Sports tactics are easier to judge after the fact, of course, and I am not a big-league lifer, so take this with a grain of salt. Still, I can’t help but imagine that in years to come, when members of the 2015 Los Angeles Dodgers reflect on this season, they will shake their heads sadly, look into the middle distance, and agree with this assessment. Down to their final out in an elimination game probably was the wrong moment for Don Mattingly to make Howie Kendrick spin around 20 times before going up to bat.
The Dodgers were in a bleak spot—down a run, nobody on—when fire-breathing Mets closer Jeurys Familia blew away A.J. Ellis for the next-to-last out, but it wasn’t a hopeless one. The random fluctuation of the universe spits out inexplicable, odds-defying baseball runs all the time, provided the next guy up doesn’t step into the hitter’s box with a white flag at the end of his bat. They needed one completely mundane, regular-ass plate appearance, of the sort any ol’ workaday batsman churns out by the hundreds each season—the sort Kendrick himself put up plenty of times just in this series—and a dash of the kind of mundane, regular-ass good fortune that turns more than a quarter of those plate appearances into base-runners. They needed a pitch to hit, and a stubborn hitter who wouldn’t give away their last chance to make a pitcher throw it.
And here came Howie Kendrick. Stay back, Howie. Be ready for the fastball. Lay off the slider. Stay back. Stay back ...
... or, what the hell, why not just helicopter yourself into the night sky at a slider that bounces in the left-hand batters’ box?
When a batter swings at this pitch in a two-strike count, you wince, but you also shrug: He has to try to put his bat on anything that looks like it might be a strike in that situation, however briefly it looks like one, and however lousy a pitch it might be to swing at. It’s how swinging strikeouts happen, and it’s what hard sliders are for. When a batter swings at this pitch in a zero-strike count, when he does not have to do anything at all and can take a pass on anything but the exact pitch he’s looking for, Rob Manfred slips the Blackberry out of his jacket pocket and schedules a “random” drug test.
Really, when you think about it, spiking the ball like football players do after touchdowns was a pretty badass move by Familia. Dude’s celebrating the win before it even happens! That takes considerable chutzpah. I can imagine that being pretty intimidating to a hitter. Still, it was only 0-1; in baseball, that’s an unlocked door.
Okay, Howie, okay. You fucked up, you’re behind, he can throw what he wants, but you’re not out of it yet. Don’t get antsy. The catcher’s probably calling for another slider here, asking Familia to waste one in the dirt and see if you’ll take another hack at it. He bounced the last one to Laguna Beach, so maybe he doesn’t have his best control; if he misses again, he might miss over the plate and serve you up a nice fat one to hit.
Stay back. Be ready for him to groove it. Be ready to sock it into the gap if he does, and lay off it if he doesn’t. Stay back. See the ball first. See the ball. See the ball. Here it comes OH WAIT FUCK IS THAT THE HEATER—
Nope. That was the slider. The grooved slider. That was the nice fat one to sock into the gap. And it missed poor Howie Kendrick’s bat like he was swinging a shoelace at it.
Even Jeurys Familia was like, “What the fuck, man. I gave you that one.” Look at his expression!
“Howie. Bruh. C’mon.”
Well, shit. At 0-2, Familia would not have to take another chance with a slider anywhere near the strike zone; he had three free chances to get strike three without offering anything good to hit; and he hadn’t even thrown his fastball yet, to say nothing of the devastating mid-90s splitter he added to his repertoire in August. The only thing for poor Howie Kendrick to do at this point was go down with dignity. In forensic engineering terms, that swing and miss would be called a “catastrophic failure”: the sudden moment when recovery became impossible.
The custom is, one does not stand and watch the last strike of the season with the bat on one’s shoulder. On a human level no one could blame Kendrick if he’d decided to trade his bat in for a blindfold and cigarette at this point, but—at least in the technical sense, even though the path around the bases might just as well have been a canoe ride to the Moon—it’s still just a single run; passivity in the face of it is unromantic, if nothing else. And hey, maybe if he planted his feet and corkscrewed himself into the ground, the sheer stubborn optimism of it—They may take our lives, but they’ll never take ... our freedom!—would be worth something to posterity.
Fine. That’s all good. Don’t go down with the bat on your shoulder. Choke up and go down with a man-sized cut. Affirm life. Don’t stand and watch strike three with the season on the line ...
... but, for chrissakes Howie, maybe lay off ball one?
Top photo via Getty