You don't expect Albert Pujols to beat you with his legs, but that's just what he did Wednesday night against the Dodgers. As Vin Scully exclaimed afterward, "Albert Pujols beats the Dodgers with a stolen base. What a story!"
Well, it wasn't just the stolen base.
In the top of the ninth with the score 2-2, Pujols drew a leadoff walk. With Matt Holliday up, Pujols took off for second base and Russ Martin's throw was low and got away, taking an odd hop toward right field. Pujols had time to stand up, turn around and locate the ball, then sprint to third base. As I watched this happen, it seemed to be taking an awfully long time for an outfielder to show up.
But hey, these are big boys out there. They hit the ball a long ways. Maybe the outfielders were simply too far away to help.
Except then I watched the replay. I couldn't see Andre Ethier in right field. But I could see Matt Kemp in center, and he didn't begin sprinting toward the play until the ball had escaped from the infield. I suspect the same was true of Ethier.
Ethier's got a ready-made excuse: How often does an attempted steal wind up with a ball bouncing toward the right fielder? I don't recall ever seeing that happen before. Nine hundred and ninety-eight times out of 1,000, the right fielder can do nothing but watch the dramatic moment unfold.
The center fielder, though? I've seen this before. As often as not, the center fielder sprints toward second base after throw gets past the infielder ... but why not before? Why not begin sprinting immediately upon noticing the catcher straightening up to throw?
Anyway, Holliday hit a fly to center field, plenty deep enough to score Pujols for the lead -- and as it turned out, the decisive -- run.
I don't believe that today's players don't care, or don't hustle like the old-timers. I believe that most players do hustle and a few don't, and that it's always been that way. I believe there might be a good reason for the apparent delay in the outfielders' backup. I just haven't figured out what it is.
Either way, it's exactly this sort of moment that makes predicting the outcome of a pennant race so difficult. It's just one little moment, the outcome determined by a throw that went a few inches awry and an outfielder who might (or might not) have been able to make a key play if he'd tried a little harder.
The Dodgers still have a four-game lead and they're still a great bet to win the West. If they don't, though, we might look back and discover dozens of moments that might have changed the course of events. And last night's moment at second base would be one of them.