Sunday, April 26, 2009

Jacoby's steal of home

It never would have happened if he'd scored from second.

As David Ortiz slid into second base with a double and Jason Varitek chugged across the plate, third-base coach DeMarlo Hale threw up both arms to stop Jacoby Ellsbury at third base. Nick Swisher had dug the ball out from the left-field corner and thrown to second base; had Hale seen that earlier, he could have waved his speedster home with no second thoughts. But Hale didn't see it and Ellsbury had his back to the plate as he steamed into third base.

"It's hard because the ball is behind him," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said, "but if he keeps his head up -- DeMarlo has to stop him, but if he keeps his head up, he could have scored on that ball."

Lefty Andy Pettitte, now facing a 2-1 deficit in a game his Yankees had to win to avoid a three-game sweep at Fenway Park, walked righty Kevin Youkilis to face lefty J.D. Drew with the bases loaded and no outs.

The stage was set.

Drew, a natural pull hitter who does most of his damage when he hits the ball to right field, was at the plate. Pettitte, a lefty with a deliberate delivery when he's not pitching out of the stretch, was pitching. Ellsbury, possibly the fastest player in the history of the Boston Red Sox was on third base -- and Ellsbury had big dreams.

Pettitte knew about the runners on the bases. He'd already had to deal with Ellsbury on first base twice. He kept the speedster close in the first inning but let him slip away and steal second base in the third. Now, though, he had Ellsbury on third base. Unless he broke for home -- something everyone in the building had to know was a huge gamble with two outs -- he had nowhere to go.

Drew, in the batter's box, was another matter. Drew had struck out in back-to-back at-bats -- there was a reason the Yankees wanted to see him at the plate and not Youkilis -- but remained a dangerous hitter. In his career, in fact, he was a .346 hitter in 26 at-bats against Pettitte entering the game. Among his nine career hits against Pettitte were two doubles and three home runs. With the bases loaded and the Red Sox still leading by just a run, Pettitte had to retire Drew if he was going to escape the inning with no further damage.

Still, though, Pettitte should have known better. Aaron Hill of the Toronto Blue Jays had stolen home off him in 2007.

"Sometimes a pitcher can get extremely locked into the hitter," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "It's something that very few guys are able to do, and the situation doesn't arise a lot. You get locked in trying to get the hitter out and ignore the runner on third that can really run. It's a mistake."

He went into a full windup -- as any pitcher would with the bases loaded -- and delivered his first pitch. It was a slider. Strike one.

"When I saw Andy go into his windup, ... I was thinking, 'I can make it,'" he said. "It was just a matter of going at that point. With the bases loaded in a 2-1 ballgame, the last thing you want to do is get thrown out at home plate."

The Yankees' infield was playing Drew around toward right field. (It was the right idea; the lefty eventually would hit a ground-rule double inside the Pesky Pole.) While that didn't matter much for Ortiz and Youkilis, it gave Ellsbury an idea. Third baseman Angel Berroa was easily 20 feet from third base -- and with two errors already to his credit, there was no way he was thinking about anything but fielding the ball cleanly.

Ellsbury started to creep down the third-base line, watching to see if Pettitte noticed and watching to see if Berroa did anything about it.

Nothing seemed to happen. Pettitte went into his windup and threw his second pitch. It was a slider. Ball one.

Ellsbury had joked with Hale countless times about stealing home. ("He usually doesn't say anything," he said.) He'd never stolen home in a big-league game before; he never stolen home in a minor-league game or a college game or a high school game, either. The last time he stole home, he would say later, came when the bases were 60 feet apart and not 90.

But Ellsbury was well aware of what has to happen for him to steal home successfully. He had to have a lefthanded pitcher so he can creep down the line unnoticed. He had to have a lefthanded hitter both for the infield alignment and so that he'd have a clear path at home plate. ("I'm just glad J.D. didn't swing," he said later.) He had to have the pitcher throwing out of a full windup. He had to have a big spot where everyone's attention would be focused on the hitter. He had to have the element of surprise.

