The Call

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There was a blood red moon – fitting he thought – which brightened the sky and symbolized this glorious moment. The road ahead – as far as the eye could see – was straight and dark. The hum of the tires could not drown out the cacophony in his head.

Just a little while ago, he sat sweaty and exhausted, dirt and disappointment strewn across his face, as he wrapped ice around his weary knees. The first pitch was a few minutes away, and he was finishing his pre-game routine. It was this same routine he had been performing since high school, always with one goal in mind.

From high school he took his talents to college, where he was a student-athlete in name only. While other kids drank beer and focused on their MFAs and MBAs, he drank beer and focused on MLB. Every day on campus was one day closer to “The Show.”

College begot the Minors. Long bus rides on empty highways, not so different from tonight. Twenty-four players cramped on a charter, hoping that the next stop would be the last stop before fame and riches. He made those trips for years, each spring telling himself that this was the year – either he made it or he quit. This was his fourth year making that declaration.

Those hard days that he thought would never end became the soundtrack to his life – the only life he had ever imagined, the only life he ever knew. But what if it didn’t happen? The odds were against him – only a select few ever get to be Major League baseball players, and time and circumstance were telling him that maybe he would not be one of the few.

But this season started well; he was hitting the ball to all fields, and with authority. Flyballs that had died on the warning track in years past began to find their way over the wall. Liners that magically found fielders’ gloves were now making it to the outfield, untouched. And people were noticing.

There was a different vibe around the batting cage before the game; coaches were keeping a more watchful eye and offering encouragement where they used to offer derision. Such was the way of the Minors – you needed to have thick skin and unrelenting confidence, or the pressure, the failure, would destroy you.

Last night he hit two homers, drove in five, and made a diving play in left field. He was clicking on all cylinders. When he got back to his raggedy one-bedroom apartment, the one with the torn couch, makeshift kitchen table, dish-filled sink, and 65-inch plasma on the wall, he flipped on SportsCenter. There, staring him in the face, was John Anderson, quipping that his one roadblock had been removed. On an otherwise innocuous night in the Midwest, the Cardinals’ starting left fielder had gone down with a pulled hamstring; a trip to the DL looked certain. The door appeared to open.

He said his first prayer in months that night. He rarely prayed, believing that G-d had more important things to worry about than professional baseball. But he figured, “what the hell.” He never would have prayed for an injury or for anything bad to befall a fellow player – he had too much respect for the game for that. But the die had been cast, and he had earned his shot. Now he needed to literally pray that the powers-that-be up north felt the same way. Excited and yet exhausted, he turned off the TV and went to bed.

He awoke with his phone on this chest – no calls from the 314 area code. “Don’t sweat it,” he thought, “it’s still early.” He made breakfast, and went through his morning routine. Around 2pm – still without a call or a text or a “breaking news” alert from the MLB app – he headed to the ballpark. He checked in with his manager, who did not betray anything out of the ordinary; so he changed into workout gear and hit the weight room.

He bench-pressed 250, then 260, and then 275, anything to work out the anxiety. When that wouldn’t do, he hit the field and began running poles. Back and forth he went. Try as he might, he could not rid himself of the feeling that it just wasn’t go to happen.

Back in the clubhouse, drenched in sweat and spent, more mentally than physically, he made himself a PB&J and plopped himself on the couch in front of the television. As per usual, it was tuned to the MLB Network, and they were going over the day’s action. At a certain point, the announcer listed the current transactions – trades, injuries, players sent to and from the Minors. His nemesis was listed on the injury screen; confirming what he learned last night, the Cardinals clean-up hitter was out six-to-eight weeks with a Grade 3 hamstring pull, and the pundits were sure it would be much longer.

He slowly chewed his sandwich, and slowly chewed his thoughts. If it didn’t happen now, it was never going to happen. Maybe this was the sign; maybe this was the end.

He told himself he could live without getting the call, but not if they called up that rube from Double-A over him. That, he could not bear.

The sandwich finished, and his confidence nearly the same, he decided to cool off. He trudged off to the showers he had secretly hoped to never use again, and grabbed one of the stiff towels he had secretly hoped to never touch again. As he let the warm water splash through his hair, over his taut and tense muscles, and down his back, a montage of memories spun through his head.

There was draft night, 2014, when Greg Amsinger announced that the St. Louis Cardinals, with their second pick, selected Bryce Johnson out of the University of Georgia. And that first night in Rookie Ball, when he went 0-5 with four Ks, and went back to his hotel thinking this whole thing was a mistake. There was the night in Peoria when he hit three dingers and thought maybe, just maybe, he belonged. There was the unexpected call to Memphis, when he made the unprecedented leap to Triple-A, and then the call from Springfield, when he was sent back down. He remembered the smell of the grass on the backfields of Roger Dean Stadium last February, his first Big League Spring Training; and the sting of showing up early one morning to see his name on the list of players transferred to Minor League camp. And then he thought about last night, when it seemed like all signs were pointing north, and how it now seemed that the rug was being pulled out from under him and his dreams.

He finished his shower feeling no better. He stopped by the training room and grabbed two bags of ice – the knees needed to be ready, even if the mind wasn’t able. Walking back to his locker, Skip called him into his office. “What now?” he wondered. “Johnson,” Skip bellowed with his stentorian voice, and he was immediately a five year old looking into his father’s disappointed eyes. Skip continued: “This is the best part of my job. Forget the money, the championships, the stale bread in the kitchen. There is nothing better than when I tell a deserving ballplayer he is now a Big Leaguer.”

“Wait…What!?” Johnson asked. Before Skip could repeat the words, tears were streaming where defeat had been just a few moments prior.

“You’ve earned it,” Skip said, “and the guys in St. Louis noticed. They want you there ASAP. Now the bad news,” Skip said, “there are no flights tonight, so if you want to make it the Major Leagues, you need to drive there yourself.”

At that moment, he would have swam to St. Louis; driving was nothing. “Now pack your bags and get out of here,” Skip said. “I don’t want to see your ugly face in this clubhouse ever again.”

He sprinted out of the office, grabbed the nearest bag, threw in his gloves, spikes, a handful of batting gloves, and left the rest for the next guy. He assumed that the clubby in St. Louis would give him whatever else he needed.

He floated to the parking lot and jumped in his truck. As he left the ballpark and headed for his apartment, he gave himself exactly ten minutes to pack. A toothbrush, a change of underwear, and he would deal with the rest of the shit later. He had somewhere important to be.

