When each night of baseball begins, the player I want to watch more than any other is Fernando Tatis Jr. There are scores of players I’m interested in, hot streaks to follow, stat chases to track, pennant races to care about, matchups, backstories, new players, breakouts, a constantly changing treasure map of where the good stuff is. But more constant than all of that is Tatis.
He has the best arm of any shortstop. Only 10 hitters in all of baseball have hit a ball harder than his max velocity of 115.9 mph. He’s stunningly aggressive on the bases, scoring twice on sacrifice flies to the second baseman. He plays like his hair is on fire, and when his helmet falls off — as it often does — he looks like it, too. Consider a single play:
— San Diego Padres (@Padres) June 30, 2019
His casual, upright posture as he takes his lead; the intimidating flash of the bluffed steal; the speed of his head traveling the bottom of the screen as the base hit drops in; the juxtaposition of Jose Martinez running, and then Tatis running; the helmet shaking off at the final second, the fire; the way he ran so hard his shirt came unbuttoned; the way players can be so beautiful they can wear a camouflage baseball jersey and look good; the eye contact and smile he gives to Eric Hosmer, making sure Hosmer acknowledges Tatis just gifted him an RBI; the irony of Tatis, making the league minimum, making money fingers at Hosmer, a player paid 40 times more than that; the comic timing of doing money fingers from inside an oven mitt.
And he’s incredibly good, too. Prorate his stats over a full season and he’d have 40 homers and 35 stolen bases, 130 runs scored and (as a leadoff man) 95 runs driven in. He’s in the top 10 in the National League in all three slash stats. He’s a leadoff hitter who slugs .620. He missed all of May and he’s 16th in the majors in WAR. He’s 20, the second-youngest hitter in the majors.
What do we call this? Most Fun Player In Baseball? Most Exciting? Most Watchable? The final word probably works the best, and is the least easily misunderstood, though it’s also a little clunky. The idea we’re going for is threefold: a player who is almost certain to do something interesting in a given game; who can frequently do something stunning, unprecedented or GIFable; and who plays in a way that evokes some secondary emotion, apart from the mere thrill of victory/agony of defeat that all sport offers. Whatever the word, Tatis — regardless of what happens with the rest of his career — has now joined a lineage of players who were, for a time, the most entertaining player in the game.
Tatis was born Jan. 2, 1999. Since then, by our reckoning, there have been almost two dozen players who have held this unofficial title.* The churn is rapid. We grow complacent, we seek novelty, and age takes its toll on players. As it is now, though, Tatis fits perfectly at the end of this list:
April 1999-July 1999: At the time Omar Vizquel was, by reputation, the best defensive shortstop in baseball, a trick-shot master of barehanded snags, back-to-the-infield catches, and fake-out throws to trick runners. He didn’t hit much. But in the final month of 1998, he hit .338/.413/.493 with 10 steals in 21 games, a hint of the breakout that would come in 1999, when he set career highs in all three slash stats (despite just five home runs). He was the opposite of Mark McGwire in every way, and in the hangover period after the 1998 home run chase — and as McGwire and Sammy Sosa kept bopping cheap-60s home run totals — Vizquel’s offensive style seemed livelier and less repetitive. He batted second in a Cleveland lineup that scored 1,009 runs in 1999, the only team to do that since 1950 (and still the most recent). And while it was in 2000, not 1999, that Vizquel first completed a straight steal of home, he was already the sort of player who felt like he might steal home. He also was in the process of inventing the post-walkoff celebration that is now the sport’s standard.
July 1999-July 2000: In the 1999 All-Star Game, when Pedro Martinez famously struck out five batters in two dominant innings, the hardest throw might well have been by Ivan Rodriguez, who nailed Matt Williams on a strikeout/throw-out double play to complete Martinez’s second inning. Rodriguez, by statistic and by anecdote, was the greatest thrower in catching history, and in 1999 he picked off 11 runners and threw out 55 percent of those who tried to steal. He also fulfilled his manager’s prophecies by becoming an incredible offensive force, hitting 35 homers, stealing 25 bases (while allowing only 34!) and batting .332. He was even better the next year, hitting .347/.375/.667 before an injury ended his season in July.
