PHOENIX — The cold-hearted, heat-throwing tyranny of the relief pitcher, which had been creeping across Major League Baseball the last few years, reached its logical conclusion over the course of 48 frantic hours at the start of the 2017 postseason. In the south Bronx on Tuesday, and in the Sonoran Desert on Wednesday, we have seen the time-honored calculus of pitcher management exploded and upended. Where have all the good pitchers gone, one might ask? The definitive answer arrived in these two wild-card games: to the middle innings, and sometimes also the late ones.
The Arizona Diamondbacks surged early, held on late and beat their division rivals, the Colorado Rockies, in front of a frenzied crowd of 48,803 at Chase Field on Wednesday night, winning a delirious, epic National League wild-card game, 11-8, in a shade under four hours. They will open play in the NL Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, another division rival, beginning Friday night at Dodger Stadium.
But it is the manner in which the Diamondbacks won Wednesday night — and the way the New York Yankees beat the Minnesota Twins the night before in the American League contest — that speaks to some monumental shift in the sport’s foundation, making one wonder what further marvels the rest of this postseason holds. For that matter, it is also evident in the way the Rockies lost Wednesday night, using seven relievers in a desperate quest, ultimately unsuccessful, for survival.
“Right away, all hell breaks loose,” Rockies Manager Bud Black said, after his team nearly made it all the way back from an early 6-0 deficit. “And from then on, it was like a heavyweight fight.”
When Diamondbacks ace Zack Greinke, staked to that 6-0 lead, failed to make it out of the fourth inning — departing with two outs, one on and four runs already in — it forced their bullpen to collect 16 outs to carry home the win in the franchise’s first postseason appearance in six years.
It did so, just barely, thanks largely to the efforts of Robbie Ray, ostensibly Arizona’s No. 2 starter but pressed into emergency relief duty by Greinke’s early exit — he gave the Diamondbacks seven outs in the critical middle innings — and setup man Archie Bradley, one of the game’s new breed of multi-inning “super relievers,” who delivered four outs during a stone-cold-bonkers outing that pushed the game to the edge of absurdity.
First, when asked to bat for just the fifth time in 2017, with two runners on and the Diamondbacks up by just a run in the seventh, Bradley smashed a drive to the deepest part of the park. Both runs scored easily, but Bradley, rather than ease into second with a double — “I was thinking, ‘Please stay right there — we’re good,’” Arizona Manager Torey Lovullo said — pivoted and sprinted toward third like a bearded madman, arriving, safe, with a cloud of dust and pointing up into a crowd that, at that moment, seemed on the verge of losing its collective mind.
“In hindsight,” Bradley said, “I should have just stood up and taken my double.”
A half-inning later, Bradley, obviously spent following his mad sprint around the bases, gave both of those runs back on back-to-back homers by Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story — after having given up only four homers in 73 regular season innings this season — then put the tying run on second base before finally escaping.
Only a three-run surge in the eighth against Rockies closer Greg Holland, Colorado’s eighth pitcher of the night, kept the ninth inning from turning into a potentially spectacular Fernando Rodney meltdown; staked to a four-run lead, the Diamondbacks’ notoriously combustible closer merely gave back a run before closing out the win.
None of this happens, of course, if Greinke pitches like Greinke. And yet, by the standards of the opening nights of these playoffs, his 3 ⅔ -inning stint made him a veritable Old Hoss Radbourn — a model of deep-game durability. Paltry as they may have seemed, the 11 outs Greinke collected matched the totals of the other three starters in the wild-card round combined: Minnesota’s Ervin Santana (six), Colorado’s Jon Gray (four) and New York’s Luis Severino (one).
“Rule number one,” Black said. “You got to be ready for anything.”
None of the moves to pull the starters, in the moment, seemed like bad ones. Each was necessitated by the pitcher’s ineffectiveness and the win-or-go-home stakes. Over these two nights, those four starters, more or less the aces of their respective staffs, combined to give up 15 earned runs in those 7 ⅓ innings — an ERA of 18.41. Relievers, meanwhile, accounted for 80 of the 102 outs over these two nights.
“This is an all-in moment,” Lovullo said of the choices to yank Greinke and to burn his No. 2 starter, Ray. “It’s not a time where you save pieces.”
While it’s true that the bastardized version of baseball required in winner-take-all games lends itself to quick hooks and oddly timed bullpen moves, it was only three years ago that San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner threw a shutout in the NL wild-card game — and only one year ago that he did it for a second time. In each, the nine innings Bumgarner completed were more than all four wild-card starters this year combined.
The steady bullpenization of baseball saw starting pitchers average just 5.5 innings per start in the 2017 regular season, the fewest in history, and the trend only accelerates in October, when more plentiful days off allow managers to deploy their top relievers more frequently. In last year’s Cubs-Indians World Series, for example, not a single starting pitcher collected an out after the fifth inning.
Perhaps it isn’t much of a stretch to go from that scenario to the types that played out this week in the Bronx and here, especially when a single loss would end a team’s season. But it is also hard not to feel as if a shift is taking place, and that these wild card games were only extreme manifestations of it.
There are as many as four weeks left in this postseason, and while that is still plenty of time for a Max Scherzer or a Clayton Kershaw or some other throwback ace to reclaim some ground for the reeling ranks of starting pitchers, that is also ample time for the tyranny of the reliever to conquer all.
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Box score: Diamondbacks 11, Rockies 8