MLB Analysis: An Important Note from Wednesday's Phillies vs. Giants Showdown

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On Wednesday night, the San Francisco Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies played a game that went 11 innings and produced only one run. To people who don’t like pitching, it was a bore fest. Unfortunately for the Phillies, the one run belonged to the Giants. Unfortunately for the Giants, the one run seems more like business as usual for the last few years than an abberation. Unfortunately for baseball fans, including me, who do indeed love good pitching, both starters – two of the best in baseball over the last several years – were pulled and the game was finished by the teams’ respective bullpens.

When Matt Cain, the highest paid right-handed pitcher in the game, was pulled in favor of a pinch hitter after throwing an economical 91 pitches in 9 innings, any chance for a transcendent moment of baseball history was lost. By the time Cliff Lee was replaced after going 10 brilliant innings, what had been a potentially historic game was reduced to a fairly routine, low scoring, extra inning, bullpen affair. Too bad history wasn’t allowed to run its course.

Now I’m a firm believer in the adage that you can’t win a championship in April, but you can lose one. And there’s no doubt that the primary responsibility of any manager, including the two facing off on Wednesday, Bruce Bochy and Charlie Manuel, is to win games. That’s particularly true for teams that should be bona fide contenders. But I would be willing to bet that both Bochy and Manuel, by virtue of their long-term tenure and commitment to the game, can sense that at times the game is bigger than a game.

Bochy, as a member of the Giants, undoubtedly knows the history of the Marichal/Spahn duel of July 2, 1963, another game that ended in a 1-0 score, and that featured some of the all-time greats. That 1963 game was played at Candlestick, and Juan Marichal won by pitching a 16-inning shutout in which he threw 227 pitches. Willie Mays’ homerun in the bottom of the 16th accounted for all of the scoring in the game. Warren Spahn was 42 at the time and went 15 and 1/3 before delivering up the home run ball to Mays. Although Marichal, age 25 at the time, is credited with refusing to come out of the game so long as someone 17 years older was matching his performance inning for inning, maybe, just maybe, they both got to stay in the game because of their ability to help their teams with their bats.

Spahn was a lifetime .194 hitter, more than respectable for a pitcher. He hit 35 homeruns in his career, and he hit a phenomenal .333 in 1958. That’s right, a starting pitcher hit .333. And it’s not like he came to bat 3 times in a single game, got a hit, and sat out the rest of the year with an oblique injury. He had 36 hits in 108 official at bats during 41 games. Marichal recorded a less impressive lifetime average of .165, but in 1962, the year before his duel with Spahn, he hit .236. That’s only 16 points less than the Giants were hitting as a team as of April 19, 2012. The obvious point is that when pitchers can hit even modestly, a manager, whose job it to win, can leave them in longer. Matt Cain’s lifetime batting average is .115; Cliff Lee, who spent a number of years in Cleveland where no one hits and the pitchers don’t have to, has a respectable lifetime average of .174.

Okay, so today’s pitchers can’t hit and aren’t expected to hit. But all, or nearly all, pitchers who grew up in the States, and likely those from around the world, had to hit at one time. Whether it was in high school or in college, these guys have all had experience swinging the bat. And some of them used to be pretty good at it. Tim Hudson comes to mind. At Auburn, Hudson hit .396 and went 15-2 when he wasn’t playing the outfield. Simply put, these guys are athletes, and athletes can at least practice hitting. So why not practice a little extra hitting on one of those four days off between starts?

There are at least two different ways of looking at this. On the one hand, Matt Cain and Cliff Lee, by virtue of their remarkable pitching performances, earned the right to stay in the game regardless of their weak hitting. On the other hand, if over the course of their careers they’d been working just a bit more on their hitting, leaving them in the game would not have presented much more of a downside than pulling them for the typical pinch hitter. And leaving them in – and here’s the bigger point – would have allowed a remarkable pitching duel to continue. Cain threw 91 pitches in his 9 innings of work, far below what one of the premier right-handers in the game is capable of throwing. Indeed, he averaged nearly 108 pitches per start and threw a high of 122 pitches last year. Similarly, while Lee threw 102 pitches in his 10 innings of work on Wednesday, last year he averaged 107 pitches per start and threw a high of 129. Neither one of these guys was anywhere near gassed. But they were both pulled. And, frankly, once Cain was pulled, the chance for that transcendent moment was over.

Which takes me back to Bochy and Manuel. The crowd at AT&T Park could feel it. People watching at home could feel it. I was surfing back and forth between the A’s and the Giants and I could feel it. Something special was happening. Something that had the potential to be talked about for years, something that could have been part of baseball lore in the same way that the Marichal/Spahn duel rightly is. There’s no way to know what the result would have been had both Cain and Lee stayed in, but, as my wife, a fellow baseball junkie, said, “Sometimes everyone, even managers, should just sit back and let the majesty of the game take over.” Wednesday night in San Francisco was one of those times.

Jonathan Dyer teaches History and Government at a small high school in Northern California. He practiced law for 10 years before switching to teaching, and spent 5 years in Army intelligence before going to law school. He worked for 3 of those 5 years as a Russian linguist at Field Station Berlin during the Cold War. Mr. Dyer and Kerry, his wife of 27 years, are certified baseball junkies. You may email Jonathan directly at [email protected].