July 2000-end of that season: Vladimir Guerrero is a defensible answer for any time period between June 3, 1997, and Aug. 14, 2009. His limbs moved like the flames in a barrel fire, barely contained, ever reaching over the sides, with a terrifying appetite to do more and more. He swung at everything, and every swing was his hardest; he tried to throw out every baserunner, and every throw was all the way on the fly. He led the league in outfield errors six consecutive years, and was typically high on the leaderboards of outs made on the bases, but he also hit .345/.410/.664 for the 2000 season, with 13 home runs in September alone.
2001: If Guerrero was muscular chaos, Ichiro was all precision and straight lines: Direct routes, low throws, line drives. His “iconic throw to third base,” a video of him throwing out Terrence Long, has more than 5 million views on YouTube, and came in his eighth career game. By that point he was hitting .371, an average that would drop only to .350 by the end of his rookie season. He led the league in steals, hits, batting average and fielding percentage. He was way skinnier than the rest of the stars, he hit with a totally unconventional swing that produced very little power, but for parts of that season you would have been sure he was the best in the world at four of the five scouting tools.
2002 through June 2003: In 2002, Guerrero came within one homer of baseball’s fourth 40-40 season, for an Expos team that was threatened the previous offseason with contraction but turned out to be a surprise contender.
June 2003 through the end of the season: Miguel Cabrera entered the year ranked 12th among all prospects on Baseball America’s preseason list, and then hit .365 with power at Double-A. He ended his major league debut with the Marlins by hitting a walk-off home run (over center fielder Rocco Baldelli, another Most Exciting contender in 2003), and he crushed the Cubs in that year’s National League Championship Series. He was still skinny, and I swear I remember him making swell plays at third base in that postseason.
2004: Carlos Beltran was the biggest name on the midseason trade market, and poised to be the best free agent that winter, so a couple dozen teams’ fans could watch him dominate two leagues in 2004 while fantasizing about their team somehow acquiring him. He hit 38 homers that year while stealing 42 bases (and getting caught just three times), but it was what he did after a trade to Houston that was most memorable: 28 stolen bases without being caught, 23 homers (and seven triples!) in just 90 games, and then perhaps the greatest postseason in history: eight homers in 12 games, a .435/.536/1.022 slash line, and six stolen bases.
2005-2006: This was a very clutch-skeptical era, especially in the snarky stathead writing that captured the zeitgeist of the period. David Ortiz was, of course, beloved for myriad reasons, an incredible hitter with a huge smile and a fantastic backstory. He was also, after the 2004 postseason, the most Obviously Clutch hitter in the world, and the tension of these two things drove a lot of people nuts. As Ken Tremendous wrote at the time, “This kills me to write, but … there is no such thing as clutch hitting. The reason it kills me is because I have watched David Ortiz win thirteen games with walk-off hits in the last three years, including three in the playoffs, and two in the last two days. David Ortiz/clutch hitting is like one of those magic eyes holograms — you know there is no 3-D space shuttle in the book you are holding, but holy Christ does it look like there is a 3-D space shuttle.” It was fun.
2007: Since integration there have been three players who’ve had 20 triples, 20 homers and 20 steals in the same season: Willie Mays, in 1957, and Curtis Granderson and Jimmy Rollins, both in 2007. Each could have been the Most Exciting that year, but Rollins was also one of the two or three best defensive shortstops in baseball at the time, and the better base stealer, and he struck out much less frequently.
April 2008 through July 2008: Josh Hamilton‘s comeback from addiction was, by 2007, already enough to justify an autobiography. But in 2008 he played his first full season, started the All-Star Game in center field, and set Home Run Derby records with his 28-homer first round. “Josh Hamilton is the best baseball player to ever walk the planet,” his teammate Ian Kinsler said that year, which was obviously not true in the traditional sense but had a sort of logic to it all the same.
August 2008 through the end of that season: When Manny Ramirez was happy, you half expected him to sprout rocket boosters, take off into the sky and do a bunch of whirlies in the clouds. When he got traded to the Dodgers on the final day of July 2008, he got really happy, and he hit .396/.489/.743 the rest of the way, then .520/.667/1.080 in eight postseason games. He was 36, but in a way he felt like a prospect being called up. Just a total phenomenon.
2009: In my lifetime, “Son of Vladimir Guerrero” has only one competitor for most exciting prospect biographical note: “Son of Cecil Fielder.” Prince Fielder might have actually been more exciting in 2007, when he hit 50 homers as a 23-year-old, or 2011, when he took the Brewers to the NLCS, but 2009 was probably his best year, and it was also the year of the still-never-topped bomb-drop celebration at home plate.
