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Around the Horn

Game 2: The schizophrenic game

For six innings, Game 2 of the World Series was much like Game 1: a tight, well-executed battle between two outstanding pitchers and pennant-winning defenses. With the Washington Nationals and the Houston Astros tied at 2-2 since the first inning, every hit was tense, every baserunner potentially pivotal, every defensive play important.

2019WS

Then came the 7th frame, and the Nationals—with the aid of some key misplays by the Houston defense—blew it open. Number-eight batter Kurt Suzuki led off with a home run to break the tie, ninth-place batter Victor Robles drew a walk, and Astros star Justin Verlander was out of the game and replaced by Ryan Pressly. Pressly was a stud reliever in the regular season, but in his last appearance in the playoffs re-injured his knee and left the field in obvious pain; yet he somehow convinced his manager he was OK, remained on the roster for the World Series, and pitched in Game 2 like he was most certainly not OK and served up five more runs to the Nats. Just like that, a nail-biter when every play matters became a laugher where strategic thinking goes out the window and the rest of the game got reduced to baseball's most basic foundation: throw ball, hit ball.

So, two-thirds of the contest was made for the true fan—the scorekeeper, the thinker, the strategist that analyzes the import of each pitch and tries to predict what the catcher will call for in each unique situation and how the defense should line up from moment to moment. In other words, the kind of baseball game the Commissioner seems to detest. The last third was freewheeling, unburdened by all that brain stuff, just let the guys swing away and hopefully club a few out of the park. Apparently, the Commissioner's ideal.

I say this without being 100% serious, of course, but it does illustrate the crux of my arguments with Commissioner Manfred's obsession over tinkering with the rules of baseball in order to speed things along. Manfred has had a bug up his hindquarters about long game times and increasing the "pace of play" in baseball. Of course, he's unwilling to address the only two things that would truly reduce the time of the average game—time between innings and time spent on replay reviews—and thus has instead been proposing and imposing tweaks to the game itself—creating the no-pitch intentional walk, limiting visits to the mound, proposing restrictions on defensive alignments—trying to cut down on what he perceives as "dead time" during the action. Or, perhaps in his mind, between events that count to him as "action."

But that so-called "dead time" is important. It's when the thinking happens.

Take the bottom of the sixth inning of Game 2 as an example. The game is tied and both starting pitchers have been stellar but are beginning to tire. Houston slugger Yuli Gurriel smacks a double hard down the right-field line with just one out, bringing rookie sensation Yordan Alvarez to the plate. Alvarez has been hot and is perhaps the biggest threat in the Astro lineup, but it's not like the guys after him are anything to sneeze at. What do you do if you're Washington? You slow down a little, you're careful, you think. Weigh your options: intentionally walk Alvarez? That puts two on for Carlos Correa, still a pretty dicey position to be in, but perhaps the best move to make. Midway through his plate appearance, Alvarez is indeed sent on to first base with a free pass. Tension. Correa's AB is now paramount. How do you pitch him? In his injury-shortened regular season, Correa was a beast with a near-1.000 OPS. Very few weaknesses. After getting ahead in the count 1-2, it looks like you might be able to put him away, but the umpire isn't on your side and calls the next two borderline pitches balls and the count runs full. You decide to abandon the attempt to strike him out, thinking ahead that another close pitch may well get called ball four and then you're in real trouble. But you know if your location is off even a little he could put your pitch in the seats over that short porch in left field. So, you pick a spot in the zone, an enticing one, but you throw off-speed, thinking he won't square it up if he swings for a fastball. It pays off! Correa hits a harmless infield fly and suddenly things are less tense, but you're not out of the woods. Houston's least dangerous hitter is next up, so they go to the bench and pinch-hit. You run the count full on the pinch-hitter too, but he just saw you throw a 3-2 changeup, so you can't do that again. But the same principle applies, so you go with a high hook, a curve in the strike zone, and he's fooled, caught looking. Whew!

That was a lengthy half-inning in which no one scored. One might think it was boring, didn't advance the game, contributed to a game time that was "too long" for the modern audience. But to me, to other true fans, to the thinkers and scorecard keepers, this was one of the best parts of the game. This is what we love.

Then came the top of the seventh, which was fun in an entirely different way as the Nats blew it open with six runs. Really enjoyable for those of us rooting for Washington, to be sure.

But from then on, the level of engagement dropped like a rock. I don't mean I quit watching the game, or even quit paying attention to the details, but strategy was no longer important. Washington had a big cushion, and they added on to it as the game progressed, not sweating anything as they counted down the outs. Throw ball, hit ball. Stuff happened, stuff that got reflected in the runs column and is thus "action" in Manfred's sense of the word, but this, this was the comparatively boring part of the game, when there was almost zero so-called "dead time."

Blowouts can be fun, sure. It becomes a question of "how much can they run up the score," or "what's the record in one-sided World Series wins?" But nobody's thinking much. The strategy element is near-nil. Engagement fades away.

Game 3 is tonight from DC. The Astros need a win. The fans need a tight contest with a lot of tension.

We want to think.

World Series rooting

Which team do you want to win the World Series?

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