Lloyd McClendon emerged from the depths of Globe Life Park’s third base dugout and strode purposefully across the playing field. As they so often do when McClendon visits his pitcher, the entire Seattle infield converged upon the mound and their suddenly-embattled closer, Fernando Rodney.
Having recorded a pair of quick outs to the first two batters he faced in the bottom of the ninth, Rodney appeared on the verge of his fourth save of the season. But then the 37-year-old right-hander relinquished a single up the middle to Texas third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff. Minutes later, Rodney issued a walk to designated hitter Mitch Moreland. The tying run moved into scoring position. The winning run stood perched on first base. McClendon got up.
In all likelihood, the team’s first-year manager probably reminded his players that they needed just one more out to secure a victory, that they had a force available at any base, and that this was their game to win. But based on the events that immediately followed the brief get-together, McClendon may very well have said something along the lines of, “Guys, let’s do everything we can to fuck this up as spectacularly as possible.”
This is where our story takes a dark turn, veering from fact and maybe, potentially entering into the world of dramatized fiction. Or maybe not. We’ll never know the full truth, I wager.
In this bizarro alternate reality of magnificently catastrophic game-blowing, the six ballplayers huddled around their manager nodded in agreement, then returned to their respective positions on the field. As McClendon made his way back to the team’s baseline shelter, he made eye contact with his starting pitcher who had given the club seven-plus innings of solid work that evening, yielding just four hits and a lone run while striking out nine. Felix Hernandez glanced back at his skipper just in time to see the look of utter panic flash across the 55-year-old former outfielder’s face. Or maybe that was excitement. It was often hard to tell with McClendon.
Rodney toed the rubber and surveyed the basepaths. He set, then delivered. Pinch-hitter Donnie Murphy watched as ball one sailed into catcher Mike Zunino’s mitt.
As Zunino returned the leather orb to the waiting embrace of the closer, shortstop Brad Miller summoned the attention of Hernandez from the dugout. “Felix,” he whispered, then louder, “Felix!” The weary ace looked out at the young infielder who quickly and emphatically threw both arms across his torso in the shape of an “X,” mouthing the words “Suck it” as he readied himself for the ensuing pitch. But what did it all mean, thought Hernandez. His bewilderment would not last long.
Rodney wound and uncorked a pitch that never made it to his catcher. Murphy swung and connected, sending a routine grounder to none other than Miller at short. The 24-year-old fielded the bounding ball on a hop, bobbled the transfer, recovered, and looked towards second base.
Moreland, the runner on first, took off on contact and barreled down the base path towards second. Never considered fleet of foot, Miller should have known that he had time to retire the plodding Moreland and put an end to the contest. Or maybe he did know and simply didn’t care. Either way, as second baseman Robinson Cano awaited the assist from his shortstop, Miller steadied himself and let fly with an underhand toss that would have only been properly handled by the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon.
The time continuum took a temporary respite at that very instant, the earth seemingly slowing down in the process. Cano’s eyes went skyward as he followed the ascending flight of the ball. The manager, McClendon, looked on in utter silence as the word “Spectacular” crept across the forefront of his brain. Hernandez, emotions in shambles, shed a single tear that magically dissolved upon contact with his skin, a physical aberration he’d developed after years of pitching for the hapless Mariners. Thousands of fans watching at home held a collective breath as they awaited the result of a blossoming disaster. And one pseudo-writer sitting alone upon a worn-in couch stood up and shouted to no one in particular, “Oh, fuck me!”
Cano leapt, Moreland slid, Miller giggled (perhaps), Hernandez sobbed on the inside, McClendon McClendoned, the devil jizzed his undergarments, Dave Niehaus twitched in Heaven, and umpire Paul Schreiber threw both hands in opposing directions and bellowed, “Safe!”
Moreland was safe. Everyone was safe. The bases were loaded. Miller had, for the moment, cost his team a victory.
From there, it was the Rodney Show. A native of the Dominican Republic, Rodney had not necessarily been blessed with the same “clutch” genes as many of his peers. In tense situations, the hard-throwing reliever had a tendency to implode, not unlike a withering galaxy in the solar system’s nether reaches.
On the very next play, Rodney hurled a wild pitch to the stadium backstop, surrendering the sliver of a lead his team had once maintained. Two pitches later, the Rangers’ Leonys Martin dropped a bloop single into shallow left field, allowing the sluggish Moreland to trot across the plate with the game’s winning run. Just like that, in absolutely astounding fashion, the battle was over. Where a baseball team in its road grey uniforms once stood, a raging dumpster fire now burned instead.
Meltdown complete, the Mariners were done, forced to move on in stunned solemnity towards the remainder of a season they hoped would not be defined by the antics of this very day. Only time would tell if this was merely an obstacle on the path to success or a roadblock that signaled the beginning of the bitter end.