A day in Reserve
My wife decided to buy tickets a month before the Dodgers game on September 12, 2021. We picked a Sunday match so that our children could do the "Kids Run the Bases" event that's scheduled after the game on most Sundays at Dodger Stadium. The Padres had just fallen out of contention to win the division, but still have an exciting roster. On Friday and Saturday, the Dodgers won fairly close games to set up a sweep.
Starting for the Padres was Blake Snell, who dominated the Dodgers in the 2020 World Series and was memorably pulled in the sixth inning of game six. He was a Tampa Bay Ray at the time, but San Diego traded to get him in the off-season as a part of the National League West arms race in southern California.
Earlier in the season, Los Angeles acquired Max Scherzer (and, oh by the way, MVP-candidate Trea Turner) to simultaneously strengthen their rotation1 and block the Padres from getting him. Unfortunately, the Dodgers lost most of Clayton Kershaw's season to injury and Dustin May had surgery back in May.2 So Scherzer's arm, rented for the second half, could not have been more welcome. He was scheduled to start the game just 6 strikeouts away from reaching 3,000 for his career. So it turned out we'd picked an excellent game to attend.
Our day started as a normal Sunday going to church. Before heading to Chavez Ravine, we grabbed some In-N-Out and ordered takeout from an Indian place for the vegetarian in the family. No need to add over-priced hot dogs3 to our tab. Traffic wasn't terrible and I was feeling good about getting to our seats on time. Unfortunately our parking spot was on the outer reaches of the lot. To make matters worse, my daughter's blue and white pom-poms were not allowed in the stadium. So I hurried back to the car and heard the pregame as I returned to the stadium.
Dodger Stadium recently got a renovation that gives fans access to pretty much all areas no matter where their seats might be. So I walked around the first base field level watching the top of the first. Scherzer started off with a strikeout to Trent Grisham. 5 to go for his 3k milestone. Next two batters quickly out on fly balls and I climbed up the stairs to the Reserve level.
I reached our seats in time to see Mookie Betts foul a ball off the ledge a section or two closer to home plate. My son had taken my glove when I ran back to the car and the rest of the family hadn't made it to our seats yet. That was the closest a foul ball would get to us. Left-handed batters have their back to our seats and right-handed batters would have needed to swing very late to get into our section of the second deck. Still, there's something comfortable about taking a glove to a game even if there's no real chance to use it.
Snell seemed to be on his game and got Betts and Max Muncy out on fly balls. The crowd, including my family, was still finding their seats. Seemed like we were in for a pitchers' dual. And then, well it's always hard to tell from the stands what's going on when player substitutions happen. All I could see was the Padres manager taking out Snell and bringing in a new pitcher. Clearly this was an injury since the new pitcher, Nabil Crismatt, was given plenty of time warm up. Meanwhile, my family arrived having walked the long way around the stadium.
We'd tried to find a place that would get shade most of the game when we'd picked out seats. Sure enough our row was in the shade as we got settled. But as I looked up, I realized we'd be in the sun all afternoon if it peeked over the edge of the upper deck. It did and we were forced to slather on sunscreen and sweated puddles from the third inning on. Occasional breezes gave moments of relief.
After the pitching change Trea Turner was up with two outs. He promptly singled and stole second. We don't get as much of that sort of action these days compared to the 80s when I started watching the game. A stolen base is one of the more exciting plays to see in person because you can see the instant the runner makes his break. On TV, the first indication is that the catcher starts to prepare to throw down even before receiving the pitch. From the stands, you can experience the entire play from the lead to the jump to fielders moving in the infield to other fans noticing the attempt.
With one Turner in scoring position, Justin Turner had a chance to drive in the first run, but he lined out to third instead. It happens so quickly, you can hardly believe the fielder had time to react. In the past, fans might miss it and need to ask around to find someone who had seen it. Or bring a transistor radio to hear Vin Scully describe the play. But these days there's a replay on screens behind the outfield bleachers. The Dodgers kept the same mid-century modern hexagons for their scoreboards, but replaced the lightbulbs with high-definition LED panels.
Back to Scherzer, needing 5 strikeouts for the milestone, in the top of the second facing the heart of the Padre order. From the reserve section, we couldn't see what pitches he threw, but we saw the result: 1, 2, 3 strikeouts. You got the feeling he would have accomplished the task right then if baseball allowed five out innings. What I didn't notice at the time was that he got three outs on just nine pitches. This is something of a rare event4 called an immaculate inning.
After the Padre reliever put away three straight Dodgers, Scherzer struck out Will Myers on a full count. We now expected every out to be a strike out. Instead Austin Nola grounded out to Cory Seager on the next pitch and the Padre pitcher grounded out to the Dodger pitcher. All around the stadium you could hear audible groans. Everyone (besides a sprinkling of Padre fans) wanted that 3,000th strikeout.
Dodgers up in the third and Gavin Lux singled bringing Scherzer to the plate. The pitcher hasn't gotten on base since 2019. Last year National League pitchers didn't need to bat, so he had that excuse. Not this year since he's had 56 plate appearances. The only positive result was an RBI sacrifice fly in August against the Mets. With a runner on first and no outs, a pitcher's job is to lay down a sacrifice bunt to move the runner closer to scoring. Despite Scherzer's amazing day as a pitcher, his futility with the bat continued. He bunted strike three foul to get the one sort of strikeout he doesn't enjoy.
