- NotGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/not -

The Face of a Walk-Off

Two Saturdays ago, I was at the new Buffalo Wild Wings in Madison. They have all these new big screen TVs, and on one of them, the Milwaukee Brewers were playing. Ryan Braun comes up to the plate in the sixth inning with two runners on. I tapped one of my friends at the shoulder, pointed at the TV, and said “Hey, he’s gonna hit a homer.”

Ryan Braun proceeded to a hit a homer.

Am I a genius? Yes. But not because of that. My claim was completely full of shit. But the overzealous home run prediction is a large part of my personal baseball watching experience. Prince Fielder up in an important situation? Home run. George Kottaras up in any situation? Home run. More often than not, I’m wrong, but I am rewarded with just enough confirmation bias and hindsight bias to keep on going.

In the bottom of the eighth inning of Wednesday’s thriller at The Trop, Evan Longoria stepped up to the plate in an utterly crucial situation. The comeback was beginning, as the thinnest part of the Yankee bullpen started to give way. After the Yanks basically handed the Rays three runs, Tampa was just a swing away from making it a one-run game with Longoria coming up.

I predicted a home run.

But this was different. The Rays have been a sputtering offense all year. B.J. Upton has power but rarely makes contact. Matt Joyce has power but is a platoon player (or has at least been used as such). Casey Kotchman is Casey Kotchman. This is the one situation in which the Rays desperately, desperately needed a home run, and the perfect man for the job came to the plate. It didn’t just feel like Longoria might hit a home run. It felt as if there was no other worldly possibility.

Perhaps in hindsight it’s just how quickly my thoughts were validated. Almost as soon as Longoria was settled in the batters box, the ball was over the left field wall. It’s a bit chilling to hear the call.

These are the moments Evan was made for*pitch**crack**gone*.

The Dan Johnson homer in the ninth was different. He steps to the plate, and the images of his 2008 and 2010 heroics come right to the surface. The Tampa Bay Rays are paying him $1,000,000, a veritable king’s ransom for them, and this sort of clutch value in the depths of September is seemingly the only value he provides.

I think home run as Johnson steps into the box, of course, but the confidence doesn’t last long. He looks tentative in taking the first four pitches. He has to fight just to foul pitches off against Cory Freaking Wade. This guy is supposed to be the savior of the Rays’ season?

Even the swing on the home run wasn’t great. Johnson was out ahead of the pitch but just managed to muscle the ball out to the foul pole — not that it isn’t impressive, it just wasn’t the work of art that some home runs are. Did anybody believe it was a home run until it actually hit the foul pole? I certainly didn’t.

Back to Longoria. Again, the situation was perfect for a buildup. What remained of The Trop was going insane as Longoria stepped up for his at-bat in the 12th with the news of Boston’s defeat at Camden Yards. It would only be fitting. And Scott Proctor was pitching. Everybody homers off that bum.

The picture from the top of the page is from mere moments before Longoria’s walk-off, a 2-2 pitch lined just over the left field wall. The ball was hit well, but this was not a home run swing. It was even less of a home run swing than Dan Johnson’s. But once that ball hit that bat, there was no other possibility running through my head than “game over.”

Look at that face again. Could there be more confidence drawn on the face of one baseball player? That is the look of a player who knows he’s going to hit a home run.

Isn’t that a great story? The superstar putting his team on his back, with the utmost confidence in his ability every step of the way? This is what the sports star is supposed to be, who we all wanted to be when we were kids — and let’s not kid ourselves, who we all still want to be.

It’s not that easy, not even for Longoria. Watch the at-bat. Watch his relief as the 1-2 pitch goes for a ball. Look for the tension as he fouls off the first 2-2 pitch, a slider well out of the zone. The exhale before the second 2-2 pitch.

Evan Longoria is one of the most talented men to ever step into a batter’s box. The self-confidence in one’s abilities required to slog through the inevitable slumps of the long, long, long (did I mention they’re long?) seasons of professional baseball without mentally collapsing is tough for most people to fathom. And it isn’t unwavering, even for those who have succeeded past the expectations of any rational person. Like Evan Longoria.

But by the time Longoria sets for Proctor’s next pitch, the look is back. That look of confidence, cockiness, arrogance. Maybe that bit of doubt exists in his head. For us, though, for the fan at home, for the fan in the stands, the doubt is erased.

With the count at 2-2 for the second time, with the game time 7-7 and just one run separating the Rays from the biggest comeback in Major League history, Evan Longoria stepped up to the plate.

I predicted a home run, just as I predicted on pitch number one of the at bat. Just as I predicted on pitch number two. Just as I predicted on pitch number three, and pitch number four, and pitch number five.

On pitch number six, I got my home run. Exactly like I predicted.