I don't know if tonight's one-game playoff will go down as one of the most memorable in history, but it should. The Wild Card isn't glamorous, and neither are the Padres and Rockies, but tonight was an incredibly exciting game for a number of reasons.
I must say that I was in rehearsal this evening and didn't join the game until the 8th inning, when it was tied 6-6. Amazingly enough, it stayed tied into the 13th. Both bullpens did a pretty impressive job of keeping the runs off the board. If Heath Bell is an unlikely hero, Matt Herges is even more unlikely, but he threw 3 scoreless innings none the less.
I knew it couldn't go on forever, and when I saw Jorge Julio stroll to the mound in the 13th, I had the feeling that this might be it. Julio, who was as wild as you'd expect, walked Brian Giles and then fell behind Scott Hairston. He then grooved one to Hairston, who knocked it out of the park, giving the Padres an 8-6 lead. The Colorado faithful went silent, and I figured it was over. (The guy who caught the ball actually doubled 0ver in pain when he did, even though it didn't touch his stomach). Julio gave up a single to Chase Headley and then was removed.
I was even more surprised to see Ramon Ortiz on the mound. Joe Simpson noted, incredulous, that Ortiz hadn't pitched since September 15. And there's a pretty good reason for that. Adrian Gonzalez was due up, and I turned off the game to go write a blog entry about it. But I turned on the mlb.com Gameday webcast of the game so I could note when it ended. With Ortiz on the mound and Trevor Hoffman waiting for the Padres, there must have been a 5% chance the Rockies would come back.
I intended to write my blog about Clint Hurdle's odd selection of pitchers. I felt that he did a good job of getting the team to the 13th -- even bringing in his closer with the game tied (something Bud Black never did) -- but that Jorge Julio shouldn't have entered the game. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and he should have looked to his starting rotation if the game was going to go longer. Better bring in Frank Morales than let the Padres face your 5th- or 6th-best reliever.
As it turned out, I spoke too soon . . .
When the webcast popped up, I noticed that Hoffman was indeed in the game for the Padres, facing the top of the order. Ortiz did manage to retire the three batters he faced, which is a pretty rare occurence. The reason I didn't watch the game was that I was, emotionally, pretty worn out by the 13th. I didn't really have a rooting interest here, but I was really hoping the Rockies would win, just because they need it a lot more than the Padres do.
I saw that Trevor Hoffman gave up a leadoff double to Kaz Matsui. Interesting. That brought the tying run to the plate, but no, I wasn't going to get my hopes up yet. Then I noticed that he went to 3-2 on the next batter, Troy Tulowitzki. Tulowitzki also doubled, sending in Matsui and putting the tying run on base.
At this point, I turned the TV back on.
I got there just in time to see the replay of Matt Holliday's at-bat; he had just tripled in the tying run. As if the game couldn't get any more dramatic, Holliday -- with the crowd chanting "MVP"-- went the other way on an errant Hoffman changeup and sent it just out of the reach of a leaping Brian Giles (this was fitting, as Giles had tied the game at 6 with a ball hit over Holliday's head). Holliday raced around to third as Tulowitzki scored the tying run.
How improbable could it get?
The Padres intentionally walked Todd Helton to face Jamey Carroll. With the winning run on third and none out, the odds were pretty good that the Rockies would win. But then Jamey Carroll hit .225 this year with 2 homers while playing at Coors Field, for heaven's sake. Surely he wasn't a threat.
Carroll hit the first pitch from Hoffman -- this one a fastball that caught too much of the plate -- to right field. The ball was hit right at Brian Giles, who was playing in. Giles caught the ball for the out, and quickly threw it home as Holliday raced in from third. The throw was up the first base side, and Holliday had it beat. He slid in head-first, and after a tense second, home plate umpire Tim McClelland called him safe.
Then, Coors Field went bonkers and several things happened.
The first was that Holliday, despite having just won the game and the Wild Card, didn't get up. He stayed on the ground and cameras showed him bleeding from the mouth. Replays showed that as he slid in face-first, his head bounced in the dirt, which looked pretty painful, if not disabling.
But that's not all the replays showed.
The announcers asked the same question I did -- why did McClelland wait to call Holliday safe? It's the 13th inning, and it's the most dramatic moment an umpire can ask for. So why did he wait a couple seconds and then blandly stick out his arms, as if this were some spring training exhibition game? I've seen an umpire wait to call someone out -- if they missed the bag and the fielder tags them -- but I don't recall seeing anyone wait to call someone safe. Why would you?
The answer is that Holliday never touched the plate. Never did. And the replays were pretty clear; Michael Barrett, no one's idea of a great defensive catcher, none the less did a great job of blocking the plate. Holliday's hand got stuck by his foot and never moved past it to touch the plate. And it seems obvious that Tim McClelland saw this as clearly as I did. He waited to make the call because he was waiting for Barrett to pick up the ball and tag Holliday -- who was three feet from home and bleeding from the mouth. But as Barrett was about to apply the tag, McClelland limply stuck out his arms and belatedly called him safe.
My first thought was to wonder if Barrett could sneak through the celebrating crowd and still tag out Holliday, who let the records show, never touched the plate. But the umpire already called him safe, so Merkle's Boner was not to be repeated (which is just as well, considering that "boner" now represents something altogether different).
