You knew it as soon as you saw it. It’ll be a play that MLB will try and dine out on for years to come.
If the league office was to draw up how they wanted the playoffs to go down at one point, this would be it. Fernando Tatis Jr., almost certainly the most fun player in the league, a future MVP, and maybe the best hope to draw in the next generation of fans, bidding to take the lead for the Padres in a game they kind of had to have and turn the series. It was setting up to be his Jordan-beating-the-Cavs-89 moment, the first of what hopefully will be many in a triumphant career. A dawning of sorts.
On the other side is the reigning MVP, one of the leading established young stars in Cody Bellinger, who isn’t even really an outfielder, but is so athletic he can not only moonlight in the outfield but excel. Baseball rarely gets a matchup that defines a series, sends a new rivalry into orbit, or provides a highlight that will be looked back on for a decade or more.
Sure, it’ll tell you the pitcher-batter clashes in playoffs before are the same thing, but those tend to happen in the third inning with no one on. They don’t tend to happen with the game on the line, a tipping point in a playoff series, and late in the game.
Of course, the narratives spill on from there and speak to modern baseball. Tatis hit that fly ball off of Brusdar Graterol, who isn’t even supposed to be a Dodger but a Red Sox. But the Sox were so desperate to not be in a position to pay Mookie Betts that they moved him along with the trade to the Dodgers even though Graterol was no longer involved thanks to failing his physical. So he’s pitching in playoff games for the Dodgers while the Red Sox save money. That’s baseball at this moment in time, Suzyn. Are you not entertained?
And then there’s the little spice that Bellinger’s play, the Padres’ frustration, and Graterol’s admittedly over the top celebration for getting his ass bailed out has vaulted this rivalry into the primary one in baseball going forward. Take your Yankees-Red Sox and shove it.
This is the kind of moment that baseball would love to produce more often, but can’t seem to figure out how. You can’t reproduce these kinds of stakes and adrenaline in May and June. But baseball is at its best when there is more than one person tossing a baseball at high velocity. It has athletes all over the field now, and yet they are rendered bystanders for far too long in most games.
At first baseball thought the problem was length of games. Which is why you have limits on mound meetings and pitching changes. But that’s not really it. It thought lack of offense was the problem. So it turned the baseballs into Titleists and watched as every other pitch left the yard. That wasn’t really it either.
Baseball lacks action. It lacks plays like this. You get them maybe once every couple weeks. You get Tatis or Andrelton Simmons performing magic at short once a week. Meanwhile, you see incredible dunks, blocks, passes in the NBA on a nightly basis. Baseball thought it could solve this with more homers, and homers are great, but they don’t involve a lot of movement.
The sport is at its best with multiple things happening. A ball in the gap as runners try to score and fielders try to hit cutoff men and nail runners at home. Outfielders cutting off gaps. Double plays, that sort of thing.
The red-lined velocity of most pitchers and patient approaches of hitters means most baseball games are like watching people trying to get into a concert. Perhaps it’s time for MLB to move the mound back from 60 and six, and give hitters the opportunity to put more balls in play to show what everyone can do.
Last night’s moment, between Bellinger and Tatis, is one of a kind because of the setting. It doesn’t have to be in execution.
Though if you like modern baseball, and the execs would agree with you because it’s making more money than ever, then the A’s-Astros series is for you. Dodger Stadium has apparently been transported to the moon, as the teams combined for seven homers (the A’s had five of them). The teams have combined to hit 18 homers in three games, as now flattening a cardboard cutout in the bleachers is merely holding serve. Both teams have burned through relievers with possibly two games to go, so with fatigued pitchers tossing up frisbees and technicolor yawns, the homers figure to continue.
The problem with splashing $36M per year on one pitcher, as the Yankees did with Gerrit Cole, is he can’t pitch every day. This is the problem the Yankees have run into, as the pips behind Cole have been blistered by the Rays in Games 2 and 3. The Yanks have had to use a fair amount of their pen the past two days, and now have to stay alive in a Game 4 without a starter and using that already slightly charred pen. Jordan Montgomery will get the start with his 5.11 ERA, but will be on a very short leash.
Free agent-to-be Trevor Bauer looks on curiously.