By Larry Dierker and Jim Haught
In baseball that is…
The point when you have tried everything, but failed. While the “nut–cutting time” originally refers to the effort required to remove a rusted or stripped nut, it has come to be used in a legislative context as the time to exert maximum effort to round up votes to get a bill passed due to an approaching deadline. nut-cutting time – Taegan Goddard’s Political Dictionary
It is also used in baseball at this time of year. I always thought it referred to something that was done in a slaughterhouse.
What follows is an email conversation I had with my friend Jim Haught, whose website, The Haught Corner, is loaded with historical gems.
And current observations.
Today’s Reds-Cubs game: Reds hit two solo HR. 2-1 final. Bleah!
(Jim laments today’s home-run-or-strikeout mentality. In addition to the Reds’ victory over the contending Cubs, the Rays beat the A’s 5-4, the Pirates beat the Brewers 3-2, and the Cardinals beat the Dodgers 5-0.)
Yeah, but they beat the Cubs. That’s what the newbie fans don’t understand about September baseball. The contenders can play a little tight, trying to clinch a spot. Meanwhile, the lowly of the league still have talented players. They don’t have anything to play for but spoiling things. And they love it. I know I did. And I had plenty of chances. Any good pitcher with a team of loose young players can knock off an eventual World Champion. The Reds may have done that to the Cubbies yesterday. The D-Backs almost came back on the Astros in the ninth.
It’s nut-cuttin’ time — almost as good as the postseason. I just talked my way into a blog.
Jim Haught Again
Please title the blog “Nut-Cutting Time.” A classic expression I hadn’t heard in a while. But you are 100-percent correct about tight vs. loose and spoilers.
Another one fans don’t get is why teams play better after elimination — actual or practical. “Why didn’t they play like that in June?” Truth is, when the games meant something, they couldn’t get it done. No pressure, they played better.
For a long time, I stunk as a hitter in RBI situations (of course, we are not talking major leagues here; semipro was as far as I got). Tried to be too perfect and do too much. Yet, when I could lead off an inning or come up with no one on base late in the baseball game — where all I had to do was get on base — my average went waaaaay up. I don’t like the word “choke,” but that’s pretty much what I did. I was often a player-coach or player-manager, and so I felt a need to set the tone, be an example, and all that crap. Naive much?
This reached its zenith or nadir one season when I was determined to impress the hell out of my new semi-girlfriend. She loved baseball, and her Dad was an All-Dallas shortstop who played a year in the minors. He thought he had died and gone to heaven when I started dating her (“you’re the son he never had!”).
So naturally, I swung from my ass every time, pulled off the ball, and hit three of the most massive popups you have ever seen. The last one went so high, I was damn near on second base when it was caught. Home run in a silo and like that.
So I went 0-3, and eventually got dumped by the girl, who ended up marrying a cop (a uniform she liked better). Her father and I remained friends, however, and we sometimes sat together at Arlington Stadium. For the rest of his life, he lamented his daughter’s choice of mate. Oh, well.
When I was Managing the Astros…
Three of the four division championships we won were not decided until the last series of the year — two of them on the last day! Most fans fail to understand how losing teams can disrupt the plans you laid in spring training and worked every day for six months to fulfill. But it happens every single season. Giants skipper Bruce Bochy, who will likely become a Hall of Fame manager one day, recently said he didn’t like the term “spoiler.” He preferred “disrupter.” I fail to grok the difference.
I haven’t been in as many pennant races as Bochy, but I know the feeling. I dreaded facing the weak teams coming down the stretch because I knew everyone — even our players — expected us to sweep them. Even winning two out of three was disappointing.
For example, my partner in this website was looking at the Astros’ schedule last Friday. He said, “We got the D-Backs this weekend. We should win two of those baseball games. Then we play the Mariners and we should win two more, maybe three the way they’re playing. We should win three out of four, or even sweep the Angels next weekend. Then we play three in Toronto. I figure we win two of them (that’s the one that worries me). We finish with four in Baltimore, and they’re terrible. With that schedule, we should win it easily.”
When you look ahead, you almost always have some good teams coming up – the kind where you’d be thrilled to win two of three. You know you can’t afford to let a cellar-dweller beat you. It creates a lot of pressure.
It is easier to play to win than to play to avoid losing.
It’s a mental thing. But it’s also a mathematical thing. Right now, the last-place teams are 549-800. That’s .407 baseball. They win four of every ten games they play. They win a lot!
When you are king of the mountain, there is nothing the also-rans like more than knocking you off.
At this juncture, it is obvious that the teams remaining on the Astros’ schedule aren’t very good. Failing to hold the 4-1/2 game lead they currently enjoy would be disgraceful, but it could happen.
It could happen even if they win most of their baseball games. Ask the 1951 Dodgers. They didn’t lose it so much as the Giants won it. And in 1938, the Pirates had a comfortable lead going into September, but the Cubs went 19-3 that month to steal the pennant from them. Gene Mauch tried a three-man rotation in 1964. He had three good ones, but they lost out to the Cardinals. The 1969 Mets roared through September like George Patton and the Third Army, leaving the Cubs in their dust.
That seems like ancient history, but those comebacks are the ones that jumped to the forefront of my mind.
There are likely similar races of more-recent vintage. The point is: It ain’t over ’til it’s over. Thank you, Yogi.