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.

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