Saturday night’s Gwinnett-Norfolk game was suspended by rain after the first inning, and completed on Sunday night. Norfolk ended up winning the game, 6-5 in ten innings, on a controversial home run by catcher Adam Donachie. However, Gwinnett had two legitimate chances to score runs in the first nine innings, which would have made the extra innings unnecessary. However, I would not attribute either missed chance to bad baserunning; the first was the result of an outstanding defensive play and the second was simply a bad coaching decision.
In the 4th inning, with the game tied 1-1, Gwinnett loaded the bases with one out. Stefan Gartrell and Brandon Hicks walked and Ruben Gotay singled. Diory Hernandez hit a fly to fairly deep center field. Usually, this would be a routine sacrifice fly. Gartrell tagged up and went to home plate. While Gartrell isn’t as old as Ramon Castro or as bulky as Prince Fielder, he’s not an eager kid like Kyle Hudson and he’s filled out quite a bit. So, even if Gartrell weren’t trotting home, he wasn’t sprinting and consequently not moving very fast. And Brandon Hicks tagged up from second and tried to advance to third base. Center fielder Matt Angle had no shot at throwing out Gartrell, even with his relative lack of speed, so he threw to third to try to put Hicks out. And Angle made an outstanding throw; third baseman Brendan Harris applied the tag and Hicks was plainly out. Immediately, the home plate umpire turned to the press box and vigorously waved his arms, telling us that no run scored because Hicks was put out before Gartrell touched home plate. While Gartrell might have hustled a little bit more; or Hicks might not have tried to advance; or Hicks, realizing he would be put out, might have tried to delay the inevitable long enough, the real reason the run didn’t score was Angle’s outstanding throw.
In the ninth inning, with the Tides leading 5-3, closer Jeremy Accardo came in to pitch. With one out and J.C. Boscan on first, Accardo walked Tyler Pastornicky and Matt Young to load the bases. After Gartrell lined to short, Mauro Gomez hit a hard line drive off the left-field wall. Kyle Hudson played the ball of the wall and quickly threw to shortstop Carlos Rojas. Boscan scored from third and Pastornicky from second, tying the game. Although the ball was hit very hard and Hudson played it well, manager Dave Brundage, coaching third, told Young to try to score. Rojas had the ball almost as soon as Young reached third, and he easily threw Young out at the plate.
Gwinnett did lose the game in extra innings, so it is true that had Hicks not tried to take third in the fourth inning, Gwinnett would have won the game. And if Young had held at third, Gwinnett might have won the game in the ninth inning. But I wouldn’t classify Hicks’ decision as bad baserunning; it was a reasonable decision that didn’t work out. And I don’t blame Young; Brundage made a bad decision that Young couldn’t rescue.
This has been a very unusual baseball season. I’ve already mentioned the 4 (unassisted) putout at first base, the 1-2-3 putout at first base, and the 9-6 forceout of a runner originally at second base. Friday night’s game between the Tides and the Gwinnett Braves featured yet another play I’d never seen before. In the ninth inning, with a runner on first base, the Braves pitcher bounced a ball in the dirt. Gwinnett catcher Wilkin Castillo blocked it and fumbled with it, finally reaching down and corralling the ball with his catcher’s mask. Suddenly, the first-base umpire rushed in, signaled time, and pointed the runner on first base to take second. We were dumbfounded for a few seconds, then realized that Castillo must have violated a rule when he touched a live ball with his mask. Sure enough, it’s spelled out in Rule 7.04(e) – “[Each runner, other than the batter, may without liability to be put out, advance one base when—] A fielder deliberately touches a pitched ball with his cap, mask or any part of his uniform detached from its proper place on his person. The ball is in play, and the award is made from the position of the runner at the time the ball was touched.” It’s a little more specific than I thought, but I’m pleased that I could figure out what happened.
Tonight, the Norfolk Tides begin a four-game series with the Gwinnett Braves. Unfortunately for me, the Tides are not playing well, having dropped all four games of their series against the Toledo Mud Hens. That’s unfortunate for me because there is no team I more enjoy seeing lose than the Gwinnett Braves. I believe the Gwinnett Braves represent all that is wrong with the current state of minor league baseball.
From 1966 through 2008, the Atlanta Braves had their AAA affiliate in Richmond, Virginia. For most of that time, the closest major league team to Richmond was the Baltimore Orioles, a three-hour drive up I-95; and the closest minor-league teams were the Carolina Mudcats, an AA team in suburban Raleigh, North Carolina; the Norfolk Tides; and Potomac, a class A Carolina League team in suburban Washington, DC. The presence of the Richmond Braves allowed the 1 million people in the Richmond area to be exposed to live, in-person professional baseball without long travel.
