The Stage ...
Seattle, Washington. Safeco Field. The Tampa Bay Rays are battling their hearts out for one of the American League Wild Cards. After six innings, they're trailing the Mariners by the slimmest of margins in the slimmest of games: M's 1, Rays 0. Generally, a one-run deficit doesn't feel too terribly serious.
This time was different. Things must have seemed serious. Seattle's Félix Hernández had already set down Tampa Bay's first 18 hitters.
And then in the top of the seventh, Nos. 19 and 20 went down meekly, too.
Number 21 was Matt Joyce. Hernández's first pitch was up around Joyce's letters, and probably three or four inches outside.
Plate umpire Rob Drake called it a strike.
Rays manager Joe Maddon immediately popped out of the dugout. Almost as immediately, Drake threw Maddon out of the game, but of course Maddon stayed on the field for a few minutes to get his money's worth. And also, perhaps, to break King Felix's rhythm.
It didn't work, of course. Hernández dispatched Joyce, and eventually mowed through Nos. 22 through 27 on his way to his first career no-hitter, and the first perfect game in franchise history.
Afterward, at least a few Mariners fans were wondering ... Was Maddon's move premeditated? Was he reacting to that strike call in the heat of the moment, or was his ejection premeditated? And if premeditated, was it a bush-league move?
If it was premeditated, I loved it.
On Joe Maddon's list of priorities, "worry about Felix Hernandez's no-hitter" should rank something like 83rd, right between "check between Kyle Farnsworth's toes for flesh-eating bacteria" and "conduct long-delayed egg-dropping experiment from Tropicana Field catwalk".
Number 1 on that list should be "winning baseball games", and that's why Maddon argued with the umpire, just like John McGraw and Earl Weaver and Bobby Cox before him.
From Maddon's perspective -- and, I would argue, from the perspective of any right-thinking baseball fan -- the importance of Felix Hernandez's no-hit bid in the seventh inning of an August game is nothing compared to the impact a single loss might have on the Tampa Bay Rays' season.
Remember, just one year ago the Rays wouldn't have qualified for the postseason if they had lost just one more game than they did. The Rays won 26 one-run games last year. Maddon knows the math as well as anyone. He knows that while most seasons don't come down to one game, some do. And a season that comes down to one game, practically by definition, comes down to one run.
When Joe Maddon got kicked out of Wednesday's game, the score was 1-0. Does he argue if the score is 4-0? Maybe not. Does he argue if it's 8-0? Probably not. But a 1-0 game in the seventh inning? If you're the manager of a team in the Wild Card hunt and you're losing 1-0 in the seventh inning, you have to look for every edge you might possibly find.
Perfect game? I say blazes with your perfect game! Felix Hernandez was cruising, mowing down the Rays like so many Polish lancers in 1939. Maddon must have know there was little he could do about that ... but little is more than nothing. What, he was supposed to just sit on his hands and watch his team get shut out?
A manager of a contending team -- hell, maybe the manager of any team -- should treat every close game exactly the same, whether the enemy pitcher has given up nine hits or none. You gotta win, man. They're keeping score. Jobs are on the line.
Wednesday, it didn't work. But if Maddon had delayed the game for three minutes and Hernandez had immediately afterward been touched for a single and a two-run home run, with the Rays eventually winning, he would have been hailed in some quarters as a managerial genius.
Or in this quarter, at least.