And it reminded me of why baseball still has my heart.
This afternoon’s game was an unexpected snooze-fest. The St. Louis Cardinals jumped out to a ten-run lead in the top of the first against the host Atlanta Braves. They never looked back and won the game convincingly 13–1.
This evening’s game was tenser; a close, pitchers duel between the Washington Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg and the Los Angeles Dodger’s Walker Buehler. Strasburg had given up three runs early in the game on a pair of home runs, but afterwards, looked to have settled into a groove. Buehler looked dominant, though he gave up a run on a quick two-hit sequence in the sixth inning.
The score was 3–1 in favor of the host Dodgers. Longtime ace Clayton Kershaw entered the game in the bottom of the seventh inning to “piggyback” on the work of Buehler. This is something you only see in playoff games…managers choosing to employ their best starting pitchers in relief. The idea is, that these games are so important, that you’d rather have them in the hands of your best pitchers, not the ones whose job it is to perform in late-game situations. I’m not a fan of this strategy, to be honest. I still have grizzly memories of when Ubaldo Jimenez of my Baltimore Orioles grooved a fat fastball to José Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays, ending the O’s last best chance at playoff success before the team imploded.
But my conventional wisdom be damned. LA manager Dave Roberts called Kershaw into the game, and he was immediately rewarded with Kershaw recording the final out of the seventh inning. On to the eighth.
A forgettable inning at the plate for the Dodgers brought Kershaw back out to the mound to face the National League MVP candidate Anthony Rendon. Kershaw’s first pitch was a curveball, just low of the zone.
And then, boom! Rendon took a 1–0 fastball and put it in the left-field bleachers.
An angry Kershaw and a stunned Dodger Stadium crowd watched Rendon circle the bases, the score now 3–2 with wunderkind Juan Soto coming up for the Nationals. Ordinarily, this is a good matchup for Kershaw. The left-handed Kershaw relies on breaking pitches more than most pitchers, and that puts left-handed hitters like Soto at a disadvantage at the plate. Add to that the fact that Kershaw has been one of, if not the most dominant pitcher in the major leagues for the past ten years. If I’m manager Dave Roberts, I would probably also rely on my veteran lefty to get the job done, which is exactly what he did.
And then, once more, boom. Soto took a hanging slider and thumped it high into the bleachers in right-center field. Game tied, 3–3.
In a do or die elimination game, conventional wisdom meets an unlikely narrative, and the result is captivating. I have no stake in the outcome of this game. I’m not a fan of either team. But I am a fan of the game of baseball, and the more baseball there is, the better. As I write, this game is in the ninth inning, seemingly destined to be an extra-innings affair. I have to admit, I’m nervous. I’m nervous because the game is tenser than ever, and it’s only one swing of the bat away from being decided. At any moment, Pacific Gas and Electric could also cut my power and leave me here, literally, in the dark.
Baseball was my sport growing up, and I was good at it. I also loved it. I loved playing it, loved learning about it, loved being around it. For a while, I had turned it off. The strike-shortened season of 1994 was a reality check for a young fan like myself. The revelations of massive PED abuse among players cheapened the experience. The waxing and waning fortunes of my Baltimore Orioles, cursed to play in the division with the Yankees and Red Sox, made any sustained interest in my team a quixotic affair. As a young man, I diversified my interests and generally had less time to check the papers and the internet for my daily dose of baseball. Football and soccer began to demand my attention. So did my children.
But baseball keeps pulling me back, and it’s more fun when it’s a family affair. The kids love swinging the wiffle ball bat whenever we can. I’ve taken up coaching at the high school level. We’ve got a pretty decent and exciting young team here in Oakland. And now it’s playoff season, and the drama of an extra-innings elimination game is going to keep me from going to sleep at my appointed bedtime.
Coda: 36-year-old Howie Kendrick smashed a grand slam, to deep center field in the top of the 10th inning, and it was too much for the Dodgers to overcome. Isn’t baseball awesome?