Inches Separate Gaffe From Genius

So often in sports, a simple decision is hailed as success if the results are as intended, and foolishness if failure ensues.

It’s the sixth inning in the American League Championship Series Game 5. The New York Yankees are up 4-1.The Houston Astros are up to bat with one on. Lefthanded Yankee pitcher James Paxton has walked one but struck out two in the inning. He’s thrown 111 pitches. If you’re manager Aaron Boone and you subscribe to the rule that says you’re out after 100 pitches, it’s past time to pull your starter.

So here comes Boone, head down, pondering the benefit of leaving in a starter on a roll versus bringing in the unknown. The New York crowd is pleading with him.

Please. Do not mess with a good thing.

The righthanded Tommy Kahnle warming up. Kahnle had given up just one run in 6 2/3 innings in the postseason leading up to this moment.
Boone gets to the mound. But… no motion to the pen. He looks at Paxton and asks if he wants one more guy. Paxton nods.

Even though the one more guy is Robinson Chirinos, a lifetime .234 hitter, the decision isn’t without peril. Chirinos is a guy with power, the type who gets 80 hits a year, but 18 of them are home runs. It’s the kind of situation that makes heroes, and for a time, household names out of guys named Lemke and Dent and Thompson and once, not so long ago a guy named Aaron Boone.

Almost 16 years to the day since Boone hit a blast into the left field seats off Boston Red Sox reliever Tim Wakefield and celebrated as the New York Yankees advanced to the World Series, Boone, now the man who pulls the strings to put players in such positions, walks off the field.

Sixteen years and two days after that home run, another Yankee crowd exults, hugging and cheering. It won’t take long to find out if their faith is misplaced.

First pitch. Chirinos swings. The ball soars through a cold New York evening. Brett Gardner moves back and then back some more. Chirinos holds his bat and watches, knowing it has a chance. Gardner is out of real estate, staring up into the black night sky. Every fan who had just hugged and celebrated Paxton getting one more batter to face is now frozen, slack-jawed.

Yankee stadium fills with regret like red wine filling a glass.

The ball has to come down sometime.

It falls to earth with Gardner staring, Chirinos staring, Boone staring, and Paxton wondering if he’s just given up a blast that will go down in Astros postseason lore, just as Boone’s homer is in the Yankees.

Down, down, down it comes… and falls harmlessly into Gardner’s glove, maybe a foot from going out.

Boone and Paxton are cheered, Chirinos, almost already totally forgotten, the proximity of success so close, but so maddeningly far away.

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