Just a Bit Outside

Alex Bregman stood at the plate, his team down three runs, two men already out, facing a 1-2 count against the best pitcher in the world. I don’t know what was going through his head at that moment, but here’s what he was not thinking: next close pitch I see, I’ll let it go. Everyone knows that; its the first thing they tell you in little league. Better to go down swinging than looking. Bregman couldn’t even be sure what the strike zone was: the first pitch of the at-bat, he’d taken a curve inches off the outside corner for a called strike.

Joe Buck was talking about Clayton Kershaw’s command, but Bregman couldn’t hear him. He just waited, waited, standing silently in the batter’s box as he tried to out-think the Dodgers’ ace. “He’s one out away from breathing easier,” Joe Buck said.

Kershaw wound. He fired. It was a changeup, coming in at 88, off the outside corner at the knees, a pitch you just can’t help but ground weakly back to the pitcher. Bregman knew this. He knew that it might be strike three. And he knew that if he reached base, Jose Altuve would follow. So his bat didn’t leave his shoulder.

Austin Barnes caught the ball, and the crowd gasped, the kind of purely involuntary group reaction you just can’t avoid when everything’s on the line. But Bill Miller didn’t move. The pitch was outside. The count was 2-2. And Barnes tossed the ball back to Kershaw.

Suddenly, Buck was worried. “Look at the pitch count for Kershaw, up to 90,” he said. “You get the sense that this is going to be it.” Bregman hit two foul balls. He took a fastball outside for ball three, and a ball in the dirt for ball four. Out came Dave Roberts, and in came Kenta Maeda. Six pitches later, Jose Altuve, at bat as the tying run, launched a ball down the left field line. It landed in the seats, foul. But the next one didn’t.

***

Shea Serrano published a charming piece this morning on The Ringer, entitled “A First-Time Baseball Fan’s Guide to the Craziest World Series Ever.” Serrano had never watched baseball, he said — never, until this series.

“Baseball (I’m told) is made up of 1,000,000 tiny moments that are all monumentally important,” he wrote. He described his favorite one of those moments, Brad Peacock’s throw to third in the top of the seventh off a Kike Hernández sac bunt, to nab Justin Turner after a leadoff double, as Brian McCann shouted “three!” in the background. “If I ever become a real and actual baseball fan,” he said, “it’s going to be because of little things like that.”

Bregman’s 1-2 take wasn’t exactly his highlight of the night. About three hours later, he drove a line drive to left that brought home Derek Fisher ahead of Andre Ethier’s throw, and the Astros won game five. With Justin Verlander ready to take the hill in game six, Bregman’s hit gave the Astros as good a chance as any to take home a World Series trophy.

But walk-offs just happen; they happen, then they’re over. They’re not like the other moments, much harder to see but so much more rewarding to appreciate; moments, like Peacock firing to third, or Bregman laying off a change-up a few inches outside, that keep echoing after they’re over, and leave signs of their presence long after the next batter has come to the plate. Alex Bregman could have taken a swing at the 1-2 pitch, that for all he knew might have ended his at-bat, but would have been better than going down looking. But he didn’t. And then, all those hours and innings later, he finally took that swing, this time not off the greatest starter in the world but maybe the best reliever, and won his team the game.

Which was more important? You tell me. Probably the walk-off. But this is why it’s impossible not to love baseball: even at the end of October, in a game 1400 miles from home, with the happiness or devastation of millions pending on the outcome (“This game will be heartbreaking for one of these teams,” Joe Buck noted at one point — correctly, in my view), we can look back, in a day, a week, or twenty years, and remember the time that Alex Bregman got the walk-off hit — but we can also remember the time, earlier that same game, he did nothing, and in the seemingly inconspicuous process, set the gears of baseball in motion, and ultimately set the stage for a dramatic, triumphant moment five innings later.

A million little moments, each and every one monumentally important, all coming together to present the final product: a baseball game, and an instant classic at that. And look: there’s another game tomorrow, and more quirky, nonsensical, beautiful moments to look forward to.

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