When he stepped to the plate in the ninth representing the Pirates‘ last chance against Max Scherzer on Saturday afternoon, Pittsburgh pinch hitter Jose Tabata said he wasn’t trying to get hit by a pitch. Scherzer was one out away from the 24th perfect game in major league history and Tabata wanted to spoil it, but not the way that it actually happened.
The morning after Scherzer’s no-hitter, Tabata is already seen as the villain, the guy who ruined history by dropping his elbow on a 2-2 slider from Scherzer and got hit by the pitch. Three pitches later, Scherzer secured the no-hitter, but many still hold a grudge against Tabata.
“I wanted to get a hit,” Tabata said in Spanish on Sunday morning. “People don’t understand that those were the instincts people have. I wasn’t looking to get hit. I wanted to get a hit. I wanted to get on base.”
Tabata, a native of Venezuela, explained himself after Saturday’s game in English but something still felt missing. Believe it or not, consider Tabata’s explanation, in full and in his native language, a day later:
“It was a slider inside,” he said. “I wanted [to keep my front shoulder] closed because I thought the slider was going to break. But it kinda stayed floating. You’ll understand if you’re in the moment and batting. But really, it wasn’t my intention to get hit in that moment.”
In the at-bat, Tabata, who entered the game hitting .313 overall and .286 as a pinch-hitter this season, put up a good fight. He fell behind 0-2 after fouling off a Scherzer fastball and slider in the strike zone. The third pitch of the at-bat was an inside and low slider that Tabata didn’t swing at. He leaned over, looked down and then shuffled his feet, but his left elbow didn’t budge.
Tabata took another ball to get to a 2-2 count and then fouled off three more tough pitches, two fastballs and a slider. This is when the decisive play occurred. Scherzer’s 2-2 slider started in towards Tabata and stayed that way. It spun down later than normal and not as sharply as the previous sliders.
“I know the slider’s the right pitch,” Scherzer said after the no-hitter. “I could’ve gone change-up as well, but slider just kind of slipped, not slipped, but I just didn’t finish the pitch. It backed up on me and clipped him. That’s just one of those things that happened. You just focus on what you can do next.”
But as the pitch broke late, Tabata’s elbow, covered in an elbow guard, oddly moved straight down into the ball. He said his instincts and reflexes took over in a split second. It was, coincidentally, the second time in his career that he has been hit by a Scherzer pitch.
“I really thought the ball was so inside I thought it was going to be a normal slider,” Tabata said. “That’s the natural reaction. But since it was a slider and it broke a little bit down. I don’t know. I stayed here.” Then he paused to show his reaction again before he continued. “But if you watch the video, at the last second, I bring my arms in towards me.”
After the game, catcher Wilson Ramos: “It was a really good at-bat. Finally, he threw a front-door slider to him. Elbow was a little bit in the strike zone — that’s what I saw in the videos — but that happens. That’s happening in baseball.”
Asked about his different reactions to the two sliders in — he didn’t budge much on ball one but moved his elbow on the fateful final one — Tabata said the pitches were different.
“He threw it not as much in as the last one,” he said. “I could recognize it but not the last one. He threw it inside and I reacted like it was going to hit me. I know from the outside people think differently. But really, I want him to know my intentions weren’t that, to get hit. I wanted to get a hit, like any player in that situation. In that moment, in that split second, you can’t think, ‘No, let him hit me.’ ”
According to MLB rules, a batter hit by a pitch is awarded first base if he attempts to avoid a pitch or doesn’t have an opportunity to avoid it. If the ball is in the strike zone when it hits the batter, it is called a strike. “If the ball is outside the strike zone when it touches the batter, it shall be called a ball if he makes no attempt to avoid being touched,” according to rule 6.08(b).
Technically, home plate umpire Mike Muchlinski could have awarded Tabata a ball to make it a 3-2 count or perhaps ruled Tabata got in the way. There is precedent for that: in 1968, Don Drysdale’s 58 2/3-scoreless innings streak was preserved when he hit Dick Dietz with a pitch with the bases loaded but the home plate umpire called Dietz back to the plate because he ruled he made no effort to get out of the way. Scherzer’s pitch, after all, was several inches off the plate and in towards Tabata, who said he reacted to a pitch that didn’t move like normal.
Tabata started Sunday’s game in right field and received a loud chorus of boos when he stepped to the plate for his first at-bat in the second inning, perhaps the loudest ever for an opposing player at Nationals Park. And the crowd cheered and applauded when he grounded out. Before the game, Tabata was told about Scherzer’s post-game comments about the hit-by-pitch, that he blamed no one but himself for the slider in, and Tabata smiled.
“It surprised me that he said that,” Tabata said. “He’s so professional. He doesn’t blame anyone, like if I put my arm in, but that the pitch didn’t break. And it’s true. If you look at the video, all the pitches broke but not that one. I feel okay because I know he’s such a professional.”
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