Hall-of-Famer Bob Feller once said, “Baseball is only a game, a game of inches and luck.”
Inches can make or break so many things in the game of baseball. An inch or two could mean the difference between a home run or a fly out to the wall, a fair ball that kicks up some chalk or a foul ball, an amazing catch or a complete and disastrous defensive blunder. An inch of height could help a fielder make a leaping catch, a bat that is an inch longer could poke a ball foul and extend a plate appearance, a stride that is an inch wider could beat out a bang-bang play at first base that keeps a rally alive.
One of the most frustrating things about the game of inches is that its favorite place to make its presence known is at home plate.
The strike zone.
While the rule book clearly states a designation for an official strike zone, it is still up to the home plate umpire to make the final call on whether a pitch crossed the plate or missed completely. The concept of robot umpires and automated strike zones have been tossed around for nearly a decade now, and while those things may still be years down the road (and implemented in ways people will certainly feel split about), they aren’t here yet. No, in the meantime, we are still treated to unadulterated human subjectivity from the arbiter behind the dish.
Arguing balls and strikes almost always leads to an immediate ejection for whoever decides to speak up — the batter, catcher, pitcher, a manager, someone from the bench, behind the plate, in the broadcast booth — it doesn’t matter. Arguing The Zone is a surefire way to get the heave-ho from an umpire. There have been hundreds of times throughout baseball history when a ball or strike call prompted an explosion of finger-pointing and shouts of “that’s not fair” that would trigger flashbacks to elementary school sandlot games, and even when (not if) automated strike zones come into play, that may still be the case.
If anyone had grounds to kick up an argument over a pitch being called a ball when it was clearly a strike, it was Chicago White Sox left-handed starting pitcher Carlos Rodón in Sunday afternoon’s game against the Detroit Tigers.
Rodón entered the season shrouded in question marks due to his apparent love affair with the injured list. Despite having spent portions of just about every season of his career sidelined with one injury or another, the White Sox took a gamble and brought Rodón back for the 2021 season (much to the chagrin of just about every Sox fan on Twitter). Sox fans have caught glimpses of who they now affectionately refer to as “Hard Karl” only a handful of times in the past, but this year he is far exceeding any expectations anyone had for him … well, ever.
If you had told naysayers that halfway through the June chunk of the schedule Rodón would be sporting a sub-2 ERA, be a likely candidate to start the All-Star Game in Colorado, and be in the conversation for the American League Cy Young award, you would have been laughed out of any credibility you may have previously held.
Rodón has already fallen victim to the game of inches once before in this current season of major league baseball. In the top of the ninth inning of his would-be 114-pitch perfect game on April 14, Rodón tossed a slider that slid a little too much and hit the cleat of Cleveland catcher Roberto Pérez, ending Rodón’s bid at perfection. An inch to the side, and it would have been just another ball and a 1-2 count, but Carlos could only smile and shake his head as he watched Pérez limp down the line to take his base.
As with most forms of heartbreak, the second time around was possibly worse than the first.
While it was not hard to laugh and smile along with Rodón when he spun his slider a bit too much against Cleveland, this latest instance will leave a bad taste in the mouths of Sox fans that will only get more bitter as time goes on. Though today’s perfect game attempt was far gone at this point as Rodón had walked two batters, a no-hitter was still well within reach against a Tigers offense that looked like it just wanted to get the game over with.
It was another slider. It was in the zone. Only, according to home plate umpire Pat Hoberg, it wasn’t.
Pat Hoberg had been calling a decent game up until this point, and if you check Umpire Scorecards, a website dedicated to judging umpires based on their ability to call a game with respect to the official strike zone, Hoberg is 1.4% away from being the most accurate home plate umpire in baseball.
Rodón floated a beautiful slider over the inside corner that caught all of the zone according to the broadcast overlay, but as Carlos started to walk off the mound expecting to see a punch-out and the ball make its way around the infield, he froze when he realized the call hadn’t been made and the at-bat would continue. To Carlos’ credit, he didn’t argue or even make much of a fuss or even a face. Unfortunately, he walked back onto the mound and served up a fly ball to left field that floated just out of the reach of a fully-extended Andrew Vaughn — yet another Instance of inches — that landed for a double.
History was over.
Rodón was up to 90 pitches at that point in the game, and ended with a pitch count of 103 before giving way to the bullpen in the eighth inning. That means in order for Rodón to have finished the no-hitter at the efficiency he was pitching on Sunday, his pitch count would have climbed close to 130 when all was said and done. That number in and of itself is not a reason to pull someone from a ballgame, especially when history is on the line, but it did make it easier when that hit was recorded and the call to the bullpen was finally made. For a guy like Rodón, who is having a career year to the nth degree, the last thing he needs is a high pitch count ending his season.
But when there’s a no-hitter on the line, who even cares about that.
Rodón’s earned run average dropped to 1.89 — good for second in the American League behind teammate Lance Lynn, and fifth in all of baseball — after his seven innings of shutout baseball, and the win gave him his sixth on the season.
No, Rodón didn’t finish his no-hitter this time. He would have become the 37th pitcher in the history of baseball to throw more than one in a career, and just the sixth in baseball history to do it twice in one season.
There is something fitting, almost scripted, nearly storybook-like, about this happening in Detroit’s Comerica Park, the birth place and subsequent eternal burial ground of Armando Galarraga’s almost-perfect-game in 2010. The place where no-hitters go to die, Comerica now marks its territory in White Sox history.
Every time a pitcher takes the mound in Detroit on a Sunday day game, Sox fans will not be able to help but remember that one afternoon in June 2021 when Hard Karl had his rightful place in the history of baseball stolen from him by one Pat Hoberg.
Although it was a notch in the win column for the White Sox, it will be remembered as a moment in time that never was for Carlos Rodón. A snapshot of the exact moment where an alternate universe caused things to play out differently for a Sox team that has had everything go right in the face of adversity.