THE Bruce Chen

Perhaps you missed one of the more remarkable stories of the 2010 season. It took place October 1, and involved an unexpected performance by an unlikely hero. Don't be ashamed if you missed it; after all, there was a lot going on during the last weekend of the season, with the possibility of two playoffs to qualify for the wild card and the Yankees and Rays trying not to win the AL East.

It was in this latter non-race race, the AL East, that the truly unexpected drama of the final stretch drive took place. Maybe you missed it because the drama really didn't exist, since there was NO pennant race in the AL East – thanks to the unfortunate existence of the wild card, both teams had already clinched post season spots and, as a result, there was nowhere near what would have been the normal drama of the lordly Yankees battling the impecunious Rays (any team that has to give away 20,000 tickets to get a full house in the midst of such a successful season deserves to be labeled impecunious) for first place and a chance to go to the 2010 World Series.

 

So maybe you missed the fact that Bruce Chen, THE Bruce Chen, yes, that Bruce Chen, threw a proverbial monkey wrench into the Rays' attempt to finish first in the AL East by tossing a completely unexpected two-hit shutout at Joe Maddon's schizo troops in Kansas City on that Friday evening. That Bruce Chen, the same Bruce Chen who has worn eight different numbers on 10 different major league uniforms during the course of a less-than-distinguished 12-year major league career. The same Bruce Chen who previously had pitched for the… Braves, Phillies, Mets, Expos (somehow he missed the Marlins in the NL East), Reds, Astros, Red Sox, Orioles, and Rangers before appearing briefly last year in KC and going 1-6 with a 5.78 ERA. The same Bruce Chen who started the 2010 season in the minors, where he has spent 13 years and pitched 171 games. The same Bruce Chen who went 1-13 in the majors from 2006 to 2009, and who didn't pitch at all, anywhere, in 2008 at the age of 31. The same Bruce Chen who has had two decent seasons ('05 with the O's; 13-10, and '10 with the Royals; 12-7) in his 12 years. The same Bruce Chen who went 0-7 immediately after his first double-digit win season. (There's an implied warning there for the Royals management, since he's now a free agent.) That Bruce Chen. It was his third complete game, and his first shutout, after 292 games and 144 starts in the majors…

 

W L ERA G GS IP H BB SO ERA+ WHIP
48 50 4.64 292 144 1010 1018 396 785 95 1.400

 

That Bruce Chen… who practically defines the term, "journeyman." Who gives rise to the thought that, if you have a son who shows any aptitude for baseball, and can throw with his left hand, well, you should try and teach him how to pitch (sort of like I'm currently doing with my son Jared), since there's always a major league market for left-handed pitchers, now matter how mediocre their records may play out.

 

While the 2010 Rays are something less than a juggernaut… they had two or fewer hits eight times during the season… they nonetheless still did finish first in the AL East, despite the efforts of Mr. Chen who, even though he didn't keep Tampa Bay from coming in first, did still, to a certain extent, join a rare fraternity – undistinguished pitchers who made a name for themselves at crunch time.

 

The first was Harry "The Giant Killer" Coveleski. A native of the coal country around Shamokin , PA , Coveleski appeared in four games (20 innings) for the 1907 Phillies at the age of 21, going 1-0 with a 0.00 ERA. However, when the 1908 season started, he was an afterthought, getting into a single early-season game in long relief, and getting shelled by the New York Giants, before being sent back to the minors. He didn't re-appear at the Huntingdon Street grounds (later Baker Bowl) until late September. On Sept. 23, he started his first major league game, and lost, 1-0 to the Reds. He got another chance three days later, and this time he shutout the Cardinals, also 1-0. (Recall, this was the height of the Deadball Era). That game earned him a start in the caldron of arguably the tightest pennant race in major league history – the three-way duel between the Giants, Cubs and Pirates. A race that, given one less loss by the Pirates, would have ended in a REAL three-way tie, for first place in the National League. (As opposed to what almost happened this weekend between the Giants, Padres and Braves spread over two divisions.)

 

It was also a race that, if not for Harry Coveleski, wouldn't have been nearly as exciting, and wouldn't have ended up making the name "Fred Merkle" famous for all the wrong reasons. You see, if it wasn't for Coveleski, the Giants would have won the National League outright, and the replay of the Merkle Game (and they did replay it, it wasn't a playoff) never would have happened. You see, AFTER Fred Merkle neglected to run to second base on Sept. 23, 1908 (the same day Coveleski made his first major league start), leaving that day's game a 1-1 tie, the Giants played another 16 games before ending the schedule in a 98-55 deadlock with the Cubs… thus necessitating replaying the Merkle Game. The Giants won 11 of those 16 games, losing five, a .688 winning percentage (significantly better than their seasonal .636 mark) that still only got them a tie with the Cubs. Three of those five losses were to Harry Coveleski.

 

On Sept. 29, in the second game of a doubleheader, Coveleski shut out the Giants and Doc Crandall, 7-0. His second win and second shutout of the season. Two days later, on Oct. 1, also in the second game of a doubleheader (the Giants in both cases had won the first game), he did it again, defeating Hooks Wiltse, 6-2. Finally, again just two days later, he beat Matty himself, this time 3-2. If the Giants had won two of those games, they would have won the NL outright. If they'd won just one of them, they would have been a game up on the Cubs, who would have had to then have beaten the Giants twice – the Merkle replay and then a one-game playoff – to have won the league. Thus, The Giant Killer. Basically unknown before those three games, Coveleski ended 1908 4-1 with a 1.24 ERA in six games (five starts). Although he'd later win 20 games three straight years for the Tigers, he would never be as famous as he was that fall of 1908.

 

The second was Floyd Giebell. (Pause, while everyone says, "who?!") The 1940 American League pennant race in September was also largely a three-team event. The haughty Yankees, for once, were struggling (yea!) in third while los Tigres of Detroit and the Native Americans of Cleveland battled for first. When the season entered its final series, wouldn't you know it, the Tigers and Indians were playing with the pennant on the line, and the Tigers had the upper hand. With just three games left against each other, the standings read thusly…

 

Detroit          89-62

Cleveland      87-64

 

If the Indians could take the first two games of the series, then the season would come down to a winner-take-all final game. On the other hand, all the Tigers had to do was win one of the games, and it was over. Game one of the climactic series took place on Sept. 27, 1940. As fate would have it, the Indians had the best pitcher in baseball lined up to throw the first game, 27-game winner Bob Feller. Since the Tigers only needed one game, they threw a sacrificial lamb in the first game, a 30 year-old rookie pitcher named Floyd Giebell, who had previously appeared in exactly one game in 1940, winning a 13-2 decision over the Philadelphia Athletics on Sept. 19. Prior to that, his entire major league experience consisted of 15 innings of relief in 1939 (1-1, 2.93 ERA). Giebell proceeded to pitch the game of his life, a six-hit shutout for a 2-0 win (Feller only gave up three hits, but he walked eight, and one of the hits was a two-run homer by Rudy York) that clinched the pennant for Detroit (a good thing, they lost the last two games of the series.) Floyd Giebell would pitch in exactly 17 more games in the majors (all in 1941), going 0-0 with a 6.03 ERA.

 

That may or may not happen to Bruce Chen but, either way, the rare Rays fans won't soon forget him.



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