Not twenty minutes later, he was heading north on I-55, on his way to “The Show.”

There was a blood red moon – fitting he thought – which brightened the sky and exemplified this glorious moment. The road ahead – as far as the eye could see – was straight and dark. The hum of the tires could not drown out the cacophony in his head. Nearly twenty years of baseball, from playing catch with his dad, to backyard Wiffle ball with his brother, to conference championships in the SEC, to four cutthroat seasons in the bushes. As the wind blew through the open window he thought to himself, “This is what it feels like to be one of 750, a Major League baseball player.”

In a few short hours, he would arrive at the gates of that famous ballpark, and pull into the player’s lot where his heroes park their cars, and enter the clubhouse as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. Busch Stadium was his field of dreams; and after all those years, and all that work, after all the fears and all those doubts, he realized: some dreams do come true.

PLAY BALL!!

Hall Worthy: You Decide

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My father has his own blog. In it, he writes his thoughts, feelings, and opinions, and concludes with “that is my take – you decide.” I have always thought this a clever writing tool, as you make the reader an active participant. So, as with apples and trees, I want to let you decide.

In 2012, said father, my son, and I were lucky enough to be invited on the field at Fenway Park for batting practice. Alas, it was the visiting team’s BP, but a blast nonetheless. As we stood behind the ropes and my son begged for balls, and my father reveled in his surroundings, taking a trip down memory lane to when he was younger than my son, sitting in the cheap seats at “America’s Most Beloved Ballpark,” I found myself mesmerized by the goings-on at shortstop.

If you have ever been at the yard early enough to catch batting practice, you are treated to a coordinated symphony of activity. Hitters, obviously, are hitting. But for a few moments every afternoon, they are Little Leaguers, subject to the clarion call of: “balls up.” Some pitchers dot the outfield and shag flyballs in the merriment of times gone by; while other pitchers use the dwindling light to get in sprints along the warning track. Fringe players and stars alike take a moment to check in with reporters, front office personnel, and the occasional fan. And stationed on either side of the batting cage is a coach hitting fungoes to players at second base and shortstop, respectively. Yes, even the big leaguers have to take infield practice.

On this late afternoon in July, Toronto was in town. This Blue Jays team was somewhat non-descript, hovering around .500 at that point, eventually finishing the season in fourth place, twenty-two games behind the Yankees. Yunel Escobar started 145 games at shortstop for the Jays that year, hitting .253 with a swarthy .644 OPS. But it was not Escobar who caught and held my eye. No, it was – at that time – the 45-year old backup shortstop, with nearly 3,000 games under his belt.

Watching Omar Vizquel during batting practice was, in a word, sublime. I gladly would have forfeited the game, and paid for my ticket just to watch Vizquel field grounders for three hours. He grabbed balls between his legs, he took throws behind his back, he made catches over his shoulder, he stood at short facing left field and still made plays. On a few occasions – and this is not hyperbole – he threw his glove in the air, knocking down line drives headed for the outfield. Try that some time. It was a wonder to watch, so watch I did. When my son wanted to fetch an autograph, I let him roam free. When my father wanted to look around, I did not join him. This was a once-in-a-lifetime (it turns out Omar participated in BP approximately 2,968 times in his career) opportunity to watch genius in action. Sure, it was batting practice and not a live game, but no matter. Sure, there were no stakes so he could be free to try any stunt he wanted, but who cares. It is why, in 2015, the Golden State Warriors opened the arena hours early so fans could watch Stephen Curry get ready to play. The pregame is often more enjoyable than the real thing.

For me, an unapologetic baseball fan, who loves Web Gems more than “chicks dig the long ball,” this was watching Picasso paint, Brando emote, MLK preach, Jordan dunk. This was more than worth the price of admission.

In a few days the 2018 Baseball Hall of Fame class will be unveiled. This is Vizquel’s first year of eligibility. Spoiler alert: he will not be enshrined this year. But the larger question is whether he ever will be? The interwebs are filled with articles citing the pros and cons of his qualifications, and I am truly on the fence. If there was a Hall of Fame for pregame mastery, Omar is a first-ballot inductee. Unfortunately, the BBWAA limits its vote to in-game results.

Unlike my father, I have not proffered an opinion, just an appreciation of the player. You decide!

PLAY BALL!!

Happy Wife: Free Agency is a Family Matter

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I have always been intrigued by the athlete’s wife. Before anyone paints me a misogynist, as of this morning, there are no women playing any of the four major sports, and also as of this morning, there are no openly gay players on any of those teams (we can be certain there are some closeted gay players, but I digress), so this discourse is reserved for the wives.

You always hear about players, in the off-season, going to a celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, or a “boys trip” to Las Vegas, or a booze cruise off South Beach. And every time I wonder: “What do their wives think?” If my job required that I be gone – corporeally and/or mentally – for six months of the year, and then no sooner than I got home I told my wife I was leaving for the weekend with my teammates or buddies, I am pretty sure she would have an abreaction. Suffice it to say, it wouldn’t go over so well.

But such, I guess, is the life of the athlete’s wife. Which leads me to latest curiosity: where are we going to live; where are the kids going to school; where are we spending our spring?

As of this writing, there are at least nine high-priced free agents still awaiting new contracts. I won’t get into the lower-tier players, as for some/most of them, they do not have a Chinese menu of team options. But for the likes of Jake Arrieta, Eric Hosmer, J.D. Martinez, and Yu Darvish, there are options aplenty. And, as some point, they will need to make a decision.

Many of these players, like Jake Arrieta, have wives and kids. The Arrietas have made Chicago their home since 2013. Jake rejected the Cubs’ qualifying offer, so, ostensibly, they will be moving. But where?

The rumor is that Arrieta is looking for a long-term deal valued at somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million.  The conventional wisdom holds that the deal will be somewhere around $150-$175 million. At some level, the difference between $175 and $200 million may be less important to Jake than a happy wife and a stable life. For reference, Jake has made nearly $32 million in his career, and he will make an additional nine figures whenever and wherever he signs. And while it is easy for me to be blasé about $25 or so million, it is really easy for him to be as well. Any way you shake it, he will make generational, legacy, eff you money. The same is true for J.D. Martinez, Yu Darvish, and the others.

So the question then becomes where do Jake and his family want to spend that money? Where do they want to make a home? Which city has the best schools, the best golf courses, the best night life? Where do their friends live? Their extended families? In a life centered around the husband – his career, his training, his travel, his schedule – it seems to me (again, maybe it is just me) that the “where” question is one the wife gets to answer (or at least have a vociferous voice in deciding).

