From the pitching and defense perspectives, that’s what it takes to win a nine-inning baseball game.
There are no rules as to how you get the outs or how they’re distributed among the staff, as the bonkers 2017 MLB postseason showed us on a near-nightly basis.
What’s been so head-scratching for even the biggest baseball fans is how lawless the deployment of pitching staffs has gotten.
Up until a few years ago, and in the 30 years before, major-league pitching could simplistically be described as “starter goes six or seven, set up guy, closer in the ninth.”
But in the Bullpen Age, that’s begun to change.
Starters averaged less than five innings per start in the recently completed postseason, and the erosion of traditional roles on MLB pitching staffs once the leaves change is this pervasive: In the 38 postseason games in 2017, a regular-season starter pitched in relief in 28 of them.
That’s 73.6 percent.
Over in the Land of College Baseball, a place dear to my heart, folks are just shaking their heads.
They realized long ago that when the playoff lights come on, you have to think outside the box with regards to pitching. You can’t be a slave to traditional roles or righty-lefty matchups.
Your best available arms have to pitch as many of the neutral or high-leverage innings as possible, within the realm of health and safety. That bullpen phone is ringing the minute a starting pitcher starts to show he can’t locate, or for whatever reason just doesn’t have it.
It’s the playoffs. We don’t have time for a pitcher to find it.
That urgency, that tension, adds magic to playoff baseball that’s been missing up until a few years ago.
“On a college staff, where there are 12-14 arms at the Division I level, eight pitchers control about 80 percent of your innings, and in the playoffs, that might go down to six,” Seattle University baseball coach Donny Harrel said. “To see a starter come out of the bullpen in the playoffs isn’t crazy to us. I hear the traditional pro guys and the skeptics saying, ‘Well you’ll jeopardize Game 4 if you use him now.’ You win today. Worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.”
Huston Street, one of the most dominant college closers of the past 30 years while at Texas, would enter tight games as early as the fifth inning, as soon as coach Augie Garrido’s Longhorns secured a lead.
It’s like continuing to spin on “Wheel of Fortune” after you’ve solved the puzzle. You get what you can, and you say, “I’ll stick right here.”
One June 27, Florida freshman right-hander Tyler Dyson started Game 2 of the 2017 College World Series finals, with the Gators up 1-0 on LSU and a win away from their first national championship.
Dyson was one of the Gators’ most effective setup men during the regular season and was making his 24th appearance that season and his second start. His first was April 11.
Dyson threw six innings of three-hit, one-run ball and handed off a 2-0 lead to senior closer Michael Byrne, who saved 19 games for the Gators and owned an ERA of 1.67.
Byrne went 1 1/3 innings, allowed an inherited runner to score, but held onto a 2-1 lead when Jackson Kowar took over with one out in the top of the eighth.
Kowar started 19 games as Florida’s No. 3 starter during the regular season, going 12-1 with a 4.08 ERA and 84 strikeouts in 108 innings. He is projected as a top-10 pick in the 2018 MLB Draft.
Kowar allowed one hit in 1 2/3 innings, and Florida scored four runs in the eighth off LSU’s Zack Hess — who was anointed the Tigers’ closer midseason after starting six games — to give the Gators a 6-1 win and the title.
The best available pitchers, regardless of role, pitch the most important innings.
“When I was an assistant at Washington, coach (Ken) Knutson decided that we were going to do things a different way,” said Harrel, who worked at UW from 2005-2008. “We used Tim Lincecum as our closer on Friday nights during the regular season and then started him on Sunday.
“Now, (at Seattle U) since we’re a one-bid league, our midweek games are very important. We’re throwing a pretty good arm on Tuesday or Wednesday, a guy that would normally be a reliever on weekends, to help us get a win over a UW or another team like that to help our RPI.
“It’s very interesting to see those kinds of things happening in professional baseball pretty consistently.”
Lindsay Meggs, who replaced Knutson as Washington’s head coach in 2009, has carried on his predecessor’s penchant for thinking outside the box in managing his pitching staff.
“In Week 3 of this year, we lost our closer for the rest of the year, and the week before conference play, we lost our setup guy, who we had moved to the closer’s spot. We started Pac-12 play with a couple of freshmen in those roles,” Meggs said. “We thought they might struggle in those moments, so we got together and decided to have those guys go out there for the first few innings, and we’d wear it a little bit if we had to.
“Then we’d take our starters, get them in for the third inning or so, and see if they could finish it. And on the side, we talked about how we’d either look like innovators or fools. You have to have the courage to get beat up. The first time we did it (at Utah on March 18), a guy hit the first pitch of the game 500 feet, but we stuck it out. We got our starter, Noah Bremer, in there in the third inning. He finished it, and we won a 3-1 game.”
Meggs said the Huskies stuck with that plan on Pac-12 weekends for about a month.
College coaches also have been known to use erstwhile position players on the mound throughout the season, as starters and relievers. It’s a jolt of excitement for the uninitiated, and another reason I gravitated toward the college game.
The first time I watched college baseball on television was June 10, 1995 — two days before my 14th birthday.
My dad took our family to Rutgers baseball games (his beloved alma mater) on many a spring weekend, and I loved every minute.
Now he and I were watching college guys on ESPN.
Cal State Fullerton was leading USC 11-5 in the national championship game, which was then a winner-take-all affair.
After hitting two home runs and driving in five runs during the first seven innings, Mark Kotsay moved from center field to the pitcher’s mound with one out in the eighth inning. He struck out two in 1 2/3 innings and the Titans closed out a national title.
In the Titans’ first game at the College World Series that year, Kotsay also came in from the outfield and earned his 11th save of the season in a 6-5 win over Stanford.
Stanford’s cleanup hitter and catcher in that loss was current Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who won Game 7 of the 2017 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday.
Lance McCullers Jr. started the game for the Astros, but he went only 2 1/3 innings before being relieved by two starters (Brad Peacock and Francisco Liriano), a reliever valued for his ability to work multiple innings (Chris Devenski) and another starter (Charlie Morton).
And three of the five Dodgers pitchers were starters, including Clayton Kershaw.
In Game 7 of the 2017 World Series, the pitching staffs were managed as if Dodger Stadium was a sweltering TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha.
Nothing held back.
In the Land of College Baseball, folks just smiled.