David Price, Aaron Nola show pitchers' duels are still possible

ByDavid Schoenfield ESPN logo
Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox played a real throwback game on Monday at Fenway Park: Aaron Nola and David Price both pitched eight innings, a feat so rare these days they should have worn baggy wool uniforms that hadn't been washed in three weeks and swung their arms over their heads as they began their deliveries.

The Red Sox won the game 2-1 in 13 innings on Blake Swihart's double:

The story of the game, however, was the starting pitchers. This was just the fourth time this season both starters pitched at least eight innings. The first three:

June 12: Sal Romano (8 IP, 1 R) versus Ian Kennedy (8 IP, 0 R)

July 1: Brad Keller (8 IP, 1 R) versus James Paxton (8 IP, 0 R)

July 6: Bartolo Colon (8 IP, 3 R) versus Jordan Zimmermann (8 IP, 1 R)

I guess I hadn't completely realized this, but the pitching duel is another casualty of the modern emphasis on bullpens and pitch counts. It make sense: Complete games are rare, so it shouldn't be a surprise that it's rare that two starters both go deep in the same game.

The most recent time both starters threw a complete game was July 16, 2016, when Matt Shoemaker beat James Shields 1-0 (Shields went eight innings). The most recent time two National League starters went the distance was earlier that season, when Clayton Kershaw outdueled Brandon Finnegan 1-0. The last time both starters threw a nine-inning complete game was April 16, 2014, when Julio Teheran beat Cliff Lee 1-0.

Sticking to what happened at Fenway, here are year-by-year totals where both starters went at least eight innings:

2018: 4

2017: 11

2016: 12

2015: 21

2014: 33

2013: 24

2012: 29

2011: 35

2010: 34

2000: 70

1990: 100

This trend is certainly a reflection of deeper and better bullpens, but it's more about pitch counts. Starting pitchers just aren't left in long enough to throw the 120 pitches needed to throw complete games. Stealing from Joe Sheehan's newsletter on Sunday (he was writing about Sean Newcomb, who was left in for 134 pitches in his no-hit bid), the number of 125-plus pitch outings per season:

2010: 25

2011: 45

2012: 19

2013: 14

2014: 17

2015: 6

2016: 1

2017: 5

2018: 3

The 125-pitch game is dead, but so increasingly is the 115-pitch game and even the 100-pitch game. There have been 484 games this year in which the starter threw 95 or fewer pitches, went seven or fewer innings and allowed one or fewer runs. OK, a few of those belong to the Rays. But starters are getting pulled while throwing shutouts even though their pitch count may still be in the low 80s or even high 70s. That wouldn't have happened much even a decade ago. The analytics say get your starter out sooner rather than later -- don't trust those zeroes that have already been put up on the scoreboard.

I'm not here to criticize the changes, although there is a reasonable debate that exists about the entertainment value of the parade of relievers. I will, however, lament the death of the pitching duel, and how the tenseness ratchets up when two starters are going at it deep into the game. So thank you, Aaron Nola and David Price, for showing that those games can still exist.

Welcome back, James Paxton: The Seattle Mariners ace hadn't pitched since July 12 because of a sore back, but he returned against the Houston Astros for the first game of a three-game series that is crucial for Seattle if it wants to stay close in the AL West. Paxton caught Houston at the right time, with Jose Altuve joining Carlos Correa on the DL, and a thin Houston lineup couldn't do anything against Paxton, who cruised through 82 pitches and seven scoreless innings. Houston's only real scoring opportunity came against Alex Colome in the eighth, but Colome fanned Alex Bregman on a 3-2 cutter that broke off the plate. Nelson Cruz drove in both runs in a 2-0 win:

Houston's makeshift infield hurt Gerrit Cole that inning as Jean Segura beat out an infield single to Yuli Gurriel with two outs, with Gurriel kind of stumbling before making the throw. It should have been the third out. Cruz's ball was ripped past J.D. Davis. Bregman probably doesn't make the play either, but maybe he does.

The Mariners are just three games behind the Astros (and two in the loss column) as Houston has lost six of seven. The Astros have a plus-177 run differential and the Mariners are minus-1. Seattle hasn't played well in July, but win the next two games and they're just a game back of the Astros. (And don't forget the Oakland A's! They were swept in Colorado over the weekend, but clubbed the Toronto Blue Jays on Monday.)

Controversial closer: Speaking of Houston, the Astros traded for Blue Jays reliever Roberto Osuna, who is still finishing off a 75-game suspension for domestic violence. I agree with Keith Law's take on the trade:

  • I can only assume the Astros feel they're above criticism now that they've won the World Series, since they decided to add a player currently on MLB's longest-ever suspension for a domestic violence incident -- a player the Astros did not really need -- with Monday's trade for Roberto Osuna in exchange for three players. The baseball logic here is kind of irrelevant; the Astros made a clear and unequivocal statement that they value winning baseball games so much, they'll accept a marginal improvement to their bullpen even if it sends a terrible message about the impact of domestic violence.

Buster Olney has a strong take as well:

  • Osuna has done nothing to publicly accept responsibility for what happened. There has been no acknowledgment of his actions, no specific apology, no guilty plea. He hasn't been transparent at all, and at the time his suspension was announced, his lawyer told reporters that his acceptance of the suspension was not an admission of guilt in whatever happened.

Beyond that, as Keith alludes to, Osuna is hardly a sure-fire cure for the ninth inning, or however A.J. Hinch employs him. He had good numbers for the Blue Jays last year -- oh, except for those 10 blown saves. He has 9-for-10 this year, but nobody knows how he'll respond (he still is dealing with the charges from the assault and will be in court on Wednesday). Considering all the other relievers the Astros could have acquired, adding Osuna is a stain on the organization.

When a good start goes bad: Tyler Anderson was cruising with the Rockies with a 4-1 lead over the Cardinals entering the bottom of the seventh. He was sitting on 72 pitches, so even though we just lamented all those quick hooks, you can't fault Bud Black for having Anderson in there. But here's what happened:

-- Marcell Ozuna walked on six pitches.

-- Jedd Gyorko walked on four pitches.

-- Yairo Munez walked on six pitches.

That was it for Anderson and Black had to go to his shaky bullpen. Scott Oberg walked Harrison Bader, and Matt Carpenter would tie the game with a two-run single. (By the way, how about Carpenter as an NL MVP candidate? He's third in the league in OPS behind Nolan Arenado and Eugenio Suarez and began the day second to Lorenzo Cain in Baseball-Reference WAR and second to Arenado in FanGraphs WAR.)

The Cardinals would walk it off in the 10th on Marcell Ozuna's first career walk-off home run:

It wasn't all good news for the Cardinals, however, as Carlos Martinez, just off the DL with a strained oblique, left in the fifth with a shoulder strain. The Cards are two games over .500 and fighting to stay relevant, but losing Martinez will be a big blow.

Related Video