Late in the season, there are two (or three) types of teams. Those who have no chance for the playoffs, and those who are making the playoffs (and those who are "in the hunt"). It is easy to watch the games with implications for the playoffs. It is not as easy to watch the other teams play each other. Yet, that's what I did recently. I picked a random* game between two "lost" teams and watched it to see what reasons there might be to pay attention to losing teams late in the season.
The Phillies and Marlins' fates were known. Coming into August 22nd, the Phillies sat at 48-74, while the Marlins were marginally better at 50-72. Aaron Harang was starting against Justin Nicolino. So exciting. It was a Saturday evening game at Marlins Park, or whatever it's called these days. Different people have different opinions of that stadium. The broadcast mentioned about 22,000 fans; the ESPN box score attendance listed 22,113 in attendance. Nonsense.
113 fans maybe. Not 22,000. Granted, this screenshot is before the game started, so maybe it's not a fair context for showing attendance. Rest assured that the panoramic views of the stadium shown later in the game do not magically make people show up. So yes, the game was pretty meaningless, unless you were really interested in the number one overall pick in the draft.
There were still plenty of reasons to watch the game as discovered while actually watching the game.
First, the beautiful camera view. Yes, this does not apply to all teams in all stadiums. But, this is the camera view from which baseball should be viewed. Watch a Jose Fernandez curveball from this camera angle and then tell me that you didn't swoon. You would be lying.
Second, and I mentioned the starters earlier in more of a negative context, but Justin Nicolino is actually a prospect of some note who had a very interesting season. He started 2015 in AAA, but his 12.9 percent strikeout rate did not exactly inspire much confidence in a call-up. Yet, his home run rates suggest some sort of contact-management ability, and it seems to have manifested in 2015 in MLB as opponents had a .259 BABIP. Who knows if that will continue, but his strikeout rate tendencies certainly did. He struck out hardly anyone leading into this August 22nd start, which was his fifth in the big leagues. This August 22nd outing would end up being his longest start of the season, as he pitched a very strong game up until the eighth inning, in which he gave up a dinger.
Third, the players still care. In the first inning, Andres Blanco hit a nice opposite-field line drive to right field. Ichiro fielded the ball, which kind of got caught under the fence a little, after he retrieved the ball he threw a strike to Dee Gordon, who turned around and threw a strike to Martin Prado at third, who laid the tag on Blanco for the out. This was a textbook relay play. I appreciate clean, crisp defense like that. There is something aesthetically pleasing about a perfect relay.
While we're on the defense topic, there were a lot of plays that required infielders to charge on weakly-grounded balls. There were a multitude of well-executed charge plays. Freddy Galvis was involved in at least one of them as well as several other nice defensive plays. He really flashed some fine leather. This was basically his first full season at shortstop as Jimmy Rollins previously occupied the position. DRS did not like him too much at -6, but UZR saw him at about average. It looked like he had ability at the position, so it will be interesting to see what a larger sample of DRS and UZR have to say.
Fourth, an interesting matchup. Aaron Harang is a right-handed pitcher whose career lefty-righty split does not reveal a platoon disadvantage. However, focusing more on the recent years, Harang has lost something in getting the opposite-handed hitters out. Justin Bour, a left-handed hitter, has quite a bit of power and hits righties way better than he hits lefties (at least so far). They're both big guys. It just felt like the matchup would yield a bomb.
The bomb never happened. In his first appearance, Bour slapped a grounder the opposite way against the shift. Bour pulls the ball a bit more than average, so we still saw something slightly rare. He walked in his second appearance; Harang was around the plate but never quite close enough. Harang struck out Bour in the third appearance in which Harang got bold and attacked Bour with inside fastballs before putting him away on a low breaking ball.
Finally, there were some late-inning antics. Aside from a rough inning in which Harang lost control and walked a bunch of hitters, the game was a pitcher's duel (with the help of the defense). However, when the bullpens entered, it was a different story.
The Phillies had been shut down all game until Nicolino gave up the dinger in the eighth that I mentioned earlier. What I did not mention was the batter - Darnell Sweeney. Sweeney, a utility guy, was acquired by the Phillies in the Chase Utley trade with the Dodgers. He had pinch-hit in the two previous games, but he was yet to get a hit. He grew up near Miami, so on this night there were a lot of people in the stadium to see Sweeney. Pinch-hitting in the eighth against Nicolino, Sweeney took a low cutter and blasted it to left-center field for his first major-league hit and home run. Sweeney worked out with Dee Gordon in the offseason, and cameras caught Gordon mouthing at him during the ensuing pitching change that he would hold the ball ransom for $5,000. I can only imagine that an Ocean's 11-style heist occurred after the game to retrieve the ball.
Now that the bullpen was in, the Phillies could finally do some damage. The game was tied in the ninth, and the Marlins had A.J. Ramos, their closer, on the mound. Aaron Altherr, another Phillies youngster, hit a home run. Darin Ruf, admittedly not a youngster, followed with another homer that bounced off the top of the fence in left field. Just like that, the Phillies led 4-2 and went on to win.
So here's what this game contained - aesthetically pleasing baseball in the form of the camera view, defense, a pitcher's duel, an interesting pitcher-hitter matchup, and plenty of young players showing off what they could do. I'd say there was plenty of meaning in this game.
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