And the children shall lead them. Plus: runner-up best-of moments!
It is late in the evening of Wednesday, September 12. After 141 games, and for the fourth time in the last seven days, the Baltimore Orioles, an almost unanimous pick for last place in the American League East prior to the start of the season, are tied for first place with the defending division-champion New York Yankees. Up in Boston, the Yankees hold a 5-3 lead on the Red Sox in the late innings of their game at Fenway Park. In Baltimore, on a warm, clear night at Camden Yards, the Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays, the latter themselves just two games out in third place, have been locked in a 2-2 tie since the top of the third inning.
With two outs in the top of the ninth inning, the Rays have pinch-runner Rich Thompson on second base and their best hitter, Evan Longoria, at the plate to face Orioles closer Jim Johnson. Longoria, whose three-month absence due to a hamstring injury is the primary reason the Rays trail New York and Baltimore in the division, has a single and two walks in four trips already in this game. Johnson goes to a full count on Longoria after a 1-2 pitchout and a 2-2 curve in the dirt, his only breaking ball of the at-bat. The 3-2 pitch is a 95 mph fastball up and away, but too close to the corner of the strike zone to take, particularly with two outs in the ninth on the road with the tie-breaking run in scoring position and a chance to get within one game of second place with a win.
Longoria swings and taps a weak grounder to third base. It's a squib, a chopper that kicks up chalk from the front corner of the right-handed batters box, bounces less than half-way up the third base line, and takes four more small hops, almost losing all momentum, before Baltimore's charging third baseman is able to reach it with his bare hand. It's a ball that has infield hit written all over it, and with a full-count and two outs, Thompson was running with the pitch.
The Orioles' third baseman is Manny Machado. The organization's top prospect and a shortstop, Machado was called up from Double-A on August 9 and installed at third base. He was then barely a month past his 20th birthday and had seen all of seven chances at third base in the minor leagues. In the intervening month, he has acquired an additional 30 games of experience at the hot corner. I can't tell you how many opportunities in those 30 games plus seven chances Machado had to make the charging, barehanded, off-balance throw to first base that this ball required, but it couldn't have been many.
The play is difficult enough on a purely physical level, but in this instance, it has an extra, strategic wrinkle. If Machado's throw doesn't beat Longoria at first base, Thompson, who arrives at third base at roughly the same instant that Machado reaches the ball, will very likely score the go-ahead run, putting Baltimore three outs away from falling into second place in the division. Longoria has been slowed by his hamstring injury, but the out at first is far from a sure thing, both because of how long it took the ball to get to Machado, and because of Machado's inexperience at making this play, which is unique to his new position.
Watching the play unfold on television, I think: Machado should hold the ball, allowing Longoria to reach, but holding Thompson at third. Let Johnson take his chances with on-deck hitter Sam Fuld, who entered the game as a defensive replacement in the bottom of the seventh.
Machado picks up the ball cleanly in his bare hand, his right arm cocks and throws, but the ball doesn't leave his hand. Instead, he uses his the momentum of his follow-through to spin his body toward third base and fire a quick, short-arm pass to shortstop J.J. Hardy, who had come in to cover third base when Machado started to charge.
Thompson, a 33-year-old rookie, slows at the bag just in case Machado pockets the ball, but when he sees Machado's throwing arm come forward at full speed, he takes off for home only to slam on the breaks just past the infield cutout. By then, Hardy already has the ball, and Thompson is caught in a pickle. He races desperately toward home, drawing Hardy's throw to catcher Matt Wieters, then reverses course, arcs onto the infield grass, and stumbles like a newborn faun, at which point Wieters applies the tag, ending the inning.
Machado subsequently led off the bottom of the ninth with a single and came around to score the winning run on a bunt and a hit, preserving the tie atop the division, but it was his preternaturally heady play in the top of the inning that was my favorite baseball thing of 2012.
Here are my runners-up:
2) Mike Trout
3) R.A. Dickey
5) The upstart A's needing to sweep the Rangers in the final three games of the season to steal the AL West ... and doing it.
6) Super slow-motion replays, particularly this gif of Dickey's knuckleball and the famous replay of Hunter Pence's broken-bat hit in Game 7 of the NLCS, which explained why Cardinals shortstop Peter Kozma was so utterly fooled by the path of the ball.
7) The Cardinals' repeating their last-strike comeback magic in Game 5 of the NLDS against the Nationals.
8) Raul Ibanez's incredible run of game-changing late-inning hits (most of them home runs) in early October.