There are two guaranteed arguments for baseball fans: the value of the designated hitter and the wisdom of the hit and run. Tonight we had a successful hit and run, so somebody somewhere has a point for his side, and somebody somewhere else has a rationalization.
Debates about the hit and run are essentially varying views on baseball risk management. Managers like Earl Weaver think it’s nuts to gamble a possible out for advancing a runner. Managers like Mike Scoscia, tonight, think the reward outweighs the risk, particularly if it takes the opponent by surprise.
It took the Twins by surprise, all right. After a four-pitch walk to Erick Aybar started the eleventh inning with the score tied 5-5, Scoscia called the play with Gary Matthews Jr at bat. The Twins had been expecting a bunt to nudge the runner over, and the fielders left a hole Matthews exploited for a single.
Now, there’s no question the hit and run worked in this instance. It was even something of the centerpiece of the Angels’ comeback. They would go on to hit six singles, collect one more walk, and score six runs to win 11-5. The Twins tried to staunch the bleeding with three different relievers, but once the Angels set to hitting, they really don’t stop.
The hit and run has a pretty problem—if it fails, it often leads to a double play, which is the very outcome it is designed to forestall. The play affects the actions of both baserunner and batter, but it is called before either can judge the pitch. It’s a blind commitment, and both players had better read the sign correctly or it unravels before it starts.
The idea is simple: the runner starts running before the ball is hit, giving him a splendid head start. If the batter fails to make contact, the runner is now trying to steal, but is more likely than usual to be thrown out, because his lead is not based on the normal read of the pitcher, or even trying to search for a slower pitch on which to run. In a hit and run, the runner just breaks away as the pitch is thrown, without the lead he might use on a true steal.
The batter has to put the ball in play, and if he’s a good contact hitter he even gets some help here. A runner on first breaking for second obligates either the second baseman or shortstop to cover the bag, leaving a little lane for the hitter to poke a ground ball through.
If the hitter misses, the runner is usually out; if he strikes out or pops up, they both are, unless the fielders muff their chance. Try it with a bunt and two runners on base and you have the ingredients of the fabulous unassisted triple play.
Yet the rationale of the hit and run is reducing the chance of a double play by giving the runner a massive head start. The other, quieter, reason for using it is to compensate for limited power hitting skills. A clean double may be hard to come by, but getting the bat solidly on the ball is all that’s needed for a hit and run to move a runner to third on a single, or score him on a double. At worst, a fielder’s choice that cuts down the batter at first instead of the lead runner sets up the next hitter without the possibility of the classic second-to-first double play looming over him.
The batter has some important tasks. He needs to foul off any pitch he can’t rap out into play, and he needs to hit behind the advancing runner. Obviously, the play is not smart at certain points in the count. Tonight, Mike Scoscia used it before the Twins could see it coming.
Bobby Keppel was in for the eleventh inning. Joe Nathan had already been used to preserve the tie, and both teams were juggling their bullpens. Keppel began by walking Aybar, and instantly the inning started to have that faint whiff of trouble about it. Matthews discharged his hit and run duties perfectly, and Aybar advanced to third.
There are two basic ways to break a tie: scratch out a run using every out available, or pound your way through. The Angels started this inning as if they’d need gamble their outs for a single run, but the Twins bullpen didn’t get around to charging them any tolls on the highway. Howie Kendrick hit a single to score Aybar, and there were still no outs.
Ron Gardenhire tried to stop the misery quickly, and switched pitchers, but Jessie Crain had no better luck against the swarming singles attack of the Angels. Put it this way: you can win a lot of games with .250 hitters if they have the uncanny knack of getting their single hit of the night all in the same inning.
Chone Figgins singles to load the bases, and Maicer Izturis follows with, what else, another simple single, this one of the RBI variety. Bobby Abreu breaks up the tedium by scoring two runs on his hit, and then Juan Rivera walks.
That’s a lot of Angels marching over the basepaths, so Gardy tries the bullpen again. RA Dickey falls under the Angels’ hypno-hitting spell and dispenses a single to Kendry Morales, than snaps himself out of it. He strikes out Mike Napoli, but allows a fielder’s choice from Aybar to score one more run. Dickey strikes out Matthews, but you almost get the feeling the Angels are ready to get back in the field and enjoy their 6-run lead.
The Twins don’t come close to answering back in the bottom of the inning. They are dispirited, even stunned. It had been a close game up to the eleventh, with good spurts of hitting by both teams.
Nick Blackburn and Ervin Santana were the starters, meeting up again, this time in the Metrodome, after last squaring off in a game the Angels took in crushing style. In that game, Blackburn had been perfect for three innings, only to unravel completely in the fourth as the Angels took a clobbering lead they would never surrender.
Tonight Blackburn gets it over with quickly by giving up a hit to Figgins to start the game. The Angels end up scoring two in the inning.
Joe Mauer sends the Twins ahead in the third with a three-run homer. He was driving in Alexi Casilla and Denard Span, and once again the Twins are working from the template of place-setting hitters getting themselves on base.
This afternoon, the Twins completed a trade for Orlando Cabrera, a traveling shortstop who moves from team to team with the sterling credential of having participated in the 2004 Red Sox World Series victory. The .280 hitter is going to displace one of our infield lightweights, and that puts Nick Punto in the crosshairs. Tonight could be his last game for a while, maybe forever.
He doesn’t have much of a line score until the fourth inning, in which he smacks a hearty triple to score Carlos Gomez. Watching him motor hard to third is cheering. Gardenhire has an obvious soft spot for Punto, and this RBI moment may be enough to turn attention to Brian Buscher or Alexi Casilla as the player who’s forced down.
The fourth inning includes an RBI from Span, scoring Punto and placing the Twins ahead 5-2. Blackburn pitched on into the seventh, but the Angels caught up to him. There were baserunners in every inning, against both pitchers, but now the Angels cash in on two of theirs, with an RBI from Izturis and a homer from Abreu.
A one-run lead is such a rickety thing. You can keep propping it up, but the smallest puff of wind is enough to collapse it. Matt Guerrier starts off the eighth inning by giving up a solo homer to catcher Mike Napoli. Guerrier proceeds to corral three straight outs, but the tie is in place. Both teams are quiet for the ninth and tenth, and then the hit and run triggers a scoring cascade in the eleventh.
A close game disintegrated into a rout, and the Twins don’t manage that miraculous four-game win streak they need. The team has clung close to .500 all season long, and tonight’s a little example of how one startling play can set off big inning against a Twins team that can’t quite take that next step up. There’s always tomorrow, but not an infinity of tomorrows.