By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, October 5, 2006
Throughout history, whenever too much is going right for the Dodgers, they are forced to run the bases.
In 1926, John Lardner wrote, "Babe Herman did not triple into a triple play, but he doubled into a double play, which is the next best thing." For decades, that play inspired Brooklyn fans to respond to news that "the Dodgers have three men on base" by asking, "Which base?" To the Dodgers, a rally has always been a potential comedy skit in disguise.
Thus it was again Wednesday. In Game 1 of the NL Division Series, the Dodgers lost, 6-5, to the Mets because they turned a line drive off the right field wall into a double play with two runners tagged out at home on the same play. The first runner was out by six feet, the second by a fascinating 10 yards. Nobody could explain why, though many tried. But neither Jeff Kent nor J.D. Drew was carrying a pastrami sandwich, so they weren't on orders to "stop at the deli on the way home."
Every team knows the rule of thumb: "Don't make the first out of an inning at third base." Only the Dodgers must be told, "Don't make the first and second out of an inning at home plate -- on the same play."
"It was a terrible blunder that we had to pay for. . . . More times than not, you're going to pay for it. It'll come back to haunt you. That one certainly did," said Manager Grady Little after the play that probably cost his team at least two runs. "We've been in L.A. all season long. We know about traffic jams. We certainly had one again right there. That's a trick play we work on in spring training." Los Angeles has gridlock. This was brain lock.
So what if the Mets don't have injured aced Pedro Martinez, who is out for the rest of the season? So what if their next-best pitcher, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, is lost for this series after an injury while jogging Tuesday. That's moot now.
Faced with all this good fortune, including the introduction of Oliver Perez (3-13, 6.55 ERA) as the Mets' emergency starter in Game 3 or 4 (whichever they don't want to win), the Dodgers responded as they have since their Brooklyn days: They put men on base, smashed a ball off a wall, then watched in disbelieving horror as everybody dressed in blue got tagged out.
With no outs, two on and John Maine, a former Orioles prospect, in a big jam in the second inning, the Dodgers' Russell Martin lashed a drive into the right field corner. No problem. Los Angeles had an answer for all this good luck. Kent, who could have scored while talking on his cellphone, somehow channeled the legendarily slow-footed Herman. Once, informed that a crook was passing bad checks by posing as him, Herman said: "Hit him a few fly balls. If he catches any of 'em, it ain't me."
Because Kent was in a funk, Drew was presented with the rare chance to make three base-running mistakes on one play. He hit the trifecta. First, he ran up Kent's back between second and third base, forcing third base coach Rich Donnelly to wave Kent home to avoid two runners on third. (Herman would be proud. He ignited the three-Dodgers-on-third fiasco.) Next, when Donnelly yelled for Kent to "Go, go!" Drew thought Donnelly was yelling at him -- neglecting to observe that, under such a scenario, he would be out at home by the length of the Triborough Bridge. Finally, while Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca was wallowing in the dirt, tagging Kent, then jumping up and spinning to show the ball to home plate umpire John Hirschbeck, Drew froze for a second in the baseline 40 feet from home plate before resuming his headfirst suicide mission.
"Donnelly was getting ready to stop Kent [at third] but J.D. was running all the way [from first]. He was about 10 yards behind Kent, so it kind of altered his decision on Kent," Little said. "If he [Drew] continues on without stopping, I don't know if Lo Duca gets them both. He might have snuck in there."
Just to confirm that this play will live in Dodgers infamy, all three Mets who combined on the perfect relay throws to gun down Kent -- Shawn Green to Jose Valentin to Lo Duca -- played for the Dodgers within the last two years.
The double-tag double play at the plate happens so rarely that few ever forget seeing one. Minutes after Lo Duca had finished tagging Kent and Drew -- both sliding headfirst, clunky Kent to the outside of the plate then daffy Drew to the inside -- distinguished man of American letters and fanatic Mets fan Roger Angell was still beaming. "In 1933 in Yankee Stadium, I saw Luke Sewell of the Nats tag out Lou Gehrig and Dixie Walker at the plate -- with one swipe of his glove," said Angell, who, since he was only 12 at the time, can probably be forgiven for not also immediately providing the date (April 29th).
Ironically, Mets Manager Willie Randolph was involved in an almost identical play 21 years ago. "It came right back. Total flashback," Randolph said. Yankees third base coach "Gene Michael throwing his hands up like, 'What the hell's going on?' Bobby Meacham, Dale Berra was the sequence, I think . . . This time Lo Duca didn't notice the second guy was coming. I was screaming, 'Tag him, tag him, tag him.' I remember how funny that ['85] play was. This was even more humorous to me."
But not to the Dodgers. Fortune has been in their corner for weeks. In one victory over the Padres, they tied the game with four solo homers in the ninth inning, then after falling behind, won 11-10 on a two-run homer by Nomar Garciaparra in the 10th. Such extended streaks of hot play -- the Dodgers are 41-19 since July 28th -- can only be snapped by omens of equal weight.
This game had that eerie feeling -- cubed. Immediately after the double-tag at the plate, the next Dodger doubled. So, with competent conservative base running, L.A. would've had a 3-0 lead with a man on second and no outs with Maine on the ropes. Instead, pitcher Derek Lowe struck out to end the inning with just a 1-0 lead. When Carlos Delgado hit a 470-foot home run off the top of the three-story TV camera tower in center field and Cliff Floyd homered one out later, the Mets led 2-1.
The Dodgers tied it at 4 on a two-run double by Garciaparra in the seventh, but Kent, trying to hit one so far that he would have infinite time to circle the bases, struck out to end the inning. Finally, in the ninth, with a runner on second, Garciaparra struck out to end the game, leaving Kent on deck and Drew in the hole.
Which, all sins considered, is exactly where they belonged.