Detroit — Watching it live, your first reaction was, “What just happened?”
It was a critical moment in the Tigers’ 3-2, 10-inning win over the White Sox on Friday and it happened so fast and was such an unusual play, it took a few screenings of the replay to piece it together.
How many times have you seen a K-1-2 double play?
Bottom of the eighth inning. The White Sox had scored twice in the top of the inning to tie the game. Javier Báez, who had already singled, walked and tripled in the game, hit what looked to be a routine single to center.
Báez, who stole a base earlier in the game, was not content to go station to station on this night. He broke hard out of the batter’s box and straight challenged the arm of White Sox center fielder AJ Pollock. His hustle seemed to catch Pollock off guard because he rushed and threw errantly.
After an unselfish team at-bat by Eric Haase — poking a ground ball to first base to advance the runner — Báez was 90 feet away from putting the Tigers back on top with only one out.
Rookie Spencer Torkelson came up, facing veteran right-hander Joe Kelly. Kelly threw six straight knuckle curveballs, finally striking Torkelson out with a 3-2 dirt ball. When the pitch caromed off the leg of catcher Yasmani Grandal, Báez broke for home.
“I thought it went to their dugout,” Báez said.
It did not. The ball actually bounced toward Kelly, who glove-scooped it back to Grandal. Báez was caught between standing up and sliding and was tagged out well before he could sneak a foot on the plate.
“He got me kind of in between,” Báez said. “I was going to slide open but I didn’t have time. I didn’t know what to do. I should’ve just gone back but I didn’t want to get into a rundown. Obviously, you can’t be the last out at the plate, either.
“It was a hard decision, but what can I do?”
Manager AJ Hinch’s first thought on the play was about Torkelson.
“Tork’s got to run to first base,” he said. “I mean, that play was a mess all the way around.”
To his point, if Torkelson had broken for first, perhaps Kelly is distracted just long enough for Báez to either be safe or go back. Instead, Torkelson slammed his bat in self-disgust after chasing a 3-2 pitch that ended up in the left-handed batter’s box.
It looked for a second like Báez might have to run through Torkelson to get to the plate.
Hinch also said the angle the runner has coming down the line at third base is not conducive to reading balls in the dirt, especially with a right-handed hitter in the box providing a screen.
“You can’t see anything from that angle,” Hinch said. “It could’ve been a foot to the right and he’s safe. It could’ve been a foot shorter and he’d be out by more. It’s a tough read. I think the emotion of the moment creates that kind of anxiousness. He’s trying to make a play.
“It was more a heads-up play by Joe Kelly. If Kelly isn’t the athlete that he is, that play is completely different.”
It felt like a fatal play at the time for the Tigers, but Gregory Soto pitched around a Báez error in the ninth and Alex Lange struck out the side in the 10, stranding the free runner at second base to give the Tigers a window to win it in the bottom of the 10th.
Which they did with a sacrifice bunt by Willi Castro and a sacrifice fly by Victor Reyes.
“I hate faulting aggressiveness when you can change the scoreboard and they make an unnatural play look very natural,” Hinch said. “I just credit Joe Kelly.”
All’s well that ends well.