Sunday 26 May 2013

5-4, 1 Out, Bottom of the 9th

Baseball is a sport that is filled with the ebb and flow of potential. In each inning, the number of baserunners is balanced against the number of outs, and as the bases fill up, the potential for runs builds. If a strikeout is recorded, or a double play turned, the run potential is turned down a few notches. The informed fan starts thinking about each runner: How fast are they? Could they score from second on a single? From first on a double? We wonder which outfielder has the best arm to make a play at home plate. All of this up and down, possibilities being turned over and around with each pitch, yet nothing has really happened. Often a pitcher in a bases loaded situation calls upon skill and luck and a rally is washed away with no damage done on the scoreboard.

When I watch hockey or soccer, that's what I miss. I can't seem to get excited about the time spent pushing back and forth in the neutral territory between goals, scrambling to get control of the puck or the ball. Then, snap, with no change in strategy, one second later, there's a point on the board. Then the game resets to neutral. I just can't see where things came together for the scoring team, or fell apart for the one that was scored upon. In baseball, there's time for my heart to start pounding.

The real pressure situations in baseball, where the tension is ratcheted up with every pitch, occur in the bottom of the 9th in a close game, and then in the bottom of every tied inning in an extra inning game. Often, each batter comes up with the potential to lengthen the game (by tying it with a home run), or to win it (with runners scoring ahead of him). The best part of these situations is that they always occur at home, so there are no quiet rallies in the bottom of the 9th or later - the crowd is always on the edge of their seat. Victory will be assured right away, falling behind only means a tougher turn at the plate when they try to mount a comeback. When successful, there is a sense of elation, of turning a difficult, against the odds situation, into a victory. The home team is free to walk off the field and back into the clubhouse.

Baseball has a term for these things. They are 'walkoff wins'. Before I continue talking about the thrill of a walkoff, I will note the lone exception. With the bases loaded, and the score tied, there is always a possibility that the pitcher will be unable to find the strike zone. This level of pitching ineptness results in a walk that forces in the winning run. All the runners trot to the next base, and the game is over. There is no play to be made, and mobbing and backslapping the batter who took the walk seems... odd. This is the dreaded Walkoff Walk. A quick overview of the oddly aniclimactic play (and the internet's weird ritual surrounding it), is certainly worth a read. There was a walkoff walk in Tampa Bay earlier this month.

That's the exception, most every other  time it happens, the walkoff is a jubilant moment. There are, of course, degrees of jubilation. The walkoff single with nobody out and the bases loaded? That's just hastening the inevitable. Everybody is happy, but bases loaded and nobody out, there's an expectation of scoring a run, and when one run will win the ball game... well, lets just reflect on the disappointment that you might feel if your team came out of that situation without scoring. Yeah, I'd be a bit frustrated too.

From that point of view, I can assume that the better walkoff, in terms of excitement, is the come from behind sort. Down a run or two, runners on base. In those situations, the announcers love to remind us, the clueless fan, where the winning run is. 'The Rockies bring the winning run to the plate,' they say. or 'The winning run is on second for the Yankees.' I'm pretty good at counting bases and such, myself, but if it make them feel better, let them spell it out.

In the 1993 World series, the winning run was on first base when Joe Carter came to the plate. History remembers this walkoff with more intensity than any other. I can't blame history here. It is an immensely satisfying result. Why? In childhood dreams, we often find ourselves imaging the last at bat of the World Series with our selves at the plate. Carter got to live out the fantasy. Taking a 2 out, 2 strike pitch over the outfield wall. He did three things with one swing of the bat every kid dreams of doing. He brought his team from behind to ahead, he won the game, and he ended the World Series. Carter's walkoff had the biggest impact of any in baseball history.

To be exicting, a walkoff hit doesn't need to happen in the World Series. Often, the more unlikely the hero, the more jubilant the celebration. On May 26th, 2013, the Toronto Blue Jays started the bottom of the 9th down by 3 runs. The Orioles closer, Jim Johnson, was trying to protect a large lead and save the game, which would have been the third win in a row for his team.

Interestingly enough, the Blue Jays had loaded the bases in both the 7th and 8th innings, and had only scratched out one run. The 9th inning went like this: Double, Single, Single (Run Scored), Flyout, Walk, Fielder's choice( 1 runner out, run scores) . That's 2 outs, and 2 runs in. Runners still on first and third. The Jays are down to their last out.

The next man up is Munenori Kawasaki. I've written about Kawasaki before at this site, and may well write about him again. He is a character, and a wonderful person by all accounts, but he is merely a replacement for the injured Jose Reyes. The word 'antics' comes up following his name often, certainly much more often than the word 'heroics'. Jim Johnson surely knew he was facing a slap hitting, backup infielder. Mune's batting average was .217. Most Jays fans were probably hoping he could work a walk. Instead, on Jim Johnson's 37 pitch of the inning, he did this:

That is a walkoff which is only multiplied by the enthusiasm of the player who got the hit. From behind to victorious on one swing, it put a charge into the Rogers Centre crowd.

To add one last note to Kawa-walk-off-a-saki's story, you should probably go watch his unforgettable post game interview.

And you thought I was done.

Nope, because, even though you get a lot of credit for magic with 20 year old World Series moments, and come from behind doubles, that's not the topper of all walkoffs.
The ultimate walkoff is, in my humble opinion, the come-from-behind-inside-the-park-walkoff-home-run. That's a lot of hyphens, I know, but that's how it sounds in my head.

In the only ballpark that this makes any sense in whatsoever, AT&T Park in San Fransisco. Angel Pagan has a man on second, and his team is down by one.... it's the last of the 9th. And there's a deep, deep alley in right centre field.

Or, if you'd prefer the radio call, click here. Never underestimate the decision of Tim Flannery, the third base coach, who would have been second guessed for a week if Pagan had been thrown out.

Now that's baseball. And it is Magic. It is the wonder of childhood, it is the thrill of victory, it is the sense of awe at snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

If you have any doubts, take a look at the faces of these men in the pictures below, no these boys in the pictures below, and tell me they don't feel the magic.

Kawasaki pic from @james_in_to
Jumpin' Joe Carter
Exuberant Angel

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