2010: Citing a hot streak isn’t quite in the spirit of the exercise, but Troy Tulowitzki‘s Two Weeks In September 2010 is my permanent standard for How Hot Can A Player Get? Over 16 games — one-tenth of a season — he hit 14 home runs, slugging 1.121 in that time. It wasn’t just those two weeks, though: He was probably the best defensive shortstop in baseball at the time, seemingly oversized for the position but with an outrageously strong arm that he could utilize from any orientation. He just couldn’t seem to stay healthy, so you made sure to watch when he was, as he mostly was in the first year of this decade.
2011: Pablo Sandoval, in 2011, hit .306/.383/.551 — on pitches out of the strike zone! (He hit .319/.319/.546 on pitches in the zone.) He would swing at anything, he would hit it, it was all great fun, and there was the cool nickname/merchandising tie-in to go along with it. The 2011 season was also the one when he was phenomenal defensively, according to both advanced metrics and the eye test.
2012: Mike Trout. He stole four home runs with leaping catches. He might well have been the fastest player in baseball — he led the league in steals, and in breathless accounts from scouts with stopwatches — and he was almost certainly the fastest starting from a stopped position, plowing up infield dirt behind him. At one point in the summer he was leading the majors in baserunning runs, hitting runs and fielding runs at his position, the three main components of WAR. He has somehow become a better player since then, but that was peak fun.
2013: This was a ridiculous year for watchable players. Manny Machado was 20 years old, leading the league in doubles and plausibly the best defensive third baseman of all time. Andrelton Simmons, meanwhile, was producing four GIFs a week with unprecedented shortstop play in his first full season. Billy Hamilton debuted, a year after stealing 155 bases in the minors, and raising all sorts of questions about the limits of speed; a showdown between him and Yadier Molina in September is an enduring memory from that season. Carlos Gomez, a nearly perfect accumulation of tools, put everything together for an MVP-caliber season, which culminated in the defining battle of this decade’s Unwritten Rules Wars. Hanley Ramirez broke out of Florida — where he’d been miserable — and finished in the top 10 in MVP voting for the Dodgers, despite missing half a season. But it’s definitely Yasiel Puig, who hit .517 in spring training, then .436 in his first full month in the majors, and who devoted every calorie he consumed to creating an outlandish highlight. He was unapologetic and seemed intent on pulling the sport his way until it could keep up with his pace.
2014: This was the year the Hunter Pence signs started — “Hunter Pence eats pizza with a fork” and other rando stuff. The signs weren’t that much fun, but they coincided with Freaky Pence Stuff really reaching its cultural peak. Only he could contort the way he did, only he threw and swung the way he did, and nobody else who has ever finished 11th in MVP voting (as he did that year — his highest finish) looked more like he was making fun of baseball playing than he did.
2015: It’s probably Bryce Harper, more because of the sense of payoff — this was what we’d been investing our attention in since he was a high school sophomore — than because the best player is necessarily always the most watchable. There’s a case for Joey Votto here, bouncing back from a mostly lost 2014 season and mastering the strike zone like nobody since Barry Bonds had. There’s a case for Jose Bautista, who flipped the danged bat (and also hit 40 regular-season homers, all of them majestic and beautiful). It’s Harper, though.
Early 2016: Quoting myself, from around that time: “A good Mookie Betts day is the most fun you can have at a ballpark. He’ll put the ball in play four times. One will be a sharp line drive up the middle on an impossible-to-hit 0-2 pitch. One will be a double into right-center — no, wait, he’s going to stretch it, it’s going to be close, here’ll come the throw and he’ll be … safe at third! He’ll homer, and it’ll look like Little Mac using one of his stars, a towering uppercut blow from the smallest guy in the lineup. He’ll work a tough walk to keep a rally going, then he’ll steal second, then he’ll score from second on an infield single. He’ll make a leaping catch in right field on a dead sprint; he’ll cut a ball off on its way to the gap, and then he’ll gun down the runner trying to go first to third. Wins Above Replacement stick to him like he’s magnetized.” There have been many brief challenges to Trout’s title of best in baseball, but Betts’ challenge has been the most sustained and his approach the closest, and it started in 2016.
Late 2016: Gary Sanchez had been an elite prospect, a name baseball fans knew for five whole years before he got called up for good Aug. 3. He hit 20 home runs in 52 games and, despite criticism for other parts of his defense, he threw as hard as any catcher in baseball. New York stars become extremely famous extremely fast, and for those two months it looked like Sanchez, not the still-to-come Aaron Judge, might quickly become the most famous baseball player in the world.
