How to Live the Entire Human Experience in One Inning

Trea Turner
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Every play in a scoreless postseason game is pivotal. The Phillies, despite being the better team on paper with a 1–0 series lead in the bag, could ill afford to give away cheap outs on either side of the ball. Six days ago, Brandon Marsh listed the lessons the team had learned from blowing a lead in Georgia two nights previous: “Put them out of it. Finish the job. Don’t let them climb back in the game.”

Trea Turner committed two errors in that game, the second of which led directly to Atlanta’s first run of the playoffs. It snapped the best offensive team of the regular season back to life and arguably started a stunning comeback that could’ve knocked the Phillies off their axis.

Aaron Nola was excellent in his first two postseason starts of 2023, but he’s been prone to big innings both in this regular season and last year’s playoffs. The last thing he needed was one of the fastest players in the league to reach base and cause trouble.

Nola sped Corbin Carroll’s bat up with two fastballs to start the game, then came back with a knuckle curve on pitch no. 3. Nola’s curveball oozes toward the plate as if traveling through a thicker, tackier medium than air, and it caused trouble for Diamondbacks hitters all night. Carroll did a respectable job making contact, but the breaking ball still fooled him badly enough that he was only able to smack it weakly into the ground.

The ball skipped over the pitcher’s mound, more or less directly at Turner, who sat back on the infield dirt with his hands held just off the ground in expectation of a short hop. What he got instead was an in-between hop that struck him in the abdomen. He kept the ball right in front of him and might’ve had a play on a harder-hit grounder and a slower runner, but Carroll was out of the box in a flash; by the time Turner was in position to throw, he knew there was no point in even trying.

For all the talk of a kinder, more positive era of Philadelphia sports fandom, the trauma of 120 years of persistent disappointment does not disappear with one trick play in the Super Bowl. The deafening, baleful racket that greeted Nola and Carroll on first pitch receded a little at this inauspicious omen.

So far, 279 different players have appeared in the field this postseason and committed a total of 26 errors. Four of those have been Turner’s; Framber Valdez is the only player with more than one. Four errors in eight games is roughly halfway to Roger Peckinpaugh territory, and Turner’s glove has let him down already this season.

We all remember the now-famous standing ovation that served as a watershed moment in Turner’s campaign, but the proximate cause of that event was a crushing extra-inning loss in Miami. In that game, a potential game-ending grounder ate him up and allowed the Marlins to tie the game.

Turner was asked about his defense in a pregame press conference.

“I think I can always get better at a lot of things. I’m kind of a little bit of a perfectionist,” he said. “You make errors, and they’re errors for a reason, but you’re like, ‘Ah, I can make that play, I can make this play.’ For me, it’s more taking pride in getting outs for your pitchers. That’s where I feel the most responsibility. I don’t care if I make an error. It’s more that I could have got them out of that inning faster or [with] fewer pitches or get them another batter, whatever it may be.”

This time, his pitcher picked him up. Nola retired the next three batters without any undue fuss, and Carroll never advanced. It was the first of six exquisite scoreless innings from the veteran righthander. And as the no. 2 hitter, Turner would have his chance to make amends soon enough.

On Monday, Philadelphia took the lead on the very first pitch in the bottom of the first inning. This time, Merrill Kelly avoided the open manhole Zac Gallen had stepped into to start the previous evening and retired Kyle Schwarber, bringing Turner to the plate with one out.

The previous night, Gallen had challenged the Phillies’ top power hitters with fastballs in the strike zone, caught too much of the plate twice in the first five pitches, and paid a heavy price. Kelly did not repeat his teammate’s mistake; his first pitch was up and in, but close enough for Turner to swing at it … and lose his bat. He’d done it in Game 1, too, pitching it all the way over the protective netting and into the seats behind third base. This time, the bat stayed on the field of play, but Turner returned to the dugout for a liberal dose of grip spray. He’d been involved in two pitches so far, and if he’d covered his hands in olive oil before the game, the results would not have been much different to that point.

On the second pitch of the at-bat, Kelly messed up. An inside cutter wandered a little too far over the plate, and finally Turner got a hold of something: a mortar shot into left center, 109.6 mph off the bat and 421 feet long. What error?

“Getting that first run across the board is big in the postseason,” Turner said after the game. “It eases the dugout a little bit. We don’t care who does what, we just want to score some runs.”

That they did. Kelly managed to keep Arizona in the game, but the Phillies went berserk against the Diamondbacks’ bullpen, adding four runs each in the sixth and seventh. For his part, Turner added two walks and an additional single after his home run and recorded four more fielding chances without incident.

The late breakout served to assuage fears that the Phillies had been too reliant on home runs and were leaving men on base. (I’d counter that this was a nitpick of a team that’s hitting so many home runs, and pitching so well, that the long ball alone was more than enough to live on.) But it also allowed the Phillies to reach that often-sought but seldom-achieved state of total control over a game.

“When you have the lead, just ending it as fast as you can, getting it out of hand, I think that’s big,” Turner said. “Not giving that hope back to the other side. Last night, we kind of opened the door for them a little bit. We did a good enough job to win, but it’s definitely more fun or easier mentally when you win like that.”

By the time the Phillies had chased the Diamondbacks off into the night in disorder, Turner’s first-inning error was a distant memory. So are his earlier defensive struggles, because he is hitting as well as anyone on the planet right now. He leads all players this postseason in hits (with 15; nobody else has more than 10), doubles, and stolen bases. He has the best batting average among players who made it to the divisional round, the second-best OBP (behind Corey Seager), and the second-best slugging percentage (behind Yordan Alvarez).

One of the reasons I love baseball is its relentless emotional brutality. It’s a game of mistakes, of defeat: both routine failures and glaring, backbreaking errors. There is nowhere to hide and no easy exit to take when things go wrong. This is not a sport for optimists, but rather a constant reminder that everything good can and will eventually turn to ash in your mouth. No matter how hard you work, no matter how talented you may be, you will fail frequently.

The unceasing demands of baseball, and its limitless potential to deliver failure, conversely offer something wonderful: Equally limitless opportunity for redemption. There is always another ball to be fielded, another meaty fastball to square up. Survive enough failure, and eventually you might suffocate it with triumph.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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DDmember
4 months ago

Small correction – the 4 run innings were the 6th and 7th.

I’d agree that watching Turner make a mistake is almost surprising to Phillies fans, as he’s been incredible overall for a few months now. On the other side, I’ve noticed how Bohm’s solid defense thus far has overshadowed a really frustrating performance at the plate – he’s had more angry bat and helmet slams than hits this postseason. Even in a rout, seeing him smack an RBI double into the gap had to feel really good for him.