|A pitcher's delight|
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist
Editor's Note: From his home on the Northern California coast, Page 2's Eric Neel is keeping a diary of the 2002 pennant races involving the Giants, Dodgers, A's and Angels. This is the sixth installment of Neel's journal.
Sunday, Sept. 15
Status: Giants still 1 game up on Dodgers for NL wild-card. Angels and A's remain tied for the AL West lead, with 14 games remaining.
I had the good fortune (my editors are kind and generous people) to be at the A's-Mariners game yesterday. The sun was shining, the locals were sporting their colors, I had myself a Coliseum Dog, and the game was close right up to the end. It was a fine day all around.
One of the real highlights for me was the chance to sit next to Leonard Koppett, a sportswriting legend and the author of a terrific book called "The Thinking Man's Guide to Baseball." Mr. Koppett has probably seen more baseball games than I've seen mornings on earth. I asked him why he still came, what he got out of a day like yesterday.
"It's simple, really," he said. "I just love baseball. I love to be around it and I come here to talk with other people who feel the same way."
We talked about how the distance between the rubber and the plate is figured in inches and fractions of a second, and about the techniques and gestures pitchers and hitters use to claim that space and manipulate that time. We talked about what you can and can't know by watching what is happening (you can always know what has happened but you often have to guess or wonder at exactly how and why it went down the way it did), and about how opposing players, managers and fans will often understand the same moments and events very differently.
At one point, I asked what he looked for when he watched a game, what he was focused on.
"A writer has to wait," he told me. "A writer has to wait and see what is significant or unusual and then talk about that. You can guess along the way, but you can never really know what it is until the game is over. It's not pitch by pitch, it's the totality of the thing, it's how each play fits into the overall context."
There are two weeks left in the season and the A's and Angels are tied for the lead in the American League West. Every game feels charged with meaning. But of course every game is just a game like any other, too, just a series of pitches and swings, hits and misses, grabs and bobbles, throws and catches. Just one of 162 variations on a theme.
After talking to Koppett, as yesterday's game unfolded, I kept score and I waited.
Miguel Tejada singled to left in the first. Mike Cameron hit a double to the gap off A's starter Tim Hudson. Oakland first baseman Scott Hatteberg singled to right in the second to drive in a run. The A's turned three double plays in the first few innings. M's pitcher Jamie Moyer struck out five of seven batters in the middle innings. Mariners left fielder Mark McLemore made a diving, tumbling catch to end the seventh. Eric Chavez, the A's third baseman, jumped and snocone stabbed an Edgar Martinez line drive for the last out of the day.
When it was over, the A's had won 1-0, so Hatteberg's hit way back in the second had become significant. But by my reckoning, the most significant plays of the day were the ones just before it. They were both errors. Terrence Long hit a groundball between first and second. John Olerud ranged to his right and grabbed the ball but he couldn't hold onto it and it fell to the dirt -- E3. I remember thinking the play was a little unusual because Olerud is one of the best defensive first basemen in the game and he doesn't make many errors, but other than that it didn't feel crucial or even especially interesting.
Next up was John Mabry, who poked one on the ground up the middle of the diamond. M's shortstop Carlos Guillen started to scoop it up, no doubt thinking double play all the way. But he booted it, sort of shoveled and kicked the ball past second base where Bret Boone tried to pick it up to salvage one out, but he dropped it too -- E6. It was a comic, keystone cops, sort of play. I thought at the time -- with two on and nobody out -- that the important thing to watch would be how Moyer handled the situation. Would he get frustrated or tight? He didn't seem to. He got the next batter, Ramon Hernandez, to fly out in foul territory. He got Ray Durham to fly out to center. Then he gave up the single to Hatteberg, and finally got Tejada to chase a pitch and pop-up to third base. All in all, a pretty decent inning from Moyer. He got essentially five outs and gave up one hit. He pitched well, and he continued to pitch well -- certainly well enough to win -- giving up only one other hit and no walks the rest of the way.
But those errors kept gathering significance as the game wore on because Hudson was every bit as good as Moyer, retiring the side in order in each of the last five innings.
Hudson is a catapult. His short, strong body whips at the waist and fires hard, diving balls in on batters' hands and down at their feet. Moyer's left arm comes across his body like a slow, sweeping scythe. Balls don't so much pop out of his hand as they do float; each of them looking tantalizingly hittable and most of them hesitating and bending just enough to cause a hitter to miss.
Pitching isn't as dramatic as hitting. It rarely comes in single, crucial blows. It's parceled out, pitch-by-pitch, over the course of a game. That's why we end up talking about pitching "performances," I think, because what you have to wait for is the whole of the thing, from start to finish. Until about the seventh inning, when the game was still 1-0 and both starters were still in and still getting guys out, you almost didn't realize how good Moyer and Hudson were yesterday.
Looking back at my scorecard now, it's clear that they were both very, very good. Moyer gave up just the unearned run and allowed three hits and two walks while fanning seven. Hudson struck out just two hitters, but gave up only four hits and two walks. Moyer seemed to be doing it with changes in speed -- I remember John Mabry striking out in the fourth and somehow managing to be out in front of three straight pitches -- but I suspect he was also playing all sorts of trajectory and release-point tricks that I couldn't pick up on from where I was sitting. Hudson seemed to be hammering the inside half of the plate and jamming guys up, but his success must also have had a lot to do with when and where he decided to show them something up or away (and I don't know how or why he made those choices).
The steady brilliance of Moyer and Hudson -- a thing so quiet and subtle it was hard to detect -- slowly, inning-by-inning, made the errors in the second grow and gain weight. The miscues put a runner in scoring position. They made Hatteberg's single worth something.
I felt kind of strange thinking the errors were the turning point. This is a pennant race, I thought. It's supposed to hinge on spectacular, heroic plays. It's supposed to feel epic, not awkward. I wondered for a minute whether Hudson's heroics would somehow be cheapened by the fact that this key game in a tight race was going to be decided by two errors in the second.
In the top of the ninth, Hudson had two outs and the crowd was on its feet. Martinez hit a hard-diving liner to third that might have dropped for a hit had Chavez's jump been one inch lower. But it wasn't, and he caught it and the stands erupted in cheers and song. And then I thought, forget the errors, this is what I was waiting for, this is the significant moment, and it was at that moment that the significance and beauty of Hudson's and Moyer's work became clear to me.
I remembered what Koppett said about the totality. The errors weren't the thing, they were just a moment, something easy to fix on. The story of the game isn't the errors, it's how Hudson (and Moyer) made them mean something.
They'd been given meaning because the pitchers gave up almost nothing. They'd become unusual because their awkwardness was so out of place alongside the pitchers' skillful control. The pitchers were doing something that took time to build, it was complicated and subtle, it had layers and substructures. It wasn't easy to see in a scorebook. But what they were doing was the thing. What they were doing was what made yesterday's game feel like the great game that it was.
Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column on Page 2. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.