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Stearns to Hernandez to Gibbons

From a purely parochial view — and what is our collective perspective on this World Series if not Metsian in these regionally defined baseball times [1]? — I score the final play of Game Three 2-3-2: Stearns to Hernandez to Gibbons.

You won’t find it in your box score but like Jim Joyce in the interview room, I’ll do my best to explain my thinking.

Let’s see…second and third, one out, tie score, bottom of the ninth, Boston’s playing the infield in for Jon Jay to prevent the winning run from scoring. Not too much riding on the next pitch from Koji Uehara, eh? Uehara delivers and Jay grounds a ball Dustin Pedroia smothers and fires home to Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Running if not exactly storming down the third base line is Yadier Molina, my walking nightmare since October 19, 2006. He’s carrying the winning run, but mostly lugging it. Because Pedroia was so diligent in securing and releasing Jay’s throw, it’s fairly obvious to Molina that he’s going to be out at the plate.

Yadier’s only hope is to crash into Saltalamacchia. We’ve been told over the seven years since we became intimately acquainted with the catcher who never gets enough historical scorn for snatching what was supposed to be our first pennant since 2000 that Yadier Molina does everything right. The right thing to do here, if you want to score the run that will put your team up 2-1 in the World Series, is to bowl over the other catcher. John Stearns would’ve done it, right? John Stearns was fearless on both sides of the ball. John Stearns determined John Stearns had right of way whether he was wearing a chest protector and shin guards or hurling himself into someone who was.

Yadier Molina clearly wasn’t channeling his fellow multi-time All-Star Stearns as he approached the plate Saturday night in St. Louis. He plays in the modern era when full-impact collisions at the plate are frowned upon. It’s bad enough that a catcher receives them. Does a catcher who is considered his club’s most valuable member really need to be issuing them? You can reference discretion being the better part of valor or chalk it up to professional courtesy. No way in hell is Yadier Molina, championship-round game on the line or not, going to barrel into Jarrod Saltalamacchia. He’s not going to do a blessed thing to disturb a single consonant on the back of his opposite number’s jersey. Instead, he slides in a perfunctory manner, several feet short of home, making no attempt to sprinkle Salty’s equipment all over Busch Stadium. He’s out, he knows it and he gets himself tagged. Two down.

In that instant, I can hear Keith Hernandez, who played in the age when men were men, catchers absorbed runners, runners took on catchers and John Stearns would do anything to win. I can imagine Keith taking time out from his reverence for all things Cardinal to chastise Molina specifically and all players today generally for their indulgence of “country club baseball,” for their “la-de-da” attitude in a game-winning situation, for opponents offering one another a “spot of tea” instead of a ticket square into the backstop. And I can hear myself, from the comfort of my couch, egging Keith on.

But that instant ends pretty quickly because there’s another play developing, like in a superstorm. The hurricane has blown out but look — it’s a nor’easter! Allen Craig, who initially hesitated on the grounder Pedroia so expertly captured, was now making his move on third. Had Saltalamacchia been knocked on his rear by Molina, no doubt Craig goes in without a throw. Jarrod would’ve been in no position to do anything about it.

Ah, but Molina had left Salty standing, his faculties fully intact, and since he had complete control of the ball after tagging Yadier, he was capable of throwing in the footsteps of another Mets catcher.

This is how I’d like to think the seeds were planted. It’s Saturday afternoon. Tim McCarver is down on the field, making the rounds, chatting up the players on both sides. As old catchers are wont to do, he seeks out Saltalamacchia and shares with him some of the benefit of the experience he has accumulated through decades as a catcher and decades watching other catchers from his perch in the booth.

Hey Salty, Timmy says, I’ve seen some things in this game.

Like what, the genuinely curious Bosock asks.

Why, there was this time when I announcing for the Mets that the DARNEDEST double play unfolded.

Oh, please tell me more, Mr. McCarver. Like most active players, I enjoy soaking up the wisdom dispensed by my elders.

You can call me Tim, the broadcaster insists, and goes on to fill his new protégé in on the details of a long-ago night in San Diego.