If Brittany Arietta were my wife, I am pretty sure she would be asking me, on a daily basis, what the hell is happening. Which means I, in turn, would be asking Scott Boras, on a daily basis, what the hell is happening. And I am pretty certain my wife would want more than five weeks’ notice to know if we are heading east or west for the spring, and east or west for the summer and the next five, six, or seven years.

But, again, this draws me back to my fascination with the athlete’s wife. This topic is ripe for – due for – a book, one that I am not qualified to write. My short analysis is that this is what they signed up for. With the trappings come the shortcomings; travel (and moving on short notice) is just part of the package. But what I would give to be a fly on the wall in the Arrieta’s kitchen – I want to know how his other half lives.

78 days until we hear:

PLAY BALL!!

 

Free Agency Has Begun: The QO Rule

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Last year I wrote about the Qualifying Offer (“QO”) rule, and how it affected player mobility. And just when you thought you had a handle on how it worked, the owners and players went ahead and renegotiated the CBA. In the process, they bolloxed up the QO in a way that hardly anyone can comprehend. However, if you enjoy this stuff as much as I do, and have the patience and curiosity to know how it will work for at least the next five years, read on.

A bit of history. Under the old CBA, if a team made a QO to a free agent player (the amount of the QO is predicated on the average of the top 125 salaries from the previous year; for 2017, the amount is $17.4M), that player had seven days to accept and sign a one-year deal; or reject, and become an unrestricted free agent. The term “unrestricted,” however, was a misnomer, because any team acquiring that player had to forfeit its first round draft pick the following season (the only exception being teams with picks 1-10; they had to relinquish a second-rounder); and the offering team was compensated with a so-called “sandwich pick”, which is between the first and second rounds.

One more thing: the QO draft pick penalty was only applicable to players who played the entire season for their prior team (if you were traded mid-season, or joined the team after the amateur draft, an acquiring team did not face the penalty). Got it?

Well, if Occam’s Razor applies in most circumstances, its bizarro brother applies to MLB. Here is the system that will apply until 2021:

For starters, the owners and players split the world into three sets of teams: (1) those over the luxury-tax threshold (i.e., teams whose payroll exceeded $189 million last season, $195 million this coming season, escalating in later years); (2) those from the 15 smallest markets that receive revenue sharing money; and (3) teams that don’t fit into either category. These tiers will be helpful as we move forward.

Here we go: A team offers a player a QO. That player now has ten (not seven) days to accept or reject. If he accepts, all is right with the world, he signs with his current team, and there is no confusion. If he rejects, we must follow the Rube Goldberg contraption put in place to see what happens.

Let’s start with the team losing the free agent (herein, “the Loser”):

If the free agent signs a contract of $50 million or more (regardless of number of years), the Loser gets draft pick compensation. However, the form of compensation is dependent on the Loser’s good or bad deeds.

  • If they are over the luxury-tax threshold, they receive a draft pick at the end of the fourth round.
  • If they are one of the small market teams, they receive a pick at the end of the first round.
  • If they don’t fit into either category, they receive a pick at the end of the second round.

With me so far?

If the free agent signs for less than $50 million, then:

  • If the Loser is over the luxury-tax threshold, they receive a draft pick at the end of the fourth round.
  • If they are below the luxury-tax threshold, they receive a pick at the end of the second round.

Now to the team acquiring the free agent (herein, “the Buyer”):

  • If the Buyer is over the luxury-tax threshold, they lose their second and fifth highest draft picks, plus $1 million in international pool money.
  • If they are one of the 15 small market teams, they lose their third highest draft pick, but no international money.
  • If they are none of the above, they lose their second highest draft pick, plus $500,000 in international pool money.

Under the old CBA, if a Buyer already acquired a QO free agent, and thus gave up their first round pick, there wasn’t much pain involved in acquiring a second QO player, as they only had to then forfeit a second-round pick. Not anymore:

  • A Buyer over the luxury-tax threshold acquiring a second QO player now forfeits all of the following: their second, third, fifth, and sixth highest picks, plus $2 million in international bonus pool money.
  • If they are one of the 15 small market teams, they lose their third and fourth highest draft pick, but no international bonus pool money.
  • If neither, they lose their second and third highest draft picks, plus $1 million in international pool money.

One additional wrinkle that the Player’s Union was able to extract from MLB: A player may not receive more than one QO in his (or her) career. This rule change looked to be a boon to José Bautista, who received a QO last season, rejected it, and then signed a 1-year deal with Toronto knowing he couldn’t be offered another QO. He then went out and hit .203, with a -1.7 WAR and a OPS+ of 76. Oh how he wishes he could get a $17.4 million offer this off-season.

Much time and effort went into revising the QO rule in an attempt to free up the free agent market by taking the onus off of Buyers. Time will tell if that goal was achieved, but for this season at least, here is the list of the prominent players potentially affected by the new QO rule: Jake Arrieta, Lorenzo Cain, Zack Cozart, Wade Davis, Greg Holland, Eric Hosmer, Lance Lynn, and Mike Moustakas. It certainly seems like a lot of calories were burned and a lot of ink spilled to solve an issue for these eight players.

But there you have it. Everyone understand? Are the implications perfectly clear? Great!

PLAY BALL!!

Roy Halladay: 1997-2017

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I have suffered a great deal of loss in my years. I have attended more funerals, and delivered more eulogies, than most people do in a lifetime. And when someone dies, we, as a society, have an immediate reflex to turn the deceased into a saint, a hero, a flawless soul who graced this mortal coil for too short a period. In those moments of despair, we often overlook the faults, imperfections, peccadilloes, that made the person whole, made them human, made them them.

I have never subscribed to this theory of post-mortem hagiography. Maybe I am just a “warts and all” type of guy. Maybe I am just an unrepentant pessimist. Or maybe I am just honest. With all of that said, feel free to deify me upon my interment.

I have given this idea a great deal of thought while reading so many glowing obituaries and memorials and tributes to Roy Halladay, who died tragically in a plane accident on November 7th. To read the words written by those who knew him well, by those who him a little, by those who rooted for him, and those who just watched him from afar, you get the sense that this man was really as great as he seemed.

Halladay’s statistics speak for themselves, and even absent an untimely death, it is safe to say that they are clearing a spot for his plaque in Cooperstown some time after 2019. Doc’s intensity was well-known to baseball fans in two countries – his refusal to speak to teammates on pitch days; his glaring at batters to get back in the box; his 5am Spring Training arrivals. It wasn’t just teammates, rivals loved watching him pitch.

