A Night Of Arizona Baseball

PHOENIX -- Sometimes, it’s fun to pretend you’re watching a baseball game for the first time. I tried that again Monday night here in Phoenix. The Dodgers were playing the Diamondbacks. Gametime temperature was 101 degrees. But it was a dry heat. The Dodgers are on the brink of winning the National League West -- their magic number is 4, meaning they need a combined four Dodgers wins and Diamonbacks losses to wrap this thing up.

Obviously the cleanest way for Los Angeles to get this done is to win two of the three games here in Arizona. There was a lot of talk before Monday night’s game on the Arizona side about preventing the Dodgers from celebrating on the Diamondbacks home turf. These are the little things you play for when your team’s season is almost done.

The game itself was quite entertaining. First batter of the game, Los Angeles’ Nick Punto, bounced a single to center field and then -- for reasons that can only be clear in the mind of Nick Punto -- slid headfirst into first base. Sliding headfirst into first base is Nick Punto’s calling card, and while, objectively, it is phenomenally stupid, I can’t help but think the game is better because of it.

Small, scrappy, gritty, gamer types like Nick Punto, Skip Schumaker, Willie Bloomquist (all who were playing in this game, by the way) tend to draw way too much praise from baseball people who should know better because, well, they are small, scrappy, gritty, gamer types. Everybody has seen the movie Rudy. That overpraise leads to extreme backlash from us snarky Internet types who can’t help but point out that it’s really hard to find the players’ actual value except in nebulous announcer talk about stuff that doesn’t appear in the box score and doing anything to help the ball club.

But Punto specifically really has gotten just about everything a baseball player can get out of his talent. He’s listed at 5-foot-9 and probably isn’t that. He’s listed at 195 and probably IS that. He can’t generate power, he’s not especially fast, he strikes out way more than a player of his ilk should. He’s the kind of guy you would see in the mall and NEVER suspect as a baseball player. He’s the kind of guy who plays a baseball player in unrealistic baseball movies. He has a .325 on-base percentage AND a .325 slugging percentage, neither good. His career .651 OPS is among the lowest for big league players with 3,500 plate appearances.

But you know what? He got those 3,500 plate appearances (3,493 to be exact) by literally playing every position except catcher (and, even by the numbers, playing them very well), by laying down bunts (more on this in a minute), by stealing some bases on sheer will, by putting his body constantly on the line (diving into first base demonstrates that point, but Punto will dive for anything) and by proving time and again a certain sturdiness that appeals to managers.

I’ve written about this before -- baseball managers, many of them, would rather play a limited player who will not embarrass himself or the team over a more talented player who might do one or both. That’s why so many managers are reluctant to play the kids. Kids are young, and young players are inexperienced, and inexperienced players might do something astoundingly stupid like throw to the wrong base or overthrow a cutoff man or fail to get a bunt down or say something stupid in the papers or simply check out for a moment mentally. This drives managers absolutely insane. I suspect this is true in real life too -- in law firms and banks and companies and so on: If you’re a manager, you might rather have predictable mediocrity over variable excellence and awfulness. Nick Punto will grit his way through. It’s all he has, and dammit, there’s something inspiring about it.

Even if he does dive into first base headfirst on a single to center.

There were other entertaining moments, such as Paul Goldschmidt’s two-run blast to center field. Later in the game, he made a nice play on a line drive. What a year this guy’s having. He leads the National League in homers, RBIs, OPS, total bases. You know, the Diamondbacks found him in the eighth round of the 2009 draft, right between guys named Cory Burns and Jon Garcia. If teams could find ONE GUY as good Paul Goldschmidt in every draft -- anywhere from first round to last -- they would be a great team year after year. It doesn’t seem like it should be that hard. But, of course, it is that hard.

I’m about to get to the whole point of this, but I must point out one more thing -- after the fifth inning in Arizona, they have what’s called the “Diamondbacks Legends Race.” Yes, even the name has some fun irony to it. What they do is they get those big-headed mascot versions of four Diamondbacks “legends” and have them race around the field, not unlike the sausage race in Milwaukee. The Diamondbacks legends are: Randy Johnson (check), Matt Williams (um, OK, sort of, maybe, but not really for the Diamondbacks), Luis Gonzalez (OK, I guess, maybe for 2001) and Mark Grace (what?). No, I don’t know where Curt Schilling is. Look, the Diamondbacks have only been around for 15 or so years; you have to make do with what you have.

But here’s the best part: Mark Grace has NEVER WON THE RACE.

I love stuff like this. It’s like I love when they sneak in a subtle but excellent grown-up references into animated features. Now, with Grace there is some dark stuff going on here -- he was let go by the team as announcer after his second DUI last year. But even beyond that, Mark Grace was no more a D-Backs legend than Mark Grudzielanek was a Royals legend. So this is simply a classic inside joke. Every night they trot out that Mark Grace mascot to race in the D-Backs legends race. Every night he loses. May it last forever.

