The Rangers sure are exciting these days. They’re only two games behind Houston for the AL West lead and one game up on Minnesota for the last Wild Card while still holding the title of The Best Team With a Negative Run Differential. That is, if nothing else, an unwieldy banner. It’s the banner equivalent of Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s name on a t-shirt in that it would start on one side and end on the other. Negative run differential or not, the Rangers are winning games and doing it in exciting fashion. Tuesday the Rangers beat the Padres while Elvis Andrus stole home. I’m happy that happened because that this is an article about Elvis Andrus stealing home and if he hadn’t stolen home this would be a pretty weird article.
The Rangers have had some good luck in addition to playing well. For example, the San Diego Padres just wanted to play a baseball game Tuesday. I’m not even sure they wanted to win it. I mean, they’d probably have been fine with winning, but they’d have been fine with not winning, too. Let’s just play a game, they probably thought, then get some sleep. Instead they got Tuesday’s game which was much, much worse.
Going into the seventh inning everything was fine. Can’t wait to get some shut-eye, the Padres probably thought! The score was 4-4 and the Padres got the first two Rangers out. Then Prince Fielder singled. That was enough for manager Pat Murphy to replace pitcher Marc Rzepczynski with Shawn Kelley. Adrian Beltre greeted Kelley with a hard single to left. Kelley’s first pitch to Rougned Odor, a slider, slid past catcher Derek Norris and the runners moved up to second and third. That prompted the Padres to walk Odor intentionally, bringing up our protagonist, Elvis Andrus.
This is, not coincidentally, where things really fell apart. Andrus lined a single into right field where Matt Kemp picked it up and threw a perfect strike to Norris who turned to tag Adrian Beltre who was attempting to score from second. Norris did tag Beltre out, except Beltre’s knee slammed into Norris’s wrist and knocked the ball loose. While Norris was lying there in pain on the ground and the ball was rolling away from the plate, Odor came in from first with the Rangers’ third run of the play. Norris was helped from the field, but the delay was long enough that Kelley needed to get warm again, so he threw a few warm-up pitches and hurt himself. Kelley became the third Padres player to leave that particular game with an injury and it was still only the seventh inning. Also Elvis Andrus was now standing on third base. Needing a new pitcher, the Padres brought in Kevin Quackenbush, who threw three pitches to new batter Will Venable. Then, en route to the fourth pitch, this happened:
That is the cherry on the nose of the guy who has fallen over backwards because he was just punched in the throat. The Padres announcers are complaining about Voodoo dolls (little do they know!) and Andrus is kibitzing with third baseman Yangervis Solarte when Quackenbush gets the throw back from new catcher Austin Hedges.
At this point the Padres broadcast offers us, for some unknown reason, an overhead view of the home-plate area. This means that, in addition to Quackenbush and apparently the rest of the Padres on the field, the announcers aren’t paying any attention to Andrus on third, either.
One point that view does drive home is that Venable is a left-handed hitter. This means the left side of the batter’s box, the one where a batter would typically obscure the catcher’s view of third base, is open. Not that there’s anything typical about a steal of home plate, but you would think the time to do it would be with a right-handed hitter at the plate. Further, you’d think ideally there would be a left-handed pitcher on the mound. That way he would be facing first base and the runner on third could get a good running jump from behind the pitcher’s back, or, if the bases are loaded, from the moment he goes into his wind-up. Like this:
That’s Jacoby Ellsbury stealing home off of Andy Pettitte of the Yankees back in 2009. My favorite part about that is how Ellsbury runs so fast he stumbles and falls at the end but is still safe easily. Ellsbury stole 70 bases that year. Dude was fast. Andrus stole 42 bases in 2013 so he’s no manatee either.
Watching Quackenbush’s three pitches to Venable, I’m not sure he ever actually looks at Andrus. He might, the camera isn’t on him all the time. I’ve watched both broadcasts to check, but if he does look over I didn’t see it. This could be Andrus’ first clue. Here is the play unfolding just before anything happens.
Note third baseman Solarte, who is fascinated by his own socks. Second baseman Cory Spangenberg is enjoying the smell of his glove (isn’t that a Spinal Tap album?). Quackenbush is staring in at Hedges. With his hands on his hips, Andrus’ posture seems to say, “Seriously?”
So he starts to go. Nobody cares. Credit Spangenberg with dropping his glove to his waist. Although maybe it smells bad, I don’t know. But we’ll credit him anyway. Solarte has looked up from his socks. He deserves credit, too.
Andrus is now in full sprint. There’s no turning back. Solarte and Spangenberg haven’t noticed. Quackenbush is still in the midst of coming dramatically set. If this were a song we would have reached the jazzy interlude.
This is about where the Padres notice what is going on and Andrus is almost halfway home. This is checking your pocket after the pickpocket shook your hand and you waved to him as he walked out of the bus station. Solarte is doing the only thing he can do, which is cover where Andrus was, in case there’s a break in the space-time continuum and Andrus reappears at third base. Quackenbush has removed his glove from his face and maybe, out of the corner of his eye, notices something. Spangenberg hasn’t moved an inch. He’s mentally ordering popcorn.
This is where something strange happens. Quackenbush is set on the rubber when he sees Andrus streaking down the line. Venable does what hitters are supposed to do when there is a play at the plate, namely get the heck out of the way. The only problem with that is there are two strikes on him! All Quackenbush has to do now is throw a strike to the catcher and the inning will end! But he doesn’t. Instead, he does something all pitchers have learned over and over and over since Babe Ruth League: when a runner takes off and you have the ball on the mound, you step off the rubber. Except, in this case, that’s about the worst thing he could do because now not only is he not throwing a free pitch to a batter with two strikes on him who has stepped out of the batters box, but he’s spending time he doesn’t have to take a step with his back foot. Also, he’s moving his momentum away from home and he’s upsetting his balance in the process. Here’s the resultant throw he made to Hedges:
It’s not good and Andrus is safe. And the Rangers are all smiles and pats on the head (except for Beltre) and the Padres are left to wonder how two outs with nobody on turned into four runs, two injuries, and an embarrassment that promises to last beyond this dreary campaign.
But that’s the thing. The Padres had their chance. Quackenbush didn’t have to throw over to third. He could have kept an eye on Andrus. He didn’t. Solarte could have shouted when he saw Andrus go. He didn’t. Hedges had a clear view down the baseline but did nothing, and if he said anything nobody reacted to it. Then Venable presented Quackenbush with a get out of jail free card by stepping out of the box. All Quackenbush had to do was ignore Andrus and throw a strike. He didn’t.
The Rangers are an exciting team. They’re making a run for it, but baseball is a zero-sum game. When one team wins, the other loses. On Tuesday, Elvis Andrus pointed that out to a team it didn’t need pointing out to in an inning that will live on inside medical files long and GIFs long after the Padres’ season officially ends. For Andrus and the Rangers they hope this is only the beginning. For the Padres, well, they stopped reading a long time ago.