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September 13, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL West

This Is Not Surreal, Nor Is It Otherwise

by Geoff Young

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If the 2011 National League West could be distilled into a single game, Saturday night's contest between the Padres and Diamondbacks in Phoenix would make for a strong candidate. Both teams battled for nine innings (and then some), and the contest ended on a walk-off walk followed by a protest that threatened to put both teams back on the field to finish the next day.

With Arizona marching confidently toward its first division title since 2007 and San Diego hurtling hopelessly toward a last-place finish that has felt inevitable since at least May, there wouldn't seem to be a great deal at stake in this contest. But don't tell that to the 48,017 fans that packed Chase Field. Don't tell that to the players on either side. They certainly played as though something were at stake. For the Snakes, every victory brings them one step closer to their goal, reducing their “magic number” and burying the increasingly irrelevant San Francisco Giants.

For the Padres, with a few notable exceptions—Cameron Maybin, the injured Chase Headley, a few of the pitchers—everyone is fighting for a spot on next year's roster, either in San Diego or elsewhere. Guys want big-league jobs, and the way they get those is by playing hard even when their current team is 22 games out of first place with 17 left on the schedule.

The game started innocuously enough, with both teams trading a pair of runs in the second inning and then holding at 2-2 until the sixth. Padres starter Tim Stauffer, one of the feel-good stories in baseball over the past few years, again struggled with his command as he continues to fade down the stretch of his longest season of baseball ever. Through his first 23 starts, Stauffer was brilliant; since then, he has been hit hard:

Dates

GS

IP

ERA

H/9

HR/9

BB/9

K/9

3/31 – 8/3

23

143.0

2.96

8.7

0.5

2.5

6.5

8/8 – 9/10

7

36.0

7.50

9.5

3.0

3.5

4.5

Stauffer insists that he feels fine, which is both charming and irrelevant in light of evidence. He can just as easily feel fine while not continuing to labor long after his effectiveness has dissipated. When hitters rock you to the tune of a .308 ISO, that is not “fine.”

But to his credit, Stauffer worked into the sixth inning despite serving up some well-struck baseballs (most memorably, Miguel Montero crushed a double off the wall in dead center that inning that would have left several ballparks) and kept his team in the game. Rookie right-hander Anthony Bass relieved Stauffer and got his team out of the inning with only one run thanks in part to Bass' covering home as Montero attempted to score on a pitch in the dirt that momentarily eluded catcher Luis Martinez.

(For an example of what this game meant to the Diamondbacks, who had won 13 straight at home, consider this: Justin Upton, who leads the league in doubles and is seventh in home runs, led off the sixth with a bunt single down the third-base line. Upton later came around to score what proved to be a crucial run.)

In the top half of the sixth,14 James Darnell, had yanked an inside fastball from Wade Miley into the left-field seats for his first big-league home run. Darnell's blast gave the Padres a lead that they would not relinquish until the ninth.

Closer Heath Bell, who has been less than stellar (14 1/3 IP, 3.77 ERA, opponents batting .259/.306/.431) since the Padres failed to trade him before the July 31 non-waiver deadline, entered the game with two out in the eighth and got his team out of trouble.

After San Diego went down quietly in the top of the ninth, Chris Young led off the home half with a homer to left that pulled Arizona to within one run. Bell jumped ahead of the next hitter, Lyle Overbay, who then drove an 0-2 pitch the other way off the glove of a leaping Chris Denorfia and into the left-field seats to tie the game and send the near-sellout crowd into a frenzy.

We could stop here and have the perfect metaphor for these two teams. The Padres are the club that turns certain victory into disaster. The Diamondbacks—led by skipper Kirk Gibson, who knows a thing or two about improbable comebacks—are the club that never quits despite the odds against them.

Even if this paints an overly-simplistic picture, it makes for a narrative that people can latch onto and believe in, as they could believe in the 2007 Rockies that won 21 of 22 regular- and post-season games en route to their first-ever World Series appearance, or last year's Giants that overcame the surprising Padres and finished them off for good on the season's final day before winning their first title since coming to San Francisco in the 1950s.

We could stop here, but we won't because a) the game isn't finished yet and b) neither is Overbay.

Merriam-Webster defines “surreal” as “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream.” It doesn't really apply to sporting events, despite what you may occasionally hear commentators claim during or after a game. Still, when considering the 10th inning of this contest, it's easy to understand the temptation of employing such terminology. This is particularly true if you play or root for the Padres, for whom the entire sequence must have felt like a nightmare, in much the same way that the entire season or—if you prefer something more hyperbolic and melodramatic—the entire franchise's existence has.

With rookie Brad Brach on the mound for San Diego, Upton drew a one-out walk. Montero followed with a single to right that sent Upton to third. Padres manager Bud Black ordered Brach to intentionally walk Geoff Blum, loading the bases for Young (you know, the guy who led off the ninth with a homer).

Black then went into managerial overdrive. He replaced right fielder Jeremy Hermida with rookie Andy Parrino, who became the Padres' fifth infielder. For this strategy to have a chance of working, the pitcher must throw the ball over the plate, which Brach did not. He fell behind in the count, 3-1, before eventually getting Young to chase ball four inside. (Yes, inaction on Young's part would have won the game for his team, but we're getting ahead of the story.)

Overbay then strode to the plate, which brought Black back out of the dugout. This time he summoned left-hander Joe Thatcher from the bullpen. With two out, Parrino swapped an infielder's glove for an outfielder's and moved out to right field. Thatcher then proceeded to end the game in most anticlimactic fashion, missing to Overbay with four straight pitches. Diamondbacks players came pouring out of the dugout and the crowd went into yet another frenzy (which, as long as we're indulging in linguistic hyperbole, Merriam-Webster defines as “a temporary madness”).

While everyone was celebrating Arizona's 15th consecutive home victory, Black and Padres third-base coach Glenn Hoffman were yelling and pointing at their players on the field. After a bit of chaos, Thatcher retrieved the baseball, stepped on the mound, and threw to third base. Umpire Tim Welke gave the safe sign, and that was that.

Except that Black then came out to discuss matters further. As nearly 50,000 delirious fans were enjoying their team's good fortune, the losing club's skipper was arguing the outcome. It seems that Montero never touched third base even as Upton trotted home to score the apparent winning run.

Black then chose to play the game under protest, presumably on the grounds of rule 7.08(a), which reads in part:

This rule also covers the following and similar plays: Less than two out, score tied last of ninth inning, runner on first, batter hits a ball out of park for winning run, the runner on first passes second and thinking the home run automatically wins the game, cuts across diamond toward his bench as batter-runner circles bases. In this case, the base runner would be called out “for abandoning his effort to touch the next base” and batter-runner permitted to continue around bases to make his home run valid.

But as crew chief Tim Tschida explained to Black, this rule applies to balls in play and not to walks. There is a separate rule for the latter, rule 4.09(b):

When the winning run is scored in the last half-inning of a regulation game, or in the last half of an extra inning, as the result of a base on balls, hit batter or any other play with the bases full which forces the runner on third to advance, the umpire shall not declare the game ended until the runner forced to advance from third has touched home base and the batter-runner has touched first base.

 In other words, Montero was free to celebrate with his teammates without ever touching third base and Black, who later withdrew his protest, was out of luck. That, in a nutshell, is the way the season has gone for these two teams. And if this all isn't quite surreal, it is at least a tad strange.  

Related Content:  The Who,  Bud Black,  Tim Stauffer,  Anthony Bass

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