In appreciation of the pitcher at-bat: good (Zack Greinke!), bad or ugly (A.J. Minter)

ATLANTA — Astros reliever Kendall Graveman walked to the batter’s box in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the World Series, blithely unaware of the significance of what was about to take place. Equally unaware, Braves pitcher Drew Smyly looked down at Graveman from the mound. History doesn’t just announce itself, after all, and in this case that was fortuitous; otherwise these two men, now tethered for posterity, would surely have been paralyzed by the enormity of the moment.

Major League Baseball has given every indication that it will go to a universal designated hitter for the 2022 season, ending the American League’s 48-year reign as its sole proprietor. And if pitchers’ at-bats end, this is how they left us: Graveman, all geared up with nowhere to go. As he neared home plate from the on-deck circle, Graveman was met with Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud giving him “the big eyes,” as Graveman put it. D’Arnaud didn’t expect to see Graveman, who pitched the final two innings of Houston’s 9-5 win, in this position.

Again: You don’t choose history; it chooses you.

“I was like, ‘This is weird,'” Graveman said.

Graveman was under strict orders: Don’t swing. He was game for the charade, though, choosing one of Alex Bregman‘s bats, a pair of Bregman’s gloves and fellow pitcher Jake Odorizzi‘s helmet. (Cooperstown undoubtedly will be in touch.) “And they threw an elbow guard on me,” he said, presumably to account for a potential inability to bail fast enough if Smyly buzzed him.

Occupying the right-handed side of the batter’s box, he dug in a little, feet slightly more than shoulder width apart, and took a couple of half-hearted practice swings. This was his seventh career plate appearance, but he’d seen enough of them in his seven big league seasons to know what it’s supposed to look like. He cocked the bat over his shoulder, those red gloves gleaming beneath the stadium lights, and proceeded to not swing.

He did his job for six pitches, the first two strikes, the next three balls, the sixth and final one an 87 mph cutter 2 or 3 inches above the bottom of the zone, center cut. It is perhaps fitting that the final at-bat by a pitcher not named Shohei Ohtani took place only because the rules require someone to stand up there, and even more fitting that it was as useless as someone performing magic tricks on the radio.

“It was unique because they told me, ‘Don’t swing,'” Graveman said. “In that moment, part of me was like, man — as a competitor, I want to swing. But I cannot in this moment tweak an oblique or something. I haven’t swung a bat in years. The child in me enjoyed holding the bat and standing up there. There was about 49 percent of me that really wanted to swing at a pitch. But, really — what good was it going to do in that moment?”

It’s a safe assumption that no matter what pitcher-hitting provision the new collective bargaining agreement contains, this was Graveman’s final at-bat. In the glow of the moment, he was able to reminisce about his first: “In the four hole in Yankee Stadium because we had two people get hurt and we had to kill the DH. And then potentially my last at bat in the big leagues was in a World Series game. Two at bats bookended in my career.”

The epic Graveman-Smyly confrontation saved us from the prospect of the fourth-inning hostility between A.J. Minter and Jose Urquidy notching itself into the historical record. That one took place with one out and d’Arnaud — the Zelig of this historical chronicle — at first base. Urquidy threw a pitch and Minter, a left-handed hitter, tried to bunt it. Try is probably unfair, because Minter did bunt it: straight up into the air, where it hung out until landing in Astros catcher Martin Maldonado mitt.

And while Graveman clearly stole the spotlight, Zack Greinke is at least a footnote to the final weekend of the hitting pitcher. In Saturday’s Game 4, he had the final (probably) hit by a pitcher batting as a pitcher (again, not named Shohei Ohtani). He hit a hard ground ball that evaded the outstretched glove of a diving Ozzie Albies behind second base. The ball rolled into center field, where it was picked up by Adam Duvall and tossed back to second base.

Greinke was also the final (most likely) practitioner of the fabled jacket ceremony. He stood at first and waited as the bat boy sprinted from the third-base dugout to present him with the Jacket for Running, which Greinke ditched after he reached second base with two outs, a practical move intended to reduce the coefficient of drag if he were called upon to score from second. (He wasn’t.)

Greinke, just to show off, followed that performance with a pinch-hit single in the fourth inning of Game 4. He smoked a one-hop seed into right field for which — because he was not serving as the pitcher — he was not awarded the Jacket for Running.

And if this truly is the end, a cherished baseball subculture will die along with it. There were decades of batting practice bets, surprise homers, false bravado, outright lies about hitting prowess.

And the bunts. Never forget the bunts we had along the way.

All those pitchers spending all that time in the batter’s box served a larger purpose, one that will be hard to replace. They came to the plate every second or third inning, geared up or not, and reminded us just how damned hard it is to hit big league pitching. Most of them — not all, but most — were baseball’s version of the NFL kicker forced into trying to make a tackle: totally out of their element, game for the challenge. These brave men — remarkable athletes who probably batted fourth for real and raked their way through high school — injected a dose of sober reality into the game for those of us who might venture into thinking anything is possible.

But all of that serves as rank disrespect for Graveman’s moment. When it was all over, when the history was made and the retelling could commence, Graveman accepted plate umpire Ted Barrett’s judgment without complaint. He peeled off Bregman’s gloves, returned Bregman’s bat to the rack, removed Odorizzi’s helmet and unstrapped the orphan elbow guard. He could feel the personal gratification that comes with completing the task set out for him, knowing that once that feeling dissipated, he could head back to the mound — the job he was hired to do — and ask himself why it took so long for everyone to realize this whole thing was a bad idea.

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