Thursday, September 29, 2011

One Seat, One Game, One Scorebook

Wednesday night's offering of baseball, coupled with 21st century television coverage from ESPN and MLB Network, easily made for the most memorable single day of regular season action in the history of American sports. Four games carried postseason implications: Red Sox at Orioles, Yankees at Rays, Phillies at Braves, and Cardinals at Astros. Hanging in the balance were both wild cards.

Given that the Red Sox and Cardinals were on the road, that nobody goes to Rays games, and that the Astros are the Astros, it's safe to assume that well over 99% of you readers watched this unfold with a remote control in hand, flipping from game to game as warranted by the situations of the minute. Now you're all talking about what an amazing night it was, what chokers the Red Sox are, and how amazingly plucky and resilient those boys in Tampa are. Rightfully so.

But if you were watching on TV Wednesday night, you probably didn't spend too much time on ESPN 2's broadcast of the Phillies/Braves game. Maybe for a bit during the Red Sox rain delay, maybe for the top of the ninth to see if Atlanta could bank its 3-2 lead. A day later, I feel like that's a shame.

Last night's Braves/Phillies game deserved a standalone national audience. For the entire night, I felt like I was living in the final hour of a sports movie. The game was rife with twists, turns, substitutions, and foreshadowing. My dear God, was there ever foreshadowing. Although I attended this game in person with about 40,000 others, I was sitting by myself, giving this game the undivided attention it deserved. Since it was only my third, and perhaps final (You never know with these things.) game at Turner Field, I decided to keep a scorecard. I used to do this all the time, but now reserve it for special occasions, of which this was one.

This was the most amazing game I've ever watched in person. 13 innings, 16 pitchers, one playoff spot on the line. Since I've got the game fresh in mind, the scorecard, and a sudden surplus of free time, I'd like to share the experience with you, inning by inning. Perhaps it'll be therapy for angry Braves fans, and escape for angry Red Sox fans, or just an enjoyable baseball read for baseball fans. Here goes:

1st Inning:
I take my seat, which I'm delighted to find is in the fifth row over the left field fence. Not only is it a clear view of everything in prime home run ball territory, but it's also far enough back that I need not worry about becoming the next Steve Bartman one night after watching a two-hour documentary about that particular incident. I'm also right next to the Phillies' bullpen, which is overpopulated with not only relievers, but done-till-the-playoffs starters and September call-ups. I'll go ahead and call that foreshadowing instance #1.

In Tuesday night's game, the Phillies got off to a hot start against the once-again-embattled Derek Lowe, who was beaten into submission in under four innings, never giving his team a chance to compete. Chase Utley homered as the second batter of the night, setting an unmistakable feeling of impending doom which hung over the stadium crowd all night. Without a doubt, all five broadcast crews of this final game must've set the scene with the cliche late-season open about how important it was for the Braves to score first.

Instead, the Phillies did it again. With two out and the bases empty, newly acquired stud outfielder Hunter Pence (much, much more on him later), draws a walk. After that, perennial MVP candidate Ryan Howard strode to the plate.

Howard's participation is a sampling of an ongoing nuisance in this series for the Braves: Philly skipper Charlie Manuel's insistence on treating this series like any other. His team had clinched the NL East over a week prior, and had long since locked up home field advantage throughout the playoffs. But in a spirit you almost never see in football or basketball, Charlie kept penciling those lineup cards in with A-team guys like Pence and Howard. So instead of facing some AAA call-up, Braves ace Tim Hudson has to deal with one of the game's elite power hitters. Howard comes through, doubling in Pence for another quick 1-0 lead. Here we go again.

Unlike Tuesday night, the Braves fight back in their half of the first. Michael Bourn, who was Pence's teammate in Houston just two months ago, leads off with a single to right and promptly steals second to excite the crowd. After taking third base on a ground out, Brave legend Chipper Jones flies out to left center, scoring Bourn and tying the game. I'll call that foreshadowing instance #2.

2nd Inning: After the initial hiccup, Hudson locks into ace mode and breezes through the top of the second in order, giving the Braves a chance to seize momentum. They look as though they will, with first baseman Freddie Freeman clubbing a leadoff double to right and taking third on a one-out infield single by right fielder Matt Diaz. This looks like the makings of a big rally, but wait a second, this is the National League, and these are the Braves, meaning we have two huge problems: the #8 and #9 spots in the order.

