Friday, October 25, 2019

Newsletter Preview, "Game Three...Plus" (from 10/26/18)

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 10, No. 110
October 26, 2018

Their paths had crossed before, you know.

Three years and change ago, Max Muncy stepped in against Nathan Eovaldi. He was “Nate,” then, and Max mostly went by “who?” It was a Saturday night in Oakland, the A’s off to a miserable 19-33 start, searching for offense and failing to find it in the form of Ike Davis. So they found themselves turning to a 24-year-old they’d drafted out of Baylor three years before. This was long before Muncy ever heard the words “launch angle,” long before he was released, long before “Maximum Muncy!” was a baseball-nerd battle cry.

No, on this night, he was just another non-prospect trying to find playing time on a team going nowhere. When he dug in against Eovaldi in the second, with Brett Lawrie on first and no one out, Muncy was hitting .222 with a couple of homers, on a 1-for-14 jag that ruined the first stretch of regular time he’d ever gotten in the majors. Baseball Reference pegs the attendance at a bit more than 25,000, which is just another reason to ignore listed attendance counts. Those actually in their seats paid little mind to the second-inning matchup. Muncy took a fastball for a strike, then fouled off two more before Eovaldi sent a changeup high and away for ball one. On the 1-2 pitch, Eovaldi busted out a hittable slider that locked up Muncy and sent him back to the dugout.

An inning later, they did it again, although by this point Eovaldi had morphed into the frustrating mix of velocity and contact that so frustrated first the Dodgers, then the Marlins, and now the Yankees. The A’s had eight singles in 14 at-bats, but just three runs. Muncy had a chance to make a name for himself, with two on and two out, but the slider once again proved his undoing. He fouled one off, a cookie, on 2-1, then swung over a second on 2-2 to end the inning. In striking out Muncy twice, Eovaldi didn’t throw a single cut fastball. In throwing 4 2/3 innings that night in Oakland, Eovaldi didn’t throw a single cut fastball. In fact, Eovaldi was still a year from playing around with the pitch that would put him in the World Series, that would give him another crack at Muncy.

Eovaldi wouldn’t be around when Muncy’s turn popped up again, chased from the game in the fourth by three more singles. When he gave way to Chasen Shreve, Muncy yielded to Mark Canha. Their paths diverged from there. Eovaldi would lead the American League in winning percentage, with a career-high 14 wins, and help the Yankees get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Muncy was back in the minors a month later, unable to hit, on a path to being released at the end of spring training in 2017.

I doubt either man remembers those strikeouts on a cool spring night at the Oakland Coliseum. Why would they? The two players who battled for ten pitches barely exist any more. Muncy, career at a crossroads, landed in the Dodgers system after being let go by the A’s and became a take-and-rake, flyball hitter, became a bench option, became the best hitter on a division champion. Eovaldi became the owner of a second elbow scar in 2016, undergoing a second Tommy John surgery in August of 2016. The track record of players who need a second Tommy John surgery is poor, and Eovaldi’s career was hanging in the balance. The Rays, betting on the come, signed Eovaldi to a one-plus-one deal in February of 2017, subsidizing the righty’s rehab with an eye towards having a tradeable asset in 2018. Those deals don’t always work out, but when Eovaldi returned this spring with his velocity intact, he’d added a wrinkle: the cut fastball he’d shelved earlier in his career.

No, the two players whose paths crossed briefly are gone, and in their stead are a pair of World Series heroes. When Muncy stepped in against Eovaldi in the 13th inning last night, he was one of the most dangerous men in the building, a Statcast darling with a four-figure OPS against righties. Eovaldi, with quality starts in both the Division Series and ALCS, had morphed into Alex Cora’s favorite relief pitcher, throwing the eighth inning of the first two games of the Series. Cora called on Eovaldi in the 12th inning last night, trying to put a stranglehold on the World Series with the best pitcher available to him, even if it meant holding tryouts for a Game Four starter.

It should have worked. Eovaldi retired the side in the 12th on 17 pitches, the last of them a 101-mph fastball that Justin Turner still hasn’t seen. In the top of the 13th, a Dodgers defense that has been the story of the Series once again got involved. Brock Holt walked and stole second when Scott Alexander bounced a sinker. Austin Barnes got tangled up with Eduardo Nunez trying to make a throw. (Some saw interference by Nunez, who was clipped by Barnes on the play, but I did not.) Nunez then topped a ball to the left of the mound. Muncy ranged out of position to make a play, leaving first base uncovered. Alexander snagged the ball, but flipped it over the head of Enrique Hernandez covering, allowing Holt to score. The Red Sox had the lead without hitting a baseball more than 70 feet.