2017: I’ve never seen anybody swing harder than Javier Baez. I’ve almost never seen anybody swing more often. Over the course of a season, his swings alone burn twice as much fuel as an energy-efficient major leaguer’s. He’s astonishingly aggressive as a runner, taking extra bases (e.g., first to third or scoring from second on a single) more often in his career than much-faster Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton. He’s also the most creative defender in baseball, “El Mago,” a magician who might conjure outs out of nothing anytime he’s holding the baseball. He does the most mundane things with flair. He might be the most watchable player of my life, to be honest, and it was almost easier to appreciate this before he became an outright superstar in 2018.
2018: Shohei Ohtani. Easy one.
There are players we can’t believe we didn’t name. Jose Reyes, Adrian Beltre, Grady Sizemore, Giancarlo Stanton, Francisco Lindor, Carl Crawford, Buster Posey, Jose Ramirez, Byron Buxton, Lorenzo Cain, Nolan Arenado, Cody Bellinger, Aaron Judge, Torii Hunter, Yoenis Cespedes, Andrew McCutchen. Not to mention Ronald Acuna Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Those final two are a daily challenge to Tatis’ hold on this spot. For now, though, he’s outrunning them both.
*We limited this title to position players. Pitching is just a different role entirely, entertainmentwise, and while we’d love to have spent Tuesday writing about Jose Fernandez and Dontrelle Willis, they feel like a separate category. We also restricted the pool of candidates to major leaguers only.
Stephen Strasburg keeps Nationals’ rotation on a serious roll
WASHINGTON — Gerardo Parra wrapped both arms around Stephen Strasburg and wouldn’t let go. Their embrace has morphed into something of a tradition. It began late in the season and spilled into the playoffs, partly because this Washington Nationals team has grown so close and partly because Strasburg detests these hugs.
For this one, in the late stages of a victorious night in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, Parra held on long enough that a nearby Anibal Sanchez could get in on the action. Max Scherzer then spotted them from the end of the dugout, walked over, spread his long limbs out wide and enveloped them all, suffocating Strasburg with affection.
“Why not,” Scherzer said. “He deserved it.”
Strasburg, pitching three nights after Sanchez and two nights after Scherzer, had just held the St. Louis Cardinals to one unearned run in seven innings on Monday night, leading the Nationals to an 8-1 victory that gave them a commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
In Game 1, it was Sanchez, expertly mixing a variety of pitches, who came within four outs of a no-hitter.
In Game 2, it was Scherzer, playing his fastball off his changeup, who gave up zero hits and struck out 10 through the first six innings.
In Game 3, it was Strasburg, armed with untouchable off-speed pitches, who struck out 12, walked none and added to what is becoming an illustrious postseason resume.
In Game 4, it will be Patrick Corbin — every bit as capable, every bit as imposing — looking to pitch the Nationals into their first World Series.
“They’re the heart and soul of our team,” Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle said of the team’s starting pitchers. “It’s fitting that they’re the reason we’re in this position.”
If not for Michael Taylor misreading a line drive on Saturday and Juan Soto slipping in the middle of a throw on Monday, the Cardinals would probably be shut out for 27 innings in this series. Sanchez, Scherzer and Strasburg have combined for one unearned run allowed, three walks and 28 strikeouts in 21⅔ innings. The Nationals’ starters boast a 1.59 ERA, a 0.88 WHIP and a .164 opponents’ batting average in 56⅔ innings this month, numbers that don’t even include their contributions out of the bullpen.
Since the wild-card era began in 1995, only the 2012 Detroit Tigers, the 2018 Milwaukee Brewers and the 1995 Cleveland Indians have had a starters ERA better than that of the current Nationals through their first nine postseason games, according to research from the Elias Sports Bureau. The Brewers, however, relied on openers, skewing the numbers. This postseason has been marked by the rebirth of traditional starting-pitcher usage, and the Nationals — not the Houston Astros — stand as the prime example.
Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon called the team’s starters “nothing short of amazing.”
“They’re feeding off each other — they really are,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “It’s fun to watch.”
