- ESPN MLB insider
Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”
ARLINGTON, Texas — They played this year, amid the fear and the death and the anguish and discomfort, so they could have a night like this. The baseball game staged here Wednesday night was so good, so gripping and invigorating and fascinating and full of tension — full of life — that at times it almost didn’t seem eerie that it was taking place in near silence.
Pandemic baseball was fully realized in Game 2 of the National League Division Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres. The game included a Hall of Fame pitcher starting in his hometown for the first time in nearly 400 career appearances, a home run punctuated by a one-handed bat chuck, a reigning MVP hitting one home run and then dramatically robbing another, a pitcher reacting to the robbery by joyfully flinging his glove and hat, the bat-chucker responding to that with a barrage of F-bombs, the glove-flinger responding to the response with a wave and blown kiss, all of it being rendered nearly moot by the real-time withering and eventual removal of a long-dominant closer and the walking of the bases loaded in the ninth inning.
And when San Diego’s Eric Hosmer slapped a ground ball toward second base that turned into the final out, the Dodgers had secured a 6-5 victory, a two-games-to-none lead in the best-of-five series, a place in the pantheon of thrilling postseason wins and the notion that even with piped-in crowd noise and cardboard fans and ever-present cognitive dissonance, it is possible to play a baseball game that oozes with intensity and feels every bit as meaningful and momentous as its forebears.
“It’s gonna take a while to wind down from that one,” said Cody Bellinger, the home run hitter/larceny committer. “That’s postseason baseball right there.”
Postseason baseball wishes it were like this all the time. This just so happened to be the finest combination yet this season of competitive teams, signature moments and modern theatrics to satiate even the most parched of fans.
Take the seventh inning, which will be talked about for years as this postseason is a mere prelude to the slugfests to come. San Diego had clawed to within a run after Manny Machado and Hosmer, the Padres’ veteran anchors, homered off Clayton Kershaw, the great starter with the checkered playoff resume. By the seventh, Kershaw was gone, replaced by Blake Treinen, who grazed Trent Grisham with a pitch, turning the lineup over. And now it was Treinen’s turn to leave and yield to Brusdar Graterol.
To understand Graterol is to accept that some things in life are just oversized. In Graterol’s case, those include his belly, his smile, his sinker and his reactions. He pumped a 99.3 mph bowling ball toward Fernando Tatis Jr., the Padres’ present and future, and watched it trampoline back at 105 mph. It hung in the air for 6.1 seconds, allowing Bellinger to begin his hunt.
Instead of taking a route straight toward the ball in center field, Bellinger banana’d the first five steps and then sprinted and looked, sprinted and looked, sprinted and jumped, reached, yanked, landed, hopped, celebrated. The ball was over the fence. He retrieved it. The score should’ve been Padres 5, Dodgers 4. It was Dodgers 4, Padres 3.
Graterol threw his glove almost the same exact way Machado had thrown his bat when he homered an inning earlier. Graterol removed his hat and whirred it frisbee-like. Machado did not take kindly to this and berated Graterol, who responded in the only way anyone should respond to an angry man shouting: wave and blow a smooch.
The Dodgers, of course, are in position to kiss off the Padres. They have won eight consecutive NL West titles. They have the game’s highest payroll, its greatest collection of talent and its best player-development system. The Yankees talk about building the Death Star. The Dodgers did.
It’s part of what imbued the night with stress. For the Padres, the perpetual little brother, this matters every bit as much as the Dodgers’ chase to erase a 32-year championship drought. It is about San Diego announcing that it belongs and will not vacate the premises any time soon. It is about the Padres allowing two tack-on runs in the seventh inning, aided by a brilliant Mookie Betts-Corey Seager double steal, and not resigning themselves to another year of bullying without recourse.
The eighth rolled around. Machado faced Graterol and nearly hit him with a 103 mph shot right up the middle. It turned into an out, as did the next two balls put in play by San Diego, leaving three outs for the Dodgers’ longtime closer, Kenley Jansen. He arrived in the ninth, big and burly and physical, only absent 5 mph on his signature cutter. Jansen had teetered some during the regular season. Long unhittable, he was getting squared up with frequency. Only the Dodgers were winning. There was time to work out the problems.
Time had vanished. The issues hadn’t. Jake Cronenworth worked an 11-pitch single. Mitch Moreland doubled him home. Grisham singled Moreland home. The Dodgers’ lead was 6-5, and Tatis was due up. No matter how much he respected Jansen, how many chances he’d given him to prove himself right, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts started his walk to the mound. He’d seen enough. Joe Kelly would face Tatis.
Kelly, the mercurial right-hander, worked Tatis to two strikes before losing him with a walk. Then came Machado. He, too, stared at a two-strike count and wound up walking to load the bases. Hosmer stepped in. A hit meant the lead. A home run meant a safe lead. On his 19th pitch and the 49th of the inning, Kelly induced a rollover from Hosmer and replaced the anxiety and nervousness for everybody watching the game with exhilaration (Dodgers fans), despondence (Padres fans) or appreciation (everyone else).
This — this was a baseball game like it can be, should be, and it would’ve been nice to hear what Graterol and Tatis and Betts and Jansen and Machado and Kelly and so many others involved thought about it. Nice to hear in the moment, because history isn’t just documenting memories at future dates. It’s the instantaneous, the real. Baseball can help sell itself by talking about what makes it so phenomenal, not avoiding the rawness of those emotions and blaming it on the pandemic.
And yet even the absence of their words couldn’t dull the magnificence of high-intensity baseball played for 3 hours, 18 minutes. The previous night couldn’t have been any more different: 3 hours, 54 minutes, a total of seven hits, a miserable pace, a dearth of action. It’s almost as if the baseball gods saw Game 1 and mandated Game 2.
Whatever the cause, bless its existence. Baseball effervesced on Wednesday. It reminded that even in these weird times, with the lone noise coming from the Padres’ family section down the left-field line, the heart of the game remains. And next week, when fans do come to Globe Life Field, and the week after, when this city hosts a neutral-site World Series, it will represent another step back toward that marriage of game and crowd, of entertainer and entertained, of baseball and those who were reminded Wednesday why they can’t get enough of it.
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