Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Nationals v. Braves: a baseball "morality play"

Last night, I got to see a bit of (major league) baseball’s morality play, as I went to a Nationals game and saw them reach 30 games over .500.  Columnist George Will would have loved this game.

Baseball seems the test laboratory for balancing the idea of individual performance against team play. Last night proved the point. The walk-off winning run scored in the bottom of the 13th  inning when pinch hitter Chad Tracey hit an ordinary ground ball to second baseman Dan Uggla.  On first was utility catcher Kurt Suzuki, who had reached on a Baltimore chop base hit, and Danny Espinosa had raced to third.  (Power hitter Ramos, the normal catcher, is out for the year with a knee injury.)  On Tracey’s grounder, Espinosa broke for the plate. Uggla’s brain froze, first wondering if he could get Espinosa (he could have with a perfect throw), or should try for the double play? But, twenty feet from  first base, Suzuki  stopped and froze, making Uggla take another half-second to make up his mind. Suzuki’s quiet distracting maneuver was as deadly as getting the opposition in a Chess endgame.  He made Uggla, in zugzwang, do something.  Uggla’s normal biologically conditioned reflexes were short-circuited, and  he dropped the ball trying to get out of his glove. There was no play at all.  Original reports of an error were incorrect, as Uggla wasn’t even charged with an error. (Watch the MLB video here.)
This may have seemed like a game where home-field advantage and walk-off were critical.  Perhaps so. But earlier this year, the Yankees had won a game here with a similar stunt on the bases on a potential double play ball, leading to a four-run inning.  Good teams win games with the little things as much as with slugging and homers.  Good teams get opposing teams to commit more errors, both physical and mental.
The game had been delayed by 56 minutes, with only a sprinkle.  The Nationals didn’t want their pitchers distracted by delays, and management is getting more careful about how wet grounds can lead to injuries.  As it turned out, Jordan Zimmerann (the “John the Baptist” of Tommy John patients) was ineffective, being taken out after five innings, his pitches staying too high.  Braves ace Tim Hudson survived shaky first and was mowing the Nats down.  The Nats would have to get him out of the game.  The Braves had the advantage of having used fewer players and pitchers in the extra innings – again, a teamwork thing.  But this one defensive “mistake”, induced by clever base running, changed everything.

We saw some more “teamwork” earlier when Bryce Harper (no more “clown questions,” please, about underage drinking) tried to beat out a bunt, just after Hudson came out.  He even gave notice. 

I’m thinking of returning to some occasional competitive chess.  I’m impressed by how much World Senor Master talks about teamwork among connected pawns and multiple minor pieces (especially the “two bishops”) in assessing the chances in a position in his new book on chess openings (Books blog July 3, 2012).

Update: Aug. 28:

No, baby, Adam LaRoche's fly ball off the top of the scoreboard railing Sunday in Philadelphia PA was not a homer.  Jayson Werth, of all people, should have known better. Surely, all of these players experienced "ground rule" issues playing neighborhood ball as boys.  As kids, when we made our back yards into "stadiums", we argued over ground rules all the time.  Some kids didn't realize that a ball caught on a carom off the wall  (like the brick side of a house) without hitting the ground is not an out.  We often used shrubbery hedges as outfield fences.  Was a ball that grazed the top of a hedge a homer or a ground rule double?

Last picture: Minor league ballpark in Richmond, VA.

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