The Diamond, the Richmond stadium, had fallen into disrepair and lacked many of the amenities of more modern ballparks. The Atlanta Braves, who owned the franchise, demanded upgrades and when the governments of the Richmond area failed to provide them, declared their intention to move the team. Ultimately, they moved the team to Gwinnett County, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta itself. This was certainly more convenient for the Braves, who could more quickly call players up or place players on injury rehabilitation. But it was much more shortsighted for professional baseball as a whole, because the baseball fans of Gwinnett County already had a nearby major-league team and the Gwinnett Braves would be unlikely to produce any more future baseball fans.
(In fairness, a double-A franchise moved to Richmond soon thereafter, and as a result of the ensuing sequence of moves, the city that lost professional baseball entirely was Oneonta, New York, a city of about 20,000 people. Also, when I went to a Gwinnett Braves home game, my scoring colleague told me that he didn’t go to Atlanta Braves games because the traffic is so bad.)
The other reason the Gwinnett Braves are bad for baseball is that, because the Atlanta Braves own the team, they are able to manipulate scoring decisions to their advantage. Scoring decisions — hit vs. error, wild pitch vs. passed ball, earned run vs. unearned run — are made by an official scorer. (That’s different from my role as datacaster; I record what happened and the official scorer’s decisions.) The official scorer is a league employee, paid by (in this case) the International League. However, the league office is not able to recruit or identify official scorers for each team, so in reality the team finds the official scorers. In theory, the official scorer should be independent of the team, but again in reality the (usually home) team will press for favorable decisions. But rarely does it go to the levels of Gwinnett. Again, according to my scoring colleague in Gwinnett, the G-Braves stationed a team official next to the official scorer to make sure that the decisions reflected the best interest of the Braves. For example, a borderline hit/error call might be called a hit, but then changed to an error when the four runs that score in the inning could become unearned. The really bad part of all this is that the G-Braves would refuse to use official scorers who were too independent. This directly affects the integrity of the statistics — the decisions should reflect the best judgment of an unbiased observer, not what makes the home team players look best.
The Gwinnett Braves have had disappointing attendance in their three years there. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving team.
In some respects, last night’s game between the Toledo Mud Hens and the Norfolk Tides went almost exactly according to script. The first inning was a battle of home runs by Ryans (Toledo’s Strieby hit one with a runner on base; Norfolk’s Adams hit a solo.) After that, the game became a pitching-and-defense duel, with Toledo’s Fu-Te Ni and Norfolk’s Rick VandenHurk as the pitchers. Both Ni and VandenHurk successfully scattered base hits, and neither team seriously threatened until the bottom of the sixth. Adams and Jake Fox both singled with no outs. However, Brandon Snyder killed the threat by hitting a weak bouncer to the pitcher, who started a double play. The Tides’ threat fizzled. In the next inning, the top of the seventh, Toledo put two runners on base; the ninth-place batter, Max St. Pierre, hit a three-run home run to break the game open.
Each baseball game, of course, is a unique occurrence. Whenever someone tries to claim that a game is destined to follow a particular pattern, it usually deviates. On the other hand, you can look back at a game and see that it fit a pattern. Last night, the Tides wasted their best opportunity in a close game and the Mud Hens made sure they’d never get another.
Sometimes, you don’t realize just what you’ve seen until after you’ve had a chance to reflect on it a little, after the emotions of the moment have passed. The Tides – Durham Bulls game of Saturday, July 9, is a good example. The Bulls won, 11-8, in thirteen innings. The game lasted over 4 and a half hours, so we weren’t able to leave Harbor Park until after midnight. The game lasted that long because Tides’ relievers Jeremy Accardo and Mark Worrell blew an 8-3 lead in the top of the ninth, so we were all pretty disappointed in the outcome. The Tides committed five throwing errors – four by Josh Bell – so we were pretty disgusted.
But over the next day or so, I realized that I was drawn into the baseball of the last four innings, paying closer attention to the game than I had in a while. In fact, it started in that top of the ninth – even if your home team is blowing the lead, it is still interesting to watch a team come back from a large deficit. In the bottom of the ninth, the Tides’ first two hitters singled, and the Bulls’ relief pitcher stranded runners on first and third. In the bottom of the tenth, the Tides leadoff batter singled and was sacrificed to second, but he advanced no further. Meanwhile, Tides’ relief pitcher Josh Rupe retired the Bulls in the tenth and eleventh on a total of ten pitches. In the bottom of the eleventh, the Tides got a one-out single; that runner advanced to second on a wild pitch. In the top of the twelfth, the first two Bulls singled and were sacrificed to second and third. The Tides brought the infield in, and it paid off when the next batter hit a groundout and the runners were frozen. And then, of course, the Bulls broke the tie in the top of the thirteenth.
