Blue Jays vs. Rangers was a real damn game. One of a recent many.
After six innings of tight, skilled baseball executed with seamless professional brutality, the game became a messy, drawn-out melodrama of human failings, players reacting in ways unique to them and to improbable events, unspeakable misfortune, cascading doubt and failure, and opportunities for profound personal and professional actualization.
An unbelievably fluky botched returned throw to the mound to score a go-ahead run for the Rangers was more significant because of its potential to derail the Jays unreal season, to bounce the most talented team in the AL playoffs and cut short a baseball revival in Toronto over 20 years in the making. Elvis Andrus' three errors aren't meaningful in terms of assessing his defensive skill, or even as individual events, but how they built off each other into a rising dread and frustration. Bautista's heroic, decisive, three-run clout was so much more than a good hitter getting a good result, but the culmination of five years of Bautista's personal effort to drag a franchise along with his unfathomable career turnaround, before it's too late for both of them.
Pretty much anyone who has taken up the practice of writing about baseball on the internet in the last 10-15 years has had some of sort of process of discovery, either by choice or by force of shame, of the necessity for statistical empiricism when analyzing the sport. Or it's better said, you can't just say things, without checking that it's real and backed up by data and fact. We can show how much each hitter matters, we can show how much responsibility pitchers bear for their teams winning and losing, we can show who is actually excelling in late and close situations, so when you claim it, it has to be there with well-grounded evidence.
Holstering your impulses, bias, and off-the-cuff analysis, becomes a discipline of self-denialism. It's a great thing. It cuts away at the BS, fluff, and lazy ad hominem that use to poison sportswriting more than it still does now
But the lesson, the awakening, that's just as important as learning all the saber rules, is learning when you can set them aside. It winds up being pretty frequently, since this game all about information of any kind, and understanding what's going with any player, what challenges they're facing in a game, their life, in a moment, in a specific matchup, makes you less and less beholden to the safety of generalized probabilities.
Part of what makes the playoffs so fun, and such a necessary respite and separate entity from the regular season, is that it's liberated from forces like regression, and a large representative sample size. All that matters is the now. It's not about sussing the best teams over a huge sample, it's about taking the teams we already know are the best and throwing them in an unholy pressure cooker and watching the chaos and triumph and human tragedy that spurts out from it. There's not much fairness in a one-game playoff, but it's more of just a cheap route to what we want anyway, and what we got on Wednesday. Not a thorough audit of baseball's best organization, or even anything remotely scientific, but a quick flash of how baseball's best react with unthinkable high stakes.
What I so dearly loved about Wednesday's games, was how human they were. It was impossible to watch the seventh inning and not see the seams, of how the unique pressure of the situation affected every player; the aching terror of yips consuming Elvis Andrus, the gutting frustration of Sam Dyson boiling over, even Roberto Osuna's struggles to keep the tension inside of him just below the surface as he sealed in the last five outs. None of these issues determined what happen, but they revealed how each player was dealing with the situation personally was weaved into the game
We know better than to take Clayton Kerhsaw's playoff record as a meaningful indicator that he could never succeed on this level, or think that Johnny Cueto's herculean effort Wednesday erased larger doubts that emerged about him all season, but in these singular moments, we can see how these games matter to them, and how their conception of their own selves drove their performance.
"Today was the game that I was going to show everybody what I'm all about in big games," Cueto said, "And that's what I did."
Cueto's comment is typical of this time of year's shaky bluster. His triumph could have switched to tragedy on one bad pitch or two, and the playoffs just as readily hand us "ridiculously timed Daniel Murphy hot streak" as it gives us defining moments for elite players, which leaves us only with our eyes, and no reliable numbers, to separate what's regular players getting sucked into a moment, and what's true greatness.
And rather than scary, or uncertain, it's liberating.