Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 19, 2018

DC Gets A Home Run Derby Doubleheader

A NOTE TO READERS: The next post will be delayed by one day, until Monday. Thanks as always for your support.

Nearly half a century of summers has come and gone since baseball’s All-Star Game was last played in the nation’s capital. For much of that time there was no reason to stage the Mid-Summer Classic in Washington, DC, for the city was without a big league franchise. Just two seasons after the 1969 National and American League All-Stars faced off at RFK Stadium, the Senators decamped for Texas, and it was not until the 2005 arrival of the Montreal Expos, renamed the Nationals, that the Great Game was again played in the federal city.

As much as fans like to think otherwise, baseball is never static. Then as now, change was in the air. The 1969 season was the first for four new franchises, two in each league. Kansas City, having just lost the Athletics to the west coast, welcomed the Royals; while fans in Seattle turned out to watch the Pilots play at decrepit Sick’s Stadium. The poor conditions at that ancient ballpark and high ticket prices combined to produce sparse crowds, and after just one season the bankrupt Pilots were off to Milwaukee and new life as the Brewers. In the National League the San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos took the field for the first time. Nearly five decades later both the Padres and the Expos/Nationals remain in search of a first championship.

The expansion to twenty-four teams meant the beginning of the divisional era and with it the introduction of the League Championship Series, then played as a best-of-five gateway to the World Series. One year after Denny McLain went 31-6 and Don Drysdale threw 58 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings in what is still known as the Year of the Pitcher, the rules were changed to encourage more run production. In 1969 the strike zone was reduced and pitching mounds were lowered from fifteen inches to ten. The changes had an immediate impact, with the average runs scored per game jumping by almost twenty percent and homers per game increasing more than thirty percent. Among the 45,259 fans who crowded into RFK on the afternoon of July 23rd there were no doubt more than a few who were lamenting the changes as the ruination of a sport that was still four seasons shy of the designated hitter rule.

That game was played on a Wednesday afternoon because rain had soaked DC the previous evening, wiping out the original start time. Five decades on the 1969 contest remains the last All-Star tilt to fall victim to inclement weather, though it was a near thing when the game returned to Washington and Nationals Park this week. Storms lashed the area during the day on Tuesday, flooding the dugouts at the ballpark in DC’s Navy Yard neighborhood. But the rain moved out well before the game’s scheduled start time, and another line of heavy showers and strong gusts that approached from the northwest during the contest’s middle innings fell apart, in the end dropping just some brief sprinkles on the players and fans.

Both before and after Tuesday’s rain, fans were treated to displays of the raw power that fuels today’s game. That was to be expected Monday night, when the annual Home Run Derby took place. A growing number of sluggers shy away from the Derby, cognizant that many participants have struggled at the plate in the games that count after taking a turn at the exhibition. While Chicago’s Kyle Schwarber and Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman were familiar faces in this year’s lineup, the Dodgers’ Max Muncy and the Phillies’ Rhys Hoskins were not exactly household names.

But the Derby’s main attraction was Bryce Harper of the Nationals, and to the delight of the home crowd, the 25-year-old who is facing free agency at the end of this season rode their cheers all the way to victory. Batting last in all three rounds of the single elimination event, Harper outslugged first Freeman 13 homers to 12, then Muncy by the same count, before facing Schwarber in the final. The Cubs’ left fielder put 18 balls over the fence in that showdown and looked like he was headed for the win as the clock ran down on Harper. But with the roars building with each swing, the Nationals’ star swatted six dingers in the final thirty seconds of his scheduled time to tie Schwarber. In each round Harper easily crossed the threshold of at least two home runs longer than 440 feet to earn an extra thirty seconds of bonus time. In the final he only needed a handful of those additional seconds to club his 19th and claim a walk-off win. Whether or not this is Harper’s final year in a Nats’ uniform, on Monday night he put on show that DC fans will remember for years.

The eight Derby participants combined for a record total of 221 homers, launched to all fields in the humid DC night. But while a record might not have been forecast, hitting home runs is the sole purpose of the Derby. What was decidedly more surprising was that one night later, on the other side of the massive rainstorm, the All-Star Game itself turned into a reprise.

It was hardly news when Aaron Judge opened the scoring in the top of the 2nd by launching the second pitch he saw from Max Scherzer into the visitor’s bullpen in left field, where it was caught by Luis Severino, Judge’s Yankee teammate who was warming up. After all, Judge set a major league record last season with 52 homers in his rookie year and has established himself as one of the Great Game’s top sluggers. Nor was it a shock when baseball’s best player Mike Trout lined a shot into the same bullpen an inning later.

But as the innings rolled by balls kept flying out of the park. First Wilson Contreras, then Trevor Story for the National League to tie the score at 2-2. Next a three-run shot by Seattle’s Jean Segura to push the AL back ahead. Then Christian Yelich in the bottom of the 8th, followed by a dramatic two-run bomb in the last of the 9th off the bat of Cincinnati’s Scooter Gennett to again tie the score and send the game into extra innings. Gennett’s was the seventh home run of the night, setting a new All-Star Game record.

It was a record that was topped three times in the 10th, when first a pair of Astros, Alex Bregman and George Springer, homered for the American League, before Joey Votto slugged the tenth round-tripper of the game in the bottom of the frame. Of the fourteen runs plated in the AL’s 8-6 victory, only one was pushed across by something other than a home run, when Michael Brantley lofted a sacrifice fly that scored Segura in the top of the 10th.

The ten dingers certainly reflected baseball’s current state, as did the twenty-five strikeouts. Last season the average number of hits per game was up just four percent from that long-ago season of 1969; while the average number of home runs per game was up a whopping fifty-eight percent. Plenty of fans lament these stats, fearing the game is becoming one-dimensional.

The culprit is easily identifiable. Extreme reliance on defensive shifts has made it increasingly hard to get a hit. Willie Keeler’s ancient admonition to “hit ‘em where they ain’t” is hard to follow when the entire side of the diamond that a batter naturally sends balls to is over-populated with defenders. Players have responded by adjusting their swings to more of an uppercut, aiming to hit the ball over the shift and into the seats. That’s produced both more home runs and more strikeouts.  Half a century ago the ever-changing Great Game altered its rules to encourage more runs. Now calls are growing for new rules limiting defensive alignments, to encourage more hits. Until that happens sit back and enjoy the show. The Great Game is not in ruins, and a good home run derby, even an unexpected one, is always fun to watch.

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