Throughout baseball’s glorious history, relief pitchers have been, quite literally, an afterthought. They entered the game only because the starting pitcher had failed. In the 1960s the top starters – Koufax, Marichal, Spahn, Gibson, et al – completed 15-20 games a season.
There were a few relievers, such as Roy Face and Hoyt Wilhelm, who were respected as specialists. But before 1960 you didn’t hear the term “closer” as it pertains to baseball. That was the year Chicago ballwriter Jerome Holtzman invented the “save.”
Even in recent years it’s been an axiom that starting pitching determines the World Series winner. Recall a year ago, when Boston and St. Louis both assembled fine rotations in peak form, the Sox led by Jon Lester and John Lackey, the Cards by Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha. If a team didn’t have at least two strong, ace-worthy starters, a world championship was considered out of the question.
But this year it’s all about relief. Consider the numbers posted by the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals as the World Series opened Tuesday in KC’s Kauffman Stadium.
In the division and league series the Giants’ mostly unknown bullpen heroes – Santiago Casilla, Jeremy Affeldt, Sergio Romo, Yusmeiro Petit and Javier Lopez – combined for 28 2/3 innings and a 4-1 record while allowing but one earned run.
Meanwhile, the Royals’ equally unpublicized relief brigade of Greg Holland, Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Jason Fraser, Danny Duffy and Tim Collins totaled 31 innings and 3 earned runs while going 5-0.
Although Royals manager Ned Yost has talented lefthanders in Duffy and rookie Brandon Finnegan, you won’t see them in the seventh, eighth or ninth innings, which are reserved, in order, for Herrera, Davis and Holland, all of whom throw at least 98 mph.
Entering the American League Championship Series, baseball scouts favored Baltimore because the Royals’ back-end bullpen was all-right. But as hard as they throw, it doesn’t matter whether they’re facing left-handed bats or right-handed.
Jeff Nelson, the former Yankees reliever, told the New York Post that Kansas City’s 23-year-old rookie Yordano Ventura “is the only guy who can give you seven innings and dominate. Their other starters you are holding your breath saying, ‘Get me to the sixth.’”
Actually, Yordano despite his high-90s speed has been quite hittable this postseason, logging a 4.85 ERA.
Still, if the Royals starters get in trouble early, Duffy and Finnegan can stop the bleeding.
Last week I called the Royals, making their first postseason appearance since 1985, “baseball’s feelgood story of the year.” Well, here’s Chapter 2 on that: When a college student, Nicholas Knapple, tweeted Finnegan saying he wanted to attend an LCS game but couldn’t afford it, the pitcher gave him two tickets to Game 4 and even invited him and his girlfriend to join him afterward.
The truth is the sport has never seen a World Series with two lovable underdog teams like these. This is the first October Classic in which both clubs won fewer than 90 games.
Neither hits very much. The Giants have more power, but they’ve smashed just five home runs in 10 postseason games. The Royals have far more speed: 153 stolen bases this season and 13 in the postseason. As talented, clutch and poised as the Giants’ photogenic catcher Buster Posey is (“the next Jeter,” he’s called), he’s not armed well enough to deter Kansas City’s blazing runners.
But San Francisco has the only truly dominant starting pitcher: Madison Bumgarner, who at 25 is improving by the week. He yielded 19 hits in 32 postseason innings entering his start Tuesday night. He’s the type of pitcher batters fear most: hard-throwing lefthanded side-armer. It takes lots of guts to crowd the plate against that. And he excels at holding runners on base – not that he has to do that very often.
The Giants’ relief corps lacks the velocity of KC’s but may be as stout. Petit, vagabond from the Mexican League, can go short, middle or long. In Game 2 of the Division Series he pitched six innings of one-hit shutout ball. During a month-long stretch this season he retired a major-league record 46 consecutive batters.
The Giants’ edge, besides Bumgarner and vastly more World Series experience (not to be minimized), is manager Bruce Bochy, who may be the best in the game at directing a pitching staff. He’s going for his third world championship in five years.
Veteran starter Jake Peavy, who was 1-9 this season with a 4.72 ERA in Boston, found new life in San Francisco: 6-4 and 2.17. “What Boch does so well,” Peavy told ESPN, “is understand his personnel. . . where these guys are mentally and physically.”
Bochy, a former big-league catcher, can sense when pitchers can or can’t overcome fatigue. He won the NLCS by summoning his closer, an overworked 34-year-old Casilla, to pitch the ninth with Game 5 tied 3-3.
Yost would never use his closer without a lead. He’s widely criticized for being robotic. He faithfully follows his script, concerned that a change of pattern might unsettle his team. But with back-end bullpenners as consistent as his, it’s unfair to fault his method.
This is an evenly matched Series. Some reporters are slamming it for mediocrity, for its lack of tangible assets. And no doubt Major League Baseball would prefer the big-market mediacentric glamor of New York, Boston or Los Angeles.
But others of us welcome the scrappiness of both clubs, the fresh ebullience of the Royals, the everlasting doggedness of Bochy, Posey and the Giants.
May the best bullpen win.