Attention, sports purists! This blog contains details of two major league teams turning the late innings of a late-season baseball game into a deeply silly battle-of-wills over one guy’s pursuit of a statistical milestone. If reading about professional baseball players briefly abandoning altogether the single-minded drive for a meaningless September win will cause you to involuntarily load up the seat of your pants with fresh poop, please stop here!
The teams are the Boston Red Sox and the Texas Rangers, both of which have been officially out of the postseason chase for weeks. Rangers All-Star pitcher Mike Minor started the contest just nine strikeouts shy of 200 for the year, a number that would match nicely with his 200+ innings pitched on the season. Since this game meant roughly bupkis in the standings, Rangers manager Chris Woodward demonstrated a willingness to let Minor stretch himself in pursuit of the milestone, so long as Minor could work his way into range. Minor for sure wanted it. From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:
“It’s an accomplishment that I was looking at this last off-season,” Minor said. “A lot of guys were talking about it. The last couple games I was trying to get there but had some duds in there. Today I got closer and I knew we were a couple strikeouts away, so I tried to get it.”
Minor held up his end, dealing strikes from the jump. He struck out two of the first three batters he faced, then fanned the side in the third. The Red Sox touched him up for three runs to take the lead in the top of the fourth inning, but Minor collected another strikeout in the frame, and anyway the Rangers responded with a four-run fifth to grab their first lead. This was all very normal baseball until the top of the seventh, when it became apparent that Minor was being given a longer leash than usual. Jackie Bradley Jr. led off the inning with a dinger to right center; two batters later, Chris Owings socked one over the wall in left, putting the Red Sox back on top. Minor was then at 98 pitches, including 30 thrown in a dreaded high-stress fourth inning, and he’d given up five earned runs. That he was not being pulled from the game then and there was an indicator that something other than the win was being contested by these teams.
But that wasn’t the only indicator. The two dingers in the seventh, plus a pop-out sandwiched between them, had all come on the first pitch of their respective at-bats, which in the context of a Red Sox team that typically emphasizes plate discipline possibly suggests their own growing awareness of Minor’s proximity to a desired statistical milestone. Sock that away in your brain, we’ll circle back for it in a second. Minor used another 13 pitches over the next three Red Sox batters, putting runners on second and third and inducing a ground-out. This might’ve been it for Minor had he not then K’d up Sam Travis to end the inning, putting him just one strikeout away from that nice round number. Sure, his pitch count was way up there, but this would be his final appearance of the season one way or another.
We can be sure that the Red Sox were determined not to let Minor get to 200 strikeouts on the season, even if it meant losing the game, because of what happened next. The Rangers grabbed the lead back in the bottom of the seventh on a pair of homers of their own, and Minor was back on the mound for the top of the eighth, sitting at a personal season-high-tying 117 pitches, in a game with no meaning whatsoever to his team’s fortunes. The Red Sox, more determined to break up the march to 200 strikeouts than they were to win a baseball game, responded by putting contact swings on the first pitches of three consecutive at-bats, leading to two feeble ground-outs and an infield pop-out, denying Minor a shot at his goal while also forgoing their own shot at victory. The Rangers got the message, but were not convinced to surrender. From the Star-Telegram:
Minor said that Brock Holt, the former Stephenville High School star, looked at the Rangers’ dugout and laughed after his first-pitch popup in the eighth.
“I haven’t seen a three-pitch inning, I don’t think in my career, to be honest,” Woodward said. “I’ve seen a guy swing at the third pitch of an inning, but not to hit it fair and get out. I’ve never seen a three-out on three consecutive swings. It is what it is.”
As Minor went to the dugout, Woodward told him he wasn’t finished even though he was now at 120 pitches.
“I said, ‘If they’re going to do that, you’re going back out,” Woodward said.
This, you can probably guess, got even more ridiculous. Minor, determined to deny the Red Sox easy one-pitch outs, opened up the top of the ninth with a 64-mph knuckleball to Red Sox catcher Sandy León, which León almost had no choice but to take for a ball. León offered at the very next pitch and flied out harmlessly to left, preserving Boston’s petty attempt at dishonorably denying an opposing player an honest shot at a strikeout. The next batter, Owings, actually got to a 1–1 count before meekly popping up along the first baseline. Rangers first baseman Ronald Guzmán raced in on the ball; as it drifted just inches over the first baseline and into foul territory, Rangers catcher Jose Trevino shouted at Guzmán to drop the ball. Guzmán alertly complied and let the ball drop for strike two on Owings.
This was the most overt act of anti-competition yet, but it’s for sure in the same ballpark as giving up outs in a close game in order to rig a statistical outcome. Anyway, screw you, I think it rules. Red Sox manager Alex Cora evidently does not agree, and is willing to stretch the concept of “playing the game the right way” to its absolute breaking point in order to claim the high ground:
He took his shot while talking with Red Sox writers.
“I’m just happy our guys are playing the game the right way,” Cora said. “I don’t manage the Rangers. That’s a question for [Woodward] over there, and he probably has the right answer.”
But wait, there’s more! Owings stepped back into the box for the fourth pitch of the at-bat, and Minor threw him an inside changeup that missed the zone high and inside by, I don’t know, several inches? Anyway it was very much not a strike, but home plate umpire CB Bucknor, perhaps having seen enough of this farce for one afternoon, rang Owings up anyway. Milestone reached! Minor was immediately yanked from the game, and the Rangers held on for the 7–5 victory. Here’s that final sequence, in all its absurd glory:
Woodward said the Red Sox “kind of set the tone” by choosing “to not try to win the game” during the eighth inning. Getting struck out a bunch and losing a baseball game is a normal event in a long regular season, but abandoning the pursuit of victory in order to avoid getting struck out once, and still getting struck out, and losing anyway, is a grievous act of self-ownage. It’s a shame it had to come from a rotten, rotten called strike, but the result is very satisfying. Also, Minor gave Boston Globe grumpus Pete Abraham the business: