Mark Buehrle deserved start, deserved a better ending

Title: Mark Buehrle deserved start, deserved a better ending
Date: October 4, 2015
Synopsis: This article shed a tear for Mark Buehrle following his final start as a Blue Jay, 1.1 innings shy of a major milestone.

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As Mark Buehrle completed his walk from the mound to the dugout at Tropicana Field on Friday, he was greeted by smiling teammates, hugs and high-fives at the ready.

The message was “job well-done,” even if the 6.2-inning, four-run performance came up a little short in the macro scheme of things. Sure, his Toronto Blue Jays had scored seven of their eight eventual insurance runs, landing him his 15th victory of the season in the process. But Buehrle’s odometer for the season read 198, two innings shy of his joining rarefied air as the fifth pitcher ever to record 15 consecutive 200-inning seasons.

Two-hundred innings, the benchmark of durability, for 15 straight years, a veritable baseball lifetime.

John Gibbons justifiably admitted to having goosebumps as he took the ball from his affable 36-year-old veteran, just six outs shy of a largely meaningless but incredibly telling – and, we’d soon learn, important – milestone.

“They should start him Sunday,” I said to a friend Friday, suspecting in advance that Buehrle wouldn’t get through 8.2, prioritizing the agenda of the heart over that of the brain. The argument against doing so made sense, but the argument for doing so was convincing as well: “It’s Buehrle.”

Perhaps risking ire or eye-rolling or, in the worst-case scenario, post-facto second-guessing if the Jays wind up without home-field advantage in the ALCS as a result, Gibbons opted to give Buehrle the ball again Sunday, once again opposite the Rays. Buehrle would have to pitch on short rest, one day before his normal bullpen session would take place, but in a walk year, potentially in a retirement year, the risk of strain mattered little.

Get your six outs, get your milestone, get your hugs and handshakes. Because for as much as baseball can skew cold and calculating, and as much as every margin matters come playoff time, Buehrle earned the right. Every five days for a decade-and-a-half, well-compensated to be sure, but without many skipped turns, without getting shut down early, without a damn disabled list stint. When the mark of your career is reliability, you should be able to turn around and lean back on baseball for something that’s important to you, particularly at what may be the very end.

Gibbons’ decision is a signal, too, that there’s not much of a plan for Buehrle to throw in the playoffs. Letting him go out and grab his gold watch before embarking on a postseason as a cheerleader – chasing a second World Series ring exclusively from behind the rail, at the bottom of the steps – seems a worthwhile handshake in agreement of the good solider he’ll play if there’s not a spot for him on a series roster at some point.

The Jays recognized the importance of the milestone for Buehrle – as they should have. Anyone arguing for the value of the best possible starter, so that Toronto had better odds of winning, in the event Kansas City lost, and then in the event both teams meet in the ALCS, and the series goes seven, and…you get the picture. Those people are missing the point. If if was a fifth, we’d all be drunk, and a sternly sober Gibbons opted to do right by a guy who deserves doing right by.

Jays fans on hand in Tampa were patently aware of the moment. Pre-game applauds accompanied Buehrle’s warmups, as did signs adorned with the benchmark “200.” The Jays in the dugout were most certainly aware, too. The broadcast spoke of nothing else.

It made for a depressing moment, then, as Buehrle was pulled after two-thirds of an inning.

A pair of errors, some command issues, and some fun-policing by Alfonso Marquez conspired to see Buehrle allow seven runs (none of them earned) on five hits, including the Rays’ first grand slam of the season courtesy of Joey “You can’t have nice things” Butler. The tension grew palpable with every dugout shot of Gibbons, the crescendoing growling from catcher Russell Martin, the loud double to the gap that turned the order back over in the first, the loud single that followed and chased Buehrle from the game.

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Glove to his chest and eyes straight forward, Buehrle walked off the field into a sea of somber high-fives. As the broadcast returned from commercial, Ryan Tepera now on the hill, Buehrle sat alone on the bench, red-faced and plainly disappointed.

It wasn’t the reaction the Jays were expecting to give him when Gibbons made his call, and it wasn’t the reaction Buehrle deserved in what may have been the final performance of his career. It’s now on the teammates he’s endeared himself to so obviously to make sure the final memory of his career is a better one.

Again: 200 innings. The benchmark of durability, for 15 straight years, a veritable baseball lifetime. Throwing 198.2 innings for 15 consecutive seasons is no less remarkable, even if it’s not as round, clean, easy to say, or memorable for future broadcasts, when – if – the next pitcher chases such a mark.

For the most part, we’re all unremarkable, and Buehrle’s workmanlike career may be the closest any of us can feel to a professional athlete. You’re not going to throw 95 MPH, or hit a 425-foot home run, but you can show up for work every goddamn day. Whether you’re laying bricks or selling suits or sloughing in the content mines, everyone can appreciate reliability and durability, because most of us don’t have a choice but to be reliable and durable.

And while it’s unfair that people are quick to vilify the oft-injured – your Brandon Morrows and Josh Johnsons and Dustin McGowans, none of who likely enjoy the Sisyphean rehabilitation process of the silly-string shouldered and elbowed – it makes Buehrle’s longevity all the more appreciated in comparison.

Sure, he throws every five days, for millions of dollars. The comparison isn’t perfect, and Buehrle has long been a talented, if confusingly so, professional athlete. He’s not an “average Joe,” because no pro is. His career will be remembered, though, like I think most people probably hope to be remembered, if they’re being honest: He was occasionally great, rarely bad, incredibly reliable, and mostly just a solid dude.

Buehrle spent most of his career in the grey area between average and great. He’s never had an ERA better than 3.12 or worse than 4.99, and he’s been worth about 3.2 wins per-200 innings pitched, firmly above average but somewhere shy of elite. He’s made five All-Star teams, won four Gold Gloves, won a World Series, and thrown a no-hitter and a perfect game. He’s tasted greatness. But he’s going to be remembered for the number 3283.1. That’s how many innings he’s pitched in his career.

That number is going to hold up for some time. It’s just inside the top 100 on an all-time list that can safely be thrown out when talking about any modern pitcher. It ranks top 40 in the expansion era (1961). Most notably, it’s tops among active pitchers, having even passed erstwhile rubber-arm poster boy Livan Hernandez, ostensibly the last of this breed. It’s unlikely many pitchers coming up now will again touch 3,000 innings, save for the very elite and the very lucky. The nature of pitcher management is such that a thick, bearded workhorse isn’t likely to take the ball every five days for as long as children attend school.

The last three years of watching Buehrle have been a joy, and I’m not sure how anyone out there could ever claim not to like him. He’s lasted forever, mostly succeeding without elite stuff, making more out of less than most any other hurler. He works at an incredibly fast, Roy Halladay-like pace, sending you home in a timely manner. He fields his position like few others, making gains at the margins because his left arm doesn’t fabricate lightning. He can’t miss bats, so he decides not to miss the zone. He does what he can, nothing more, and he does it well, inning after inning, week after week, year after year.

And he’s always smiling. He’s Marcus Stroman’s less-jacked second father. There’s a good chance the only reason he seemed lucid during the AL East clinching celebrations is because he’s the kind of guy who can down 20 Miller Lites at a Can Slam, unfazed. He’s an advocate for pitbulls. He’s got a terrific perma-beard. And not to read too much into clubhouse culture, since our only sources of information are brief television shots and insider articles, but it sure seems Buehrle’s important in the Jays’ room, and that half the team would take a fastball for him.

And that smile, man. Every fifth day for 15 seasons. Always fucking smiling.

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