Imagine winning a baseball game. Just one.
Imagine standing on the mound and trying to guide 110 pitches, maybe 120, past the best hitters in the world. Imagine throwing the ball to the tiny spots where hitters can't reach and umpires can't disapprove. Imagine counting on two, maybe three, great defensive plays behind you.
Imagine trusting your fate to three relief pitchers, maybe four, maybe more. Imagine hoping your hitters can score more off the other pitcher than you allow. Imagine there are no bad hops, and no bloop hits, and no bad luck that could ruin your day.
Imagine all of that.
Then imagine it happening 20 times in a season.
David Price, the kid with a chance, stands at his locker, imagining the possibilities. Yes, he says, 20 games is a lot. Yes, he says, winning one game is a chore.
"You're talking about winning 67 percent of your starts,'' said Price, who pitches today when the Rays finish a four-game series against the Tigers. "That's tough to do. You can go out there and have your best stuff, and you still might not get a decision."
That said, Price has a shot. He's going for his 14th victory today, and he has roughly a dozen starts thereafter. Yes, it's possible. No, it isn't probable. These days, the odds are always against a pitcher breaking a 20.
If any team should know how hard it is for a starter to get a win, it is Tampa Bay. Think about this: If Price wins today, he would tie the franchise record for victories. It says something about Price and something about the Rays that Price could equal a franchise record before the end of July. It also says a little about the position and a barrier that has never been this hard to reach.
Once, they were as plentiful as buffalo nickels. A baseball team could not get through a series without running into a 20-game winner. If a pitcher hadn't made a run at 20, well, his name wasn't worth remembering. Why, back in the '70s, pitchers won at least 20 games a whopping 96 times (close to 10 per season).
Now, that has changed. There have been five 20-game winners in the last four seasons. There were none last year. Three of the last four American League Cy Young winners didn't win 20. Six of the last seven National League Cy Young winners didn't win 20. For nine different franchises, it has been at least 20 years since a pitcher won 20. For two others (the Rockies and Rays), there has never been a 20-game winner.
If you are of a certain age, you probably remember 1971, when the Orioles had four 20-game winners. But here's a number you may not recall. The Orioles starters not only won 81 games that year. Together they pitched 70 complete games.
Blame pitch counts, if you want. Blame closers and setup men and left-handed specialists. Blame bullpen matchups, because sheer numbers suggest the more relievers a team uses, the more likely one of them is to have an off night. Blame five-man rotations. Blame the big money, and front offices intent on protecting their investments. Blame a livelier ball. Blame the shrinking strike zone. Blame smaller parks. Blame the evolution of the game.
Things change. There was probably a time in the late 1800s when a writer asked Old Hoss Radbourn why there were no more 50-game winners. After all, there had been three of them in 1884. (It must have been before "hitting it where they ain't" was invented.) Cy Young himself was probably asked about the vanishing 30-game winner. He did it five times, but none in his last nine seasons.
That's baseball. Every now and then, it seems to make it harder for pitchers.
If nothing else, the endangered 20-game winner makes this Rays rotation a little more special. Price is probably 50-50 to reach 20. Matt Garza, who won his 11th game with Monday night's no-hitter, has about a 35 percent shot. As far as the rest of the rotation, James Shields has nine wins, Jeff Niemann nine and Wade Davis eight. No, there has never been another Rays team where the rotation had 50 wins before August.
"I think we have an outside shot (at a 20-game winner)," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Everything would have to break right. And when our guys did leave with a lead, our bullpen would have to nail it down. Last year, for instance, I thought Niemann should have had 15-plus wins, but we didn't hold the lead for him."
"We have a shot," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "I wouldn't call it a good shot."
If the Rays are going to stay in the AL East race, however, they're going to need Price or Garza, or both, to pitch well. And with Rafael Soriano and Joaquin Benoit in the bullpen, both have a chance to run off a few decisions in a row.
What's the limit? Could Price win 20? Could Garza win 18? Could Shields, Niemann and Davis flirt with 14 or 15?
Given the race, and given the competition, it would be nice if they could finish somewhere in the neighborhood.
After all, somebody has to get the win, don't they?