We Were Spared A Double Bullpen Game But Little Else
10:22 AM EDT on November 1, 2023
When the tale of the 2023 World Series is told—and at this rate and level of excitement, it probably won't be—the pivotal moment will be Miguel Castro's second-inning wild pitch that allowed Josh Jung to score from third base with the game's first run. In that moment, a fairly innocuous one given that Texas went on to score 10 more in what ended up an 11-7 dope-slapping of the Arizona Diamondbacks, it occurred to Rangers manager Bruce Bochy that hey, maybe he didn't have to bullpen this game after all.
Bullpen games are now so common that nobody much notices them anymore, but they are—as they were back in 2017 when Craig Counsell started the whole thing in Milwaukee—an acknowledgement of desperation that means nothing in May but is everything at the end of October. And Tuesday night, in Game 4, both Bochy and Torey Lovullo were planning to bullpen the same game, a game of double chicken in which Bochy had a subtle advantage in that his bullpen game would start with someone (Andrew Heaney) who has been primarily a starter, while Lovullo opted for Joe Mantiply, whose longest outing ever has been three innings.
In other words, Lovullo was pot-committed. Bochy wasn't. And when the Rangers shoved Mantiply overboard after five hitters and Castro came out and bollixed the game irrevocably, Bochy had the hammer, which is to say he could abandon his original plan of bullpenning and went with a more conventional and potentially staff-preserving idea: letting Heaney stretch out, which he did with five innings of tidy baseball while the Rangers savaged Castro, Kyle Nelson, and Luis Frias to essentially end the game in three innings.
Not that Lovullo made a mistake, necessarily; you dance with who brung ya, as old coots like to say four drinks into a dinner at the Elks Lodge, and his only other viable option was Ryne Nelson, who'd started 27 games but whose seasonal ERA of 5.31 was a logical deterrent. But the problem with bullpenning is that only one of the pitchers has to stink for the whole game to be ruined, and in this case Mantiply, who'd merely given up a leadoff double to Jung to start the second, was the only who didn't. The Rangers put together two successive five-run innings, including multi-RBI at-bats from Marcus Semien, Corey Seager, and Travis Jankowski, and the rest of the night was just listening to Joe Davis and John Smoltz pretend that the Diamondbacks could cause some damage.
Maybe they can. I mean, they're not a wise bet at this point, but that's we thought about them vs. Philadelphia's Fightin' Necklines too. While Heaney did his five innings, Bochy didn't save his bullpen either, as it turns out. He plowed through six relievers himself, including closer Jose Leclerc, to reduce a 10-run lead to four, saving only his setup man Josh Sborz and the angina-inspiring Aroldis Chapman. So while Bochy's plan allowed early flexibility, it too went south before the game was home and dry.
Too bad, too. Had the Diamondbacks coaxed across a few more runs in the ninth and given us a real reason to stay invested, Game 5 might be a piefight of its own, in which Lovullo has the advantage of having the business end of his bullpen (Ryan Thompson, Kevin Ginkel, Paul Sewald) fresh while Bochy's pen is still smoldering from Game 4. In the modern world, in which the postseason is not about individual deeds as much as it is relief depth, this would give us at least the illusion that this series can still turn fun.
The last five-game World Series anyone remembers with anything other than parochial interest is 1969 when the Miracle Mets stunned the 109-win Orioles, and if Rangers-Diamondbacks ends tonight, it will end as uninterestingly as it was hyped to be when it began. But while bullpen games might make for mostly drama-free television, they still beat the specter of a position player pitching in a World Series game—the one moment of resignation Lovullo was not bold enough to seize last night.