HOUSTON – Atlanta won its first World Series in 26 years and it was done thanks in part to a strategy that would have been considered anathema to the 1995 club that took the title.
The ’95 team had a rotation led by three future Hall of Famers – Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz – that mostly controlled a potent Cleveland club in six games (Glavine threw eight innings of one-hit ball in the 1-0 Game 6 clincher at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium).
This World Series to an extent has been viewed as a memorial service for starting pitching in the game as both clubs, for varying reasons, at some point have gone the bullpen-game route.
Taking Atlanta specifically, it did so in Games 4 and 5.
In Game 4, Dylan Lee recorded exactly one out in what would be a 3-2 Atlanta victory, the MVP of that triumph, arguably the pitcher who replaced him, Kyle Wright, allowed one run over 4 2/3 innings. Four relievers followed Wright to the mound to finish it off.
Atlanta was not as fortunate in Game 5 as the pitchers called on by manager Brian Snitker could not make Adam Duvall’s first-inning grand slam hold up. The Astros instead forced the series back to Houston with a 9-5 victory.
"Yeah, every bit," Snitker said after Sunday night’s loss, asked if fitting the pitching puzzle together for back-to-back bullpen games was as challenging as he thought it would be. "When we won [Saturday], it made it easier, I guess, coming into this one, but we knew it was going to be tough. That's just a lot of innings to cover against a club like this that swings the bats so well. The good news is we'll take a day off [Monday] and be in good shape."
Good shape in that Snitker had one of his top rotation arms, Max Fried, starting Tuesday night's Game 6 and he came up big. Fried allowed four hits in six scoreless innings, as Atlanta topped the Astros, 7-0. Fried struck out six and walked none.
Had a Game 7 been necessary, Atlanta would have gone with Ian Anderson, a rookie who has proven himself to be a stud the last two Octobers with a 1.26 ERA in eight career postseason starts. Anderson, was removed after five innings of no-hit ball in Game 3.
Though some of the narrative of the series, as mentioned, has been the further erosion of the importance of starting pitching in the age of analytics, it is important to recognize Atlanta’s approach has been born more out of necessity than design.
Game 1 starter Charlie Morton, for example, was lost for the series after a comebacker in that game cracked his right fibula. Tucker Davidson, who took Morton’s spot on the roster, started Game 5 and allowed four runs (two earned) over two innings.
And bigger picture, All-Star righthander Mike Soroka was lost in May when he retore his right Achilles tendon, which he first tore in August 2020. Another up-and-coming righty, Huascar Ynoa, was lost in May when he broke his pitching hand punching the dugout bench. He went down again during the NLCS with a shoulder injury.
"I'm a big fan of starting pitching, but in this age where some guys…they break and it's just hard to keep it, in your organization, to keep enough stable of starting pitching that you can use," said Snitker, a part of the Atlanta organization since joining it as a minor leaguer in 1977. "I'm still a big proponent in developing starting pitching. I think you develop starting pitching in your organization if you're going to be solid. Part of me thinks we need to get back to that."
Not surprisingly, he has a kindred spirit in Dusty Baker, the 72-year-old manager of the Astros who played in the big leagues from 1968-86 and has been forced to go the bullpen game route his share in these playoffs.
"I grew up watching Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and Juan Marichal and all the greats. You looked forward to pitching matchups," Baker said. "It was always Juan Marichal and Sandy Koufax. It was Gaylord Perry and Drysdale. I remember as a kid, my dad used to say ‘Spahn and Sain and pray for rain,’ and you'd look forward to pitching matchups. There's nothing better than an old-fashioned pitching matchup."