Some baseball fans are really into no-hitters. There’s a certain set of people who consider it the best thing you can ever be present for at a ballpark, save say, a perfect game. (There are also some people, whom, like me, are not particularly in love with them.) There is a borderline mythical obsession with the statistical anomaly of an outing and as a result, there is a presumption that certain special unwritten rules apply. One of them is no bunting when one is on the line.
Last season, Erick Aybar broke that tacit competitive agreement and laid down a bunt in the eighth inning on the road against Justin Verlander, who promptly threw the ball into foul territory. The crowd booed, and Aybar was given a hit.
Saturday afternoon, Jose Tabata became an infamous part of Nationals history when he dropped The People’s Elbow on a 2-2 slider from Max Scherzer, who at that point had a perfect game.
We will have the hot takes. NBC Sports’s Bill Baer broke it down from a rules perspective, noting that technically, nothing illegal happened there. “Let’s say that Tabata intentionally leaned into the pitch to ruin Scherzer’s perfect game. He did it and got away with it, as home plate umpire Mike Muchlinski didn’t interject. How is that any different than a catcher framing a ball outside of the strike zone to increase the probability of a strike call? Both players are attempting to exploit a gray area in order to maximize their teams’ odds of winning,” Baer wrote.
Say what you want about whether or not Tabata dipped his elbow intentionally or whether or not it was a natural reaction followed by a blown call. The at-bat itself was pretty incredible considering the circumstances.
Obviously, Scherzer had put down 26 previous batters. To start the inning, Gregory Polanco flailed hopelessly at a fastball, before Rendon made a heck of a catch on a ball that appeared to be headed into the dugout. Maybe he felt he owed that to Scherzer after the situation in the previous game cost him the no-no. Then, Jody Mercer went after the first pitch, got jammed and flied out softly to center.
Scherzer quite literally had everything going. He was stalking around the mound with the confidence of a guy who’d allowed one runner in his past 18 innings. It’s important to note that Jose Tabata came in as a pinch hitter. Meaning, it’s not like he’d been seeing Scherzer all day and might finally get one by somebody. He was coming in cold, on the road, in about as high pressure a situation as you’re going to get for a Saturday game in June. He was 2-8 in his career against Scherzer.
He took a huge cut on the first pitch, fouling a fastball off to the right. After the pitch, he kind of pumped his bat to himself, thinking he was on that one. On the second, Tabata got fooled, flailing weakly at an 88-mph slider that hung, right down the middle of the plate. At this point the entire crowd is obviously on its feet and cheering. He passed on the next offering, a slider headed to the dirt on the inside part of the plate.
Now, it’s a 1-2 count, with a perfect game on the line and you’ve got to presume Tabata knows he’s going to get Scherzer’s out pitch. So, likely sitting on a fastball, he laid off an eye-level elevated 97-mph four-seamer, the type of pitch that players jump out of their shoes to swing at in pressure situations all the time. That decision was the most incredible part of the at-bat, for me.
On the next offering, Tabata got fooled again, but managed to drop the bat head quick enough to scoot a dribbler out toward first. It was Scherzer’s 100th pitch of the game. The next one, Tabata got far more of, was not fooled, simply late on a fastball. Same deal on the next one.
Then, on his 103rd pitch, Scherzer shook off Ramos twice, before delivering that infamous inside slider. Let’s be clear: If Mike Muchilinski thought it was a violation, he would have called it. He didn’t. Tabata doesn’t owe anything to Scherzer other than an effort to get on base. This wasn’t Roger Dorn jumping in front of a pitch to take one for the team.
On Twitter, Paul Sotoudeh said, “I’m implying his violation of the rules is OK in a different situation [close game, playoffs] but not there. Earn your base.” After watching that at-bat, it seems clear that he did.
After the game, Scherzer was still juiced about his no-hitter talking on SportsCenter. The anchors were obviously convinced that Tabata dove into the pitch, costing him a perfect game. Max didn’t seem that concerned. “It was a slider that just backed up and hit him. I don’t blame him for doing it. Heck, I’d probably do the same thing. It was just a pitch that got away from me,” he said. “When I released and I could see once I looked up the location was on it, I knew I had left it in. That’s part of baseball. Those things happen.”