There are precious few advantages to covering the World Series from home instead of the press box. I can sleep in my own bed, there’s no opportunity for me to inevitably forget to pack toothpaste since that seems like something hotels should provide alongside moisturizer and tiny sewing kits, and I can scream in excitement when the moment warrants it.
I should probably apologize to my downstairs neighbors after the way Game 4 ended Saturday night, when it was actually early Sunday morning and I had to stand up suddenly (loudly) to demand of no one “WHAT WAS THAT?!”
By Sunday night, I was still tired and expected a low-key viewing experience for Game 5. But then.
In the bottom of the fourth inning, Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Manuel Margot turned a walk into a runner on third with no outs thanks to ambitious baserunning. He stole second and advanced on an error by Chris Taylor, who can’t catch a break or a ball lately. Two outs later, Margot was still stranded 90 feet from home, the tying run with Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw on the mound and Kevin Kiermaier at bat. He decided to take matters into his own hands. Or rather, feet.
Manuel Mar-went. Manuel Mar-got tagged out at the plate, by inches that make for compelling images even though results are a binary. In 266 outs so far this World Series, it was the only one that made me yell at my TV — a visceral, involuntary “oooOOO!” that encapsulated surprise and confusion and gleeful recognition.
Attempting a straight steal of home plate in the World Series? Attempting a straight steal of home plate in the World Series! A wildly ambitious enough move so improbable that even the not-very-recent relevant parallels are rendered dull in comparison by mitigating factors. The successful one in 2002 was part of a double steal. The unsuccessful one in 1991 was a failed squeeze play.
This was straight gamesmanship. Hunter Renfroe didn’t take off from first to serve as a distraction, because he didn’t know Margot was about to break for home. No one did.
Margot spent four seasons on the Padres getting a good look at Kershaw, who’s overhead setup is methodical and comparatively slow. He’d never tried it before off the Dodgers ace but then Justin Turner wasn’t holding him close to third. It wasn’t strategy so much as a convergence of athleticism, opportunity, and gumption.
“It was a gutsy move,” Kiermaier said later, “and it didn’t work out.”
The Rays, understandably, were pretty focused on the not-working-out-ness of it all. Margot seemed apologetic as he insisted, through a translator, that it was his decision to run, the failure his responsibility alone.
“I thought I had a chance and obviously it didn't work out that way,” he said at the end of one response.
“I was just trying to score the run but it didn't turn out that way,” at the end of another.
Manager Kevin Cash, as he should to protect his player, evaded issuing a ruling on whether or not he thought the attempt made sense in that situation.
“I think we try to do things and make decisions and allow players to be athletic and be the athletes they are. And if Manny felt that he had a read on it, for whatever reason, it's tough for me to say yes or no, just because he's a talented baserunner,” Cash said. “He might be seeing something that certainly I'm not in the moment right there. And he's trying to do something to pick his team up.”
I get it; they just lost a World Series game to give the Dodgers a 3-2 series lead. They’ll be facing elimination in Game 6 on Tuesday. Even though the topic has dogged them this postseason, the Rays are not interested in talking about the aesthetics of baseball when what matters most, especially right now, is effectiveness.
That’s not a problem with the Rays; but it is a problem with the sport.
You don’t, actually, watch baseball because one team wins. That part is an immovable fact in perpetuity. Maybe you really want a particular team to win, but you watch because it’s exciting. Or at least it might be. The win part will be in the paper tomorrow and you can do something else with your evening.
Unfortunately, baseball teams are not motivated to maximize excitement, but rather to maximize win probability. Sometimes these goals are aligned, but only incidentally.
This dissonance is at the heart of all the hand-wringing about the degradation of baseball and how analytics are probably to blame. It’s the same underlying issue that can be extracted from all critiques of the tactical revolutions that ultimately cut down on dynamic in-game action. The incentives simply don’t line up.
Teams want to win baseball games as efficiently as possible. If anything, it’s the deviation from those plans and the failures to execute that create memorable moments. It was the Dodgers’ ninth-inning errors that made the Rays’ cinematic comeback possible in Game 4. It was Margot’s audacity, regardless of what would make sense in that situation had it been evaluated ahead of time, that will stick with me from Game 5.
Of course it would have been better — for the Rays and for the viewer on that particular play — if he had been safe. But there are going to be at least 51 outs every night anyway, they might as well be exciting.
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