Did he or didn’t he? Is Jose Tabata a perfect-game-spoiling ruiner of all things good, or a baffled hitter in a long string of baffled hitters to face Max Scherzer on Saturday? Was he leaning into the pitch, or drawing away from the pitch? Is the dress blue and black, or white and gold?
These are questions based on intent and situation. Tabata, of course, was hit by a pitch with one out to go in Scherzer’s would-be perfect game. Does a batter do anything possible to reach base so late in a game—which, at 6-0, has been all but lost—in which his teammates had not really come close? Is getting hit by a pitch to break up a perfect game anything like bunting to break up a no-hitter?
The answer is easy: Of course it isn’t. Tabata didn’t lean into the pitch. He watched a breaking ball that didn’t break as expected, and drew back his elbow—into the path of the ball as it turned out—far too late to make a difference. (Watch it here.)
Far more interesting is the question of insertion. It is fair under certain circumstances to question a manager for inserting a top-flight player into a blowout game for the sole purpose of spoiling a no-hitter. Tabata was pinch-hitting, but in this case somebody had to—the spot in the order belonged to reliever Vance Worley. So, given that the Nationals were already the presumptive victors, was Pirates manager Clint Hurdle under any obligation to utilize a lesser bench player? Would it have been more appropriate to call upon somebody like Corey Hart, who has more at-bats than Tabata this season but is hitting 90 points lower?
Nope. Leave it to Hurdle’s predecessor in Pittsburgh, Jim Leyland, to explain the situation. I spoke to him in 2010, when he was managing the Detroit Tigers, about his decision to pinch-hit Ramon Santiago with two outs in the ninth inning against Chicago’s Matt Garza, who was pitching his own no-hitter. Detroit was losing, 5-0, and Leyland admitted to me that winning the game no longer factored into his strategy. (Santiago flied out to end it. Detroit’s starting pitcher that day: Max Scherzer.)
Knowing you’re not going to win, at what point do you let the guy have his no-hitter?
I don’t think you ever say that. I don’t ever say that.
No matter what the score, you’d send up your pinch-hitters?
Yeah, absolutely. I don’ think you ever say, “Let the guy have his no-hitter.” That’s not the way the game is played. If I’m going to say that, I might as well go home. That sends the wrong message to the people who paid for a ticket. I learned that from my parents—you get what you earn.
We play every game and compete until the end. There are 27 outs in a game, and you try to utilize all of them. It doesn’t matter what the score is. You have to understand the situation. Even if it’s 10-1 in the ninth inning, you might send someone up there to save a guy a tough at-bat against a tough pitcher, or a bench guy might be playing in the game the next day, so you want to get him an at-bat to help him track the ball a little bit. A lot of things go into it—it’s not cut-and-dried.
We’re paid to compete until the last out, regardless. That’s what we do for a living. Garza pitched a no-hitter, and I tip my cap to him. But when Verlander pitched his no-hitter against Milwaukee, he earned it, and he was supposed to earn it. That’s just the way things go.
You don’t want a no-hitter pitched against you. Everybody’s talking about how you should just let him have it. Well, no you shouldn’t. Nobody wants to be that team. Detroit hadn’t had a no-hitter pitched against it in years. I didn’t want to be the guy from Detroit who finally got no-hit.
All fair points. I take some issue with the idea of pinch-hitting for a position player at that point—when a loss is all but assured—in a potentially historic game. It’s a point at which everything reverts to the status quo. Defensive alignments should be left alone, as should lineups. Even umpires should shade their calls with an eye toward the feat at hand, ruling in the favor of history on plays close enough for debate. Jim Joyce blowing an out call at first base during Armando Galarraga’s would-be perfect game is a prime example. Another came in 1972, when, with Cubs pitcher Milt Pappas 26 outs into his own perfect game, plate ump Bruce Froemming ruled that a full-count pitch, close enough to argue, was a ball. (Pappas retired the following batter to complete the no-hitter.) Unlike that instance, there was no space for interpretation with Scherzer’s HBP—there was only one call for the umpire to make.
In this case, sending up Tabata to hit for the pitcher was the right move. Hurdle played it properly, Tabata did nothing wrong (Scherzer admitted as much) and the baseball world was deprived of a historic feat under appropriate circumstances.