The best and worst of the London Series


LONDON — Poll any number of players and team officials from the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox about the weekend they just spent across the Atlantic, and you’ll get a wide range of answers about what it was they just experienced.

Some consider themselves lucky. Others call being the first to play major league baseball in Europe a blessing. Even others say it felt a little strange to play a regular-season game overseas.

“I found myself a couple of times in the course of the game [Saturday] really taking it all in,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “It was something that was really cool to be a part of.”

There was nary a complaint about the historic series from anyone connected to the teams because, in their eyes, so much around them went about as well as it could have. To be sure, there were unexpected adjustments, idiosyncrasies, wild and high-scoring outcomes and bizarre occurrences that characterized the two games at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park’s London Stadium.

“Felt like an exhibition, like a spectacle,” Yankees reliever Adam Ottavino said. “Obviously we knew we had to win, but … it just felt like a strange environment. We were trying to stay locked in on winning, and that’s the only part of it that felt normal.”

Indeed, for a Yankees team that went 9-1 on its homestand that preceded this weekend’s London Series, winning has felt normal.

But clearly, not everything did feel normal. As the Yankees and the Red Sox return from their brief U.K. stay, here are some of the best and worst parts of baseball’s grand European experiment.

Best — Offensive firepower creates a show: Much of the criticism about baseball from those who dislike it or know little about it hinges on the lengthy periods of inaction within individual games. This series certainly ensured that even the most pessimistic of baseball critics could try to enjoy the sport. Runs were scored at a higher than normal clip, and the balls in play even seemed to skip on the slick artificial turf at a faster pace than usual.

Just how prolific were the two offenses? The teams combined to score 50 runs, register 65 hits and hit 10 home runs across the 18 innings that were played.

And just how rare was this display of offensive firepower? The 50 combined runs went down as the most scored by the teams in two consecutive games in the history of the iconic Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. Prior to this weekend, the most the teams had combined to score across two days was 46 runs, which happened in September 1933 and August 2009.

“No matter who we had in [Sunday’s] game pitching, the lead didn’t feel very safe,” Yankees infielder DJ LeMahieu said. “I don’t know what it was, just a couple of crazy games like that. Our pitchers, they did a really good job for the circumstances, and I’m just glad we scored a bunch of runs.”

The runs certainly did come in bunches. New York had three innings between these two days in which it scored six or more runs. Boston had two such innings, with a pair of four-run frames included, too.

“It was eye-opening, the last two days, from top to bottom,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said of the Yankees’ firepower. “Right now, they’re a lot better than us.”

He isn’t the only one who feels that way.

“They’re a good team. I think we’re better,” LeMahieu said.

Worst — Pitiful pitching: Clearly, if both teams scored so much and hit so well, their pitching must have been pitiful. It was.

On Saturday alone, the teams trotted out eight pitchers apiece, turning the opener of the London Series into a two-team bullpen game. Between the two days, 21 pitchers made a total of 30 appearances.

None of the Yankees’ pitchers could pinpoint exactly what the issue was. All they could do was acknowledge that Boston’s hitters were pounding the ball off them. Reliever Chad Green suggested that the closer-than-normal backstop at the stadium — which usually houses the West Ham United soccer team, and was converted into a baseball field for the series — may have created a slight optical illusion, throwing off pitchers’ depth perception.

Another theory is that the lack of circulating air within the humid, partially covered stadium affected the bend of certain pitches, notably sliders, which weren’t getting the break they do in big league ballparks in the States.

Yankees lefty Stephen Tarpley, who gave up three home runs in a four-run first inning Sunday, dismissed that suggestion.

“Thought I was throwing some really, really good pitches. I felt amazing out there,” Tarpley said. “My confidence was at an all-time high. I was working the counts just exactly how I would normally. Maybe I got beat. Maybe I was tipping something. Who knows?”

As Tarpley indicated, the bulk of the seven pitches that were put in play against him were “literally on the black.” Six of them were either really far inside or on the outer edge of the strike zone. The other batted ball was down at the bottom of the strike zone and resulted in a fly out.

“This will fuel the fire for the next time I face them,” Tarpley said. “I’m going to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

He’s not the only pitcher in this series who wants to take that approach back to America.

Saturday’s starting pitchers — New York’s Masahiro Tanaka and Boston’s Rick Porcello — were hit incredibly hard. The pair allowed an average exit velocity of 94.7 mph. That was far faster than the 89.2 mph average exit velocity allowed by all major league starters (including “openers”) entering that game.

