The MLB Playoffs Just Played to Their Base

Let’s pick it up in the bottom of the sixth, shall we? In a decisive Game 5, the Nationals held a 1-0 lead, and they were looking to stretch it. With two outs and someone on first who can run faster than you can, Ryan Zimmerman knocked a double to the left-field corner, and the Nationals’ third-base coach got aggressive. He waved Jayson Werth around, figuring that an insurance run would be absolutely massive. An out and, well, you tried, and you’ve still got the late lead. Werth gave it what he could.

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That’s Werth at the bottom, running his tail off. Coach Bob Henley isn’t even looking anymore, now that the matter would be out of his hands. By this point he must’ve had a suspicion. Based on my calculations, the break-even rate here was 35%. That is, it made sense to send Werth around third if you thought he’d be safe at home at least 35% of the time. With the throw coming from just past third base, it looked like Werth would be safe at home about 0% of the time.

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The camera has panned, and you don’t see the baseball. That’s because the baseball is in the glove of the catcher, and Werth is maybe, what, two-thirds of the way to the plate? Less than that? Werth is out. He’s so out. Baserunners are practically never this out. Werth is so out he might’ve given brief consideration to turning around. Until just a few years ago, a play that developed like this might’ve at least resulted in an exciting collision. Collisions are easy sells to the members of an average audience. Runners used to have one way out. That way was dangerous, and sometimes electrifying.

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Werth stopped. He didn’t stay stopped — he went to the trouble of closing the distance. But Werth gave up. He was out, and he knew it, and he accepted it, and the Nationals still had the lead. So concluded a thrilling baseball sequence, by which a casual baseball viewer might not have been thrilled.

Major League Baseball has a lot of priorities, but among them is expansion of the #brand. You’ve read articles before about how baseball is dying, and I’ll assume you’re smart enough to know those are nonsense, but baseball most certainly could be more popular. It’s no secret the sport has lost some ground. Football is king, even the type played by the unpaid, and baseball desires better marketing. It wants to appeal to more of the casual viewers. It wants to appeal to more of the youth. Baseball’s average fan has a retirement fund, and the game could stand to have a stronger foundation. That’s why there’s been increased focus on getting superstars in front of cameras. It’s why Rob Manfred keeps talking about pace of game. Baseball thinks it would be more appealing if it could just move a little faster.

The Dodgers eliminated the Nationals, winning Game 5 by a 4-3 score. The official time of game was four hours and 32 minutes, making it the longest nine-inning game in postseason history. More than that — if I’ve used the Baseball-Reference Play Index right, that was the third-longest nine-inning game ever, full stop. The first pitch of the seventh inning was thrown at 10:39pm, local time. The last pitch of the ninth was thrown 16 minutes from one in the morning. The seventh inning itself lasted longer than the record half-marathon. These teams played a very, very long baseball game. And the baseball game was perfect.

This wasn’t a baseball game that would win people over. It wouldn’t win the support of people on the fence, and among those already lacking any interest, they might say this game was “so baseball” like an insult. There wasn’t a sequence of flashy plays. There were home runs, but they weren’t memorable home runs, and the game didn’t conclude with a walk-off. I don’t think there are clips from this game that are going to go viral. This wasn’t a game you could just enjoy if you didn’t know the details. So much about baseball is in the details. It’s in the context. You can sit down for any hockey game and enjoy some of the hits and the highlights. At its best, baseball asks you to think. It’s a demand, which makes it a burden, and for many it’s a turn-off. It’s their loss. To baseball fans who’ve heard the good word, Game 5 was an instant classic.

I’ve written out this partial list of events that made me smile. Events I found to be somewhat remarkable, even if they were maybe too subtle for the CBS demo. I appreciated the relay to get Werth specifically because of the margin by which he was out. I didn’t need there to be physical contact, because the play was conceded when the ball arrived to the plate. The play was effectively over. That wound up being a big moment in the game, even if some might describe it as anti-climactic.

In the fourth inning, Justin Turner worked a 13-pitch walk. The walk lasted literally six minutes. I can’t imagine not already liking baseball, and then seeing that, and then wanting to see more of that. All Turner did was stand there and fight off the occasional delivery until he could get aboard after Max Scherzer missed enough of his targets. Nothing actually scintillating happened, but Scherzer had been on a roll, and Turner succeeded in disrupting him. With that hard-earned walk, Turner changed the course of Scherzer’s outing. It felt like a major Dodgers victory, even though Turner didn’t score.

Hell, going back even further, in the second inning Danny Espinosa put the Nationals on top with an RBI single. Espinosa has been in a deep rut for several weeks, and he hit his single the other way, batting right-handed. It was just Espinosa’s second hit of the season to the opposite field batting righty. Baseball is all about the fun facts. A somewhat similar fun fact: The game was tied in the top of the seventh, when Joc Pederson took Scherzer out to left. It was Pederson’s second opposite-field home run of the year. There’s nothing odd about Pederson hitting for power. But his power is to the pull side. That was a game-changing homer, with the wind blowing in.

