Baseball, folks say, is a game of inches. The small stuff matters.
At about 8:56pm Eastern Daylight Time, I was halfway through a morning-after rant. It would question the post-season prospects of a team that doesn't seem to consistently sweat the small stuff. A team that scores five off an opposing starter who's obviously struggling with his stuff, forcing him to throw 57 pitches in his first three innings -- only to let him off the hook by swinging at bad balls and first offerings, seeing all of 10 pitches in each the next two frames. A team that fails to support its own struggling starter, committing two awful errors behind him, and misplaying still another ball into a triple. A team with batters who seemingly refuse to take a walk (or even to adjust to an umpire's calls), even as its pitchers appear to develop allergies to the strike zone at the worst possible moments. A team that continues to befuddle opponents and observers alike on the base paths.
A litany of still more small stuff was yet to come. Vladimir Guerrero and Josh Hamilton hit seeing-eye singles to right against Tigers' reliever Robbie Weinhardt in the sixth, and Nelson Cruz followed with a bad-hop RBI single over short to bring home what, in a perfect world, would've proved to be the improbable winning run. Instead, though, an infield single, a Young error, a Jackson walk, and a run for the Tigers evened the score in the bottom of the eighth.
And then: Young's infield single in the Rangers' half of the ninth -- which, along with Jackson's error on a Vladimir Guerrero pop-up and Cruz's subsequent walk, were rendered meaningless by Chris Davis' futile at-bat with the bases loaded. And the Tigers returned the favor in the bottom of the eleventh. And so on, and so on.
All of which was merely prelude to Cruz's heroics in the top of the 14th. Much more dramatic than a bad-hop single, but still small stuff in its own way, given that his game-winning home run traveled all of 340 feet. Game of inches.
As baseball fans, we know this is how it goes. The countless decisions, plays made, calls missed: they add up through the hours of each game, through the thousands of hours of a season. To get hung up on any one decision, any one play, any one call, is to sacrifice the tapestry for the thread. We know this, but because of the nature of the game, we obsessively tug at each strand, trying to figure out how it fits into the warp and weave -- how it takes its place in the fabric of the sport. We think about it, we argue about it, we write about it. Ceaselessly. It's our pastime.
So if nothing other than mainly frustrating but ultimately winning Rangers baseball had played out after 8:56pm Eastern Daylight Time, I most likely would've canned this piece, rather than posting it. Morning-after rants just aren't that satisfying, in the end, and it's an especially bad idea to start writing them in the midst of a middle-inning meltdown.
But that's not all that happened. Because at about 8:57 p.m., Austin Jackson lined a ball back up the middle against Rangers reliever Dustin Nippert.
It looks innocent, if odd, as line in the MLB Gameday play-by-play:
"Austin Jackson doubles (23) on a line drive to left-fielder Josh Hamilton, deflected by pitcher Dustin Nippert."
A double deflected by the pitcher: strange, maybe, but not especially remarkable. Unless you were watching the game, and had your heart rise into your throat as the line drive in question deflected not off Dustin Nippert's glove or foot, but his skull -- ricocheting into shallow left. Where Michael Young collected it and ran without pause to the mound to check on his teammate's condition. Where the Rangers' trainers joined the full squad of fielders, even before the play had come to a full halt.
Fortunately, we can insert any jokes we might want to make about Dustin Nippert's thick skull here. The lanky right-hander never lost consciousness, and was able to walk off the field with minimal assistance just a couple minutes after everyone converged on the mound. Nippert actually appeared to be trying to convince various people to let him stay in the game, and left with a smile. And about 90 minutes later, news came that Nippert's CAT scan was negative. What first looked like disaster seemed as if would instead be a strange-but-harmless incident in a frequently strange game midway through a frequently strange season.
But I have a hard time simply relegating what happened to a footnote. There's unlikely to be as much written about it, but Nippert's close call, following so near on the heels of July 6th's falling fan incident, gave me pause. It was the second time in two weeks that I was, at first take, convinced that I had watched someone die at a baseball game -- the second time in two weeks that I was forced to reflect on just how little the small stuff in baseball really matters, when the stakes get raised.
According to the very limited biographical information I can find online, the 29-year old Nippert has a wife and two young children. He's got a twin brother, and he likes to hunt whitetail deer. To be honest, that's about all I could find about him on short notice, outside of basic demographic information, scouting reports, transaction notes, and stats. Maybe Nippert would prefer it that way.
But as I close up shop on the heels of an 8-6 win that put the Rangers five full games ahead of the Angels in the AL West, I just can't quite get the image of Jackson's line drive hitting Nippert in his head out of my head. I can't quite stop myself from dreading what a few inches might've wrought.
It was another reminder that in the end, the small stuff is, in fact, just that.
Game of inches.