LOS ANGELES – Given enough time, enough innings and a tied score, a Major League Baseball game becomes a long, tired home run derby, in which every at-bat begins and ends on a batter’s back leg, in which all but a few pitches are “just missed,” baseball talk for “popped up to an infielder.”
Some would say that it does not become that, but rather devolves into it, and that is probably a matter of taste. Either way, that’s where it goes and, in the case of Game 3 of the World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox, for nearly 7 ½ hours.
Which is not to say that the 28-year-old right-hander who has endured two major elbow surgeries and might otherwise have been resting up for his scheduled start in Game 4 of the World Series and further padding his free-agency résumé, who instead threw 97 pitches from mid-evening Friday to early morning Saturday, who was the man standing on the mound when the last of those pitches disappeared over the left-field fence, did not have an awful lot to do with that.
Nathan Eovaldi, at 12:30 Pacific Daylight Time, or 3:30 The Tap’s Gone Dry Everybody Get Out Boston Time, threw a cut-fastball on the outer half of the strike zone to Max Muncy, a left-handed hitter. By then, dew had formed on the lids of the water buckets in both dugouts, those strewn with empty cans of energy drinks and candy wrappers and white towels and dozens of empty water bottles, those having been relieved of their labels and filled with liquids of various colors. On the Red Sox bench, one banana, unopened, perhaps saved for the 19th inning, in case that was required.
The banana was abandoned with none out in the 18th inning, as was the protein bar beside it, as was any hope the Red Sox had of putting away the Dodgers without too much of a tussle. Eovaldi walked past both on his way to the clubhouse, when fellow pitcher David Price reminded him he’d done a great job – “Keep your head up,” he’d said – as six innings plus one batter – Muncy – in relief of eight other Red Sox pitchers would not be quite enough to walk away a winner. The Dodgers were 3-2 winners. The series is 2-1, Red Sox.
See, as Eovaldi was resurrecting his pitching career in places such as Tampa Bay and Boston, there was this 28-year-old Texan playing for the Dodgers doing a fine impersonation of the hitter many thought he’d become years before. From somewhere buried on the Dodgers’ organizational depth chart he’d hit 35 home runs, 33 of them from the middle of May on. Three-and-a-half years ago, when Eovaldi was pitching well but not so long from being released by the New York Yankees, and when Muncy was clinging to the occasional at-bat for the Oakland A’s and on his way to being released, they’d met twice in a game in Oakland. Eovaldi struck him out twice.
Along came a warm and late October night turned morning, Eovaldi throwing 99- and 100-mph fastballs, he once among the more fragile pitchers in the game, he now trudging back and forth between the dugout and the mound, over and over, while carrying a pitching staff on his shoulders. Rick Porcello, a teammate who’d started Friday night’s game, admitted the sight brought tears to his eyes. There are good teammates, tough teammates, game teammates, and then there was what Eovaldi was subjecting himself to in Game 3, and this would be a guy they’d tell their friends about one day.
“When he came in, I asked him, ‘How do you feel?’” Red Sox manager Alex Cora recounted later. “He’s like, ‘Let me finish it.’ And I’m like, ‘OK.’”
Who knows when that was.
Eovaldi entered in the 12th inning. He threw seven pitches in the 18th. Three days after he threw 16 pitches in Game 1, two days after he threw another 13 pitches in Game 2, Eovaldi took the ball and finished it, best he could, hung on through an unearned run in the 13th inning, and then threw that cutter to Muncy.
“It’s been a dream,” Muncy said. “This whole year has been a surreal experience that is hard to put into words. But, just getting a chance to play in the World Series has kind of capped it off. And then getting a chance to hit a walk-off home run, obviously there’s not many words I can use to describe that. The feeling was just pure joy and incredible excitement. That’s about all I can think of.”
The baseball tore through the sky.
“The at-bat before, he had got me on a really good backdoor cutter,” Muncy said. “He had really good stuff all night long and he wasn’t missing a spot. Next at-bat he tried to go backdoor cutter again, but he left this one a little over the plate, and thankfully for me he did that, because I was able to get my bat to it.”
Dodgers fans, many of whom stayed to the end, rose from their seats. Fooled by about every fly ball for at least seven innings, so for several hours, this time they recognized the sound the burly Muncy can put on a ball. They measured the height, the carry. They watched two Red Sox outfielders quit at the wall.
“As a dude, just a great dude, that’s battled through his career to take off,” said David Freese, the last to hit a walk-off home run in the World Series, seven years ago. “Most of us don’t ever reach our potential, for various reasons. This guy’s a big-league hitter with a big-league mind. A professional swing. Very strong.”
When Kenley Jansen had undone 108 of Walker Buehler’s pitches with one of his own, with a two-ball cutter that arrived at Jackie Bradley Jr.’s bat barrel and sucked the breath out of the stadium, that landed in the bleachers with Yasiel Puig clinging in the eighth inning to the top of the right-field fence, that was when it began. The story was chasing, turned out, Nathan Eovaldi and Max Muncy, and what would come of this series.
That, perhaps, the best a team could play still could leave them so fragile. When the smallest mistake – a crummy cut-fastball that wouldn’t be so crummy except the count was 2-0, and there were two out, and the Red Sox were down a run, and of course Jackie Bradley would be swinging as hard as he could – would potentially undo what was left of a baseball season.
And so what they had left was at-bat after at-bat, inning after inning, both benches gone, the better part of both bullpens gone, night turning to morning, the game and the series in search of one more back-legged swing. Instead, Muncy had waited, had stayed short and composed through the ball, and had watched it go. So, too, did Eovaldi, which is how these things happen. Everybody watches. Somebody wins. And somebody is reminded to keep his head up.
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