Baseball, Art out of Time: The King’s Gambit

It’s a clear, cool night in Anaheim. The season is not yet a week old, and trends from the prior year linger like cirrocumulus clouds dotting the sky just west of the ballpark. The Seattle Mariners have lost four of their first five games. They’ll lose this one too, despite beginning the game with a pair of runs off of Angels’ pitcher Ricky Nolasco. It’s April 8th, 2017. The Mariners’ starter is Felix Hernandez, King Felix to the Seattle faithful. He’s in the twilight of a career that included a Cy Young award, a perfect game, and not a single start in the postseason. Hernandez gets Angel hitters Yunel Escobar and Kole Calhoun to ground out to start the bottom half of the first inning. Into the box steps the best player on Earth. His name is Michael Nelson Trout, Mike for short, and he’s the reason many people are watching this game.

Baseball is a funny sport. You are praised for failing seventy percent of the time and you’re a god if you only fail sixty percent. Pitchers are lauded for giving up a run here and there but immediately fall back in good grace following a strikeout to end an inning. In many other games, certain performances are, well, certain. Every night you see LeBron James play, you know you’re going to get around 27 or more points, 7 or more rebounds, 7 or more assists. Baseball holds no guarantees, given how the season and each game is structured. A player like Mike Trout or Mookie Betts only gets four to six chances to help his team offensively. There will be plenty of times where they whiff on every single one. Still, they’re considered the lords of the realm because at any given moment, something incendiary can occur.

In his first five full seasons, Mike Trout finished either first or second in American League MVP voting, winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2013 while falling just shy of Miguel Cabrera’s triple crown MVP. He’s a visionary defender in center field, being the author of many home run robbing catches at the wall. But in all fairness, he’s just not that interesting. The fault of Mike Trout is that he’s so clean and polished and charming that it’s almost boring. As he stands in the box on April 8th, 2017, the man he sees looking back at him does not have the same problem.

Felix Hernandez is cool, brash, and electrifying. He has a smile that can light up a room and a scowl that can strike fear in the hearts of even the most dangerous hitters. Following the decline of the powerhouse Mariners of the early 00’s, King Felix grew to become the face of the organization. He was a consistent all-star, regularly a Cy Young contender, and often received down-ballot MVP votes. By 2017, the last of those great years had come and gone. It was in 2015 when he last challenged for any awards. The next season, his numbers had fallen off dramatically. It was as if ten years of 30+ starts had suddenly caught up with him, propelling the M’s ace into his final act.

Still, he was the golden boy of the Pacific Northwest. He had earned his place in Seattle baseball lore, and it would be tough to deny him the right to go out on his own terms, especially given the ascendancy of the Astros within the West Division.

Hernandez looks toward the plate and receives the sign from his catcher, Mike Zunino. He winds and delivers. Its a 90 MPH sinker that just creeps by the edge of the plate. Technically, it should be called a ball. Umpire Tim Timmons calls it a strike.

Tim Timmons, not to be confused with Timmy Timmons from The Sandlot, started calling major league games in 1999. In comparison to all MLB umpires, Timmons can be viewed as one who leans a little toward favoring the pitcher. This basically means that close calls like this will more often than not be called in favor of the pitcher.

Hernandez most certainly knows this, and so does Trout. That forces their individual strategies for the entire game to open up just slightly. Trout knows he will have to cover just a little more space with his bat, because he knows that Hernandez knows he can skirt the strike zone just a little more.

On the next pitch, Trout makes contact on a fastball inside, again at 90 MPH. He knocks it foul, and now he’s down 0-2 in the count. What happens next sets the course for the rest of the at-bat. With Trout in his control now, Hernandez gives him another fastball, up and in. Trout sits on it, and Timmons calls it a ball. There’s a collective gasp in the ballpark, as the third pitch was clearly inside of the zone, though just at the top inside corner. The at bat and the inning should be over.

Trout swings and clips an 87 MPH changeup almost in the dirt. Foul.

Trout swings and clips a 92 MPH fastball on the outside. Foul.

Hernandez offers a sinker so far inside that Trout has to dodge out of the way. Ball two.

Six pitches into the at bat and it’s knotted at two balls, two strikes. The endless will of a batter fouling off pitches is beginning to take hold.

One of the things that makes Trout such a brilliant hitter is his ability to foul away pitches he doesn’t like in order to get one he can launch a few hundred feet. Players like Joey Votto and Brandon Belt are master craftsmen of this strategy. In theory, the more pitches you see from a pitcher, the better chance you’ll have of getting a hit. It makes sense until you push the minutiae of individual pitch battles. Given the variance of pitcher arsenals and the amount of space the have to throw them, the law of averages becomes moot. Every base hit is a miracle, but I’ll save that concept for another day.

Of the next three pitches, only one would be anywhere near the zone, but given Hernandez’s virtuosic ability to move the ball while in flight, they regularly appear as though they’ll end waist-high. King Felix has decided to empty his arsenal, delivering an 81 MPH low, outside curve. Then its an 86 MPH slider at the knees. Finally an 88 MPH sinker down and in at Trouts’s shins. The Angel outfielder fouls them all away.

Feeling that his opponent has gained a little too much confidence in his zone, Hernandez brushes Trout back with another fastball inside at the ribs. This one isn’t enough to push Trout backward, but its enough to make him reevaluate his approach. The count is full, finally, ten pitches in.

The final stanza of this duel begins with a 91 MPH sinker that creeps just low of the strike zone. Trout fouls it back. It’s not what he wants.

Hernandez delivers a hard-cutting 82 MPH curveball that teases Trout into swinging, despite it being far outside. He makes contact. Another foul.

Pitch thirteen is nearly identical to the first of this at bat, almost five minutes ago. It’s a 91 MPH sinker just outside of the zone. Just like the first time, Trout swings… and makes contact. Foul.

It was the longest at bat of either man’s career, and it still wasn’t over.

The full count was entering its fifth pitch. Hernandez got the sign from Zunino. He wound up and delivered. It was a 92.5 MPH fastball, the fastest pitch of the duel. It had a slight upward movement but veered to the right, to the inside for Trout. The center fielder held his bat and let it pass, in his eyes it was just outside of the strike zone. But it was not his call.

Tim Timmons’s eyes saw it clip the edge of the strike zone. He pumped his fist. Strike three. The King had won the battle.

It took everything in Hernandez’s bag to defeat Trout, and it was as memorable of an at bat as any in his long career. The fourteen-pitch duel would outlive the game itself and overshadow Trout’s home run later on that delivered the game-winning score.

It was a last iconic moment in the career of one of the game’s most enjoyable and exciting pitchers. It was an example of the beauty of baseball and the mind games that are created in each pitch.

It was art. ◾️

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