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23rd of July 2018

Sport



Revisiting that bizarro Rays-Marlins game from Tuesday

No matter the teams involved or the time of season or the final content of the box score, the narrative arc of an extra-innings game often follows the same loose template. The first few extra frames hold on to all the excitement and tension of what had been a tied game in the ninth, and they dial all of that up a few notches. By the 12th inning or so, that feeling starts to fade. This has been going on for an hour, and the game is starting to feel tedious more so than it is tense, and the question of when is this going to end starts edging irrationally closer to is this ever going to end. But somewhere around the 15th or 16th, the mood shifts again—from a combination of collective exhaustion and strategic necessity, this is when the game gets weird. For a night game, it’s almost certainly after midnight; the broadcast booth doesn’t seem to care so much about what they’re doing, and the same goes for the ballpark’s few remaining fans. Meanwhile, the bullpen has been drained and the bench is empty. No one is playing the exact sort of baseball that they want to be playing. Everyone is tired. It’s weird.

Tuesday’s Rays-Marlins game followed this template very, very well. After Tampa Bay scored five runs in the top of the 16th, they handed the ball over to a position player—with options still available in the bullpen, carrying a lead, they put back-up catcher Jesús Sucre on the mound.

Weird baseball! In order to fully appreciate it, though, take the context of some earlier weirdness in the game. Start in the 14th inning, when reliever Vidal Nuño became the seventh pitcher of the night for the Rays. After making three quick outs, he was sent up for a rare trip to the plate in the 15th. (This was his fourth plate appearance since being traded from Arizona to Seattle back in 2015.) He swung on the first pitch that he saw, an inside fastball from Miami’s Brett Graves—and he took it down the line for a single, which he then tried to stretch into a double, sliding head-first into second. It didn’t work. Nuño was out. But he didn’t have to wait long for a chance to redeem himself at the plate. After he pitched the bottom of the inning without incident, Tampa Bay broke the game open in the top of the 16th. They’d scored twice by the time that Nuño’s spot in the order came up, with two outs and runners at first and second. Again, Graves gave him the inside fastball, and again, he took it for a single. The 30-year-old reliever had two hits in two innings, knocking in an insurance run and doubling his career hit total in one night.

That weird baseball was immediately followed by some very normal baseball—the all-too-familiar sight of an American League pitcher getting injured while running the bases in an interleague game. As Nuño closed in on first base, he faltered and grabbed at his thigh, bringing a trainer out to take a look. The Rays, it seemed, would be forced to grab a pinch-runner from their dwindling reserves to replace him and, more crucially, a new reliever to pitch the bottom of the inning. But the next batter came to the plate, and Nuño was still out there. They were… leaving him in? Nope. They were waiting for the best available pinch-hitter to take the time to put his spikes on—since it was the previous day’s starting pitcher, Nathan Eovaldi, who hadn’t been expecting any game action. Eovaldi got out there soon enough, creating another layer of weird baseball: one pitcher pinch-running for another. Meanwhile, José Alvarado started warming up in the bullpen, and Tampa Bay extended their lead to five with a two-run double from Daniel Robertson.

At this point, it seemed that the weirdness would have to come to an end. (There’d already been plenty of it, after all.) The Rays were headed to the bottom of the 16th with a 9-4 lead, and one of their last available relievers had just been seen warming in the pen. They were going to send Alvarado out there, and he’d finish up the inning, and then everyone would go home.

Not quite.

The Rays didn’t send Alvarado out there. Instead, they sent Jesús Sucre (backup catcher Jesús Sucre!) to take the mound and hold the lead. Weird, but was it bad baseball? The results, certainly, weren’t good. Sucre allowed one single, and then another, and then another. Catcher Wilson Ramos went out to talk to his fellow backstop, and pitching coach Kyle Snyder joined them. Alvarado was warming again, and a call to the pen, a call to normalcy, was surely coming.

But Snyder returned to the dugout, and Sucre didn’t follow. With the bases loaded and no outs, deep into extra innings, they were leaving a position player out there to handle it. Or, at least, it appeared that way for a few moments. Before Sucre could get set to face the next batter, manager Kevin Cash attempted to go pull his back-up catcher himself—only to be told by the umpire that he couldn’t make a mound visit directly after his pitching coach had. He’d have to wait. So Cash waited, just for an at-bat. One run scored.

Alvarado finally got the call, and he managed to wrap up the game. (Though not before allowing another run and walking a pinch-hitting pitcher, yet another crinkle in the fold of weird baseball.) The Rays’ 9–6 victory felt like it happened despite this pitching strategy, not because of it. But there’s logic here, however unusual. Five runs is a comfortable lead, if not an indestructible one. In his only prior appearance on the mound in the last two seasons, Sucre gave up three runs in one inning of work—not too inspiring, but he still could’ve done that again here without costing them the lead. The Rays had burned through most of their relievers when they decided to try this, and they’d already scheduled the next day’s game as a bullpen day. It’s not at all ideal to have a position player working the mound in extra innings, but it’s also not unreasonable to find it slightly more ideal than sacrificing a pitcher who might have been sorely needed tomorrow.  

Some truly weird baseball here, and from it, a question: Is there a point at which a position player pitching with the lead wouldn’t be weird? Teams depend on their bullpens now more than ever, and so in order to spare their relievers from a few innings wherever possible, they’ve become quicker to call position players to the mound in a blowout. Last season, a record-high 34 games featured position players pitching, and 21 different position players have done it so far in 2018. If a team is willing to save its bullpen when losing by double digits, is it really so crazy to think that they might want to try doing the same when they’re up by double digits?

Back in April, Grant Brisbee explored this idea at SB Nation. As he notes, recent history has a few examples of position players pitching for the win. (Though not very many, with just four since 1969.) But those situations weren’t quite like what happened on Tuesday. All came in close extra-inning games, without a run differential as big as this one’s, after all other bullpen options had been exhausted. They were necessary moves, rather than strategic ones. Jesús Sucre protecting a five-run lead isn’t exactly a position player pitching in a blowout, per se, but it’s essentially the same strategic philosophy—and that’s something baseball hasn’t seen in almost a century.

The Baseball-Reference records of position players pitching are a little tricky to search, as the situation isn’t a category on the site’s play index. By Brisbee’s accounting, the last time that a position player pitched in a true blowout was when Hall-of-Fame first baseman George Sisler tried it for a laugh during a 16-7 victory on the last day of the 1920 season. But it looks like there was another game, five years later, that matches up even better with what Tampa Bay tried on Tuesday.

This one also happened on the last day of the season, and Sisler, now serving as a player-manager, was involved once again. But this time, he wasn’t the only position player to pitch. See, Sisler had spent some time as a pitcher at the start of his career, and so it wasn’t too unusual for him to toss a low-stakes inning or two. He took the mound in the seventh, with his St. Louis Browns losing 11-5. But the opposing Detroit Tigers’ player-manager wasn’t about to be outdone: Ty Cobb, who was in the twilight of his career at age 38. He didn’t have Sisler’s pitching background—it had been years since the only day that he’d ever appeared on a major-league mound—and his team had a lead to protect. Yet when Detroit pitcher Ownie Carroll gave up a run at the start of the eighth inning, shrinking their lead from six runs to five, Cobb went out to replace him with… himself, in a game that the Detroit Free-Press called “clownish” and “burlesque.” Cobb sat down all three batters that he faced and “enjoyed himself thoroughly,” according to the paper.

The Rays’ strategy wasn’t quite clownish or burlesque, and there might actually be something to it. But it was certainly, at the least, weird baseball.

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