I debated whether I really wanted to do a post like this after a day of baseball like that which we endured on Wednesday. It's been an awful, terrible stumble down the AL West staircase over the last 7-10 days, one that culminated in a gut-wrenching finish for the team whose divisional magic number started at two on Monday and will now forever be two, and dwelling on it further probably isn't very healthy.
I also want to be clear about the fact that there are more things that went awry in this game than that subject of which I am about to speak. Ryan Dempster was bad, lasting just three innings in a must-win game (and, in the process, failing to generate much excitement about any additional post-season starts he may end up making), and neither Derek Holland nor Alexi Ogando managed to help matters out of the bullpen. There were three errors that led to four unearned runs. The top of the lineup mustered a 2-for-13 showing at the plate. Legitimate scoring opportunities came and went. It was a horrendous, infuriating look from a team that we know to be capable of so much better than what we've seen of late.
But there's one play that I feel strangely compelled to write about -- the play that, as it unfolded live, stopped ten thousand hearts dead in their tracks.
With runners on first and second base and two out in the bottom of the fourth inning of a 5-5 game, Yoenis Cespedes popped a hanging 3-1 Derek Holland slider into short center field, and the following ensued:
Both runners scored on what was scored as a two-base error on Hamilton's ledger, and the Rangers fell behind 7-5, as the Athletics scored their fifth and sixth unanswered runs after the Rangers had actually built a 5-1 lead during the top of the third inning. Oakland went on to score 11 unanswered runs in total, and the Rangers lost by a final margin of 12-5, thereby ceding any measure of control of the AL West lead for the first time since April 8th.
I think the table pretty clearly lays out just what happened here, but just so we're all clear on this -- the difference between the game state that would have resulted if Hamilton had caught the ball and the one that resulted when he didn't catch the ball is equal to a 29-30 percent swing in win expectancy. You'll find that this matches up with the FanGraphs win expectancy chart within a margin of about one-tenth of one percent. In other words, that error roughly improved the Athletics' chances of winning the game -- and the division title -- by 29-30 percent. A gigantic, calamitous swing.
The Aftermath (click to animate)
"I just missed it, man," Hamilton said. "I didn't break down on it like I needed to. When you run a long way in like that, you're supposed to break down on your toes so you can get there and if it moves on you, you can make the adjustment. I didn't. I kept going and it came down and I didn't catch it. It sucks."
After the inning, television cameras caught manager Ron Washington in what appeared to be a lively conversation with Hamilton. "I just asked him what happened and he told me," said [Ron] Washington, who didn't want to get into specifics. Hamilton said it was not a heated exchange: "[Wash's] always animated. He asked me what happened and I told him. That's Wash. Wash is animated. Even when he's out there talking to an umpire, you think he's cussing him out but he's just having a conversation with him. That's just Wash."
Hamilton said the sun did not impact him on the ball and that he saw it the whole way. "You know you've got a high sky here, it takes a little more concentration, a little more of being aware," Hamilton said.
We may look back at this play in five, ten, twenty years, and still not be able to fully comprehend or come to grips with what happened on this play. We still recoil with horror when we're forced back into that place where Nelson Cruz couldn't quite make the catch to end last year's World Series, but that was more a matter of a poor read and cruddy route on a deep drive than the glaringly obvious lapse in ... in ... in something that transpired on the Hamilton error. I just can't wrap my head around what happened here. I'm not sure I ever will. I'm not sure I want to, either.
There are those who will make the argument that the error ultimately didn't matter, because the Rangers did not manage to score after the error occurred anyway, and, thus, were doomed regardless of whether he caught the ball or not. That is not the correct way to look upon this, and, if you think about the win expectancy matrix, it implicitly makes sense that the error mattered. The error shifted the space-time continuum, and the fact that the Athletics took the lead in that spot affected all pitches, all at-bats, and all outcomes that followed relative to the alternate timeline where Hamilton caught the ball and the game remained knotted at 5-5 going into the fifth inning. When the past changes, the future changes. You don't assume that everything will play out exactly the same.
And, no, the Rangers don't necessarily win Game 162 if Hamilton catches that ball. The fact that he didn't catch the ball, however, placed a enormous dent in their chances of winning, and that's the thing that (a) frustrates us to no end, and (b) leaves us somewhat wary of where he really is right now in terms of his ability to competently play the outfield. How much does Ron Washington and the rest of the dugout really trust him right now? In theory, it was just a horrible, terrible mistake that isn't going to happen again, but is there some underlying cause behind that error that should leave us concerned about whether he's going to do that again? That's something else I haven't yet come to terms with.
Hamilton was also bad at the dish yesterday, going 1-for-5 with three strikeouts, and even though he hit very well during September/October on the whole, his late-month downturn (.262/.295/.429 from September 24th to the end, including two walks against 18 strikeouts in 44 plate appearances), the ocular keratitis incident, and yesterday's events make for a pretty miserable ending to a season that vacillated between Hall of Fame-caliber and sub-replacement level ... a season where public opinion has swung violently back and forth for a multitude of reasons, and now finally seems to be settling on "yeah, peace out Josh." I suspect both the Rangers and the fan base at large are ready to move on, and for legitimately good reason. I don't want particularly want Josh to come back, either.
If this is going to be the end of the line of Josh Hamilton in Texas, though, I can only hope that he has enough left in the tank to help keep this team alive as long as it possibly can stay alive. That is, after all, one of the beautiful things about sports: today's goat is tomorrow's hero. And regardless of how you may feel about Josh Hamilton or his personal/professional life or the melodrama or anything else remotely associated with him, you know deep down that you don't want it to end like this.