To err is human . . . and ties a Wild Series

Brett Phillips hits the single heard ’round the world Friday night in the ninth . . .

The unhappiest place on earth Saturday night simply had to be wherever Kenley Jansen, Chris Taylor, and Will Smith were after World Series Game Four ended. If you still find them there today, please resist the temptation to pound pairs of goat horns onto their heads. No matter how many real, aspiring, or alleged prose poets insist on leading you there.

Until further notice—and the way this Wild Series is rounding, bumping, and stumbling into shape, further notice could come as soon as Game Five—Jansen, Taylor and Smith were the three most deeply wounded or sick men on the planet who aren’t suffering COVID-19. They don’t need gasoline poured onto the flames inside their souls, even if Jansen might be more worthy of a critique than Taylor and Smith.

But Brett Phillips may also have been the single highest young man on the planet who needed no alcohol or marijuana to get there, among a crowd of Tampa Bay Rays teammates who probably thought they were somewhere near Phillips’s cloud after what he triggered in the bottom of the ninth.

“The Rays are going to ask for the biggest hit in the life of Brett Phillips,” purred Fox Sports play-by-play man Joe Buck, just before Jansen turned and delivered on 1-2. Nobody says Jansen intended to help Phillips answer in the affirmative. And Phillips, the Floridian who grew up a Rays fan in the first place, wanted nothing more than a simple line-moving base hit.

The ones you should feel for truly are Taylor and Smith. Jansen got into trouble not just by failing to make the pitch that ended up ending Game Four but by failing almost inexplicably to back up home plate, when his proper presence might have choked the Rays off at the pass enough to send the game to extra innings instead of an 8-7 Dodgers loss. Might.

The husky righthander intended anything but throwing Phillips a grapefruit to line softly but surely past the Dodgers’ right-side infield shift and into right center field for a base hit when the Rays were down to their final strike and a 3-1 Series deficit, with Clayton Kershaw looming to start Game Five.

But Taylor didn’t see the ball shoot off Phillips’s bat intending to let it carom off the fingers of his glove when he ran in to play the hop and had his eye just long enough on Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier rounding third that he cheated himself out of a clean play. And Taylor didn’t hit his cutoff man Max Muncy past first base with a perfect strike just so Muncy’s relay down the line to Smith could bounce off the edge of Smith’s mitt at the split second the catcher began turning to make a sweeping tag at the plate—unaware that trail runner Randy Arozarena wasn’t even close to scoring yet.

Smith certainly didn’t intend for Muncy’s relay to ricochet behind his right side and all the way to the track behind the plate area. He simply didn’t see Arozarena tripping into a tumblesault halfway down the third base line, scrambling back toward third, before realising the ball escaped in the first place.

“Obviously, Will can’t see that Arozarena fell,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts postgame. “Unfortunately, it was like that ‘unperfect’ storm. Just unfortunate.” The manager may have his flaws, but understatement isn’t one of them. This “unperfect” storm became a tsunami in almost a blink.

Arozarena recovered, dove, and pounded his hand on the plate nine times before he finally stood up with his team the winner. That ball might never have gone all the way back, though, if Jansen had backed up the plate the way pitchers are trained to a fare-thee-well to do.

Instead of saving the Dodgers’ hides and sending Game Four to extra innings, perhaps, Jansen inexplicably went toward the third base line almost in a jog. He stood next to it as Smith finished the ball-less sweep tag on a runner yet to arrive, and only as Arozarena finally shot toward the plate as Smith scampered back in a futile bid to retrieve the ball did Jansen run toward the plate.

Then he ran past it, and around the back of it while Arozarena landed with the winning run. He probably wanted to run through the clubhouse, out of the building, and into that Texas night and oblivion if he could have found it. Instead, Jansen faced the press, credited the hitters for doing their jobs, but couldn’t let himself own the backup lapse.

“Yeah, I mean, you know I tried to see, you know, what could I do,” Jansen said postgame. “I could’ve run a little bit more and then just see the play. But like I say, we came up short today, tomorrow’s another day and we’re going to come out there and give everything we’ve got and try to win ballgames.”

This oft-bruised relief pitcher usually faced up to disaster without flinching or ducking during a too-heavy host of Dodgers postseason calamities past. Now, he couldn’t bring himself at last to admit he’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time, when a little more hustle might have given the Dodgers at least one more inning to play, one more inning to make a Series advantage. Might.

How long before it really sinks in for one and all that the possible most insane finish to any World Series game ever came down to the last man sitting on the Rays’ bench? A guy who’d played in parts of four major league seasons, barely hit above the notorious Mendoza Line, and never hit a game-winning anything until the Rays were down to their final Game Four strike?

“When these guys were in the [2008] World Series,” the happy hero said postgame, “I was in eighth grade watching them. And now to be a part of it, helping these guys win a World Series game, it’s special.”

And how long before the “double Buckner” riffing on social media dissipates? Bad enough the late Bill Buckner was given too many years of unwarranted hell despite his moment of horror meaning only that his Boston Red Sox would get to play a Game Seven. Jansen, Taylor, and Smith’s moments of horror mean only that this Series is tied.

Jansen (74) could barely admit he’d blown it by not backing the plate when Smith lost the relay throw.

Nor was this quite ancient Dodgers catcher named Mickey Owen letting a Game Four-ending strike three become a passed ball, enabling Tommy Henrich to reach first starting a game-winning rally giving the Yankees a 3-1 Series lead instead of tying the Series at two each.