Back to the top of the fourth and Scherzer got three straight outs with no strikeouts. Seager hit a solo home run in the bottom of the fourth, which seemed like it might be enough to win all by itself.5 Now the drama was: When will Scherzer get another strikeout? Fernando Tatis Jr. started the fifth and hit a fly out to center. Eric Hosmer watched strike one and swung for strike two. This is it! Ball one. Ok, no problem. Ball two. It happens. Ball three and the count was full. The payoff pitch could be the 3k K so all around the stadium people were recording the moment on their phones. Strike three and we all rose cheering.
Scherzer famously doesn't like anything distracting him from his job. He walked behind the mound, flipped his glove asking for a new ball and seemed most interested in finishing the inning. But the crowd wouldn't have it so he stepped to the top of the mound and acknowledged the applause with a raised hat. Then he retired Tommy Pham on a flyout.
Of course there's nothing significant about 3,000 strikeouts that isn't almost as significant about 2,999. And while Scherzer is a Dodger today, he got most of those strikeouts as a National. There's a good chance he won't be a Dodger in 2022. Finishing the inning and getting as many outs as possible this game was the priority. Rightfully so. But as spectators and fans of the game, we crave moments to appreciate greatness. We were thrilled to be there when Max Scherzer hit an arbitrary accomplishment in an already accomplished career.
The first hitter of the bottom of the fifth, Mookie Betts, hit a ball way out into the left-field pavilion: a solo homer. Mookie joined the team last year and signed a monster extension that means he'll be a Dodger for most of the rest of his career. 2021 has been his worst year in the majors, but he still exudes joy on the field.
Max Muncy came up next. I happened to a picture of the scoreboard during his at-bat:
Another thing we don't usually see on TV is the way fielders move from one pitch to the next. Look at the Padre in shallow right field. That's Manny Machado who typically plays third base. With a pull-hitting lefty (Muncy) at the plate, he's essentially a shallow outfielder here. The Dodger third baseman, Justin Turner, often shifts right of second base with two strikes against a left-handed batter.
In this case, the fielding alignment didn't matter. Muncy struck out. So did Trea Turner. And Justin Turner hit a fly ball. The 5th ended with the Dodgers ahead 2-0.
It was at this point that I noticed Scherzer hadn't given up a hit. None of the Padres had even reached first base. Immaculate innings are rare, but Max was halfway through a perfect game. There hasn't been one of those since 2012.6 Superstition has it that one should not mention a no-hitter while it's happening for fear it will be broken up. So it's hard to know how many people were paying attention.
Despite an early pitching changes and the mid-inning ovation, the game had moved briskly. (It ended in 2 hours and 45 minutes, which is a pretty good clip this season.) We'd reached a sort of equilibrium going into the 6th. For most of the game, my 8-year-old son was playing with a boy about his age from the family next to us. My 8-year-old daughter sat next to me and asked about what was going on. The family behind us had moved to better seats. Everyone who hadn't eaten lunch outside the park were finishing off their nachos, Dodger Dogs and beer. The guy sitting in front of us, who must come to games often, worked through a novel between innings. A relaxing afternoon for everyone who didn't notice the complete lack of Padre baserunners.
Scherzer went back to work. He'd thrown 54 pitches in 5 innings—an efficient pace. With two more strike outs and a foul tip out, he finished the top of the 6th with 66 pitches. The Dodgers went quietly in their half and Scherzer started the 3rd time though the Padre order with a one-pitch fly out. Then he missed the strike zone three times in a row to Adam Frazier. With the perfect game on the line, he found the zone: called strike, swinging strike and full-count fly ball.
Manny Machado came to the plate with two outs. Twice before the LA crowd had booed his arrival at the plate. This time was no different. Machado seems to have "earned" this response from his half season with the Dodgers in 2018. He'd been acquired from Baltimore with the idea that he'd finally push LA over the hump to win a World Series. But he didn't preform particularly well in the championship games against Boston. To make matters worse, he's the sort of player who doesn't go full speed on routine ground-outs. In that series he admired a long single that could have been a double off the wall. I suspect some people boo him for not resigning with the Dodgers. Fans are fickle.
In any case, Machado worked a full count before hitting a week grounder back to Scherzer. 80 pitches. 21 outs and 21 batters. With a 2 run lead, Gavin Lux singled, Scherzer bunted him to second, Betts singled, Max Muncy doubled (scoring Lux), Trea Turner ground out, and Justin Turner hit a 396 foot homer to put the Dodgers ahead 6-0. The only drama left was Max's perfect game.
Top of the 8th now. Fernando Tatis Jr. filed out.7 Eric Hosmer at bat took a ball, a strike, another ball and then … lined a double just over Betts in right field. Perfect game and no-hitter ended. For those who didn't know the significance, the outfield screen showed the line score:
Scherzer finished the inning by inducing a ground-out from Tommy Pham and striking out Wil Myers. Once again the crowd stood as Max Scherzer walked off the field. 92 pitches to get 24 outs and just one hit. An exceptional performance.
