There was magic on a baseball field late on Sunday afternoon, May 20, 2012 in suburban Maryland just outside Washington D.C.
It was the kind of magic, it seems, that so often occurs in baseball, where no game is over until the last out. Unlike other sports, there is no clock to make a large lead virtually impossible to overcome.
It was not just a last inning come-from-behind rally by the Washington Nationals, or "Nats," vs. the Brooklyn Dodgers, in the Senior Select 14 year-old league in this Maryland suburban community. It was also the phenomenon that built up during the game and reached its crescendo during that memorable last inning of the game, a phenomenon known to anyone who has played on any team sport, but especially in baseball. It's the feeling that literally envelopes everyone on the field, often suddenly, without anyone quite being aware as it is happening, when the team stops being a bunch of individuals and they come together, think and act and play as one, as if all are combined into one person, one will-to-win machine.
In other words, they become a team.
And that's when the magic can happen.
It happened to the New York Giants on Oct. 3, 1951, when Bobby Thomson hit the "shot heard 'round the world," the three-run homerun in the bottom of the ninth to win the National League pennant for the Giants over their arch rival, the Brooklyn Dodgers. As Thomson rounded third base to jump jubilantly on home plate, the entire Giants team was there merged into one jumble of deliriously happy ball players, a collective entity that now believed in miracles.
It happened to the St. Louis Cardinals on Oct. 27, 2011, in the sixth game of the World Series. The Texas Rangers, heavily favored to win the World Series over the Cards, were ahead 3-2 in games and the score was 7-5 going into the bottom of the ninth, two outs, two strikes -- one strike away from winning the Series.
But then came the magic: the Cards' David Freeze, one strike away from being the last out in the World Series, hit a triple, two runs scored, and the score was now 7-7 going into extra innings.
After the Rangers scored two more in the top of the 10th to go ahead 9-7, again there were two strikes, two outs, and the Rangers were again one strike away from being World Champions. But then Cardinal Lance Berkman singled in two runs, and the game was tied again at 9-9.
In the bottom of the 11th, David Freeze -- you can't make this up -- homered to win the game and tie the series at 3-3.
The fact that the Cardinals won the next game and the World Championship was almost anticlimactic. They knew they were a team that could not be stopped because they believed that, not as a bunch of individuals but as if they were one mind and knew they could not be stopped.
Of course what happened almost exactly seven months later, on May 20, 2012, in the last inning of the Washington Nats-Brooklyn Dodgers game can't be compared in significance to these two historic games in Major League Baseball. But there are a couple of remarkable similarities. The opposition for both the '51 Giants and the '12 Nats was the Dodgers. Both the '11 Cards and the '12 Nats faced a two-run deficit going into the final inning.
And like the '51 Giants and '11 Cards, the '12 Nats experienced what happens when, like an inevitable force of nature, the winds that were in their faces turned into winds at their backs, and the 11 individuals on the Nats team became The Team Nats.
And so the magic began.
# # # #
When the Dodgers jogged out onto the Potomac, Md., baseball field in the top of the sixth on May 20, 2012, they had good reason to believe this would be the final inning. They led by 5-3 but, more than the two runs, they seemed to have the confident air of a team ready to declare victory. Their hitting against the Nats had been solid, their defense nearly perfect, and their closing pitcher was one of their best, with the good best fast ball and curve and good control. It seemed, even to the Nats parents on the sidelines, a matter of time until the Nats were retired, with a Dodgers victory a few outs away.
The game had started well for the Nats, but the tide had turned quickly.
In the first inning, lead-off batter for the Nats, Josh, walked, stole second, and moved to third on a ground-out. Matthew walked and stole second. With men on second and third, Tyler, a high-powered hitter and the team's starting pitcher that day, lined a deep drive over the left fielder's head, scoring two runs, Josh and Matt. But as Tyler rounded third base, third base Coach Rosetti waved him on to home plate. The Dodgers left fielder threw a strike to home plate and Tyler was out by several feet for the second out. (Of course, there was second-guessing among some parents of Coach Rosetti's decision, as would be expected, after the next batter, Ezra, singled, which would have brought home Tyler; but as Coach Rosetti put it after the inning as he walked past the parents, "Tyler deserved to try for the home run" -- and the parents all nodded, especially Tyler's mom, agreeing with that logic.)
