Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Major league wusses

The real story behind the New York Mets' vintage meltdown last night at Shea Stadium isn't the meltdown itself. (It's been that kind of season for the Mets, which blew a 3-run lead in the 9th last night to lose 8-6 to the Philadelphia Phillies.) No, the question -- submitted for your approval -- is why interim manager Jerry Manuel didn't let starter Johan Santana (who'd been brilliant through 8 innings) complete the game?

And that leads to an even bigger question: when did major league pitchers become such wusses?

OK, I'm not a major league pitcher. But, I am something of a historian. And history tells me that this wasn't always the case in our national game.

The whole notion of a reliever (a pitcher who comes on in relief of the starting pitcher) is relatively new to baseball. Sparky Anderson was the first manager I know of to utilize relievers on a regular basis. The longtime Reds and Tigers skipper pulled pitchers so often, in fact, he became known as Captain Hook.

But once upon a time the starting pitcher was expected to go the full 9 innings. It's just what you did.

One of my heroes is former Tigers pitcher Mickey Lolich. He wasn't as flashy as the big stud of that rotation, the brilliant-but-troubled Denny McLain. McLain is the last 30-game winner in the majors. A fan favorite, McLain used to play organ in Motown nightspots after games and was something of a bohemian. (He also allegedly consorted with gamblers and has led something of a troubled life after baseball.)

But it was Lolich who carried Detroit to the 1968 world championship. Lolich started three times (three times!) in the 7-game World Series that year. He was a blue collar type of guy, had a slight paunch, and just went out there and won games, often with a "I'm just punching a time clock" mind-set. There was no closer. Lolich took care of bid'ness himself.

Mickey earned the win, and clinched the championship, in the classic seventh game. He's the hero of that series in my mind. Oh, and Lolich also had six hits and a 2-run homer in Game 2. (Yeah, they let AL pitchers hit then, too.)

Complete games were still common up into the 1990s, at least if Nolan Ryan was on the mound. Former Florida Marlins manager Jack McKeon brought the practice back into vogue a few years ago. His talented young guns took the team all the way to a World Series championship, and didn't seen to be phased by having to work the distance on a regular basis.

But it's become gospel in baseball to pull a starter after 100 pitches. Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox is a faithful disciple. You can just about set your watch to it.

I hear a lot of talk claiming that this practice keeps a pitcher's arm from giving out too early. But didn't Ryan pitch well into his 40s? And he still regularly threw no-hitters, too.

Seems to me that instead of cursing the bullpen, Mets fans should ask Manuel why he didn't let Santana finish what he started. The MLB should rethink its 100-pitch limit.

And big-league pitchers should quit being such wimps.

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