My second thought was that McClelland had a split second to think, and chose to call Holliday safe even though he didn't see him touch the plate. The TBS and ESPN commentators were quick to point this out, so my guess is that McClelland's going to be feeling the heat in the coming days. It's fitting, I suppose, that a regular season that's seen such criticism of major league umpires (much of it justified) should end with a clearly blown call.
I don't mean to get on McClelland too much. Maybe he just changed his mind, or thought he saw something else. Maybe it's a lot harder to be objective in the 13th inning before a raucous home crowd than it would seem. If Holliday were called out, that would put a runner at 2nd with two out, meaning the 14th inning was a much stronger possibility. Still, this is another dark day for MLB umpires.
All that aside, the Rockies have won the NL Wild Card, and as I've said before, no team needed it more than Colorado. Everyone knew that they had a pretty good bunch of rookies coming up, but very few people expected them to do this well and outlast the Dodgers and Padres. But they did, and now they're heading to the postseason for the first time since 1995. Their 90 wins set a club record, as does their .552 winning percentage. Not only do their productive rookies get to experience October baseball before schedule, but Todd Helton -- one of the best players in the game never to play in the postseason -- gets to break that streak playing for his original team.
The Padres did their best, but came up short. I don't think there's any real shame in their collapse; their 89 wins are actually a bit better than I thought they'd do. I feared that they would lose the game in extra innings with Trevor Hoffman sitting idle in the bullpen, but they lost with their ace reliever on the mound. They couldn't have expected Hoffman to blow the save in Milwaukee two days ago, one strike away from eliminating the Rockies. And neither could they have expected him to give up three runs at Coors. Speaking of ace pitchers failing in public fashion, Hoffman joins Tom Glavine as a future HOFer who lost the game eliminating their team from the postseason and completing an improbable fall. Because one week ago, I was talking about the Padres maybe passing the Diamondbacks and winning the division. I also referred to them as the NL's best team. I'm not sure I was wrong, but the tide turned quickly, and the Rockies zoomed into the postseason by going 14-1 in their last 15 games.
I should also note that the dramatic nature of this game may help clinch the MVP for Holliday. He doesn't deserve it, as his Coors-inflated numbers simply don't match up to the other top contenders. But this dramatic win, combined with a batting title and an RBI title, may help him get enough votes, especially if the writers are split between Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies.
So now the postseason field is set, with the Rockies taking on the Phillies in the NLDS starting Wednesday. It's been a combined 26 years since those teams made the postseason, so here's to parity.
One or two other short notes:
- The calls for blood have already starting coming in in New York. I wouldn't be surprised if somebody got fired right after the Series (the MLB frowns on big announcements distracting from the postseason). The calls mainly come from the rabid New York sports media community, where patience, consideration, and level-headedness are in short supply. Buster Olney, one of the faces of the baseball media establishment, at least puts his neck out to say that the Mets failed as an organization, and it's shameful that the execs have let Willie Randolph twist in the wind these past few days. At Baseball Prospects, Gary Huckabay weighs in with a level-headed response to the idea of the Mets as failures; it's really just an accident of history that the Mets failed when they did. If they have that bad stretch in July but still finish one game short of the Phillies, no one goes as crazy as they are now. It's sad that we have to keep reminding people that "choking" isn't a sign of personal weakness, but there you go. Sports fans are vicious when it comes to taking out their anger on their erstwhile heroes, and while we all understand this, no one really takes it to heart and stops sending death threats. Good gravy.
- Shaun Assael, investigative reporter with ESPN the Magazine, says that according to a source, Met reliever Scott Schoeneweis received steroids in 2003 and 2004, while a member of the Chicago White Sox.
To be honest, my first response is to wonder whether Assael should have come forward with this story at all. Assael is a great reporter, and he co-wrote a great book about wrestling, but I really think it's counter-productive to keep outing players as PED users. If it happened 3-4 years ago, is it really worth filing another story that's just going to flame the hypocritical "fight" against steroids and possibly ruin Scott Schoeneweis's career? I guess my attitude is changing, but really, what good does this knowledge do us?
I really can't blame Assael. Like I said, he's a good reporter, and if it were my job, I probably would have filed the story too. And it's patently unfair of me to arbitrarily decide when we've broken the camel's back. But there are going to be a couple dozen more names coming out in the years to come, and by then we'll be talking about the events of 10 years ago. I know the journalism industry is more convinced about the information itself rather than asking why it should be published, but to put it in legal/moral terms, what is the probitive value of this knowledge? Schoeneweis probably broke the law, and I guess that's always news when it's a pro athlete. And if he has done so, then it's not unreasonable that his name come out.
Maybe I'm just philosophising here, but adding another player to the list just keeps our focus on moralizing past behavior and brings scrutiny and disrepute beyond that warranted by the offense, especially when it's just a source claiming the crime took place at this point. I have faith in Assael's sources, but we should bear that in mind.
This, too, will pass. And in ten years, surely the silly moral outrage over steroids will have died down. And it may be an unreasonable suggestion, but is it really worth the Scarlet "S"? After all we now know, is it still worth it.