It’s the bottom of the 9th in a 10-9 ballgame. The game has been anything but ordinary. After laying claim to a 5-0 lead, the visitors gave it up, trailing behind 9-7 into the 8th. A leadoff home run in the bottom of the 9th tied the game and a bases-loaded wild pitch brought home the go-ahead run. There is a runner on 1st with 2 outs and 2-2 count to the left-handed batter. The home team is down to their last out.
The catcher signals for a breaking ball and sets up. The knuckle curve sweeps across the plate and the batter offers at it with a check swing. The ball disappears beneath the bat and bites hard towards the dirt near the lefty’s back foot. The catcher reaches across his body to backhand the ball, but can’t come up clean with the short-hop. The ball bounces off the heal of his glove and kicks behind him to the backstop. The home plate umpire appeals to the third base umpire, who signals that the batter did swing. Getting a late start, the batter drops his bat and sprints towards first. Annoyed with his decision to pick the ball rather than block it, the catcher jogs after the ball. When he realizes that the pitch was called a swinging strike, he picks up the pace, gathering the ball and looking to make the throw to first base. His effort is too little, too late as he decides to hold onto the ball. As he walks back to home, he pushes the baseball into his forehead, signaling his mental mistake. The winning run is on board via a strikeout and the tying run has moved into scoring position.
After another wild pitch moves both runners into scoring position, the batter gets ahead in the count 3-1. With the home team’s best hitter on deck, the visiting closer dials up a fastball on the 3-1 pitch. The ball is down in the zone, but stays over the middle of the plate. The batter, sitting dead red on a fastball, puts a great swing on the ball and crushes it to center. He watches the ball cut through the air and sail over the center field wall for a walk-off bomb. The wild game is over, and the celebration is on for the home crowd.
What Went Wrong:
To break this sequence down, we will label key parts as the good, the bad, and the ugly.
First, the good. Umpires are rarely praised, but in this sequence, they should be. The home plate umpire quickly and efficiently appeals to the third base umpire who lets everyone know quickly that the batter did, in fact, swing. There is a slight pause, but the batter is given enough time to get running and have a chance to get to first base. The umpires, not the batter who struck out, get the thumbs up on this play.
Now, the bad. The catcher’s decision to try to backhand the bouncing pitch rather than block it with his body is definitely a bad decision. He knows the curveball is coming, he knows the purpose is to get a swing and miss and that the pitch is likely to be out of the zone, yet he still doesn’t block the ball the way he should. This is a mental mistake, plain and simple. Anytime there are runners on base or two strikes on a hitter, blocking the ball in the dirt is a must. In this case, if he blocks the ball with his body, the game is over.
And last, the ugly. This play turns from bad to worse when the catcher compounds his initial blocking mistake by not giving chase to the ball at 100% effort. He jogs to the ball and is not prepared to throw it to first when he does come up with it. Whether he didn’t think the batter offered at the ball or was letting his frustration interfere with his actions, either way is unacceptable. You absolutely cannot assume the umpire’s call in the middle of the play and you definitely can’t let your emotions dictate or control your behavior. While it is not often that mistakes like this lead directly to a walk-off home run, they always have an impact on the game.
The great thing about the Think The Game section is that you can learn from the mistakes of others before you ever make them yourself. Watch this entire sequence play out in a real life MLB game, here. Can you see where the player went wrong? Don’t end up his shoes, always think the game!