That moment when you’re absolutely certain you can see how the story will unfold, and know without a doubt that you’re about to witness the impossible is why we watch sports. On Wednesday, it seemed as though the desire of the universe should be that the Brewers would come storming to victory on the strength of sheer determination alone…and yet the game ended with the cruel reminder that teams cannot will themselves to win, but rather are at the whims of so much chance.
Practically all of the “action” in this game occurred in the 9th inning, but I would be remiss to ignore Zack Greinke’s magnificent start before discussing this. I love watch Greinke pitch, because the number one word that comes to mind when I watch him pitch is relentless. No matter what the situation, he will not deviate from his game plan of filling up the strike zone with pitches so nasty they just can’t be hit. I love watching him get into a three ball count, ’cause I know he will almost certainly refuse to walk the batter. He didn’t get into many three ball counts Wednesday afternoon, but when he did, this is what he threw:
He doesn’t try to make the perfect pitch; he attacks the zone knowing full well that his stuff is good enough to bail him out. Not a single one of those pitches resulted in a hit. Watching him pitch can be almost like watching a magic show. Pitches fly over the plate, hitters swing, and somehow the ball ends up in the catcher’s mitt, having made a last second course correction to avoid the bat. It doesn’t always work out like that, of course, but it did on Wednesday, as Greinke gave the best start of his Brewers’ career, going 8 IP for the first time in a Milwaukee uniform, and leaving a 0-0 game to hand off to John Axford in the 9th.
The 9th is where our story truly begins. Although they had not yet scored, the Brewers seemed to be in control of the game. Johnny Cueto had pitched an excellent game, but his efforts were overshadowed by Zack Greinke’s aforementioned brilliant start. John Axford did nothing to change this feeling, striking out the first two batters he faced. Then, Drew Stubbs singled on a two-strike pitch, bringing up Joey Votto. By playing a deep outfield to prevent a run-scoring double, the Brewers ironically turned Votto’s perfectly placed floater INTO a run-scoring double. That was followed by Brandon Phillips’ Texas League single which gave the Reds an implausible, frustrating two-run lead.
When we watch a sport event, what we want to see is agency. We want to see the results determined by the talent and fortitude of the players; we want the outcome to tell us something about the mettle of the teams. The sequence of events which led to the 2-0 Reds lead didn’t seem to do this, however (especially if you’re down with BABIP). It appeared to be a tight, crisp game suddenly made sloppy and flawed. To root for a Brewers comeback was not only to root for a team, but for a sense of cosmic justice. We don’t want to see a team win that cheaply.
This was the context in which Ryan Braun stepped to the plate. In this context, Ryan Braun’s solo shot to left-center was the opposite of the Reds’ bloop-filled 9th inning. The enduring image of Ryan Braun is one of him coming through in big spots for the Brewers, time after time, since the beginning of his career. I don’t mean to say that he’s better when it matters most, because he’s not; he has a wOBA of .407 in high leverage situations, against a career wOBA of .404. What I mean to say is that he’s such a good hitter that he’s been able to come through multiple times in the big moments he’s been presented with, and left Brewers fans with a bank of good memories to draw on. Had Joey Votto’s double not been placed perfectly in the top of the 9th, this may have been a walkoff home run, yet another Ryan Braun moment for Brewers fans to remember. Instead, it merely cut the deficit in half.
This was followed by two quick outs, including Corey Hart’s deep fly which stopped just short of sailing over the wall and tying the game. Had a butterfly flapped its wings in West Allis and made the atmospheric conditions slightly different for the game, it’s possible that the ball would have left the yard. Again, though, we want agency. We don’t want to think, “Corey Hart couldn’t quite get all the variables right to complete the difficult task of hitting a baseball 400 feet.” We want to think Corey Hart got bested, that Sean Marshall has it and he doesn’t. We don’t want to think the Brewers are a team that just isn’t getting breaks, we want to think they’re a flailing team, that just doesn’t know how to make anything work right now. We’re desperate to watch the game like it’s a movie or story where the events have deep significance.
I say we because I do include myself in that. With 2 outs and the Brewers down by one, Jonathan Lucroy stepped to the plate. The next sequence of four batters is what I really wanted to write about in this post. Everything else up to now has been foreplay. What really made this game for me is Jonathan Lucroy’s epic at bat. Lucroy saw 11 pitches, fouling off six in a row before finally punching a line drive single into LF. Watching this, it was impossible not to think that this was a man who couldn’t bear to let his team down. It was impossible not to think that the Brewers were going to put one into the win column through sheer force of will. It made perfect sense that this would be followed by Aoki’s single and Kottaras drawing a walk to load the bases, because how could anything go wrong? The team needed this victory, and they clearly had the determination that comes along with such a need. With the bases loaded and two out, the Reds had a 73% chance of victory, but I was convinced that the real number must be closer to 0%, because the Cream City Crushers were going to exert their will and force this game to end in victory.
Then Travis Ishikawa popped up on the first pitch and reality came crashing back.
In his first memoir Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman tells a story from his college years:
I remembered the time when I was in my fraternity house at MIT when the idea came into my head completely out of the blue that my grandmother was dead. Right after that there was a telephone call, just like that. It was for Pete Bernays–my grandmother wasn’t dead. So I remembered that, in case somebody told me a story that ended the other way. I figured that such things can sometimes happen by luck–after all, my grandmother was very old–although people might think they happened by some sort of supernatural phenomenon
If on Wednesday, the Brewers’ story had “ended the other way”, we might view it as a team of destiny moment, a sign that they were ready to take charge of their season and turn things around. Instead, the phone call was for someone else. Ishikawa popped up, and we’re left with another frustrating moment in a frustrating season.