“I can’t believe it. So many times we competed against each other and even while competing, I wanted to see you! My condolences to his family” — via Twitter, @45PedroMartinez

But there are so many other attributes that are either overlooked or unknown. There was the mentorship that happened in the clubhouse, but was not publicized. There was the quiet donations, including a police dog to the very sheriff’s office that led Halladay’s recovery effort. There was (and will continue to be) the Halladay Family Foundation that aides children’s charities, hunger relief, and animal causes. There was the Little League coaching that spread to both dugouts, as Roy was loathe to horde his knowledge and deny other children the experience and expertise he had gained over a lifetime on the diamond. There was the love of flying that endeared him to his new “team” in the aviation community. There was his being a role model for scores of pitchers, including the man who saved the final game of the World Series just over a week ago. And there was the multiple nominations for the Roberto Clemente Award, given to an MLB player for sportsmanship and community involvement, an award named for a man who died, ironically/coincidentally/cosmically, too young in a plane accident.

Roy Halladay, coming off a season with a 10.64 ERA, was a dark horse to become his generation’s best pitcher. He was the rare bird who lived up to the words written about him by professional scriveners. He was a hard-working Phillie and a free-flying Blue Jay, an inspiration to all.

R.I.P. Doc, the world of baseball, and the world in general, was a better place for having you.

PLAY BALL!!

It’s Better to Be Lucky Than Good (or Smart)

It’s Better to Be Lucky Than Good (or Smart)

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The Dodgers and the Astros are two of the most analytically-driven organizations operating in baseball today. Andrew Friedman has a background in finance, and ran the low-budget Rays for years on a diet of limited dollars and copious spreadsheets. Jeff Luhnow came to the Astros (from the Cardinals) in 2011, armed with degrees in Economics and Engineering, and revamped the Astros’ front-office, installing a lose-to-win strategy (read: “tanking”), which paid off handsomely Wednesday night.

We, as fans, are not privy to the scores of data that are provided to the manager, coaches, and players before each series, ahead of each game, during each inning. So we are often left scratching our heads at decisions that look, to us, irrational. But to the managers, coaches, and players, they are all part of a master plan. We may not love this form of baseball; we may prefer decision-making from the good ol’ gut or based on something imperceptible to us, but glaring to someone who has spent a lifetime sitting on the top step of a dugout. Welcome to baseball in 2017.

For executives like Friedman and Luhnow, it is about having the world’s best inputs, the most rigorous analysis, and then trusting the #process to produce the most advantageous results. These types of leaders strive for outcomes derived from a thoughtful plan, which is predicated on the aforementioned input and analysis. Outliers are unimportant; what matters most are the aggregate fruit plucked from a well-planted decision tree.

However, even with all of the statistical back-up, the iPad on the bench, and laminated cards in the players’ back pockets, we witnessed a handful of, um, strategies, during the World Series that defy explanation. These were decisions that did not seem to flow from a thoughtful process or with a strong statistical advantage. After a thrilling World Series, seven games filled with tension, lead changes, and many, many homeruns, we won’t talk about these moments as they somehow ended in the team’s favor. Yet if these decisions had produced a different result, we may be discussing them for years to come. I guess sometimes it is better to be lucky than good (or smart).

Because Buster Olney, Joe Sheehan, Tom Verducci, Bob Nightengale, and Jerry Crasnick don’t have time to write about these; and before Jayson Stark finds the novelty in each one; and before Ben Lindbergh and Michael Baumann and Jeff Sullivan break them down to their most granular level; and before Joe Posnanski writes something pithy about them, allow me to address some of the 2017 World Series’s most head-scratching moments:

GAME 5

7th Inning: With the score tied at seven , Justin Turner led off with a double. Kiké Hernández hit only .159 against right-handed pitching this season, so asking him to bunt may have seemed like the correct call. But for a guy with nearly 1,000 career at bats, Hernández has a total of 2 sacrifice bunts. And it showed. Kiké bunted right to Brad Peacock who wheeled and threw out Turner at third. One out, runner on first. When Cody Bellinger tripled three pitches later, Hernández scored, and Kiké’s bunt and Turner’s out did not matter. But all of that begs the larger question: In a slugfest wherein 14 runs had been scored in the first six innings, did Dave Roberts honestly believe that one run over the next three would win the game?

9th Inning: This one doesn’t fall on the manager, per sé, but coaching may have played a role. After Yasiel Puig’s one-out, one-handed two-run homer in the 9th inning to cut the Astros’ lead to 12-11, Austin Barnes stretched a long single into a way-too-close-for-comfort double. Being aggressive is great, being reckless is not. A slightly better throw leaves the Dodgers with the bases empty, chasing a run, down to their last out. Chris Taylor singled home Barnes, tying the game, and now Barnes looks daring, not careless.

GAME 6

5th Inning: Rich Hill threw four innings in Game 2. After the epic Game 5 in which the Dodgers used seven pitchers throwing a total of 195 pitches, the conventional wisdom held that Hill needed to go deep into Game 6. Dave Roberts eschewed convention and scoffed at wisdom. After getting himself into a second and third no-out jam, Hill struck out Josh Reddick and Justin Verlander. That turned the lineup over with two outs. Roberts elected to intentionally walk George Springer to face Alex Bregman. I guess this was a lesser-of-two-evils dilemma with first base open: at that point, Springer was 8-23 with four homers and two doubles; Bregman was 7-24 with two homers, a double, and a walk-off hit the game before. Heads you win, tails I lose. With Springer now on first and the bases now loaded, Roberts pulled Hill after 58 pitches (45 strikes). So much for going deep. And he replaced Hill with the gassed Brandon Morrow. The same Brandon Morrow who gave up four runs over six pitches in his last outing. What did Morrow do? He induced Bregman to ground out to end the inning. Great result, but I’m not too sure about the process.

6th Inning: With the Dodgers trailing 1-0 and the pitcher due to bat second in the bottom half of the inning, Roberts elected to make a double-switch in the top half. Going by the book, Roberts removed the player who had made the last out. In doing so, he replaced Logan Forsythe, who was hitting .313 in the series, with Chase Utley, who was 0 for his last 29. Huh? Of course, no harm was done as Utley got hit by a 2-2 breaking ball and eventually scored on Corey Seager’s sac fly. (Side note: Can someone please explain to me how Seager’s flyball didn’t land ten rows into the Pavilion?)