Our #8 hitter tonight is longtime Pirate and .220 hitter Jack Wilson. He's filling in for the injured Alex Gonzalez, a human vacuum cleaner who has enjoyed a nice renaissance with the bat in recent years. Alex left last night's game after two innings with a pulled calf muscle. Despite telling reporters prior to the game that he felt fine, manager Fredi Gonzalez feels as though Alex needs to stay down for at least a week. Oh. So Jack Wilson it is. He strikes out.

After Wilson's strikeout, we now have the automatic out. Hudson fans, inning over. I really hate the National League sometimes.

3rd Inning: More mastery from Hudson, another 1-2-3 inning. The only detail of note from the top half is Charlie Manuel's decision to pinch hit for starting pitcher Joe Blanton after just two innings of work. In the prior games of the series, Manuel allowed Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt to pitch a more standard length. With Cole Hamels throwing in the pen, it's clear that he wanted Blanton and Hamels to both get a little work in before the playoffs.

Bourn leads off the bottom of the third with another single, and steals second again. Left fielder Martin Prado quickly joins him on base with an infield single which held Bourn at second. Fan favorite Chipper Jones comes to the plate with two on and nobody out, bringing the crowd to life, only to go down swinging.

Up steps Dan Uggla, the kind of athlete that's unique to baseball. In this Moneyball era of plate discipline and on-base percentage, Uggla is a stubborn throwback. He swings for the fences every trip to the plate, and strikes out all the damn time. He's known for ignoring the team's video services, not running particularly well, being an average defender, and hitting for a comically low average. His 31-game summer hitting streak was made more newsworthy by the fact that at no point during that streak did his average ever crack .235. In any other sport, a player so averse to coaching and training would not have a job. But Uggla hits bombs, 35 of them this year, and so he's a well-paid cleanup hitter on a weak offensive team instead.

On the first pitch, Bourn breaks for third. He's in safely, but that's a moot point because he's called out by the third base umpire. Bourn throws a tantrum, but the call is not the real question here. Why was this speedster running in the first place with a home run threat at bat? Did he think he couldn't score from second on a single? One gets the feeling that Bourn's absence from second base could be huge, so let's make this foreshadowing instance #3.

Uggla quickly falls behind 0-2, and I mentally decide to compose the following text message to Brave fan friends between innings: "Maybe you should invest in a cleanup guy who can hit .250 next year." But then the story changes. For some reason, Hamels hangs Uggla a Home Run Derby fastball up and in, and Uggla did with it what Uggla does. The ball soared deep into the night, delivering a 3-1 lead to the Braves. After the Bourn incident and the 0-2 count, this was the one and only positive outcome that could've resulted, and here it was. But remember, Bourn was in the dugout and not on third; this should be a 4-1 game right now. Freeman grounds out to end the inning.

4th inning: Alright big guy, here's your run support. I can't get past how fluky that Uggla bomb was, when Hamels was just one slider in the dirt away from being out of the jam. Pair that with the flashbacks I'm having to the final game in the first Major League movie, and I have this unmistakable feeling that Hudson's going to have to make this 3-1 lead stand up all night. Pence and Howard hit back-to-back singles, leading to a first and third, one out scenario. Hudson reaches back and overpowers left fielder Raul Ibanez for a crucial second out, and then gets catcher Carlos Ruiz to ground out. Hudson escapes unscathed, and gets a roaring cheer from the crowd on his way back to the dugout. The Braves then waste a leadoff single by catcher Brian McCann by hitting into three straight fielder's choices to end the inning.

5th inning: Both teams go down in order. This isn't a big issue for the Phils, who had to go through the pitcher's spot. Interestingly, Hamels hit for himself after Blanton didn't in the third. The inning is a waste for the Braves, who had their chance with Bourn, Prado, and Jones. This means that Uggla will hit with the bases empty in the sixth, and that the top of the lineup won't come around for at least two innings, maybe three. Not good -- Huddy better keep dealing.

6th inning: Utley leads off with a single, sending Pence to the plate as the tying run with Howard on deck. Teeth clench around the ballpark, but Utley bounds into a 4-6-3 double play that empties the bases in front of Howard. Hudson gets Howard swinging, prompting another huge ovation from the crowd. Hudson is locked in and throwing like an ace now. But how long can he hang on? I've got a nagging feeling that he has to go at least eight for the Braves to pull this off. Does he have enough gas?

If it weren't so tragic, it would be comical how bad this Braves offense is. Vance Worley comes into pitch and spots the Braves two baserunners on back-to-back walks. McCann and Diaz proceed to both go down swinging, failing to score runs, move runners, or even just put the ball in play. Uh-oh. Here comes the Wilson/Hudson part of the lineup again.

