Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Post-Season No At-Bat Commonality: Mr. Rodriguez, Meet the Olympian and Mr. Boyer

In the National League Wild Card Game, Pittsburgh’s Sean Rodriguez suffered the indignity, if you wish to call it that, of being in his team’s starting line-up and then being removed for a pinch-hitter before his first plate appearance. Two players who undoubtedly felt his pain in post-season competition were the great Olympian Jim Thorpe and Clete Boyer.

The Post-Season No-At Bat Commonality: Mr. Rodriguez, Meet the Olympian and Mr. Boyer

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle decided to start Rodriguez at first base in the single-elimination Wild Card Game for the right to advance to the NLDS instead of Pedro Alvarez, Pittsburgh’s regular first baseman, because Jake Arrieta was on the mound for the Chicago Cubs. Arrieta, as we all know, has had a second-half of the 2015 season that is probably unprecedented in the annals of major league history. He’s been virtually untouchable.

Hurdle’s entirely reasonable calculus was to put in his strongest defensive line-up behind Pirates ace Gerrit Cole since Arrieta’s excellence placed a premium on limiting the Cubs to as few runs as possible—zero, if at all possible. Alvarez hit 27 home runs in 2015, but defensively was enough of a liability—23 errors in 907 innings at first—that he was replaced for defensive purposes in 69 percent of the games he started. His replacement most often was Sean Rodriguez, who made just 1 error in the 327 innings he played at first.

Cole falling behind by 3-0 in the third inning, however, laid waste to his manager’s best laid plans. Facing such a mammoth deficit against Arrieta and with Rodriguez due to lead off the Pittsburgh 3rd, Hurdle decided in favor of offense and sent up Alvarez to bat instead, thereafter to remain in the game at first base. Sean Rodriguez, after three innings in the field, never got an at bat. Alvarez, for his part, was a strikeout victim in all three of his at bats in the game. Arrieta K’d 11, but only Alvarez went down on strikes three times.

To whatever extent Rodriguez was stewing over his manager’s decision, he might perhaps take solace in the fact that the same thing happened to Jim Thorpe, then an outfielder for the New York Giants, in the 1917 World Series, five years after he blew away the track-and-field competition in the 1912 Olympics, winning Gold in both the pentathlon and the decathlon to become the most celebrated athlete in the world. Or if not Thorpe, how about the Yankees’ Clete Boyer in the 1960 World Series? Both of them were pinch hit for in games they started before having a chance to hit for themselves.

The circumstances were different in each case, however.

Jim Thorpe did not get his turn at bat because of his manager’s commitment to platooning in the starting line-up. His manager was, of course, the great John McGraw. Acquired from the Reds in mid-August, Thorpe became the right-handed half of McGraw’s right field platoon with the left-handed Dave Robertson. He sat on the bench the entire first four games of the 1917 World Series because the Giants’ opponents, the same Chicago White Sox team that would disgrace itself two years later, had started all right-handers—Red Faber twice, and Eddie Cicotte twice.

The White Sox started southpaw Reb Russell in Game 5, and so McGraw put Thorpe into his starting line-up, batting sixth. But with the Series tied at two games apiece, White Sox manager Pants Rowland quickly concluded Reb didn’t have it this day after giving up a walk, a single, and a double to the first three batters he faced. So Russell came out, and right-hander Cicotte came in. When it came Thorpe’s turn to bat, with two outs (both thrown out at the plate on ground balls to the infield) and two runners on, McGraw decided to play the percentages and sent up the left-handed Robertson to pinch hit. Robertson came through with a single to drive in a run.

It being that this was the top of the first, Thorpe did not get so much as even one inning in the field. The White Sox went on to win that game, then started Faber in Game 6—so Robertson was back in the starting line-up—which was another Chicago victory to end the World Series. Thorpe did not play in Game 6.

Clete Boyer was in Casey Stengel’s starting line-up at third base, batting seventh, in Game 1 of the 1960 World Series in Pittsburgh. When his turn came to bat in the second inning, he was removed for Dale Long, pinch hitting, because the Yankees were losing 3-1. The Yankees’ first two batters had both singled, putting the tying runs on base, and with nobody out against Pirates’ ace Vern Law, Stengel—whose penchant for platooning and substituting for starting position players at almost any point in the game was a hallmark of his Yankees managerial career—decided this was his best shot not only at overcoming an early deficit but also at taking command of the game and even the World Series with a Game 1 win. Long made out, but out of the game was Boyer. The veteran Gil McDougald went in to play third base for the rest of the game.

Boyer, however, unlike Thorpe, did get to play an inning in the field—the bottom of the first. Boyer played again in the 1960 World Series. He came into Game 2 as a defensive replacement and started Games 6 and 7. He was in at the end of all three games. In 12 at bats, Boyer had 3 hits—all for extra bases (two doubles and a triple).

Thorpe and Boyer were playing in their very first post-season game when they were ignominiously removed for a pinch-hitter before even one at bat despite being in the starting line-up, and so would have to wait for their first post-season at bat. For Jim Thorpe, that never happened. His entire World Series history turned out to be being written into McGraw’s Game 5 starting line-up, but never actually appearing on the field of play, either at bat or defensively. 

As for Clete Boyer, because he had the privilege of playing for the New York Yankees when they won five straight pennants from 1960 to 1964, he got to play in 27 World Series games, starting the last 25 he appeared in beginning with 1960 Series Game 6.

