Just because baseball grumps like to complain that the sport’s ultra-optimized strikeouts-and-homers contemporary form degrades and diminishes the finer elements of the game doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Everyone and everything is a little bit off in this case. There really is something sterile and un-fun about the way in which baseball’s stranger and more unpredictable aesthetic middle has been squeezed out by the overbearing presence of the sport’s alpha (overmatched hitters quailing at sadistic, non-Euclidean 101-mph cut fastballs) and its omega (the absolute big-boy taters), even though both the alpha and omega are outstandingly cool in themselves. It’s still baseball, and it’s still good. But those who yearn for back-to-back doubles and the hit-and-run still have a case.
Those who love that station-to-station action above all else, if maybe only for those people, would have found a lot to like in Saturday’s shootout between the Dodgers and Angels. Clayton Kershaw started brilliantly for Los Angeles and Dylan Bundy less-brilliantly for Los Angeles Of Anaheim, but virtually every pitcher that took the mound did their best to contribute to a real Homer Car presentation experience on behalf of the idea of Baseball Without Homers. An astonishing 24 hits—21 of them of singles—and 22 runs were on the board before Angels third baseman José Rojas hit the game’s first and only homer to make the score 14-11 in the bottom of the seventh inning. The Angels had been down 13-0, which would have made a successful comeback the biggest in baseball history; there were some walks and some strikeouts involved in getting them into that hole and also getting them that far out of it, but most of it was just that pure old-fashioned baseball stuff. It was pretty cool, if not always pretty, and a glimpse at an alternative baseball reality at its most extreme. Anyway, I am not writing about any of that.
This post is about how Mookie Betts, in sneaking back to third base on a check-swing roller by Max Muncy in the visiting half of the fourth, wound up absorbing one of the more cinematic instances of tag-related dick-and-ball trauma in recent memory. Rojas got all of the Garrett Cleavinger fastball that he parked into the right field seats in the home half of the seventh, but squared up Betts just about as well on this unlikely and unfortunate cup-check.
Just a very weird game all told! It is true that baseball used to be a little more like this—less spectacular in every sense, but also and absolutely as full of baseball as it could be, and as tense as any game so (mostly) lopsided could be given the determinedly gradual way in which it all played out. The box score itself is a text to behold. Only Corey Seager had three hits; 20 of the 24 players to make a plate appearance got a hit, and 18 of those scored a run. The teams combined for 28 hits, and 23 of those were singles. Jon Jay, who as you doubtless knew is on the Angels now, had a terrific game. On balance, it was as close to evenly distributed as any baseball game could be, and yet it began with one team on a 13-0 run and ended with the other on an 11-1 run.
All very interesting stuff, but also how did Mookie Betts even find himself in this position?
Say what you will for the all-or-nothing shape of contemporary baseball, but it is at least safe. A player trudging back to the dugout after some team’s third-best reliever throws him a 98-mile-per-hour sinker that would have caused Johnny Mize to burst into acrid blue flames has confronted the game’s maximalist current reality in all its unfairness; one jogging casually around the diamond after somehow hitting one of those ridiculous pitches over the fence is enjoying its other side.
The awe of both fizzles fast, but it is worth remembering that neither player is vulnerable in the way of, say, one unlucky enough to find himself howdy-partnering his way back to third base while straddling a teammate’s doomed nubber as it wobbles along the baseline. Neither the maximally defeated nor the maximally triumphant player is at any risk of being subjected to a professional-grade tag being applied vigorously to the closest part of his person, which in this case is His Most Intimate Business. Say what you will for baseball as it is played most nights in 2021, but it ensures that the odds are definitely against any player getting his shit absolutely rocked like this.
Betts, who drove in four runs, stayed in the game and singled and scored again in the very next inning. It was that kind of game, and it is that kind of sport.