ATLANTA – Would you?
That’ll be the question that animates Atlanta Braves fans in the days or maybe even years to come.
If you were standing in manager Brian Snitker’s shoes — in the damp dugout at Truist Park Friday night in front of a crowd that waited 20-some years, or maybe their whole life, to watch a World Series game in their hometown — would you have pulled starting pitcher Ian Anderson after five no-hit innings?
Or would you leave him out there, with a one-run lead four innings away from the sport’s second ever World Series no-hitter?
A debate to divide generations. A litmus test for temperaments. You can fit an entire dissertation on the current discourse into that decision. The manager said he went with his gut. But it wasn’t Brian Snitker that robbed us of the opportunity to watch Anderson either enter the history books or exit early to a polite ovation on his own merit, some will say, it was numbers and nerds and a quantified understanding of the sport that can’t be undone.
Let’s acknowledge first of all: It worked. Spectacularly. Anderson and four relievers combined to shut out and two-hit the offensive juggernaut that is the Houston Astros lineup in a 2-0 win. In their first World Series game at home in 9,499 days, the Braves took a 2-1 series lead and kept alive the possibility that they could clinch in front of a home crowd that would celebrate in controversial style.
When Snitker shook Anderson’s hand in the dugout after the fifth, the 23-year-old technically-still-a-rookie had thrown 76 pitches. Well, 140+ innings — nearly three times what he threw in his first big-league season last year — and 76 pitches. He had walked three, plunked one, and was missing the strike zone as often as he was hitting it. He had a 1-0 lead and a 1.47 ERA in postseason games before tonight. His team had lost its Game 1 starter to a broken leg, lost Game 2, and had no one in particular lined up to start Games 4 or 5. In a month that has taxed every team’s bullpen — Astros manager Dusty Baker made an impassioned case pregame for postseason rosters to be expanded in the future — the Braves were looking at having to cover 18 innings over the next 48 hours with relievers.
“The me of old, probably a couple years ago, would be like, ‘How the hell am I doing this?’ quite honestly,” the famously old-school Snitker admitted postgame.
But he was quick to insist it was the pitch count — and not a clinical adherence to the analytically dictated third-time-through-the-order call to the pen — that ended Anderson’s bid for the record books.
“The pitch count was such that he wasn't going nine innings,” Snitker said.
And so he approached his young stud, the old soul, in the dugout after Anderson struck out Marwin Gonzalez on three pitches to end the fifth.
“That's it,” Snitker said. “Heck of a job.”
“Are you sure?” Anderson asked. “Are you sure?”
“You feel a little bit of, I have more to give,” he said after the game. “But it's something that you understand and move forward.”
It was the fourth scoreless postseason start of five or more innings in his career so far — catapulting him into a conversation with the sport’s best big-game pitchers 14 months after he made his major-league debut. It would have been the first no-hitter of his entire life.
They say you can tell a hook was the wrong move if the other team is relieved to see the starter go.
But the Astros didn’t relish facing the Braves bullpen either.
“They did what they had to do,” Baker said. “We didn’t breathe no sigh of relief.”
An argument for, then. And the Astros were right to be concerned. On a couple days’ rest, the so-called Atlanta Night Shift took a no-hitter into the eighth and delivered a win, just as they were supposed to. Four innings is nothing for them, the bullpen is used to covering the bulk of innings this October. That goes for the Braves and the Astros, both.
“The guys in the front office, Snit, everybody's gone over it a few times for what the game script is for us to win this thing,” said Tyler Matzek, who pitched the eighth in his 12th appearance so far this postseason. “Obviously, the game script is right.”
After the win — when it no longer mattered because the team had done what it came to do and because the infinite ways that nine innings can play out always lead to only one of two outcomes — Anderson reflected.
“The way the playoffs have been played and managed,” he said, “I think you can't fault Snit for making that move.”
He’s right, really. For all that Snitker credited his gut for telling him to take Anderson out, the fault for the move is more disperse — it belongs to a sport that has gotten so good at knowing how to win that even success is starting to feel a little rote. You can’t be too precious in baseball these days, the script doesn’t make many exceptions.
Every day this month, players and coaches reaffirm their commitment to a singular focus: A World Series title. That’s always been the case. But these days, mountains of data and enough smart people to make sense of it all have resulted in an understanding of how to optimize the chance of winning with little regard for what anyone wants to see. It’s no one’s fault. Is the goal of the game supposed to be a trophy or good TV? Those aren’t always aligned.
In his longest outing this season, Anderson threw 110 pitches. If he had matched that on Friday, he would have had 34 more pitches to get through the final four frames, working with stuff accurately described by Baker as “effectively wild.” Snitker was right: probably not gonna happen.
Still, I want to know how it would have played out. I mean, just to know, you know? Cause now we never will. It’s not as good a story this way. But I guess it’s something to talk about.