7th Inning: The sixth inning ended with the Dodgers leading 2-1. Verlander was due to bat second. He had thrown 93 pitches, so he probably had another 35 in him. Upon leaving the field, Hinch told Verlander he was done for the night. Justin donned his jacket and got a drink of water. My question is why not wait to see what the leadoff hitter does? If Reddick gets on base, Verlander could (attempt to) bunt him over; and if Reddick fails, then you simply pinch hit for Verlander. But at least give yourself the option. Of course Reddick walked, and instead of having Verlander bunt him to second (or, at worst, strike out with Reddick stuck at first), Evan Gattis pinch-hit and rolled into a force out. After a Springer single, Hinch was forced to use Derek Fisher as a pinch-runner. Kenta Maeda then retired Bregman and Jose Altuve; and now the Astros had one less pinch-hitter and one less pinch-runner available. Oh, and they now had to go to the leaky bullpen instead of getting a little more out their horse while trying to keep the game in check. Joc Pederson hit a homerun off Joe Musgrove in the bottom of the 7th, so that didn’t work out so well. But the Astros won the World Series, and Verlander was available (?) out of the pen in Game 7, so I guess all’s well that ends well.

8th Inning: Two on, two out in the bottom half, Dodgers lead 3-1 with a chance to break it open. A.J. Hinch replaced Luke Gregerson with Francisco Liriano to face Cody Bellinger. At that moment, Liriano had not pitched in nearly two weeks – his last appearance was in Game 5 of the ALCS. In Liriano’s career, he has fared just slightly better against lefties than righties, and in Bellinger’s rookie season, he has a higher batting average against lefties than righties. So, yes, this was an odd decision. And, of course, Liriano struck out Bellinger (his fourth K of the game; his sixth in his last ten plate appearances; and in the midst of what would be nine out of fourteen to end the World Series).

8th Inning: Dave Roberts went to the Kenley Jansen well early in Game 6. Sure, this was a must-win. Sure, Jansen had been the best closer in baseball the past few seasons. But Jansen had also thrown in four of the last five games, he had thrown 90 pitches in the World Series, he already had one loss and one blown save, and given up a garbage-time homerun. So Roberts asked Jansen to record six outs, and then be ready to do the same in Game 7. Had the Dodgers been protecting a one-run lead, an argument could be made for this move. But shouldn’t a 104-win team with bullpen strength at least try to get an out or two out of Cingrani, Fields, McCarthy, and/or Stripling? Jansen went on to get six outs using 19 pitches (18 strikes), forcing a Game 7, and made Roberts look like a genius.

GAME 7

7th Inning: Speaking of misusing Jansen, what is the thinking behind having him take the mound so early in Game 7, while trailing 5-0? I get that you want to keep the Astros at bay, but Alex Wood did that in the 8th and 9th, and ostensibly could have done so an inning earlier. Assume – for the sake of making the game more exciting – that the Dodgers mounted a rally and scored four, five, or imagine, six runs in the seventh and eighth innings. Who was Roberts going to use to close the game after burning Morrow and Jansen? This seems like a risk not worth taking in a deciding game. Alas, the Dodgers couldn’t muster any offense and the issue became moot. But what if…?

THE WORLD SERIES

One would think – but I cannot opine with certainty – that big corporations have really smart people using really advanced data to make really difficult decisions every day. And I assume that publishers, in this subscription-troubled, online-centered, fragmented marketplace, are careful about what and how they market their wares. So it seems to me that making a bold prognostication – three years in advance – on the cover of one of your flagship magazines, is not in keeping with a conservative approach to investment returns. And yet, that is exactly what Time Inc. did with Sports Illustrated in June, 2014. Not only did SI get it right, they had the World Series MVP on the cover. Yup, sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.

PLAY BALL!!

Game 5: A Long Day’s Journey Into Morning

A Long Day’s Journey Into Morning

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At about 11pm Eastern time on Saturday night, as the Dodgers wrapped up Game 4, my wife asked me the following question: “Do you want to go to the game tomorrow night?”

I dismissed the idea out of hand; but she was already fingers-deep into Travelocity, attempting to change flights out of Florida and into Texas. Before I could even ponder the imponderable, she had a plane ticket and a hotel room on hold. Her next question was the big one: “Can you get a ticket?” I explained to her that in today’s world, you can always get a ticket. As the old adage goes, “it’s just a question of price.”

After querying friends and family, I elected to sleep on the time-consuming and expensive decision. I woke up Sunday morning wholly ambivalent; I cannot recall the last time I was so torn. Mark Twain once opined: “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” Twain sat on my shoulder and whispered in my ear. The idea that I might miss something magical (I was thinking a Kershaw no-hitter), and regret it forever, was too much to bear. So, as Mr. Clemens implored, I threw off the bowlines and sailed away from the safe harbor of Palm Beach airport.

When I arrived in Charlotte to switch planes, I learned my 4:50pm flight to Houston (which would have gotten me there in time for the national anthem) was delayed until 7pm.

Crestfallen. That is the only word I can use. Despondent, crushed, hopeless? Those work as well. I was trapped in North Carolina with a stupidly-priced ticket burning a hole in my pocket, and no way to get deep in the heart of Texas. 7pm became 7:15pm, which became 7:25pm, which became an 8pm take-off. Doing the math – which I had been doing for three hours – I knew I would arrive at the park, at best, in the 6th inning, but if Kershaw and Keuchel duplicated Game 1, I would get there in time to help clean the stands.

I considered bagging the whole plan and grabbing the next flight to L.A., but I had come this far (and didn’t want to spend more money changing another flight). Like it or not, this was my journey; destiny my guide.

The 2 hour and 37 minute flight to Houston came in 11 minutes early – minor miracle. Channeling my inner Ezekial Elliott, I charged to the front and was the first to deplane at 9:29pm. Channeling my inner Jerry Maguire, I sprinted through George Bush Intercontinental Airport, literally threw my suitcase into a cab and told the cabby – in a cliché – “there is something extra if you get me downtown in twenty minutes.” I was standing in the Crawford Boxes at 10:04pm – it was the top of the sixth.

I had missed the first five innings. I had missed the Dodgers blow 4-0 and 7-4 leads. I had missed Bellinger’s three-run homer and Altuve’s counter-punch. I had missed Kershaw and Keuchel. I was not about to miss another pitch.

