Erick Aybar forgot about umpire Angel Hernandez and concentrated on pitcher Craig Kimbrel. Aybar's short memory served him well, and he turned around a 97-mph fastball for a go-ahead, pinch-hit single in what was, so far, the most dramatic moment of the World Baseball Classic.
Aybar's display of mental resiliency after Hernandez's horrendous strike call in the ninth inning Thursday helped send the Dominican Republic to a 3-1 victory against the United States and into the WBC semifinals at San Francisco. It also put the U.S. on the brink of elimination, and it must beat Puerto Rico on Friday night for the last berth in the semis, where Japan and the Netherlands also await.
Those who care even a little about the WBC will be talking about Aybar's at-bat for a long time. It would have been a shame for his chances to ruined by an egregiously bad ball-strike call. But he didn't let it happen.
"An umpire makes a mistake, and what I did was, forget about that pitch and concentrate on the [next] pitch," Aybar said. "I have to make contact, and with that [next] pitch I made contact," he said.
One swing later, he did, sending a liner through a drawn-in infield, allowing Nelson Cruz to score from third base and break a 1-1 tie.
A 1-1 pitch can be the most important in any count. Getting ahead, for a batter, increases his odds of success exponentially. But if the batter gets behind, the pitcher has the leverage. That's one of the reasons Aybar reacted as he did on Kimbrel's 1-1 breaking pitch, which was so far outside, catcher J.P. Arencibia had to lunge for it on one knee.
As CBS Eye on Baseball points out, it wasn't even close.
It would have taken a huge emotional eruption on Aybar's part to get thrown out for arguing balls and strikes in the ninth inning, but a lesser player might have pushed Hernandez closer to doing so. Aybar kept himself in check, for the most part, and Hernandez let him have a brief protest.
Dominican manager Tony Peña said he replaced Ricardo Nanita because Aybar was the best contact hitter available. That was still the case no matter the shape of Hernandez's strike zone.
"[After] the call, the only thing he tried to do was concentrate and ... put the ball in play," Peña said. "He just thought about it, forgot about [the previous] pitch, and he just put the concentration where it should be. We wanted him to make contact, and this is what he did."
Aybar's single was even more amazing, considering it was the second hit of the inning against Kimbrel, who hadn't allowed two hits during any of his 63 appearances for the Atlanta Braves in 2012. And he allowed one base hit — one — all season with runners in scoring position.
Finally: Aybar came in batting .176 as a pinch hitter — a thankless job for most ballplayers. Just not this time.