In 1998, Mark Wohlers lost the ability to throw strikes. He walked nearly a batter per inning in April, then he walked a batter and a half per inning in May, and then things really got bad. In a couple of minor league assignments, he walked 37 batters in 13 innings. Then in August, he walked14 batters and struck out none in less than four innings. Steve Blass sent him a letter of encouragement, which might not have seemed encouraging.
After Kerry Lightenberg got hurt before the 1999 season, and after Wohlers had a good spring training, Atlanta reinstalled him as its closer. In his first outing of the year, Wohlers walked four batters without completing his inning. He threw 31 pitches and only 11 were strikes, and the final batter walked on four pitches. Then, talking to reporters after the game, Wohlers reportedly blew up at them. “I don't want to get into dissecting every damn thing that I do,” he said. Three days later, he’s back in for a new ninth inning, with the Braves trailing by three already. “When Wohlers came in to pitch the ninth inning Thursday night at Turner Field in Atlanta, fans were streaming toward the exits. By the thousands, they stopped in their tracks when they heard Wohlers announced. They lingered in the concourse, watching with morbid curiosity."
Arguably the worst bunt ever called.
As he warms up, he throws a pitch to the backstop. Then, he throws his first two pitches to leadoff hitter Alex Arias past the catcher, and walks Arias on four pitches. He also walks the third batter of the inning on four pitches. In between is Doug Glanville, and Wohlers’ first pitch to him “missed the catcher entirely,” in Glanville’s recollection. And in the middle of all this, with a three-run lead, Terry Francona calls for a sacrifice bunt. So Glanville puts down a sacrifice bunt. It’s the last strike that Wohlers will throw all year. That’s arguably the worst bunt call ever called.
But maybe Francona was just being nice, just doing Wohlers a favor. The baseball field usually isn’t the place for charity, but on the other hand—well, it’d sure be awfully nice if Francona was just doing Wohlers a favor. If he was, it failed. Glanville bunted, and here’s how he remembers it:
Eventually he threw one I could bunt, resulting in a slow roller right back to him. Cruelly, he now had to throw the ball again, to first base. I had my head down, trying to beat it out when I heard the crowd give a collective groan. He had lobbed the ball, as if throwing a timing pattern to a wide receiver; it sailed over the first baseman’s head by a substantial margin.
The Chicago Tribune didn’t have its head down, trying to beat it out, so it saw the whole thing:
He fielded the ball cleanly and spun toward second. A quick throw easily would have beat Arias to the base, but Wohlers couldn't pull the trigger. After looking at second base for too long, he turned and lobbed a flat-footed toss over the head of second baseman Bret Boone, who was covering first.
The nice thing about the worst bunt ever called is that, eh, it didn't really matter. The Phillies were going to win and they won. And I can at least imagine that Francona was doing it to be nice, because he's just a nice guy. That's how I'll choose to remember this, regardless of whether it's true.
(This is a companion to this piece on pitchers not getting the yips.)