LOS ANGELES — Back in the early 19th century, when the world was a much bigger, unconnected place, and the places and creatures considered exotic were far more numerous, to have witnessed the truly spectacular moved people to say, “I have seen the elephant.” The phrase probably dates to the import of the first elephant on American soil around 1796. It was exhibited on Broadway in New York. To have “seen the elephant” meant that you had witnessed the epitome of extraordinary.
To see the elephant in this ever-shrinking world — a world with rovers on Mars, probes speeding past Jupiter, a map of the human genome, cars that park themselves, cloned sheep and restaurants that serve breakfast all day – requires a higher definition of exotic.
Such moments of shock and awe have become rarer. The World Series is no different. They have held 114 of these World Series since 1903. There have been 663 games within all those series.
And then Game 3 happened. It was not just the longest postseason game ever played — seven hours, 20 minutes of baseball over 18 innings — it was as phenomenal as an elephant in New York in 1796.
The Dodgers and Red Sox played a baseball game about which they will be telling their grandkids, and so will any of the rest of who stayed up until 3:30 Eastern, or half past midnight under an orange moon over The San Gabriels, when Max Muncy of the Dodgers ended it with a home run of Boston righthander Nathan Eovaldi, one of the most gallant losers ever known.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Los Angeles first baseman David Freese, “and that’s because nobody walking this earth has seen anything like that.”
The Dodgers won, 3-2, to pull within two games to one. But not only did the game require two games’ worth of innings, but it also exacted double the cost out of Boston than just any old loss. Red Sox manager Alex Cora managed the game like a stunt driver, aggressive at every turn, burning through pitchers like oil, making onlookers gasp at where this thing might be headed. He used every player on his roster except Drew Pomeranz, who was warming when the game ended, and Chris Sale, his likely Game 5 starter who has been dragging around a bum shoulder for two months.
It just might have been the costliest Game 3 loss in World Series history.
“We’ll find out tomorrow,” Cora said, meaning, of course, later today.
People will talk about this game 102 years from now, as they do today about Babe Ruth throwing a 14-inning complete game in the 1916 World Series, the last and only other time the Dodgers (then the Robins) played the Red Sox in the World Series.
They will talk about it like Isner-Mahout at Wimbledon, Celtics-Suns triple overtime in 1976, Dolphins-Chargers in the 1982 playoff dubbed “The Game No One Should Have Lost,” and Islanders-Capitals in the 1987 Easter Epic playoff game. They will talk about it whenever a conversation turns to testing the limits of athletic endurance, in this case when baseball holds us spellbound when it busts so far out of its conventions.
The game lasted so long it turned loony. There were 561 pitches thrown by 18 pitchers. Forty-six of the 50 available players were used. There was a seventh-inning stretch and a 14th-inning stretch. The Dodgers were hanging bananas from a string in the dugout to generate enough luck to score a run.
“Holy cow. Just incredible,” Freese said. “It was just a stupid experience for everybody.”
Beowulf has nothing on Game 3 when it comes to epic drama. There was Cody Bellinger of the Dodgers getting picked off first base in embarrassing fashion in the ninth, and then saving the game in the 10th with a clothesline of a throw to the plate to double up Ian Kinsler.
Asked how he felt after the game, Bellinger said, “Tired. Dead tired.”
There was Kinsler making the biggest gaffe of the game with an error in the 13th. Muncy was on second base with two outs when Yasiel Puig hit a grounder to the left of Kinsler. If Kinsler makes the play, the Red Sox win 2-1 and go up three games to none in the series. But suddenly the ground beneath him appeared to turn into ice. He slipped while fielding the ball — not a fatal twist itself. He still had two decisions to make at that point to hold the lead: set his feet and make a strong throw to try to get Puig, or simply hold on to the baseball and let Eovaldi attack Austin Barnes, the 0-for-the-series Dodgers catcher due up next, for the final out.
Kinsler made neither choice. He opted for a third choice, the only one that could imperil the game for Boston. He threw off-balance to first base, as if trying to skim a rock across a pond while falling down. The throw skittered far wide of catcher-turned-emergency-first-baseman Christian Vazquez, allowing Muncy to score the tying run.
