After everything else had let them down, the Cincinnati Reds needed an old-fashioned hero. Over the course of winning two games and then losing two against the San Francisco Giants in the National League Division Series, they had taken their lumps. Ace Johnny Cueto left the first game with an injury after throwing fewer pitches than his counterparts on other teams, Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia, would throw first-game innings. The evenhanded Joey Votto was a flimsy, two-dimensional version of himself at the plate, where he flicked singles with guile and precision but seemed sapped of his power following a return from knee surgery. Aroldis Chapman made a mess of his non-save situation appearance in Game 1, spraying his fastball over, under, inside, and outside the plate before settling down and getting his three outs in uninspiring fashion. The Reds lost a game in which their own Homer Bailey pitched almost flawlessly; they lost a game in which the Giants’ Tim Lincecum rediscovered his shadowy changeup in relief.
Most recently, the Reds had seen Mat Latos leave the series’ fifth and final game after four innings of authoritative fastballs and part of a fifth of walks, hits, and finally, a Buster Posey grand slam. The Reds had later pushed across a few runs of their own and now trailed 6-4 in the bottom of the ninth. Ryan Ludwick stood on first base, Votto on second. On cue, Jay Bruce stepped to the plate.
Though the Reds had two outs left, the game surely felt to the 44,142 in The Great American Ballpark like this: Bruce would hit a home run and the Reds would win, or he would make an out and they would lose. Bruce is the kind of player who inspires this sort of thinking, who makes more nuanced outcomes, something seeing-eyed or blooped, seem impossible. He hits long, left-handed home runs – 34 on the year – throws the ball hard from his perch in right field, and appears ill-equipped for those components of the game requiring more than one vector to map. This lack of subtlety works also in the opposite direction; each item on his narrowed-down list gains an extra dose of plausibility, such that, despite the odds piled against the event, a homer felt like it had a coin-flip chance.
The man tossing the coin was San Francisco right-handed pitcher Sergio Romo, an impish figure who throws furtive pitches low in the strike zone. The post-Bonds Giants seem to view their nickname as a sort of ironic challenge, building a team not of brawny sluggers but of smooth swingers and artful pitchers, and Romo exemplifies the trend. Standing five feet and ten inches and hunch-shrinking on the mound, he throws as if to make his pitches burrow toward the hitter, the baseball jutting up just at the strike zone’s lowest border, sometimes staying there and sometimes dipping back down. He leaves hitters swinging at negatives and shadows and staring at strikes.
The at-bat began, Bruce entrenched and Romo twitchy, with a scooting fastball fouled away. Bruce turned the next pitch, too, to the stands. With an 0-2 count, Romo selected a changeup that ducked under the plate, but Bruce wasn’t fooled. Bruce fouled the next pitch, another fastball, away, then the next, then three more. Over the course of the at-bat, eight of Romo’s offerings would end up fouled off.
The crowd, taking these last-ditch protections of hope as signals of progress, grew louder with each spoiled pitch. Bruce seems like a player out of his time, with a thick neck and cropped, parted hair, like he belongs to an era when ballplayers could appear shoulder-to-shoulder with superheroes in ten cent comic books, their swings repelling reptilian or space-agey villains. And here, in 2012 in Cincinnati, he purveyed the same brand of childish belief, his defensive swings the final struggles, before the breakthrough, of the weary hero. It was about time to get to it; there weren’t many pages left.
Another fastball darted in, Bruce turned and connected, and the ball settled in leftfielder Xavier Nady’s glove. Moments later, Scott Rolen’s strikeout formalized what was evident in Bruce’s flyout; the game and series were over.
Something strange happens following games like this one, games that crystallize in one clean, important ninth-inning moment. The final out arrives, the tension and hope get cut out, and a void remains, slowly filled by a more reasonable assessment of the contest’s events. One realizes, a calmer temperament returning like blood to just-warmed fingers, the impact of the small events that had come before. An error and a walk helped load the bases for Posey back in the fifth. Bruce had been caught trying to steal third in the sixth. The game reads less like a mad dash to the fateful point than a slow study of the wise, foolish, lucky, and unlucky.
Still, even the considerate fan returns to the memory of the ninth, as insistent as an itch. Baseball trains us to think this way. Ludwick and Votto stood there in plain sight, ready to jog home. Bruce needed only to do something he’d done 34 times – didn’t it seem like more? – just this season. The linearity of it all, the crisp presentation, appeals to the older parts of the mind, picking us up out of logic and plopping us down into faith. A game defined by anticlimax and unrealized promise, baseball convinces us time and again of the hero.