Before the bottom of the sixth, I walked down the third baseline and found a family leaving Section 116 (mind you, it was nearly 10:30pm on a school night). They gave me a seat in Row 20, and I did not move for more than two hours. No bathroom breaks; no beer runs; no seventh-inning-stretch ice cream. Hell, I barely sat down. The Astros fans in Row 19 decided this was a “stand all game” situation, so I followed suit.

What I witnessed, endured, and withstood for next five innings was unlike anything I have ever experienced. If you are like me, you have obligations outside of sports. You have wives/husbands, kids, a job. You cannot devote your life to a sporting event. How many times have you wished a game would just end because you have a meeting early the next morning? Or the anticipation of post-game traffic fills you with so much dread that it interferes with your enjoyment of the game? But on this night, 1,500 miles from home, with no wife and no kids to attend to, a hotel room across the street, my only concern being a flight more than ten hours away, I was all-in. When Chris Taylor came to bat with two outs in the top of the 10th and the tying run on second, I wanted the base hit because I was rooting for the Dodgers; I wanted the base hit because a three-run ninth to tie the game would be epic; but mostly, I wanted the base hit because I simply didn’t want this game to end. I. Could. Not. Get. Enough!

Many writersall more skilled than I, have written about this game. You all watched it. You know the highs and lows, the ins and outs, the excitement and disappointment, and all the moments in between. But being there was something else. It was an emotional roller coaster with no end in sight. One of the beauties of baseball is the lack of a clock, so there are no constraints on the potential end point. This game could still be going, with Bob Knepper pitching against Tom Niedenfuer. In the stadium, we weren’t privy to the statistical oddity we were witnessing, we just had to intuit it. We didn’t have the replays and the commentary available to those watching at home, so we relied on one another to talk ourselves through what just happened. Did that actually happen? It was a communal experience, and I wasn’t even a real member of the community.

As good as the coverage and analysis has been, there are certain things you cannot appreciate watching the game on television. An in-person observer’s account:

  • Angela Matthews, a 10-year veteran of the Texas Air National Guard sang “God Bless America” as part of the 7th inning stretch. She was joined by 43,000 back-up vocalists, who made this rendition one of the coolest I have ever heard. Houstonians and Angelenos joined together as Americans for three minutes of beautiful harmony in the midst of a gut-wrenching battle of wills.
  • From my angle, George Springer’s homerun on the first pitch of the bottom of the 7th was still rising as it left the yard. It was gone instantaneously, and landed – as many have pointed out – with an explosion on the train tracks above the left field seats. It seems implausible you could hit a ball harder.
  • I have never seen a ball hit higher than Carlos Correa’s homerun three batters later. Off the bat, I was excited to finally see a ball hit the roof. It went so high, and hung in the air so long, that I had time to track the ball, then track Kiké Hernández tracking the ball, then track the ball again, then watch Kiké drift back to a few feet in front of the left field wall, and then watch the ball drop into the second row of the Crawford Boxes as if discarded by a wayward seagull. StatCast tells us that the ball went 169 feet in the air and stayed there for 6.8 seconds. It was unreal.

  • At one point, an overzealous fan in American flag boxers (and not much else) sprinted onto the field. He juked and jived, pissed off Houston’s finest, and ultimately found himself hogtied with multiple knees in his back. Bummer he missed the rest of this game to win a sophomoric bet.
  • With two out in the bottom of the 9th, Asia’s public enemy number one hit a long drive to left center. Off the bat, I was certain this was a walk-off homerun. This was Gibby, Kirby Puckett, David Freese, and a handful (13) of others who ended a World Series game with a dinger. As sure as I was that Cody Bellinger had ended Game 2, there was no doubt that the guy who should have been suspended just ended Game 5. The ball hung in the air for what seemed like forever, only to touch down in the one place – the only place – in the entire ballpark where it was not a round-tripper. While that ball traveled nearly 400 feet, 43,000 people held their collective breath. It was an odd sensation. Somehow the ball hit just below and just to the left of that all-determining yellow line. Karma? Gurriel was left in scoring position and we had free baseball.
  • When little-known Derek Fisher slid home with the game-winning run following Alex Bregman’s 10th inning single, the roar in Minute Maid Park was extraordinary. Equal parts exultation and exhalation, the Houston Hopeful were going home Monday morning one win away from a World Series title. I am told you could get a feel for the crowd noise on television; I cannot imagine that is even half true. It was thunderous, raucous, cacophonous; and it stayed that way for a long time.

This game had ties in the 4th, 5th, and shockingly, the 9th inning. Three 3-run leads were blown. There were 11 runs scored from the 7th inning on. The Dodgers scored three runs (to tie the game) in the top of the 9th, each time with two strikes. So many crazy, insane, incomprehensible things happened in this game that we can hardly remember the merely extraordinary. In time, we will remember, and we will look back with awe.

My Sunday started in Florida, and ended on Monday morning in Texas. In between I experienced more emotions than I can recount. Upon leaving the park well after 1am local time, I called my wife – the instigator of this odyssey – and she asked me: “Was it worth it?”

If you love baseball as much as I do, and if you have read this far I am assuming you do. And if so, then such a question needs no response!

PLAY BALL!!

Addendum: The foregoing was written in the haze of Game 5. In that time, Game 6 was played. Dave Roberts did all sorts of weird things, and they all seemed to work. Joc Pederson continued to only get extra-base hits. And the Dodgers beat Justin Verlander. By 2017 standards, this game was somewhat quotidian. As such, Game 7 stands to be one for the ages. As I write these words, I feel tonight much like I did early Monday morning: unsure how I will be able to fall asleep! An incredible season has but one game left, winner take all.

Glass House of Emotion

GLASS HOUSE OF EMOTION

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When I coached my son’s baseball team, the kids would often have “big league” moments – trying to do it like the pros. Whenever I saw it, I would tell the player: “Just show me your professional contract, and you can do that. Until then, you have to do it my way”. The inference, of course, was to play fundamentally, be a good sport, and never show up the other side.

Due to what many view as overly stringent celebration rules, the NFL has derisively become known as the “No Fun League”. The same hasn’t been said of Major League Baseball, where pitchers police such behavior with a 5-ounce sphere hurled at 90+ miles per hour.

But there are times when fun and emotion should enter the sacred space between the lines. And the World Series is one of those times. And, if that is the case, there was no better time than Game 2 of this year’s Fall Classic, which some are calling the greatest non-clinching World Series game of all time. It’s hard to quibble with that assessment.

