The Inning That Was Everything Baseball

You’re in a pickle, see. The Devil wants to take your soul, and he’s pretty intent on doing it, but he’ll leave you be on one condition: in the span of one hour, you are to teach him everything there is to understand about the game of baseball. Up to this point the game’s been over his head, and he’d like to know what it’s all about, but he also has only so much patience, especially with you. If you can convey to him that special essence of the sport, you’re free to go, spared an eternal damnation. If not, you lose. You know what’s at stake. Of course you do. Your mind races.

Or, your mind would’ve raced. Before Wednesday, before Game 5 between the Rangers and the Blue Jays. You would’ve thought about explaining the rules. You would’ve thought about reviewing certain eras, and certain Hall-of-Fame players. You would’ve thought about going through the physical motions. But now — now — this is an easy situation to fix. You show the Devil Game 5’s seventh inning. He’s gotta have the Internet somewhere. You show him the entirety of the seventh inning, from start to finish. When it’s done, and the second bench-clearing incident is broken up, you’ve got six minutes to take questions.

We were so close. We’re all so lucky. We came terrifyingly close to a playoff series being decided like this:

That’s how a 2-2 game became a 3-2 game. Not immediately, but after review. You’ve probably never seen something like this. Precious few people have. Jeff Banister was an exception:

“I’ve been involved in that play before. I’ve done that play before,” said Banister, a former Minor League catcher. “I’ve done that exact play as a catcher where I’ve actually thrown it off of the hitter’s hand/bat before, so I was aware of the rule.”

Rougned Odor was eventually awarded home. If the Ranger defense and bullpen had preserved the lead, Jays fans would’ve complained about this for months. Years, maybe. On the one hand, Odor was going to be safe no matter what — he broke almost immediately. No one would’ve thrown him out. But on the other, the ball was called dead, and Odor hadn’t scored yet, and that’s usually all you need to know. You could argue the Jays should’ve been spared the run on a technicality. We could’ve been talking about technicalities.

Beyond even any interpretation of rules, it would’ve just been utterly unsatisfying. That’s not how you want to see a series decided. If it came to that, we might’ve all settled on just giving Odor credit for heads-up baserunning, because not everyone would’ve gone for it, and perhaps that would’ve worked. At the end of the day, Russell Martin did make a mistake. And Odor got him for it. It’s just, that’s not really a talent mistake. It’s the manifestation of randomness. It just would’ve been stupid. A stupid way to have to talk about an overall enjoyable series.

Do you know what that made me do? For the first time in my life, I was left clicking around on MLB.tv for examples of other catcher throws back to the mound. It’s a part of the game I don’t think I’ve thought about deeply once. Not ever. And I’ve been writing about this crap for 13 years. Martin’s throw hit Shin-Soo Choo’s bat. There’s no arguing that. The umpires determined Choo didn’t do anything intentionally — he was just going through his usual routine.

choo-yes

What’s funny is, here’s Martin returning the ball in the same game, with Choo at the plate:

choo-no

All of them, different. In none of those do we see Choo’s bat positioned as it was in the then-fateful play. My point here isn’t that Choo did do it on purpose. It was a total fluke. But, maybe some frustrated fans would’ve tried to use this as evidence to the contrary. It all would’ve haunted people. This nonsense, this potentially decisive nonsense, that as far as I know didn’t happen at any other point in 2015. I ache to just think about this having been the end of things.

Oh, and, lest you forget, it all could’ve been even more annoying! Long before the seventh ever happened, the Rangers had an earlier lead. In the second, Troy Tulowitzki batted with two on and none out, and this was the full-count pitch:

tulo-pitch

Tulowitzki was called out on strikes. He should’ve been issued a walk. With the strikeout, the Blue Jays’ odds of winning dropped to 48%. With a walk, they would’ve jumped to 62%. It was the third-lowest called strike to Tulowitzki of the season. Easily the lowest with two strikes already. Shortly thereafter, an even worse strike call was made against Adrian Beltre, but the stakes were a lot lower then. I don’t want to dwell on this. But, for a while, this was definitely at risk of being dwelt on. The Jays didn’t catch up until the sixth, and this strikeout damaged a promising rally. There are few things less satisfying than complaining about a strike zone. It’s a bad look, and it makes no one feel better.

For several innings, a bad strike call loomed large. Then that got buried by maybe the flukiest of all possible fluke plays. A play you wouldn’t have even imagined given 50 years of quiet contemplation alone in a room. The series was at risk of a wholly unsatisfying conclusion, a conclusion seemingly based on something other than on-field performance. And then, starting right then, the series was decided by on-field performance. There are few questions about the quality of the Rangers’ performance.

