The Washington Nationals beat the Atlanta Braves last night. Or, I should say that they beat the Atlanta Braves and home plate umpire C.B. Bucknor.
Washington had a 3-0 lead entering the bottom of the ninth. The Braves mounted a little rally, though, scoring one run and then loading the bases with only one out. At that point Shawn Kelley was summoned to take over for closer Blake Treinen. It was a tough spot.
Kelley got Emilio Bonifacio to foul out and then concentrated on Chase d'Arnaud. Kelley got ahead of d’Arnaud 1-2. And then d’Arnaud . . . swung and missed! Ballgame! Right?
Nope. Because Bucknor said the swing and miss was a foul tip. Somehow. Look:
Eventually Kelley would get d’Arnaud swinging — with Bucknor actually acknowledging it — to end the game. But can you imagine what would’ve happened if d’Arnaud hit a bases-clearing and game-winning double with that new, unwarranted lease on life? It’d be a game we’d be talking about for decades. Even as it was, the Nationals gave Bucknor a well-deserved earful afterward.
This call, by the way, sort of overshadowed the fact that Bucknor’s strike zone in the game was absolutely wretched, with tons of balls in the left-handed batters box being called strikes (for more on that, check this out). That happens a lot and often it impacts both teams equally, but the Nats seemed to get the worst of that too.
Nothing is worse than that phantom foul tip call, though. That’s simply inexcusable. What in the heck was Bucknor watching?
You hear a lot about pitchers tipping pitches. It’s often offered up post-facto as an excuse for poor performance by the pitcher himself or his own team. It’s sort of like the “best shape of my life” thing being offered in the offseason to talk about why the player got injured or played badly the previous year. “Smitty’s stuff is still great, he was just tipping his pitches,” said a source close to the player whose stuff is not really great anymore.
Which isn’t to say that pitchers don’t tip pitches. Of course they do. Opposing teams look for it, pick up on it and take advantage of it whenever they can. It’s just that (a) the opposing team has an interest in not talking about it, lest the pitcher STOP tipping its pitches; and (b) the guy actually tipping his pitches doesn’t want to talk specifically about it lest he starts doing it again.
Which is what makes this article at Sports Illustrated so interesting. In it Tom Verducci talks to an anonymous Houston Astros player who explains how Dodgers starter Yu Darvish was tipping his pitches during the World Series, leading to him getting absolutely shellacked in Games 3 and 7. The upshot: the Astros knew when a slider or a cutter was coming, they waited for it and they teed off.
Darvish is a free agent now. I’m guessing, whoever signs him, knows exactly what they’ll gave him work on the first day of spring training.