Best — Defensive Web Gems galore: Although the pitching was rather atrocious, the defense behind the 21 men who toed London Stadium’s rubber was quite noteworthy throughout the weekend.

There were diving catches, sliding catches, sun-battling grabs and hot-shot comebackers snagged. Certainly Harry Potter would have lauded the defensive wizardry as players on both sides earned oohs and aahs from fans.

Among the more brilliant defensive plays were Mike Tauchman‘s sliding, diving grab of a sinking liner in the bottom of the seventh on Saturday and Michael Chavis‘ long run into deep foul territory along the first-base line Sunday.

Didi Gregorius had a number of masterful snags and snares at shortstop as he dove and corralled several difficult-to-field choppers hit his way. He even kicked off his share of double plays that received cheers and acclaim from the capacity crowds.

London Stadium seats about 60,000. The first game drew 59,659, and the second game drew 59,059. Most current major league stadiums have fewer than 50,000 seats.

“The most fans I’ve ever played in front of,” Yankees first baseman Luke Voit said. “We’ve gotten a good reception, like the football guys [NFL] have gotten the last couple of years.”

The plays, particularly those made on fly balls, were most noteworthy because of how difficult it was for players to track the ball. The backdrop behind home plate was full of white seats (which don’t exist in major league ballparks), white shirts and featured a tough sky.

In addition to the sky suddenly emerging from the unique, soccer stadium-style canopy, outfielders said the sun seemed to hover throughout both games in spots that caused the ball to get lost in it.

“Picking up the ball in the outfield was tough, just with the white backdrop, and the sun just sat right above that little archway,” Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge said. “So that was tough the first couple of innings, but still, it was great being out there.”

Worst — Pace of play too long, even for Yankees-Red Sox: As baseball continues its quest to shorten the length of games, it did itself no favors this weekend. Both games operated in typical Yankees-Red Sox fashion, lasting well over four hours. The game on Saturday clocked in at 4 hours, 42 minutes, while the Sunday game took 4 hours, 24 minutes to complete. All the high-run innings and exhaustive number of pitching changes contributed greatly to that.

The first game featured a 58-minute opening inning that set a pretty bad early tone for the series. It took about three hours before either team in that game recorded a 1-2-3 inning.

Best — A1 fan/player experience: Overall, the London Series accomplished exactly what baseball wanted: It introduced the sport to a massive new audience that seemed to be intrigued and enthralled with every single moment and nuance of the games.

The league also benefited from featuring a pair of teams that had something to play for. Not only was their rivalry-related pride on the line, but so were wins in the American League East race. As Ottavino alluded, that was the main thing that kept the games from feeling like uncompetitive exhibitions.

What gave the contests the “spectacle” status that Ottavino referred to was the pregame pageantry and the pomp and circumstance that went with them. Choirs performed both “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Save the Queen” as if the teams were playing a playoff game against a British opponent.

British royalty also took in the opening game, with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, gracing the field during Saturday’s introductions.

“I’ve played in international venues and some great ones. I had a blast,” Cora said. “What we witnessed here was great. The atmosphere, the passion, it was fun. I hope it happens more than twice. Hopefully other teams can experience this venue.”

The attention to detail paid by the league across both games further enhanced the London Series. In addition to incorporating between-innings entertainment like a U.K.-themed mascot race, there was also a “Tube Race,” in which fans had to guess which London Underground train would beat the others in a computer-generated race on the video boards. It was a game Yankees fans might recognize, as it was patterned after Yankee Stadium’s “Subway Race” featuring the B, D and 4 trains.

The games also featured the individual walk-up songs of hitters and pitchers from both teams, making it feel like fans were at their respective home ballparks during each half inning. Fenway Park’s “Sweet Caroline” played over the loudspeakers in the eighth, and the Bronx Bombers’ “YMCA” played in the seventh, with the grounds crew dancing like the crew members who take care of Yankee Stadium’s playing surface.

For even more of an authentic American baseball experience, the games featured a “wave,” one replay review and a proposal on the video board.

“The fans were great. During the intros both days they were loud, especially during the eighth inning, ninth inning, too,” Judge said. “They were kind of getting on their feet and cheering. You could hear all 60,000 of them.

“We enjoyed it out here, and we came out here and did what we wanted to do: come out here and get a couple wins and put on a show for the fans.”

Source link