Looking back on an improbable finish
While watching highlights of last night’s incredible finish, I noticed Bobby Cox’s reaction after Jason Heyward drilled his game-tying, two-out homer in the ninth inning. While his players instantly celebrated when Heyward’s blast cleared the wall, Cox paused and then began clapping in an excited manner.
When I get to Turner Field today, I’ll ask him if he remembers his reaction. But my guess is that his split-second pause was just a product of the fact that he had to give himself time to think, “you’ve got to be kidding me, this kid did it again.”
As great as anybody thought Heyward could be, I think it’s safe to say that he has proven to be even greater during the first 13 games of his career. Through the first seven games he’s played at Turner Field, he has already produced a memorable homer with the first swing of his career, contributed a walk-off single and foiled the rival Phillies with last night’s blast off Ryan Madson.
At the ripe age of 20, Heyward has already proven to be Mr. Clutch in Atlanta. He is hitting .727 (8-for-11) with runners in scoring position and .750 (6-for-8) with two outs and runners in scoring position. During the eighth and ninth innings combined, he has batted .555 (5-for-9) and his two ninth-inning homers have been hit with the Braves trailing.
It’s impressive enough to look at the fact that he has compiled 16 RBIs through the first 13 games of his career. But while watching ESPN’s SportsCenter this morning, many of us learned that Ted Williams was the only other Major League player under the age of 21 to tally 16 RBIs through the first 13 games of his career.
Still even with all of these impressive statistics, there’s a way to argue that Heyward’s homer simply added to the improbable events that occurred last night. Down 3-0 with two outs in the ninth, the Braves needed just nine pitches and four at-bats to create a 4-3, 10-inning victory that put them in a first-place tie with a Phillies club that has navigated a much softer schedule through the season’s first two weeks.
Troy Glaus came to the plate in the ninth inning hearing the displeasure of fans, who were unhappy about the fact that he’d booted a Ryan Howard grounder in the top of the fourth and then hit into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded and Heyward on deck to end the bottom half.
Or maybe those boos were a product of the fact that he was coming to bat with a .181 batting average. Or maybe it was because he had produced just one hit in the 10 at-bats that he had previously compiled in either the eighth or ninth innings.
Whatever the case, those boos quickly turned to cheers when Glaus belted Madson’s fastball over the left-center field wall. His second homer of the year, set the stage for Heyward, who came to the plate with just four hits in 27 at-bats with the bases empty.
Stick with me, this was a night where improbability reigned. Thus in order to figure out how Heyward fit the story line, I had to take advantage of the opportunity to use this early-season trend that really doesn’t bare a whole lot of significance.
Heyward’s blast opened the door for Billy Wagner to produce a perfect inning and set the stage for Nate McLouth, who came to the plate to begin the top of the 10th inning hitting just .138 (4-for-29). His most recent extra-base hit had occurred in the sixth inning of last year’s 15-inning season finale against the Nationals.
But after drawing a 2-2 count, McLouth made his first career at-bat against Jose Contreras a memorable one. After drilling his game-ender into the right field seats, the Braves center fielder celebrated the first walk-off homer of his career in unique style.
Finally provided the opportunity to carry through with a plan they devised last year, the Braves players and coaches didn’t rush on the field to celebrate this moment with McLouth. Instead, they pranked him by going down the dugout stairs and heading toward the clubhouse.
“I looked when I got around second (base) and everybody had gone (toward the clubhouse),” McLouth said. “I didn’t know what to do when I crossed home and there they were waiting for me in the tunnel. I kind of did the weird little dance before I got down there. I didn’t know what to do to be honest with you. I knew I had to slam the helmet at some point, so I did that when I crossed home.” <p>
In case you haven’t seen video of this prank, click here to view it. You can hear John Smoltz laughing with his broadcast partner Joe Simpson and saying, “That’s perfect.”
Further showing the camaraderie this club seems to have, the Braves certainly concluded an improbable finish in perfect fashion. Entering the ninth inning, McLouth and Glaus had combined to hit .164 (12-for-73) with one extra-base hit.
Entering tonight’s game against Roy Halladay, they carry a fresh sense of confidence and the tremendous momentum created by two consecutive walk-off victories.
While Halladay presents a tremendous challenge, we’ve all quickly learned that anything is possible as long as Mr. Heyward is in the house.