The beauty of Game 2, besides the lead changes, the ties, and the wacky bounces (the bill of a centerfielder’s cap, the groin of an umpire), was found in the many moments that, if they happened in our kid’s Little League game, would cause an uproar in the stands and a stern talking-to on the drive home. But, under the bright lights of the game’s largest stage, each was transcendent in their own right.

As great as Game 2 was, I believe it all started with the last out of Game 1. With the Dodgers clinging to a 3-1 lead, Kenley Jansen induced the dangerous Jose Altuve to fly out to right to end the game. One would think – for younger players we would demand – that securing the last out of a World Series game should be a by-the-book two hand reception, making certain nothing goes awry. If you were expecting that, you haven’t seen Yasiel Puig play. Puig caught the ball around his left hip with his tongue out (but he at least he used two hands). Puig was just warming up.

Verlander vs. Hill provided us with a handful of emotional, triumphant, and in light of the stakes, glorious moments that wouldn’t be acceptable if the bases were only 60 feet apart, but were spectacular because they are 90. A random sampling:

Corey Seager’s Primal Scream.
It’s one thing for a guy to make contact, and by the time he leaves the batter’s box to know he got it all. It is quite another for a hitter to let it all out immediately after contact. If any of our kids had done that, they wouldn’t have made to it to first base before being properly reprimanded. But when you take Justin Verlander deep to give your team the lead in the World Series, primal screams are the order of the day.

Carlos Correa’s Bat Flip.
I (and everyone else) previously wrote about the all-time bat flip in the 2015 ALDS. And there is no question that Jose Bautista still retains his position on the Mt. Rushmore of post-homerun-bat releases. But Carlos Correa joined the pantheon in the 10th inning of Game 2. And man did he earn it.


Yasiel Puig’s Glove Slam.
Alex Bregman led off the top of the 8th with a line drive to the rightfield corner. Puig went all out (or did he?), and with his run and dive, covered approximately 64.5 feet. Unfortunately, according to Stat Cast, he needed 65 feet to make the play. The ball flicked off the end of Puig’s glove and into the stands for a double. Yasiel leaped to his feet and slammed his glove down with such force that I half thought the grounds crew would need to be called to level off the warning track. Watching the game live, I thought Puig had nothing to be angry about – it would have been an amazing catch. However, in the world we now live in, we can determine things at the most granular level. According to Mike Petriello of MLB.com, during the season, Puig’s average “Sprint Speed” this season was 28 feet per second. In the 8th inning of Game 2 of the World Series, Puig’s “Sprint Speed” was 27 feet per second. Puig was running for approximately two seconds (probably a touch more). Had he been running at his average speed, he would have covered at least an additional two feet, and most likely made the catch. So maybe he had good reason to be angry. Either way, if your child or mine slammed his glove like that, ooh boy! (As an aside, maybe there is something about playing the outfield in the playoffs at Dodger Stadium the impels a glove slam.)

Charlie Culberson’s Rambunctious Trot.
We may never know what was going through young Charlie’s mind as he rounded the bases with two outs in the bottom of the 11th inning. Maybe he forgot that George Springer had hit a two-run homer, so he thought he had tied the game with his blast. Maybe he forgot all about George Springer and thought that he had won the game. Or maybe, after being inserted into Cody Bellinger’s spot in the lineup as part of an 11th inning double-switch, and after only getting two hits the entire season, and after only being on the post-season roster because of Corey Seager’s balky back, he was overcome with emotion hitting a homerun with two outs in the bottom of the 11th inning of a World Series game. Had a 12-year-old done that, his coach would have said two things: “We haven’t won anything yet” and “Act like you’ve been here before”. For Culberson, while the former was accurate, there was simply no way for him to fake the latter.

Rich Hill’s Reaction.
This picture doesn’t tell even half the story, but I think the Dodgers have scrubbed the internet of the images that the Fox cameras caught when Dave Roberts told Hill he was done after four innings and 60 pitches. Suffice it to say, Hill was none-too-pleased. I can certainly understand why. Twelve outs recorded, seven via the strike out, only one run allowed. I am sure Hill felt like he had many more bullets in the gun and, as a career journeyman who just started getting good at age 36, I can appreciate that he didn’t want this moment to pass without leaving it all on the field. However, this is how the Dodgers ran their staff all season. The top of the lineup – a heavily right handed lineup – was due to face Hill for the third time. And, truth be told, he was really one New Era bill away from being down 3-0 after 2½ innings. Roberts made the right call; but that doesn’t make Hill’s reaction any less human. We just wouldn’t tolerate the same from our kids.

We are just getting started in what stands to be an epic battle. I am predicting the Dodgers in seven; but it could easily go the other way. One thing is for sure: it will be a wild ride. So let’s continue to give these “kids” (by normal societal standards) the latitude they deserve to play with as much heart, excitement, and yes, emotion, as they can muster. Ask Cal Ripken – they may never be here again.

PLAY BALL!!

A Star Was Born: Kiké Hernández Goes Hollywood and Honors Puerto Rico

A Star Was Born

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In the Summer of 2012, a few years before Sports Illustrated christened the Houston Astros the 2017 World Series champions, my son’s travel baseball team ventured to Lancaster, California to watch the Single-A Jethawks play.

The purpose of the visit was for each player on my son’s team to take the field for the national anthem (no kneeling) with his Jethawk counterpart, get a ball signed, and then head to the stands to take in a night of mediocre Minor League baseball.

When the kids met on the field with the head of Public Relations, they were told exactly what to do. A moment later, the Jethawks’ unassuming second baseman gathered the kids and told them, “as soon as the anthem is over, sprint to centerfield and give the player a high-five”. The P.R. woman balked – loudly. She implored the kids to follow her plan and come off the field immediately. The second baseman gave the kids a cockeyed grin, raised an eyebrow, and without saying a word, enticed them to follow his plan.

As you might imagine, the kids listened to the player, gave high-fives in centerfield, and hustled to the stands. The P.R. woman was only mildly annoyed, the boys had a laugh, and everyone had a story to tell.

Two years later, my son stopped me as I walked through the living room. “Dad, remember that guy in Lancaster who told us to go to centerfield? He’s playing second base for the Astros today.” “Really? What’s his name? How do you remember him?”, I asked. “His name is Enrique Hernández, and I just remember him”, he replied. I guess that second baseman was pretty memorable.

I didn’t give any of it much thought at the time. It is pretty rare for a Single-A player to make it to the “Show”, so that was different. But, why would I care about a scrub replacement middle infielder for the Houston Astros, a team that would go on to lose 92 games?

