Some games are more memorable than others. Regardless how well we think we remember any specific game, some aspects are lost in a case of nostalgia or broken memory. With the designated hitter on its way in, pitchers hitting are on their way out. With an extra cube of reality, it's an appropriate time to look back at one of the more notorious victories in recent Cubs history; the one where Pedro Strop was injured hitting.
The game was a make-up game for a Cubs team that didn't have a traditional day-off down the stretch in 2018. A sizable divisional lead withered away as Milwaukee almost ran the table late. The Cubs had to play a Game 163 to determine a divisional winner. After losing that, the Cubs hosted Colorado with an offense that had suddenly become anemic. Blame became easy to dish out for the executives, players, and manager, when the team seemed burned out down the stretch.
The two-part run-up for the game on September 13 began about a week earlier. The Cubs had a four-game series scheduled in Washington, and the importance of getting games in became suddenly essential. It was a rainy weekend in Washington, and the Cubs played a double-header on Saturday (following a Friday rainoug), and stayed in town well into Sunday trying to shoehorn the fourth game in. It wasn't to be, but by the game not being scrubbed until very late, the Cubs spent much more than a normal amount of the day at Nationals Park. When the game was postponed, only one day on the schedule became a realistic option: September 13, following a three-game set against the Brewers.
The Cubs won one of the three against Milwaukee, claiming the middle game 3-0. In the finale, a 5-1 loss, Kyle Hendricks lasted only five innings, leading to a barrage of relievers. Randy Rosario, Jesse Chavez, Carl Edwards, Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brian Duensing, and James Norwood pitched on the 12th. What the Cubs could really use was a simple 6-1 win with as few relievers as possible being used. Mike Montgomery got the start, and as I recall, the next night's starter (Cole Hamels) may have been left behind in Chicago. The game on the 13th would be anything but ordinary.
Montgomery only lasted four innings, leading to another bullpen parade. The game was tied at two after five, and three after seven. Chavez, Jorge de la Rosa, Cishek, Edwards, Justin Wilson, Duensing, and finally Pedro Strop entered in relief. Very few pitchers in the bullpen were unused over the two days. As Strop closed out the ninth, the game went to extras tied.
After an Anthony Rizzo line-out, Kris Bryant doubled, and moved to third on a Daniel Murphy single. A Javier Baez bunt single plated Bryant. Willson Contreras walked, and Strop stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and one out. This is the type of "strategy situation" baseball purists seem to live for. In extra innings, what do you do with your best reliever in this spot? The bench had been burned.
The Cubs would use 20 players on this day. The Nationals offense was clearly capable of tying the game with a single run, so it's historically inaccurate to think that tanking the at-bat was a good idea. The useful pinch-hitters had already been used. We would soon learn that Randy Rosario was the next up in the bullpen. Asking Strop, who had three career at-bats with no hits, to hit was a bad option. As was pinch-hitting, or asking him to watch three pitches fly by in a strikeout. No available options were desirable. None. This is an exact case for why the designated hitter can provide a level of credibility. It was a consideration to have the hitter intentionally tank his at-bat. Strop hit into a double play, ending the half inning but in the process injuring himself for the season.
Deliberately sending a pitcher up to hit, when that isn’t why he’s on the roster, isn’t a good option. While the Cubs played adequately down the stretch, having a healthy Strop would have been helpful.
When discussions swing to being purely emotional, any argument becomes equally valid. I’m horrible at persuading someone out of an emotionally-driven contention, and if “using a designated hitter” equates to “sawing your own healthy leg off,” discussion is squelched. Adding the designated hitter to the National League might make baseball far less enjoyable for you, but I’ve heard very few people make a case for “Koda Glover pitching to Pedro Strop in a key situation as compelling baseball.”
On occasion, people wait until after an event is completed and played out to decide which decision made the most sense. In real time, though, you have to decide on the available information. Perhaps, you thought encouraging Strop to intentionally be fanned would have been a better idea than swinging. However, that could have led to a 15-inning game with more injuries and bullpen incineration. Part of the goal of across-the-board DH is to prevent situations like Strop hitting in the tenth inning. If those moments are why you tune into baseball games, I’m sorry if you’ll have to find a new way to scratch that itch. As time moves on, things change. Some are desirable, and others are less so. I don’t get nearly as much pleasure from watching a pitcher hit in an MLB game as I get from a good college pitcher facing a good college hitter, but I’m about learning who’s better more than promoting nostalgia.
That Strop at-bat wasn’t compelling baseball. Pitchers hitting has usually been bad baseball for over a century. By scrapping pitchers hitting, the game becomes more uniform, and one thing Rob Manfred seems to like is sameness. As fans don’t have a seat in the negotiations, the pitcher hitting was going away, anyway. Regardless whether you dig three-pitch strikeouts of overmatched hitters or not.