But the game hadn't quite finished with its surprises. The Padres had already used 6 pitchers. Snell's early exit meant this was essentially a bullpen game. And after the previous inning they needed to get 3 more outs to put the series in the past. So Padres manager, Jayce Tingler, brought in Austin Adams. He's a career 3.99 ERA pitcher who strikes out or walks about half the batters he faces. According to Statcast, the balls that are hit off him have low exit velocity meaning he's likely to get people out with soft liners and slow grounders. He was also the subject of an article written a few days earlier that pointed out he was 3 away from tying a season record in hitting batters.8
Adams had pitched the Friday before, but got his three outs without plunking anyone. He didn't pitch on Saturday so he remained three hit batters away from infamy. I didn't know this at the time, of course. What I did know was that he hit the first batter in the bottom of the 8th, Will Smith. Then Cody Bellinger doubled, and Smith, fast for a catcher, advanced just the one base. Then Adams hit Gavin Lux to load the bases. And then he hit Betts to bring in a run. My wife turned to me to ask how many batters this guy would be allowed to hit before he got ejected.
Maybe hitting 4 would have done the trick.9 Instead he gave up a sacrifice fly to Max Muncy, walked Trea Turner and got another fly out from Justin Turner. Other than the formality of the top of the ninth, the game was over.
Our family did have one more activity to complete. I flagged down an usher and asked where we needed to go for our children to run the bases. He directed me to the area behind the outfield and warned me it got crowded pretty quick down there. With apologies to Justin Bruihl, a rookie reliever I'd never heard of pitching the final half-inning, we gathered our gear and set out to the outfield concourse.
Dodger Stadium has new glass elevators at the edge of the reserve level. Our twins desperately wanted to ride down but only one of the two elevators on the right field side was working that day. So we waited and waited for our chance to ride down to the outfield plaza. But there was no need to worry. The line was long, but we were in no hurry. We even had time to go to the bathroom, look at the memorabilia on display and play in the outfield playground.
When we were let onto the field, we walked around the warning track to first base. From the stands, it's hard to see how big and fast the players are. Compared to basketball where every court is the same size and NBA players look like the giants they are as they stride from one basket to the other, baseball fields scale with the level of competition. The city parks where we play tee ball and softball just aren't as spacious as MLB parks.
More to the point, the distance between bases is as little as 50 feet for tee ball, 60 feet for softball and 90 feet for professional baseball. Our kids started running the bases from first, around second and third, and on to home plate. We walked the other way: first to home to meet up there. They didn't seem to be tired out, but they also didn't have to get a hit to get on base.
As we walked up the third base line past the Dodger dugout, Max Scherzer came out for his post-game interviews. He's slightly taller than I am, but there's something larger than life about seeing a ballplayer in person. He smiled and waved at the parents who reached for their phones to grab a photo. And then he moved away while the stadium staff hurried us into the stands. We wandered around a bit, shopped in the team shop, took a few more pictures and walked back to our car. A good day was had by all.
The Dodger's also lost Trevor Bauer, who was last year's Cy Young winner and the highest paid player in baseball (for now). LA Times columnist, Bill Plaschke, called his signing "purely embarrassing". I'd say that's revisionist history, though there were plenty of people who expressed concern about his treatment of women on Twitter. Ultimately Bauer's story is one of wanton cruelty and wasted talent. As helpful as he would be as a pitcher, I'm glad he's not a Dodger. ↩
I see what I did there. ↩
Dodger Dogs are a staple at Dodger Stadium. This season they changed their supplier from Farmer John, which had made Dodger Dogs since the team moved from Brooklyn. So Farmer John and Dodger Dogs are synonymous to the point where I'm surprised they make other products. Meanwhile, the new supplier, Papa Cantella's is a relative newcomer that was founded in 1980. Both companies are based in Vernon, California, population 112. The "city" consists mostly industrial zones and the majority of residents are either employed or related to city employees. Most of the housing is owned by the city. About 44,000 people commute in to work. Many of them are employed by meatpacking businesses. Dodger Dogs, whichever the supplier, taste fine, but are over-priced in the ballpark. ↩
Indeed only 104 have been recorded. Compare that to 314 no-hitters. ↩
Spoiler: it was. ↩
Amazingly there were three that year! ↩
None of the Padres looks good that day, but Tatis is a true star. He's also the son of the only player to hit two grand slams in a single inning. Tatis Sr. did that at Dodger Stadium in 1999. ↩
But only if you exclude a bunch of pitchers who hit batters before 1920 or so. A fellow named Phil Knell hit 54 batters in 1891 when he played for the Columbus Solons. No I'd never heard or that team either, so you can see why that "record" might not be relevant anymore. ↩
It would have also set the season record we didn't know he was chasing and I believe would have tied the record for hit batters by a single pitcher in an inning. At least 29 other people have hit 3 batters in an inning. A couple years ago, two Giants hit 4 batters in an inning which hadn't been done since 1893. ↩