Amazingly, Wilson smacks a single to right field. Anybody should be able to score from second on a base hit to right...right? In this case, no. Uggla rounds third and keeps his head up to look at the ball in the outfield. This keeps him from hitting his stride, and Pence (him again!) delivers a Gold Glove throw to the plate to nab Uggla. Inning over, still 3-1.

For me, the worst part of that is that Hudson didn't get to bat in the 6th. Is Fredi Gonzalez really gutsy enough to let him lead off the bottom of the 7th? I'd really hoped we wouldn't have to find out.

7th inning: Ibanez hits a one-out double and moves to third on a Polanco single, bringing the go-ahead run to the plate with one out. For the first time since the fourth, Hudson is in a jam. This time, his pitch count is zipping up through the 90s. This might require all he's got left. But wait -- a ground ball to short! Could this be the second huge double play in as many innings? Alex Gonzalez picks it up and....wait, Gonzo's in the dugout. Jack Wilson bodies the ball off his shoulder, and it skips into left. Everybody's safe, Ibanez scores, and it's 3-2.

It's hard to understate just how big a turn of events this is. Consider the possibility of an inning-ending double play there. The crowd would go wild. It would take some weight off of Uggla's shoulders. It would keep Hudson's pitch count down AND keep a two run lead. Translation: maybe Fredi would've let him hit and pitch the eighth!

Instead, this is now a battle of the bullpens, as Gonzalez comes to get Hudson. As a baseball fan, I recognize the situation calls for a loud, long standing ovation for the departing starter who battled so valiantly against a great team for 6.1 innings. I oblige him, but that voice in my head returns, loudly this time: THIS IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH FROM TIM HUDSON. HE WAS THEIR ONLY ADVANTAGE IN THIS GAME, AND NOW HE'S GONE WAY TOO EARLY.

My fears are immediately assuaged, for the moment anyway, when lefty Eric O'Flaherty gets Shane Victorino (pinch-hitting in the pitcher's spot) to hit into a 4-6-3 double play to end the inning. The Braves escape the 7th with the lead, however slim, and the crowd goes wild once again.

At this point, the Brave offense completely goes into the tank against Philly's bullpen. Flawed teams have an amazing knack for showing it at the worst times in crucial games. All season long, Atlanta's formula for victory has had zero margin for error; they've counted on O'Flaherty, Johnny Venters, and rookie phenom Craig Kimbrel to win 3-2 games like this one from the bullpen all year. A 1-2-3 seventh sends a loud, clear message that they'll have to do it again.

8th inning: Enter Venters. He gets a quick out, but then walks Utley who moves to second on a ground out. With an empty base in a 3-2 ballgame, Fredi Gonzalez has Venters pitch to Howard with someone named John Mayberry on deck. This is a downright scary glimpse at Gonzalez's philosophy -- don't put the go-ahead run on for any reason, even if that reason is Ryan Howard -- and most certainly foreshadowing moment #4. Venters eventually gets Howard to a 1-2 count before hitting him in the back. While the rest of the crowd moans in disgust, I breathe a sigh of relief; at least he didn't hit one to Florida. Venters walks Mayberry to load the bases and put everyone on the edges of their seats. He rallies behind the crowd to strike out Ibanez and salvage the paper-thin lead. It's all going to come down to Kimbrel.

In a bottom of the eighth that was only played because the rules say you have to, the Braves went down in order once again. The out of town scoreboard now warrants mentioning: the Cardinals, who have been leading all night, have a commanding 7-0 lead against the hapless Astros. Everyone at Turner Field now knows beyond any shadow of a doubt what is at stake. We're not playing to clinch a playoff spot; we're fighting to fight another day, Thursday in St. Louis. This 162 game odyssey has all dissolved into one single inning, and one big question: can Atlanta's 23-year-old closer save not just the game, but the season against baseball's best?

9th inning: Sadly, I think I already know the answer. I know what my mental makeup against adversity was like when I was 23, and I see no reason why Kimbrel's will be any different. I think to myself that there's not a 23 year old on the planet who can put up a goose egg in this situation, even if that 23 year old is a shoo in for National League Rookie of the Year. Maybe things would be different if St. Louis weren't a sure thing victory, but they are. It's all on his shoulders. I hope I'm wrong, but deep down I know that I'm not.

