In 110th World Series, who starts isn’t as important as who finishes

SHAFAQNA – The World Series as bullpen war has never been fully explored, perhaps because no two pennant winners have arrived on this stage with so many lousy starting pitchers.

However, before this World Series ends, we will find out which bullpen, that of the San Francisco or the Kansas City Royals, has been pitched into a large pile of mush while the other celebrates a championship. This is a war of attrition, and until the shoulders, elbows, wrists or fingers of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, Greg Holland and, now, rookie Brandon Finnegan fall off or cease to function, the Royals are in precarious command of this unique and peculiar classic.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

On Friday night in Game 3 in AT&T Park, the Royals used those four relievers to get the final 12 outs and present Jeremy Guthrie, one of those diligent veterans who lasted exactly five innings, the 3-2 victory. The fresh element was the appearance of Finnegan, who pitched in the College World Series for Texas Christian less than five months ago, to get the last two outs of the seventh inning after Herrera had thrown 26 of his 27 pitches 96-to-100 mph and looked a bit tuckered.

The Royals’ winning run was driven in, after an 11-pitch battle, by Eric Hosmer with a lined single to center field off — of course —a relief pitcher, the Giants’ reliable Javier Lopez. That hit gave Kansas City a 3-0 lead, and Royals Manager Ned Yost parceled out his bullpen — a few precious outs at a time — to hold precariously to that lead.

Don’t worry, this theme is not about to end. The Royals, who now have a 2-1 lead in the series, and the Giants have perhaps the longest list of five-inning pitchers ever to approach the final week of October still wearing funny-looking uniforms, ball caps and spikes. Except for the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner, the rest of these guys, some of them old and distinguished but with only microscope tread left on their shoulders and elbows, need a litter with bearers — or a rickshaw or hansom cab or any mode of conveyance whatsoever — to remove them from the hostilities before the sixth inning can commence.

As a result of this astronomical inconvenience, Yost has no choice but to treat Herrera, Davis, Holland and perhaps Finnegan, too, as if they are indestructible superheroes from some comic book, not mortals who probably go to bed at night and think, “Shoulder, still attached. Elbow, probably in one piece. I’m good to go tomorrow, skip.”

As for the Giants’ Bruce Bochy, his faith in his bullpen, while extreme and sincere, is not as unmitigated as Yost’s, because his men show still signs of mortality, barely visible imperfections. So you can never be quite sure — because he never seems quite certain — in what order he will summon Lopez, Jean Machi, Jeremy Affeldt, Hunter Strickland, Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla. He must “match them up” against the Royals’ hitters against whom they should fare best.

So far, the Royals seem to have — slightly — the better of the bullpens and also — slightly — the better of the brilliant defense that both teams have displayed. But Kansas City may also have another extremely powerful and somewhat mysterious trend that stretches nearly 30 years at its back. Now that the Royals know that — worst case — they are assured of going back to Kansas City for a Game 6, they probably will be even more difficult to beat.

Maybe even impossible to beat.

In 1923, baseball settled on the seven-game format for its World Series and for the next 63 seasons seemed to have settled on one of those rare accidentally ideal gems in sports, like the 90 feet between bases that is predictably but correctly cited as happenstance perfection. The goal was to find a format that seemed to give an advantage but in reality gave almost no edge either way. Four-game and six-game series would have the same number of home games for both sides (2-2 or 3-3), while five-game Series would favor the team that started on the road, with seven-game Series the only ones in which the powerful sounding “home-field advantage” actually existed at all.

Excluding the World War II Series of 1942-44, the team with “home-field advantage” — games 1-2, 6-7 at home —had a 30-30 record in World Series won and lost. The score in games was also almost ideal: 179-175 in favor of the home-field-edge team.

Then, for the 1986 World Series, baseball changed. The home team was allowed to play by its own rules, with a designated hitter used in American League parks but not in games in the NL parks. You would think — or at least I would have assumed — that the net effects over many years would cancel each other out. The AL might dominate games more in its parks with the double advantage of home crowd (and knowledge of the home park) and its own league’s rules.


In 27 World Series since then, a total of 148 games, the team that knows it will start the series at home in Games 1 and 2 but also will end any long series at home in Games 6 and 7 has dominated the World Series.

This home-field advantage team, like Kansas City in the current Series, has won 22 of the 27 classics. Even crazier, almost insane by baseball standards, that team has a 94-54 record. That’s a .635 percentage, the same as a 103-win juggernaut of a team.

Is 148 games and 27 years a “small sample”? If so, then how many fans will live long enough to say, “I think I’ve got enough data now to ask, ‘What the heck is going on here?’ ”

Does the combination of home fans, home park and home rules contribute to a fast start to a series and a sense of confidence that “getting home,” even if you are behind two-games-to-one, is still tenable?

Again this year, the team with home-field advantage is ahead. In tense moments, who knows exactly what holds them together works against the Giants? Or maybe it’s random.

The next few days will give us more data. On home-field advantages?

Oh, no. We’ll have more info on how much work, how much tension and torture these two bullpens can stand and whether it will be a Royals reliever who stands atop the hill when the final out is made.

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