On September 23rd, 1908, nineteen-year-old Fred Merkle, backup first baseman for the New York Giants, saw his name written on a lineup card for the first time in his life. Starting that day for the Gotham club was Christy Mathewson, on his way to pitching for his second triple crown to hopefully lead the Giants to the NL pennant. Through four, it was scoreless. Then, later, commotion.
Fred Merkle stood on first base, and opposite him, ninety feet from home, was Moose McCormick, who would later become a salesman for the Hess Steel Company. There were two outs.
When the ball was hit, McCormick took off for home, touched the plate, and was mobbed by fans taking to the field. Merkle too was caught. What happened next has become one of the most iconic narratives within the American baseball canon, and it also is the only thing standing on the other side of the last World Championship ever won by the Chicago Cubs, one hundred eight years ago.
But tonight it was Felix, not Mathewson, on the mound. With the exception of his appearances in the midsummer classic, Felix was throwing in front of what could very well have been his largest-ever audience tonight--and ESPN did everything in their power to make sure that the fans outside the Pacific Northwest were caught up to speed with the past twelve years. Drop in velocity. Lookit that changeup. Given the fans something to root for. At one point Dan Shulman forgot about Ichiro Suzuki on the 2001 club.
After scoring two in the first off a visibly shaken Brian Matusz, making his first start in four years, Felix proceeded to walk the first two batters he faced. But then there was 92 again, there was movement. There was the change in the dirt, bouncing in unison with Mike jumping up to his knees to touch the ball with his stomach. None of us know what kind of pitcher Felix is going to be going forward, but what he suggested over the following four innings was that he'd figure out a way to get it done, somehow. And if the junk gets the job done, then it certainly doesn't hurt to have a little of this in the tank either:
Following Cruz's homer in the first, the Mariners proceeded to get on board in the second and third with home runs by Robinson Canó and Dae-Ho Lee. Three home runs, all with a man on base. The ESPN broadcast made it a point to note how many home runs this team hits even though You, Trusty Viewer, surely would imagine one of those teams with a better record topping that particular category at the moment. Well somewhere Jack Z slammed his fist down on his coffee table after hearing this, spitting to the heavens that it just doesn't make any sense!
Felix would finally run into a little trouble in the fifth after he walked Chris Coghlan on four straight pitches, then proceeded to load them up with two outs. First, it was Ben Zobrist, who joined Coghlan in one of the world's most exclusive clubs behind the secret bar at Disneyland and the SNL five timers':
Following this, Felix brushed the jersey of Addison Russell with a misplaced changeup high and away to send in yet another run. He would eventually stare into the fires of hell to gather enough strength to will a Jason Heyward three-pitch strikeout to end the inning--you know, just normal, Tuesday afternoon stuff--but the damage was already done.
Still, you have to be feeling pretty damn good about what you saw here tonight. In all likelihood, Felix Hernandez is never going to lead the majors in any category or start for the All Star Game again, but tonight he showed that being one of the best pitchers of all time can bring with it a nice act two of surprises now and then. Tonight Felix threw a season-best 16 swinging strikes, notched 8 strikeouts, and fell victim to some blunders from an otherwise (LALALALLA CAN'T HEAR YOU) reliable defense. He also did this against one of the best offenses in the entire game. Then again, I bet you didn't remember that Christy Mathewson started the Merkle game before reading this, did you?
The Mariners would then proceed to load the bases in the sixth with no outs before earning three quick outs against Cubs' reliever Travis Wood. I'm sure that wouldn't come back to bite them in the end, now would it? Well afterwards Drew Storen would come in to throw a clean sixth, giving way to the top of the seventh for Cruz, Seager, and Guti to try and work some damage to pad the lead. At this point, Joe Maddon brought in Pedro Strop to relieve Wood, but he then sent Wood in to left field to replace Chris Coghlan. I'm sure you can guess what happened next.
You're going to see this approximately 8,500 times between now and November, so you had better get used to it quick.
Tom had a bit of trouble in the seventh, giving up another run on a triple to Ben Zobrist that Leonys Martin read as if he were cosplaying as Raul Ibañez, but then again he was probably just being thoughtful and attempting to accurately perform the past fifteen years of the Seattle Mariners franchise for unaware fans across the country. After this, the rest of the team decided to join him: Mike Zunino, who doubled to lead off the eighth, was thrown out at third after Edwin Diaz did a Pitcher Hit Poke The Ball Down On The Ground. Diaz was then replaced on the basepaths by Shawn O'Malley, who got thrown out after his steal was read before it even began. All of which negated the entire point of Maddon calling Wood back in from left field to close out the eighth in the first place. The Seattle Mariners on national television ladies and gentlemen: they will not only ruin their day, they will go out of their way to ruin yours, too.
And then, Guernica. After striking out Kris Bryant to lead off the bottom of the ninth, Mariners Closer™ Steve Cishek proceeded to give up a double to Anthony Rizzo, a single to Ben Zobrist, an RBI single to Addison Russell, and then hit Jason Heyward with an errant pitch. Willson Contreras, a person who spent twenty years displaying his athletic prowess to scouts and coaches and Important People in Charge who decided his abilities were best relegated to the position where you sit down wearing medieval armor all day, then proceeded to ground into what would have been a double play, had he not broken the world record for home-to-first while Ben Zobrist jogged across the plate. 6-5 Mariners.
And then a fucking wild pitch.
You already know what happened next, so you don't need any further analysis breaking down just why a walk-off pinch-hit-pitcher bunt was such a unique thing to see, let alone on national television. This was, by all accounts, one of the most frustrating games I can ever remember, as well as a Brechtian exercise in just what makes baseball special. Cishek's meltdown felt like an albatross pulling my shoulders down as it unfolded, but at the same time I knew that it was only a matter of time until he got one like this, this bad, this bloody. Now I kind of think it's perfect, the blinding rage of the moment having given way to dispassionate approval. This is a team that, as the broadcast crew repeatedly reminded us tonight, has given its fans very little to appreciate during the past fifteen years. Which would be true, had you never watched a baseball game over that particular timeframe.
No, instead tonight the Mariners gave us a gift, on the largest stage possible--a parable, if you will. They say baseball is about failure, but you really don't understand that unless your name is Fred Merkle, Steve Barton, or Steve Cishek. Well, folks, you just watched The Seattle Mariners--and every last semiotic possibility those three words produce--live on Sunday Night Baseball. And I continue to fucking love them in spite of it.