There is Joy in Mudville - Sometimes

Is there anything more exciting than a baseball ‘walk-off’ win? The home team is either tied or behind in its last at-bat. The batter causes the winning run to be scored and the team walk-offs the field as a winner.

Ernest Thayer’s famous baseball poem, ‘Casey at the Bat’ describes the opportunity for a walk-off hit.  It is the ninth inning and the Mudville team is down two runs.

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,

Walk-off wins are more common than you might think. In 2017, a walk-off occurred 204 times, in about 8% of the games played. 108 of those walk-offs, a bit more than half, happened in the bottom of the ninth, the rest in extra innings. The average team gets about seven per year. Baltimore had twelve walk-off victories, the most, while Houston, the world champion, had the least, three.

Back to the poem. Casey is Mudville’s best hitter, but there are two outs, and two men in the lineup ahead of him – Flynn and Blake. They need to get on base to give Casey his chance for a walk-off. And they do:

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despised, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

There are many ways a walk-off can occur. The most common is a single. The score is tied, there is a man on second or third, batter hits a single, runner scores, game over. The next most common is a homerun. If hit with a tie score, it’s a game winner. But sometimes there is more drama. In September 2017, the second-place Yankees were playing Baltimore, trying to catch first-place Boston. The Yankees score six in the third taking a 6-2 lead. Baltimore narrows the lead but is still down 6–5 entering the bottom of the ninth. All-star Yankee reliever Dellin Betances comes in to seal the victory and gets the first two outs. But he walks the next batter bringing up the Orioles Manny Machado. Who proceeds to hit a 2-run walk-off homerun for a 7-6 Orioles victory. This wasn’t Machado’s only walk-off of the season – he had three of them, all walk-off homeruns. The only player with more walk-off hits in 2017?  His teammate Mark Trumbo had four of them.

Back in Mudville, with men on second and third base, Casey comes up to the plate. A single would just tie the game, to get a walk-off win he is going to need a homerun. After taking strike one, the second pitch arrives:

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew;
But Casey still ignored it and the umpire said, “Strike two!”

Sometimes a walk-off can be a fluke. It’s the battle of Los Angeles, June 28, 2017. The Angels have a 2–0 lead over the Dodgers, but they hit solo shots in the eighth and ninth innings to tie the game 2–2. With one out in the bottom of the ninth, the Angels get a man on second base following an error and passed ball. The next man up, Cameron Maybin strikes out. But the ball gets by the catcher, Yasmani Grandal, who now must throw to first to complete the out. And, sure enough, he makes a wild throw into the outfield allowing the runner to score the game winner from second. Thus, Maybin gets a walk-off strikeout! How about the walk-off hit-by-pitch? Tie score, bases loaded, two outs on 8/31/2017: the White Sox pitcher hits the Minnesota Twins batter for a walk-off Twins win.

Now Casey wants to win the game for Mudville. He is going to swing for the game winning walk-off three-run homerun with a two-strike count on him:

The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate;
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.

Growing up, the heroic fantasy is to come up to hit in the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, two outs, 3 balls, 2 strikes count, tie score. And you imagine hitting that walk-off grand slam home run. It does happen. Last April, the Toronto Blue Jays were playing the Cardinals in Saint Louis. The Blue Jays had a 4–2 lead going into the bottom of the ninth, but the Cardinals tied it on a 2-run shot. The game goes into the eleventh inning. With the bases loaded, Matt Carpenter faces Toronto pitcher J. Howell. With a 3-2 count, he hits a grand slam walk-off.

Steve Pearce, a journeyman player with Toronto, had a walk-off moment last year. Actually, two of them. On 7/27/2017 Toronto is at home against Oakland. In the bottom of the tenth inning, Toronto is batting, score is tied. Oakland walks the bases loaded, never a good idea. Pearce comes up for Toronto, fouls off two pitches, takes three balls, and with a full count hits the grand slam walk-off. Three days later, Toronto is at home against the Angels and trailing 10–4 in the bottom of the ninth. Toronto rallies to close the deficit to 10–7 and loads the bases with Pearce coming up. He hits his second walk-off grand slam in three days. Pearce is one of only three players to have two walk-off grand slams in a career (the others are equally obscure players).  This is the ultimate grand slam, a walk-off that erases a three-run deficit! Quite rare although someone on the Chicago baseball team that plays in Wrigley field hit one in August, 2018 for a 4–3 win.

One of the beauties of baseball is the lack of a game clock. In other sports, it is rare to get a walk-off winner, because there usually will be some time left for the other team. The famous ‘Paxson for three’ that won the Bulls NBA championship in 1993 occurred with 3.9 seconds left on the clock; Phoenix still had a chance to win. There were 5.2 seconds left when Michael Jordan made his last shot as a Chicago Bull, the shot than won the championship against Utah in 1998. ‘The Catch’ launched Joe Montana’s and the San Francisco 49’ers football dynasty of the 1980’s, but that touchdown was scored with 51 seconds left on the clock. With game breaks and timeouts, the game itself was not completed for another five minutes. A dramatic victory, but not a walk-off. The clock did expire on Doug Flutie’s famous 1984 Hail Mary touchdown pass, making it a true walk-off football win.

Back to Casey, is he able to deliver the walk-off hit for the Mudville nine?

Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.

And the answer is no.