Blake's instincts drive balk-off
Dodgers third baseman recognized a rare game-winning opportunity
LOS ANGELES -- Given the way it all unfolded, it seems like a no-brainer. A baserunner on third in a potential walk-off situation, two outs, a pitcher trying to focus on getting the batter out and prolonging the game, and the baserunner makes a quick but phony move toward the plate in the pitcher's peripheral vision. It distracted the pitcher just enough to make him stop his delivery and commit a balk, allowing that runner to trot home with the winning run.
Well, according to Casey Blake, the bearded, veteran Dodgers third baseman who successfully pulled his ruse on smooth-cheeked and relatively inexperienced Diamondbacks reliever Esmerling Vasquez, it isn't for a lack of trying.
"I just took a couple of steps to see if I could startle him a little bit," Blake said. "Most of the time, it doesn't work. But sometimes, it does."
And how often has it worked for Blake in his 12 major league seasons?
"Never," he said.
First, a little long-term historical perspective: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this was the Dodgers' first victory by walk-off balk -- balk-off, if you will -- since 1989, when they did it against the New York Mets and their closer at the time, future Dodgers minor league pitching coach Roger McDowell. Furthermore, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the umpire who was at third base for this game, Bob Davidson -- a guy who was once known by the nickname "Balkin' Bob" for his tendency to call balks more frequently than any other ump -- was the same guy who called that long-ago balk against McDowell from behind the plate.
Finally, a little short-term historical perspective. Very short-term.
Minutes earlier, the Dodgers appeared to be in prime position for a more conventional walk-off win, the kind that ends in a run-scoring single, a sacrifice fly, a home run, etc. But with James Loney on second, Blake on first, nobody out and a 2-0 count on Russell Martin, Loney noticed third baseman Augie Ojeda walking over to talk to Vasquez without calling time, leaving third base uncovered.
So Loney broke for third, only to have Ojeda sprint back toward the bag. Although Loney probably would have beaten Ojeda there, Loney panicked, stopped, turned back toward second, slipped and got caught in a rundown. In all the confusion, Blake moved into second, then took third when Martin grounded out to the right side.
It was here, with light-hitting Blake DeWitt at the plate and the game an out away from going to extra innings, that Blake decided it was worth a try.
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"I could probably count on one hand how many times I have ever tried it," he said. "I just thought it was a good time. If there was one out, I probably wasn't going to try it because I wouldn't want to mess up the hitter or anything like that."
Just as Vasquez started his delivery, Blake feigned toward the plate, and Vasquez stopped. Blake and Dodgers third-base coach Larry Bowa immediately started pointing and yelling, as did almost everyone in the Dodgers dugout. Blake said he was looking at Davidson and waiting for the call from him, but it was actually second-base umpire Tim Tschida who ultimately made it.
"[Blake] did it on his own," Bowa said. "Casey broke down the line, and we both saw [Vasquez] hesitate. ... Most veteran pitchers, they wouldn't have even looked at the runner. They wouldn't have paid any attention to him. I think he got crossed up with the signs with the catcher, too."
As Blake jogged home, pumping his fist, and the Dodgers gathered around home plate for a celebration, Vasquez stood frozen on the mound for several seconds in disbelief before he finally headed for the dugout. But no one, including Diamondbacks manager A.J. Hinch, argued the call in the slightest.
"It was pretty plain and simple to see he balked," Hinch said. "To lose a game this way is pretty excruciating."
What would have been equally excruciating for the Dodgers would have been to lose on a night when Chad Billingsley pitched so well. The Dodgers right-hander struggled through two innings, giving up three home runs to put the Dodgers in a 4-0 hole. But after that, Billingsley settled in and retired 19 of the final 21 batters he faced and went eight full innings for the first time since July 5.
It was arguably Billingsley's best performance of the season, an 11-strikeout effort in which he didn't walk a batter. He wound up getting a no-decision and was almost stuck with a loss as the Dodgers could never really solve the normally solvable Rodrigo Lopez until a pair of two-out errors on the same play by Diamondbacks second baseman Kelly Johnson in the eighth allowed the tying runs to score.
Billingsley threw 120 pitches and said he could have easily gone longer.
Lost in the Shuffle
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In his long-awaited return from the disabled list, Andre Ethier's box-score line wasn't pretty -- he went 0-for-4 without hitting a ball out of the infield. But in the third inning he did hit a scorching liner up the middle that wound up in the glove of Lopez, who doubled Matt Kemp off first to end the inning and strand Rafael Furcal on third. Furcal would have scored if the ball had gotten through to center.
Ethier's most pivotal at-bat, though, came in the eighth inning, also with two outs and this time with runners on second and third. Ethier hit a hard grounder toward Johnson, who initially bobbled the ball enough to allow Ethier to reach first and Furcal to score, then threw it away in an ill-advised attempt to still get Ethier at first. That allowed Kemp to score as well to tie the game at 4-4.
Ethier clearly was feeling the effects of his two-week layoff.
"It was just timing," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "His rhythm isn't there right now. I thought he was trying to pull the ball a little bit more than we usually see. To try to hit the ball the other way, you have to play a little bit and get your timing. It looked like they were trying to stay away from him location-wise."
By the Numbers
20-8 -- record for the Dodgers in May, a half-game better than last year's 20-9 mark and the best May for the club since 1962, when the Dodgers went 21-7 in their second month ever playing at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers improved to 29-22 for the season and remained two games behind division-leading San Diego in the National League West. They also increased their lead over third-place San Francisco to 1½ games.
The Dodgers haven't completely ruled out the possibility of going after soon-to-be free-agent left-hander Dontrelle Willis, the former N.L. Rookie of the Year who was designated for assignment by Detroit over the weekend. But a major league source with knowledge of the situation, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said any possibility that Willis winds up with the Dodgers is a long shot at best.
Willis' career has hit the skids over the past couple of years. He made just 22 starts in two-plus seasons for the Tigers, going 2-8 with a 6.86 ERA, after they acquired him from Florida, along with Miguel Cabrera, in a blockbuster, eight-player deal at the 2007 winter meetings. Willis also spent time in the low minors each of the past two seasons trying to right himself, apparently to no avail.
Willis will first have to clear waivers before he is free to sign with another club -- something that is certain to happen because any team claiming him would have to take on all of the roughly $8 million he is owed for the rest of the season. Once he clears, any team can sign him for the prorated share of the major league minimum salary of $400,000 (about $267,000 for the remainder of the season), with the Tigers still on the hook for the rest.
Quote of the Day
"That has got to be the dumbest play I have ever done. ... It was the dumbest thing I have ever done or seen in life, not just in baseball. I was like, `Who does that?' It was just so stupid." -- Loney on his ninth-inning baserunning gaffe, which was wiped out by the game-ending balk that allowed Blake to score.
Rookie Carlos Monasterios (2-0, 2.20), who was supposed to return to the bullpen after starting at Colorado on Friday night, will instead make his third major league start because knuckleballer Charlie Haeger isn't ready to return from the disabled list. Right-hander Dan Haren (5-4, 5.35), who entered Monday third in the N.L. with 76 strikeouts, will pitch for the Diamondbacks. Haren also is the runaway major league leader in home runs allowed with 16, four more than any other pitcher.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.