Eight. Count ’em: Eight. Eight ways to score from third base with less than two out.
Eight. Eight ways.
(Prediction: Someone from SABRE, an organization for baseball nerds, will inform me that there are nine ways to score from third base with less than two out. I am not in SABRE, so I will stick with eight for now.)
The other night in the fourth game of a critical five-game set against the Yankees and the Tigers — in which the Indians were oh-and-three at that point — the Indians and their manager encountered one of those pivotal moments upon which a season can turn.
Make the right decision at that critical moment and a team can pick up Big Mo for the stretch run. Make a wrong one and it can throw a team rear-end-over-tea-cups into a tailspin that costs them the playoffs.
The situation: Bottom of the ninth, score knotted at 2-2. In other words, one of those tense, nail-chomping (or, if you are Detroit manager Jim Leyland, cigarette-chewing) games where the outcome is usually decided by the little things a player or manager does or does not do.
(Note: Most of these little things that occur in such moments — the stolen base, the hit-and-run, the pinch-hit, the position-switcheroo, a stalling tactic — happen in the National League. In the Junior Circuit, they wait for The Big Bang — the three-run homer. It has always been thus.)
Chris Gomez leads off the Indians’ ninth with a double off Detroit reliever Fernando Rodney. Not a single, but a double. Man on second with NO ONE out. If you are Jim Leyland, Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox, Mike Scioscia or Joe Torre or any other skipper who earned his spurs in the Senior Circuit, these means a run.
It means your wheels are turning. This is why a guy decides to become a manager in the first place.
Yessir, it means a run. Not just any run. But the winning run. The endgame.
Get that runner over to third and you have those eight beauties staring you in the face. By name, the beauties are:
• Base hit
• Sacrifice fly
• Squeeze play
• Fielder’s choice
• Wild pitch
• Passed ball
(Note: In this situation — last of the ninth with the winning run on third, the eight beauties are, for all intents and purposes, only seven. On a ground ball, an infielder is NOT going to throw the runner out at first while the winning run crosses the plate. If it were, say, the seventh inning, he might, however. In the ninth, he would come home with the ball, which makes it a fielder’s choice on a play in which he actually has no choice.)
This is where Captain Moonbeam, a.k.a. Erstwhile Eric The Red, enters the picture.
This just in: The new nickname (remember … you heard it here first) for Tribe manager Eric Wedge is Captain Tomorrow. As in Little Orphan Annie (another redhead, mind you) suddenly breaking into song, singing, “Tomorrow … tomorrow … tomorrow. The sun will come out tomorrow …”
The pitcher on the mound is the fire-balling Rodney. He’s what players call a “hammerhead.” His answer to everything is to throw the ball harder. If 97 isn’t getting it done, 98 mph will.
If it’s me, maybe I pay a visit to the home plate umpire and have him check Rodney’s glove or cap. Get inside his head and crawl around on all fours a bit. But that’s just me. Or La Russa or Leyland or Cox.
Captain Tomorrow, a player’s manager because he insists on that ray of sunshine to peek through the darkest clouds, does not get inside Rodney’s head. He stays on the top step of the dugout and when Jhonny Peralta, the batter, looks over, gives him the hit-away sign. Or maybe he gave Peralta no sign at all, meaning Jhonny was on his own to put an ‘h’ in front of an ‘o’ if he wanted.
In another words, hit away instead of bunting the runner over.
WRONG-O. If ever a move was as wrong as rain at a parade, it was to let Peralta swing away.
Remember, it’s 2-2 in a pennant-race-kind-of-game. Ya gotta get that runner over. Ya gotta lay one down.
What you absolutely have to do in that situation is to be thinking on your feet … thinking one step ahead … thinking of those eight beauties that would be sashaying in front of you providing you get that runner over to third.
But Peralta does not bunt. Not only does he not bunt, he swings away trying hard for the left field terrace. Doesn’t try to take the pitch to the right side even.
The second pitch was a wicked sinker low in the strike zone. No chance to bunt. Called strike two. Not that Peralta was going to attempt a bunt, anyway. He fought back in the count, Peralta did, the announcers going all gaga over the fact Peralta had worked the count to 3-and-2.
The next pitch Rodney simply blew Peralta away and as Peralta went to the dugout as the first out of the inning, the announcers kept giving him an “attaboy” for battling back from oh-and-two. Nary a word about Captain Tomorrow’s decision.
Later, Wedge said he thought Peralta was his last, best hope for driving in a run. For that moment, Captain Tomorrow had let his guard slip because in saying that he was dissing Franklin Gutierrez and Josh Barfield, the next batters.
(Back Story: In the Yankee series, Peralta had fallen into a coma while standing on first base with the bases loaded. Pettitte promptly picked him off. Wedge made the decision NOT to discipline Peralta for this grievous mental error. Because he hadn’t, perhaps Wedge — in letting Peralta swing away — was attempting to instill some confidence in his shortstop. Was perhaps envisioning Peralta atoning …)
Runner still on second, one out. Gutierrez struck out and so did Barfield. Ballgame. The Tigers, inspired by Wedge’s decision and Rodney’s performance, naturally strike for four runs in the 10th inning to put the nail in the coffin.
Now maybe Gutierrez and Barfield whiff anyway, but wouldn’t you have loved to know what would have happened if Gomez had been on third with one out? Maybe Rodney grips the ball just a bit tighter. Maybe he wild-pitches. Maybe, because a runner is on third and not second, he throws a different pitch to Gutierrez or Barfield and they hit a topper to third … and Inge bobbles it.
So many beauties, so little chance to show one off.
It was only one game of five crucial nights in August, but this is the one that stuck in our craw. It was also one of a type that critics point to when fingering the weaknesses of Eric The Red. As a game day skipper, Wedge has a lot of Bobby Bowden in him.
Gene Mauch liked to say that, at best, a manager can — by actual managing in a game — win six games a year. The rest the players win.
On this particular night in August against the Detroit Tigers, the players needed its manager to step up and try for one of those six.
Contact Doug Clarke at email@example.com.