Strasburg has compiled 57 strikeouts and five walks in 41 career postseason innings. His 1.10 ERA trails only Sandy Koufax’s 0.95 among pitchers with at least five playoff starts. Strasburg has 10-plus strikeouts in four of his first seven postseason starts, a feat only Bob Gibson and Cliff Lee have matched. And the only pitcher with zero walks and more strikeouts than the 12 Strasburg had Monday in a postseason start was Tom Seaver, pitching in an NLCS that took place 46 years ago.
“It’s so impressive to me that when the crowd is the loudest, and in the biggest moments, is when he looks like he’s his calmest,” Doolittle said. “And you have to be able to stay calm if you’re gonna execute your off-speed pitches in the zone the way that he was all night long.”
Strasburg recorded all 12 of his strikeouts on off-speed pitches, the most in any start of his career. He allowed a leadoff double in the second, then fielded a comebacker and caught Marcell Ozuna between second and third base. He gave up back-to-back singles in the fourth, then got Yadier Molina to line out and end the threat. Paul DeJong laced a sharp single in the fifth, then Strasburg retired the next five hitters, three of them on strikeouts.
Stephen Strasburg brings the heat, as he records 12 strikeouts from the bump in seven innings as the Nationals take down the Cardinals 8-1 in Game 3 of the NLCS.
When his pitch count was escalating and he needed a quick inning, Strasburg exerted only 10 pitches to get through the sixth.
When trouble brewed in the seventh — on three singles, one of which scored a run after Soto’s back foot slipped on an attempted throw home — Strasburg became defiant.
Martinez paid a visit, with two on, one out, a run across and Strasburg’s pitch count at 109. The manager saw Strasburg grab his hamstring and thought about removing him. It was merely a cramp, Strasburg told Martinez. Happens all the time.
“I’m staying in the game,” Strasburg said. “I want to finish this inning.”
“You sure you’re all right?” Martinez asked.
“I’m in the game!”
Kurt Suzuki chimed in, told Martinez to let him finish, and the two retreated. Strasburg proceeded to strike out Matt Wieters and Dexter Fowler on nasty changeups that darted below the zone. Opposing hitters have slugged just .218 on that pitch all year, 175 points below the major league average on changeups.
“It looks pretty much like a fastball, just 10 to 12 miles an hour slower and a lot of depth at the end,” Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong said. “It looks like a fastball until it gets to the cut of the dirt, and then it starts to sink or run. It kind of takes on both.”
After the inning, as Strasburg was approaching his preferred dugout seat, he was met by Parra, the affable, veteran outfielder who joined the team in May. Parra has been among those who have worked diligently to soften Strasburg, who can be about as tightly wound as they come. Sanchez has tried to help.
“They’re just trying to make Stras as uncomfortable as possible,” Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton said. “It’s great, and when Stras is uncomfortable, good things happen.”
Strasburg — the former prodigy with impossibly high expectations, who sat out two prior Octobers but is maximizing what could be his final postseason run with the Nationals — provided a few light pats on the back. He tried to push away, but Parra pulled him back in. Strasburg laughed, swayed side to side and had the look of someone who was trying to savor the moment but didn’t quite know how.
“I’m not much of a hugger,” Strasburg said. “They kind of just surround me, so I just have to take it.”
The Nationals need to capture only one more win, in as many as four tries, to give Washington D.C. its first World Series team since 1933.
More hugs are coming.
Howie Kendrick continues to play unlikely hero for Nationals
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Howie Kendrick might not be the likeliest of heroes for the Washington Nationals, but neither is the 36-year-old vet the unlikeliest. After all, he has hit .325 over the past three seasons — the highest batting average in the majors.
Kendrick went 3-for-4 with three doubles and three RBIs in the Nationals’ 8-1 victory over the Cardinals in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series on Monday night. The Nationals are now one win away from their first World Series appearance in franchise history.
Kendrick became just the fourth player to hit three doubles in an LCS game, matching Ben Zobrist, Albert Pujols and Fred McGriff. He also hit the grand slam to beat the Dodgers in Game 5 of the NLDS and is hitting .314 in the postseason with nine RBIs in nine games.
“He’s the greatest ever,” teammate Anthony Rendon said after the game. “I mean, you see the man. He’s, what, 36 years old, and he’s still doing it. He’s built like a frickin’ cinderblock. He’s huge. Man, he stays short. He’s strong. So if he puts that barrel to it and stays behind the ball, you see it. He does damage. So he knows how to hit. That’s what he does.”
Kendrick is a lifetime .294 hitter, but hit a career-high .344 in 334 at-bats in 2019.