There was Nunez, who played the game either like a crash-test dummy or Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor. The guy was prone on the ballfield more than he was upright: falling at the plate on a pitch that bounced off Barnes, falling into the stands while catching a pop-up, falling on the pitcher’s mound while catching a pop-up, and getting thrown out while sliding into third on a 16th inning bunt by Vazquez. Had Nunez not been hobbled — his gimpy right leg from the pratfalls had him running like a car with one flat — the Red Sox would have had the bases loaded and no outs.
But above all, there was Everyday Eovaldi. Muncy may have hit the first walk-off World Series homer since Freese in 2011 and the first for a Dodger since Kirk Gibson in 1988. But Eovaldi is the Homer of this baseball Odyssey. As joyful and relieved as was the Dodgers clubhouse after the game, their players spoke about Eovaldi in reverential terms.
“My God, just an animal,” Freese said. “You start thinking about [Madison] Bumgarner, and what he did in 2014. I know I did. Very few guys can pull that off. What an arm.”
“Whoa,” said Walker Buehler, the spring-loaded, fastball-churning rookie pitcher who threw seven shutout innings with no walks while throwing a career-high 108 pitches. “Eovaldi was a beast. That was incredible. He’s not done. He’s going to be back for Game 7.”
Eovaldi pitched like the Hugh Glass of his day. Glass was the turn of the 19th-century frontiersman who crawled and staggered 200 miles to safety through snow and wind after getting nearly mauled to death by a grizzly. His legend became the inspiration for the 2015 movie, The Revenant.
Eovaldi had undergone two Tommy John surgeries and one to repair a torn flexor tendon muscle. He missed all of last season and the first two months of this season. Yet Cora used him out of the bullpen in Games 1, 2 and 3. He threw 97 pitches on one day of rest — this from a guy who is just days away from making really big money as a free agent. It was both incredibly risky and incredibly brave.
The last of his pitches was a cutter to Muncy, the lefthanded-hitting infielder who himself seems a character straight out of a Malamud novel. Muncy was released by Oakland at the end of 2017 spring training. He was 26 years old, a few classes short of his degree from Baylor University, and wondered if this were the end of his baseball life. Time to move on.
Then Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi, who had been with Oakland when the Athletics drafted him, called to give him another chance. Muncy took it. His release, he said, was a wake-up call. He retooled his swing, getting himself into a more athletic position, creating more rhythm and speed with his hands, and getting more extension through the baseball. He raked at Triple-A Oklahoma City, but the Dodgers didn’t bother to call him up in September. At home near Dallas, he didn’t bother watching much of their run last year to the seventh game of the World Series.
He started this season in Triple-A again, but wound up leading the Dodgers with 35 home runs. He has a jeweler’s eye at the plate and a powerful, all-fields swing that recalls that of Jason Giambi.
Muncy nearly won the game in the 15th when his long, high fly ball curved just to the harmless side of the rightfield. But the man knows what to do with a second chance. He smashed Eovaldi’s cutter over the wall in left-centerfield in the 18th. The pure joy and relief it released at Dodger Stadium felt like a rainstorm breaking a summer-long drought.
Malamud did create a character who in name only sounds like Muncy. Max Mercy was the bitter, jaded, ironically-named sportswriter in The Natural, a non-believer if you will, who symbolically tries to extract the wonder and naivete out of Roy Hobbs, the title character, and by extension our suspended, almost child-like belief in baseball.
In the end, of course, Hobbs wins over Mercy. Belief triumphs over pessimism. In one of the most mythological descriptions of a home run this side of Updike, Malamud, beginning with a reference to the bat with its own name used by Hobbs, writes, “Wonderboy flashed in the sun. It caught the sphere where it was biggest. A noise like a 21-gun salute cracking the sky.”
Now, as Friday night turned into the first hour of Saturday, it was Midnight Muncy cracking the sky — after 561 pitches, after 46 players, after the longest World Series game there ever was, after the bars in Boston had already been cleared out of fans waiting to see how the cliffhanger would end, after all of our wonder in this beautiful game called baseball was restored.