Could it be that after 18 years of frustration, the Los Angeles Dodgers finally have a team it’s fun to root for again? Based on Sunday night’s game against the San Francisco Giants, which I attended with my wife, my brother and my 4-year-old niece, the signs are good.
(O, muse, give me the wit and skill to write this post that people indifferent to baseball might enjoy it!)
Greg Maddux is a famous pitcher, who spent most of his career with the Atlanta Braves. He turned 40 this year, which is old for a ballplayer. This season, Maddux was pitching for the Chicago Cubs, who are having a dismal season. Maddux was having the kind of year a great pitcher usually retires on; a few brilliant outings that brought back reminders of past glories amid a succession of bad games that made fans think, “He’s done.” Despite Maddux’s apparent descent into mediocrity, on the last day of July Dodgers’ GM Ned Colletti traded for him.
Maddux’s first Dodger game was startling; a no-hitter against the Reds that he was forced to leave due to a lengthy rain delay after seven innings. His second game was also successful, though not as brilliant. His third game was last night, against the Dodgers’ longtime rivals, who were pitching their best pitcher, Jason Schmidt, and it was magical.
Maddux started the first inning by giving up a hit, a solidly struck single by Randy Winn. The next batter hit a fly ball that was caught, but the third batter, Ray Durham smacked another single. Up came Barry Bonds, another old player possibly in his last season, but still a threat to hit a home run or at least a bases-clearing double and put the Dodgers in the hole. And Bonds did hit the ball hard, but Maddux reflexively reached up and caught it, and then threw to first base to get another out; and the inning was over.
From that point on, Maddux did not allow another hit. He didn’t walk anybody. No Giant reached base. He was perfect the rest of the way, until he was taken out for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the eighth. The only reason Maddux had to come out then was that the Giants’ pitcher, Jason Schmidt, had shut out the Dodgers to that point as well. Schmidt pitched a great game. It was one of those 0-0 games that only real baseball fans can love.
It wasn’t just that Maddux was perfect. It was the efficient way he achieved perfection. Maddux no longer possesses a real fastball. The Dodgers have several pitchers who can throw the ball 95-97 miles an hour. Maddux fastest pitch is about 85 mph. What Maddux can do is aim the ball exactly where he wants to aim it, and vary the speed of the ball enough so that the hitter can never feel confident that if he just swings in a certain location, he’ll hit the ball hard. And, he threw strikes, almost exclusively, so the batters knew that if they didn’t swing, they’d be struck out.
As it happened, Maddux only struck out four, but he didn’t have to do more than that to completely dominate the Giant hitters. They would swing at his first or second pitch, and hit it weakly, right at somebody. He needed a few good defensive plays to help keep runners off the bases, including another one of his own. Bonds almost hit a home run off him in the seventh, but it didn’t go quite far enough, and it was caught for an out.
It is hard to convey to a non-fan how amazing the following statistic is: In his eight innings, Maddux threw 68 pitches, and 50 of them were strikes. (In the same number of innings, Schmidt threw 114 pitches.) Most starting pitchers are taken out after they’ve thrown 100 pitchers, and they usually hit this threshold by the sixth or seventh inning. The high ratio of strikes to balls is amazing. If you divide these numbers by the eight innings he pitched, an “average” inning by Maddux last night consisted of only 8.5 pitches (to get three hitters out), of which 6.25 of them were in the strike zone. That is a level of finesse you just never see. In his 20-year major league career, I doubt Maddux has ever pitched with such precision. Nor have many other pitchers, ever.
Schmidt also eventually gave way to a pinch-hitter, and so lesser pitchers for both teams finished the game. The Dodgers’ relievers maintained the shutout. But in the bottom of the tenth, the Giants’ pitcher — a guy named Vinny Chulk — gave up a home run to the first batter he faced, the Dodgers’ 23-year-old rookie catcher, Russell Martin.
Martin’s home run was certainly dramatic, and very gratifying to the 55,000 people who attended the game, most of us Dodger fans. It symbolized a part of the 2006 Dodger story — the flood of new young players. That’s the angle the Los Angeles Times emphasized in its headline and story.
The Times’ headline was bizarrely obscure: “This Victory is Grade-Eh.” Unless you happen to remember the 1970s SCTV characters The McKenzie Brothers, two drunken Canadians who punctuated every sentence with “eh,” and unless you happen to know that Russell Martin is Canadian, you would think the Times was saying, “This victory was so-so.”
The bigger miss, however, was the Times failure to emphasize the exquisite artistry of this game. I can say sincerely that if the Giants had managed to win, I would have been just as amazed and moved by what I saw. It was the greatest baseball game I have attended in person in my life.