Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, March 22, 2023 -- "Getting Lucky"


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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 15, No. 18
March 22, 2023

It doesn’t always work out this way, of course. Not in baseball. You build something like the World Baseball Classic, you hope for it, but you can’t make it happen.

The first one, back in 2006? It ended with the tying run nowhere near the scene, Akinori Otsuka whiffing Yuli Gurriel to win it all for Japan. Two players who would have nice MLB careers, to be sure, but hardly the stuff of legends. In 2009, you had Yu Darvish taking out Keun-Woo Jung to lock it up for Japan, again. In ’13, it was Fernando Rodney against Luis Figueroa. Good ballplayers all, but there’s a reason this thing was drifting from ESPN to MLB Network over time.

That’s baseball, of course. Last year’s World Series, that wasn’t bad, Ryan Pressly retiring the heart of the Phillies’ order to win it for the Astros, getting Bryce Harper along the way. In 2021, though, it was Tyler Matzek wiping up a 7-0 Braves win against, hey, that man again, Yuli Gurriel. In baseball, the game chooses the players, not the other way around.

In football, boy, it’s not like that. The last Super Bowl had the greatest player in the game, Pat Mahomes, orchestrating a game-winning drive as the clock ticked down in a tied contest. The one before that saw a star, Matthew Stafford, leading the Rams down the field in a fourth-quarter drive that flipped the game. The Rams’ win was sealed when perhaps the league’s best defender, Aaron Donald, sacked the Bengals’ quarterback on fourth down.

In the NBA, the stars always run the show. Last summer, in the clinching game of the NBA Finals, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 41 of the Warriors’ 92 shots, and threw in nine assists, too. For the Celtics, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum took more than half of the team’s 80 shots between them in a losing effort. The end of almost any important basketball game, certainly any championship game, is about the superstars.

Baseball doesn’t allow for that. Sometimes it’s Chris Sale mowing down Manny Machado to bring on the dogpile, but more often it’s Mike Montgomery against Michael Martinez, or Jason Motte finishing off David Murphy, or Otis Nixon trying to bunt his way on against Mike Timlin.

Sometimes, though...sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes the end of a big international tournament comes down to a one-run lead with one out left, and a matchup between the greatest player ever and the one coming to take that crown from him.

That’s what we got last night at the end of the 2023 WBC, Mike Trout against Shohei Ohtani, teammates most of the time, thrown together in opposition with two outs, nobody on, Japan holding a 3-2 lead in the title game, looking for their third win in five WBCs. The U.S., for its part, was trying to join Japan as the second team to win multiple WBCs, and match Japan’s record of winning two in a row.

Shohei Ohtani, mind you, had already put in a day, working a walk and beating out an infield single, a ball he hit at 114 mph, the second-hardest hit ball of the game. Now he was on the mound, nine pitches deep, a walk and a groundball double play behind him. Ohtani, coming off two of the most incredible seasons in baseball history, establishing himself as one of the best hitters and best pitchers in the sport, something I thought impossible, now had a chance to end the biggest game he’d played since leaving NPB in 2017.

He started with a breaking ball, low, never a strike, a chase pitch that Mike Trout is way too good to chase. Down 1-0 to the tying run, Ohtani came back with...I don’t know how “country hardball” translates, but this was it, 100 mph middle-middle, hit it if you can see it. Trout couldn’t, 1-1.

With some room to maneuver now, Ohtani went back off the plate, just off the outer edge, with another 100-mph fastball with some cut to it. Trout, once again, refused to chase. 2-1. Watching, the dominant emotion was gratitude. A homer on the first pitch, or a pop-up to third on the second, would have felt anticlimactic. I was standing by now, wanting this to last like cold lemonade on a summer day, like a great second date, like your kid’s childhood.

There are days when it seems like we’ve forgotten Mike Trout, his greatness, fragile and therefore frustrating, now existing in the shadow of Superman. Plenty of hitters, though, would have been long gone after these three pitches, swinging over the breaking ball and behind that 1-1 heater. Trout, though, had the count in his favor, had a bat in his hands, had the home-country advantage.

Ohtani? He had a hundo more, again fired over the middle of the plate, a couple inches higher than the first one. Mighty Casey swung through it, not all that close to doing damage, and was down to his last strike. On a night when the pitchers of Samurai Japan had thrown enough splitters to bring Roger Craig back to life, [Ed. note: The legendary pitching coach and manager is very much alive. I apologize.--JSS] their win was coming down to a guy throwing fastballs in the happy zone and living to tell the tale.

Ohtani reared back now, and for the first time, cracked a little. He overthrew, pulling a fastball down and away, sending it to the backstop at a snappy 102 mph.

Three and two.

Two outs.

Top of the ninth.

3-2 ballgame.

The greatest ever.

Maybe the next greatest ever.

Ohtani made Trout choose. Having been beaten twice with fastballs middle-middle, Trout had every reason to think the payoff pitch would be a third. He was geared up for one, his bat carving an arc through the middle of the strike zone, but the ball wasn’t there. It was moving away from his bat, towards the outside corner, at a mere 87 mph. The decision to throw a slider here, that’s one we can discuss.

The slider Ohtani threw, though, ends that discussion. Tight, late break, on the black. We don’t know for sure who invented the slider, a pitch that sort of emerged from a primordial soup of breaking balls. We do know that 80 years of sliders all led to this one, aimed down the middle and then cornering like something out of “The Fast and the Furious.” Strike three. Game, silks.

You invent the WBC, and then you wait 17 years for a moment like we got last night. You watch baseball, and you wait 45 years for a moment like we got last night.

Classic, indeed.