THE NFL has the Wildcat. Not to be outdone, MLB has enlivened the National and American League Championship Series with the Wildthrow.
Errant heaves by middle infielders, no less, those paragons of unerring precision and game-altering improvisation. Who can forget, for instance, Chase Utley's startling improv in the seventh inning of Game 5 on last year's World Series? He turned an infield single by Akinori Iwamura into a third out at home with a Jeteresque play that nailed Jason Bartlett, who assumed the second baseman would throw to first and tried to score from second.
But those ad-libbed plays are to baseball what a great horn solo is to jazz, bright notes that seem to come from nowhere.
It's the routine plays that cause the trouble, the ones that perhaps could be executed with more "routineness" if the pastime's warriors had not decided close to a generation ago that a timeless ritual known simply as "infield" was one pregame ritual too many. Phantom doubleplay turns and rocket one-hop throws to each base by each outfielder were eventually replaced by film study. There are courses at UCLA's renowned school of film, theater and television that involve less video analysis than today's ballplayers practice before, during and after games.
They like to watch . . .
And precision has suffered.
In the wake of back-to-back doubleplay launches by Utley in Games 1 and 2 that managed to elude Ryan Howard by a total of about 10 yards and a wilder-than-the-weekend-weather toss to nobody in particular that frosted the Angels' goose in the bottom of the 13th in Ice Station Ruth, it was nice to see a return to some fundamental normalcy in The Bank last night.
Not that the wildly careening postseason plots needed much more synopsis than the long-awaited offensive breakout by Charlie Manuel's ticking time bomb of an offense.
But after pounding Joe Torre's puzzling choice of Hiroki Kuroda - fresh from mowing 'em down in an Arizona Fall League rehab - for a first inning four-spot on the way to an embarrassingly easy, 11-0, wipeout of the Dodgers in pivotal Game 3, it was good to see the return of some defensive routine-acity. If that wasn't a word, it is now.
It came from, of all people, Ryan Howard, who was the lungee on Utley's first misfire and a helpless spectator on the Game 2 launch. The Big Piece was so startled he almost forgot to run after a ball that might have rolled downhill to City Hall had a ballpark not been in the way.
There is no quit in these Dodgers. They went right after the superb Cliff Lee in the top of the second. Manny Ramirez ended a patient at-bat with a single to center. Then Matt Kemp, jammed badly, lined weakly to Utley. James Loney pulled a ball over first and I was one of around 45,000 exclaimers of, "Uh, oh" or, "Oh, no." This is the play where Ryan displays both the run and sink he would have had on his fastball had he chosen pitching baseballs instead of knocking them lopsided. It is the play where Jimmy Rollins has arrived at second many times at the same time the baseball is deciding to visit Raul Ibanez in left.
But Howard must have grabbed Loney's shot across four seams. He made a flawless transfer and threw without haste - it was Manny running, after all - that bisected the bag with geometric perfection. Then he smoothly retreated to the bag for a return throw from J-Roll, completing a textbook 3-6-3 doubleplay.
What a thing . . .
Since the airwaves, chat rooms and message boards had been overflowing with hand-wringing concern over Utley's sudden lack of command on a DP pivot he has made adequately, if not with the flair of a Manny Trillo or Manuel's Indians prodigy, Robby Alomar, we anxiously awaited his first chance.
Was this the next Chuck Knoblauch? Or were the LA misadventures the result of, first, a Rollins hitch on his transfer that skewed the delicate timing of the 6-4 connection; then, by a conspiracy of sliding Ronnie Belliard throwing his left arm skyward as he hit the dirt and the lattice of shadows that had enveloped half the infield on a blazingly hot afternoon when the sky was higher than Balloon Boy?
With two outs in the fourth, the Phils coasting 6-0, Andre Ethier chopped a ball weakly to Utley's left, a bouncer that defines "routine." Chase made a "routine" pickup, loaded, threw. Oops. The throw short-hopped the Big Piece, who "routinely" picked it.
There was a nice bit of "back-atcha" on Chase's next chance. One out in the fifth, Manny on with just the second hit off Lee, Loney once again the hitter. Utley ranged to his left to track his bouncer, spun and threw an emphatic strike to Rollins for another force on Manny. Loney and Ramirez should get at least studio scale for nonspeaking bit parts.
It was 44 degrees at the Eagles' nearby NovaCare complex, where the flags flew at half staff, when Utley handled chance No. 4. The Phils' lead had swelled to 8-0 and five of their eight hits had gone deep into the shrubbery, split the power alleys or caromed off a fence. After Belliard led off the seventh with the Dodgers' third hit, a single to right, Ethier again bounced weakly to the right side. With no DP chance, Chase flipped routinely to his shortstop. No. 5, again routine, retired Rafe Furcal.
"The play's the thing," a melancholy Dane named Hamlet once concluded.
The Phillies amended that last night with a statement game. A rare laugher.
The thing was the play . . . the routine play for a welcome change.
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