On the World Series Stage, a Bullpen Game Just Feels Wrong

PHOENIX — The fourth game of the World Series should have come with a Halloween warning label: Excessive use of overmatched relief pitchers. May not be suitable for die-hard fans.

There were 11 hits by the winning team, 12 hits by the losing team, 13 pitchers overall — and it might have taken 14 hours, if not for the pitch clock.

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That’s one modern innovation that kept the Texas Rangers’ 11-7 thumping of the Arizona Diamondbacks tolerable: It was over in under 200 minutes. Then again, so was “Waterworld,” and audiences didn’t go for that, either.

With wild-card winners and low-wattage superstars, this World Series was always challenged to capture provincial fans in coastal markets. The first three games were compelling, though, and an Arizona victory in Game 4 would have assured that the Series would stretch at least six games for the fifth year in a row.

Now the Rangers are leading, three games to one, with a chance to clinch their first title in Game 5 on Wednesday. Thankfully, it’s a rematch of experienced starting pitchers, Nathan Eovaldi for Texas and Zac Gallen for Arizona. No openers this time.

The opener — before it was called that — was once a charming part of World Series lore: 99 years ago, the Washington Senators started Game 7 with a little-used righty, Curly Ogden, hoping to entice the New York Giants to load their lineup with lefties. Ogden faced just two hitters — no three-batter minimum then! — before giving way to a lefty, and the Senators went on to win.

Now, of course, the opener is a common tactic, popularized by the Tampa Bay Rays, baseball’s low-budget learning lab. We’ve had bullpen games a few times in recent World Series — by the Rays and Dodgers in 2020 and the injury-ravaged Braves in 2021 — and the Diamondbacks embraced the idea for Game 4.

“You’re throwing different looks at guys the whole game,” said Joe Mantiply, the lefty who collected the first four outs for Arizona on Tuesday. “Each hitter never really sees the same guy twice. Obviously, what Ryne (Nelson) did tonight was huge; he stepped up and ate five innings for us. But the strategy is to limit the amount of at-bats guys get off the same guy.”

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To look at the box score is to wonder why Nelson didn’t just start. Summoned in the fourth with his team down by 10 runs, Nelson worked 5 1/3 innings, allowing one run and striking out six with no walks. That would have been a credible start.

Nelson made 27 starts this season and had a 5.31 ERA — not great, but better than Brandon Pfaadt’s 5.72. Pfaadt has mostly thrived as a starter this postseason, but Nelson has been buried in the bullpen and has struggled in the playoffs.

Nelson acknowledged that he pitched himself out of a bigger role; demoted to the minors in August, he did not show enough down the stretch to be trusted as a starter. Had he done so, perhaps, his Game 4 effort could have mattered more.

“That’s the frustrating part for me,” Nelson said. “Had I earned that, maybe this game would have ended up different.”

Without a starter for Game 4, Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo needed his second-tier relievers to keep the game close until he could call for his trusted late crew: Ryan Thompson, Kevin Ginkel and Paul Sewald. When Texas unloaded on Mantiply, Miguel Castro, Kyle Nelson and Luis Frías — aided by a Christian Walker error in the third — Lovullo never had the chance.

Marcus Semien homered to give Texas a 10-0 lead in the third inning. (Joe Camporeale / USA Today)

Lovullo is secure enough to candidly explain his moves; he knows he does not have all the answers. If he knew that Nelson could pitch so long — and so well — couldn’t he have started him and avoided the mess that unfolded?

“You look at it a little bit different after you know what the outcome is,” Lovullo said. “And maybe he was an option for us after an opener. Maybe he was an option for us to start the baseball game. But he did his job and didn’t surprise me. I just know there were some wobbly outings in the postseason and we were trying to protect him a little bit and build up his confidence and get him in the right spot. And today certainly was that.”

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The Diamondbacks won their bullpen game against Philadelphia in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, though the Phillies scored off four of their relievers and Craig Kimbrel blew the save. Lovullo took the risk again and paid for it with a loss — and an unsightly one, at that.

“It wasn’t your traditional World Series game with a lot of World Series moments,” he conceded, adding that he was simply trying to find the best way to win a game.

“We know we have our three starting pitchers lined up for
the next three days, and this is just where we’ve been as an organization to have to do something like this. But the game is a little different than it was in 1975, when I was watching the Big Red Machine against the Boston Red Sox. That was a totally different feel.”

The epic sixth game in 1975, when Carlton Fisk waved his home run fair in the 12th inning, was actually a bit of a bullpen parade for Cincinnati. Manager Sparky Anderson pulled his starter after two innings and set a record by using seven relievers in a World Series game.

But the drama that night was so thick, the performances so dazzling, that pitching changes only heightened the tension. This one, by contrast, was a dud — partly due to poor Texas pitching at the end, but mostly because the World Series should be better than this.

There’s a fine line between strategy and manipulation, and on this stage, a bullpen game just feels wrong.

“I’ll be honest, I’m not a big fan of it during the season,” Texas manager Bruce Bochy said. “It’s being done a lot, but I understand if you don’t have a starter to fit in that slot there, you have to do (it), you have to adapt to your club.

“I’m not saying it’s not a good thing. You’re in a World Series; you’ve got to do what you can to win a ball game. But I’m saying in general — and that’s kind of my thinking over the years, because I do think fans love matchups.”

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Maybe the Rangers would have battered Ryne Nelson if he’d started; there’s much more stress in a tie game than a blowout. Or maybe Nelson would have etched his name in World Series lore. Either way, it would have been fun to find out.

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(Top photo of Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo removing Ryne Nelson in the ninth inning: Harry How / Getty Images)

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