A month later, Hernández was traded to the Marlins, and I was certain I would never hear his name again. But that off-season, he was traded to my hometown team, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Kiké, as he is known, hit .307 in 76 games for the 2015 Bums. But, more importantly, he became the team cheerleader, the head of the Rally Banana brigade. The team and the city embraced this slightly off-kilter utility player, and a love affair was born.

Fast-forward to 2017. Kiké is a staple of the Dodgers lineup, playing eight different positions over 140 games. But Hernández, a native of Puerto Rico, was only batting .125 in the first six games of the playoffs against the Diamondbacks and the Cubs. So Dodger Owner and Chairman Mark Walter gave Kiké a little incentive before Game 5 of the NLCS: Get on base twice, and Walter would donate $1,000,000 to Puerto Rico hurricane relief. Well, with one out in the third inning, Kiké had left the yard twice and Puerto Rico had $1M coming its way. But neither Walter nor Hernández was done. The owner got word down to the Dodgers dugout that if Kiké could go “big fly” one more time, Walter would add another million to the donation.*

So when Hernández hit his third homerun of the game in the top of the 9th, and he jumped around the bases like one of those kids he instructed to run to centerfield five years earlier, very few people watching the game knew the reason for his excitement.

In many ways this has been a magical year for the Dodgers, with 104 wins and clinching the pennant while losing only a single game. They did it with the deepest lineup in baseball, with a group of players that never questioned their role or their number of at bats. They did it with their best players spending a considerable amount of time on the DL (their best position player wasn’t even on the NLCS roster). And they ultimately did it in the defending champion’s ballpark.

But, it has also been a tragic year for many people in many places around the globe. So how special is it that the Dodgers are heading back to the World Series for the first time in 29 years, on the bat of a player who has “Pray for Puerto Rico” written on his cap, and who through his play and the through the generosity of his boss, will bring desperately needed support to an island in horrific despair. It is nothing short of remarkable that the Banana Boy has become a local and national hero.

As I look back on that night in Lancaster half a decade ago, I guess I should have known that the kid with the twinkle in his eye, the kid who made an immediate connection with everyone he met, the kid who played the game with equal parts skill and heart, would become a star in Hollywood. Whatever happens over these next several days, in the face of all conventional wisdom, Kiké Hernández is now etched into Dodger lore.

PLAY BALL!!

*If you are feeling charitable, and want to contribute to the island where, as of this writing, 80% of the population is without electricity and 27% is without water, please visit this site: https://www.youcaring.com/peopleofpuertorico-957793.

One Pitch

One Pitch

The Astros won the AL pennant on Saturday night.  A clean 4-0 victory over the one-season-too-soon Baby Bombers.  However, one pitch could have changed it all.

If you checked Sportscenter Friday night, you would have seen that the Astros beat the Yankees 7-1 in Game 6 of the ALCS.  “Wow”, you would have thought, “the Astros got their mojo back and blew out the upstart Yankees”.

But if you were watching the game, and specifically the 7th inning*, you might have an entirely different view on the matter.

As a quick reminder, the Astros won the first two games of the series, and led 4-0 in the 7th inning of Game 4.  The Astros were six outs away from a commanding 3-1 series lead, with Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander set to pitch the next two games.  In the space of less than two innings, that all came crashing down; the Yankees scored six unanswered runs, won the game 6-4, and then won Game 5.  And, just like that, the ‘Stros had their backs against the wall.

So when the Astros found themselves leading 3-0 in the 7th inning of Game 6, the ghosts of the Bronx had to be floating about the home dugout.  Verlander had been cruising – 75 pitches through six innings.  But he started the top of the 7th by walking Greg Bird on six pitches.  Two pitches later he had hit Starlin Castro.  Now the Yanks had the tying run at the plate with nobody out.

In case you haven’t been following, the Houston bullpen is a minor dumpster fire at this point.  It is not a Cubs-level conflagration, but it is smoldering.  So A.J. Hinch desperately wanted to get seven innings out of Verlander and just find a one-inning bridge to Ken Giles.  However, when Verlander started Aaron Hicks with three straight balls, things were not going according to plan.

I have previously written that the two-strike pitch is what makes me love baseball.  There is nothing like it in all of sports. However, it need not be a two-strike pitch that changes the entire complexion of a game – or a series. Sometimes, it is just one pitch. And in Game 6 of the 2017 ALCS, we saw that one pitch, over and over again.

Two on, no outs, a 3-0 count to the batter representing the tying run. If Verlander throws one more ball, the bases are loaded for the Todd Father, who has had a career resurgence – just in these playoffs. Verlander throws a strike down Main Street. But we are still dealing with one pitch. On 3-1, home plate umpire Jim Reynolds calls on a strike on what is clearly a ball (see pitch #5 above). Rather than loading the bases, he loaded the count. What happens if that call is made correctly?

Now we have one pitch writ large – it is now a two-strike pitch. So what does Aaron Hicks do, he fouls off four straight. On the tenth pitch, and by my count, the seventh one pitch, Hicks strikes out swinging. But we are hardly out of the woods.

Verlander is clearly tiring. He is now up to 93 pitches (and 217 over his last two appearances). Verlander’s second pitch to Frazier is rifled to dead-center. George Springer makes a leaping catch against the wall to, in my estimation, save the season. If that ball lands, the score is 3-2, and the Yankees have the tying run in scoring position with one out. And, if that shot turned into a double, Hinch has no choice but to go to his leaky bullpen. Shades of Game 4 all over again.

But that one pitch is turned into the second out of the inning. Verlander then starts out the #9 hitter, Chase Headley (who already had two hits on the night), with two balls. And here we go again. The next pitch to Headley is one pitch that can change everything. As of 2016, batters hit .282 on 2-0 counts; and that jumps to .301 on 3-0 counts. As a general rule, hitters “love to hit 2-0”. Headley took a 2-0 slider at the upper end of the zone for strike one. With the count 2-1, batters hit .247, and Headley was no different, grounding to Jose Altuve to end the end inning and end the rally.

Verlander was done after throwing seven scoreless innings, giving up five hits, and striking out eight. He threw 99 pitches. However, he threw one pitch at least 9 times. Had that one pitch gone differently in any of those nine chances, it is quite possible that Verlander’s effort would have been wasted, and in all likelihood the Yankees are the AL Champions, prepping for a rematch of the 1977, 1978, 1981 World Series.

One pitch.

PLAY BALL!!

*The 3-0 slider to Gary Sanchez with two on and two in the 6th inning may be the subject of any entirely different article.