Someone in Cleveland will play any handy version of Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine when the moment moves them. And some wisenheimer’s liable to answer, “It wasn’t Brad Hand in the bottom of the tenth.”
That’s how staggering was the Hand of fate that let the Mets re-tie before winning a 4-3 game the Indians could have put in the safe deposit box Wednesday night.
When at first the relief pitcher looked to have ideas about heading for the plate to back up a possible play, but was caught flatfoot nowhere near first to take a double play-finishing relay throw, a throw that would have meant side retired, game over, the Indians winning, 3-2.
Instead, the tying run scored, and an infield hit later the winning run was driven home. And nobody would have blamed Hand if he wanted to book the first available flight out of New York and maybe out of the country. Maybe all the way to Antarctica.
Roll over Fred Merkle and tell Freddie Lindstrom the news.
No. On second thought, you didn’t see that. And I didn’t say it. Merkle’s Children have suffered enough from the chattering class (or lack thereof). And, from the fans who won’t admit they’d sacrifice their first born in the proverbial New York minute to be for even one nanosecond where Hand was Wednesday night.
Admit it. You know in your heart of hearts that you’d have been where you were supposed to be when Michael Conforto shot that sharp grounder to first. With apologies to Groucho Marx, the play’s so simple a child of five could have done it, right?
So how come you’re out looking for a child of five? Because you know damn well that even highly paid professionals make human mistakes, in baseball games and elsewhere.
They don’t all bring down the wrath of the gods, or at least the ghosts of Mickey Owen and Bill Buckner. But when they do, you know damn well, Joe and Jane Fan, that you’re thanking God it wasn’t you making a seven-million-dollar fool of yourself. Because in your real heart of hearts, you don’t know that you wouldn’t have made the same in-the-moment misjudgment.
So don’t even think about Hand’s mishap costing the Indians their postseason shot. Any more than left fielder Oscar Mercado’s error in Tuesday night’s loss. For one thing, the Twins also lost Wednesday night, meaning the Indians didn’t lose precious American League Central ground, either, and remained half a game in possession of the AL’s first wild card.
Just like with Merkle’s Giants in 1908, there were plenty of other games the Indians could have won to make the difference. And, unlike with Buckner’s Red Sox, it wasn’t the point where Tribal Nation could forget there’s still a World Series Game Seven to play.
For another thing, the Indians were playing with blasting caps already when—with one out and Mets shortstop Amed Rosario on third, after his leadoff double prompted second baseman Joe Panik to sacrifice him deftly—the Tribe decided to put Pete Alonso, the Mets’ Rookie of the Year candidate bombardier and the potential winning run, aboard on the house.
Every relevant paragraph in the traditional Book says you don’t put the potential winning run aboard on the house. Especially when your pitcher is a strikeout machine of a sort with 76 punchouts in 51 innings and Alonso remains prone to the strikeout. But to the Indians it makes perfect sense, because Alonso can still win the game with one swing. He’s done it before, he could do it again, and Hand’s money pitch, his slider, hasn’t been working quite right for a short while.
So you pitch to Conforto, the Mets right fielder, a lefthanded hitter who’s hitting only .224 lifetime against lefthanded pitching. Even with 22 home runs against the portsiders while he’s at it, the odds now stack in Hand’s and the Indians’ favour.
And Hand on 0-1 served Conforto a near-perfect pitch to whack onto the ground, the ball bounding up to Indians first baseman Carlos Santana, whose two-out solo homer off Mets reliever Luis Avilan in the top of the tenth broke the two-all tie that ultimately compelled the extra inning in the first place.
The grounder did pull Santana away from the pad at first, but almost no one but Santana knew he had no thought about throwing home and every thought about trying for the game-ending double play. Hand knew going in that the last thing the Indians wanted was Rosario coming home to tie the score again.
“I wasn’t looking at the runner,” he told reporters after the game. “I didn’t see if he was breaking right away. Obviously, a one-run game, you can’t let that run score right there. I thought maybe he could’ve gone home.”
Hand probably wasn’t alone thinking Santana might throw home with Rosario running on contact. Hence his initial two steps or so down from the mound toward the plate, away from the first base side just so, knowing he’d have to be there as a helpmate on any play at the plate.
But then he saw what didn’t happen.
“I kind of stopped, expecting him to throw it home,” the lefthander said. “But once he wasn’t throwing it home, I didn’t have a chance to get over [to first base].”
Even Indians manager Terry Francona, whose employees once included Mickey Callaway, his former pitching coach now the Mets’ manager, thought Santana should have gone home. “With a lefty on the mound,” Francona said after the game, “you’re not going to be able to get over there. So once he can’t get back, there’s nobody else there to take the throw.”
Santana threw perfectly to second, where Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor took the ball as Alonso dropped into what looked like an exercise-in-futility slide and pivoted slightly to make the relay throw. Except that Lindor saw what everyone else in Citi Field saw.
Who’s on first?!?
He completed his motion with the ball still in his throwing hand. He probably needed smelling salts right on the spot. Santana bent over to avoid being skulled by the relay throw that wasn’t, while Hand’s realisation that the play wasn’t going to the plate meant him arriving several steps short of Santana, never mind first base, where Conforto hit the pad cleanly as Rosario scored.
