At the point Matt Albers came to the plate for the White Sox in the 13th inning on Wednesday afternoon, their rubber match with the Mets was only notable for its length. It lacked the tension of other 1-1 games, because neither of the offenses presented itself as a threat. The White Sox only had four chances with runners in scoring position all game, while the Mets kept following walks with double plays.
But, as baseball fans know, the longer a game goes, the weirder it gets. Managers run out of options, which forces players to do things they've never done before, or at least haven't done in forever.
The best one, of course, is position players pitching, because you get to see their arm strength and the offspeed pitches they've dabbled with.
The worst one, of course, is relief pitchers hitting. It's hard enough watching starting pitchers hit, but relief pitchers are even less prepared to hold a bat. When a reliever comes to the plate, one hopes it's in a bunt situation. If the bases are empty, it still doesn't mean a reliever is better off swinging, lest he get hurt. It's just not a particularly competitive situation.
With Albers coming to the plate against Logan Verrett to lead off the 13th, I wasn't even sure if he'd swing. If he did, I didn't know if he'd even make contact. To my surprise and delight, he turned into our Dae-Sung Koo.
Koo, if you're unfamiliar, was a Korean pitcher who played in one season for the Mets, during which he came to the plate twice. He struck out on three pitches in his first at-bat, mainly because he decided to stand in the on-deck circle for it. He took three strikes and returned to the dugout, which was almost closer to him than the plate.
The second time? He hit a ringing double off Randy Johnson, just as Tim McCarver finished the sentence, "I'm just going to go out on a limb and say that this is, thus far in this young season, this is the biggest give-up at-bat."
That was crazy enough, but Koo wasn't done. After putting on a jacket, he moved to third on a bunt, then took off for home when he saw it was unoccupied. He scored with a dive, and McCarver could not stop giggling. When he did, "The most electrifying journey around the bases! Whew!" (A replay showed he was out. Thank God the challenge system didn't exist.)
Albers' double ranked a little higher on the likelihood scale for a few reasons. He had a couple hits during his year as a starter for the Astros in 2007, and he was a lefty against the right-handed Verrett, not lefty-devouring Randy Johnson.
But it was only a little more likely, because he hadn't hit in a major league game since 2009, and showed no particular aptitude for it when he did (2-for-34 with 21 strikeouts). Moreover, even if he reached base, he wouldn't have been able to make it home without a police escort. There was a reason "like a cat" was so funny, and it's not just because he prefaced it with the F-word.
This shouldn't have worked.
It totally worked, haters.
How did Matt Albers end up sticking out his tongue at baseball convention? When you watch the sequence of events knowing how it ended, you can actually see Albers becoming more dangerous with every pitch.
Albers was ready to hit for himself after coming off the mound in the 12th. From my seat behind the White Sox dugout, I saw him slap his right elbow while entering the dugout, calling for armor. He comes to the plate sporting Brett Lawrie's grey camouflage pad, along with Dioner Navarro's helmet and bat.
Broadcast booth: "Well, the old pitcher's philosophy -- something about swing hard in case you hit something," Steve Stone said. After Albers' career batting average flashed on the screen, Stone zinged him: ".059, but it's been a hard .059.'
Albers backs out as Verrett's first pitch comes in, outside.
Broadcast booth: "I like that," Hawk Harrelson said, laughing. Stone was too, before following up his earlier comment with "He'd been hitting into tough luck."
Albers stays in this box this time, but with the bat planted firmly on his shoulder.
Broadcast booth: "1-1," Harrelson said. "Robin may have told him, "Matt, look, just go up there and keep taking. You either strike out or you walk."
In hindsight, you can see the build-up. Albers again takes a strike, but he assumes a more athletic stance, stays in the box and tracks the pitch with his legs and hands.
Broadcast booth: "You'd have to think that coming into the ballgame today, Matt Albers thought the last thing he would have to do is hit," Stone said.
The mobilization of Albers escalates with his first swing, which is late, but good enough to foul off a pretty good two-seamer.
Broadcast booth: "Heeeeeey, he got a piece of it!" Hawk notes.
There's no give in Albers now, as his front shoulder stays closed to take a pitch low and away. He's in it to win it.
Broadcast booth: "That's low," Hawk says. After a characteristic silence, he added, "In 2007, Matt did get two hits."
Citi Field had mostly emptied out by then, so the sound of Albers' contact resonates through the stadium. I jumped up yelling something -- I think it was "oh my God," but I'm not sure. It looked like a true double, until I looked back at Albers and saw him rumbling into second with no brakes.
He stays on the bag by using Neil Walker to slow his momentum, after which he apologized.
"I was thinking about it, and then I was like, 'I'm not sure if I can do this,'" Albers said. "I was like, 'Sorry, man, I don't know how to slide.'"
Suddenly, Albers is just the third baserunner in scoring position for the White Sox all day, and with the second loudest hit. The exit velocity was clocked at 95.7 mph.
Broadcast booth: Ed Farmer sized up the task ahead concisely, saying, "I don't think he can score on a single."
At any one point during the game, there might've been only a handful of White Sox on the rail of the dugout. But after Albers reached second, more than half the team takes to the top step to see what would happen next.
The most guys on the rail all game. pic.twitter.com/OZrGznHX3q— Phenomenal Source (@SouthSideSox) June 1, 2016
They get an even better look on the next pitch. Verrett's first offering to Abreu is wild, allowing Albers to motor into third without a throw after the pitch careens around the backstop.
After watching Albers do everything in Walker's power to stop at second, I didn't want to see him cheat death over the last 90 feet with something like a contact play. Yet I also didn't want to see something as anticlimactic as his trip to third. I wanted to see him put his head down and dig.
Jose Abreu's sac fly does the job. He falls behind 1-2, stays alive with two foul balls, then drives a fastball deep enough into center that sending Albers is a no-brainer, but shallow enough to keep him honest. He has to chug home at full speed, and he scores standing up as Juan Lagares' throw comes in way up the line. Then again, based on the events at second base, whatever happened at home likely would've happened standing up.
MLB.com provided the Statcast info:
Todd Frazier follows by getting hit by a pitch, but while he tries to give Albers more of a cushion by taking off for second with Verrett still looking in, he ends up undercutting Albers' recovery time by getting thrown out at second. Melky Cabrera grounds out, and an still out-of-breath Albers heads to the mound for the final three outs.
Addicted to excitement, Albers creates some of his own by walking Rene Rivera, the 13th walk issued by Sox pitching on the day. That brings the pitcher's spot to the plate, but Verrett doesn't get a chance to exact revenge. Instead, Kevin Plawecki pinch-hits for him, and he can't avenge the embarrassment, grounding out to third to end the game.
Albers effectively saved his own win, but he'll only get credit for the win and a game finished, meaning that his no-save streak is still intact. Yes, somehow Albers came to the plate, racked up a hit and scored a double in his relief career before he recorded a save.
Now that piece of trivia is truly trivial, because after finishing a game by recording three outs, drilling a double, scoring the go-ahead run and then recording the final three outs, any save is going to pale in comparison.