- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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I like the expanded rosters of September. There, I said it. Of course it's completely illogical to play under different rules in September than the previous five months. Of course it's a little ridiculous to see dugouts crammed excessively full with five to 10 extra players. Of course it doesn't make sense to have somebody's 34th player -- can you say Dan Johnson? -- helping decide a pennant race.
Instead of focusing on the negative, let's look at what expanded rosters can give us: Billy Hamilton, minor league speedster extraordinaire, maybe the fastest player to ever suit up in a baseball uniform (although Cool Papa Bell and former world-class sprinter Herb Washington would make for a fun race), leading off first base in the seventh inning of a 0-0 tie in a crucial game between contenders, with the best catcher in the game squatting behind home plate.
It had been a great pitcher's duel between St. Louis Cardinals rookie Michael Wacha and Cincinnati Reds righty Homer Bailey. Wacha had been pitching in the bullpen and was pulled after 80 pitches. Ryan Ludwick led off the bottom of the seventh with a single to center off Seth Maness. Out came Hamilton to make his major league debut, the most exciting pinch-running appearance of the season.
The catcher: Yadier Molina. Only 20 bases had been swiped off him this season; he'd caught 15 thieves. He basically shuts down the running game, a Johnny Bench with smaller hands but the same quick trigger and laser accuracy. A lot of relievers don't hold runners very well, but Maness had allowed one steal in 52 2/3 innings, so all Hamilton had to do was swipe second base against one of the toughest combos in the majors.
Hamilton earned a national spotlight when he stole a record 155 bases in 2012. He stole 75 bases in Triple-A this season, although he was caught 15 times.
Hamilton versus Molina. Reds fans on their feet. Reds players watching with the intensity that suggested a playoff atmosphere, not a game on Sept. 3. Dusty Baker chewing on his toothpick. The steal was on.
"It will take a game before it feels real," Hamilton told MLB.com before the game.
I'm guessing it feels real now. Maness threw to first once and then Hamilton took off, no need to waste any time. Molina's throw was high and way right, and Hamilton had his first major league steal. After missing two bunt attempts, Todd Frazier then doubled down the left-field line. Hamilton could have scored walking on his hands.
The jury remains out on Hamilton's future potential -- he has little power and hit just .256 at Louisville, although he did improve in the second half -- but there's no denying the excitement he brings when on base. Like the great basestealers of the '80s -- Rickey Henderson, Vince Coleman, Tim Raines -- you'll have to pay extra, extra attention.
Hamilton wasn't the only story. Bailey was magnificent in allowing just two hits over seven innings, following up on Mat Latos' complete game against St. Louis on Monday. He had great command of the fastball all night, working outside to right-handed batters and inside to lefties, and then putting them away with his curve or slider. The thing that makes Bailey tough when he's on is that he throws a lot of four-seamers up in the zone, and then goes down in the zone with his off-speed stuff, often getting hitters to chase on pitches off the plate. Batters have to adjust not only to the change in velocity, but a different plane.
Baker faced a tough decision when Bailey came up with two outs and Frazier at third. He'd thrown 106 pitches and had retired 14 in a row. He certainly had another inning in him, even in this day of hyper-sensitive pitch counts, and the Reds' eighth-inning relievers haven't been the most reliable. Baker hit for Bailey and handed the game over to his bullpen. Of course, he could have brought in Aroldis Chapman for a two-inning save; after all, Chapman hadn't pitched since Aug. 24 -- 10 days ago.
Instead, Baker brought in fellow lefty Manny Parra with two left-handers due up for the Cards. Mike Matheny went to his expanded roster and used right-handed pinch-hitters Shane Robinson and Brock Peterson, but Robinson flew out and Peterson struck out looking on a fastball on the inside black, and after David Freese walked, Parra got Matt Carpenter to line out to right.
Chapman went 1-2-3 in the ninth -- or should I say 101, 100, 103, 103 and 103 in fanning Matt Holliday with triple-digit meanness? -- and the Reds had the win, moving a game closer to St. Louis while remaining 3.5 behind Pittsburgh.
And that's the real news: The NL Central is a three-team race. And if the 32nd player on one of those teams end up deciding the division winner in the final game of the season, well, that sounds like a good story to me.
I like the expanded rosters of September. There, I said it. Of course it's completely illogical to play under different rules in September than the previous five months.