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Baseball is struggling with its own identity, its own values and soul. It was always a game built on feel and touch and gut instincts and old wives tales. And stats, lots of stats to tie things together through history.
Now those stats have been repurposed into the science of analytics, and the heart of the sport has been pruned away based on probabilities. Launch angles and exit velocities supposedly create the perfect ballplayer by technology, though I think that’s why Game 4 of the World Series ended with the most embarrassing moment in baseball history.
Let’s get back to that in a minute, because Game 5, which the Los Angeles Dodgers won Sunday 4-2 over Tampa Bay to move within one game of the championship, had so much more feel to it.
Sure, there were home runs, which is all the game tends to be about now. But in this case, there was variety, too. Actual drama. Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher of this generation who is now past his prime, did not deliver the stuff so beloved by analytics. Despite having won Game 1, he’s still fighting the emotional drain of having spent a career failing in the postseason.
But he won exactly because he could not rely anymore on everything that made him a great regular-season player his entire career. He had to dirty the game up. He had to scrap.
“Any time you can have success in the postseason, it just means so much,’’ Kershaw told USA Today afterward. “That’s what you work for. That’s what you play for. I know what the other end of it feels like, too, so I’ll take it.’’
Until this year, that’s almost all he did know. But on Sunday, he gave up two runs in 5⅔ innings and struck out six. Kershaw allowed the first batter to reach base in each of the first four innings. And amazingly, he faced only nine batters, out of 21, when there was no runner on base.
The real superstars in any sport are known for and remembered by how they do at their best. But the reason they are the best is because they figure out how to win when they’re at their worst.
Sunday’s game turned in the fourth inning, when Tampa had runners on first and third and no outs. Kershaw got a strikeout and a poput. And then Tampa’s Manuel Margot tried to steal home.
Analytics have determined that stealing bases is never worth the risk, so it’s mostly a dead art. But stealing home? Margot took a chance. Since Kershaw is a lefty, his back was turned toward Margot. Kershaw threw home, and catcher Austin Barnes tagged Margot just in time.
Now, I’m sure analytics freaks are saying that Margot cost Tampa the game by doing something stupid. I’m sure that’s true if science says so.
But then baseball is going to have to find a way to make stealing a worthwhile attempt. The leaders have to trust their own game and not just rely on the cheap thrill of home runs and 100 mph strikeouts.
I think next year, baseball will have to bring back a dead ball, one that won’t fly as far as easily. It will force players to do the intricate things that make baseball fun.
I mentioned the end of Game 4 Saturday. That game ended when Dodgers outfielder Chris Taylor struggled to pick up the ball on a single hit by Tampa’s Brett Phillips. When he finally did, he threw it to a cutoff man who threw to catcher Will Smith. Meanwhile, Rays’ runner Randy Arozarena fell down after rounding third base to try and score. But Smith couldn’t catch the ball, and no one had bothered to back him up. So Aroszarena scored, and Tampa won.
That’s four baseball players at the same moment who couldn’t pick up a ball, catch it, run or stand in the right spot.
Anyway, on Sunday Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who has his own postseason demons regarding pitching decisions, came out in the 6th inning to take Kershaw out of the game. Fans booed. Actual fans, doing actual booing, not cardboard cutouts. Roberts’ own players were telling him to leave Kershaw in.
But Roberts went on — believe it or not — gut feeling. Roberts went with the same gut that has failed him every time he’s gotten to the postseason. And it worked. A few innings later, he did it again, trusting his instincts to change pitchers.
It worked again. And now he and Kershaw are one win away from winning it all and having fun playing baseball.