But the Nats two-run lead didn't last for long. The Dodgers came right back in the bottom of the first. They got four consecutive singles off Tyler to start the game, scoring two runs. It could have been worse but for the diving, back-handed catch by outfielder, Carter. But the Dodger runner on third tagged up and came home, to make the score 3-2, Dodgers.
The Nats went down 1-2-3, in the top of the second, although Ben hit a long fly ball to right center that could have gone for extra bases but was just barely caught.
Then the Dodgers went to work again, scoring two more runs on two walks, stolen bases, and a solid base hit. It could have been worse but for a heads-up play by right fielder, Brian, who fielded a line-drive single in right field and threw a strike to first base to get the man out, assisted by a great stretch catch by Nats first baseman Jack J.
With two outs, the Dodgers player on second attempted a steal of third base after getting a great jump. But Nats catcher Josh threw a low rifle shot to third base, and third baseman Addie caught the ball and stuck it into the feet of the sliding Dodger.
"Out!" shouted the field umpire, ending the inning.
Top of the third, the Nats started with two strike-outs. Then Josh walked and stole second base for the second time. Then Josh moved to third on a balk. Up came Carter, who sharply singled to left, scoring Josh, and the Dodgers lead was cut to 5-3.
That is where the score stood until the last inning, the top-of-the sixth, with no runs scored by the Dodgers in the fourth or fifth innings, thanks to the pitching of the second pitcher in the rotation, Sam who, as has been his custom since the age of 10 when he started pitching, threw almost all strikes, cooling down the previously hot Dodgers batters.
The Nats were also helped by two outstanding defensive plays in the bottom of the fifth. With one out, man on first, a Dodger hit a line drive, one-hopper to right center. Carter fielded the base hit, and threw a strike to second base, forcing out the surprised Dodger runner from first base. Then, third baseman, Tyler, dove for a line-drive between short and third, destined to be an extra-base hit, and, his body-outstretched virtually horizontally, snared it. Third out, inning over.
Now it was the top-of-the-sixth, the final inning, it seemed, at least, for the Nats. Down 5-3, three outs left to try to catch the Dodgers.
Coach Rosenblatt called the team together for a quiet talk, as he usually does between innings -- this time, touching just the right tone of instilling confidence and urgency at the same time. "This is it, Nats. You can do it. Let's get some runs and win this thing."
After the first out, Addie hit an outside fastball sharply to right field and, despite painful ankles, ran as if he had no pain and slid into second base for a double.
On the sidelines, the parents sensed something was happening. They noticed their sons on the Nats bench. They were together -- sitting closely, shouting encouragement to the batter, and bunched so closely together as to be seen almost indistinguishable.
There was something in the air -- something positive. Something...inevitable.
With Addie on second and one out, Josh, the top of the order, was up. Josh hit a line drive single to left, but hit the ball so hard that the left fielder immediately caught it on one bounce and Addie had no chance to score -- he rounded third but immediately turned back to the base.
Josh wasted no time stealing second -- his third stolen base of the game. With runners on second and third, Carter hit a long fly ball to left field. The ball was caught for the second out. But all eyes on the Nats sidelines were on Addie on third base, who was waiting to tag up from third base to head to home plate as soon as the left fielder caught the ball. He did tag-up, ran home, and, despite a strong throw from the Dodgers left fielder, Addie slid under the tag.
"Safe!" shouted the home plate ump.
The score was now 5-4, two outs, Josh still on second base.
Most of the parents and all three coaches, including third base Coach Rosetti, were watching Addie as he tagged up, ready to run home after the left fielder made his catch. But to the horror of those watching him closely, Addie, understandably anxious to start his journey to home plate, left third base a second or half-second prematurely, before the left fielder actually caught the ball. There was no doubt.
"Oh my God," one parent whispered.
"Oh no," another whispered back.
Parents looked over at Coach Rosetti to see if his body language showed any sign that he, too, had seen the premature departure of Addie. But Coach Rosetti wasn't looking back toward the parents or Coach Rosenblatt. Instead, he was staring at third base, not moving a muscle.
Then all eyes on the Nats sidelines turned to the umpire: Did he notice? Not good. The ump seemed to be staring at third base. He knew!!! OMG. But he said nothing. Nothing!!!
Under the rules, it was up to the Dodgers to catch the mistake, throw the ball to third, and step on the bag for the third out -- and the end of the game. But because of this rule in baseball, the ump couldn't tell them to do it. The Dodgers had to do it themselves.
