Last night, the San Francisco Giants played the Colorado Rockies in a baseball game. It was a tremendous game, and possibly an important one, if any game in late August can be considered important. The Giants won, on a ninth inning home run by Buster Posey. That home run was the headline, and dominated the game stories in the press and on-line. But the game actually turned on three earlier plays. I know that a lot of you who read this blog don’t much care for baseball. But maybe a short discussion of these plays will help you understand the endless fascination some of us have for this remarkable sport.
The first came in the fourth inning. Up to that point in the game, neither team had scored. But with one out, Giants’ shortstop Matt Duffy hit a hard double to left. Second baseman Joe Panik then sliced a single to left, but hit too hard for Duffy to score. So that was the situation; runners on first and third, one out. The Rockies’ pitcher was Franklin Morales, a left handed pitcher. And the batter was Gregor Blanco.
Gregor Blanco does not usually start. Neither does Duffy. They were in the game to give a day’s rest to the usual starters. Blanco is a fine player in every aspect of the game except hitting. He’s fast, a good outfielder, a fine baserunner. But he’s a left-handed hitter, and at a disadvantage against a lefty. And he’s not a terrific hitter even under more favorable circumstances. Blanco did not need to get a hit for Duffy to score. A fly ball or hard grounder could score him. But Blanco looked badly overmatched on the first two pitches.
On the third pitch, though, Blanco laid down a surprise bunt. In that situation, a squeeze, as it’s called, can be an effective play. There are two kinds of squeezes. The first is a suicide squeeze. In this play, the runner on third just heads straight for home plate, trying to steal home. The batter just has to get his bat on the ball, knowing any kind of bunt will score the runner. But it’s risky. If the batter misses the bunt, the runner will be out by an embarrassing margin. Or the batter could pop the bunt up, leading to an easy double play.
The second kind of squeeze is called a safety squeeze. The runner holds on third until he can see that the batter has made a good bunt. But he has to time his run home perfectly, not going too early or too late. And the batter has to place his bunt correctly, right at the first or third baseman, and not to the pitcher, who would have an easy toss home. As it happened, Blanco and Duffy pulled it off beautifully. Blanco’s bunt went straight to the first baseman, and Duffy exquisitely timed his dash homeward. A run scored, and the Giants led 1-0. But think about it. Duffy has been in the major leagues for three weeks. He’s a young player, just 23, suddenly caught up in the excitement and tension and anxiety of a pennant race. And a safety squeeze requires communication between the batter and runner. Blanco and Duffy have only been teammates for three weeks. In this crucial situation, though, Gregor Blanco and Matt Duffy executed a difficult play exactly as they were supposed to.
Okay, play two came in the ninth inning. The Giants led 2-1 heading into the ninth, but our best relief pitcher, Santiago Casilla, hit the first Rockies hitter with the first pitch of the inning, then gave up a game-tying double, to Justin Morneau. He got Nolan Arenado to ground out, then intentionally walked the dangerous Corey Dickerson, to set up a possible double play. Runners on first and second, and the Rockies’ catcher Mike McKenry batting. And then Casilla, having an off-night, uncorked a horrible pitch.
McKenry is a right handed batter. The pitch was probably intended to be a slider on the outside corner. But it completely got away from Casilla, and bounced at least two feet away from the plate, spinning even further away. Buster Posey is the Giants’ catcher, and our best player. But if that ball got away from him, as it almost certainly would, both baserunners would advance. The double play possibility would vanish–the winning run would be able to score on an out.
Ordinarily, on a wild pitch like that, the catcher doesn’t really try to catch it so much as smother it. He’s wearing all that padding, after all. He wants to limit the damage, get his chest in front of the pitch, let it hit him, and then pounce on it before it can roll too far away. It’s a tough maneuver, requiring that he move his feet quickly enough to get in front of the pitch. But Casilla’s pitch was so far outside, smothering the ball just wouldn’t be possible. Nobody can move out of a catcher’s stance and get in front of a ball that quickly.
Posey didn’t even try. What he did was sort of hop and lunge. He hopped straight right, out of his stance, and then reached out with his glove (across his body, remember, since his glove was on his left hand and the ball was heading hard to his right), and just snatched the ball out of the air. It was the most extraordinary thing.
It’s not the athleticism of the play that amazed me, though. It was the thought process it required. Immediately upon the pitch leaving Casilla’s hand, Posey had to register what an awful pitch it was, and think ‘I’m not going to be able to reach that ball by conventional means. A shift-and-smother won’t work; it’s too far right and spinning too much. But maybe, if I hop right, I can lunge and reach it. Given the direction and spin, the ball should end up about . . . there. Go.’ And that hop-and-lunge is not a move most catchers practice–I’ve never seen it before, whereas the more conventional shift-and-smother move is one every catcher does hundreds of times. But somehow, in the heat of a pennant race, Buster Posey executed a play he cannot possibly have practiced much (or at all), and made it look actually kind of effortless.
The third big play came two pitches later. McKendry hit a slow bouncer to shortstop, and Duffy dashed in, fielded it, fired it to second, and then Joe Panik, the second baseman fired to first for the double play. The tough play was the pivot at second base by Panik.
The ball wasn’t hit hard enough to be an easy double play. McKendry is quite slow; the problem was Dickerson, the runner on first. He’s a fast runner, and built like a running back, and he had a head start, a quick jump. Panik had to catch Duffy’s strong throw, then pivot towards first and make the throw for the second out.
There are several ways to make a second base pivot. But remember, the runner, Dickerson, doesn’t want the second baseman to make a good throw. He’s barreling into second, ready to clobber the second baseman, if he can reach him. He can’t be obvious about it; the umps will just rule interference, and call McKendry out. But he does want to take Panik out. And some second baseman, knowing that, will leap and pivot. But what Panik did was use second base as a kind of protection. He caught the ball behind the bag, touched second, and leaned back, away from Dickerson, and from that position, made the strong sidearm throw to first.
The lean-back pivot is one players practice. A good second baseman will have practiced it regularly, along with four or five other pivot moves. So in many respects, Panik’s pivot was just a professional ballplayer making the right play for the situation; unremarkable. But Joe Panik is a rookie too. As is Duffy. These two young guys, in the middle of a pennant race, in a tough, close game, kept their wits about them and made the play that needed to be made. It was extraordinary in its ordinariness.
And then came the bottom of the ninth inning, and Posey’s game winning home run. But it reminded me that baseball isn’t just about the obvious plays, the big home run or spectacular running catch. It’s about thinking on your feet, staying alert, figuring out, on the fly, what play you should make, and then executing it. The Giants are among the best teams in baseball at doing the little things, mostly because, I think, they’re an exceptionally well coached team. But it’s a beautiful thing to watch.