Angel Pagan, the switch-hitting leadoff batter for the Giants, one of the swiftest outfielders in the game, takes a short lead off first base and tries to ignore his inner dialogue about base stealing while keeping his focus on the pitcher. Angel has reached first base with one out in the bottom of the seventh inning by beating out a slow roller to third. The Giants are trailing the Padres one to nothing. This would be, as everyone in the ballpark knows, the ideal time for Angel to steal a bag and get into scoring position. However, despite his blazing speed, Angel has had little success as a stealer of bases.
Quackenbush, the Padres relief pitcher, a hefty right-hander with a decent pickoff move, hates throwing to first because it messes with his mechanics. Angel knows of Quackenbush’s aversion to throwing to first because Roberto Kelly, the Giants’ first base coach, just reminded Angel of said aversion while Angel was taking off his batting gloves after safely reaching first. Thus informed, Angel widens his lead, though not enough to tempt the reluctant Quackenbush.
Quackenbush’s first pitch to Joe Panik, the Giants second baseman, is an 80-mile-an-hour slider right down the middle, Joe taking all the way to give Angel a chance to steal. But Angel isn’t going anywhere. Strike one.
Angel returns to first base, toes the bag, and waits for Roberto to give him a sign or a bit of advice. But Roberto keeps his distance and barely makes eye contact, which Angel interprets as Roberto implying ‘If I’d had your speed when I was playing I would have stolen a hundred bags a year,’ though that is not at all the sort of thing Roberto would actually say.
Angel takes his lead again, and Gyorko, the Padres’ first baseman, positions himself at the bag in readiness to take a throw from Quackenbush. Gyorko taps his glove and smirks at Angel as if to say ‘Go on. Stretch out that lead. Quack’s got a better pickoff move than you think.’
During batting practice, none other than the legendary Willie Mays approached Angel and said, “I got a bet with Cepeda says you steal 20 more bags this year once you get your timing down.”
‘Timing’ thinks Angel, unaware that he is slowly shaking his head as he watches Quackenbush come set. ‘It’s not about timing. It’s about trusting my instincts.’
Panik, having failed miserably as a switch-hitter in high school, only bats from the left side and rarely hits for power. He is, however, an excellent contact hitter and against a finesse pitcher like Quackenbush looks to pull the ball. Having double checked with Giants third base coach Tim Flannery that he has permission to swing away, Panik turns his full attention to the pitcher and tells himself not to swing at anything except something off-speed on the inner half of the plate. Panik has no problem with Angel staying put at first because Angel is so fast he can score from first on a deep single and trot home if Panik hits one to the wall.
Angel takes his role as leadoff man very seriously, some might say too seriously. In practice, he steals bases with ease, whether the pitcher and catcher know he’s going to steal or not. But in games, doubt makes him tentative and devours those precious tenths of seconds that make the difference between Safe and Out. For Angel there is nothing more humiliating than being tagged out while trying to steal.
In the dugout, Bruce Bochy, the Giants skipper, scratches the gray stubble on his spacious chin and ponders whether or not to signal Roberto to signal Angel to steal, knowing that commanding Angel to steal always makes Angel give away his intention by rising onto his toes and holding his hands out to the sides like a kid pretending to fly. So Bochy decides not to command anyone to do anything and hope that Panik knocks a single or better.
Meanwhile, from his seat eleven rows up behind first base, 81-year-old Willie Mays, one of the greatest base stealers of all time, gazes intently at Angel and suddenly realizes why Angel has so much trouble deciding whether and when to go. ‘He’s trying to figure things out with his head instead of letting the momentum of the game carry him.’
And in the split second after Quackenbush checks Angel and begins his pitching motion, Angel takes off, the pitch way too high for Panik to swing at, Angel beating the throw with ease and springing up from his slide to stand atop the second base bag like he’s king of the mountain.
What was that? wonders Angel. How did I suddenly know?
(Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com.)