Curtis Granderson made an important catch. Austin Jackson couldn't. This game is as surprising as it is unfair.
From a aesthetic standpoint, Curtis Granderson's sixth-inning catch was the best of the night, if not the season -- a sprawling catch that was the Platonic ideal of a brilliant defensive play. Granderson dove, extended fully, and flew about 16 or 17 feet, if memory serves, to make the catch. It was the kind of catch that you'll see played without context for the next 30 or 40 years, like Brooks Robinson's plays along the third-base line in the '70 World Series.
Maybe it's hyperbolic to suggest that Granderson's catch is on that level. It probably is. But I'm still guessing that you'll see that catch in various montages and countdowns for the next few decades.
The more important catch, though, was the one Granderson made in the first inning. A.J. Burnett was walking people and giving up line drives. Cory Wade was working in the bullpen. A bases-clearing double might have brought Joe Girardi out to get Burnett. We're into some real alternate-dimension crap now. Burnett is vilified, and his career in New York is over. Perhaps he's traded for Alfonso Soriano, or the rights to release Aaron Rowand again. The Tigers go on to win the ALCS and World Series. Detroit is lit aflame in the celebration. More so than it already is, even.
The line drive took about 2.8 seconds from Don Kelly's bat to Granderson, who started here ...
... but didn't have travel too far.
It was an absolute shot, and 2.8 seconds isn't a lot of time to think and react. The end of the play saw Granderson do one of these:
When you do that and come up with the ball, it's a great catch. I'm not qualified to take the speed of the ball of the bat, note where Granderson was set up and where he caught the ball, and figure out if another center fielder would have been standing there waiting for it. It looked like Granderson froze just a bit but, again, the ball was hit so incredibly hard, it's hard to blame him for taking a split-second to figure out where it was going.
Whether he needed the style points or not, he caught it. It probably saved the game. It certainly saved A.J. Burnett.
Austin Jackson, on the other hand, couldn't make a catch in the top of the third inning that put the Yankees on the board. If he had caught it, it would have been as spectacular of a catch as any in baseball this year. He started here ...
... and missed the ball by this much, close to the warning track:
The ball took about 4.6 seconds to get from Derek Jeter's bat to an inch or two from Jackson's glove. The center fielder had to travel a few acres to even come close, but he couldn't quite get it. Two runs scored. Sure the Yankees won by nine runs, but if he catches that the game is different. Catchers call different pitches in a scoreless games. Players react differently. It's not a stretch to wonder if the Tigers could have won the game if that catch is made.
I don't know if I'm sold on the idea of Granderson as a below-average center fielder, which UZR hints at every other year or so. But I know I'm sold on the idea of Austin Jackson as a defensive prodigy -- if he's not the best defensive center fielder in the game, he's on a short list. And Jeter's ball was just, just, just out of his reach.
It was probably that cable in the middle of the field that made him miss. Or maybe that's a metaphor, representing the fractured nature of his being, with one half being the alternate-version of himself that's still on the Yankees.
The dichotomy was cruel. Austin Jackson couldn't get to a ball, and runs scored. Curtis Granderson could get to a ball, and runs didn't score. Jackson was a Yankees product. Granderson was a Tigers product. In December of 2009, they passed each other on rail cars in the night, and a couple of years later, it all led to Tuesday night's Game 4. The ball that Granderson needed to catch was just within his physical capability. The ball that Jackson needed to catch was just outside of his.
The next time someone says "Baseball is a game of inches," you're justified in punching them and screaming, "Stop using clichés, you horrible person!" But as you stand over their unconscious body, waiting for the police to arrive because you're a responsible adult, you need to at least admit that they were right. Two players who were traded for each other needed a couple of inches to save their team's playoff game. One player got the inches. The other player didn't. The dichotomy was cruel, but it was also amazing.