Sports Nut

Game 5: Giants 16, Angels 4

Did you know that no team has ever come back to win a seven-game World Series after losing Game 5 by 10 runs or more?

No, I bet you didn’t because I just made it up. But think about it for a second: If this bit of historical trivia were true, would it in any way broaden your understanding of how the World Series will play out from here? Would you view Game 6 tomorrow any differently? Would you call your bookie and change your bet, if you had a bookie and he would let you change your bet?

Probably not, right? In all likelihood, that information just zipped right past you and went directly into the void. Which is where pretty much all the historical data about baseball goes, and yet we never stop hearing it and reading it. Why is it that baseball observers feel the need to validate the importance of what’s happening now by constantly comparing it to what’s happened before? We are not inundated with history in other sports—when Curtis Martin makes a nice play, John Madden does not say, “This is the first time since 1973 that a running back gained so much yardage off screen passes on second and long.” He does not say this because there is no need to say it.

Given the huge advances in computerized statistical research, we get baseball history served up hard and fast. Consider Jarrod Washburn’s “record-tying” performance in the first inning last night. What record was that? Most walks (four) surrendered in a single inning in the World Series. Now, to me, the tallest man in the world, that’s a record. Barry Bonds’$2 73 home runs, that’s a record. But four walks in one inning is not a record. It’s just something that happened.

Speaking of Jarrod Washburn and his various accomplishments or lack thereof, a lot has been made of how miserable the starting pitching has been in this World Series (Anaheim’s starters have posted a 9.14 ERA; San Francisco’s, 8.72). What hasn’t been talked about is this: The championship is being decided by middle relievers who are, by and large, the cheapest bodies on the field. One of the Giants’ heroes last night was Chad Zerbe, a 30-year-old lefty who has spent his career yo-yoing back and forth to the minors. When ace starter Jason Schmidt was faltering with a 6-0 cushion, it was Zerbe who came in and stranded two Angels in scoring position.

Meanwhile for Anaheim, after Washburn was mercifully removed, the begoggled 32-year-old Ben Weber, he of the spastic, monster-faced delivery, came in to stop the bleeding—and if he’d been able to, the Angels looked poised for a comeback. The lead had already been cut to 6-4. But Weber promptly served up a two-run homer to Jeff Kent, the floodgates burst open, and we had a blowout on our hands.

Zerbe, I assume, makes the Major League minimum pay (he does not rate a listing on the USA Today database of baseball salaries), while Weber gets all of $240,000 for his suffering (and ours). Which is pretty funny—in this age when first basemen who hit six home runs make $5.9 million (that would be the Giants J.T. Snow; maybe they knew of his skill at rescuing small children), the World Series may very well come down to which general manager did a better job of rummaging through the discount bin for spare arms in the off-season.

In any case, we should be very happy that the Series is being resolved in Anaheim, and here’s why: We will be spared the displays of gross incompetence that almost inevitably follow when pitchers get to hit. Baseball purists inveigh against the malignant artificiality of the designated hitter, and in theory I agree with them. But did you see Jason Schmidt’s at bat in the first inning last night? He came up with the bases loaded against Washburn who, you will remember, had just tied a very important World Series record. This was a critical moment, a starter on the ropes, a game on the verge of being blown wide open, and we got to watch as a .101 career hitter let two eminently smashable groovers go by for strikes then pitifully wave at strike three. It would be too generous to call it a swing.

Why would we ever want to see more of that?

I still don’t fully understand why pitchers are such awful hitters, and I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t make sense for a National League team to devote serious effort at making their staff better at the plate. Why concede so many outs? I suppose the answer is that pitching has become so specialized and demanding that it’s impossible for them to take sufficient batting practice and improve their skills. If that is, in fact, the case, then long live the designated hitter.

By the way, that made-up historical factoid I cited in the first part of this dispatch? It turns out to be true! I just researched it on the excellent Web site Or close enough, anyway. In World Series that have gone to seven games (which this one would have to if Anaheim is to win), no team has ever outscored the other by 10 runs or more in Game 5.

Well, although I can cite no historical precedent for it, I think the Angels are going to come back and win.