A Wild Slugfest Brings Baseball’s Best, And Worst, To London

Yankees’ starter Masahiro Tanaka trundled off the mound, shoulders slumped in dejection, wondering how the hell he gave up six runs after only getting two outs. It was the worst start of his six-year MLB career. His ERA in Europe stands at a woeful 81.00. Tanaka’s only consolation? His Boston counterpart Rick Porcello has a European ERA of 162.00.

For better and for worse, welcome to baseball in 2019.

London Series Photo

In an interview before the series, former Yankee and current analyst Alex Rodriguez called baseball a “thinking man’s game, a strategic game.” If this was strategy, it was more evocative of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous suggestion to “speak softly and carry a big stick” than Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Aaron Hicks got the party started with a two-run blast in the top of the first. Half an inning later, Michael Chavis responded for the Red Sox with a three-run homer. When the dust settled, the two teams had combined for six home runs, thirty-seven hits (sixteen of which went for extra bases), and thirty runs.

Home runs aren’t inherently bad things. As the British broadcaster Darren Fletcher said when Aaron Judge launched a two-run home run in the fourth, “that’s what they [the fans] came to see.” Yankees fans were delirious after Judge’s home run; Red Sox fans cheered just as loudly for Chavis’s game-tying home run in the first.

Perhaps the flaw is that the home runs seem manufactured. The stadium only measured 385 feet to straightaway center (or since we’re in London, is it centre?). ESPN’s Buster Olney reported that “aerodynamics of the stadium” may have affected the pitcher’s ability to spin the ball effectively. Baseball is a quirky game–especially when played in a stadium not built for baseball–but the small field dimensions turned the game into a sandbox.

Judge London

Not that the home run dilemma is limited to London. Conspiracy theories abound that the baseball is–once again–juiced. Pitchers complain about a lack of grip on the ball. The seams don’t protrude enough, and the leather covers are too slick. They may have a point. In the month of June, MLB players hit a record 1,142 home runs. That broke the record of 1,135 home runs, set all the way back in May…of this year.

Home runs are incredible feats of strength and skill made mundane by their regularity. They also deprive baseball fans of balls in play, which can produce some of the more exciting plays in baseball. Only two teams are averaging one or more double-plays per game, and one team–the Houston Astros–are averaging just 0.51. The first leg of the London Series ended with a spectacular double play turned by Didi Gregorius, but as I think back on the game Didi’s double play was one of the few moments that stood out from the litany of base hits and home runs that characterized the game. If UK baseball fans came for the home runs, they left satisfied; if they came for balls in play, they left scratching their heads.

On the positive side, the offensive fireworks at London Stadium demonstrated the unpredictable nature of baseball to fans around the world. Most games that start 6-0 after half an inning end with Russell Martin making an appearance as a position player pitching. Half an inning later, we had a whole new ball game tied at 6-6. Even as the Yankees stormed to an 11-run lead after five innings, the game wasn’t over. Boston responded with six runs of their own in the seventh, and fans remained poised for a historic comeback all the way until Chapman delivered the final pitch of the game at 10:52 P.M. local time.

Did I mention the game started at 6:10?

The first game of the London Series was three minutes short of being the longest nine-inning game in baseball history. Much of that time was spent watching unknown relievers jog out from the bullpen, only to get shelled for more runs and make the walk of shame back to the dugout. Mike Shawaryn gave up eight earned runs. Nestor Cortes, Jr. gave up five. UK baseball fans are more passionate about the game than you might think, but precious few fans in attendance would have been able to pick Shawaryn or Cortes out of a crowd.

Mike Shawaryn
This is Mike Shawaryn. The more you know, right?

MLB cannot really be blamed for the anonymity of the two bullpens. This is the greatest rivalry in baseball, arguably the greatest rivalry in American sports. This is Yankees-Red Sox. This is Aaron Judge, Mookie Betts, Gary Sanchez, JD Martinez, Aroldis Chapman and Chris Sale. These are two of the best teams in the American League, the reigning World Series Champion and the team with the most World Series Championships. This is the best that baseball has to offer.

The problem is, the best that baseball has to offer in 2019 is an imperfect product. The game was exciting to the very end–for anyone that stayed all four hours and forty-two minutes of it. The offensive production was breathtaking–unless you like defensive wizardry. The stars were on the field for all to see–except the pitchers who didn’t make it out of the first inning.

This is baseball, 2019. An exaggerated version, perhaps, but typical all the same. Whether Londoners fall for the game as Americans have remains to be seen.

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