Wednesday, September 17, 2014

One Night in September: The Pitcher, The Batter, The Steal and The Beltway

The baseball season can feel like an eternity. If your team is nearing one hundred losses, it cannot end soon enough. If your team is playing for October, you live and die with every pitch and minor injury that a long season can provide. For Washington and Baltimore, September 16th was a formality. With a win, each would win their respective division. In Kansas City, St, Louis, Anaheim, Oakland, Arizona and Minnesota, postseason implications hung overhead like a pendulum. In Chicago and Houston, two downtrodden clubs had a reason to smile in the midst of another losing season. It was a night bursting at the seams with drama and fulfillment, flourishing the autumnal sentiment that only baseball can deliver.

It all began in Baltimore, shortly past 7:00 local time. The Orioles were hosting Toronto in what seemed destined to be the coronation of Baltimore's first division title in seventeen years. Umbaldo Jimenez quickly gave up a run, and the fanfare was put on hold. in the bottom half, Steve Pearce's three-run home run ignited a fury within Camden Yards. Years of living in the shadows of Boston and New York were coming to an end, and everyone could feel it.

Atlanta hosted the Nationals, who were themselves on the cusp of clinching a division crown. Their drought was a bit less severe, having not won the National League East since 2012. Washington had led the division since July 21st, and showed no signs of surrender. They're supposed to be here. The Nationals are a team built for the postseason, with solid pitching from top to bottom and a lineup stacked with hitters hellbent on capitalizing on every mistake they're given. As the innings flew by, the road club's lead stood at two runs. The visiting locker room had yet to be adorned with the celebratory protective plastic covering, but then Ian Desmond stepped in against Aaron Harang.

Across baseball, teams were fighting to keep up with each other. Detroit's slim lead on the Central Division appeared to be slipping away as the home Twins notched two runs and held the Tigers scoreless through eight. Kansas City had just rallied to take the lead over the visiting White Sox heading into the top half of the seventh inning. The Angels, having already clinched at least a postseason berth, were hosting the Mariners, who needed a win like they need air to breathe. The same goes for Milwaukee, who found themselves in St. Louis, looking up at the Cardinals in the standings and the box score following a quick two runs in the first. Oakland and San Francisco, the wild card leaders, looked to keep the pressure on those less fortunate. The tension grew with every out, but even beyond the playoff race, the drama of September 16th was unmistakable.

Jose Altuve, known most for his height (or lack thereof) was approaching a franchise record. In the history of the Houston Astros, only one player had hit safely 210 times in one season- Craig Biggio in 1998. Biggio, the face of Astros baseball in my youth, is an icon in Houston. With the recent abysmal history of the franchise, one player has emerged as the face of Houston's rebuild, that being Altuve. The five-foot-six-inch second baseman is a hitting machine, batting a crisp .302 in his young career. Last night, he needed only one hit to tie Biggio's mark. It wasn't a matter of 'if' but 'when' he would accomplish the feat, and the baseball world had a reason to watch an Astros game for the first time in years.

Jake Arrieta, a trade piece sent from Baltimore to the Cubs last season, has been nothing short of stellar this year. Each of his starts felt like a potential no-hitter, but ultimately fell flat. For a team so proud of its young hitting prospects, a twenty-eight year old pitcher has managed to dodge the hype despite throwing ace-level pitches nearly every night. The Cincinnati Reds were in town, freshly eliminated from postseason contention. Again, Arrieta faced the minimum amount of batters through five, then six, then seven innings. No hits, no runs, no errors. The Cubs offense had given him plenty, following a Jorge Soler blast to put the home team up 7-0. He trotted out for the eighth as the first pitcher in Cubs history to bring three no-hitters into the seventh inning.

Ian Desmond knew what he wanted. Anything high and inside. Harang, desperately trying to keep his pitches outside, let one slip right into Desmond's wheelhouse. In an instant, Washington was up 3-0, with Drew Storen coming in to seal it. Atlanta could only muster three soft ground balls, falling in order in the ninth. The visiting dugout emptied, and the first division champions of 2014 were crowned. The Washington Nationals' lead grew to twelve and a half games, and in another low-scoring affair, clinched their second Eastern Division title.