When Muncy faced Eovaldi in 2015, he didn’t see a single pitch above 95. Leading off the bottom of the 13th, he saw four fastballs, all at 99 and 100. The last of those nearly hit Muncy, but instead sent him to first base with a leadoff walk. Eovaldi went to 3-2 on Manny Machado as well, but Machado isn’t going to walk at this point in October, and flied to left for the first out.

I mentioned that Barnes had clipped Nunez in the top half of the inning. This was no small matter. Nunez has been in and out of the Red Sox lineup with a number of leg ailments, and the contact with Barnes caused him to land hard on his right ankle. Nunez needed to walk it off, and in almost any other situation, would have left the game. This situation, however, was the Red Sox having used 23 of their 25 players, with only starters Chris Sale and Drew Pomeranz left at Cora’s disposal. Nunez was going to have to play until and unless he lost a limb, and even then you’d have to think about it.

This had already cost the Red Sox. With Nunez on first and two outs, Sandy Leon roped a double into the right-field corner. It was a ball on which Nunez, an aggressive baserunner with good speed, would normally score standing up with two outs. Instead, he pulled into third base, never having any chance to score. The Sox would strand him at third. Nunez’s bad wheels would now cost them again. Cody Bellinger fouled a ball off the third-base side, a fairly routine play but for the Sox being in a shift. Nunez, positioned just to the shortstop side of second base, ran 100 feet to make a fantastic play, but -- similar to Derek Jeter in the famous 2004 play -- was unable to stop himself from falling into the stands. It’s impossible to know for sure, but I think a healthy Nunez can throw out the parachute and stay on the field. By falling into the stands, he allowed Muncy to advance to second base.

That 90 feet would become critical a minute later. Yasiel Puig, the Dodgers’ final hope, ripped a ball up the middle, but right to Ian Kinsler, shifted toward second. Kinsler backhanded the ball, bobbled it, then inexplicably released a leaning, rushed throw that never came close to first base. Kinsler, who has played 15,000 major-league innings at second base, who is a finalist for the AL Gold Glove Award at second base, may never make a worse choice than he did last night. He had more than enough time to set himself, take a crow hop, and throw, and he simply rushed it. A good first baseman might have saved the day, but the various extra-inning maneuvers had left catcher Christian Vazquez to make his MLB debut at first base. (It’s incredibly hard.) Muncy scampered home, and the World Series had life.

Eovaldi and Muncy weren’t done. In the 15th, Muncy again led off, and again pushed the count to 3-2. He then launched a ball down the right-field line that had home-run distance, and home-run height, and, just barely, foul-ball angle. It missed the pole by a foot or two. Given a reprieve, Eovaldi finally put Muncy away with that new trick, the cutter, on the tenth pitch of the at-bat.

Three innings later, Eovaldi was working on one of the longest starts of the postseason, having retired 11 in a row, when Muncy stepped in to lead off the 18th. Eovaldi was leaking a little oil, not that you’d have seen it in the results. It’s understandable, of course. It was approaching 1 a.m. local, 4 a.m. body clock time, for a pitcher pushing 90 pitches working for the third time in four days. He was down a tick with the fastball, a tick-and-a-half with his command. There’s no crime in working at 96-97, but when you started at 99, it’s a sign you’re at least criminal minded.

Eovaldi sprayed his first three pitches to Muncy, then threw a get-me-over fastball for strike one. Muncy fouled off a 3-1 cutter and a 3-2 four-seamer, and the two were pretty much where they’d been an hour ago, and two hours ago, and a million miles from a half-empty Oakland Coliseum on a May night. They were new players, new people, and they were going to go down playing with their new toys.

Cut fastball.

Launch angle.


No World Series game had ever gone 15 innings before, much less 18. Very few baseball games in history had ever run more than seven hours. It took a remarkable confluence of events -- another Jackie Bradley Jr. home run, more Keystone Kops defense by the Dodgers, a high-school error by a great defensive player -- to push this game into paid-programming hours on your local Fox station. Maybe it wasn’t good baseball. Maybe it wasn’t even entertaining. Anyone who watched it, though, anyone who saw Walker Buehler and Joc Pederson and Craig Kimbrel and Pedro Baez and Mary Hart is going to remember this game for the rest of their lives.

They’re going to remember two players who were on their way out of baseball not so long ago, making history after midnight.