In 1994, former Mets’ great Keith Hernandez published a personal favorite of mine called “Pure Baseball.” In it, Hernandez insightfully dissected baseball strategy and nuances from the perspective of a knowledgeable spectator attending two Mets games.
Today Hernandez works as TV color analyst for the Mets. Interested in a few more Hernandez baseball insights, I watched the WPIX New York broadcast of all four recent Cubs-Mets games (via MLB.TV). And rewarded I was, especially in the last game Sunday when the most interesting and exciting play of the series happened.
Here’s a transcription of Hernandez and Gary Cohen’s fascinating call of Javier Baez’s pivotal steal of home in the 7th inning. The run broke a scoreless tie, as well as 15 consecutive shutout innings by Mets left-hander Steven Matz.
With no outs, the Cubs had Baez on third and Willson Contreras on first, with Matz throwing to Mets catcher Kevin Plawecki. The key sequence started with Contreras’ bluffing a steal of second. Contreras’ seemingly aggressive maneuver certainly raised my eyebrow, as it did the Mets broadcasting team.
Cohen: There goes the runner [Contreras] from first. He starts and stops. Plawecki thought about throwing behind Contreras, who took about three or four steps toward second base before slamming on the breaks.
Hernandez: Now Contreras is not a speedster. He cannot be stealing a base here. It’s first and third. What is he doing?
Hernandez’s tone here was cantankerous. It was as if he was thinking, “What is this young punk doing? Doesn’t he appreciate the game situation? No outs, 0-0 game. It’s all about plating Baez from third.” But just before Matz made his fateful pickoff throw to first, you hear Hernandez’s ever insightful baseball mind just about predict what happens next.
Cohen: Thought for sure Plawecki was going to throw behind [Contreras].
Hernandez: Hmm. Is [Contreras] trying to…
Boom. Just like that Hernandez had figured it out, but it was too late. Everything then moved fast.
Cohen: Now pickoff at first. Breaking for the plate Baez! And he steals home! And the Cubs take the lead on a steal of home by Javy Baez.
Hernandez: Oh, that was a designed play, Gary. You see Baez giving the high five and pointing to Contreras. That was a conceived play alright. There was no intent to steal by Contreras… That is really a well-designed play right there.
The call by the Cubs TV announcers on ABC-7 wasn’t bad either. Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies didn’t reflect on the oddness of Contreras’ fake steal. But after Baez scored, color man Jim Deshaies added the detail that the play seemed straight out of the playbook of former Cubs manager Don Zimmer.
“I know that’s a Don Zimmer play because he did it against me when I was pitching against the Cubs many years ago. He didn’t invent it, but Zim was always very creative and aggressive on the bases,” he said.
I would have loved more from Deshaies on Zimmer’s other creative plays, as well as some extra details about the play that tricked him, but he and Kasper didn’t linger. However, the steal play so fascinated Hernandez he made a rare on-air camera request to his production truck.
Hernandez: I’d like to see that play again, if we get a chance guys, from Camera 2 up here, overhead. The whole view of the infield. I would be open to see how that whole play transpired.
When the Camera 2 replay came on, Hernandez dissected the play just as he would have in “Pure Baseball.”
He and Cohen noted the importance of the left-handed Matz having his back to Baez. Hernandez noted another key being the Mets’ Jose Bautista playing third base at a regular defensive depth far off the bag. This allowed Baez to get a 15-foot lead before breaking to the plate on Matz’s first move.
The radio calls by both teams also nicely captured this pivotal play. Being radio, the emphasis was not on describing the video but more about capturing the drama and providing an in-game narrative.
On the WSCR Chicago call, Baez’s steal of home came suddenly. Pat Hughes was at first leisurely noting, “The Cubs bullpen well-rested today.” But then suddenly a rush of action. “Baez heads to the plate! The throw to first! Baez steals home!”
Ron Coomer immediately noted it was a set play, adding, “The Cubs steal, literally steal, a run at home plate.” Then after Contreras’ smart tag up on a shallow fly ball, “That’s as good a [base-running] inning as you’re ever going to see a ball club have in a tight ball game. If you are Matz, you have to feel ambushed, don’t you?”
On WOR-AM, Mets announcer Josh Lewin provided this interesting take after Baez scored: “Playing possum indeed. Javier Baez, when he got to first base, looked like he was going to need medical attention. He was limping around, and then he breaks for the plate as Matz throws to first.”
The Mets announcers also wondered aloud who may have called the Baez steal. Lewin wondered if Cubs third base coach Brian Butterfield had coaxed Baez to take more steps and go for it. When the WPIX TV feed cut-away to Joe Maddon, Hernandez quipped, “Now is that the genius there, Joe Maddon?”
But both Hernandez and Lewin were probably incorrect. The Cubs ABC-7 broadcast showed several reaction shots of the Cubs bench. Right after the play, we see Anthony Rizzo and other players and coaches mobbing and bouncing around bench coach Brandon Hyde as if celebrating a walk-off homer.
After the game, Maddon coyly avoided providing too many details. He just said they practice such plays in spring training. Baez suggested he called the play and had signaled to Contreras.
Of course, success can have many chefs. So perhaps all of the above deserve credit.
What’s without dispute is the steal of home and the Contreras later tag were extremely winning plays. Pure baseball. The kind of plays title-contending teams need to grind out victories in tough pitchers duels, like Sunday’s Matz/Jon Lester struggle.
With their many injuries, the Mets may fade from playoff contention, but the entire four-game series was smothered in playoff-like tension. Just what this Cubs team may have needed most to jostle itself out of its first two months of wavering focus and up-and-down results.
But Keith Hernandez deserves final word here. As probably every contending team will do today, he continued to mull over Baez’s steal play. In this way, he gave it perhaps the biggest compliment of all – that of studied attention.
Cohen: How do you counteract that?
Hernandez: That’s a snake play. I have not seen that play in my career. That’s the first time. That’s a heckuva play. I like it. The third baseman has to be tighter, but you are playing back. If corner infield positions were in to cut the runner off at the plate, instead of playing [back] for the double play, then you can’t run that play because Baez can’t come down that line that far.