Billy Wagner was lost.
His momentum carried him across the first-base line, ball in hand. He got himself stopped, and turned, but didn't find the bag he was expecting — somehow it was an extra foot to his right, accessorized by a mildly dumbfounded Shawn Green. Oops! Billy kept turning, and Plan B arrived in the form of Kelly Johnson, who walked into the tag and became the final out of the game. Billy had found his way after all. As had his teammates.
One quality of Willie Randolph's that I admire despite the teeth-gnashing it causes is that he's not afraid to take risks in order to find out something important. It always goes like this: The camera focuses on an unlikely pinch-hitter, an unestablished reliever in an unaccustomed spot or an established pitcher trying to get one more out than you'd expect. Discussion ensues in the booth, followed by a shot of Willie at the dugout rail, looking even more stoic than usual. He's administering a test and wondering if his latest pupil will pass or fail.
So it was in the eighth. Heilman was faltering, teetering on the verge of collapse thanks to another Brave two-out rally. (If the standings were different, these would be terrifying instead of vexing.) In came Feliciano with one out to get. To first base went Brian McCann, whom I am heartily glad not to have to see again until next spring. Exit Feliciano, enter … Mota?
Yes, Guillermo Mota. Guillermo Mota who'd pitched fairly well of late, but only in garbage-time situations. Willie had decided to administer a bullpen pop quiz. I called Emily (attending the game with her dad) and said, “For the last hour I've been envying you being at a wonderful game on a nice night. Now … not so much.” She laughed.
The crowd handled Mota's arrival like New Yorkers often do — they booed the sight of him thoroughly, then grumpily accepted that for better or worse he was the one with the ball and tried to cheer him through his confrontation with Jeff Francoeur. Which he lost after a succession of good changeups and not-so-good changeups and foul tips and finally a clean single through the 5.5 hole. Tie game. Then Mota got Andruw and the crowd, reversing an earlier motif, roared its approval of the strikeout and then booed Mota to the dugout for his earlier misdeed.
No matter — Carlos Beltran promptly restored order with a sharp single, a steal of second off a kid catcher just up from Double-A, a wily theft of third beneath Yunel Escobar's nose, and then walked home courtesy of Green's third hit of the night. How about Shawn Green? He either needed a rest, has been revitalized by a move to first or — most likely — senses the barn after an admirable career. If he stays hot, he could retire with 2,000 hits, not counting whatever he might earn in a final October. That ought to be worthy of a last standing O.
The rest of the game? Crisp and exciting with occasional spots of worry. John Maine is so easily spooked by misfortune (in this case a muffed fly-ball single between Reyes and Beltran) that I'm surprised more teams don't try to rattle him. And Mota failed Mr. Randolph's exam convincingly. And got a win for his troubles.
But no matter. This is the time to find things out, to figure out what needs to be tuned up and what needs to be rethought. And there was plenty to celebrate. Reyes looks revived, Anderson and Milledge proved jolts of excitement, we beat John Smoltz (again), got up after a punch and responded with a knockout blow, and moved closer to Game 163. All in all, not a bad night's work.