Baseball is different. The season spans over 6 months and is 162 games long. That’s twice as many games as the National Hockey League and ten times as many as the National Football League. It typically takes at least 90 wins for a team to qualify for the post-season and only 10 of the 30 teams will actually make it, a smaller proportion than in any other major professional sport. A team’s performance often isn’t even evaluated on individual games but on stretches of play over periods of weeks or months. So why tune in to watch a single game?
It was near the end of July, one of those midsummer nights that at the time seem endless, but in hindsight seem all too brief. I decided to take in a west coast game. I watched either because I was eager to see a decently played ball game, unlike those by my pitiable Blue Jays, or because I pathetically had little else to do (which is more likely the case). It was the formidable Cincinnati Reds versus the lowly San Diego Padres. I had no real allegiance to either side and my one hope was that I would see the Reds’ renowned Cuban closer Aroldis Chapman.
Both starting pitchers were impressive. For the Reds it was 25 year old right-hander Mike Leake, who would go on to sport an impressive 3.35 ERA (Earned Runs Average) with a WHIP (Walks and Hits Per Inning Pitched) just over 1.2 for the season. Effectively mixing speeds with good movement within the strike zone, the artist-like Leake was able to limit the Padres to just four singles. He retired 12 of the final 13 batters he faced en route to putting up 7 scoreless innings of work.
Leake’s counterpart, right-hander Sean O’Sullivan, refused to be out-matched. Making only his third start of the year for the major league club and with a career ERA close to 6.00, calling his performance ‘surprising’ is an understatement. For every bit of pretty neatness in Leake’s performance, O’Sullivan responded with what seemed to be only raw gutsiness aided by a little luck. O’Sullivan allowed ten base runners to reach base but never gave in. He stranded nine of them and left the bases loaded twice in his six strong innings. His only blemish was a sole run in the fifth when Reds centerfielder Derrick Robinson tripled off the wall and was brought home by a groundout.
Both teamsè late relief out of the bullpen was first-rate, with no runs being ceded by either club. As most pitching-duels go, the game quickly and quietly proceeded to the ninth inning, with the Reds clinging to a 1-0 lead. After the Reds went down painlessly in the top half of the inning the stage was set, much to my delight, for Chapman.
The Reds signed the six foot four inch left-hander to a 5 year, 25 million dollar contract in 2010 as an international free agent after defecting from Cuba. Since then Chapman has been one of the most dominating closing pitchers in the game. In 2012 he had a sparkling ERA of 1.51, while striking out a ridiculous 122 hitters over 71.2 innings. His feature weapon: an unrivaled four-seam fastball that averages 100 miles per hour.
As Chapman emphatically dug into the mound at San Diego’s Petco Park he seemed imperious to all on-lookers. The sound of his pitches slamming into the catcher’s glove seemed to represent all the financial might of the playoff-bound Reds. Many of the loyal home fans, undoubtedly questioning why they came, knew that their destiny was likely another defeat, the tight score making it all the worse.
This could have been just another game. Chapman could have closed the door to get the save, and the Reds would have been one step closer to a playoff spot. Fortunately for the San Diego Padres, baseball doesn’t always work like that.
The first batter to step in against Chapman was Padres first-baseman Yonder Alonso. The count quickly moved to 2-2 before Alonso even pondered swinging. Chapman’s fastball moved like a dart, but he was losing control of it. He reached back and delivered the fifth pitch at an astounding 102 mph, but well low of the strike zone for ball three. Chapman’s next offering missed low once again, giving the tying run a free pass and the hometown fans a glimmer of hope.
Padres manager Bud Black, playing the lefty-righty odds, decided to bring in the right-handed Chris Denorfia as a pinch-hitter to face Chapman. A grizzled veteran of eight major-league campaigns, Denorfia has never been an All-Star, has never been to the postseason, and has been frequently demoted to the minor leagues throughout his career. The Padres signed him to a minor league contract in 2009 after the Oakland A’s let him walk, and have had little trouble re-signing him three times since.
The 32 year old journeyman, with a pinch of chew subtly tucked in the pocket of his cheek, stepped into the batter’s box against the team that originally drafted him in the 19th round more than ten years earlier. He could not have been more different from the pitcher he was facing. An unheralded, aging bench player facing off against the person who has thrown the fastest recorded pitch in baseball history.
Denorfia knew what was coming and wasted no time. Chapman delivered a 98 mph fastball right down the middle and Denorfia unloaded on it. He drove off his back leg, aggressively rotated his hips, extended his arms while keeping his hands low, and timed the ball acutely. All in one motion, all in a fraction of a second. It was a swing that coaches will replay in video rooms. It was a swing that evidently took thousands of hours of practice. And it was the swing that ended the game. The ball travelled more than 404 feet over the centerfield wall for a two-run walk-off pinch-hit homerun, shocking the Cincinnati Reds and all believers in logical conclusions.
As Denorfia speedily rounded the bases almost unaware of his achievement, he looked like a hero, if only for the moment. As his teammates eagerly cheered and anticipated his arrival at home, they were winners, if only for the moment. As the sparse crowd of supporters fervently jumped and applauded for their team, they couldn’t have wished for anything more, if only for the moment.
Baseball is beautifully unpredictable. Each game has the power to surprise and dismay. Even the ones you just stumble upon. The Reds’ starting pitcher was a budding former first round pick, and the Padres’ starter, who has never logged more than 100 innings in a season, matched him pitch for pitch. The Reds had one of the most sought after international free agents in history as their closer and the Padres’ perpetually overlooked outfielder made hitting his fastball look easier than rounding the bases.
The Reds will likely still make the playoffs as the second wildcard team in the National League, a single loss not being enough to knock them from contention. The Padres would go on to lose 10 of their next 15 games, and are currently sitting in last place in their division. They will not make the playoffs, and the season will go down as another disappointment in a list of many. But just for that night, it didn’t matter that it didn’t matter.
Just for that night, every Padres player and fan was so consumed in that single spectacular victory that all else seemed inconsequential. This was just one of the 162 games that will be played. Its value in the scheme of the season was low, yet for that fleeting period of time, nothing was more important.