It’s hard to explain to non-baseball-fans why I enjoy the game. I wish that those non-fans could have seen the last five innings of Saturday’s game. Even if they don’t know the intricacies, I can’t believe that they wouldn’t be drawn into it.
I am always learning something new about baseball as I continue to score baseball games. Before I started working as a MiLB.com datacaster and BIS scorer, I was a typical fan who attended a handful of games – four to seven – a year. I knew baseball, but I didn’t really pay enough attention to the games I attended or watch on television for certain things to register. Since I’ve been recording every pitch and every play for thirty to fifty games a year, I notice things I’d have missed before.
In the Scranton – Norfolk game on July 1, in the third inning, Scranton’s Brandon Laird came up with the bases loaded and one out. He hit a popup to the left side of the infield. As most of you probably know, if there are runners on first and second or with the bases loaded and fewer than two outs, and the batter hits a fly ball that an infielder can catch with ordinary effort, the umpire will call it an “infield fly” and the batter is called out. This “infield fly rule” was enacted to prevent an infielder from deliberately letting a popup drop and getting forceouts on two of the runners, who would have to stand close to their original base to avoid being doubled off in case the ball is caught.
In scoring my games, I have to record that the batter is retired by application of the infield fly rule. When Brandon Laird was called out, I knew that I had to record it – but I wasn’t sure of the proper code. Now, I’ve memorized the codes for the plays that occur most often. Since I couldn’t pull the code for an infield fly off the top of my head, I realized that I probably don’t see more than two applications of the infield fly rule a year. I score about a quarter of all games the Tides play, so if my experience is typical, a team sees the infield fly rule applied no more than ten times a season.
If I wanted to research it, I could find out the theoretical number of times a team should see the infield fly rule applied. I could find out the number of times batters come up with runners on first and second or with the bases loaded and fewer than two outs; determine what percentage of the time a batter hits an infield fly; and multiply the two to find out how many times the infield fly rule comes into play. I don’t really want to research it.
Most serious baseball fans know what the infield fly rule is, at least in theory (even if they can’t quote it in rulebookese.) My guess is that most of them would be surprised to learn that it comes into play so infrequently.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a stranger baseball game than the one between the Tides and the Charlotte Knights last Sunday.
- To begin with, the Tides won, 11-7. The Tides hit four home runs – two by Brandon Snyder, one each for John Hester and Brendan Harris – and the Knight hit three – two by Alejandro De Aza and one by Jordan Danks. Norfolk’s Harbor Park is widely conceded to be the best pitcher’s park in Triple-A baseball and may be the toughest park to homer in.
- There was a very peculiar play that resulted in the equally peculiar 9-6 forceout of a runner originally on second base. With the bases loaded and one out, Tide Nick Green lofted a soft fly ball into shallow right center field. Knights center fielder Jordan Danks dove for the ball and may or may not have “caught” the ball on the fly; however, he was unable to maintain possession when he hit the ground and the ball trickled out. Tyler Henson, the runner on first, could clearly see the ball on the ground and advanced to second. However, Brandon Snyder, the runner on first, didn’t have a clear view of the play and retreated to second. The second-base umpire hesitated before signaling “No catch”. Both Snyder and Henson were standing on second base when right fielder Dayan Viciedo retrieved the loose ball and threw it to the shortstop covering second base. Shortstop Eduardo Escobar tagged both Snyder and Henson; because Snyder was forced from second base, he was out when tagged.
- Had the Knights been more alert and faster-thinking on that play, they might have gotten a double play out of it. Jake Fox the runner on third base, hesitated between third and home. Had Viciedo thrown home, the Knights’ probably would have forced Fox at home plate. The Knights could then have thrown to third base to force Snyder, for an inning-ending double play. The results of the actual play were a run in, with runners on second and third. The next batter, John Hester, hit his three-run home run. So, instead of giving up four runs in the inning, the Knights could have escaped with no runs scored. (Note – it would have required extraordinary presence of mind for Charlotte to have thrown home to start the double play.)
- Knights’ starting pitcher Deunte Heath had amazingly good peripheral statistics for a pitcher giving up 9 earned runs in 5 innings. He did give up 8 hits, but he walked 1 and struck out 8. He was done in by 3 home runs allowed and a dropped third strike, which initiated the second of the Tides’ four-run innings.
- Knights’ manager Joe McEwing was ejected for arguing a home-run decision. Brendan Harris hit a line drive to left field which hit a screen above and behind the wall and then bounced back onto the field. McEwing obviously thought the ball hit the wall, rather than above it. The media in the press box saw the video replay and the ball clearly hit above the wall. In the ensuing press box discussion, some wondered if McEwing would look at the replay and think “I got myself ejected over THAT play?” Then, we wondered if McEwing would think instead “Finally! Something I could get ejected over! I can spend the rest of the evening in the air-conditioned office, and not in the dugout.” It was 97 degrees at game time.