This was it. Unless Pettitte was lulling him into the most ridiculous false sense of security in the history of false senses of security, this was it.

No signals were exchanged with the dugout -- be it Francona or bench coach Brad Mills or anyone else. No words passed between Ellsbury and Hale, either. It just wasn't worth the risk.

"Millsy and I are in there talking back and forth, like, 'Shit, he could steal home,'" Francona said. "But we don't even squeeze very often."

Said Ellsbury, "If I go, I have to make it. But I took the chance."

Ellsbury crept down the line again, somewhere between 25 and 30 feet from third base, a little farther down the line than he'd crept on the previous pitch. Berroa didn't move.

Pettitte rocked back and lifted his right foot into the air.

"He needs to check," Girardi said. "He knows to check, and he just didn't do it."

Ellsbury made his decision.

"The biggest thing is getting the courage to go, I guess," he said. "In that situation, with the bases loaded, you've got to make it. It could be one of the baserunning mistakes if you don't make it, but I was pretty confident I could get in there."

Ellsbury took off.

As soon as he made his first move, he knew he had it.

Pettitte had gone into his windup with the intention of throwing his trademark looping curveball. At the last second, though, he heard the roar of the crowd and the shouts of the Yankees on the bench and sped up his delivery to get to the ball to the plate a fraction of a second faster.

"He tried," catcher Jorge Posada said. "It's tough. He's in the middle of the windup; it's tough to get him to throw a little bit faster."

Posada, sensing the steal before anyone, took a glance down at Ellsbury and got up into a crouch so as to more easily apply a tag.

At the same time, as the pitch approached the plate, Drew took two small steps out of the batter's box so as not to get in the way. He certainly was not going to swing the bat.

If there had been a set play, the way there so often is, Ellsbury would have expected Drew to step back. He would have gone in thinking headfirst slide the whole way. But he couldn't tip off Drew without tipping off Pettitte, and he had no idea how Drew would react.

"That's the last thing you're ever expecting," said Jason Bay, who watched from the on-deck circle. "I'm thinking, 'Jeez, J.D., don't swing.'"

That's when everything slowed down. He'd gone into his sprint with the intention of sliding feet-first -- in large part to protect himself in case took a hack at a pitch he liked. But as Drew retreated, Ellsbury suddenly changed his mind. He shifted his momentum and lunged awkwardly at the plate.

His right hand hit the plate first. His entire upper body followed.

"It looked like he was falling," Francona said. "I don't know if that was a slide.

"Thankfully, it's 90 feet and not 92."

Posada caught Pettitte's pitch and lunged at Ellsbury, slapping his glove on the runner's shoulder and dragging it across his back. ("I didn't feel anything," Ellsbury said.") Home-plate umpire Gary Cederstrom didn't make a signal right away; in fact, as Ellsbury looked up, his right hand was in the air to signal that the previous pitch was a strike. Eventually, though, he lifted both arms in the air to declare Ellsbury safe.

Ellsbury didn't clap his hands. He didn't pump his fist. He didn't do much of anything, actually, until he got back to the dugout. That's where he was met by a group of Red Sox players who were going as ballistic as the 38,000 fans in the crowd. A sheepish smile turned into a broad grin as the weight of what he'd done began to sink in.

The fans kept cheering. Ellsbury eventually had no choice but to step out of the dugout and wave -- his first curtain call at Fenway Park.

The ESPN cameras lingered on Francona for the next few minutes in recognition of his brilliant managerial tactic. That, though, was an incorrect assumption.

"What we have is a really fast player with some guts," Francona said.

One reporter asked Ellsbury: Has it occurred to you yet that the whole world is going to see this play?

Ellsbury chuckled.

"See me tripping going into home?" he said.

1 comment:

JB33 said...

awesome play. except if he gets thrown out at home, you have to wonder why he didnt just go straight down the base line. he ran a curved route like he was rounding third from second on a hit, and it takes him closer to the catcher, too. Luckily he was too fast to worry about it.