A baseball season is like a vast ocean of plays, numbers and events taking place in games that come at us daily, with the relentlessness of waves breaking on a shoreline. It’s impossible to keep track of everything or take it all in, but if you pay attention randomly, you’re bound to see things that haven’t happened in a long time or perhaps ever, left like nuggets washed up on a beach.
For example, on Thursday night I tuned in late to a game between the Texas Rangers and the Dodgers in Dodger Stadium. It was an extreme pitchers’ duel, tied 0-0 heading into the bottom of the ninth. Texas reliever Keone Kela walked the first two Dodger hitters, not a great idea under the circs. But then he induced the next Dodger to tap into the pitcher’s best friend, a double-play, the lead runner advancing to third base with two out. Perched there, the base-runner began feinting toward home, just enough to distract Kela, whose pitching arm made a tiny reflexive flinch, practically invisible, but not to the umpires. That’s all it took, the ump called Kela for a balk and the winning run came home, it was a balk-off walk-off, a horrible way to lose such a game. I’m sure games have ended this way before, but not very often with such a minimal 1-0 score.
It was similar on Sunday in a game between the Rays and Indians in Cleveland. The Rays sent one of their seemingly endless supply of good starting pitchers to the mound in Alex Colome and the Indians countered with a minor-league call-up named Cody Anderson, making his major-league debut. Colome was brilliant, in fact he was perfect through five, surrendering a first hit in the sixth. Anderson was almost as good, throwing seven and two-thirds innings of shutout ball, surrendering six hits and just one walk. With Colome gone after seven innings, the game was tied 0-0 in the ninth, when the Indians loaded the bases on two singles and a walk off Tampa reliever Kevin Jepsen. With one out, David Murphy came to the plate and hit a flyball to medium-deep centrefield. Kevin Keirmaier launched as perfect a throw to home plate as I’ve ever seen, a laser beam on a direct line to the catcher. There was a puff of dust and chalk as the runner slid, seemingly too late, he was going to be out……but no! – there was the baseball spinning around on the ground near home plate, the catcher hadn’t held it and the Indians won the game 1-0 on a walk-off sacrifice fly. Baseball is such a hard and unforgiving game, sometimes a team does everything right and one small slip costs them the ballgame. Humdinger.
Speaking of doing almost everything right, Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals came within one strike of throwing a perfect game on Saturday. His team mates made several brilliant defensive plays to support him and did their part with the bats too, putting up six runs against the Pirates. With two down in the top of the ninth, Pittsburgh sent Jose Tabata in to pinch-hit and with two strikes, he leaned his heavily armoured elbow into the path of a pitch that wasn’t all that far inside – hit batter, perfect game gone. It was a bush-league and dastardly way to break up a perfect game. Not only had Tabata not tried to avoid the pitch, but he went out of his way to get hit with no risk of pain or injury, being all suited up like a Transformer. Try doing this without the elbow protector next time Jose and see where it gets you. It was all legal enough and the umpire had little choice but to award him first base, but it was unfortunate, deflating. However, not all was lost as Scherzer still had a no-hitter going and secured it when the next batter flew out to left.
Here’s the thing though…..In his previous start, Scherzer threw a complete-game shutout, in fact he had another perfect game going until surrendering a lone hit in the seventh inning, while striking out sixteen batters, possibly even a more dominant performance than his no-hitter. With these two splendid outings, he joined a tiny group of elite pitchers to ever throw back-to-back shutouts while surrendering a total of one hit or less. The others are all old-timers, including Howard Ehmke, Dazzy Vance and Johnny Vander Meer, who in 1938 became the only pitcher to throw consecutive no-hitters. Like many, I’ll be following Scherzer’s next start with some interest, as he seems to have figured some stuff out.
On the higher-scoring end of things, on Sunday I was flicking to the Tigers-Yankees game in Yankee Stadium whenever the Jays-Orioles game went to commercials. Detroit’s rightfielder J.D. Martinez hit three home runs in his first three at-bats – a two-run shot in the second inning, a solo blast in the fifth and a three-run bomb in the sixth. He still had at least one more at-bat coming, and I wondered if he’d be able to join the exclusive four-homers-in-one-game club – nope, he flew out deep to right in his last at-bat. Then I noticed that he’d hit every type of homer except a grand slam and got to wondering if anyone had ever hit one of each – solo, two-run, three-run and grand slam – in one game, a kind of “home run cycle”. The odds are really long – there have been only sixteen players to ever hit four home runs in a game – some of them journeymen, some good players, some immortals like Lou Gehrig, Gil Hodges, Willie Mays and Mike Schmidt. Carlos Delgado of the Blue Jays was the only player to do it in four consecutive at-bats and the last player to hit four was Josh Hamilton with the Rangers in 2012, presumably not during one of the frat-party keg-weekends he’s prone to. So chances that anybody had hit one of each homer variety in one game are really slim, in fact I wasn’t sure the concept of the “home run cycle” even existed.
Baseball has a guy with a main-frame in a hollowed-out mountain somewhere who you can call and ask these types of questions – there’s even a toll-free number, but the line’s always busy. Anyway, I looked it up on Google, and it turns out the concept of the “homer cycle” does exist, but it’s never been pulled off in the major leagues. It’s been done exactly once in professional baseball – by one Tyrone Horne during a 1998 AA ballgame. This is not surprising, because not only does a player have to hit four homers, which is next to impossible, but he has to come to the plate with the right number of runners on base, which is completely random and beyond his control.
Stranger things have happened in baseball though. Thirteen players have hit two grand slams in one game, including Red Sox third baseman Bill Mueller, who, as a switch-hitter became the first to do so from either side of the plate. But on April 23, 1999 Fernando Tatis topped them all by hitting two grand slams in one inning – think about that the next time you hear the phrase “statistical cataclysm”.
One thing I’m sure of though – eventually someone will pull off the home run cycle in the major leagues, maybe even in our lifetime. This is because whatever can happen in baseball will happen, if it hasn’t already. And on that Berra-esque note, I’ll leave you.
© 2015, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.