With offense winning titles in other sports, playoff baseball is still about pitching

Estimated read time 5 min read

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Cleveland Guardians pitcher Shane Bieber

Shane Bieber, or Justin Bieber if you’re Bob Costas
Image: Getty Images

The Dodgers, Braves, and Yankees combined to win 311 regular season games over the course of the regular season, but the playoffs have been a beautiful disaster so far. Mid-’90s alternative rock references notwithstanding, all three clubs received first-round byes, and only New York isn’t on the brink of elimination — yet.

The Phillies, Padres, and Guardians all came away with Ws on Friday (New York-Cleveland was a carryover after Thursday got rained out), and, as it usually does in the postseason, pitching led the way.

After giving up a first-inning two-run homer to Giancarlo Stanton, Guardian starter Shane Bieber — who Bob Costas referred to as the pop star Justin Bieber at one point during the broadcast — didn’t allow another run, and neither did the bullpen, who hasn’t surrendered a score all postseason. Emmanuel Clase earned every bit of the win, coming in to get the final out of the eighth, and recording the last six outs of the game after it went into an extra frame to win 4-2.

Game 3 is today, with Triston McKenzie taking on Luis Severino. McKenzie was last seen shutting down Tampa to the tune of two hits and eight Ks over six scoreless innings. Severino also had a scoreless outing in his last start, delivering seven scoreless, hit-free innings in an Oct. 3 win against the Rangers.

The Phillies didn’t exactly need Aaron Nola to go six innings, scatter five hits, and give up a lone run to Atlanta because Philadelphia’s bats went crazy. The last start Spencer Strider made before he was sidelined with an oblique injury was against Atlanta’s AL East and NLDS foes on Sept. 18, striking out 10 and giving up one run on a solo shot in six innings pitched.

Well, Friday did not go his way. Strider didn’t make it out of the third, when he gave up four runs on two walks (one of them intentional), a double, and a three-run homer to Rhys Hoskins. After J.T. Realmuto singled in the ensuing AB following the Hoskins homer, Strider was pulled in favor of Dylan Lee. Like Rhys a couple of batters before him, Bryce Harper jumped on the first pitch he saw and deposited it in the stands to extend the lead to 6-0.

Even though the offensive explosion was more than enough to win, the Phils tacked on three more in the seventh to make it 9-1 and ruin any hopes of an Atlanta comeback. Charlie Morton takes the mound today for Atlanta in a must-win matchup. Noah Syndergaard will get the start for Philly.

San Diego starter Blake Snell went five and a third, giving up one run on five hits and striking out six Dodgers. The bullpen was able to get the final 11 outs of the game with relative ease, tallying six Ks and allowing one hit. Josh Hader, who has regained his form since coming over from the Brewers, earned the save and a 2-1 win.

The Padres’ pitching performance was drastically more necessary than Philadelphia’s as the Friars’ bats only had one more hit than L.A.’s six. San Diego centerfielder Trent Grisham provided the difference, going yard off of Andrew Heaney in the fourth inning. Dodger starter Tony Gonsolin got a quick hook after an inning and a third, and now the 111-win ball club is one loss from going home.

In other sports, it seems like the offense has caught up with the defense from a prerequisite-to-win-a-championship standpoint. The evolution of those games, and the rules within them, have produced record-setting outputs and new eras of stats. Obsessions with quarterbacks and 3s have forced contenders to at least be above average if not great offensively to reach the promised land.

In baseball, hitters can change their approach and launch angle and everything in between to get an advantage, but there’s always going to be some tradeoff. As Sam Fels has documented in countless The Mourning Afters, the parade of gas from the starters to the bullpen skipped a couple of evolutions. There are a million pitchers and relievers with sneakers-after-a-three-day-festival filth, and there’s no caveat; they’re just getting better.

Hitting in general is really fucking hard, and It’s even more difficult in the playoffs — ask Aaron Judge. Ten of the top 11 teams in staff ERA made the playoffs, and ditto for nine of the 11 best teams in bullpen ERA. The top eight offenses in MLB also made the postseason. Of those teams, only Philly and Houston have series leads, and they’re No. 7 and 8 in runs scored per game respectively. Three of the top six offenses are eliminated (Cardinals, Mets, Blue Jays), and the other three are either trailing (Dodgers, Braves) or tied (Yankees).

Other than Tampa, every team in the top six in staff and bullpen ERA is alive — and technically the Rays have the seventh-best bullpen. One team is ahead (Astros), two are tied (Guardians, Yankees), and two are trailing (Braves, Dodgers).

People who love pitchers’ duels are either pitchers, or the kind of lot who roots for the house in blackjack. Regardless of how much you love watching the best hitters MLB has to look like little leaguers at the plate, at least take comfort in knowing this is how postseason baseball has always been.



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