LOS ANGELES – There’s probably a discussion to be had about whether, given enough time and opportunity and happenstance, the game seems more intent on finding certain people or if those people are more intent on finding the game. That is, for one, how Jhoulys Chacín and Erik Kratz found themselves standing on a tiny hill in a massive stadium more than halfway through one of the significant games in the history of a franchise called the Milwaukee Brewers, who don’t come this way very often.
Play enough games, maybe, over enough years, maybe, and the wind-torn pages of the dictionary become something like Hemingway, and a trout walks out of the ooze, and a 30-year-old Venezuelan pitcher who has seen seven franchises shakes the hand of a 38-year-old Pennsylvanian catcher who surely has lost count of his own bag tags, and together they help win Game 3 of the National League Championship Series.
That or, hell, all that moving around, they were bound to bump into each other sometime.
Chacín threw 5 1/3 innings Monday night at Dodger Stadium. He threw 86 pitches. Kratz caught nearly all of them, as the Los Angeles Dodgers managed but three hits in those innings in what would become a 4-0 Brewers victory. Fifty-two of those pitches were sliders, a massive number of sliders. Some skittered and some bit and some dove and others backed up a little. Some backdoored lefties and some front-doored righties. Some back-footed lefties. Some made righties flinch. Some looked like strikes and became balls. Some did the opposite. Some were hard, more like conventional sliders, and others were softer, more along the lines of an angrier curveball. But they all, or enough of them anyway, went about where Chacín wanted them to go. And Kratz had a reasonable notion of how they’d look and where they’d end up, but his calls for those sliders were for sliders only, not for which sliders, not for which variation of those sliders, not for what Chacín had cooked up in his head for what the next one should act like.
“I call one,” Kratz said. “He’s got about four. He might not even know. He’s kinda making it up at different times.”
Asked, then, given their mutual love for the pitch, if Chacín more often shakes into or out of the slider, Kratz said, “Fifty-fifty. Actually, I like it so much maybe I like his slider more [than Chacin does]. It’s that good. It’s such a cool pitch, there’s a hidden value to it.”
Stephen Vogt, the veteran catcher, said, “He’s got three or four different shapes to it. He can really manipulate it so it’s four of five different pitches in itself. Similar to Rich Hill and his curveball. That’s your comparison.”
Manny Piña, the catcher in 12 of Chacín’s 35 starts, said, “Yes, he explained it to me the other day, he said he has the wrist that he can control it. And the fingers. It’s flexibility. Very flexible.”
In the regular season, Chacín throws his slider 44 percent of the time, or nearly as often as his fastball, and along comes mid-October and the Dodgers and their National League-best offense and their matchup headaches and Chacín buries them in a hail of funk. He strikes out six of them in those 5 1/3 innings. They put runners in scoring position and they do not, after that, get a hit. They by the end have – or should have – a decent idea what’s coming, and still their final look at Chacín is him and his catcher sharing grins and light conversation on that little hill in the middle of this massive moment, waiting on the first Brewers reliever.
And you wonder what the words must be like, two grown men who more than once must’ve awoken to the question of which town they were in today, to where the next paycheck might come from, to if this game were really working out for them or not. The address was written on the hotel phone. The future might not always have been so indelibly marked.
So what do you say to a guy who maybe doesn’t know the whole story but knows enough of it, and him to you?
“I can’t let you know everything, obviously,” Kratz said, “But, you know, when you game plan for things and then they happen … how the other team reacts to it, it’s fun. It’s baseball. It’s baseball stuff. You talk about situations and then you go out there, you try to execute pitches, game plans, and when it happens – or doesn’t – it is good back and forth.”
The weightiness of how and why – those two, here, after all this time and effort and great successes and aching losses – that’s probably a bit much for the little hill in the middle of all this to hold. There’s only so much room. Only so much time.
“Well, I’ve been ready for this for almost 10 years,” Chacín said. “And just really grateful that I had a chance to pitch in the playoffs. And just want to do my job. I just want to go out and give my team a chance to win the game. It doesn’t matter how many I pitch. Just go out and maybe that’s why I’m having the results the first two games, I just always … Like I say, always thankful that I got a chance.”
For the sake of the story, let’s assume that it – the game, them, their journeys – were always headed to here. That it was them who found the game. That Chacín persevered through a shoulder injury a few years back, fought off the bad thoughts that accompany shoulder injuries and the 5-plus ERAs that sometimes come with them, and kept throwing anyway, kept showing up until that place was Milwaukee. In October. And Kratz squatted for the millionth time in the millionth ballpark very far from here and thought not of where he was but what he was there for, who he was there for, and maybe for those three hours it was all for the guy standing 20 yards away, or for the family back home, or for the off chance there was still a night out there like this one. For Milwaukee. In October.
“You know, this game was going to be played,” he said. “It wasn’t because of us. The game was scheduled to be played.”
Maybe it was waiting on them, though. It’s as good an explanation as any.
“In November, December, it’s snowing outside and football’s on, that’s what you think about,” he said. “It’s so intertwined.”
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