The air was still. All on the Nats sidelines waited to see if the Dodgers coach or any of the players made a move to throw the ball to third base. Had they done so, had the Dodgers third baseman taken the ball and touched the base, that would have been the third out, game over.
But no. Nothing.
The Nats' next batter, Matthew, was at the plate. When there was no sign of an appeal from the Dodgers coaches or players to touch third base with the ball, and the Dodgers pitcher threw the first pitch, you could literally hear a collective sigh of relief on the sidelines. Once the pitch was thrown, it was too late for the Dodgers to nullify Addie's tag-up and the run counted.
The score: 5-4, two outs, Josh on second.
On the second pitch, Josh got a big jump and, on his own, without Coach Rosetti signaling him to do so, took off for third base. Despite a strong throw to third by the Dodgers catcher, Josh was safe on a wide-out slide -- his fourth stolen base of the game. (Third base Coach Rosetti wrote after the game: "Josh stole third on his own and I was a bit miffed. I told him, 'I'm glad you made it. You are going to get me fired,' as Josh stood up to dust himself off.")
Matt walked, putting him on first with Josh on third, and the Nats power hitter, Tyler, was on the way to home plate. The score was still 5-4, two outs, runners on first and third.
The tension was thick -- yet you'd never know it looking at the Nats on the bench. All you could see was a bunch of heads close together, leaning forward, cheering Tyler on. They didn't know that miracles aren't supposed to happen. They were together...believing.
The opposing coach of the Dodgers hesitated. Finally he asked the umpire to permit Tyler to be intentionally walked. A bold move -- preferring to walk Tyler to load the bases rather than risking an extra base hit from this high-average, power hitter that would bring in the go-ahead runs. On the other hand, it was a risky move, since now, with the bases loaded, a walk would tie the game.
As Tyler jogged to first base on the intentional walk, moving Matt to second, Josh on third base could be seen apparently saying a few words quietly to Coach Rosetti. Bases now full, with Ezra at the plate.
On the first pitch, the Dodgers pitcher threw from a full wind-up -- there was no need to hold Josh at third base and pitch from a stretch position, since the bases were loaded, with two outs. On that pitch, Josh moved rapidly down the third base line almost halfway to home plate during the long wind-up. After the catcher caught the pitch, the catcher faked a throw to third, and Josh raced back to the bag.
What was Josh doing??? A number of parents -- and coaches -- were asking.
Second pitch -- now the coaches and parents watched Josh moving more quickly off third base during the wind-up, then faster, and then faster still, and then racing, racing, racing, now clearly heading to try to steal home!
The pitch was a fast ball outside the plate. Josh arrived at the plate and hit the dirt with a hook slide, just as the catcher caught the ball and dived to the plate to intercept Josh. A cloud of dust.
"SAFE!" the umpire yelled.
Tie score, 5-5.
The bench cleared, as the Nats greeted Josh, pounding his back, hugging him, all cheering.
Some of the parents looked at Coach Rosetti at third base, wondering whether Josh did this steal -- his fifth of the game -- on his own, without consulting the coach. Coach Rosetti looked back, and shrugged his shoulders, shaking his head.
Looks like Josh did it on his own, everyone figured!
Here's what the third base Coach Rosetti wrote after the game about Josh's home plate steal:
"After the first pitch to Ezra, I noticed the pitcher had gone [pitched] from a full wind-up. He was a righty, which gave me pause as he would see the runner [on third base]. The last time Josh stole home the pitcher was a lefty [so his back was to third base], and Josh was able to get a great jump. Josh looked at me with a half grin, we made eye contact, and I nodded my head -- part of me knew he was probably going to try anyway. If he did not make it I would have taken the heat."
Now short-stop Ezra was at the plate. The score tied, two outs, the lead run, Matt, was on second base. On the first pitch -- Matt stole third and Tyler stole second -- a brave, if somewhat risky, double steal, but it was successful!
The tension now high. The Nats players were cheering on Ezra as he stood at the plate looking thoroughly calm and focused. He waved his bat a couple of times, waiting for the incoming pitch, then smacked a solid line drive single to right center, and Matt and Tyler came home for the go ahead runs, leaving the Nats with a 7-5 lead -- a four-run rally in the last regulation inning, the top of the sixth.
Ezra then attempted to steal second -- testing the fates after four successful steals by Nats players in one inning. But he was thrown out at second with a strike by the Dodgers catcher, ending the heroic come-from-behind inning.