Well, Salty, it was like this [2]: the bottom of the eleventh, last night of a long West Coast swing, Mets clinging to a one-run lead. Davey Johnson had to use Doug Sisk, who wasn’t a very good reliever [3]. He had already given up a double to Garry Templeton, who could fly. With one out, Tim Flannery singles to center. Templeton takes off and you’re pretty sure he’s gonna score, we’re gonna be tied and we’re never gettin’ out of Jack Murphy Stadium. But Lenny Dykstra charges and fires and Templeton is OUT AT HOME! And that would keep the inning going, Mets still up by a run with two out, except Sisk notices Flannery kept runnin’ and was headin’ to third, so he tells the catcher, John Gibbons, who’s lyin’ on the ground after Tempy bowled him over, to look — you’ve got another play! So Gibby — who’s only in there ’cause Gary Carter is injured and Ed Hearn needs a blow — gets up and fires to Howard Johnson at third and…OUT AT THIRD! The Mets win it, six to five! What a double play! Just your routine double play!

As you can imagine, Saltalamacchia has stars in eyes after his chat with the Fox announcer. After Tim wishes him well in tonight’s game, the younger man thinks, I’d sure like a chance to be in one of those kinds of plays. I’ll bet Mr. McCarver would get a real kick out of it.

That’s how I imagine it anyway.

I can’t swear what Saltalamacchia was thinking when he decided that with two out in the bottom of the ninth inning of this tied World Series game he’d throw to third in hopes of nabbing Craig. If he doesn’t, Pete Kozma, 0-for-Fall Classic, is up as the potential third out and if Kozma doesn’t get on, the Red Sox have Victorino, Pedroia and Ortiz up to start the tenth. Granted, that’s a lot to think about in an instant. If Molina had laid him out or even nudged him a bit, Saltalamacchia wouldn’t have had the chance to think. He could have simply, in an expression old-time Red Sox fans would recognize, held the ball [4].

But he had the time and the wherewithal to throw to third. He was inspired to be another John Gibbons.

It didn’t work out for Jarrod Saltalamacchia the way it worked out 27 years and two months earlier for Gibby. Boston’s catcher threw past third baseman Will Middlebrooks, which guaranteed that Allen Craig could trot home with the winning run…which he wasn’t doing because…what the hell was going on? Craig had stumbled or something, and was that Daniel Nava hustling over, picking up the ball, throwing it to Salty, and was that Craig, just getting over a foot injury that had kept him out of the National League playoffs, getting tagged out at home to end the ninth?

Yes and no. What Craig stumbled over was Middlebrooks. Middlebrooks had fallen down and couldn’t get up. He was suddenly an inanimate object (though his legs flailed). He didn’t mean to get in the way, much as that piece of furniture in the middle of your living room that you mindlessly clank into meant you no harm. But it’s there and it gets in your way regardless of intent. Middlebrooks was guilty of having transformed into a coffee table. By stumbling over him as he attempted to advance, Craig became, in the umpires’ judgment and a dispassionate reading of the written rule book (we were all about to become constitutional experts on something called 7.06 [5]), entitled to home plate. Home plate meant a run. A run meant the game. The game meant the Cardinals led the World Series.

As Stephen Colbert might have judged it, that was the Craziest F#?King Thing I’ve Ever Heard [6]. Or seen. Or expected to read in Baseball Digest when I was a kid about some enduring World Series mystery from 1925 [7]. A World Series game ended with a couple of relatively furtive signals from Jim Joyce at third and Dana DeMuth at home. Ah, but a rule’s a rule, regardless of optics. Red Sox rooters were left to argue intent, as if litigating an ill-fated Florida recount, but baseball doesn’t leave that many chads hanging. Middlebrooks obstructed Craig as Craig tried to score. That was that. Helluva way to end a game of this nature, and you’re free to interpret that sentiment as your partisanship permits.

Game Three, however, was over [8].

My conclusion? Yadier Molina, by permitting Jarrod Saltalamacchia to remain in position to make the poorly conceived throw to third that ultimately allowed Allen Craig to be ruled safe at home despite never actually touching the plate, is an evil genius. But we’ve known that since a very dark night in 2006.