Sports

Pitching and Managing Evolve, and a No-Hit Bid Ends Early

ATLANTA — The 1956 World Series was the first of Brian Snitker’s lifetime. Don Larsen threw a perfect game for the Yankees then, and it is one of the more indelible moments in baseball history. All these years later, no pitcher has thrown another no-hitter in the World Series.

On Friday night, in Game 3 of this World Series, Ian Anderson held the Houston Astros hitless for five innings at Truist Park. Snitker, the manager of the Atlanta Braves, pulled Anderson from the game.

It was not a move Casey Stengel would have made on that golden afternoon in the Bronx long ago. Then again, Snitker acknowledged, it was not a move he would have made until recently, either.

“The me of old, probably a couple years ago, would be: ‘How the hell am I doing this?,’ quite honestly,” Snitker said, after a 2-0 victory that gave Atlanta a two-games-to-one lead. “But the pitch count was such that he wasn’t going nine innings.”

Anderson had thrown 76 pitches, only 39 for strikes, with three walks and a hit batter in his five innings. In truth, he was less like Larsen and more like Bill Bevens, the star-crossed Yankee who issued 10 walks in Game 4 of the 1947 World Series before he lost a no-hit bid — and the game — with two outs in the ninth.

Bevens’s pitch count is lost to time, but he was 30 years old and his arm never recovered; he relieved in Game 7 and then never again pitched in the majors. No modern manager would recklessly risk a pitcher’s future in pursuit of a World Series no-hitter, so Anderson never had a chance.

Only three other starters had been pulled with a World Series no-hitter intact — two because of injuries (John Tudor in 1988 and David Wells in 2003), and one (Curly Ogden in 1924) because his manager essentially used him as a decoy to scramble the opposition. Anderson’s outing was the longest no-hit start in the World Series since Larsen’s.

Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series remains the only no-hitter in Series history. Credit…John Lindsay/Associated Press

It was never going to last very long. If he had not lifted Anderson after five innings, Snitker said, he definitely would have done so after six. Atlanta’s four best relievers each had two days off, Snitker explained, and Anderson had thrown a lot of pitches to the hitters at the top of the Astros’ order, which was set to lead off the sixth.

Snitker took the prevailing approach to bullpen management, in which relievers are peacekeepers more than firefighters. Why flirt with possible trouble when the starter has already done his job?

“There’s a reason for it,” said Tyler Matzek, who followed A.J. Minter and Luke Jackson and lost the no-hitter on a bloop single to left by Aledmys Diaz leading off the eighth. “The guys, the front office, Snit, everybody’s gone over it a few times for what the game script is for us to win this thing. Obviously, the game script is right.”

The beauty of sports, of course, is that there actually is no script; the performers try to carry out the manager’s plan as an opponent tries to foil it. There is always a chance that a pitcher will be better than his team could have expected. When that happens in a setting like the World Series, fans want to believe they might see another Larsen.

Blake Snell was cruising in the sixth inning of Game 6 of the 2020 World Series, but was pulled for a reliever. Tampa Bay lost the game, resulting in a great deal of second-guessing.Credit…Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Who could forget the letdown in Game 6 of the World Series last fall, when Tampa Bay Rays Manager Kevin Cash pulled Blake Snell from a shutout in the sixth inning while facing elimination? Snell had utterly dominated the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were thrilled to see him leave for a tired reliever, Nick Anderson. The Dodgers promptly stormed ahead and won the title.

In that case, though, Cash’s flaw was trusting the wrong reliever: Nick Anderson had been struggling, and the Dodgers were eager to see him. The Astros were not as thrilled to see Ian Anderson depart, because they knew Atlanta’s bullpen would be just as stingy.

“They have a really good pitching staff all the way around,” said Alex Bregman, who rolled a single against the shift off Will Smith in the ninth. “No matter who’s coming in, you’ve got to stay focused and locked in.”

Especially when those pitchers are Minter, Jackson, Matzek and Smith. Jackson looks sharp again after a rough National League Championship Series, and the other three have been overpowering throughout the postseason, with a combined 1.10 earned run average and 43 strikeouts in 32 ⅔ innings.

Anderson, 23, took a no-hitter into the sixth inning of his major league debut against the Yankees last August. But he said he could not remember ever throwing a complete-game no-hitter, even in high school in Clifton Park, N.Y. He wanted to keep pitching on Friday, but conceded he could not challenge Snitker’s logic.

“I knew he wasn’t going to budge,” Anderson said. “It’s hard to. You’ve got guys like Matzek and Minter and Luke and Will at the back end coming in, you can’t blame him for going to those guys. Those guys, time in and time out, get it done.”

It wasn’t a no-hitter, but Will Smith closed things out in a combined shutout by Atlanta’s pitching staff.Credit…David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Starters have been working less and less this October, which stands to reason at the end of a long season following a very short one. But what we saw in Game 3 was mostly about the evolution of pitching.

Technology helps coaches identify the right areas of emphasis for each pitcher. Armed with the knowledge of what they should use and why, more pitchers than ever have the stuff to overwhelm hitters for short bursts. The best teams, like Atlanta, have lots of those pitchers.

Ten or so years ago — or, say, in 1956 — a starter was probably the manager’s best option deep into the game. Now he may not be, even if he has not allowed a single hit.

“I don’t know,” Snitker said, almost apologetically. “It’s just that we had all our guys gassed up today. I kind of liked how it set up.”

It set up Atlanta with a lead in the World Series, and that — more than matching milestones from decades ago — is all that really mattered.

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