We've assembled some of our favorite baseball writers from around the country to contribute to Sports on Earth each day throughout the postseason.
By Dustin Parkes
The long and awkward limbs of Hunter Pence are touching each other at the joints. Elbow to knee. Knee to elbow. He bends his body like a praying mantis in an attempt to stop the pain coursing through his cramping leg.
Pence has extended his body, already beaten into submission by the long baseball season, beyond what it could take in order to foul off a 92-mph cutter from Jonathan Broxton. His efforts not only bring the all-important count to an even 2-2, but they force the trainer to leave his perch in the dugout and see if the Giants’ right fielder can continue.
He can, and he will. It’s the 10th inning, after all, and the score is tied at 1-all. If he does this right, he’ll only need to suffer through another half inning. He steps back into the batter’s box, takes the next pitch, low and outside, for ball three. Then, with a full count, his shortened swing slaps Broxton’s offering into a gap between the third baseman and shortstop. Pence has hit a single that moves his teammate Buster Posey into scoring position and, most importantly, avoids a costly out in this game where a loss means elimination for the Giants.
Three batters later, there are two outs, Pence is on second base and Posey is now at third. Between our injured protagonist and Posey is Scott Rolen, the 37-year-old third baseman for the Cincinnati Reds. He is likely one of the 10 best to ever play his position in the history of the game.
But with age, Rolen is now a shell of his former self, suddenly a below-average batter and quickly fading as a fielder. When he played on the unforgiving turf in Toronto, beat writers used to joke about the difference in his movements on the field and off. Playing the game, his footwork was as smooth as a talented boxer’s, but afterward he staggered about as though heavy concrete blocks had been attached to the ends of his legs. That was more than four years ago.
On Tuesday night, positioned between the two base runners, a ground ball off the bat of Joaquin Arias comes toward him. It’s not a routine play, but it’s not what would be considered demanding either. Rolen moves toward it. The ball bounces up to belt level, but Rolen’s reflexes aren’t as fast as they once were and instead of leather, the ball hits his midsection, is bobbled by his bare hand, falls to the ground and bounces once again before he picks it up and throws it to first -- only a moment too late to catch Arias.
Posey scores, and the Giants go on to win, 2-1.
There’s so much more that goes into creating this outcome -- Homer Bailey’s dominating fastball/slider combination, Sergio Romo’s Frisbee slider, Aroldis Chapman’s triple-digit velocity -- but Pence and Rolen offer the perfect dichotomy for understanding our relationship to this game.
We’re drawn to the story of overcoming and succumbing; of having our hearts broken, then repaired moments later, and vice versa. It’s all part of a great distraction, and our visceral enjoyment of it increases this time of year when stakes get higher, tension intensifies and games get a lot more meaningful.
Because of Pence and Rolen (and Bailey, Romo and Chapman, too), the story gets extended for at least another game, when a new narrative will emerge. Perhaps it will be Barry Zito, overcoming his own shortcomings or succumbing to the regression back to his true talent level. It could just as easily be Mat Latos, overcoming a recent illness or succumbing to it. It could be something that we haven’t even thought of yet, like the similarities and differences between Pence and Rolen playing out on Tuesday.
Major League Baseball’s postseason is a sports fan's Arabian Nights: A different story emerges each time baseball is played.
The best of them tend to involve our heroes staving off elimination.
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