For those who complain it isn’t what it once was, and too much big money has led to too much big pampering in today’s baseball, well, tonight is your kind of night at the local ball yard.
The pitching matchup:
Justin Verlander, the horse/ace king of major league hurlers, vs. one of his new challengers in the horse/ace category, Yu Darvish.
Darvish is not there yet, of course, not in the Verlander stable, but stay tuned. Yu is on the same horse track, certainly in mentality and stamina.
This is throwback baseball tonight. Not way back throwback, but about as good as it gets today. Ace on ace. And sacred pitch counts be damned, except, of course, when the manager starts to fret over the pitch count.
Frankly, it’s legitimate to promote Darvish hooking up with Verlander as must-see ball, but the bottom line is the bullpens of the Rangers and Tigers will likely decide the outcome.
“That’d be accurate to assume,” said Rangers CEO Nolan Ryan on Wednesday. “The bullpens will probably decide who wins if both these guys keep it close. The job of the ace these days is to keep it close until the manager starts worrying about the pitch count. The job of the ace in the old days was to keep pitching until he won it.”
Nolan knows, of course. He kept pitching all the way to Cooperstown.
But Ryan will be leaving the baseball owners’ meeting in New York on Thursday morning to be back on the ballpark front row in Arlington for the game. Verlander vs. Yu. “I wouldn’t miss it,” said Ryan.
“Both guys probably downplay it publicly, but they know the situation, and I’m betting both are looking forward to the challenge.”
At age 30, Verlander is probably the best pitcher in baseball, and despite a bad World Series start against the Giants in October, he has dominated the American League the last four seasons.
While averaging right at 20 wins over that span, the “horse” numbers are almost legendary, again, by today’s standards. He has led the league in innings pitched three of the last four years and had an almost unheard of six complete games in 2012.
There were only three pitchers last season in baseball allowed to throw more than 130 pitches in a game, and Verlander did it twice.
Yu, meanwhile, is 6-1 and coming off back-to-back games of 127 and 117 pitches, which has raised some concern, although not from Ryan, who isn’t exactly an advocate of pigeonholing pitchers on pitch counts.
“That should come down to the individual instead of lumping everyone into the same category of a 100 or a 105 pitches,” he said. “The pitcher is going to tell you simply by watching him what kind of workload he’s capable of handling.
“I applaud [the Tigers] for letting Verlander be himself. Watch him. He’s throwing harder in the seventh inning than the first inning. He’s proved he could handle it. So use him that way.”
“These last two starts, with the high pitch counts, and with Yu having demonstrated already what he can handle, I don’t see any issue,” answered Ryan. “Plus, in April and May, I don’t see the body getting into a deficit situation. Pitchers are still fresh, and the weather is OK.
“July and August, now that might be a different story. But for now, Yu is fine. With other pitchers, it might be different. We are still watching Yu closely, but from all the tendencies so far, I’d say he’s got to be included in that [horse] category.”
Those observations are coming from a pitcher who once threw 238 (not a misprint) pitches over 12 innings against Boston. But as Nolan points out, Luis Tiant actually worked into the 14th inning as the Red Sox starter, and lost the game at that point.
“And Louie and me both made our next starts, in a four-man rotation [three days rest], and both of us pitched effectively,” Nolan added.
Compared to tonight in Arlington, Ryan was involved in many of these horse/ace kind of matchups, and said the ones that stand out the most came early in his career, going against Don Drysdale and Steve Carlton, two fierce competitors.
But as a kid pitcher for the Mets in the late-’60s, Ryan’s indoctrination came when he witnessed one of baseball’s all-time horse/ace rivalries.
“It was [Bob] Gibson against [Tom] Seaver,” he said. “I had been told there was some bad blood. Well, Seaver’s first at-bat, he got spun around and his batting helmet flew off. Gibson threw at him. When Gibson came up, he got spun around, and his helmet flew off. Seaver threw at him.
“I was like, ‘Wow.’ I was all eyes. It was a great honor to watch those two against each other. I don’t even remember who won that day. But I never forgot it.”
When Ryan first joined the Rangers as team president in 2008 he made the well-chronicled declaration that the coddling of pitchers was over. It was assumed that pitch counts would be greatly expanded. Ryan was not exactly a fan of that stat, a stat that either didn’t exist or didn’t matter in his pitching days.
“But I know it’s totally different in this era. I understand that,” he said. “The only thing I was saying then and now is don’t put every pitcher in the same 100-to-105 pitch count category. Some guys are simply equipped to handle more, much more in some cases. These two guys [tonight] seem to be an example of that.”
It’s a throwback scene at the ballpark. Just not way back.