Bottom 7. Groundball, up the middle. Elvis Andrus closed his glove too early.

andrus-1

No matter — another groundball, this time to first. Mitch Moreland spiked a throw to second. Andrus couldn’t pick it.

andrus-2

Called for a bunt, to move them up. The bunt went toward third, where a drawn-in Adrian Beltre pounced. He turned to get the lead runner. Andrus dropped the throw.

andrus-3

He just dropped it. The throw was good, and on time, and he dropped it. I don’t know why. I mean, I know why — his glove wasn’t in the right place. He closed it wrong. I don’t know why that happened. I don’t know why this time, of all times, Elvis Andrus forgot how to catch a baseball. It’s tempting, maybe, to want to play armchair psychiatrist, because the sequence didn’t make Andrus look too good, but then that’s trying to find an easy explanation for something that took place a few minutes after the Rangers scored the go-ahead run because the catcher threw the baseball off a baseball bat in between pitches. Andrus dropped a baseball, after not picking a baseball, after not fielding a baseball. The best explanation I have is that it was a baseball game.

An out at home later, Sam Dyson got one of the results he wanted from Josh Donaldson. With the bases loaded and the Rangers still protecting the lead, Dyson got Donaldson to pop up. Odor hesitated. Then he backpedaled. He backpedaled not quite far enough.

odor-misplay

He should’ve made the catch, and he should’ve made the catch look easy, and while the Rangers did get a force out on the play, a run still scored. It was an altogether astonishing defensive collapse, roping in three different infielders to make four mistakes in the span of five batters. How devastating was everything together, for Texas? Below, some Blue Jays win probabilities. On the left, actual win probabilities, and on the right, what the win probabilities would’ve been had the defense been able to turn the expected play.

Blue Jays Real and Would-Be Win Expectancies
Event Jays WE% Would-be event Jays WE% Difference
1st Andrus error 44% Out at 1st 31% -13%
Moreland error 55% Out at 2nd 36% -18%
2nd Andrus error 69% Out at 3rd 44% -25%
Odor misplay 59% Pop-out 40% -18%

The first error caused a swing of 13 percentage points. You can figure the rest out from there. It was a crippling defensive performance, needlessly extending the inning, and one of the downsides of that is that sometimes you accidentally extend the inning into a Jose Bautista at-bat. The Blue Jays were given six outs to play with. When Bautista came up, they’d been through five.

That’s the iconic moment, by the iconic player, with the iconic bat flip. That is how the series was decided. It was decided on that swing, only made possible by the defensive misplays preceding it. The analyst in me wants to point out that Bautista was in a good spot, being one of the league’s most extreme fly-ball hitters against one of the league’s most extreme groundball pitchers. That’s a match-up that’s been shown to work to the hitter’s advantage. But actual analysis feels weird in a game and inning like this. Analysis took a back seat over the course of an hour. Baseball happened on its own, achieving the ultimate climax above. Everything that led up to the swing built the foundation for one of the most famous home runs in Blue Jays history.

The benches cleared. In one of the most emotional baseball games I’ve ever seen, the benches cleared, moments after Bautista returned to his own dugout. They cleared because Dyson misinterpreted a gesture by Edwin Encarnacion, who was trying to get his own fans to stop throwing things on the field. Oh, by the way, after Odor scored the go-ahead run in the top of the seventh, the fans started throwing things on the field. All the players milled around, and then action resumed, and then the inning was over, and then the benches cleared again. They cleared because Tulowitzki misinterpreted a gesture by Dyson, who was just giving him a tap on the butt.

I think the two teams were tense.

To the Rangers’ credit, they never gave up, however easy as it might’ve been to just curl up and surrender following the bottom of the seventh. On the other side of an absolute nightmare, the Rangers tried to rally, tried to re-write the story another time. With a couple baserunners, they pulled themselves up off the mat. The eighth, of course, came down to Andrus.

Let’s call it what it was — a perfect slider. Andrus had worked Roberto Osuna decently well in the at-bat, but then Osuna threw that pitch, and there wasn’t much for Andrus to do. Osuna executed better. Andrus was a victim of the circumstance. But that’s not going to make Andrus feel any better. Watch almost any Rangers offensive highlight, and somewhere toward the end you’re likely to see Andrus grinning and congratulating teammates outside the dugout. He might be the happiest player in the organization. Right now, there’s not a player in baseball who feels lower than him. It’ll pass, but it’s a hell of a burden.

