BOTTOM OF THE ELEVENTH: PADRES 3 (2) – 2 DODGERS
It’s a late night out on the west coast, in the far southwest corner of California, with the fans chanting “Beat L-A!! Beat L-A!!” and the game tied up in the bottom of the 11th inning. There’s a rust-colored tuft of mullet protruding from the blue cap of Dodger pitcher Chin-hui Tsao, coming in for just his second mound appearance of the season.
A week ago, he was in AAA-ball. Two years ago he was running a beef-noodle soup restaurant in Hualien City, Taiwan.
He wants out of this inning. He wants to go home. He looks ahead and sees Wil Myers staring back at him. His fingers move the ball into the right grip. His knee raises into the air, tenses up, then whips forward in a flash toward home. The ball flings out of his hands, right arm and leg stuck out in jagged, opposite directions.
Let’s go to the tenth! pic.twitter.com/CVW1Pv9bjk
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) May 22, 2016
Myers smacks a ground-ball single to left, hit hard between third and short. Step one in a savvy string of small-ball rallying.
Former-Dodger Matt Kemp comes up now, and a familiar bugle plays on the Petco Park speakers. Everybody yells: “Chaaaaaarge!!”
It’s well past midnight on the east coast by now, the game here in San Diego the last still being played, with Kemp readying for the pitch from Tsao. He could end it here, with a double or anything better.
It’s at this point that I pause to look up Tsao’s full history, with the Dodgers, the league, the international baseball scene. First major-league pitcher from Taiwan. Very cool. Looking further: Tsao is 34 years old, with under 100 career innings pitched. And just seven innings pitched last year for L.A., with eight earned runs. Woof!
Why’s he being called on in a situation like this? The Dodgers on a losing streak, in desperate need of a win.
CHIN-HUI TSAO. Really? @Dodgers be desperate
— #KobraYourFriend (@KoreanKobra) May 19, 2016
So down the wormhole we go, into the Wikipedia page for Chin-hui Tsao: his birthplace (rural Hualien County, Taiwan); his appearance in the 1999 Asian Baseball Championship; hitting 99 m.p.h. on a pitch in the ’04 Olympics; his brief stint with Kaoping Fala of the Taiwan Major League; and so on.
Then, I come across a particular team in said Taiwan baseball league, and a video—featuring what must be the best mascot in baseball (all apologies to the Philly Phanatic…). His name is Victor, he comes from outer space, and he’s a blue, power-hitting ape that, I must say, looks almost nothing like either of the two logos turning up in searches for his team, the “Lamigo Monkeys.”
Victor made a grand appearance recently, I discover, in the opening moments against Chinatrust Brothers, providing back-up and visual support during the best, longest first-pitch build-up I’ve ever seen.
And in all of this, I recall the best single document about Taiwan baseball: the sketchbook, from July 2015, from the New Yorker’s Edward Steed, the long collection of hand-drawn insights into the world that is the CPBL.
Back on the field, Matt Kemp whiffs on a high fastball, the count’s at 1-1.
The crowd roars: Beat L-A!! Beat L-A!! Beat L-A!!
He gets under a pitch, flying out to former outfield-mate Yasiel Puig in right. One out, and coming to the plate is Melvin Upton, Jr.—formerly B.J. Upton—striding up from the on-deck circle, past padresbeisbol.com printed in white on the navy-blue wall padding, wearing the half-retro unis: brown and yellow lining the jersey text, with the navy blue helmet of the current set.
The home-plate umpire resets his pitch-count device, Upton sets up, raises his right hand in the air, then sets up, peering out at Tsao. He’s got the bat sticking high up above his head, reminiscing on his walk-off home run the night before, a late-night winner into the right-center sandbox.
A rogue curveball flies in violently up near Upton’s face, and the count from Tsao goes from 2-0 to 3-0.
