A good rule of thumb in storytelling is to start as close to the end as possible. When it comes to Game Five of the ALDS between the Rangers and Blue Jays, that means skipping the first six innings.
Those who arrived home in time to catch the beginning of the seventh know that the score was tied at 2 following an Edwin Encarnacion home run. You also know the ensuing frame took nearly an hour to play and featured:
- 30,000-plus hostile fans, and one crying baby;
- five runs scored;
- four errors;
- two benches-clearing incidents;
- and one of the oddest lead changes the sport has ever seen.
This was baseball as told by an aggressive, hyperactive, overly imaginative child. And boy, was it fun.
You'd never suspect the inning had historic potential based on how it began. Rougned Odor lined a single into left field, and seconds later advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt. Big deal. Delino DeShields then chopped a ball toward third base that required a brilliant, athletic play from Josh Donaldson—in addition to cutting across the diamond, he had to reach back with his bare hand, against his body and momentum, pluck the ball, then fire to first in order to get the speedy DeShields—and allowed Odor to move to third. Web Gem aside, you've seen this inning play out a million times before.
Yet what happened next set off one of the most memorable, bizarre stretches of baseball you'll ever experience—and to think, it started with the most ordinary, repetitive of baseball acts: returning the ball to the mound.
Russell Martin caught 994 innings during the regular season. If he averaged 10 throws to the pitcher per pop, he would've ended the season with about 10,000 incident-free returns. What happened in Game Five, then, with Martin's throw colliding with Shin-Soo Choo's bat and scooting off toward adventure, is almost literally an empirical one-in-10,000 occurrence … except we know that overstates the odds of such an event happening. You've probably never seen it happen before and you'll probably never see it happen again:
As if by script it was Odor—the series' star, in many respects—who made a heads-up play, scampering home while everyone else was stuck in slow motion. Even home-plate umpire Dale Scott, who had the best seat in the house, responded by waving the play off. But that was the wrong call, as Jeff Banister and later the replay officials informed Scott, and the run was eventually award on the grounds of Rule 6.03(a)(3), which reads:
[If] the batter is standing in the batter's box and he or his bat is struck by the catcher's throw back to the pitcher and, in the umpire's judgment, there is no intent on the part of the batter to interfere with the throw, the ball is alive and in play.
The theme throughout every series, every season, every career, every game, every rally and everything else in baseball is what if. Think about all the what-if scenarios that had to go right for this play to occur as it did. You had to have Choo opt to fix his sleeve at that very moment. You had to have him hold and angle his bat just so. You had to have him stay in the batter's box until Martin was ready to return the ball. You had to have Martin positioned just so. You had to have the ricochet go where it did. You had to have Odor on third base. And on and on on and on.
You had to have all these little, seemingly insignificant variables line up just right to form this syzygy of absurdity. With some of that you have a fun little 10-second clip that gets thrown on blooper reels from now until the lizard people invade. With all that you have a 12-minute long MLB.com video that includes fans trashing the field. Again, with emphasis: a twelve-minute MLB.com video that includes fans trashing the field.
Game Five's craziness did not end there.
With the Rangers ahead, Banister sent Hamels back to the mound for the bottom of the seventh, albeit with Jake Diekman and Sam Dyson warming. Hamels had settled into a nice groove apart from the Encarnacion home run, and Banister wanted to see if he could stretch him another inning. This plan—plan A—probably would have worked, had the Rangers' defense not fallen to pieces.
The collapse began with Elvis Andrus muffing a fairly routine groundball. Mitch Moreland then exacerbated Andrus' mistake by making his own: failing to get a grip on a potential double-play ball, thus yanking the throw into the ground and placing two runners on with nobody out. Naturally, John Gibbons asked Ryan Goins to put a bunt down, so as to advance the tying and go-ahead runs into scoring position, and the Rangers wisely countered by using the wheel play.
If any team is capable of turning the wheel play in a need-to situation, you figure it's the Rangers. Adrian Beltre is perhaps the best third baseman in the majors at charging the ball, and has the wherewithal to make a good decision if the play just isn't there. Andrus, meanwhile, has a reputation for being a quality defender in his own right, and the two have played alongside each other long enough that there's no first-date clumsiness between them. The whole sequence gets off to a good start thanks to Beltre, who shows his savvy by stealing one last look at Dalton Pompey (who had checked in as a pinch-runner) while moving toward the plate; it's the kind of thing that separates Beltre from the pack:
True to character, Beltre did his part. Knowing there's a play to be made on Pompey, Beltre approaches and positions the ball with that in mind. He makes a strong, accurate throw and … well, Andrus drops it. For the third time in the inning, the Rangers had erred, with Andrus involved in each of them. Russell Martin didn't head onto the field and hand a pair of goat horns to Andrus, but he might as well have.
Game Five's craziness did not end there.
Hamels got the next batter, Ben Revere, to ground into a fielder's choice. Pompey came across the plate hot and took Chris Gimenez's legs out from beneath him, but after the umpires discuss and review the play, it's ruled that the slide was legal. That call might have prevented a riot. Regardless, the run is cut off at home, the lead still exists.
This is the part of the story where Banister heads to the mound, removes Hamels, and inserts Sam Dyson—possessor of one of the nastiest, hardest sinkers in baseball—with an eye on keeping the ball on the infield and perhaps inducing a rally-killing double-play. This plan—plan B—almost works, just like plan A almost worked.
The next batter up was Donaldson, who Dyson fell behind 2-0. Logically, there were more than two possible outcomes; emotionally, it felt like Donaldson was going to hit a home run or ground into a twin-killing. He did neither. Instead Donaldson hit a looper that Odor misplayed—he backpedaled on it instead of turning and chasing it down. Odor atoned for his mistake by recording a force out at second, but the Blue Jays nonetheless tied the game at three.
All things considered, Banister and the Rangers are probably okay with how things had gone since the pitching change; one fluke run for another, you know? Except for one problem.
Game Five's craziness did not end there.
Again as if by script, the next man up for the Blue Jays was Jose Bautista—Toronto's franchise player for the past half-decade. Bautista had driven in the Blue Jays' first run earlier in the game with a double to left field. He'd deliver once more in the seventh, hitting a mammoth home run that ignited the crowd and tempers alike.
What's remarkable about Bautista's home run is that it came on a 97 mph sinker some 1.09 feet away from the middle of the plate, according to PITCHf/x data. For some perspective, he had hit two home runs on balls further inside during the PITCHf/x era: back in 2011 and 2010, on 91 and 93 mph sinkers from Kevin Slowey and Josh Beckett. There's no doubt what Bautista was looking for from Dyson, nor where he was looking for it:
As for Dyson, he seemingly went looking for trouble in response. Encarnacion was standing at the plate, trying to calm the fans from littering the field with more beer cans and bottles, when Dyson got into his face over God knows what. Benches cleared but nothing noteworthy happened. That wouldn't be the only incident involving Dyson, either. Later on, after getting Troy Tulowitzki to pop out, Dyson approached the plate and gave Tulowitzki a pat on the rear. Tulowtizki took exception, and the benches cleared again, capping a long, ridiculous inning with a long, ridiculous display of false bravado.
Game Five's craziness did not end there. Rather, the craziness ended with the insertion of Roberto Osuna, Toronto's brilliant 20-year-old closer who hadn't been born the last time they won a playoff series. Osuna recorded the last five outs thanks to the strength of his boring fastball and the feel over his slider.
The great thing about baseball, your cliche-spewing neighbor says, is that no two games are alike. That's true, but most of them are mostly alike. Game Five is the exception. You've never seen a game quite like it, and heaven help us all, you never will again.
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