On September 28, 1930, with the New York Yankees firmly locked into third place and the Boston Red Sox even more firmly pinioned in last, the Yankees unveiled a surprise starter for their season finale in Boston.
George Herman “Babe” Ruth.
Batting in his customary third position, and having already hit his customary 48 homers, Ruth scattered 11 hits, struck out three of the scrub-riddled Boston line-up, and pitched a complete game victory (his first pitching win since 1921). A crowd so otherwise disinterested that the attendance figure is lost to history presumably roared as Ruth harkened back to his days as the best left-hand pitcher in the American League. The Yankees and Ruth would repeat the stunt at Yankee Stadium three years later: this time Ruth added a homer and surrendered 12 hits, hanging on for the 6-5 win that ended the season, long after the vagaries of the pennant race had assured that the only question was whether the Yanks would finish six, seven, or eight games out of first.
There is no comparison here to the latter-day Yanks starting rookie Dellin Betances tonight in Tampa with the Rays and Red Sox tied for the Wild Card. But it is one of the infelicities of the modern pennant race and the treating of pitchers as if they were Thoroughbred Race Horses that Joe Girardi – or any manager in his situation – must throw out a sacrificial lamb in this situation. Bartolo Colon started yesterday, Freddy Garcia has looked like crap, Ivan Nova and CC Sabathia are needed for the playoffs, and Phil Hughes had to miss a start earlier due to whatever Phil Hughes Syndrome he’s suffering from at the moment.
Who do you want Girardi to start? Babe Ruth?
In 1964 – in a far more complex four-team scramble to win the National League – as the Phillies collapsed they had to face, in the season’s last three games, career 193-game winner Curt Simmons, then seasonal 17-game winner Jim O’Toole, and then Cincinnati fifth starter John Tsitouris, who could at least claim he’d won nine games that year. The Reds, challenging for the pennant, had to face Joe Gibbon of Pittsburgh, but then Chris Short and Jim Bunning of the Phillies. The eventual fourth-place Giants were stuck facing Dick Ellsworth, Bob Buhl, and Larry Jackson, who among them had won an astonishing 53 games for the deadbeat Cubs. But the last three games the Cardinals played saw them face the hapless (53-109) New York Mets – at home – and the star-studded rotation of Al Jackson (10 wins), Jack Fisher (10), and Galen Cisco (5). They shelled Fisher, but were promptly staved off by five innings of five-hit relief by rookie Tom Parsons, who was getting half his career wins that day (2-13 lifetime, though they would trade him for Jerry Grote).
On the last day of the insane 1964 NL season, the Giants were opposed by a 24-game winner (Jackson), the Reds had to go up against a future Hall of Famer who’d just thrown a perfect game early in the season (Bunning), and the Cardinals had to somehow overcome Galen Cisco.
Wanna see Galen Cisco’s line that day?
New York Mets IP H R ER BB SO
Cisco L (6-19) 4 7 5 5 4 0
Galen Cisco lifetime? 25-56, 4.56 ERA.
Did you hear the Phillies bitching that the Cardinals got a soft opponent at the end? Even after St. Louis went on to win the World Series and the ’64 Phillies went on to eternal ignominy? Anybody even mention it when Cisco wound up as pitching coach…of the Phillies?
There is also something else to consider about Betances. Though we live in a time when fans are more aware of minor league prospects than ever before, last week the Rays drew weird looks when they gave Matt Moore his first big league start against New York. Moore merely struck out eleven in five innings. Betances is not quite the prospect Moore is, but he has superb motion on his fastball and is one of the top 20 or 25 pitching prospects in the minors and frankly the Yankees needed to see what he could do, eventually. Moreover, all I heard about yesterday was how, with Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek out, the Red Sox were “stuck” starting rookie catcher Ryan Lavarnway in the penultimate game in Baltimore. All Lavarnway did was hit a three-run homer, a game-cinching solo homer, and then save the contest in the bottom of the 9th when Jonathan Papelbon froze on a squib in front of the plate and Lavarnway calmly threw the batter out at first.
Red Sox fans have every right to feel frustrated that their hopes of avoiding a play-in game hinge in part on a guy whose career consists of having gotten two outs while giving up two hits, four walks, and a hit batsman. But they have no right to complain nor claim the Yankees aren’t living up to some kind of sportsmanship standard. And ultimately – whose fault is it that the Sox are in this mess to begin with? Betances? The Babe?