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Offseason baseball banter focuses on Fall Classic's faux pas: did a mere two pitches decide the world series?

Baseball banter this offseason, instead of revolving around the latest free agent signings and managerial hirings and firings, will be centered (or at least it should be) on one pivotal question: why do today's players absolutely refuse to run their hardest?--and we're not referring to the occasional malingerer ... you know, that lazy loser on a last-place team who does not run out a grounder to second when his team is 20 games out of first and the temperature is soaring into the mid 90s during the dog days of August. What we're referring to is the everyday abuse of the game's most basic tenet, one taught to first-year Little Leaguers on the first day of spring practice--run hard!

Imagine it's Game 7 of the World Series: two out in the bottom of the ninth inning; your team down by a run; and you hit a sinking liner to centerfield. If that's not the occasion to bust it right out of the batter's box, what is? If not then, when? Yet, there goes the Kansas City Royals' Alex Gordon at less than full throttle toward first base. San Francisco Giants centerfielder Gregor Blanco misplays the ball and it gets by him. Leftfielder Juan Perez is slow to back up Blanco, and the ball rolls all the way to the wall. Perez then bobbles the suddenly slick horsehide, and frantically scampers a few more feet along the warning track to retrieve it. He heaves his throw to the cutoff man, shortstop Brandon Crawford, who turns to throw home for a play at the plate, for surely, by this time, Gordon is rounding third with the tying run in what will go down in the history books and the collective memory of fans as one of the most dramatic and momentous plays in Fall Classic history, especially if the Royals somehow manage to win the game.

Crawford, though, never had to peg the ball to the plate where catcher Buster Posey stood ready to take the relay, as Gordon was only chugging into third, having been held (justifiably) by third base coach Mike Jirschele. Unbelievable, you might think, but you'd be wrong. It's so believable as to be predictable.

Again, let's review. The small-market, low-salaried Royals had shocked the baseball world by making the playoffs for the first time in 29 years. Their last postseason appearance had been in 1985, when they won the franchise's lone world's championship. The 2014 version was young, hungry, and aggressive, a team loaded with athleticism. They had blown through the wild card round, Division Series, and American League Championship Series in 8-0 fashion, electrifying friend and foe alike along the way.

When Gordon stepped up to the plate, however, the Royals were desperate. Giants ace Madison Bumgarner, on two days rest, had not given up a run in 4 2/3 innings of relief work. He already had won two games in the Series, hurling a shutout and yielding just one run in seven innings in his other start. In other words, manager Bruce Bochy's Giants were about to win their third World Series in five years if the Royals did not rally.

On any ball hit to the outfield, but especially in this situation, the goal is to get in scoring position. The batter should be steaming toward first full tilt with the intention of making an aggressive turn around the bag in the hopes that the outfielder will miss or mishandle the ball--even a mere momentary bobble will do. Gordon's chances were magnified because of a couple of factors. The Giant outfielders (rightly so) were playing deeper than normal to guard against an extra-base hit. Had Blanco been at his normal depth, he likely would have caught the ball without having to leave his feet. Also, if the Giants had more than a one-run lead, Blanco surely would have attempted to catch the ball. Instead, he raced in, realized a diving attempt would be too risky (lest the ball get by him), and so pulled up to take it on a bounce and hold Gordon to a single. His decision to stop came too late--he was handcuffed by an in-between hop and the ball skipped all the way to the distant fence. At that point, Gordon turned on the jets, but not soon enough to be able to circle the bases. MadBum--the MVP of both the National League Championship Series and World Series--got the next batter, Salvador Perez, to foul out to third and the Giants were world champions for the eighth time in franchise history.

Interestingly enough, it was a single pitch earlier in the Series--or at least that's the feeling here--that put the Giants in position to cop the crown. After losing Game 1, the Royals rebounded in Games 2 and 3 and, on the strength of a big third inning, appeared ready to break open Game 4 and, with it, the Series itself. With four runs already across, Giants starter Ryan Vogelson was shown the showers, Jean Machi relieving. The S.F. righthander promptly walked the next batter, Jarrod Dyson, loading the bases with two out. He then went 3-2 on opposing pitcher Jason Vargas. The payoff pitch was borderline, and Vargas, who had begun the inning by flying out on a 3-2 offering, took it for a called strike three. It just as easily could have been ruled ball four ... and then, with the top of the order coming up, who knows? Another base hit and it's 7-1, at least--a likely back-breaker.

The Giants, relieved to be just three runs down and emboldened by their good fortune, rallied for an eventual 11-4 win to knot the WS at 2-2 before winning Game 5 (behind Bumgarner) and sending the Royals back home one loss from elimination, a loss that manifested itself in large part because Alex Gordon didn't deem it necessary to give his all when it was all on the line.

Wayne M. Barrett is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of USA Today.
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Title Annotation:Hot Stove League
Author:Barrett, Wayne M.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2014
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