Starting pitching expired in the fall of 2021. The cause of death was theory, the ever-expanding playoffs and a Yuli Gurriel line drive. Starting pitching was believed to be 175 years old.
This is where we would cue inspiring music and run clips of Bob Gibson, Jack Morris, Madison Bumgarner and all the legends of the fall who had the temerity and endurance to carry a champion across the finish line with their pitching arms and unflinching guts.
But with epidemic injury, bubble-wrap protection and fear of exposing pitchers to a third time through the lineup, starters only stick around for about two hours on average now — or what we call the fourth inning. This postseason, I have expected the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to burst into Dodger Stadium or Minute Maid Park and declare rotation members endangered species.
The sport’s World Series showcase, which Atlanta leads after a 6-2 win in Game 1, already was going to feature the Braves using an opener at least once and the Astros likely starting Zack Greinke pretty much against their will and maybe his. After all, the rules stipulate that someone must throw the first pitch for each team — though these days not many more.
Then Gurriel, the Astros’ first baseman, scorched a 102.4 mph grounder leading off the bottom of the second inning, and the ball smashed into Braves starter Charlie Morton’s right leg. It caromed to first baseman Freddie Freeman for an out. Morton got two more outs. Then Adam Duvall hit a two-run homer in the top of the third to extend Atlanta’s lead to 5-0 and the Braves’ first World Series game in 22 years was joyous. Momentarily.
Morton struck out Jose Altuve to lead off the third. Since being struck by the grounder from Gurriel, he had thrown 16 pitches, covering the second and third inningsHe had whiffed two, hit 96 mph with his fastball and it turns out — though recording just seven outs in this game — the soon-to-be-38-year-old had authored the greatest act of starting pitching fortitude this postseason. He had done all of that on a fractured fibula that will cost him the rest of this World Series.
What will it cost the Braves? What will it cost the game?
Morton actually amassed one more out than Houston counterpart Framber Valdez, marking the 20th and 21st time in 64 total starts this postseason that a starter (or opener) failed to go beyond the third inning. Thirty have failed to complete four innings. Thirty-eight have failed to go five.
Relievers A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson, Tyler Matzek and Will Smith tag-teamed 20 outs to help the tough-minded Braves win. Minter and Matzek, in particular, have been rubber-armed and terrific this postseason. Maybe that will continue for another week and the Braves will have their second Atlanta-based title.
But there are a lot of outs from here to there, with diminishing alternatives. Mike Soroka, not long ago Atlanta’s ace, tore his Achilles for a second time and never pitched this year. Huascar Ynoa, who had such a sterling beginning this season, punched a dugout bench, broke his hand and was never the same. Drew Smyly fell out of the rotation. Atlanta’s starting pitching beachhead was Ian Anderson, Max Fried and Morton. Now Morton is gone. Perhaps he will throw a ceremonial first pitch in Atlanta as a way to inspire, but his next real effort will come in spring training 2022.
Thus, the Braves, already in line to use an opener in Game 4, probably will need one also if there is a Game 5. This would all be so much worse, if the Astros were not without one-time ace Justin Verlander and current ace Lance McCullers Jr., and didn’t have their own Smyly in Jake Odorizzi. Greinke, who turned 38 last week, withered in the second half, but likely will get the ball in Game 4.
This was why it was so vital to Houston that Valdez provide length and excellence in Game 1 — as he did last week with eight shutout innings against Boston in ALCS Game 5. That is the longest outing by anyone this postseason. But in his other three starts, Valdez has combined to pitch 8 ¹/₃ innings.
This all has left bullpens — and fan interest — taxed. There are many reasons the games drone on, but constant calls for relievers are a factor. Something also is lost in anticipation without knowing who the starting pitchers are game to game, and then lifting them before they can rise like a Gibson or Morris. I am no baseball troglodyte. I know the numbers reflect a viable strategy in using openers and not exposing starters to hitters for a third time.
But this is also an entertainment, and four hours of tandem pitching is not exactly a hit TV series. Plus, it is not like working the starters less is leading to a higher level of effectiveness and health. There is not much the union and MLB agree upon — I am not sure they would concur that Game 1 of the 2021 World Series was played on Oct. 26. But they do agree intervention is needed to bring preeminence back to starting pitching.
That, though, is for negotiations that will post-date this World Series. For now, the 117th Fall Classic is seeing another nail in the starting pitching coffin. Make a donation to the SPAA (Starting Pitching Association of America), in lieu of flowers.