Friday, October 29, 2010

It's the Bullpen, Stupid

Long, majestic home runs arcing dramatically through the night sky.  Steely - eyed hitters fouling off pitch after pitch.  Grim - faced starting pitchers, trying to stay one step ahead of hitters as they face the lineup for the third time.  Brilliant defensive plays of balletic athleticism.  The perfect sacrifice bunt, the timely stolen base, a well - executed hit and run.  These are the things that win ball games.

But they are not, however, the things that win series.  A best-of-seven series is a very special thing.  The longest series a Major League team plays against a single opponent throughout the regular season is four, and four-game series' are rare.  The vast majority are three.  And while baseball insiders speak of "winning series", it's not something that gets talked about a great deal from April to October.  But then, in the win-or-go-home playoffs, it becomes all about winning a series.  But not a three game series.  Not even a four game series.  Suddenly, players and managers are asked to figure out how to win four out of seven - against the same team.  More than any other time in baseball, tactics are supplanted by strategy.  Winning the game is no longer an end unto itself - rather, winning games becomes the means to an end - winning the series.

The 162 game season is a crucible, a brutal proving ground not just for talent and skill, but for consistency, athleticism and not a little bit of luck.  Teams that make it into the playoffs may not be the teams you'd expect to be there, but are more often than not teams that deserve to be there.  Lineups, batting order, pitching rotation, things that are set for mundane reasons during the summer become the strategic decisions that can make a champion, or end the dream.

And very often, when the starters get pounded, when the hitters take an 0 for 4, when the infielders hands turn to stone, it comes down to the bullpens.  Just as games are won or lost in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, series are won or lost in the bullpen.  Whether your team is clinging to a slim lead, or is hoping to come from behind, the outcome depends on the odd breed of people who sit on a bench in the outfield, half watching the game and playing silly games to amuse themselves until the call comes down.

So it's been kind of funny.  The analysts have talked about the Giants starters, the Rangers bats, trade-offs in hitting and defense, managerial acumen, team speed - everything you think about when the important thing is to win the game.  Left out of the conversation, whether by force of habit or lack or recognition, is the relief corps.  Which, this year, is odd.  Because if you try to think about the Giants - Rangers World Series in these more traditional terms - Giants pitching, Rangers hitting, Bochy and Washington - you arrive at no conclusions at all.  It's just circular, the questions leading nowhere but back to themselves.

But if you look at the bullpens - the Giants amazing, record setting collection of power arms, guile and experience, the Rangers patchwork quilt of very good, but inconsistent relief pitchers, you easily arrive at an obvious, if somewhat surprising conclusion:  From the very outset, the Texas Rangers were going to have a very hard time winning this series.


  1. Someone (Wilbon on PTI?) on ESPN brought up designated hitting, & how baseball essentially changes the rules for its finals.

    "Tough shit, AL wimps," I responded to the tee vee.