October 4, 2006

ALDS Game 2: A's 5, Twins 2

Game 2 of the ALDS could have been remembered for any number of great things, from Boof Bonser turning in a Quality Start in his postseason debut to Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau launching back-to-back homers in the sixth inning, thrillingly digging the Twins out of a 2-0 hole. With the game tied heading into the seventh inning, it may also have been remembered for the yet-to-be-determined hero who would have stepped up with a big hit for the Twins to even the series.

Instead, the game will be remembered for a play Torii Hunter couldn't make and shouldn't have even attempted. With Jason Kendall on first base and two outs in the seventh inning, Mark Kotsay ripped a line drive into shallow center field. Rather than lay back and play the ball on a hop--possibly keeping Kendall at second base and at worst putting runners on the corners with two outs--Hunter decided to attempt a spectacular and ultimately impossible sprawling catch.

He came up empty, crashing to the Metrodome turf as the ball skipped past and ran all the way to the wall. Kotsay, who had rounded first base at half-speed expecting an uneventful single, quickly turned on the jets and sprinted around the bases. By the time Cuddyer picked up the ball on the warning track and threw it back in to the cutoff man, Kotsay was rounding third base on his way to an inside-the-park homer that stunned the crowd and put the A's up 4-2.

Hunter blamed himself for the loss while speaking to reporters afterward and talked of how horrible it felt watching the ball avoid his out-stretched glove, calling it "the worst feeling in the world." Hunter also explained his decision to attempt the catch by saying he's always been an aggressive outfielder, which is sentiment his teammates and manager agreed with. As Ron Gardenhire put it: "When he goes after a ball, I don't second-guess him. Ever."

Anyone who's watched Hunter over the years would agree that a big part of what's made him such a great defender is his relentless, attacking style. When asked to describe his defense a couple years ago, I wrote the following:

Torii Hunter plays center field like a middle linebacker plays a sweep to the outside. He attacks the ball without regard for his own safety and hunts it down. Whether the catch involves scaling the baggy-covered walls in the Metrodome or skidding along the turf face first, he makes the play first and thinks about it later.

Hunter's previous success "making the play first and thinking about it later" is what makes yesterday's mistake all the more difficult to take. A few years ago, before multiple foot injuries and the natural aging process sapped some of his range, Hunter's gamble would have been more palatable and may have even paid off with an extraordinary catch. However, as I've chronicled here any number of times since his return from the disabled list earlier this season, those days are gone.

Failing to make a spectacular play is not what makes Hunter's decision a poor one, because you can't properly judge something like that on the result. Rather, what made what Hunter did a mistake is that he attempted that type of high-risk play despite his diminished abilities. In other words, there was little chance of Hunter making the play now, but because he had a chance to make the play in the past he went ahead and tried anyway.

Since coming back from a fractured foot, he's made similar miscues as a result of overestimating his ability to do the spectacular. In fact, during the final few months of the regular season, Hunter missed several plays that looked an awful lot like what took place yesterday afternoon. He'd come in on a ball that he surely expected to reach, realize too late that he no longer had the ability to do so, and watch as it skipped past him.

In mid-August, I described Hunter as having "flopped around in a futile effort to make the spectacular plays he's so used to making," which unfortunately is exactly what happened yesterday against the A's. While seemingly obvious, my pointing out Hunter's diminished range has drawn a lot of criticism from Twins fans. However, I suspect that even those who fired off strongly-worded e-mails accusing me of unfairly "ripping" Hunter would admit, deep down, that they weren't shocked by his mistake in Game 2.

I have no interest in saying "I told you so" when it comes to Hunter's defense, although anyone who's watched the Twins of late should have seen yesterday's trouble brewing. Despite that, I found myself feeling incredibly sorry for Hunter once my immediate emotions wore off a few hours later. He's going through one of the most depressing aspects of sports, which is the time between an athlete's physical decline and his realization that he's lost something.

It's the same thing Brett Favre has experienced in recent years and Michael Jordan experienced in his ill-fated comeback with the Wizards. There comes a point when a player can no longer do the things he once took for granted, but the realization that those days are gone is often slow to occur. The quotes from Hunter and Gardenhire are eerily similar to the stuff people said about Favre and Jordan when it first became apparent (to some, at least) that their skills were diminishing significantly.

Gardenhire said he'd never second-guess Hunter when he "goes after a ball," but how many times has someone said the same about Favre "forcing a throw into double-coverage" or about Jordan "taking the last shot"? Another common refrain was that Hunter is "a Gold Glover" and "the only guy who can make that play," both of which ignore the fact that something being true once doesn't mean it will remain true forever.

Judging from the boos Hunter heard and the slew of e-mails and comments I received, many Twins fans are angry at him. That's somewhat understandable, I suppose, because he made a misguided decision that led to a costly mistake, all because of his inability to realize he had no chance of making the catch. With that said, I think the booing was completely uncalled for and the emotion I'm feeling is more along the lines of sadness and disappointment.

I would have loved nothing more than to see Hunter come up with the catch on Kotsay's liner, ending the A's threat, igniting the Metrodome crowd, and perhaps even sparking a Twins rally. However, that just wasn't going to happen, and Hunter thinking it could made him largely responsible for the Twins' Game 2 loss. He made a mistake that was both physical and mental, but I don't necessarily blame him and he certainly wasn't alone in costing the Twins a win.

There's still some hope with Brad Radke taking the mound in Game 3, but the Twins' season may have slipped away along with Kotsay's line drive.

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