And, really, that homer got everything started. The Nationals bullpen went to work, and subsequent events reminded all of us of the slim margins between winning and losing. There’s that whole expression about how baseball is a game of inches. The expression itself isn’t interesting, but when you analyze how the Dodgers surged ahead, Howie Kendrick punched a broken-bat single. Carlos Ruiz knocked the go-ahead single, but the ball bounced right off the outstretched glove of Anthony Rendon, who likely would’ve turned two. Ruiz the hero, Ruiz the goat.

Ruiz the triumphant against a left-handed pitcher. Ruiz was acquired in a controversial late-season swap specifically for opportunities like this. Those who didn’t know what the Dodgers were doing thought it was tremendously silly to slightly upgrade your backup catcher position against lefties on the mound. That’s objectively a small thing, but one of the quirks about the playoffs is you never know which little events turn into the biggest ones. Ruiz came off the bench to hit against a lefty, and he came through with one of the very biggest hits of the season.

That hit followed a teammate who struck out by bunting foul. The Nationals, later, had their own hitter unsuccessfully bunt. There was one successful sac bunt in the game, and it was dropped down by closer Kenley Jansen, who isn’t a hitter, and who didn’t serve as the closer. There were so many layers to this. So many intricacies, so many near-misses and strategic elements that only established baseball fans could deeply appreciate.

Turner delivered a huge hit to give the Dodgers some cushion. Chris Heisey almost immediately yanked that cushion away, narrowing the score to the eventual final. There was one on with nobody out, and it was the seventh inning, and Dave Roberts went with the best option he had. Roberts used his closer with none out in the seventh. Even Dave Roberts didn’t know how far Jansen could go.

There was something extraordinary about the move. Something extraordinary, because it was experimental. Joe Blanton had been used. Grant Dayton had been used. Jansen was there to do as much as he could, but closers never see seventh innings. In the playoffs, closers increasingly see eighth innings, but the eighth inning was still only an idea, no different from fiction. Roberts used the biggest game of the year to try something he hadn’t tried. And Jansen nearly got him all the way through. He tired only at the end, which brought us to the best finish imaginable.

This was Clayton Kershaw’s bullpen day. On one day’s rest, Kershaw started to throw, but instead of throwing for throwing’s sake, he threw to prepare to come in. And so he got the call, with two outs to go. It was another opportunity for Kershaw to make a playoff statement, the only difference being that this time he’d do something he hadn’t done. On countless occasions, Kenley Jansen has saved a game for Clayton Kershaw. On this night — the biggest of nights — Clayton Kershaw was to save a game for Kenley Jansen.

The challenge was Daniel Murphy, who Kershaw retired on two pitches. The last obstacle was Wilmer Difo, which seemed somewhat unjust. In a perfect world, Kershaw would’ve had to navigate through one more tough opponent. Difo didn’t have a prayer, and Kershaw, at long last, had his Moment.

In relief of Kenley Jansen, Clayton Kershaw got the save, two days after throwing 110 pitches on short rest. He was hugged by Carlos Ruiz, who only recently replaced Kershaw’s personal catcher, and the very reason Ruiz was acquired in the first place wound up making a critical difference in a high-leverage spot. The winning pitcher was Julio Urias, who’s 20 years old, and who was supposed to stop pitching a long time ago so as not to put too much on his arm. The result was four and a half hours in the making. Aside from the various details, the highlight reel is ordinary.

Baseball can’t be what it cannot be. Baseball is a game that requires an investment, an investment of time and an investment of mental energy. That might, perhaps, cause it to become decreasingly popular over the years and decades to come. I can’t predict the population. What I’m sure of is that baseball still has its base. It has its core of loyal supporters, its followers who understand the demands of being a good and decent fan in the first place. Those four hours and 32 minutes were for us. The base will grant the game every second that it needs. That Game 5 needed every second in order to be what it was, and that was baseball magic.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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johnforthegiants
5 years ago

Great line:

‘On countless occasions, Kenley Jansen has saved a game for Clayton Kershaw. On this night — the biggest of nights — Clayton Kershaw was to save a game for Kenley Jansen.’

backward galaxy
5 years ago

While well-written, it is kind of ironic to write that Kenley Jansen has saved “countless” games for Clayton Kershaw on a website almost wholly devoted to counting stuff and drawing data-based conclusions. It’s also a relatively simple number to count.

#poeticlicense

Beer
5 years ago

johnforthegiants +40 on the up/down votes and the reply to his comment is -20. That must be my signal to saddle up a pig and fly him off for some unicorn hunting.