KANSAS CITY -- A Major League Baseball pitching staff, more than any other collection of individuals in sports, is structured around the psychology of human routine. Other players in other sports have jobs, but they can shift when needed: A left guard can switch to right, a point guard can start playing off the ball, a power hitter can move up or down in the lineup. But the bullpen, for whatever reason, is sacred.
Despite basically infinite evidence that a great pitcher is a great pitcher no matter what role he is assigned, baseball managers build their bullpens as if their pitchers are Rain Man, set off spinning by even the slightest alteration of expectation.
Thus: Starters. Swingmen. Long relievers. Lefty specialists. And, most tellingly: Your seventh-, eighth- and ninth-inning guys. Every manager wants to have pitchers for those three roles, even if he doesn't actually have the personnel for it. I've always suspected this is less because of the pitchers' routine and more because of the manager's: Having those buttons to push is relaxing, assuring. It's comforting to have a plan, even if it's a bad plan.
The thing about this plan -- which essentially every manager in baseball has -- is that it leaves one crucial inning out. Any starter is expected, in the continued, stubborn age of the win, to go five innings. Then you've got your matchups with your lefties and seventh/eighth/ninth inning gents. This leaves the sixth inning unflanked. And -- at least when it comes to the regular season -- why wouldn't it be? How often do you need a sixth inning guy in June? That would be a dumb job, Sixth Inning Guy.
But if anything, this has been the postseason of the Pivotal Sixth Inning, and we saw that again in Game 2 of the World Series, a 7-2 Royals win in which the Giants unraveled in that fateful frame.
But before we get to Game 2's most pivotal inning, let's go back to the American League Wild Card game when this sixth-inning craziness began. Royals manager Ned Yost has his already-infamous three-headed monster of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland -- as good a late-inning plan as any in recent postseason history -- but getting to them is the perpetual headache.
Yost, in that game, got it exactly wrong and basically turned all of humanity into backseat drivers by brinigng in Yordano Ventura rather than Herrera. Ventura gave up a monster home run to Brandon Moss, giving the A's a 7-3 lead that looked for all the world as the end of the Royals' postseason. And then everything went nuts. That comeback gave Yost second life. And it gave him a new look at that sixth inning.
It paid off for him in the American League Championship Series, and it paid off again for him in Wednesday night's win, which turned a Fall Classic that was in danger of being a 2007-style mismatch into something that could turn out quite special indeed. Everything that mattered tonight happened in the sixth inning, both for Yost and Giants manager Bruce Bochy.
First, Yost. Ventura, this time starting, came into the sixth inning with the score tied 2-2 and starting to sweat. Surprisingly, no one in the Royals bullpen was warming even though Ventura had been effective rather than dominant and was facing the meat of the Giants lineup. Sure enough, Buster Posey led off with a single, and after a Pablo Sandoval fly out, Hunter Pence singled as well. It was clear, at this point, that the Series was in the balance: Two on, one out, game tied … and one Series game.
The Yost of three weeks ago -- was that game really 23 days ago? How young we all were! -- might have fretted and crossed his fingers that he could pass this sixth inning rubicon with Ventura. But not this time. This time he pounced, bringing in Herrera, who promptly started throwing crazy 100 mph-plus super pitches.
Eight fastballs for Herrera in that inning. Your MPH readings: 101, 100, 101, 101, 101, 100, 101, 100. Call the cops. #worldseries- Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) October 23, 2014
That will work. Two batters later, the Royals were out of the jam, like it was nothing, like their whole World Series didn't just about fly away from them right there.
Then we came to the bottom of the sixth, and it was Bruce Bochy's turn. Bochy has won two World Series in six years and has pulled all the right strings again this postseason, so the man has earned just about every benefit of the doubt imaginable. There's nonetheless a temptation to question just how urgent he was taking that critical sixth inning. He kept in Jake Peavy, who had been pitching well and had only thrown 58 pitches, to face the meat of Kansas City's order. There was an issue with that.
Hitters had a .933 OPS against Peavy this year the 3rd time through the order.- Matt Meyers (@mtmeyers) October 23, 2014
That said: Bochy essentially made the same decision Yost did, going with his starter into that scary sixth, and he essentially got the same result: A single and a walk to the first two batters. The only difference -- and it turned out to be a major one -- was that he didn't go to one of his stud relievers like Yost did, instead bringing in Jean Machi, who had a 7.71 ERA this postseason coming in. He immediately gave up a ringing single to Billy Butler, which gave the Royals a 3-2 lead. After Javier Lopez came in to force left-hander Alex Gordon to fly out, Bochy once again fiddled around with the sixth rather than grabbing it by the throat. He brought in Hunter Strickland.
Now, Strickland throws the ball extremely hard, but not in the way Kelvin Herrera does: This postseason, Strickland's job has been mostly as torque provider for opposing hitters, throwing it so fast and so straight that all they have to do is time their swing and watch the ball go. Coming in, he had given up four homers, which is quite a bit for a guy who, before the postseason, had thrown a total of seven Major League innings. This is not the pitcher you bring in if you understand just how much the sixth inning has come to mean.
Sure enough, Strickland gave up a ringing double to Salvador Perez that extended Kansas City's lead to 5-2, and for good measure, served up a cookie so enticing to Omar Infante that he hit it about as far as Omar Infante is capable of hitting a baseball outside zero gravity.
After giving up that homer, Strickland almost certainly wouldn't have been seen again the rest of this World Series, but once he screamed at Perez for reasons that are still unclear -- causing benches to briefly empty -- it's safe to say a game's going to have to go 40 innings to see him again. (Though a possible injury to Tim Lincecum in the eighth inning might put the Giants down too many pitchers to avoid another Hunter Strickland Experience.) At that point, even if Yost didn't have Davis and Holland coming, this game, at 7-2, was over.
Since that Wild Card game, what does Yost do in the sixth to get to the three-headed relief monster has been the critical question for the Royals this postseason. Now we know what he'll do, and we know that it will work. Now the question goes to Bochy: It might even be more urgent for him. Because before the sixth inning tonight, the Giants, up a game and a run and looking at three pretty games by the Bay, controlled every aspect of this series. After, the whole thing was up in the air again.
The Royals have taken their weakness and made it a strength. This Series could have been over. Now it feels like it has finally begun.