Amidst all the other forms of entertainment that we can access at speeds and volumes never seen before in human history – why do I choose to spend October evenings staring at a TV screen watching two teams I don’t even “root for” when I could be doing so many other things? Netflix, Game of Thrones, Youtube, and Snapchat all vie for my attention and yet…
I choose to watch a game that has been played with a wooden bat and a ball with a cork center and cowhide with red stitches for nearly 150 years and has only changed slightly from when it started. I choose to watch a game where one franchise cannot win a championship for 108 years – as they watch another franchise whose primary color is teal that has only been around since 1993 win 2 in their first 11 years of existence – then dismantle those teams even faster than it took to build them.
I choose to watch the Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals play for nearly 4 hours 37 minutes Thursday night – with 14 pitchers used – 39 baserunners – and enough wacky plays to keep the media talking for weeks and Nationals fans talking for years. For a quick summary read Giuseppe’s recap here.
Some context: In 2012 the Nationals made the playoffs thanks in large part to Stephen Strasburg just returned from 2011 Tommy John surgery. Except that…his super agent Scott Boras and Nationals executives wanted to limit his innings so he was shut down heading into the playoffs. The Nationals went down 2-1 before winning Game 4 on a Jayson Werth walk-off and starting Game 5 off with a 6 run lead through three innings. Starter Gio Gonzalez though allowed 4 runs in 5 innings but the Nationals still held a 2 run lead heading into the 9th. I opined that night on my Facebook page, “Please, tell me in some underground bullpen Stephen Strasburg is warming up.” It was not so, and eventually the Cardinals scored 4 in the 9th to win 9-7. That was October 12, 2012, and the Cardinals lead-off hitter was outfielder Jon Jay.
In 2016 the Nationals once again battled to Game 5, but the Dodgers brought in Clayton Kershaw in relief who shut down the threat for his first career save since the Dodgers current closer Kenley Jansen was his catcher in minor league ball. The Nationals were out once again.
October 12, 2017. Game 5 between the Nationals and Chicago Cubs after the Nationals were down 2-1 and had once again forced a Game 5. This time Jon Jay led off for the Cubs. This time Stephen Strasburg had pitched a tremendous Game 4 after fighting off rumors of being sick – but what the rest of baseball called “afraid to pitch the big game-itis”.
Gio Gonzalez once again started for the Nationals and once again he was staked to an early 4-1 lead. He gave up 2 runs in the 3rd and was done after the inning. The Nationals Manager, Dusty Baker, brought in starter and reigning NL Cy Young Award Winner Max Scherzer to stop the bleeding. He got two quick outs – and then the proverbial cut was ripped open.
A key play was on a strikeout where the hitter’s backswing hit the catcher as the ball went to the backstop. He threw to first into right field and the Cubs kept on going. The umpire described it this way as he interpreted Rule 6.03(a) in a nod to Donald Rumsfield: “In my judgment, the passed ball changed the whole rule around to where, in my judgment, it had nothing to do with everything. Therefore, it didn’t have any effect on it. In my judgment.”
So there are things we don’t know we don’t know.
The Nationals were desperate to avoid another postseason collapse. Perhaps especially Manager Dusty Baker – who was the manager of that 2012 Reds team that was up 2-0 before losing the Division Series to the Giants in 5 – as the Giants went on to win the World Series. He was the Giants Manager in 2002 when they were up on the Angels 3-2 in the World and up 6-1 in Game 6 before losing that game and Game 7. He was the Cubs manager the following year when the Cubs were 6 outs of their World Series since 1945 and Steve Bartman interfered with a foul pop up in front of Moises Alou. So his history is not so good.
In the 7th the Cubs started to rally again. That guy Jon Jay again found himself in the middle of it all – as he slid controversially into second base but it was ruled a legal slide. A run scored. A run that would decide it all.
It is the 8th inning though that Nationals will wind and rewind add nauseum.
The Nationals were mounting a comeback as the Cubs ran out of pitchers and had to bring their closer on in the bottom of the 7th. They scored another run to come within 1 run, then put runners on 1st and 2nd and two out.
The Cubs catcher Wilson Contreras wasn’t having the best day. Two pitches that got past him struck the home plate umpire – one DIRECTLY – but now he struck back. He snapped a throw to first base and Lobaton slid back feet first. In a split second his foot lifted off the base as the tag was applied. The umpire called out.
The Cubs challenged the call on the field and ruling from New York the call was reversed. Inning over. Nationals still down 1.
You see how this goes now, right? Trea Turner flew out for out 1. Jayson Werth – who I argue helped kick-start this Nationals team and now likely in his final year with the team – was out number 2.
For the final hitter, it had to be who it was: Bryce Harper. The 2015 National League MVP and arguably 2nd Best Player in Baseball. He struck out on a couple of nasty sliders and the game was over. The Nationals had lost as much as the Cubs had won.
The baseball playoffs are like taking an entire regular season plus all the post-seasons of the past and dumping them all into one gigantic blender. Starting pitchers come on in relief with regularity. Sometimes to Bumgarner-esque results, sometimes Scherzer results. Rule 6.03(a) becomes THE defining out of the nearly 4,200 recorded in the season of the Washington Nationals while Dusty Baker ponders what the worst moment of his managerial career was? Will the man that was on deck when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record get another chance to manage a team to a World Series?
We watch because in the playoffs every moment connects to another, individual players become part of a larger interwoven story that connects to the past, will connect to the future, and gives us a present that we can’t turn away from.