“I’m just trying to get smarter,” Kendrick said about his big season and being locked in at the moment. “Making adjustments, I would say, is the biggest thing. Trying to be more efficient with my body and my swing. Kevin Long is a big part of that. Kevin lives out in Phoenix, and I live in Phoenix. It’s funny because the first time we met, I said to him, ‘Hey, what can I do to get better?’ He had a list, like he had wrote down on a pad of paper. I wasn’t expecting it. This was the first time I had ever hit with him. He had this sheet of paper. He goes, ‘All right. This is what I know about you. This is what you hit with this, this, and this.'”
Long became the Nationals’ hitting coach in 2018. Kendrick hit .303 last season, but suffered a season-ending Achilles injury on May 19. His work with Long has paid big dividends this season.
His big hit on Monday came against Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty and capped the Nationals’ four-run inning — all four of which came with two outs. Kendrick lined a 2-1 fastball into the gap in right-center at 105.5 mph, capping the rally with a two-run double. It was the one hard-hit ball in the inning off Flaherty.
“I didn’t execute the one to Kendrick,” Flaherty said. “That’s the one pitch I want back.”
Kendrick first joined the Nationals in a trade with the Phillies in 2017 and then remained as a free agent.
“I love the team, and I re-signed for two years,” he said. “Last year was bittersweet because I got off to a good start and ruptured my Achilles. Having the ability to come back this year and be a part of this team and to be with the guys in the locker room, that was huge. Me and Kevin and Joe Dillon, we got to continue the process that we’d already started with my hitting, and I just trusted them and stuck with it. They just helped me get better at a time when I really needed to.”
Now, in his 14th season in the majors, Kendrick is one win away from his first trip to the World Series. Rendon was asked what he’ll be doing at 36.
“Hopefully not playing baseball,” he said. “Probably sitting on the couch hanging out with my kids. [Kendrick’s] probably going to play another 20 years.”
St. Louis Cardinals’ season pretty much ended with one disastrous inning
WASHINGTON — The St. Louis Cardinals threw 23,884 pitches in the regular season. They threw 756 more in eliminating the Braves in the division series. It took just 33 pitches in the third inning of Game 3 of the National League Championship Series for their season to unravel, however, sending the Cardinals to the brink of elimination against the Washington Nationals.
Here’s how one frustrating inning, full of some bad luck and some ground balls with eyes, unfolded:
Pitch No. 4: Down two games in the series, but with ace Jack Flaherty on the mound, the Cardinals were feeling confident about their chances behind a pitcher who owned a 1.12 ERA since the All-Star break. Flaherty gets ahead of No. 8 hitter Victor Robles 1-2, but Robles fouls off a 96 mph fastball.
Pitch No. 5: Robles fouls off another 96 mph heater. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt goes over to the railing, but the pop-up falls harmlessly into the first row of seats. There is a ramp between the railing and seats, so he can’t reach into the stands to make the catch.
Pitch No. 6: Flaherty throws a slider. Right-handed batters had hit .111 against his slider in the second half. It’s become one of the best, most devastating sliders in the game, one that racks up both strikeouts and worm burners. Robles hits it up the middle — not hard, just 76.5 mph, a ball with an expected batting average, according to Statcast data, of .220. But the ball scoots past a diving Paul DeJong for a leadoff single.
“I didn’t really execute that slider to Robles,” Flaherty said. “He put a good at-bat together. He put the ball in play. Sometimes you find a hole, so he found a hole there.”
Pitch No. 8: Stephen Strasburg lays down a perfect bunt down the first-base line, right on the dirt between the grass and the chalk. The Cards have no chance to get the speedy Robles at second base as Strasburg execute the sacrifice.
Pitch No. 13: After getting ahead of Trea Turner 0-2 with two two-seamers just off the plate, Flaherty fires a 96 mph four-seamer past Turner for a foul tip and strike three for the second out. At this point, it looks good for Flaherty and the Cards. He’s at 44 pitches in the game, he’s recorded three strikeouts and he’s one out away from keeping the game tied at zero after three.
Pitch No. 14: Leadoff man Adam Eaton swings at the first pitch, a 94 mph sinker, and sends a two-hopper to the left of second base. The exit velocity registered at 105.5 mph, but because the first bounce came in front of home plate, it wasn’t exactly a rocket up the middle. The expected batting average was just .240. Eaton is a spray hitter, so there’s no shift in play here, and Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong was shaded toward the bag. The ball bounces into center field and Robles jogs home with the first run of the game.
