Before the National League Division Series, Giants outfielder Michael Morse met with manager Bruce Bochy and the team’s brass to talk about his spot on the team. He felt good. His oblique was finally healthy. He’d been taking full swings in batting practice. He was ready to go.
There was one problem. “I didn’t have enough at-bats,” Morse said after the Giants won Game Five of the National League Championship Series and emerged as NL champions Thursday night. “For me, I wouldn’t feel comfortable at the plate.”
And so Morse headed south to the instructional leagues. And the prospects down there gave him the business, as good as they could. “They were throwing in the 90s. Curveballs, sliders, everything,” Morse said. “Yeah, they busted me inside, too.”
And so, even if they weren’t major league at-bats, a week’s worth of practice was enough to get back on the roster. But with Travis Ishikawa playing well enough for Bochy, Morse was relegated to the bench.
Morse didn’t hold it against his teammate. In fact, after Game Five, he was emotional when asked about Ishikawa filling in and starting in left field. “I wouldn’t want anybody else to fill in,” he said. “This guy, he’s been incredible since the day he got here. His attitude, he’s really helped us out. And man, he’s just a great, great guy in the clubhouse. His story just keeps getting better and better.”
But starting is different than coming off the bench. As third base coach Tim Flannery said after the game: “It’s the hardest job in baseball, especially when you haven’t got a lot of at-bats.” Whatever Morse was supposed to do, it was going to be significantly worse as a pinch-hitter.
Steamer projects him to have a .321 wOBA going forward, and with the penalty, that would drop to .307. That’s what light-hitting Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar put up this year, as a comparison. Considering the right-handed slugger was facing Pat Neshek, a righty with a funky arm slot that would be tougher on righties, you would have projected him for even lower production in that one at-bat. Given their projected strikeout rates (22.6% and 24.8% for the pitcher and hitter, respectively), Morse should have struck out about 27% of the time.
Morse knew much of this. “If there’s one guy in that bullpen I didn’t want to face, this whole series, it was him,” he said after the game. “Righty-righty matchup, very tough with his sinker and slider.”
And so Morse went into his routine as a pinch-hitter, trying to prepare himself as best as he could for the moment. “You’ve got to micromanage,” Morse said of the runup to his at-bat. “See how the game is going on… see how many pitches Bum had and where in the lineup he was coming.” Once he figured that it would be Neshek, he went down into the batting cage.
In the cage, he asked for sinkers and sliders. He warmed himself up. “I had our BP guys throwing a little sidearm, kind of like what he does, to simulate,” Morse said of Neshek’s delivery. And he steeled himself, because it was a big moment. “For Bochy to, in that moment, trust me to go out there and take our ace out of the game, I told myself, `You can’t waste this at-bat. This has got to be a good one.'”
The first sinker was way in. “I just tried to get something over the plate,” Morse said. “I knew his sinker was going to run in, so I was just trying to see it over the plate.” The second was too low to make solid contact, though. Now with an even count, perhaps Neshek felt he needed to come over the plate.
Even with the third pitch where it was, Morse said he wasn’t thinking homer: “He threw a slider, and I just tried to touch it.” And touch it, he did, tying the game with a home run that went 369.9 feet, along the left field line where AT&T park is 364 feet deep.
“This guy has not had but a few at-bats in the last month, and for him to do what he did, it doesn’t get any more clutch than that,” said manager Bruce Bochy after the game. “When he came in high-fiving everyone, I thought he was going to break some hands. He plays with a lot of emotion and he saved us.”
It might have been a little hard to take the slugger seriously about his intentions to just touch the ball, given his penchant for silliness and the situation in which the post-game interview was being given.
But why take it too seriously? The man had just come off the bench against a funky delivery, in a righty-on-righty matchup, against one of the best relievers in the game. And Morse succeeded. Improbably.
Now it’s the time to enjoy. “I’m going to go back on video and keep watching this one over and over,” he said with a beer-drenched smile.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.