It is always incorrect to claim one player lost a game. Often times there are circumstances where the game has led to a fork and a single player chooses, accidentally or not, which tine the team takes. But that is always after many players on both sides, through actions too numerous to count, have brought the game to that situation. If the pitcher doesn’t walk six guys in the first, the bloop single in the ninth doesn’t matter. If the second baseman doesn’t bobble that grounder in the fourth the lead off double in the eighth isn’t as big a deal. Rinse. Repeat.
Still the contributions of the individual player can’t be ignored. Baseball is an individual sport cloaked in team apparel. Players wear one of two uniforms, but at any given moment the play is entirely in the hands of a single person. The pitcher pitches. The batter swings. Or does not. The fielder fields. Or is Jason Giambi. The fielder throws the ball to another fielder, or if he’s Chuck Knoblauch, to Keith Olbermann’s mom in the tenth row behind first base.
Each player reacts to the actions of the previous player. The batter to the pitcher, the fielder to the ball hit by the batter, the other fielder to the first fielder. Each step can’t exist without the previous, but each has the ability to alter or end the chain with faulty play. If that first fielder can’t make the play the reactions become academic, moot, insignificant.
Which brings me to Jason Varitek. Varitek came in as a replacement for nominal starter Jarrod Saltalamacchia in the bottom of the eighth after Salty was lifted for a pinch runner. I was out and about and missed the eighth so you’re spared the sixteen paragraphs where I freak out, in a continuum of stranger and more colorful fonts, about using Jason Varitek as a defensive replacement. It was, in a way, a shame that didn’t occur because I was going to take video of myself stabbing myself in the eyes with a spork, make a GIF out of it and post it here. Well, surely there will be time for that later. Lucky us.
But back to the point at hand. Jason Varitek was in the game. After Bard gave up a homer to Cecil Cooper’s illegitimate second cousin David to give the Blue Jays a one run lead, Adrian Gonzalez broke out that swing, the one where it looks like he just popped up to the shortstop only the ball carries well over the left field wall. That swing tied it up and sent the game to extras, which is where our story really begins. Yes, I’ve buried the lead in about 15 feet of dirt.
With one out after a scoreless top of the tenth for the Red Sox, Rajai Davis singled up the middle off of Matt Albers. At this point it became clear Davis was going to try to steal second base. Varitek admitted so much after the game. Davis even rounded first base hard. Is that predictive? No, but the guy was looking to make a play. Albers threw over to first. On the first pitch the Sox called for a pick off. They guessed right, Davis was running. Albers pitch out was exactly where it should have been, as seen in this screen grab:
Varitek jumps up to the right-handed batters box, receives the pitch at shoulder level (the ball is in his glove at the time of this screen grab) and throws to second. A different view taken during NESN’s replay:
Varitek has the ball in his hand and is about to release it. Davis is half way between first and second. He’s a dead duck. Here’s the throw:
Iglesias is the shortstop waiting for the ball, his left knee on top of second base. What you can’t see and what I can’t get a good screen grab to show you is that by this point the ball has bounced in front of second base about where the dirt meets the ‘grass’. Davis slid in under the tag. It was close-ish, but you could easily see he was safe. On a pitch out, Varitek couldn’t hit second base on the fly, which allowed Davis to steal second safely, which allowed him a chance to steal third a pitch later (which he did). He scored on a fly ball that same at-bat. Game over. That chain of events is halted by a good throw to second base.
The kicker was, well there were multiple kickers, but one of them was that Davis did a rotten job of disguising his intentions. His aggressive rounding of first base on a ground ball single up the middle, his big lead, the game situation, and of course the fact that the dude is fast as a mutha were all spotlights that spelled out the word “STEAL”.
To their credit, the Red Sox saw the signs, knew the situation and the players reputation, and guessed correctly. The pitch out was a good one, and the fielder waiting for the throw was about as good as there is in baseball. The only weak link in the chain was Varitek’s throw, and boy was it weak. It was the baby puke green ’78 Chevy Vega parked in between the Rolls and the Porsche. It was switching around on MLB radio and going from Jon Miller calling a Giants game, to John Sterling ignoring the game except to shout pre-planned life-shortening puns at pre-determined moments, to Vin Scully’s graceful tones punctuating a Dodgers game. It was the bad in between two pieces of good and it cost the Red Sox.
In the end, this isn’t about Jason Varitek’s roster slot or his playing time. Those will be sorted out, and preferably without over-reacting to a single bad throw which only impacted the outcome of one game. The Red Sox are too smart for that. Every team in baseball is too smart for that. And still that tenth inning was a time machine to last season, Carl Crawford at first, Varitek behind the plate, my head preemptively in my hands, eyes peering fearfully through my fingers. We all knew Crawford could steal home before Tek could get the ball out of his glove. All that remained was to watch it happen. Or not.