Pitch No. 18: With Flaherty ahead in the count 1-2, Anthony Rendon grounds a 96 mph fastball foul past the third-base bag. In Rendon’s first at-bat, Flaherty got ahead with two quick strikes, then missed on four straight sliders low and away. After the hard foul ball, the next pitch will be …
Pitch No. 19: … a slider, low and away, bottom of the strike zone. Good pitch, good location. Rendon basically throws his bat at the ball and lofts a weak fly ball to medium-shallow left field, toward the line. Marcell Ozuna, a Gold Glove winner in 2017, hustles after it and slides feet first. He’s in position to make the catch, but the ball falls out of his glove. Eaton sprints home from first. It wasn’t a routine play, but Rendon’s fly ball had a hit probability of just .180. It is generously ruled a double and the Nationals lead 2-0.
“Rendon does a good job of not punching out on what I felt was a pretty good executed pitch,” Flaherty lamented, “but that’s what he does, that’s why he is what he is.”
Still, Ozuna had it … and then didn’t. “A tough play, tough play,” Wong said. “Anytime you’re sliding feet first like that trying to make a play, as soon as you hit the ground there’s going to be some kind of movement and I think that’s what jarred the ball out of his glove. The breaks haven’t been going our way.”
The Cardinals’ defense has been rock solid all year — a key reason they made the playoffs after a three-season drought. Ozuna’s metrics in left are very good: plus-8 defensive runs saved. “It’s a play that he’s clearly capable of making, but it’s not a play you absolutely expect somebody to make,” manager Mike Shildt said.
The inning continues.
Pitch No. 23: Juan Soto takes a slider on the inside corner for a strike. The count is 2-2.
Pitch No. 24: Soto fights off a curveball at the knees to stay alive. When you post a 0.91 ERA in the second half of the season, you’re getting everybody out: righties, lefties, superstars, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth. It doesn’t really matter much. Left-handed batters hit .147 against Flaherty in the second half, including just .118 against his curveball. It was a good pitch, credit Soto for the foul ball.
Pitch No. 25: Soto fouls off a slider.
Pitch No. 26: Fastball up in the zone. Ball three.
Pitch No. 27: Curveball below the knees. Good, patient at-bat here by Soto, although with Rendon on second base, a walk to Soto isn’t necessarily the worse thing for St. Louis, setting up the righty-righty matchup against Howie Kendrick. On the other hand, Soto’s eight-pitch plate appearance also runs up Flaherty’s pitch count for the inning.
Pitch No. 30: Flaherty chunks a 1-1 fastball to Kendrick in the dirt and the ball glances off Yadier Molina‘s glove for a wild pitch. It was in the dirt, so it was scored a wild pitch, but Molina didn’t do a good job of getting down to block the ball. The runners move up to second and third.
Pitch No. 31: The next pitch is a 93.5 mph two-seamer running away from Kendrick. He lines a 105.5 mph laser into the gap in right-center and the ball goes all the way to the wall, with both runners scoring easily to make it 4-0. While the first three hits included some bad luck, this one had a hit probability of .690 — and I’d like to see the 31% that aren’t hits.
“I didn’t execute the one to Kendrick,” Flaherty said. “That’s the one pitch I want back.”
The Cardinals are hitting a woeful .121 in the series, leaving the pitching staff no margin for error. While the Cardinals are hitting .161 with two outs, the Nationals are hitting .350. A two-run inning becomes a four-run inning with Kendrick’s hit.
The wild pitch did leave a base open and Shildt has been generous with intentional walks in the postseason. “We could have put Kendrick on right there, but you get a guy like [Ryan] Zimmerman swinging the bat well right behind him,” Shildt said. “Didn’t make a pitch right there. That was probably the biggest part of that — was that pitch at that moment.”
Pitch No. 33: Zimmerman finally grounds out to end the inning.
Flaherty has had nine 30-pitch innings this season, including a 33-pitch seventh inning in Game 2 of the NLDS against Atlanta. This inning, however, was much more of a slow burn, a testament to how tough the top of the Nationals lineup is, a testament to the importance of not giving an inch to the other team, a testament to how an inning can fall apart with two outs. Rendon put a ball in play. Ozuna couldn’t quite make the catch, and that opened up the door for the big four-run rally — a rally that may have slammed the door on the Cardinals’ season.
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