Now, in the bottom of the sixth, the Dodgers had their chance to come back two runs in the last half of the final regulation inning, just as the St. Louis Cardinals had done -- twice -- some seven months before. And they, too, were down the first time, 7-5, just like the Cardinals.
Ezra was the third Nats pitcher. The first Dodger hitter solidly pulled an Ezra fast ball to left field, gaining a stand-up double. The next Dodgers batter hit a strong ground ball to Jack R., playing second, who made a good pick-up, checked the runner at second back to the bag, and threw the runner out. The Dodger at second remained there, thanks to Jack R.'s heads-up play, who also had injured his ankle and was hurting that day.
One out, two to go.
Then Ezra threw a wild pitch past Carter, now catcher, and the Dodger on second base advanced to third. The next Dodger batter hit a solid single to right center, the runner scored, and the score was now 7-6, man on first, one out.
Now there was some new potential magic in the air, except this time it seemed the Dodgers had caught it. Was this really going to be a replay of the Cardinals in the last inning of Game 6 of the 2011 World Series seven months before, with a come-back rally down two runs in the bottom of the last inning?
Many Nats parents were nervous, hearts pounding. But a look at the Nats in the field, Ezra on the mound, and Carter catching, you'd never know there was anything really tense was going on. There did not seem to be nine separate Nats players on the field. They all seemed to be one. Lots of chatter, urging Ezra on. Carter went out to mound, to confer with Ezra, and the other in-fielders gathered round. Carter was well known when he played catcher for his conferences at the mound. The umpire barked, "Let's get going," and the meeting broke up, but not before Ezra got patted on the back by each of his in-fielders.
As Ezra wound up to pitch, all the Nats move into "ready position," almost in unison.
The pitch, the hit -- line drive to right center, looked like a sure hit, maybe an extra base hit. The Dodgers runner on first took off for second base, certain -- as were the rest of the parents on both sides -- that it was a base hit, the only question whether it would be for extra bases to bring in the tying run.
But Nats right-fielder, Brian, hadn't gotten the message. He raced and intercepted the gap line drive backhand on the run for the second out, and then with no hesitation, threw the ball to first, attempting to double off the Dodgers runner, who was by then frantically reversing gear and racing back to first base to try to avoid being doubled off. Had the ball been caught by the first basemen in plenty of time, the game would have been over. Double play.
But out of position after his great catch, Brian threw the ball too high, over Nats first baseman, Jack, head, and the Dodgers runner was able to get back to the base safely. Jack J. quickly and effectively recovered the ball to avoid the runner advancing to second on the overthrow.
Now the tension on the sidelines was so thick you could cut it with a knife.
Two outs. Tying run on first base. The Dodgers batter at home plate was one of their strongest hitters.
First pitch, fast ball, swing, strike.
Then two balls.
Ezra still seemed calm, focused, his motion and overhead pitch regular and in rhythm.
Fourth pitch, another fast ball, swing, second strike.
Next pitch, ball three. The count was 3 and 2, two outs, 6-5, bottom of the sixth.
Some of the parents were wondering: How can we stand this? Some wanted to close their eyes, but couldn't.
Pitch, swing, foul ball.
Pitch, swing, another foul ball.
Pitch, swing -- another foul ball -- BUT WAIT!
Carter was holding up his glove. Something in his glove.
Nats 7-Dodgers 6.
The Nats players all headed for home plate to pile on Carter, and Ezra, and each other, and then they were a jumble of young men, piling on each other, with a massive group hug, merged as one.
The Dodgers were disappointed. The Nats parents looked at the Dodgers players and their coaches and parents, and felt sorry. The Dodgers played a great game. Losing is hard, especially in this kind of a close game.
But then the Nats parents looked at their sons, and they were proud. Not only because the Nats won -- of course they were happy about that -- but more about the way they won.
They knew that their sons had learned important lessons in life in these six short innings over a little less than two hours.
About not giving up.
About taking chances -- and living with the consequences if the choices are wrong.
And perhaps the most important lesson of all -- about being an individual and doing your best, but also, merging yourself into other individuals and becoming a team. And when that happens, when people work together and fight together and play together as a team, while still taking personal responsibility, then the total results of being a team always end up greater than the sum of individual players.
Win or lose, this game, this last inning, was a lesson in the magic of teamwork...in baseball...in life...always worth remembering.
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