Short memories may be alien to Joe and Jane Fan who often leave you wondering what they crave more, the hero sandwich or a glass of goat’s milk. But they’re absolute requirements for a baseball player’s professional survival, as one reporter surely knew when asking Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner postgame just how that ninth-inning calamity could have happened while describing it in perfect thumbnail.

“You pretty much saw it,” Turner replied with a slightly dazed expression, before repeating the thumbnail in his own words and returning to standard boilerplate: show up, do the work, figure out a way to win tomorrow. Lucky for both teams that there would be a tomorrow.

The Dodgers thought for a moment that they’d send Clayton Kershaw out to the Game Five mound with a 3-1 Series advantage and just nine innings away from the Promised Land at last. Now Kershaw will pitch the biggest game of his life just to break a tie and leave Roberts to ponder whether to go for a bullpen Game Six or shove every one of his chips to the middle of the table with Walker Buehler starting on short rest.

As God and His servant Stengel are my witnesses, I swear to you that Rays manager Kevin Cash didn’t have Taylor misplaying Phillips’s line single or Smith mishandling the relay throw home in mind when he said and meant that, “eventually,” his team would get some bounces going their way.

A-ro-za-rena (as Buck pronounced it while he rounded third), his record-setting bombardier with nine this postseason, after a leadoff deficit-halving launch in the fourth, bouncing back up from that trip-and-tumble to shoot home with the game-winning run? Not even close to a flicker in Cash’s thinking.

“We’d tied the ballgame,” the manager said postgame, “so you’re feeling better, and then you’re sitting there saying, ‘My gosh, can this go any worse?’ There was so much that went through that game right there that I probably don’t even have the best recall right now.”

He did mean things like ten Rays hits including three homers and seven official runs batted in. He did mean bounces on balls the Rays put into play, including the broken-bat balloon shot Kiermaier—whose seventh-inning homer re-tied the game at six—lofted just past onrushing Dodgers second baseman Enrique Hernandez with one out in the ninth.

Maybe the only thing Cash could have predicted was Phillips having the fortitude not to let two strike calls that should have made the count 3-0 and not 1-2 rattle him. Subsequent replays including from straight above showed both those called strikes missing either side of the plate by a yarn thread. Veteran hitters are known to fume, sulk, or scream over such calls.

Phillips didn’t challenge plate umpire Chris Guccione. He didn’t demand immediate accountability from the Elysian Fields archangels. He just reset in the batter’s box, refused to take his eyes off Jansen’s incoming meatball just a little in off the middle at the belt and hit a no-doubt line drive that caught Taylor—moved from left to center field in a seventh-inning double switch—a little too far back before he ran in to play the ball.

The whole thing happened so swiftly it was easy to think that Phillips’s bat flew right out of his hands after he connected, instead of him dropping the bat almost by-the-way as he started running; and, that Smith actually lost the ball when he spun for the tag try. You might clean up at the sports book in the future if you bet on people remembering it just that way.

It might make you forget Turner setting a Series record in the top of the first, when he hit one out for the second straight Series game in the same inning. It might make you forget Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager meeting Arozarena in a five-way tie for the most single-postseason bombs in the third, with a blast so high and far that Rays starting pitcher Ryan Yarbrough didn’t even bother to turn and watch.

It might make you forget Seager tying Arozarena lasted exactly one full inning before Arozarena led off the fourth by hitting Dodgers starter Julio Urias’s first service over the right field fence to stand alone with nine. It might make you forget that the Rays’ oft-saluted bullpen actually had their worst struggle of the Series, after coming into Game Four with a collective ERA under two when taking over for Yarbrough’s games.

It might even make you forget what would have been the most surrealistic play of the night until Phillips hit that soft ninth-inning liner. When Muncy drove Seager home with the third Dodger run, tried advancing to second on the futile throw home, but overslid the base, popped right back up, and stumbled into Rays shortstop Willy Adames, who wrapped his arms around Muncy somehow as the pair fell back—with the ball still in Adames’s glove and Muncy’s foot off the base for the out.

This was also the night the Dodgers set a new single-postseason record by scoring their 54th run on two outs, and a night on which at least one run scored during nine consecutive half-innings, especially in the bottom of the sixth—when Brandon Lowe, whose Game Three looked as though his ferocious postseason slump returned, hit Dodgers reliever Pedro Baez for a three-run homer and the first Rays lead since winning Game Two.

Cash met the postgame press with the kind of wicked grin you expect to see from the joker who just snuck into a swanky cotillion and swiped the most choice bottle of hooch from the wet bar when everyone else was too busy preening to notice. Then a reporter asked him where in the Rays playbook was the play on which you tie and win off a double-ricochet pair of errors.

“We worked on that a lot in spring training over the last couple of years,” Cash said while rubbing the corner of his right eye. “We hadn’t put it in, but I’m glad it was able to play in our favour tonight.” Then he flashed the same hooch-swiping grin with which he started and laughed.

If Jansen, Taylor, and Smith laughed even once in Game Four’s aftermath, it was that they might not weep. For Taylor and Smith, especially, you might want to think about saving a hug for them instead of a slug. There are, after all, two more Series games to play at minimum.

Mortal men on immortal fields show their mortality only too often at the worst possible moments. We should call it being human enough. Unfortunately, in sports, the fans have their own perverse code: to err is human, to forgive is not always fan policy.

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