Time was that the term “the nine’ in baseball meant the whole team. Nine men usually played the entire game from start to finish. Relief pitching was a rare exercise, and fielders didn’t get hurt or played through pain. Somebody might “pinch hit” on occasion, and that was about it. This easy jargon is exemplified at the start of Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s immortal baseball poem, dating from 1888, “Casey at the Bat.” This poem is remarkable in that it reflects the unchanging nature of the game over the past 130 years. Essentially all the contextual details are the same, except that today most of the disappointed Mudville fans probably would have returned home glumly in motorcars. The poem begins:
The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.
And thereby hangs a tale. There’s a crowd of 5,000 watching a local game in a small town, and they’re all passionately involved in the game. They know the players; they uniformly disapprove of the way the ump is calling balls and strikes; they understand the game situation.
That whole scenario is currently under attack by the new deal that Major League Baseball is working out with minor leagues, which may eliminate 20% of minor league ball. But the more insidious destructive force in this Covid-19 year is the combination of the short season, the rule changes (a doubleheader was won in extra innings, the 8th to be exact, since now all doubleheaders are 7 innings long. Ernie Banks didn’t say “let’s play one and a half!”), the absence of fans in the stands, and the absurdity of sixteen teams making the playoffs, three of them with losing records.
Everything was so messed up this year by the pandemic. Spring training was begun and halted halfway through. It was restarted in urgency in early July, so that teams could start playing the truncated 60-game schedule before the end of the month. Consequently, and also somewhat coincidentally, many starting pitchers never found their rhythm. Some ended up on the Injured Reserve list, some played and had bad years, some elected to have surgery that might have normally been postponed, some left to avoid infection. A number of teams, such as the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees, and the Atlanta Braves, ended up using hurlers who would have been in the minors under normal circumstances, and found a gem or two. But they also pitched many “bullpen games,” using a series of relief pitchers from the first inning on. Each would pitch one or two frames, so that there was not excessive wear and tear on arms not used to throwing 90-110 pitches on game day.
The San Diego Padres found themselves in this dilemma as the post-season playoffs began. They lost their two best starters to injury just at the worst possible time. Luckily their opponent in the “Wild Card Round” was the St. Louis Cardinals, who won two more games than they lost in the regular season. Also luckily, their lineup is as formidable a collection of power hitters as can be found in MLB today. The bats cover up some of their vulnerability on the mound.
The Padres pitched all three games as “bullpen games.” Chris Paddock’s 2 1/3 innings in the first game was the longest stint of any pitcher. Eight Padres pitched in Game 1, 8 in Game 2, and 9 in game 3. The third-game starter was ex-Washington-National middle reliever Craig Stammen, now at age 36 the Dean of their staff. He set the tone. The nine Padre hurlers last night limited the Cards to 4 hits, no runs. Trevor Rosenthal, another ex-Nat, struck out the side in the ninth to send St. Louis home for the season. Meanwhile the Padres’ bats rapped out a team .304 average during the series, with 19 runs and 55 total bases, and a nifty .928 OPS.
With support like that, the Padres might make it interesting against their heavily-favored divisional rivals, the Dodgers. But win or lose, they may have shifted the ageless jargon of baseball a bit. Will “the nine” now mean the whole team, or the group of pitchers used in a single game?
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2020