BOTTOM OF THE NINTH: GIANTS 1 (0) – 0 PADRES
Johnny Cueto has just pitched a career-best game. He’s in the dugout, hat off, arms on the padded green railing, an orange and black skull cap stretched over his long dreadlocks, awaiting the slim chance of a win to be added to his season record. It’s nothing-nothing, a stalemate of a game, and a nine-inning, two-hit shutout for Cueto.
Cueto, by the way, tops the surprisingly thin list of dreadlocked MLB players, calling to mind the long-haired kings of the other American sports—Larry Fitzgerald, Kenneth Faried, Cobi Jones—and it goes like this:
- Johnny Cueto himself
- Ervin Santana
- John Jaso
- Cameron Maybin
- Hanley Ramirez
Great flow. Top-notch length. Strong hairline, consistency, unbeatable style. And he’s helped by both Jose Reyes and Andrew McCutchen having cut their locks for charity, Manny Ramirez having retired. Which reminds me, of maybe the best dreadlocks-related goof in history, when Manny was welcomed to Taiwan by a poster, with Cueto’s face on it, reading “Manny Ramirez, we support you!”
And we’d be remiss here to forget Will-Ferrell-as-Harry-Caray’s revelation on Saturday Night Live, of a certain comparison—his bobbling head, goofy-sized glasses a spot-on impression of the late sportscaster himself:
“Hey, Seth! Don’t you think Manny Ramirez looks like the monster from Predator?”
Seth Meyers: “Yeah, I guess…his hair sort of does make him—”
“I mean, based on his size, and strength, I think the Predator monster would make a pretty good ballplayer!”
So there he is in the dugout, Johnny Cueto, praying for the Giants’ offense to show, his hair like a long, prestigious cape for this superheroic pitching performance, and up to the plate comes Brandon Belt, looking to start things off on the right, run-scoring foot.
— San Francisco Giants (@SFGiants) May 24, 2016
Belt’s 0-3 on the night, up against reliever Brad Hand, at the tail-end of a windy pitcher’s duel, his black, semi-matte helmet a blurred reflection of the stadium lights overhead.
Belt whiffs big on a slider curling away and low, looking frustrated. The other Brandon, Brandon Crawford is behind in the on-deck circle, taking practice hacks, above a row of below-ground spectators looking up from behind the backstop netting.
Hand delivers, and Belt reaches out and lofts a soft pop-up into center field, dropping just in on the grass for a single.
The crowd gets excited–it’s one night after the Warriors’ loss in game three of the Western Conference Finals, with a balm to Bay Area sports heartache badly needed.
Cueto looks out from the dugout, a hopeful smile on his face, the first signs of a potential W underway.
Brandon Crawford comes up now, with fantastic flow of his own—a curly, dark-black curtain of locks hanging down onto his shoulders, like an homage to Colby Rasmus.
So as Brandon #2 comes up, Brandon #1 on first base, the fans at AT&T Park build up into a chorus: “Let’s gooo Gi-aaannnnts… clap, clap, clap-clap-clap…”
Crawford strikes out on three straight breaking balls, the last swing a big, spinning miss on a slider in the dirt, and then it’s Gregor Blanco, up with one out.
Meanwhile, Hunter Pence jogs out of the dugout and into the on-deck circle, to pinch-hit, with a series golf-like practice swings.
And the infamous, part-beloved, part-ridiculed Marlins Man, is planted in the front row, his visor cocked all the way sideways, like the worst of Jamie Kennedy’s many looks in Malibu’s Most Wanted.
Blanco pops a slider foul, playable for Brett Wallace, who steps across the third-base-line chalk, making the catch for the second out.
So it’s down to Hunter Pence, who’s no stranger to walk-offs against the Padres. Cueto’s looking increasingly sad in the dugout, the official win looking more and more unlikely.
But there’s a new energy in the park, the Giants’ faithful all rising in a standing ovation, as Pence strides up the plate with a soundtrack that can do no wrong—“My Boo,” by the great Ghost Town DJ’s:
And so Hunter Pence, famously the butt of an on-going baseball joke, comes up with everything on the line, the team result, the fans’ hopes, Johnny Cueto’s emotions, with his back hunched over and tense, knees bent into a half-crouch, swinging the bat like a pendulum.
And he pops it up. A big groan from the crowd. Second-baseman Alexi Amarista running backward into right field for the catch, Matt Kemp charging in for backup.
But then, Kemp changes paths, stumbles a bit. Amarista pauses. There’s a ball suddenly lost in the lights, a string of bad footwork, a miscommunication, and now it’s a fully mixed-up pair of Padres sprinting in desperation for the game-saving catch, their backlit shadows spread out in three directions.
Kemp lays out and dives for it. No good! The ball comes crashing down onto the grass beneath his outstretched arm. He springs up with his hands, flinging the bar further afield with his knee, as he stumbles again, runs it down, and now Brandon Belt is charging full on around third, the coach running with him, arm-pumping all the way, and the Padres in right field give up, letting the ball roll slowly away. Amarista and Kemp hang their heads, a long night now ending in a loss.
It’s like the ghost of right-field mischief is back, angels devils in outfield, with the curse of Gregory Polanco and Luis Castillo back, affecting the vision of one Matt Kemp, now walking dejectedly back to the clubhouse.
Johnny Cueto jumps up from the dugout, his arm waving in a big circle, dreadlocks trailing behind as he runs out to hug Pence.
— San Francisco Giants (@SFGiants) May 24, 2016
Belt slides into home, pops up, high-fives Denard Span, the Giants seal mascot goes wild atop the dugout, and the full roster runs out to celebrate a win brought back from the dead. Pence is out near second base, fielding a full roster of hugs—laughing, guffawing, taking dumbfounded credit for a pure-luck game-winner.
Cueto, meanwhile, gets handshakes from everyone—the reward for a complete-game shutout, saved.
“And everybody goes home happy,” says one of the Giants’ TV guys. Happy, indeed, with a smiling Johnny Cueto at the top of the pile.