LOS ANGELES – On a rather ordinary night in April, before a full ballpark, in a game between the most recent World Series semifinalists, Miguel Cabrera, the undisputed best hitter on the planet, was in the midst of a six-pitch at-bat.
And well, well, wouldn't you know, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen had brought his A-stuff.
One out, ninth inning, man on second. Cabrera's Detroit Tigers down a run. Nothing but fastballs coming.
The game – the season, for these moments – narrows to a single taut thread, wound from a baseball flung at near unfathomable speeds to a bat wielded with unusually gifted hands, and a ballpark stops to lean in, and the dugout rails become overcrowded, and this is why we watch. Why we can't help but care.
For the time it takes to throw six pitches, just a few minutes inside of 3 ½ hours – Jansen and Cabrera measuring each other, their history a single plate appearance three years before, Ian Kinsler sidling from second base, Victor Martinez idling on deck, catcher Tim Federowicz mixing fingers but always coming back to the fastball – there are no clocks, no run-away payrolls, no haves and have-nots, no heroes or villains.
There's a guy with a ball, Jansen. And a guy with intentions, Cabrera. There's a fastball down the middle at 98 mph, missed by Cabrera, and a crowd that oohs, because, damn, this is gonna be good.
Afterward, in search of perspective on this particular at-bat, there's a walk down a long corridor that leads to the visitors' clubhouse, accompanied by, of all people, Justin Verlander. The Dodgers had remodeled that side of the facility, so the old clubhouse and showers sit empty, but Verlander went searching for water pressure. Wrapped in a towel, he squeaked through the hall in shower shoes, musing about an old facility and its questionable plumbing.
The Tigers' rookie manager, Brad Ausmus, years before had caught eight games of Jansen's, back when those 10 1/3 innings looked like this: .065 batting average against, seven walks, 14 strikeouts. Now Jansen had grown up, settled into the ninth inning, come into spring training fit and throwing clean and forceful, like he belonged. This was what Ausmus saw Tuesday night, locked in battle.
"That's as hard as I've seen him throw," Ausmus said. "The ball really rides."
The second pitch to Cabrera was another 98-mph fastball, a little low, ball one. The third, another fastball at 98, arrived thigh-high, a little in, and Cabrera swung. He missed another.
A moment here about Miguel Cabrera and the fastball: He hit .380 against it last season. He slugged .682 against it. Because he is smart and ridiculously quick to the ball, his best friend and greatest benefactor is the fastball.
A word about Jansen's fastball: He's throwing it three or four mph harder than he did last season. Maybe that's an April thing. Maybe not. Another word: It isn't straight. Jansen grips it likes a four-seamer, throws it as hard as he can, and it cuts, what Ausmus calls "ride." So, elite velocity and late movement.
"You can see it in his face, too, before he throws it," Federowicz said. "You see it in his eyes. It looks like he's just pissed off."
On that one-ball, two-strike count, Federowicz had only one notion of what to call, and Jansen's eyes barely grazed the sign. The fastball arrived at 99 mph, Cabrera swung and fouled it straight back. He was on it, the bat head a quarter-inch low.
"It's tough getting on top of that ball," Ausmus said.
Ball two was inside, at 98 mph. For the sixth pitch of the at-bat, Federowicz fluttered his fingers, Jansen barely nodded and came set. Federowicz slid to his right, away from Cabrera, and raised his mitt to knee height. Cabrera raised his hands to chest level. The bat changed colors, from blond to dark, near his right ear. Jansen coiled, and so did Cabrera. The ball seemed drawn, violently, to Federowicz, and Cabrera whipped his bat toward it. The crowd howled. For the outcome, sure. But also for the experience of it. For the two men at the tops of their games, in the ninth inning, unafraid.
"He struck me out," Cabrera said. "What do I have to love about it?"
But, the experience of it? The fight? The moment? Great, right?
Cabrera sighed, but managed a grin.
"If I get a hit," he said.
Victor Martinez got the hit, tied the game. The Tigers lost in the 10th.
But it was Cabrera-Jansen that resonated. It was that at-bat, perhaps, come October, that will be re-examined. Some little nothing at-bat from April that was more than that at the time, seven months back, forever ago. It was that good. It was why we watch.
"That's special," Federowicz said.
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