With two outs and the Royals’ Eric Hosmer on third base, the New York Mets were a mere out away from winning Game 5 and forcing the 2015 World Series to move back to the City of Fountains where it began five days earlier.
It was not to be.
With one out, Salvador Perez hit a soft jam-shot ground ball toward shortstop that was cut off by Mets’ third baseman David Wright, who alertly looked at Hosmer before throwing a strike to first baseman Lucas Duda to record the second out of the ninth inning. Though Wright’s pre-throw glance effectively froze Hosmer, it did not deter the Royals’ young superstar: when Wright turned to throw to first, Hosmer broke aggressively for home plate.
By now we know that Duda’s throw – essentially a double play pivot made from first base – missed catcher Travis d’Arnaud by a mile and allowed Hosmer to score the tying run in a game that the Royals would go on to win. The fact that Duda was not credited with the error he deserves can only be explained by the laughably generous scoring so typical of Major League Baseball. Regardless, d’Arnaud didn’t have a chance in hell of catching the ball, let alone applying a tag. Glaringly, a good throw ends the game easily.
Two decades ago, the NCAA began tinkering with bat manufacturing standards in order to temper the ridiculously high scoring games in the College World Series (In 1998, the average number of runs scored at the CWS was 16.1. By 2011 the number was down to 7.2), and to make the game safer for the pitchers and infielders who were in close proximity to hitters using bats that created dangerous ball exit speeds. The result was a bat so dead that virtually no one could hit with power. Run scoring was diminished beyond what the NCAA had anticipated. In fact, in recent years the NCAA began adjusting the official ball in an effort to add more offense back into the game.
Without the ability to hit the ball over the fence, college teams began finding ways to play the game in front of the fence – well in front of the fence. This meant more bunting – both drag and sacrifice – and more steal attempts, in an effort to create panic in the defense, eventually causing the opponent to throw the ball away. In philosophical summation, if you can’t earn your own runs, maybe the defense will hand them to you.
Presumably, Major League bats and balls have remained basically the same for decades, Sammy Sosa’s 2004 corked version notwithstanding. Yet scoring runs at that level is no picnic because the pitching has become so dominating, particularly out of the bullpen where filthy, strikeout breaking balls compliment fastballs that routinely approach, or exceed, 100 MPH. Earl Weaver, who managed the Baltimore Orioles for seventeen seasons with the philosophy of “pitching, defense, and the three-run homer,” had little use for bunting and stealing – so-called “small ball” tactics. He claimed, “On offense, your most precious possessions are your 27 outs.” So, for Weaver, taking chances was foolish baseball. But then again, his teams weren’t facing Matt Harvey and Jeurys Familia.
The Royals did face Familia and his 98 MPH fastball, with Hosmer on third, confident and comfortable with a 3-1 series lead – the worst that could happen to his team was to lose the game and head back to Kansas City with two chances to win in front of their hometown fans. With the bottom of the order approaching, Hosmer took the chance that would have sent Weaver to an early grave. When David Wright threw to first, Hosmer took off, slid headfirst into home, and scored the tying run as Duda’s throw sailed past a diving Travis d’Arnaud and rattled against the backstop.
Casey Stengel once said, “Most games are lost, not won.” I can’t imagine how many hours I’ve spent with amateur players trying to convince them of the importance of good catch play, and trying to find ways to create pressure in practice so that they could execute when it mattered most. Lucas Duda has made that simple 90’ throw from first base to home plate thousands of times in his life. I would bet a fistful of nickels that future pressure, like that applied by Hosmer, will be met with Duda’s confidence and successful execution – we learn more from our failures than our victories, which is why he will be better prepared next time.
Duda’s poor throw may not have cost the Royals the Series, but it certainly didn’t help. Under a spotlight, Game 5 boiled down to a simple game of catch executed poorly by great player. And while I believe it should be executed perfectly every time by a player of Duda’s caliber, I can tell you it’s not that easy when something is on the line. Each of us who has been critical of Duda’s throw should have the same opportunity. Only then would the average fan begin to understand how hard the game can be to play. Funny: while ESPN floods its broadcasts with highlights of towering home runs, it is often the little things that mean the most.
Play catch. Play catch well. Play catch under pressure. It matters.
And shame on the official scorekeeper.