The Andrus strikeout might as well have been the game. It was the Rangers’ last gasp, following an inning that people everywhere would’ve understood, even if they’d never seen baseball before. You didn’t need to know the game to know what was going on; if anything, prior knowledge of the game was a bit of a detriment. Show that seventh inning to a person from rural Mongolia and the individual would be able to follow just by connecting to all the emotions the players were wearing on the surface. The emotions told the story as well as the baseball could.

The seventh inning made the difference, the whole difference, and it was everything baseball. Everything you’ve ever experienced with the game was present in there in some form. The seventh inning was emotional. It was unpredictable. It was inexplicable. It was stupid. It was heart-breaking. It was electrifying. It was delayed. It was hectic. It was dramatic. It was pedantic. It was cruel. It was memorable. It was amazing. There’s never going to be another game like that one. Which makes it the perfect representation of the sport.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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and I missed it all because i've been stuck at work since 7am EDT yesterday
Guest
and I missed it all because i've been stuck at work since 7am EDT yesterday

!

Dave
Guest
Dave

Even knowing what happened it’s worth watching that inning over, and over, and over, and…

and I missed it all because i've been stuck at work since 7am EDT yesterday
Guest
and I missed it all because i've been stuck at work since 7am EDT yesterday

I’m thinking this is the classic “ESPN Instant Classic”

and I missed it all because i've been stuck at work since 7am EDT yesterday
Guest
and I missed it all because i've been stuck at work since 7am EDT yesterday

And I’m also thinking that I might have gotten a few more minutes of sleep last night than most of the other commenters here. Wow what a game.

Rodney Strong
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Rodney Strong

This was bad baseball. Why do you enjoy bad baseball w/ such vigor?

free-range turducken
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free-range turducken

Drama. Drama has entertainment value too.

CircleChange11
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CircleChange11

Watching someone or a team self-destruct might be dramatic, but it shouldn’t be “epic” or a game you show someone that represents “baseball”. Most baseball games aren’t the clustermess that game was.

That’s the exact opposite of baseball at its finest.

Jon
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Jon

But it was exciting, and most of all, tense. Like everyone is saying, it was one of the most emotional and tense games I’ve ever seen. That’s why.

Avattoir
Guest
Avattoir

I don’t know that the Rangers “self-destructed”.

Take those 3 Andrus muffs (please). Leave aside the odds preceding 3 straight instances of a ball approaching a MLB infielder towards below his waist (starting, of course, with the Big Bang, yada yada yada, all the way to the bottom of the 7th inning of this 5th and deciding game in effectively MLB’s post-season quarterfinals). What had to happen – in 3 consecutive instances of a ball being batted into play – is that at some point the said ball had to come in towards Andrus, at speed, with some degree of uncertainty, low (the first ball hit his glove positioned below mid-calf, the second about or below the knee, the third below his waist), in a level of stress with which he was at least unused to, on a field unique in MLB (SLOW astroturf), IAE relatively unfamiliar to him, amidst what may have been an unprecedented level of crowd noise, and IN EACH CASE Andrus was compelled by quickly changing & emerging exigent circumstances to manipulate his glove into a suboptimal position, in towards his body, fingers supinated down & in, heel presented outward towards the ball.

Andrus’ fielding stats have been very good over his MLB career. Among those in yesterday’s Rangers line-up, only Beltre – an unquestionably qualified HoFer – has had better career defense WAR. Indeed, in 2 of his 7 years in MLB, Andrus finished in the AL’s Top 10 for defense WAR among all position players, and his career total sits in the mid-20s for all MLB position players.

Assume Andrus makes each of those 3 plays 19 times in 20, a .950 fielding rate. I actually think that’s easily too high, certainly once we take into all the circumstances pertaining in The Home Half of The 7th of THE Inning ™. Nonetheless, at 1 in 20 this is basically Yahtzee. Anyone who’s played Yahtzee for any time has had a Yahtzee: a Yahtzee is when in a single role of five 6-sided standard dice, all 5 come up showing the same number of dots (five 1s, five 6s, etc). 1 in 20, 3 straight times, is 1 in 8000 – a bit LOWER than the odds of rolling a Yahtzee.

You or I, anyone, could suggest a narrative for Andrus’s sudden burst of the dropsies. But no matter how compelling that narrative may be or seem, there’s a nontrivial chance less than a Yahtzee that it derived entirely due to chance.