None of the Indians’ infielders believed what just happened. Third baseman Jose Ramirez—whose sixth-inning RBI triple tied the game at two—sank into a crouch of disbelief. Lindor and second baseman Jason Kipnis looked as though they didn’t know what to think. Santana looked for the moment as though he was afraid to think.
Kipnis, who was too far toward second base to think about trying to cover first, said after the game he thought Hand believed Santana would go home, too. “I haven’t looked at it. My job is to kind of hover and clean up the mess,” he said. “I’m over a little bit, but I’ve never covered first for a double play in nine years. Granted, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen.”
The Mets couldn’t believe what just happened. They thought one and all that Conforto’s sharp grounder meant they were dead ducks for the night. “Off the bat, I was like, yeeeek!” Davis admitted. “You hold your breath.”
All night before the tenth inning the Indians and Mets played a kind of cat-and-mouse against each other. Magnified when it became a bullpen game too early after Mets starter Marcus Stroman left after four because of an unexpected hamstring issue. Amplified when Indians starter Adam Plutko opened with three perfect innings before dodging first and second in the fourth, before running into back-to-back one-out RBI doubles (Mets center fielder Juan Lagares and pinch-hitter Luis Guillorme) in the fifth.
After Hand’s misread on the double play that wasn’t, Mets catcher Wilson Ramos beat out a squibbler up the third base line that Hand pounced upon like a cat who’d let the mouse escape once but wasn’t going to let that happen again. Except that even he couldn’t stop even the speedless Ramos from making first safely.
Then it was Davis, whom Hand opened 0-2 on a called strike and a foul off. By his own admission Davis lives for such counts. He relishes the battle back from up against the wall. That much could be said for these Mets, who put themselves up against the wall in most of the season’s first half but put themselves there more than once (Hi! We’re the Mets! And we’re crisis junkies!) while rolling to baseball’s best post All-Star break record.
Davis then took balls one through three, all on the inside, climbing the ladder and missing further in each time, before fouling off three straight. Then he nailed Hand’s hanging slider and drove it on a fat hop off the left field wall. Earning himself a jersey shredding near second base similar to Conforto’s after he’d walked one off against the Nationals a week and a half earlier.
“You hit a walkoff,” chirped Alonso, who initiated the ritual with Conforto, “your shirt’s coming off.” Unlike Conforto, though, Davis was well prepared: he had a blue undershirt beneath his jersey in the event he finally nailed his first career game-ending, game-winning hit. “Let the kids play, right?” Callaway chuckled after the game.
Hand came into the game with two blown saves in his four previous chances, one against the Twins to whom the Indians are still keeping American League Central pace, and one against the shaky enough Red Sox. He’s been a solid reliever otherwise, his career-low 2.59 fielding independent pitching rate this season holding hands with his strikeouts as evidence enough overall.
But Hand also has a 1.91 walks/hits per inning pitched rate in his last fifteen games. And questions now arise about whether Hand’s first-half work load hasn’t had a hand in his recent struggles. Francona himself suggests that just might be the case, which doesn’t bode well considering the veteran lefthander is the best talent in a somewhat surprising Indians pen.
“From my side of it, I have to be more consistent in when he’s used,” the skipper said. “The last month he’s been used a ton and then he’ll go six days without pitching. That’s a hard thing to do, but I think that’s where maybe how I can help.” Before Wednesday night, Hand had had five days off between gigs against the Red Sox and the Yankees and two days off between his Yankee gig and Wednesday night.
But Wednesday night had nothing to do with errant breaking balls or mechanical issues or workload issues. Wednesday night turned on an honest mistake in judgment. Even World Series winners make those and survive to win their leases to the Promised Land.
It wasn’t as if Hand just stood pat when Conforto rapped that grounder. He acted on an immediate and viable thought, then stopped on the proverbial dime when the thought proved false, and couldn’t acquit himself in the right direction in time to make the difference Santana hoped to make starting the double play that wasn’t.
Are the Mets the never-say-quit bunch Davis proclaims them to be? They are now. “I’ve been saying it for a while now that this is a special team,” Davis told the New York Post. “We knew it from the beginning of spring training, it was just a matter of time until we hit on all cylinders where our pitching, bullpen, hitting, timely hitting all came together. We’re doing it.”
A matter of time? To Mets fans and just about everyone else it seemed as though it would take forever and a day. This team nearly imploded in May and June. Since the All-Star break they’re baseball’s most unfathomable self-repair, mostly. Some dare think they’re channeling their 1969 forebears.
But they’re still a game and a half away from the second National League wild card even after Wednesday night’s surrealism. And they still have the arguable toughest schedule yet to come of any contender the rest of the way, even if most of it will be played for the home audience. They’re not just going to walk into the postseason if they get there. And they know it.
These Indians, heirs to a legacy at least as star-crossed as the pre-2004 Red Sox, the pre-2016 Cubs, and the pre-2017 Astros, are made of slightly stronger stuff than one human mistake exposes, too. Don’t bite the Hand you fear betrayed you, Tribal Nation. Because we humans all make mistakes. And this one may not cost these Indians as much as you fear.