Inning after inning, the Nationals’ fiery right-hander would bristle and bustle around the mound, hurling fire and judgement, notching strikeout after strikeout. And then the dance-off would continue in the bottom half of the inning as the Rangers’ shrewd right-hander would lean and slide, deftly avoiding the best parts of the Nationals’ bats, notching groundouts, pop-ups, and fly balls to great effect.
It was the kind of game that reminds you why you love the sport of baseball. One year ago, Max Scherzer was thirteen starts into his second Cy Young award-winning season. Austin Bibens-Dirkx was a member of the Lancaster Barnstormers, still weeks away from signing with the Rangers as minor-league starting pitching depth.
And yet, on this Sunday afternoon in Washington D.C., it was Bibens-Dirkx who matched perhaps the best right-handed pitcher in baseball inning for inning, pitch for pitch, steeled nerve for steeled nerve, doling out little miracles to match each show of expected force.
It certainly didn’t look like a miracle when it first began. The Nationals’ first hitter, Brian Goodwin, hit the second pitch of the bottom of the first inning into the right field seats. “Honestly, I kinda tripped,” Bibens-Dirkx would later say. “It just kinda sailed middle.” You can see the slight trip here (watch the right toe). On his next pitch, his old AAA teammate Bryce Harper singled to right field.
Three pitches, two hits, no outs.
But would be 83 more pitches–nineteen batters–before the Nationals got their next baserunner, a 7th inning single by Bibens-Dirkx’s former Spring Training lockermate Anthony Rendon. Hey, you pitch twelve years in the minor-leagues, you’re going to know some people. (“We weren’t so friendly today, being on opposing teams,” Bibens-Dirkx would say after the game “but they’re great guys, and it was good to see them.”)
Meanwhile, the Rangers offense was doing its best against the tenacious Scherzer, acquiring just one matching run; a third-inning home run by Shin-Soo Choo.
But here in the seventh, the back-and-forth was nearing an end. Both men were now, with each turn on the mound, breathing a little harder and sweating a little more profusely, having battled nearly to a draw. With Rendon on first base and two outs, Bibens-Dirkx walked Adam Lind. It was his first walk of the game, and it warranted a visit to the mound from pitching coach Doug Brocail. It would have made sense to make a pitching change, to bring in the laser-sharp Jose Leclerc to put out the fire. But Jeff Banister elected to let Bibens-Dirkx finish his battle.
One pitch later, it was finished. Matt Wieters grounded out to first base. Austin Bibens-Dirkx had completed seven innings, his celebratory fist-pump no doubt mirrored in houses, sports bars, and restaurants around the entire state of Texas and beyond.
In the top of the eighth, Scherzer faced his own adversity, also his first of the day. With one out and Delino DeShields on first base by means of an error on Rendon, Jurickson Profar was summoned to pinch-hit in the pitcher's spot, officially ending Bibens-Dirkx's afternoon.
With a five-pitch walk, he also ended Scherzer’s.
It is a hard truth that we humans face. For all our toil and effort, even the best of us leave that work to someone else when we pass on. We can build empires, fortunes, or record collections, and eventually we are ushed from this plane to the next, leaving them to lesser kings, ungrateful heirs, or an estate sale. Max Scherzer had pitched 7⅓ innings of one-run baseball, but now his dirt mountain was occupied, first by Oliver Perez–who walked Shin-Soo Choo to load the bases–and then by Blake Treinen.
It wasn’t Treinen’s fault that Matt Wieters’ passed ball allowed Delino DeShields to score the go-ahead run, but he does have to wear the subsequent 2-run triple that Elvis Andrus bounced over Rendon’s head at third base, and the following Nomar Mazara sacrifice fly to bring the score to its final tally of 5-1 Texas.
Bibens-Dirkx’s masterpiece, on the other hand, was inherited by Leclerc (who struck out each of the three batters he faced in the eighth) and Alex Claudio - himself an unlikely success story who has wobbled and weaved his way from AAA frequent flyer into bullpen royalty. Claudio needed just nine pitches to retire the top third of the order.
With the final lineout to third base the unlikely had become reality, not just in this game but in the three-game sweep of the Nationals. The Rangers, counted as dead a mere three days ago, have new life, thanks to the combined 1.89 ERA from Andrew Cashner, Martin Perez, and Austin Bibens-Dirkx against the most fearsome offense in the National League.
Who knows if these three games are a bellwether for a recovery, or simply a reprieve from the pain of a morose season. We won’t know that for awhile yet. But in the meantime, the game rewarded those who chose to spend their Sunday afternoon watching baseball. It was an underdog among underdogs defeating a king among rulers.