Back in Baltimore, the Orioles had added to their lead. Heading to the top of the ninth, the Blue Jays needed six runs to keep champagne on ice. There would be no drama, as Toronto would bow out after a relatively useless single by John Mayberry. For the first time since 1997, the Baltimore Orioles were champions of the Eastern Division. Through the Yankee dynasty and the Red Sox revival, the Orioles were held down to hopes of a wild card berth. Finally, the Camden Yards faithful could breathe, for their club had amassed a thirteen game lead and not relented. October's fate now lays before them.

J.D. Martinez kept Detroit alive with a three-run home run in the ninth. Given Minnesota's struggles, it was unlikely they would return the comeback favor. But to think they couldn't spoil Detroit's surprise is to disregard the essence of September baseball- never assume victory. Kurt Suzuki doubled for the Twins, tying the game at three. Chris Herrmann pinch ran for the catcher. With one swing, Aaron Hicks reversed the Tigers' fate and walked off as spoilers, if only for one night.

Conor Gillaspie walked into the box with bases loaded. The White Sox down a run and looking to play their own role of spoiler, Gillaspie lined into the left-center field gap, clearing the bases. That would be all Chicago needed to knock the otherwise superior Royals down and keep order in the Central.

Seattle plated thirteen runs against the Angels to move up on the stumbling wild card holders. A rare blemish on the Los Angeles record, the Angels' division lead stayed momentarily motionless, barring the results of Oakland's effort against Texas.

Milwaukee rallied to knot the game at two, eventually sending they and the Cardinals to extra innings, where Carlos Gomez stole the show and a few bags as well. Yadier Molina, widely considered to be the best catcher in baseball, has a habit of throwing would-be base thieves out at second. In the offhand chance the runner was to squeak by and beat Molina's divine throw, he'd best not think about taking third. Apparently, Carlos Gomez didn't get the memo. In the top of the twelfth inning, Gomez did just that, stealing second and third on the devilishy quick hand of the Cardinals' catcher. Moments later, he would be driven in by Hector Gomez, giving the Brewers the run they needed to stay alive in the wild card hunt as well as the Central Division race.

The teams on the bay, Oakland and San Francisco, each hold their respective league's top wild card spot. While the dream would be to crawl out and up to a division title, both clubs are looking up at powerful Los Angeles teams. San Francisco held up their end, knocking out a pair of runs en route to defeating the Diamondbacks. In Oakland, the story was a bit different. Texas put up three in the fourth and matched it in the fifth. Those six runs were all they would need as the Rangers would join the Twins and White Sox in the spoilers club. The loss only added to the American League wild card calamity. Oakland, Kansas City, and Seattle now sit within two and a half games of each other with less than two weeks to play.

Down in Houston, Jose Altuve was at bat for the third time in the game. Hitless in his first two appearances, the eyes of the baseball world again turned to the diminutive middle infielder. With a crack down the third base line, Altuve matched Biggio with a double, fitting given the Astro legend's propensity to hit two-baggers. In the seventh, he would come up again, with a chance to break the record. A fast ground ball up the middle stretched into the outfield, and there it was. Jose Altuve had done something no Houston Astros player had done in the team's fifty-three year history. With a dozen games remaining, Altuve is surely going to extend the team mark, but the night he tied and broke Craig Biggio's record is a bright spot on an otherwise dark age for Astros baseball.

Five outs to go. Cubs fans hate that phrase. Echoes of 2003 ring with the mere mention of five outs. But there was Jake Arrieta, five outs to go. His masterful performance had drawn attention to a game featuring two teams long forgotten in the playoff hunt. The Reds had been hitless for seven and one third innings, until Brandon Phillips stepped in. Arrieta hung a pitch much right where Phillips wanted it, and he delivered. Center fielder Matt Szczur dove to play the ball, but it was all for naught. It was a warning track threat that dropped in for a hit. The no-hit bid was once again over for Arrieta, but his night was not. Perhaps needed that release of tension to complete the effort, Arrieta disposed of the remainder of the Reds offense in quick fashion, earning his first career complete game shutout. The Cubs' serendipitous ace had asserted himself with thirteen strikeouts while only allowing one hit and one walk.

On some nights, baseball can captivate in ways we always knew it could. With spectacle and drama worthy of any stage, the game always finds a way to bring us back, tracing the madness of every pitch. September 16th, 2014, will be forgotten in the long, lush annals of baseball history, but for one night, the game we love proved that no matter your team's record or reason for playing on, any night can deliver something truly special.

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