Baseball has a long history of acknowledging superlative performances from the opposing dugout, but precedent be damned, things in Arlington got downright wacky last night.
The moment that has gained the most notice was the decision by Rangers first baseman Ronald Guzman to allow a popup, tapped some 30 feet down the line, to drop untouched in foul territory. Ceding an easy putout brought the count on the batter, Chris Owings, to 1-2, and put pitcher Mike Minor in position for a strikeout.
And Mike Minor’s strikeouts are what this story is all about.
Minor, 31, has been pitching in the big leagues since 2010, and despite three campaigns in which he topped 30 starts, and two more in which he topped 25, he had never until yesterday reached 200 strikeouts in a season. It was a stated goal of his, statistical affirmation that he’d fully returned from the torn labrum that cost him two full big league seasons. He went into his final start of the year on Thursday needing nine punchouts to reach that plateau.
The Red Sox were having none of it.
The left-hander started strong, whiffing two of the first three batters he faced, striking out the side in the third, and tacking on one more K in each of the fourth, fifth and seventh innings. That put Minor at eight on the day, one away from his mark.
The problem for him lay mainly with Boston’s other at-bats. The Red Sox put up three runs in the fourth on three singles and a double, and two more in the seventh on homers by Jackie Bradley Jr. and Chris Owings, the latter of which tied the game, 5-5. Ordinarily, this would have been more than enough for Rangers manager Chris Woodward to remove Minor, who’d thrown 98 pitches. Given that both teams have long since been eliminated from playoff contention, however, the most notable achievement on the table for either club on Thursday was Minor’s strikeout mark. The lefthander remained in the game.
For some reason, though, Boston was adamant that he not reach his goal. This is different than being at the wrong end of a no-hitter or losing a playoff clincher, outcomes that bear at least some degree of ignominy. Two hundred strikeouts in a season can be personally relevant to the pitcher who throws them, but it’s hardly a sign of statistical dominance. Minor ranks 10th in the American League in strikeouts, more than 100 behind Gerrit Cole. Precisely nobody outside of the Minor household should care about who he set his mark against.
Bizarrely, the Red Sox cared.
With Minor on the verge of No. 200, Boston’s first three batters of the seventh inning all swung at the first pitch they saw. This included the home runs by Bradley and Owings. It could be happenstance, or it could be the beginnings of a conspiracy to deny the pitcher his milestone.
The Rangers regained the lead with two runs in the bottom of the seventh, after which Minor, sitting on 117 pitches, returned to the mound. He’d thrown that many in a game exactly once in his career, back in 2013, prior to his shoulder issues. But 200 strikeouts meant more to him than the game meant in the standings, and his manager had rope to offer.
For the second straight inning, the Red Sox responded by swinging at the first pitch they saw in every at-bat. Brock Holt grounded out softly to first. Gorkys Hernandez grounded out to shortstop. Bradley Jr. popped up to short. The latter two pitches were well outside the strike zone, but Boston players seemed determined to make contact, even to the detriment of actually getting, you know, hits. They were sacrificing their own success on the pyre of denying Mike Minor a bit of statistical satisfaction. Hell, Minor said that after Holt was retired he looked toward the Rangers dugout and laughed.
“I haven’t seen a three-pitch inning, I don’t think in my career, to be honest,” said Woodward in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram report.
That was the nice way to put it. A more accurate description would have been to call the Red Sox classless. It’s a move that indicates some prior history between Minor and somebody in the Boston clubhouse or the team at large—an unknown grudge that needed tending. What that is, if it exists, has yet to surface. If nothing exists, the Red Sox look all the worse.
Minor was now at 120 pitches. There was no way he was coming out of the game. At this point for the Rangers, it was a matter of principal.
“I said, ‘You’re going back out,’ ” Woodward recalled, as reported in the Athletic. “If they want to do that, you’re going back out. … If they would have been grinding and having long at-bats, he was probably one long at-bat away [from removal].”
By now, Minor was fully cognizant of Boston’s strategy. He opened the top of the ninth by feeding Sandy Leon a 64-mph knuckle-curve that bounced three feet in front of the plate, all but daring the hitter to swing at slop. (Leon did not swing.) The next pitch, a changeup, was more to Leon’s liking, and he flied out to left, “preserving,” wrote Chris Thompson at Deadspin, “Boston’s petty attempt at dishonorably denying an opposing player an honest shot at a strikeout.”
This is where Guzman’s dropped popup came into play. Had he caught it, Minor would have had one out remaining, against a team determined to not strike out. Instead, Owings—who on the first pitch of the at-bat had taken a called strike that barely touched the high, outside part of the zone (a gift to Minor from plate ump C.B. Bucknor, perhaps?)—was faced with a two-strike count.
If there were questions about Bucknor’s priorities with the first pitch to Owings, they were resolved with the fourth, a 1-2 changeup that lolled in at 86 mph, high and well inside. Owings took it. Bucknor, calling bullshit on Boston’s tactics, rung him up anyway.
Minor got his 200th whiff of the season on his 126th pitch of the game, and was immediately pulled. Jose LeClerk came on to get the final out (another strikeout, natch, this one on five pitches), and Rangers won, 7-5.
Afterward, Red Sox manager Alex Cora offered the weakest line of the night, criticizing Guzman’s ignored popup by saying, “I’m just happy our guys are playing the game the right way.”
No, the Red Sox were not playing the game the right way. There are lots of examples through baseball history of players and teams yielding to an opponent in deference to a feat that said player was actively trying to achieve. As recounted in The Baseball Codes, in a meaningless game in 1968, Denny McLain fed Mickey Mantle a requested meatball to let him pass Jimmy Foxx on the all-time home run list. It’s why Brooks Robinson played deep against Bobby Richardson on the final day of the 1959 season, allowing him to bunt for a necessary base hit that would raise his season batting average to .300. (Richardson turned down the offer, swung away and went 2-for-3 on the day to end at. 301.)
There are also examples of players being less gracious. Closer to the Red Sox’ mentality was A’s pitcher Johnny Babich, who in 1941 vowed to end Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak by retiring him in his first at-bat, then walking him every subsequent time he came to the plate. (DiMaggio neutered the plan by singling his first time up.) Or Orioles manager Paul Richards, who, in 1961, with Roger Maris down to his final chance to tie Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in 154 games, brought in closer Hoyt Wilhelm to face him in the ninth inning of a meaningless game in which the Orioles trailed, under threat of fine if he threw anything but knuckleballs. Maris struck out.
Which is not to suggest that the Red Sox should have done anything approaching McLain or Robinson. Nobody would have thought twice had they taken their at-bats against Minor straight up. Hell, that’s all we expect out of ballplayers. Instead, Boston players willingly sacrificed their own best chances in order to deny an opponent a special moment. It was petty, it was beneath them, and it was beneath baseball. Or it should have been, anyway.
Be better, Red Sox.