Mariners starter James Paxton pitched an eight-inning masterpiece Wednesday night at Kansas City, but allowed the game to turn because he didn't attempt a routine throw.
I know the feeling.
Before we get into that, a quick reset of the play pivotal in a 4-3 defeat: The Mariners are leading the Royals, 3-0, with one out in the bottom of the eighth. There are runners on first and second. Paxton gets precisely what he needs to escape the jam — a sharp comebacker off the bat of Alcides Escobar — but rather than initiate an inning-ending double play, he makes an underhanded lob to first for the certain out.
The runners advance, then score on Paulo Orlando’s single to center field. Instead of taking a three-run lead into the ninth, it’s a 3-2 nail-biter that ends, well, you know how it ends. It ends with an emphasis on the bite.
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Why didn’t Paxton consider the double play? On his KJR radio show Friday morning, Mitch Levy brought up the question to former Mets general manager Steve Phillips, a frequent Levy guest with reliable insight. Phillips attributed Paxton’s hesitance to a form of “Steve Blass disease,” a mysterious malady that takes its name from a Pittsburgh Pirates ace who suddenly lost his ability to throw strikes.
Blass helped lead Pittsburgh to the 1971 World Series championship with two complete-game victories over the Orioles, and in 1972 was selected to the N.L. All-Star team. And then, seemingly overnight, he couldn’t control where the ball was going.
Blass’ ERA ballooned to 9.85 in 1973 — one advanced metric has determined his ’73 season to be the worst by a pitcher since 1901 — and he spent 1974 in the minor leagues. Nothing worked. He retired the following March.
Blass wasn’t the only big-league player who found it a challenge to throw baseballs with a modicum of accuracy. Retired second baseman Chuck Knoblauch went through similar struggles, as did Steve Sax.
(When Dodgers outfielder Pedro Guerrero was pressed into duty as a third baseman one night, he supposedly said his worst fear was a ball hit to him. His second fear? “I hope they don’t hit the ball to Sax,” Guerrero reportedly said.)
Rick Ankiel was a fireball phenom for the 2000 St. Louis Cardinals, a dual threat because he could hit. Five wild pitches during the third inning of St. Louis’ NLCS opener against the Atlanta Braves began Ankiel’s conversion from pitcher to outfielder.
Mark Wohlers could relate. As a right-handed closer for the Braves, he routinely delivered fastballs over 100 MPH. But Wohlers suffered from the Blass syndrome to the point he once threw a warmup pitch over the net behind home plate.
Paxton’s control hardly was a problem in Kansas City, where he needed only 78 pitches to get through eight innings. His problem was rooted, it seems, in a brain lock that impedes reflexes.
How is it possible for a pitcher, on the brink of shutting out the defending world champs, to lack the confidence to make a short throw from the mound to second base?
Don’t ask me. Please don’t ask me.
As a kid, during the summertime, I played ball all day long and for two hours after dinner. Pickup games at the high-school field down the street remain some of my favorite memories, and when I wasn’t able to round up any friends, I chalked a strike zone on the brick wall of the school and threw a hard rubber ball that came back in two bounces.
Between those wonder years and my participation in adult rec-league softball, when I turned 30, I lost confidence in an elementary exercise, something I had done thousands of times.
“Wanna play catch, Dad?” I can hear my son asking, and I’d say sure. Separated by 60 feet on a sidewalk, he’d toss the ball to me with ease. I’d return the ball as a popup or grounder, anything other than an actual throw.
I still played softball a few nights a week, but came to dread the warmups. I had no idea where the ball would end up.
Such angst had me considering the notion of reinventing myself as a left-hander — just start over, without any baggage — but when the family expanded from one child to three, requiring a shuttle-express driver to practices and rehearsals and recitals, it was a convenient cue to surrender to whatever demonic force that deprived me of the simple pleasure of throwing a ball.
I am not haunted by any of this. OK, I am haunted a little.
I once was able to grip a baseball and aim at a target and more or less hit the target, and then I couldn’t throw the ball within the same area code of the target. What’s up with that?
A few weeks ago, I went to Cheney Stadium on a sunny Sunday afternoon and found a chair in the left-field deck, best seat in the house. I enjoyed the game, but what I especially enjoyed was watching the outfielders toss the ball between innings.
With their slow and casual windups, they exchanged darts. Nothing to it, nothing to it at all.