The American and National League Championship Series’ are about over. Regardless of the victors the World Series starts October 19th… this week!
September and the play-offs have been filled with drama: from the collapse of the Braves and Red Sox coinciding with the rise of the Cardinals and Rays; to the stumbling, 1st-round falls of the teams with the 2 highest payrolls; to walk-off grand slams and multiply extra inning games. It has been a lot of fun!
I’ve found my mind meandering to the bullpens and the role of the relief pitcher these days!
Did you know there was a time in major league baseball when relief pitchers were the last option rather than the first choice?
In the earliest days of baseball the relief pitcher was to the starter as the designated hitter is to the position player now.
In most cases today, the designated hitter (American League only) is a position player who has slowed down on the field, either because of age or injury, but still wields a good bat!
In the early days of baseball, the relief pitcher was a starting pitcher who, because of age or injury, was unable to pitch a whole game. He was relegated to the bullpen to sit out his years. He entered games late always due to injury or fatigue of a starter, not strategically. He was the last option, but the storyline was the starter – how he did; why he left the game.
Nowadays, the relief pitcher is a specialist. This transition seemed to start in the 1960’s and ramped up in the 1970’s.
There are left-handed specialists, right-handed specialists, middle relief guys (who usually pitch a number of innings), set-up men (7th and/or 8th inning guys), and closers. Closers have a careful, balanced mix of three key ingredients: 2-3 really good pitches; control of those pitches; and a put-me-in-coach, adrenalin-addicted, bulldog mentality.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes it does not.
I would argue, as a Braves fan, that the overuse of a trio of relief pitchers along the marathon that is the MLB schedule (O’Flaherty in the 7th, Venters in the 8th, and Kimbrel in the 9th) left their arms fatigued and contributed to the celebrated-in-St-Louis collapse of September.
In the deciding Game 5 of one division series in NYC last week, the Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees played a great game. [I can say that now because the Yankees lost!] In the game, the Yankees used 7 different pitchers in a 9 inning game. That means the starter plus 6 relief pitchers. Only the starter logged as many as 2 innings. Incredible.
In contrast, the very next night, the Cardinals’ Chris Carpenter pitched a complete-game… no relief pitchers at all!
Have you ever watched the starting pitcher when he is being lifted by the manager? It’s a very interesting study…
Some of them appear humiliated or at least embarrassed. They could not get the job done tonight/today for any number of reasons. They make that long slow walk to the dugout with their eyes staring at blades of grass rather than looking at other players or fans.
Some of them seem angry or at least frustrated. Perhaps they are sure they could finish the game and upset with management for disagreeing with them. Maybe they are mad at the last pitch they threw (the one that ended up in the 3rd row of the outfield stands).
Others are clearly exhausted. Everything about their posture indicates they have pitched past their human capacity in this game. Their arm is hanging lifeless next to their body. They walk off pensively, reflecting on better decisions they could have made earlier in the game, extending their time on the mound.
A few leave the game with resolve. They know they have given it their best effort. They know their arm is done for the day. They feel the authentic appreciation of the fans and their colleagues. They walk straight. They tip their hats. They stay in the dugout for the rest of the game.
The one thing they all seem to have in common is they do not want to be relieved.
It seems very human of them, doesn’t it?
We all need relief and yet we all resist relief in some ways and at some times.
There is no place in life where that is more certain than when it comes to the quest of the soul. As with any other journey, we could lower our anxiety, elevate our hope, enlarge our capacity to appreciate the beauty along the way, and deepen our admiration of others on the same quest if we would only embrace relief!
And, for those following Christ, relief is available, not only in other believers, but in Christ Himself. He put it this way:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Matthew 11:28-30, the message [emphasis mine]
This seems like incredibly Good News to me. So why do I resist His relief so often?