By David Roth
We've assembled some of our favorite baseball writers from around the country to contribute to Sports on Earth each day throughout the postseason.
During the first inning of Monday's early game between the Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals, just a few minutes before the generally agreed-upon first minutes of happy hour, I lost the broadcast. The other channels, mysteriously, were fine -- one click up was "The Mentalist," wearing a vest and smirking over a corpse as usual; one click in the other direction and one Real Housewife of New York fumed that another Real Housewife of New York was present at some nightmarish Chardonnay-mouthed daytime gathering or other. The only thing I couldn't watch was baseball.
I left my apartment and circled the block, looking in on two bars. One, which has a few dozen televisions and inflates goofy balloon mascots outside on weekends -- a grinning Syracuse Orangeman on Saturday, an outsized inflatable child-like cartoon in a Jets uniform on Sunday -- was showing what looked like a rebroadcast of a MMA fight. The other, a bar-of-the-damned establishment named Phil Hughes -- like the Yankees pitcher, but with embalmed-looking drunks slumped on barstools from noon until close instead of arm trouble -- was showing horseracing simulcasts, because that is all it ever shows. I came home and the cable was working again. Dick Stockton was barking his way, enthusiastically and in some weird free-jazz cadence that could not possibly be intentional, through a promo for reruns of "The Big Bang Theory." This was our Monday of baseball, at least at the start: slack, flubby and played at an achingly slow pace at an odd time of day, in long shadows and generally not terribly well. That was not, thankfully, how it ended.
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Neither starter pitched well in the first game. Jaime Garcia, who needed 51 pitches to get six outs but allowed only one run, left early because of shoulder stiffness; Jordan Zimmerman lasted longer and pitched notably worse. By the time the fifth inning started, the game was more than two hours old, the Undertaker-style eye black Bryce Harper wore at the start of the game had been washed off entirely, and the Cardinals were staked to a 7-1 lead that would never be in serious doubt.
After that, the game locked into a closed, strange loop, the way lopsided games can. The ball is forever rocketing off some Nationals player or other, or a Nationals player is picking the ball up off the ground and gloomily popping it into his glove. Daniel Descalso hits a home run. The Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty, when interviewed during the fourth inning, is as aghast and weary as a distraught family member in an episode of Hoarders. The whole game may be haunted.
When Jon Jay makes a brilliant leaping catch in center field on a blast by Danny Espinosa in the top of the sixth, his full-tilt collision with the wall sees him land next to a scowling image of Tony La Russa. La Russa's glowering shade might well have been visible even if the Cardinals hadn't seen fit to put him up there in tribute--a peevish ghost impatiently reminding us that Cardinal wins can be even slower than this, that there's no such thing as too scrappy, that even this level of petulant grousing over each and every called strike is nothing, nothing, compared to what it could be.
The game slows down. Dick Stockton seems to be awakening with a start, terrified, with every dramatic call he makes. He says Daniel Descalso's name differently every inning, which is his prerogative to the extent that he knows he's doing it, and which is great -- it's David Descalso, it's Descosso, it may be Descoslow in one instance (DVR replays are inconclusive on this) and is almost certainly Pete Kozma a half-dozen times. The words "ask your doctor if your heart is healthy enough for sex" in the Viagra ads that run at every commercial break start to seem poignant, like "is your heart strong enough, or is the hurt of past disappointments still too pointed, too real, too much."
A half hour passes, or maybe an hour. Matt Holliday delivers himself a grimacing, mucho-gusto lawn dart of a throw in from left field in the top of the seventh. Carlos Beltran air-mails a throw to second base from short right by a margin of roughly two-and-a-half Descalsos. This is the winning team, now. The Nats miss opportunities, and Michael Morse handles the ball in left field as if it is a buttered hand grenade. And then it's over, 12-4 Cardinals, and the series is tied at one and headed back to Washington, and Matt Winer and Shane Victorino riff creakily about a Slimer-shaped smear of precipitation green that jabs back and forth over Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, again and again, on the Doppler Radar. The Yankees and Orioles are in a rain delay, again. This is not, thankfully, how the evening ends.
