I nearly titled this "The Greatest PitchEver Threw," but then I remembered J.J. Putz is still active and still closing, decently. He might eventually throw a pitch better than this one, although I doubt it. Talk about a guy who's just fallen completely off the average fan's radar, mostly because the aren't on anyone's radar.
If you've been paying any attention, you already know what this post is about. I probably refer to this pitch once every few months, and it's back in mind now because the Mariners are preparing to play the. I've been looking forward to this series for a while, and I wonder if a big reason is because I associate the Giants with this pitch. I love McCovey Chronicles, and the Giants bring out a good atmosphere, and there are countless similarities between Seattle and San Francisco to make for something of a friendly rivalry, but, man, the memories of this pitch. When I think about the Mariners and the Giants, I think of this pitch, and I get amped up all over again.
The morning of June 16, 2006, the Mariners woke up to a team record of 31-37. They weren't good, but neither was anyone else in the AL West, so the M's were still very much in the thick of things. That night they welcomed the Giants to town to kick off a three-game interleague series, and the Mariners got on the board early when Ichiro led off the bottom of the first against Noah Lowry with a homer. The M's would score again in the frame.
The next inning, Felix Hernandez tried to protect the lead, but Felix wasn't yet Felix and he served up home runs to Barry Bonds and Steve Finley. There wasn't any shame in the first one, but there was some shame in the second. 0-0 became 2-0 became 2-2, and the teams were off and running in front of an unusual sellout crowd.
Randy Winn would put the Giants in front, but the M's went up 5-3 with three consecutive two-out hits in the bottom of the third. The Giants scored once in the fourth, but that would hold. Lowry was gone, but the M's couldn't do anything against Brad Hennessey. Felix settled down, and then Eddie Guardado and Rafael Soriano kept the Giants in check.
Trouble brewed in the eighth, when the Giants put two guys on. Soriano struck out Todd Greene on five pitches, and then J.J. Putz heroically emerged from the bullpen to struck out Randy Winn on four pitches. The Mariners would take a lead into the ninth.
The ninth began quietly. Omar Vizquel grounded out. Ray Durham struck out. A closer can't do any better than retiring the first two guys he sees in the ninth, but still the situation was as uncomfortable as that situation ever could have been, because Putz had one more guy to get through, and that guy was Barry Bonds.
Bonds had already homered once. He'd demonstrated in San Francisco and San Diego that he had no problems hitting the ball out of pitcher-friendly ballparks. I want to be all floral about this but truth be told, Barry Bonds was just the perfect hitter, and any other way of describing him would beat around the bush. Even at 41 years old, Bonds would terrify by simply standing up, and over his previous 37 games coming into that day, he'd OPS'd in the quadruple-digits. His legs weren't any good anymore, but right up until his coerced retirement Bonds' combination of discipline and bat speed was unlike any I've ever seen. Bonds didn't get himself out, which meant pitchers had to get him out, and that was something many pitchers couldn't do.
Putz took on the challenge, because he had to, and the at-bat started with a foul ball. Then a ball, then a swinging strike, then a ball, then a ball. The count was full, the bases were empty, Moises Alou was on deck, and Putz faced a decision. He made his decision.
An old .gif is the best I can do, unfortunately, because while MLB.com says the video's still available, it isn't. But no matter; I remember the pitch at full speed, I remember hearing the call, and then I remember hearing nothing but myself, screaming at nothing and everything. J.J. Putz went at Barry Bonds and buckled his knees.
Said Bonds, famously, after the game:
"Man, that closer. He throws 98 miles per hour, then he drops that split on you? See you later," Bonds said after the game, smiling, shaking his head and then pantomiming a salute.
In that moment, I don't know if Bonds fell to Putz's level, or if Putz climbed to Bonds'. It would be easy to say that Putz made Bonds human. But maybe that wasn't it at all.