Friday, October 31, 2014

One for the ages

The table was set for the greatest at bat in the history of baseball. It was game seven of the World Series, the bottom of the ninth, two outs, two strikes on the batter. The home team whom everyone in the country was pulling for, except of course the fans of the other team, was down by one run. There was a runner 90 feet away at third base. The batter who had been hit by a pitch just above his knee cap in the second inning heroically kept himself in the game, as catcher no less, stoically playing his difficult position despite the pain. Now he found himself in the ultimate situation in the game of baseball where one swing of the bat would determine the next champion, his team, or the other one. It is the situation that every kid who has ever dreamed of playing big league ball, has mulled over in his head from time immemorial.

The game ending, or "walk-off" home is arguably the most exciting play in baseball. Google "great moments in baseball history" and you'll find accounts of many of them. However, beside all the dreams and countless works of fiction about them, in reality the number of times a batter has ended a game seven of a World Series with a come from behind, championship "walk-off"  home run, is zero. Bill Mazeroski hit a championship walk-off home run in a game 7 for the Pirates in 1960 against the Yankees, but the game was tied when he hit it. Joe Carter hit a come from behind championship walk-off homer in 1993 for the Blue Jays against the Phillies, but that was a game six.  Kirk Gibson hobbled by a knee injury and listed as unlikely to be available for the 1988 World Series, to the delight and astonishment of the hometown fans in Dodger Stadium, limped up to the plate and hit a come from behind walk-off World Series home run against the highly favored A's and the best reliever in baseball at the time, but that was game one of that Series. In the entire history of the World Series, dating back to 1903, there have been fifteen walk-off home runs, and only two of them, Mazeroski's and Carter's, were hit to win the championship.

It was clear when Salvador Perez stepped up to the plate for that fateful at bat, he knew exactly what was at stake. He would have the chance to be Bill Mazeroski, Kirk Gibson, and Joe Carter all rolled into one. On the first pitch he took a mighty swing, a home run swing which had it connected squarely with the ball, would have had a chance to give the Kansas City Royals their first World Championship since 1985, which also happened to be the same year they last appeared in the post-season. But he didn't connect on that pitch, not even close. Perez missed the ball by so much it looked as if he was swatting at flies.

Watching the game, my son and I debated what the next pitch would be. Change-up I thought first, no, on second thought, he's going to throw another high fastball, Judging from that first swing, Perez it seemed, would never be able to catch up to it.

My second hunch was correct, Perez would not see an off-speed pitch in that entire at bat, just high fastballs, all of them well out of the strike zone.

During that at bat, the feeling that something remarkable and extraordinary was about to take place never left my mind. The Royals after all were the Cinderella story of 2014, a wild card team that won only 89 games in the regular season, In a one game wild card playoff they came back from a three run deficit in the eighth inning against one of the heroes of last year's World Series, Jon Lester, to beat the Oakland Athletics. Then they disposed of the teams with the best and second best records in baseball, the California Angels and the Baltimore Orioles, both in four straight games. Not doubting this team and its capabilities for a second, I told my son before the start of the ninth inning of game seven to watch closely. History was about to be made and someone was going to hit a "walk off" home run to win the game and the championship for the home team. Turned out it was Salvador Perez who had the opportunity.

Perez was eventually able to make contact when he fouled off a 2-2  pitch. He did the same twice more but on his last swing he got a little too much on the ball to hit it out of play, and not nearly enough for anything else. The ball stayed in play for Pablo Sandoval, third baseman for the San Francisco Giants, who took a prat-fall upon catching the ball for the final put-out of the 2014 season.

With one swing of the bat, Perez went from a chance at immortality, to becoming a foot note... "Who was the last out of the 2014 World Series you ask? Why Salvador Perez of the Kansas City Royals of course.". As far as the history books go, his moment in the sun will be forever in the shadow of Madison Bumgarner, the Giant left-hander with a delivery as awkward as his name. Bumgarner was nothing short of brilliant for the five innings of relief he pitched in game seven with only two days rest, a complete game shutout in game five, and a seven inning performance in game one where he also got credited with the win.

It was another great left-hander, Warren Spahn, who defining his craft once said:
Hitting is timing, pitching is upsetting timing.
In the 2014 World Series, Bumgarmer did just that. The Royals offense scored a lot of runs: 26 of them against the San Francisco pitchers who were not Bumgarner. With the big southpaw on the mound, the Royals batters looked off-kilter, confused, and just plain silly at the plate. He got most of them to pop up or strike out, chasing either his high fast ball or his tantalizing off-speed pitches.

In the 21 innings he pitched in the Series, Bumgarner gave up only one run. That was a home run to none other than Salvador Perez, who no doubt would have gladly traded that one meaningless run in game one for his last at bat of the season, a shot that would have made him a household name.

But really, Perez had no chance. After the game, Bumgarner said this:
I knew Perez was going to want to do something big... We tried to use that aggressiveness and throw our pitches up in the zone. 
The two pitches Perez took for balls were at about eye level. Bumgarner came down only slightly from there and Perez took the bait. Not a single pitch thrown to him in that last at bat was in the strike zone. Had he been more patient and taken two more pitches, his team would have had runners on first and third with third baseman Mike Moustakas at the plate. What would have happened then is anybody's guess; my guess is Bumgarner would have gotten him out as he did every time except once in the series. Perez also could have shortened up his swing a bit, going for a higher percentage game-tying base hit rather than a game-ending home run.

At this point it should be worth noting that the batter ahead of Perez, Alex Gordon, got on base with a solid single to center. Giant center fielder Gregor Blanco committed himself too late and the ball skipped by him going all the way to the fence where left fielder Juan Perez, ironically in the game for his defensive skills, kicked it around a few times, enabling Gordon to make it all the way to third. That comedy of errors stood in stark contrast to a World Series that was played almost flawlessly in the field by both teams.  Given that and Bumgarner's stellar work, had the outcome of this World Series been determined by that uncharacteristic display of ineptitude, as it would have been had Gordon scored on a Perez single, it would have been unfortunate and wholly unsatisfying. My theory (could be wrong), is that the baseball gods decreed that if KC was to tie and possibly win that game, Perez would have to do it in a big way, either with a home run or triple that would have scored Gordon from first, had the error(s) not occurred. 

Of course the baseball gods seldom are denied.

So how good was Madison Bumgarner's performance this World Series? The commentators during and after game seven went wild and some of them, getting out their stats sheets, claimed that it was bar none, the greatest World Series pitching performance in the history of the game. 

Well it turns out that's a bit of a stretch, but not much.

Here is a list from the New York Daily News that puts Bumgarner's performance into proper perspective. The list puts his performance just behind those of fellow Giant, Christy Mathewson, (Milwaukee Brave) Lou Burdette, and Bob Gibson. It places him ahead of none other than the perhaps the greatest left hander of them all, Sandy Koufax, among others.

From that list, Bumgarner may not be quite at the top, but he's very close, and in some awfully good company.

Perhaps not the greatest, but was it a performance for the ages?

You bet it was.

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