And finally there’s the point of watching a game like its new. The Dodgers had a dreadful lineup Monday. Hanley Ramirez, Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp are all hurt or hurting, so the Dodgers lineup was basically Gonzalez and Puig and then take a kneeg. When Goldschmidt hit that two-run homer, it was clear that LA would need several minor miracles to get back those two runs.

Then came the ninth inning, LA down 2-1, and manager Don Mattingly sent Michael Young to the plate. This Dodgers team is one of those crazy teams that has so many familiar players, you constantly find yourself going, “Oh yeah, I FORGOT they had Michael Young,” or “Wow, Brian Wilson is on that this team too.” Young did what Michael Young has been doing since the dawn of time -- he hit a line drive single up the middle. Then Skip Schumaker -- bless the gritty ones -- singled to left. First and second, nobody out.

OK, let’s look at a couple of numbers. At this point -- with runners on first and second, nobody out -- the Dodgers would be expected to score 1.42 runs in the inning. That’s the league average in 2013. That means the expectation is somewhere between one and two runs. Perhaps more telling -- since the Dodgers needed just one run to tie the game -- they had roughly a 64% of scoring a run, based on historical data.

So, if you’re watching a game for the first time, and you have a general understanding of the rules, you’re pretty excited here. The Dodgers clearly have an excellent chance to score the tying run and a reasonable chance of taking the lead. Up comes Juan Uribe, who has been playing baseball since the Mesozoic Age and who might be the best hitter in this particular lineup after Gonzalez and Puig. Admittedly, that’s not saying much, but he’s hitting .272 this year with 30 extra base hits, and he’s a veteran guy who played in more than 1,500 big league baseball games and two World Series.

So you look on the field and you see that Uribe, rather than take the usual batting stance, is turned toward the pitcher, and he has is holding the bat with his left hand on the handle and his right hand way up near the barrel. You see the Diamondbacks players -- especially first baseman Paul Goldschmidt -- running TOWARD Uribe, as if they have something very important to tell him. The pitch comes, and Uribe attempts to dink the ball in front of him, but it rolls foul.

I think this would be the point where you would turn to the person next to you and ask in your native language: “What the %#$#$@%#$ is going on here?’

The sacrifice bunt, to be fair, would not be THAT hard to explain. As a baseball expert, you would say that Uribe is simply giving himself up in an effort to move the runners to second and third. “Does this increase the run scoring potential?” the first-timer would ask. And, if you were honest, you would say: “Well, not exactly by the numbers.”

Run expectancy with runners on first and second and nobody out: 1.42

Run expectancy with runners on second and third and one out: 1.29

OK, our first timer will say, “Yes, but does this increase the chance of scoring ONE run? “And here you could honestly answer, “Yes, it does a little bit.” The percentage chance of scoring one run with runners on first and second and nobody out, as mentioned, is about 64%. the chances of scoring one run with runners on second and third and one out is about 70%. So, OK, it’s clear the Dodgers are looking for a tiny advantage here and are playing for one run to tie the game.

Um, OK, that’s the GENERAL percentage. But there are a couple of problems with this particular case.

One is that Juan Uribe, while not exactly Mickey Mantle, is a markedly better hitter than the guy coming up, a 26-year-old career minor leaguer named Nick Buss who is up in the big leagues for the first time and has managed two big league hits in his first three games as a substitute for the injured Carl Crawford.

Two is that Juan Uribe is not a good bunter -- has not been since his younger days -- and the Diamondbacks KNOW he will bunt, and so it’s hardly a sure thing that he can even GET the runners over to second and third by giving himself up.

This gets to the heart the morality of baseball. It SEEMS like an unselfish act, like sacrificing your own hitting opportunity for the betterment of the team, should greatly benefit a team. So shines a good deed in a weary world. Bunting the runners over would all but guarantee no double play, and if successful, would put two runners a good single away from scoring. That should be a noble and beneficial act.

But, alas, it is also purposely squandering one of the most precious things that a team is given when the game begins -- one of the 27 outs that you are granted to score runs. In football it is time. In basketball, it is possessions. In baseball it is outs. I could not help but feel that Don Mattingly -- and, to be fair, just about every other manager -- cannot see the game through fresh eyes, cannot see it the way a curious child might see it.

“Why are you just giving away one of your final three outs?”

“That’s just the way we play the game here, son.”

Of course, Uribe laid down a terrible bunt, and Arizona pitcher Brad Ziegler picked up the ball and threw out the lead runner … so now the Dodgers had runners on first and second with one out instead of nobody out.

Run expectancies:

1st and 2nd, 0 out: 1.42.

1st and 2nd, 1 out: 0.88

Percentage chance of scoring one run:

1st and 2nd, 0 out: 64%.

1st and 2nd, 1 out: 43%

And, alas, the game was lost. Nick Buss dribbled a ground ball to first base. Then Mattingly sent up Matt Kemp, just activated, for his first at-bat in about two months. Kemp struck out on a Ziegler pitch that, on first observation, seemed to be roughly 11 feet outside. On replay, it was clearly no more than two feet outside. The Dodgers magic number stayed at four. Nick Punto’s jersey was dirty. And Bighead Mark Grace lost again. A full night of baseball.