Perhaps Sean Rodriguez is miffed by his manager's decision, but Tuesday’s Wild Card Game was not his first in the post-season. He appeared in 12 previous post-season games—eight of them starts—during his years with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Back Story to the Catch and Throw That Ended the "Wait Till Next Year"

On October 4, 1955sixty years agoJohnny Podres retired the Yankees in order in the last of the 9th at Yankee Stadium to complete an eight-hit 2-0 shutout in Game 7 that finally, after seven previous Brooklyn visitations to the Fall Classic, ended the "wait till next year." Podres, who also won Game 3 to prevent the Yankees from taking a three games-to-none lead in the '55 Series, was the World Series MVP. But it was an exquisite defensive play by Sandy Amoros that saved the day for the Flatbush Faithful, which might not have happened if not for the decision to pinch hit for Don Zimmer.

Back Story to the Catch and Throw That Ended the "Wait Till Next Year"

When the late, great Yogi Berra, then managing the 1973 New York Mets, said in the midst of a pennant race in which his team was lagging in August, "It's not over 'til it's over," he most assuredly was not thinking about the 6th inning of Game 7 in the 1955 World Series. 

That’s when, with Yankee runners on first and second and nobody out, Sandy Amoros made a great catch at the left field fence after a long run to rob him of an extra-base hit that would have tied the score at 2-2. Savvy veteran Gil McDougald, the runner on first, was so certain Berra's drive would be a hit and so determined to score, that he failed to consider it might actually be caught. But catch it Amoros did. He immediately fired a strike to cut-off man Pee Wee Reese, whose throw to first doubled off McDougald before he could scramble back.

And thus was the game and the World Series over before it was over, regardless of any philosophical musings to the contrary by Mr. Berra.

A key part of the lore and majesty of that moment is that Amoros had just entered the game to play left field. This has usually been described as a prescient move by Dodgers manager Walt Alston. 

But Amoros was put into the game at that precise moment, just in time to make the most important defensive play of the World Series, less because Alston had an inclination to upgrade his defense than because he had just pinch hit for starting second baseman Don Zimmer with the bases loaded, two out, and the Dodgers ahead 2-0, in the top half of the inning in a bid to put the game away. Stengel had relieved left-handed starter Tommy Byrne with right-handed Bob Grim two batters earlier, and Alston judged the left-handed George Shuba as the better bet to break the game open than the weaker-hitting, right-handed Zimmer. 

Shuba, in his last at bat in a major league game, made out, after which Alston moved Jim Gilliam from left to replace Zimmer at second, and put Amoros in to play left. Gilliam was the Dodgers' Mr. Versatility. He had replaced Jackie Robinson at second base in 1953, with Jackie moving to play third and occasionally left field, and had started the '55 season playing second, but Alston used him increasingly in the outfield as the season drew to a close when Amoros, who had started the year in left field, was mostly sidelined because of his struggles at the plate.

These moves were consistent with the 1950s baseball renaissance in platooning and substituting for position players based on the game situation that was brought back into prominence by Alston's rival in the Yankee dugout—one Mr. Casey Stengel. (The heyday of both practices, particularly platooning, had been in the 1920s.) 

Alston, however, then in his second year as Dodgers manager, was not yet anywhere near Stengel’s zip code when it came to substituting for position players in his starting line-up. Stengel made 211 position-player substitutions during the regular season (much fewer than the record-setting 286 he made in 1954), while Alston made only 106, which was also below the National League average of 127. That might be because the Dodgers’ faced only 55 left-handed pitchers all season.

The Dodgers also faced only 11 southpaw starting pitchers in 154 National League games, so Alston had little opportunity to platoon even if that was something he was inclined to do. But two of the Yankees’ top starting pitchers, Whitey Ford and Byrne, were left-handed, causing Alston to bench the left-handed-batting Amoros, who was now being platooned, in favor of right-handed infielder Zimmer in the eighth spot of his batting order in three of the four games Stengel started his southpaws. Gilliam, the Dodgers' lead-off batter, was in the starting line-up for every game of the Fall Classic, in left field when Zimmer played and second base when Amoros played. 

Until Game 7, Alston had substituted for a position player just once in the Series, in the sixth game. But that was a move made necessary when Duke Snider twisted his ankle on a sprinkler head making a catch in center field in the third inning. Those darned Yankee Stadium outfield sprinklers . . . let us not forget Mickey Mantle was maimed by one during the 1951 World Series. Snider was back in the line-up for the Series finale, although the sprained ankle may have contributed to his 0-for-3 day.

Anyway, with Stengel starting Byrne in the finale, the right-handed-batting Zimmer was in Alston's Game 7 starting line-up, and the left-handed-batting Amoros not. And after Stengel changed pitchers, Alston pinch hit for Zimmer the first chance he had, necessitating a defensive replacement, which meant Gilliam moving to second and Amoros replacing Gilliam in left field.

That series of moves came just in time to save the game for the Dodgers, helping them to secure their first World Series triumph, which turned out to be their only World Series championship in Brooklyn.

Postscript: Neither Zimmer nor Amoros had the career they or the Dodgers envisioned. 

Sandy Amoros was a brilliant prospect who led the International League in batting with a .353 average in 1953, when he played for Brooklyn's top Triple-A team in Montreal. In the majors, however, Amoros had difficulty hitting lefties. Playing in only 517 major league games, mostly between 1954 and 1957, Amoros was almost exclusively a platoon-player against right-handed pitching, starting just six games against southpaws in his career—three of them, plus Game 6, in 1955—and had only 92 plate appearances against lefties. 

Zimmer had difficulty hitting anybody, perhaps because of a horrific beaning in 1953, when he was a hot prospect with the Dodgers' Triple-A team in St. Paul, that left him unconscious for 10 days with a fractured skull. Don Zimmer was never a star player, but went on to become a cherished baseball figure as a manager and, ultimately, as the wise confidant to Joe Torre when Torre was building his Hall of Fame managerial credentials in the Yankee dugout.