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For fans at Busch Stadium half-expecting another implacable miracle march toward another World Series dog pile -- and who could tell them not to expect that? -- the Cards' win no doubt felt like old times, and happily so. But for everyone else, it was unmistakable as anything but what it was: sleepy, keep-flipping-over-to-"Storage Wars" mid-July baseball played in brisk October temperatures, albeit with tons of micro-managerial double-switchery and in front of a hyped-up crowd that sang like soccer fans. This sort of baseball is still preferable to the absence of baseball, of course, but Cards/Nats was not the sort of baseball that we associate with October. The Yankees and Orioles, on the other hand, was tense and weird and rich in counterpoint and generally everything that was absent during the five hours and 51 minutes (I should probably double-check that) of baseball that preceded it.
Which isn't to say that Baltimore's 3-2 win was especially virtuosic, or that it needed to be. But as each team created and squandered opportunities -- Wei-Yin Chen and Andy Pettitte wandered into and sauntered out of various jams, alternately guided into and out of them by their teammates -- and things continued to come together and screw down tighter and tighter in the way these sorts of games do, it all sort of started to feel the way it was supposed to feel. Which is to say, familiar, in that the innings passed in ways we'd seen before, in other games in other seasons. But which is also to say that it was fun and fraught and loud and generally turning maniacal cartwheels on a knife's edge in the way that good postseason baseball does.
This was not really a playoff game you'll ever tell a grandchild about, or really even reminisce about unless you are seriously into reminiscing or named Wei-Yin Chen. But also, and finally, it was awesome.
Yes, there is the matter of contrast with the first game, and to reiterate: This was hardly an all-time great of a game. Chen was implausibly unflappable and amusingly expressionless over his 6 1/3 innings, like some sort of heroic android whose fastball had a phantom few miles an hour of velocity on it that no radar gun was sophisticated enough to catch. Pettitte was only slightly less good, and no less admirable in his steadiness; his amazingness is easy to miss because he's Andy Pettitte and we're used to it, but he 1) is 40 years old and 2) was worth 2.2 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), according to Baseball Reference, in 12 starts as a 40-year-old. Neither pitcher was perfect, both were great. Ho-hum, and not.
The most memorable play in the game -- Ichiro's dazzling, graceful-goofy Parkour-style scramble around a pair of flailing Matt Wieters tags at home plate -- came in the top of the first inning, and didn't impact the outcome. J.J. Hardy made a silly error and a mistake on the base paths that probably cost his team a run -- and which did, hilariously and predictably and what-the-hell-also-greatly, lead TBS' announcing team to credit Derek Jeter with a Savvy Pro Deke-Move for making an uncredited error on a routine-ish groundball that he alligator-armed into left field -- and never quite got punishment or redemption for either. The Yankees never threatened in the bottom of the ninth, and the on-field response to the final out was nothing but a pair of Mickelson-ian fist pumps from Wieters and closer Jim Johnson; the heroically loud Camden Yards crowd sounded like it was trying to sing along to "Orioles Magic" and mostly failing.
Which is fair: It's an old and silly song, and it has been a long time since anyone sung it and meant it. And then everyone left and the series was tied heading to New York and there you go. No huge narrative payoff, really, and no win-or-go-home narrative stakes or some all-caps Bayless-discussed RIVALRY to amplify any of it. Just an average, wonderful postseason baseball game of the sort we'll see a dozen or so times more before this is all over, probably.
So, about the norm, then, and just about perfect in its ordinary way.
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Roth is a co-founder and editor of The Classical, the co-author of the Wall Street Journal's "Daily Fix" blog-column, the sole author of Vice's "Mercy Rule" column and a writer of things at GQ, New York Magazine, The Awl and some other places when there's time. He lives in New York, and is on Twitter.