Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Expect the Unexpected

Tim Kurkjian, a longtime baseball writer and ESPN contributor, has always been able to sum up the game's never-ending charm with one simple statement. "The great thing about baseball is, on any given night, you may see something you've never seen before." There have been more profound baseball quotes uttered over the years, but none more true. So many possibilities exist within one single game that you truly never know when you will witness such a play or sequence that will have you saying, "I can't recall ever seeing that before." I once saw a game at Tiger Stadium decided by a wild pitch...on an intentional walk. I was there when a 100-loss Tiger team began a game with back-to-back home runs off of future Hall-of-Famer Pedro Martinez, the first of which came off the bat of Ramon Santiago, who had never before homered in a major league game. Just the other day, the Tampa Bay Rays were forced to bat their starting pitcher, Andy Sonnanstine, 3rd in the order due to a faulty lineup card that listed two different players as the starting third baseman. So when I started drifting to sleep late Monday night with the Mets and Dodgers flickering on the tube, I fought back the yawns, perched up the pillow, and hoped I would see something I'd never seen before.

Things were moving along in a relatively normal fashion as the game entered the 11th inning, all tied at 2. With two outs in the top half, Mets right fielder Ryan Church poked a two-out single to left, keeping the inning alive. Church has pretty good speed, and with two outs, anything hit in the gap would most likely see him score and give the Mets the lead for the first time all night. Sure enough, Angel Pagan stepped up next and laced a shot towards the wall in right-center. The Dodger outfielders had no chance of making a play, and hurried over to try and play the ricochet. Only the ball managed to land right at the foot of the fence, and instead of careening back toward the fielders, it sort of wedged itself right in there, forcing Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp to go retrieve the ball and fire it back in. Meanwhile, Ryan Church was off at the crack of the bat, and with the high trajectory and long flight of the ball coupled with the subsequent pinning under the wall, he was cruising easily around the bases. Pagan took advantage as well, motoring all the way to third with an effortless stand-up triple. The Mets had grabbed a 3-2 lead, and still had a potential insurance run just 90 feet away.

But the Dodgers were crying foul, claiming that Church failed to touch 3rd on his trek around the bases. It reeked of desperation. I mean, you see that kind of appeal work in Little League sometimes, but not in The Show. Only tonight was unlike any other night. The Dodger pitcher threw the ball over to Mark Loretta, he stepped on the bag, and up went the umpire's fist. Out?? Out!!??? You would think that Church and the rest of the New Yorkers would have been after the men in blue lickety split to scream in protest, but there was no such argument. Church and the Mets did not object one iota. Sure enough, on the replay, you see Church take one giant step before the base and then another long skip to get over the base. He was like a horse trying to avoid hitting that top bar in the equestrian. As a matter of fact, Church didn't even try selling the gaffe to maybe fool the umps. Once he slid across home plate (though no throw was coming), he got up and sort of peeked over his shoulder towards third, hoping and begging that his mistake would go unnoticed. Not exactly the look of an innocent man. So on this majestic drive to the deepest part of the park that would have seen Franklin Roosevelt score standing up, Church had somehow been unable to place any part of his cleat on the third base bag as he strode past. You almost have to go out of your way to miss the thing entirely. It's not like aiming for a small pine cone in a heavily wooded forest. The base is a large white square sitting alone on a big brown patch of dirt set perfectly in line with the path that you're running on. But Church had committed this cardinal sin, and the Mets trudged back onto the field to play defense in the bottom of the 11th. You'd think the shenanigans would have ended there, but this game always keeps you guessing.

(Quick sidenote. To possibly stump your friends, ask them what Pagan would be credited with on this play. Answer: even though he ended up on third base, Pagan was given just a single in the box score. Since the runner ahead of him, Church, only legally achieved second base, Pagan could only be given a single. It took the Mets announcers a solid 15 minutes to figure this out.)

Loretta led off the home half with a walk. Ironically, on a night of comedic mishaps by the Metropolitans, this leadoff walk might have been the most costly. The Dodgers rookie outfielder, Xavier Paul, was up next with plans on sacrificing Loretta over to second. But Paul could do no such thing, and was eventually forced to swing away. He lofted a deep fly ball towards the warning track in left center. It hung up long enough, however, for the Mets outfielders to make an easy play on it. Pagan loped over from left, waving his mitt in the air indicating the ball was his. At the same time, Carlos Beltran was on the move from center, screaming his call for the ball. As the little white Rawlings began its final descent through the perfect LA night sky, it became clear that while both players were adamant about calling the ball, neither was as passionate about actually catching the ball. Pagan ended up veering off at the last second, Beltran made a clumsy, last-ditch emergency lunge, and the ball fell harmlessly to the ground directly between the puzzled duo. I guess strange plays happen in bunches. The Dodgers were now in business, with men on 2nd and 3rd, nobody out, and needing only one run to send everybody home happy.

Proving that this night was straight out of the twilight zone, the Mets were forced to intentionally walk the notoriously powerless Juan Pierre to load the bases. With an almost impossible situation on his hands, Jerry Manuel took a trip out to the mound to set up his defense. He motioned for Beltran to come in from center, positioning him as a 5th infielder behind the mound, just to the right of second base. It's always a unique sight to see on the field, but not once in my life can I recall this extra infielder actually seeing any action in the subsequent plays. Adding to the moment, Mets color analyst Ron Darling temporarily lost his mind, repeatedly lamenting the fact that Beltran was summoned to the infield instead of Pagan, and then criticizing the placement of him behind the mound. Apparently Darling had forgotten that the game at this point was basically a formality and that the odds of Beltran making any kind of play on the infield were remote.

Back to the game, Rafael Furcal had the first chance against righty Brian Stokes with the bags full and nobody down. With huge patches in the outfield now uncovered, Furcal could pretty much hit the ball anywhere and end this circus. Instead, Stokes got him to hit a baby pop-up towards left and Pagan put it away with no advancement. Could the Mets possibly escape the frame without any damage? Orlando Hudson was up next, sporting a robust .341 average. Surely he would crack this gimmick defense and find a hole to push the final run across. But Stokes was not going down without a fight. He battled Hudson with tough sliders, and finally got him to hit his pitch. Hudson bounded a harmless one-hopper to Mets 1st sacker Jeremy Reed. The only problem is that Reed had spent a total of one inning at this spot in the first five years of his career. He was only here on this night because earlier in the day, the Mets learned that Carlos Delgado would need serious hip surgery. But despite his inexperience at the position, this was still a play that 99% of Little Leaguers could make. Glove the Sunday hop, step toward the target, and make a solid throw to the plate. The Mets would be just one out away from seeing the 12th inning, when it had looked like a sheer impossibility just minutes before. However, on a night with a player missing third base in a most crucial situation, a botched fly ball, and a 3-time Gold Glove award-winning outfielder playing on the infield, it was not to be. Reed fielded the Hudson bouncer, and just as he was ready to release the ball, Stokes was seen moving in his direction while trying to duck simultaneously to avoid bothering the toss. The nervous first baseman unleashed a wild throw to the backstop that only Chuck Knoblauch or Rick Ankiel would have been proud of. It was three feet too high, six feet too wide, and the perfect end to an imperfect night.

Baseball is not without its flaws. Some complain that the pace is too slow and the games are too long. There are new steroid accusations on an almost daily basis. But on a night like this, you realize that Tim Kurkjian had it right all along. No matter if it's a World Series game or just a ho-hum late night affair in mid-May, there is always that chance you will see something that you've never seen before. This was one of those times. I'm just glad I decided to stay up.

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