The talk of last night’s 2-1 Giants win over the Dodgers was, of course, Buster Posey’s bottom of the ninth inning walk-off home run, a line drive hammered into the left field stands. Believe it or not, it was Posey’s first MLB career walk-off hit. Not just his first walk-off home run, but his first walk-off hit, period. It was a thrilling, satisfying end (if you were a Giants fan) to a tense, strange game that saw Giants pitchers put the lead runner on base seven of the nine innings and Dodgers hitters unable to bring them home. The Dodgers had 11 hits in the game, but scored only one run. The only Dodger to cross home plate last night was pitcher Clayton Kershaw, which was also the case during Kershaw’s first outing against the Giants this season at Dodgers Stadium, a game the Dodgers won.
Yet for all the excitement of Posey’s home run, the most compelling moment last night, as far as I’m concerned, was Sergio Romo’s ninth inning, nine pitch battle against Matt Kemp. Kemp ultimately prevailed with a line drive single to right field. Still, the match-up was a thing of baseball beauty.
Put away your pitchforks. I’m no turncoat. But the Romo-Kemp struggle was what major league baseball is all about, with two talented players facing off in a war of wills: Romo, painting both sides of the plate with fastballs and sliders against the powerful Dodger right hander; Kemp, fighting off close, tricky pitches with foul balls, fouling one particularly meaty pitch, offering at another way out of the strike zone, spitting at still others, and seeing at least one–the first pitch of the at bat, a fastball inside–get called a strike.
That first pitch strike came at an interesting time. Dodgers second baseman Nick Punto, who led off the inning, had just got called out looking on a slider from Romo that hit almost the same spot on the right side of the plate (viewed from the pitcher’s mound). The left-handed Punto thought it was outside, and argued furiously with home plate umpire Joe West. With a dismissive wave of the finger, West silently warned Punto to head back to the Dodgers dugout.
Reviewing the replay, it’s clear the pitch was outside.
The first pitch to Kemp hit nearly the same spot, yet this one caught part of the plate. Kemp appeared to disagree. Unlike Punto, however, he kept his thoughts to himself, choosing instead to stare in disbelief into the stands along the first base line (was he staring at the scoreboard there to confirm the pitch got registered as a strike?). After all, it was the first pitch of the at bat, not the last. Still, Dodgers hitters must have been confused at the end of a game in which Joe West, throughout most of it, had stuck to an unbelievably tight strike zone. All of a sudden, in the ninth inning, that zone expanded.
Which is perhaps part of what set up the battle between Romo and Kemp.
Something interesting happened after that first strike. Kemp stepped back into the batter’s box, took a practice swing, then signaled time out to West before stepping back out.
Then he did it again.
Was he trying to get the bad taste of that first called strike out of his mouth? Or was he attempting to throw off Romo’s timing? Perhaps a bit of both. Both times, Romo went into the stretch, only to have to start over and set up again. Before Kemp stepped back into the box a third time, Romo went into his stretch, as if he were going to quick-pitch Kemp. West was having none of it. He stepped out from behind home plate to warn Romo. Romo threw out his arms, as if to say, “What did I do?” Giants fans started screaming at West.
On the next pitch, Romo threw Kemp a slider that curled and fell away from the plate outside. Kemp swung and missed it by a mile. The count was 0-2.
Kemp bounced the next pitch foul off to his left. Then Romo threw a cutter outside that Kemp spit on. The count was 1-2.
The crowd started chanting, “Beat LA! Beat LA!”
Kemp fouled another pitch into the stands off first base. Romo was lucky this time. He had hung a fastball over the heart of the plate. Kemp next took a low slider inside that was called a ball. The count was 2-2. Romo went back inside with a front door slider but missed. Barely. The count was 3-2.
Seven pitches had been thrown in the at bat.
Kemp fouled off the next pitch, a fastball in on his hands.
The ninth and final pitch of the at bat was a fastball on the outside edge of the plate. Kemp reached out and punched a line drive into right field.
Battle over. Kemp won.
But Romo would go on to win the war. After falling behind Dodgers shortstop Justin Sellers, 2-1, Romo got Sellers to foul off the next pitch. He then struck Sellers out swinging with a wicked slider that broke off the plate out of the reach of Sellers’ bat.
A.J. Ellis came up next and popped up the third pitch slider to Joaquin Arias at short for the third out.
Posey would lead off the ninth inning. But you already know how this story ends.