The Golden Pitch

There is an esoteric term in the glossary used by persnickety baseball fans like myself called the golden pitch. It refers to a pitch on which either team can win the World Series if a certain hit or out is recorded. For example, with two outs and runners on second and third bases and the home team down by one run in the bottom of the 9th, almost any base hit wins the game and any out loses the game for the home team. As such, it must take place in Game 7 of the World Series, in the 9th inning or later, with the home team behind by three runs or fewer and at least one runner on base. Until 2016, it had happened on only seven occasions, most recently just two years before, in 2014.

This was the situation Mike Montgomery and Michael Martinez found themselves in on November 2, 2016, in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 7 of the World Series. The visiting Cubs were ahead 8–7 with two outs and a runner on first base. Any out would result in a Cubs victory, and a home run would win it for the Indians. Martinez, a glove-first defensive replacement, was the Indians’ last hope. Though a poor hitter, he did have one home run to his credit in the regular season. Odds be damned, anything can happen on any given pitch.

It had to come down to a moment like this. This World Series will be remembered as one of the all-time greats. It featured the two teams that had the longest World Series droughts at the time, 108 years for the Cubs and 68 years for the Indians. The Cubs had tied the series after being down 3 games to 1, and the Indians had only lost one game in the first two playoff series despite a rash of injuries, particularly to their starting pitchers. The circumstances dictated that it would only be appropriate for the series to be as dramatic as possible. It did not disappoint.

Dexter Fowler led off the game with a home run, the first time that had happened in a World Series Game 7. The Indians equalized in the 3rd inning with a couple of hits by Coco Crisp and Carlos Santana, but the Cubs scored two more in the 4th on a sacrifice fly by Addison Russell and a double by Willson Contreras. Then they scored two more in the 5th when Javier Baez hit a home run and Anthony Rizzo singled in Kris Bryant. With the game halfway over, the Cubs had a 4-run lead. But surely they wouldn’t cruise to an easy win, right?

Of course not. With two outs in the 5th inning, Kyle Hendricks walked Santana, prompting Joe Maddon to bring in Jon Lester, and David Ross to catch for him. Ross fielded a dribbler by Jason Kipnis, but his throw to Rizzo was offline and allowed Kipnis to reach and advance. Then Lester threw a wild pitch that bounced in front of the plate and off Ross’s helmet, allowing both runners to score. Ross redeemed himself the next inning with a home run, making the score 6–3, where it stayed until the 8th inning.

With two outs in the bottom of the 8th, Jose Ramirez hit a single that Russell stopped with a dive but couldn’t corral. Maddon pulled Lester and brought in his closer, Aroldis Chapman, who had been overworked the previous two games, to get the last four outs. He promptly allowed a double to Brandon Guyer that scored Ramirez, whereupon I suspect millions of Cubs fans sighed and lamented the short leash Maddon had had on his pitchers and his over-reliance on Chapman. Then, on a 2–2 count, Rajai Davis hit a line drive that barely cleared the left-field fence to tie the game.

At this point, I knew it was over. I mean, technically, the game wasn’t over. The Indians weren’t even leading yet. But I knew. My team had blown it again. It was only a matter of time before the Indians took the lead and won. I really didn’t believe the Cubs had a chance.

My skepticism and pessimism here dates back five years, during which time I have probably pissed off a number of people with my grumbling and grousing when I think the team I’m pulling for doesn’t have a chance. It started with Game 6 of the 2011 World Series.

Five years ago, the Rangers were an out away from winning the World Series. All that lay between them history was a relatively unknown third baseman named David Freese. At that moment, I actually believed the Rangers would win it. But, down to his final strike, Freese hit a line drive into the right field corner to drive in two runs and tie the game. I know that it only took a few seconds for the ball to land just past a leaping Nelson Cruz, but I believe time actually slowed down for me as I was watching it, just like it does during a dramatic moment in movies. Whenever I think about it, I can still see the play unfolding in slow motion. I was crushed.

Two innings later, he hit a walk-off home run to force a Game 7, which the Rangers lost in non-dramatic fashion. When baseball began again the following year, my frame of reference had changed. I started assuming that the worst would happen. I was probably intolerable on many occasions when I was effusing negativity during a game. Every now and then, though, I would begin to believe that something good might actually happen in a big moment, only to be kicked in the nuts by the baseball gods more often than not. It was excruciating.

Another notable example happened a couple years later. One of my wife’s coworkers organized a trip to Houston to watch the Astros and Rangers*. Yu Darvish was on the mound for the Rangers, and he was at the top of his game. Somewhere around the 5th inning, we noticed he still hadn’t allowed a baserunner. We continued to observe this with each subsequent inning. He was untouchable, striking out 14 Astros. When he was an out away from a perfect game, despite my usual skepticism, I believed he would make history. Sadly, that pesky last out remained elusive once again. Marwin Gonzalez laced a single up the middle just out of reach of a diving Elvis Andrus. And I was crushed again.

*Ironically, he got sick and couldn’t go.

So when Davis hit that home run to tie the game, I knew it was over. The worst always happens to the team I’m rooting for. But the Indians didn’t score another run that inning, or the next one. And so it went to extras in Game 7 of the World Series, for just the fifth time ever. But not immediately. The baseball gods deemed that we should agonize for a while longer and sent a short spell of rain to Progressive Field.

When play resumed, I again assumed the worst. I thought the Cubs would go quietly in the top of the 10th and cough it up in the bottom half. But no, we would not be let off the hook that easily. When the Cubs scored a pair of runs in the top of the 10th inning, I was both ecstatic and apprehensive. I still thought they were just prolonging the inevitable despair.

Three outs to go, with a 2-run lead. They had already blown a 3-run lead with just four outs to go. Part of me thought, surely they aren’t going to blow this lead, right? And then I remembered Game 6 in 2011. Twice in consecutive innings the Rangers blew a 2-run lead. This was just going to be a repeat of that game, I knew it.

Maddon charged Carl Edwards, Jr. with getting those final three outs. He got the first two quickly, but then allowed a walk to Guyer and a single to Davis that scored Guyer after he advanced on defensive indifference, making this the 8th baseball game to feature a golden pitch at-bat. And so, Maddon brought in Montgomery. On the first pitch, he threw a breaking ball to Martinez, who took it for a strike.

Montgomery came set for his second golden pitch. “Here’s the 0–1,” Joe Buck announced. This pitch, like the first one, was a breaking ball. Martinez swung and chipped it, and it bounced lazily out to the left side of the mound as he dropped his bat and ran hard. “This is gonna be a tough play!” Buck exclaimed, his voice rising with the tension that 40 million people were feeling at that moment. Bryant charged toward the mound, fielded the ball perfectly, and fired it to first in one smooth motion, slipping slightly on the damp grass as he did so. Rizzo caught it with Martinez still a couple steps away. “The Cubs…win the World Series!”

I couldn’t believe it. Until that exact moment, I still didn’t think they’d pull it off. I still honestly thought something silly would happen and they’d blow it. But they didn’t. They had held on and proven the doubters—including me—wrong.

The next day, a friend of mine observed that the Cubs winning gave him hope of seeing an Astros championship in his lifetime. I think it gave me some hope too.

I want to believe again. Maybe I will. I guess we’ll find out next year.

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