In the very late hours of July 18th, or perhaps the very early hours of July 19th, something weird happened at Fenway Park.
Strikeout No. 1: Mitch Moreland (Swinging)
It was strange that Mike Bolsinger took the mound for the Jays in the bottom of the 13th, because it was strange that a bottom of the 13th happened at all. Both teams, despite being tied at four runs apiece, had hits in the double digits (the Jays had 14, the Red Sox 12). Both teams had left small armies of men on base (the Jays ten, the Red Sox nine.) When the Jays had runners on the corners and nobody out in the 8th, they had a 74.1 percent win expectancy; when they claimed a one-run lead in the top of the 11th, they had an 84.2 percent win expectancy.
Unfortunately for the Jays, and for the beleaguered dozens of fans who stayed up to see the game through to the end, just because something is likely doesn’t mean it’ll happen. Most of the time, if you have runners on the corners and nobody out, you will score a run – but Kevin Pillar grounded into a double play and Tulo didn’t break for home. Most of the time, when you have a one-run lead and Roberto Osuna comes to close out the game, you will win – but Sandy Leon bunted so poorly that it sailed over Josh Donaldson’s head, and Mookie Betts plays for the Red Sox. You had to figure that the game was over when Mike Bolsinger came out to pitch the bottom of the 12th, but he retired the top of the Red Sox lineup in order.
So the game went on to the bottom of the 13th, and Bolsinger came out for his second inning of high-leverage relief. After throwing a first-pitch cutter for a strike, Bolsinger threw four pitches nowhere near the zone – two sailing high, two nearly hitting Moreland.
Moreland swung at three of them.
Strikeout No. 2: Jackie Bradley (swinging); wild pitch by Mike Bolsinger, Jackie Bradley to 1st
Three strikes, you’re out. It’s the most basic, elemental truth of baseball. It’s a frequently-used metaphor in common parlance. It’s in “Take Me Out To the Ballgame,” for crying out loud. If anything in baseball is inviolable, if anything is sacred and solid and certain, surely it should be this – the most fundamental conflict in the game, the battle between pitcher and batter, the one of the three true outcomes that results in an out.
But this is baseball. Baseball is beloved for its quirks, its propensity for freak occurrences. The introduction of the automatic intentional walk was greeted by grumbling because it took away the possibility that something weird might happen, even if only one time out of a thousand. People are reluctant to change anything about baseball, which leaves us with rules like the uncaught third strike rule.
The uncaught third strike rule is pure baseball nonsense, an oddity that most often results in nothing more than an extra five seconds added for the catcher to throw down to first. A more efficient sport would have excised this peculiarity long ago. The rule is a vestige of baseball’s very earliest incarnations; in today’s game,the rule follows no logic and serves no purpose. If a pitch is so wild that even a major league catcher can’t corral it, why should the batter be given a possible second life for swinging? And if the rule penalizes pitchers or catchers for being wild or not receiving the ball well, why is it only on the third strike that this penalty comes into effect?
When this rule does result in a baserunner, though, when the batter busts it down the line to first or the catcher just can’t find the ball, it warps the very fabric of the sport. No longer do one, two, three strikes mean that you’re out at the old ball game. The umpire called strike three, and yet the batter stands safely at first. Still a strikeout, but not an out.
Does that make any sense?
The pitch that Jackie Bradley flailed at for strike three was not only so far inside that it nearly hit him, the place where it eventually came to rest was on top of the screen behind home plate. It is hard to fail more profoundly as a batter than Bradley did on that strike-three swing. And yet there he stood at first, the beneficiary of a momentary lapse in the structure that holds a game of baseball together. He had been given a new life within the inning.
In an extra-inning game, any baserunner for the home team seems like a herald of imminent doom. And in a game which had been prolonged by unlikely tomfoolery, it seemed fitting that the final blow would be struck by a baserunner who reached via strikeout. The end was near.
Strikeout No. 3: Christian Vazquez (swinging)
Bolsinger retired Christian Vazquez on three pitches.
Strikeout No. 4: Deven Marrero (swinging)
Mike Bolsinger is not a very good major league pitcher. He has appeared in 46 major-league games over the past four seasons, and 21 of those games were in 2015, when he played for the Dodgers and had a 3.62 ERA. Outside of that year, he’s never had an ERA under 5.50. He’s fine as rotation depth, maybe as a mop-up guy. Nothing special.
You wouldn’t have known that from watching him strike out Deven Marrero. Marrero watched a cutter in the middle of the zone go by, fouled off two curveballs, and went down swinging on a slider. Bradley never took off from first because he never had a chance to. The first two strikeouts were aided by wild swings, but the second. Vazquez and Marrero were overwhelmed. Neither of them are good hitters, but it still felt unexpected. Uncanny, even.
Only 80 pitchers in the history of baseball have ever pitched a four-strikeout inning, and Mike Bolsinger, a bad pitcher on a last-place team, became one of them.
The 2017 Toronto Blue Jays are bad, and they aren’t getting better. This is the reality that we’re faced with. We are well over halfway through the season, and these players are old and tired. No matter what set of statistics you look at, no matter how optimistic you are naturally inclined to be, we are watching a team that has been in last place since the second day of the season, and that has shown precious few signs of life. They are 42-51. For the Jays to turn this season around, they would need to go on a miraculous run – the kind of miraculous run composed of many tiny, strange miracles strung together, that makes it seem as though reality has changed, and leaves you wondering if what you are seeing is real. Mike Bolsinger’s four-strikeout bottom of the 13th, in a game that had been delayed by rain and that should have ended several times over, felt like one of those tiny, strange miracles. It had taken a rain delay, a bunt pop-up to no one, a two-out single, and probably a dozen double plays to create Bolsinger’s four-strikeout inning, not to mention the oddity that is the uncaught third strike rule itself, but it happened. Bolsinger stalked off the mound, fist clenched, knowing the uniqueness of what he’d just achieved – probably the best inning he’s ever pitched as a major leaguer. It was bizarre. It was amazing. And you felt like maybe, just maybe…
In the bottom of the 15th, Bolsinger hung a curveball to Hanley Ramirez, who sent it over the monster.
The Red Sox, a good team, won. The Blue Jays, a bad team, lost. And Bolsinger’s tiny, strange miracle remained just that.
Lead Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports