In 2018, the trend of expanded bullpen usage got more intense and innovative. While the Tampa Bay Rays misses the playoffs, their tactics–using relievers rather than a traditional starter one day in the rotation, and employing an “opener” to pitch the first inning the way a closer is used in the ninth–was absorbed by other teams and playoff teams are increasingly willing to go to reliever earlier in the game if the starter is struggling. 2018 has been the year of the bullpen, and the Milwaukee Brewers have been at the top of that trend.
The Brewers have the weakest starting rotation left in theory playoffs, but that didn’t stop them from overtaking the Chicago Cubs at the end of the regular season and dominating the Colorado Rockies in the NLDS. The bullpen has been a crucial part of Milwaukee’s narrative from Josh Hader’s implosion in the All-Star Game that happened as the world discovered he was a racist and homophobic teenager, to their late season surge that transformed them from Wild Card hopefuls to the National League’s top seed. Then the Brewers bullpen made an even greater contribution in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Brewers left-handed reliever Brandon Woodruff became just the third relief pitcher ever to hit a home run in the postseason, the first lefty pitcher to get an extra base hit off Clayton Kershaw, and the new perpetuator of the narrative that Kershaw can’t get it done in October. As unfair as I think that narrative is when it comes to Kershaw, I love that this happened. It’s only fitting that in 2018 a relief pitcher would get a game changing hit.
Postseason baseball is random and weird, and the best. The most recent example of playoff weirdness also involved my favorite quirk that is unique to baseball. No other sport has it’s major league in North America actually function as two separate leagues with separate rules. The American League has the designated hitter, while the National League has the pitchers bat. While my favorite baseball team is in the American League, and some of my favorite baseball moments have involved David Ortiz, I am not the type of person who favors one set of rules over the other.
I like that there are two rules for two leagues because of the chaos it creates. I remember in Game 1 of the 2012 World Series, the starting pitchers were San Francisco’s Barry Zito and Detroit’s Justin Verlander when Verlander was the best pitcher on the planet with the possible exception of Kershaw. When Zito came up to bat, Tim McCarver remarked that this had to be the biggest mismatch between pitcher and batter there could possible be in a Major League game, and then Zito slapped an RBI double, helping his own cause in a Game 1 win and eventual sweep for the Giants.
Also, imagine if there were more quirks like this in other leagues. Imagine if the NHL had a rule that in games played in Canadian arenas (or stadiums if it’s an outdoor game) teams were required to pull the goalie and add an extra skater as soon as they gain possession in the offensive zone. Even if the goalie didn’t have to skate all the way to the bench but just to a designated box on the ice, it would lead to a ton of empty net goals and it would drive fans crazy. It’s insane, but I would love that.
It was just one game, and the Dodgers are really good. If they rally back, Woodruff’s home run will just be another fun fact, but if the Brewers win the pennant, it could go down as one of the most iconic moments in baseball history. In the meantime, it is part of the fun of October.