TOP OF THE NINTH: NATIONALS 6 (5) – 4 INDIANS
The Nationals had this one won. Then they had it more won. Up one run. Up to two runs, too. Then, they had it lost, and lost it they did. A National nightmare, prolonged and Papelbonned, a team asleep with the lead, awoken with the house on fire. Someone check on Dusty Baker, he’s had a rough go of it. He got rally-monkeyed in ’02, billy-goated in ’03, chaperoned a string of heartbreaks in Cincinnati, and now he’s back—to the great-team/tough-break blues, unsure of whether the hump will finally be surmounted, waiting for October to find out.
His Washington Nationals are in first place, for now, still in good shape. But they ran into the buzzsaw that is 2016 Cleveland—the unprecedented success of the Cavs’, the unconventional political Convention, the unpredicted surge to the A.L. Central throne, by their very own Indians.
And Dusty at the center of it, chewing his typical toothpick at the top step of the dugout, wondering whether they make them novocaine-flavored, asking the bench coach to run and check. Custom meds for in-game numbing needs, pain-killing and mind-easing, coming to a major-league clubhouse near you—harmful only in the unfelt event of self-impaled gums.
And so: far from where it ended, the ninth inning began with a quote—a loss forecast by the Indians’ TV crew. “The Indians,” they said, “can’t afford to fall any further behind, you’d think.”
You would think, but something else happened.
It started with the negatives still trending, Anthony Rendon lining a top-spun shot at Uribe at third, bouncing off the glove and into the outfield for a two-base error.
Ryan Zimmerman flew out to right. Bryan Shaw came in from the bullpen, hitting Espinosa on the first pitch he let fly. And out came the debut of a goofy dance, both legs lifted off the ground, knees bent in a levitating maneuver like the disco scene from Airplane. (…stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive…)
With one out, the Nats put runners on first and second, and a curly ray-gun line of hot-dog mustard stretched from pitcher to batter, an eye-to-eye mental connection, condiment the conduit, like laser-vision whipped out to intimidate, Shaw (unless it’s an illusion) mustarding ahead.
Ben Revere drew a full count, then knocked a chopper back to the mound. Gimenez and Shaw both charged, no throw to first with home empty and Rendon eyeing a score. All runners safe, the bases loaded.
Trea Turner lined a one-bouncer off Napoli’s glove at first, Shaw shirking duty again, first-base left open as a sixth run scores and Napoli bobbled it again, a malfunctioning glove, rigged like the claw at a kids arcade.
The Nationals went up 6-4 with Harper and Murphy coming up, but Shaw managed two quick outs. Bottom of the inning on deck with little hope in the mood of the TV broadcast crew.
BOTTOM OF THE NINTH: NATIONALS 6 – (4) 7 INDIANS
Jonathan Papelbon’s on the mound for the Nats to close things out, Jose Ramirez up for Cleveland. A walk drawn, after a full-count battle. Anger brewing under Papelbon’s lid. And Mike Maddux jogging out to chat, the pitching coach, a rare visit for a closer after one batter faced.
A drum beat thumps out from the stands, rousing the remaining fans, and striding up from the on-deck circle is the only n-a-q letter-string in MLB history, the rookie sensation leading the way for A.L. year-end award, center-fielder and centerpiece to the surprise team of the year—Tyler Naquin.
Wilson Ramos sets up low and away. Then another pitch, low and away, straight for the dirt, this time met with brilliance—the uncanny swing of a prodigy, deftly dropping a garbage pitch into the gap in left-center, wrist-flicking a ball from the dirt on a one-handed power shot to the wall.
NAQUIN IS A BEAUTIFUL MAN.
— sportsyelling. (@sportsyelling) July 27, 2016
On the Indians’ telecast: “Papelbon thinking, maybe I shoulda bounced it…”
Ramirez scores, the game tightens to 6-5, and Chris Gimenez steps up with a bunt the likely call. He puts it forward, pulls it back, then with the second pitch, shows bunt again—knocks one ahead on a roll toward first. Zimmerman charges in, Murphy covers first, and the throw—a “sidearm buggy whip”—takes off on an errant line into the Cleveland night. Naquin sprints home to tie the game. The ball, slick with Zimmerman’s palm sweat, rolls to a stop somewhere down the first-base line, as Gimenez jogs in to second.
As John Lennon once said: “I don’t believe in Zimmerman.”
Curious joy on the A.M. radio: “Howww about dat!!?? Wow. Wow wow wow wow.”
And the inning continues with an intentional walk to Lonnie Chisenhall. Still no outs. Papelbon sets up, “Chiz” readies, and it’s—whoa!!—it’s another bunt. Whoa. Chisenhall knocks an airborne bunt against the drilled-in logic of all baseball fundamentals, a never-ever-do-this move, pulled off to near-impossible perfection, unwheeling the wheel play he’d nearly played into.
Rendon charges hard in from third to field it, but the bunt pops just over his head, not far enough for a catch from the shortstop, dropping like a chip shot into no-man’s land on the infield grass. The runners hold up with the ball at its cheeky apex, pause, then dash to the next base, as it drops in for a hit.
Never has a bunt been more perfectly placed. Chisenhall intentionally walked, Davis pops a bunt over charging Rendon’s head. Bases loaded.
— T.J. Zuppe (@TJZuppe) July 27, 2016
The volume on the radio spikes up in a burst of joy: “And there will be no irish jig at the Indians’ expense tonight!! …as Jonathan Papebon takes the slow walk to the Nationals’ dugout!!”
Kipnis flies out, the bases stay loaded, there’s one out, and Francisco Lindor steps up for Cleveland. Never a walk-off to his name, never a guess that his team would have a chance. Never anyone’s thought that a sloppy loss might change state into a vintage win. The first pitch he sees comes up and in, met with a defensive swing intending nothing but a foul strike.
And the next line from the broadcast comes spat out like a staccato syllable-mash, overlapped words quick-drawn and clamoring for attention—soon engraved into the stone tablets of baseball’s 2016 story. BASE HIT INDIANS WIN IT. A phrase echoing out for an entire summer night, The dashing of the winning run / that beat on Erie’s shore. A swing and a hit, a call off the bat. The Cleveland Indians win it.
Lindor gets his winner, slapped the other way through a hole in the drawn-in infield, and he’s mobbed by every teammate at once—fireworks overhead and hands in the air, screaming like they’ve won the ‘ship.
Lindy Lindor-hopping around the infield.
“It’s hard to call certain games turning points, but…”
They whoop in a packed circle like a flock of seagulls, moshing and yelping. Having trailed all game, uncovering a somehow win.
Lindor’s first career winner, and a repeated, year-long insistence: The Indians are for real.
We always say this, but tonight’s photos might be our best group yet.
— Cleveland Indians (@Indians) July 27, 2016