I’m back in the world of Taiwan baseball for a moment, scrolling through any dirt I can get on Victor the blue ape, on Chin-hui Tsao, on that whole world, and I read that the Chinese Professional Baseball League banned him five years ago, for alleged game-fixing and association with gamblers. His Wikipedia page has even more to say, of unknown accuracy, tagging citations of Chinese-language newspapers painting a colorful, debauched picture of the man we see before us tonight in San Diego.
Yet here he is, in 2016, un-bitten by the wrath of the law, on the mound for the L.A. Dodgers, winding up on the mound with no controversy to speak of, delivering a fastball home to Upton.
And I’m half-watching, half-studying Tsao, when without warning my headphones explode with noise—I’m slapping around for the volume-down button, hearing the semi-coherent words pour out from the Padres’ TV guy:
“MELVIN UPTON JUNIOR!! OHH!!!! TO DEEP LEFT FIELD!! HE DID IT LAST NIGHT!! HE WILL…… not get it done tonight… it’s caught, at the wall.”
Upton hits a deep, deep fly ball, just caught by left-fielder Trayce Thompson, brother of playoff-NBAer Klay, who leaps above the overreaching arms of two eager fans, saving a run, maybe the win, maybe the team’s early-season fortunes.
“Wowwwwwww,” mouths Melvin Upton, walking back to the dugout, echoing the fans, the announcers, the now quieted result of an electric roar of Petco Park. Upton can’t belive it, like some defensive act of the baseball gods to keep that ball in the field. Somehow, he just got under it.
Apparently Chin-Hui Tsao is Taiwanese for “not tonight, B.J.”
— J.P. Hoornstra (@jphoornstra) May 22, 2016
Derek Norris comes up now, with two outs, the score 2-2, a man on second, and a big hole in the right side of the infield.
He walks. Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts checks his charts, sticks with Tsao. A.J. Ellis trots out to the mound, and then back.
Tsao winds up now against Brett Wallace, whipping a fastball toward the plate, and it’s way up in the zone, trailing inside toward the broad side of his face—just missing a square hit, with a deadpan, irritated look on Wallace’s face like “is this guy serious?”
The next pitch: another walk.
Wallace bat flips back toward the dugout, the bases are loaded. The table set for another walk-off hit against these Dodgers. The fans are happy, happier than maybe any other fanbase I’ve seen. Dancing, smiling, waiting for their win.
Yangervis Solarte comes up, last batter of the night. He knocks his knuckles on the end of his bat, strolls up to the plate. Every fan in the building stands up, lifting both arms in raise-the-roof gestures.
Ball one: way, way outside. Tsao tips his cap, takes a deep breath, and winds up again. Solarte’s chewing on gum, going through a quick wheel of half-swings as he sets up.
Ball two: very, very high, almost to the backstop, A.J. Ellis leaping to full height to keep it in front of him. Solarte’s bat is at full waggle now, the crowd gets louder, and Tsao looks stressed, like the Hualien city police chief is in the stands behind home, staring him down, brandishing a pair of handcuffs, a life-sentence in jail about five minutes away.
Ball three: closer, but still way outside. 3-0.
The whole stadium now: Beat L-A!! Beat L-A!! Beat L-A!!
Myers stands on third, hands on his hips as Tsao winds up and delivers.
And then, something unusual, something like a glitch. With the ball on its way toward home, Solarte steps out, as if for an intentional walk, as if he were calling time. What’s going on? The pitch comes in, flying from mound to home. A free pitch. A free strike. Ball four. Tsao can’t find the zone. Solarte throws both arms in the air, slams his bat down, runs to first. Water sprayed on his head. Roberts runs out to argue, and all of Petco Park is in happy awe at the rare, the magnificent, walk-off walk.
Bases loaded with two outs in the 11th…
How about a walk-off walk?! 👊https://t.co/uUMn6dALfs
— San Diego Padres (@Padres) May 22, 2016
The blue and white “Padres Win” flag flies above the dugout, the home-team runs out to celebrate. And it’s two straight walk-offs wins against the Dodgers. Only three games back—this could be a big one.
And karma for Tsao, for a few too many (allegedly) criminal years in the restaurant industry of distant Hualien, Taiwan?