Kimbrel gives up a leadoff single to Placido Polanco, a terrible sign. He then begins his see-saw act that continues for the rest of his outing: fastball ball, fastball strike. It's clear early on that he has no command, and is just trying to throw as hard as his exhausted shoulder will let him at the end of the longest season of his life. Some pitches are balls, some strikes, but they're all equally dangerous. Each pitch is a coin flip. He fans pinch hitter Domonic Brown, then walks pinch hitter Ben Francisco. Now he's facing the A-team: Rollins, Utley, and Pence are the next three due (I felt like his only chance was a 1-2-3 inning against the bottom third.). Rollins works another walk to load the bases, and Utley hits a sacrifice fly to tie the game.

I flash back to the 7th inning with Hudson. I thought all night that he had to navigate them through at least seven innings, maybe eight. Leaving with only 19 outs recorded, no matter how impressive those 19 outs were, was a recipe for disaster. And here we were: the Braves held the lead for 26 outs, not 27. Kimbrel walks Pence to re-load the bases, and finally Fredi throws in the towel. Luckily for reliever Kris Medlen, he doesn't have to deal with Howard, who'd been lifted for a pinch runner in the eighth. Medlen gets his replacement, Michael Martinez, to foul out to end the inning.

Everyone in the ballpark knows the Braves missed their big chance, that all those little missed opportunities through the night -- the Bourn steal, the Wilson error, the Uggla play at the plate -- would probably spell doom. But they only needed one run! The fans made more noise to try to inspire the offense, but the effort was in vain, as the Braves went in order for the third straight frame. No hits since the Uggla play, and no true baserunners since the walk to Freeman with no outs in the sixth.

10th inning: Medlen continues to do yeoman's work in an impossible situation, throwing a scoreless frame around a harmless two-out single. He gives the Braves a chance to win in the bottom of the 10th. Trying to be upbeat, I send out a mass text message: "All signs point to a Hinske walk-off in the 1oth." I've always been a big fan of Eric Hinske's, but it was done tongue in cheek; everybody knew he would pinch hit for Medlen to lead off, but that'd be about it. He popped out.

But then Michael Bourn smacks a single and the winning run is aboard with one out and the right hitters coming to bat! The ballpark comes back to life. I begin thinking about the eerie parallel between this and Commissioner Giamatti's "Green Fields of the Mind," a non-fiction account of the Red Sox' last-ditch effort to catch the Yankees on the last day of the season in the 70's. This seems like the perfect tease.

After a Prado strikeout, it's all up to Chipper Jones: baseball legend, regional hero. In the movies, Chipper hits the game-winning home run here, inspiring the Braves to turn it around and go onto the World Series. But in real life, he smashes a line drive to deep left center, only to have Mayberry's outstretched arm grab it in stride to keep Bourn from scoring a sure-thing winning run. We're onto the 11th, but realistically? Unless somebody else throws Uggla another Hamels ball, the Braves have no chance to score until the 13th.

Maybe it was just my imagination, but after that inning, it seemed to get five degrees cooler in the ballpark at that moment. I remember thinking to myself that I was glad I'd worn sleeves and long pants. It reminded me about Giamatti's words about how the winter always comes right on time. I started to get goosebumps, but not because I was cold. St. Louis's victory was long since final, and the foreshadowing of the sudden end of baseball season was chilling to the bone.

11th inning: We've now reached the point of no return for an extra inning game. At this point during most of the season, the managers would just throw out a long reliever and hope for the best, wanting a win, but not at the price of the pitching staff in the days ahead. But this is September, and the expanded rosters allow these managers to handle this game as if it's the last one they'll ever play. Enter Anthony Varvaro, a Rule V draft pick who wouldn't normally get a sniff of a situation this important. But the elite relievers are all gone now, and it's up to the unproven to win this big game. Varvaro works around two walks to put up a scoreless 11th. The Braves go 1-2-3 again, for the fourth time in five innings. They're now 2-for-21 at the plate since the fifth inning.

12th inning: Fellow youngster Cristhian Martinez gets through the top of the 12th with the help of a double play, and this is starting to feel like it could go forever. In these sorts of games, things often happen that would normally be exciting, but in context are just reminders of how bad things are -- for example, a two-out triple when you're being shut out. The Braves do something similar in the 12th, stringing together a leadoff single and perfect sacrifice bunt before a Brooks Conrad pinch-hit strikeout puts a damper on everything. The Phils intentionally walk Bourn -- the only hitter to carry his weight all night -- in favor of Prado, who has been ice cold. Before Prado can strike out though, a wild pitch puts Jason Heyward to third. This provided no utility. We all knew Heyward wouldn't actually score. But his being at third instead of second just made the torture worse. Maybe we could get a wild pitch! Maybe he could score on a balk! Nope, strikeout.

13th inning: Another hallmark of heartbreaking extra inning losses is the feeling that things will finally tip back in your favor *if you can just make it through this one last inning*. The Braves had Chipper, Uggla, and Freeman due in the 13th, so if they were ever going to score, it was going to be then. They just needed one more goose egg, and for that they turned to 35-year-old Scott Linebrink, who I didn't even realize was still in baseball. The Braves fans around me all seemed to think the same thing. Linebrink's 13th was a slow replica of Kimbrel's 9th, a strike-ball-ball-strike-ball-strike-ball rollercoaster with no safe end in sight. With one on and one out, he entered the deadly waters of Rollins-Utley-Pence, the only three threats left in Philly's depleted lineup.

Somehow, he got Rollins to fly out, leaving the bottom of the 13th so close you could taste it in the air. I didn't see any way he'd get Utley out, but hey, even a .400 hitter makes outs sixty percent of the time, right? Aren't the odds always in your favor? Couldn't he just hit it to the warning track? Against my better judgement, I started to believe just a little bit.

Utley walked, and up strode Hunter Pence with runners at first and third. Yes, THAT Hunter Pence. The one that threw Uggla out to keep the all-important fourth run off the board in the sixth. The one who worked the walk in front of Howard's RBI double in the first. The one who the Phillies AND Braves were both trying to get at the trading deadline. The one who might've helped Houston win another one of those Cardinals games if he were still there.

Now remember, Ryan Howard is not on deck. The sub-.200 hitting Michael Martinez is. There's an empty base at second, and I find myself begging the baseball gods for an intentional walk. But Fredi Gonzalez is a Baseball Man, and Baseball Men go by The Book. The Book says you never intentionally put another runner in scoring position when you're the home team, no matter who is on deck. And so Linebrink pitches to Pence.

The at-bat happened in slow motion, and so did his game-winning hit. His "14-hopper" to deep second base was a poetic finish to this epic night. Was it a good hit? No, but it was just a little bit more than the Braves could defend. How did the play end? With Dan Uggla sliding in front of a ball sent at him by Hunter Pence. Sound familiar? Uggla knocked the ball down, but by the time he was ready to throw, Pence was already through first and the go-ahead run had scored from third.

And autumn arrived in Fulton County, right on time.

Remember that vaunted 3-4-5 due up in the bottom of the 13th? Well, they still got to hit. It just didn't matter anymore, and the fans knew it. Reliever David Herndon struck out Chipper Jones, a dagger to the heart of the fans. Sure Uggla worked another improbable walk, but he had to homer there. All the walk did was setup an inevitable double play by Freeman to end the game, the night, the pennant race, the season.

Fans shuffled out in utter silence, even the many Philadelphia fans in attendance. They knew they'd seen a great game, and that their great team had just eliminated a playoff-caliber team. You'd think that would draw some cheers. But they all seemed to know they were at a funeral, and behaved accordingly.

As all of this unfolded Wednesday night, the same story was playing out in a parallel universe called the American League, where the Rays played the role of the Cardinals, and the Red Sox the Braves. Those games were not yet final, and it would be several minutes before this story repeated itself in inside-out fashion, with the Rays winning in extra innings and the Red Sox losing quick. I scrambled to find a television in the ballpark where I could watch it all unfold.

I found the screen in the most unlikely of places: a fishbowl of a radio studio, where Jay Howell (left) and Ben Ingram (right) had the unenviable task of trying to recap this game. I noticed that Ingram had one of those "game-by-game" scorebooks fancied by so many broadcasters, tracking a player's numbers by the day. He had with it hilighters of several neon colors, and had been dutifully filling that book with every last detail for 162 games. He must've wondered why at that moment.

As I watched MLB Network up over their heads, I started something of a crowd peering in. I was pulling for Boston, but most were jilted Braves fans looking for another team to share their misery. It was here that I saw the Granderson play, and all three of Baltimore's ninth inning hits.

I saw many sad faces as I stood by that booth, but the most encapsulating one belonged to a uniformed boy scout aged maybe 10 or 11. He was on the brink of tears, and it was obvious he'd never been through anything like this as a baseball fan before. The more he listened to Howell and Ingram survey the wreckage, the sadder he became. Choking back a flood, finally the rest of his troop arrived and they all departed together. The symbol was amazing -- so much was said without words.

Maybe I should've taken his lead?