How a Nationals groundskeeper helped win the Wild Card Game

A snake in the grass bit the Brewers...

The good thing about having your own blog is you get to write when you feel like it and pick your own subject. The bad thing about having your own blog is Major League Baseball does not issue press passes to bloggers; otherwise, we’d all start blogs and get what amounts to the world’s best season ticket.

So that means I can’t use my press pass – issued because I also write for the Kansas City Star – to acquire material for a blog.

Got it?

Good, because it can get confusing. What follows is what I saw, sitting on my couch last night, watching the National League Wild Card Game on TV and I’m writing just because I feel like it and it’s October and you’re just going to have to put up with my obsession with baseball for the next month.

I’ll do my best to make it entertaining, even if you’re not a baseball fan.

And away we go.

The NL Wild Card Game

Lately baseball has sucked because the game is obsessed with home runs which means players are swinging out their collective asses and that approach leads to strikeouts.

Strikeouts – and there were a shit ton of them again this year – mean fewer balls in play and that means lack of action.

Despite the fact that all the runs came on homers up until the eighth inning and both sides combined for 18 strikeouts — three full innings where nothing happened — last night’s NL Wild Card Game was pretty damn exciting.  

The Nationals beat the Brewers and this morning I have mixed feelings.

Here’s why.

I’ve known Nationals first base coach Tim Bogar for about 30 years (met him when he was in the minors) and we still talk on a regular basis. Really good guy who taught me a lot about baseball.

But…

I also know Brewers players Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain – both good guys – so I would also like to see them do well, all of which brings up an interesting point: aren’t people in the media supposed to be neutral? No cheering in the press box and all that shit?

That certainly sounds good and those of us in the media like to say it, but it isn’t very realistic.

These days everybody in the media is dependent on page views or clicks or engagement time or whatever the latest way of measuring reader engagement is lately, so if a writer wants to stay employed he better hope the team he’s covering does well.

When the Royals were going to back-to-back World Series, lots of page views; after back-to-back 100 loss seasons, not so much.

Plus, it’s completely unrealistic to expect a reporter to spend eight or nine months dealing with a coach or player and not develop some kind of feeling about him, either positive or negative.

And the guy I was really pulling for was TBS announcer Jeff Francoeur because I have told Frenchy I believe it’s only a matter of time until he drops an F-Bomb on live TV. So far, so good and I wish him luck with that endeavor even though the lack of profanity probably cuts his vocabulary by a good 30 percent.

So with all that out of that background information out of the way, let’s break down the play that changed the game.

Juan Soto’s bases-loaded single

Going into the eighth inning the Brewers had everything lined up for a win. Milwaukee had a 3-1 lead and reliever Josh Hader on the mound. Two shutdown innings and the Brewers would be drinking champagne.

In the eighth Hader struck out Victor Robles, hit Michael Taylor, struck out Trea Turner, allowed a broken bat single to Ryan Zimmerman and walked Anthony Rendon. For those of you with ADD, that’s two-outs and the bases loaded, Juan Soto at the plate.

The Rendon walk pushed the tying run into scoring position (pinch runner Andrew Stevenson) which was a big mistake because it put the Nats a single away from tying the game. Make Rendon swing the bat and the Nats would be two singles from tying the game and if Rendon hits one into the cheap seats you live with it.

Hader threw a high fastball to Soto, didn’t get it high enough and Soto hit what should have been a game-tying single to right field.

Route efficiency and snakes in the grass

To understand what happened next requires some ‘splainin’ which is why I decided to write about baseball again this morning; this behind the scenes stuff is interesting.

The Washington Nationals use a checkerboard cut in the outfield and the reason you can see those checkerboard squares is the grass is laying or lying (whatever the right word is) one way on the dark sections and the other way on the lighter sections.

What you’re actually seeing are shadows and reflected light.

The grain of the grass lying in opposite directions means the ball bounces differently each time it hits a different section; ballplayers refer to this as “snaking.” If the grass is cut using one of those “rays of sunshine” patterns and a batted ball stays within one of those rays, it will continue to bounce true, so outfielders need to pay attention to the grass they’re standing on.

With a checkerboard pattern the ball is slightly shifting left and right as it travels forward so an outfielder needs to field the ball “squared up” so he can react to his left or right depending on what the ball does as it snakes toward him.

That brings us to route efficiency.

Route efficiency is a horseshit number thought up by guys who don’t play baseball and have made the mistake of assuming a straight line is the best route to a ball.

It’s not.

Outfielders want to run curved routes – they used to be called “banana routes” no idea what they call them now – making their lateral move first and then turning toward the infield once they’re lined up with the ball. That way the outfielder arrives squared up.

Go back and watch the replay and you’ll see Soto’s ball hit and bounce slightly toward right center.

Brewers right fielder Trent Grisham did not get squared up in time — he ran too direct a route — so when the ball took a bounce to his right, Grisham was still moving to his left. The ball got past him and that allowed three runs to score instead of two and – boom – there’s your ballgame.

BTW: Soto screwed up when he got caught trying to make it to third base; with two outs he should have stayed at second and given the Nats another AB with a runner in scoring position.

If the Brewers had come back everyone would be making a big deal out that baserunning mistake, but they didn’t so Soto is a hero instead of a goat.

And so is the guy who decided to use a checkerboard cut in the Nats’ outfield.

Talk to you again next time something interesting happens in the playoffs.