They say that every perfect game or no-hitter has “that play,” the one batted ball that looked like a clear hit off the bat, that everyone believed would end the bid, but through an amazing defensive effort and a little bit of luck, became an out all the same. Chuck Knoblauch, in the midst of his worst days as a second baseman, ranged all the way to his right to rob José Vidro of a hit in the eighth inning. DeWayne Wise covered all of Indiana and half of Illinois to rob Gabe Kapler of a home run to preserve Mark Buehrle’s perfect game in the ninth inning back in 2009. Gregor Blanco for Matt Cain, Rusty Greer for Kenny Rogers ... the roll call of these heroes goes on.
For more than brief moment on Thursday night, it looked like Isiah Kiner-Falefa would be joining that list, as he made an incredible play to rob Shohei Ohtani of a hit in the top of the seventh inning, preserving Jameson Taillon’s bid for perfection. And then, almost exactly one inning later, IKF became the goat of the night, mishandling a hard ground ball up the middle that would ricochet into left field for a double. Two plays, in many ways more alike than different, but with outcomes that couldn’t be any farther apart.
The first play came with one out in the top of the seventh, as Ohtani lined a 1-1 fastball up the middle. Although it did not qualify as a hard-hit ball, since it had an exit velocity of 87.7 mph, its xBA was .560; these are the types of hits that frequently find holes in the infield to become singles. On top of that, Ohtani hit the ball to the shortstop side of the second-base bag while the Yankees were playing him to pull; Statcast’s defensive positioning metrics would say that IKF was lined up in the role of the second baseman. Everything lined up for the perfect game to be broken.
And yet, the perfecto continued, all thanks to Kiner-Falefa.
Fielding the ball on this play was no sure thing, but for the most part, it wasn’t all that out of the ordinary in terms of difficulty. Kiner-Falefa had a long way to travel, certainly, but it wasn’t quite at the edge of his range; he was aided in that by the high bounce, since it allowed him to continue charging right at full speed without the need to bend down for the ball, which would have slowed him down.
The true difficulty here was the throw. IKF’s momentum was carrying him away from first base, and the speed of the runner — Ohtani’s sprint speed is 27.9 feet/second this season, placing him in the 70th percentile — meant that he did not have the time to stop, plant his feet, and fire to first. The Yankee shortstop instead had to twist his body and make an off-balance throw off his back foot; he made it count, delivering a perfect strike that hit DJ LeMahieu right in the glove on one bounce, beating Ohtani by an inch.
It was barely an inch, really; maybe even a hair less.
Everything about this play had to be perfect in order for the 20th straight out to be recorded. Kiner-Falefa needed to have the range to get to the right spot, the flexibility to turn and make the throw to first, and the arm strength to ensure that the ball hit its target while also beating Ohtani to the bag. The ball had to take a clean bounce, and not hit an uneven patch of dirt or a stray clump. And in this case, everything worked out, and instead of celebrating as the Angels’ first baserunner of the night, the two-way star was retired for the third time that night.
Taillon retired Mike Trout with a fly ball to left field, extending his perfect-game bid to seven full innings, the Yankees’ longest attempt in 15 years. Unfortunately, that’s where it would end, as Jared Walsh led off the eighth with a double on a batted ball up the middle of his own.
I’ll admit, I’ve watched this play dozens of times since it happened, and I still can’t tell whether or not this looks like a hit off the bat. The Statcast data says, “absolutely not,” as the 95.8-mph exit velo and -3 degree launch angle come out to a .290 xBA, but the ball is placed perfectly — right in that gap between the standard shortstop position and the second-base bag that would typically require a highlight-reel play to snag.
Kiner-Falefa was nowhere near there, but — just like he did with Ohtani — was playing the left-handed first baseman to pull. As he did earlier, IKF ranged to his right, and just like last time, he actually got to the spot in the nick of time. On this play, however, he had to get down to field the ball, essentially throwing himself onto the ground at the spot where his path and the path of the ball intersected. Unfortunately, he miscalculated the slide ever so slightly, and instead of the ball and glove meeting perfectly, the ball bounced off the side of the glove.
Of course, the play was not over at this juncture. IKF still would have had to either stand up and fire to first or make a throw from his knees, and while Walsh is no Ohtani — his sprint speed is only 25.9 feet/second this season, though he averaged between 26.5 and 27.0 over the last two seasons — the amount of time that the play takes meant that it would have been a bang-bang play at first. But that opportunity never came, all because the ball and glove missed each other by less than an inch.
Inches. At the end of the day, baseball is a game of inches, with plays, games, and even entire seasons hanging in the balance by a mere inch. Perhaps that is why, as fans, we place the perfect game on such a pedestal, why all our eyes are glued to the television screen whenever anyone — even a player you can’t stand on your team’s most hated archrival — takes a bid for one deep into the game, and why we remember so strongly even those attempts that fail. Because we know that, to even come close enough to perfection that it becomes a realistic possibility, the inches must line up perfectly, one after another after another, until they line up 27 times in a row.
For a brief moment, those inches lined up to make Isiah Kiner-Falefa the potential hero of Jameson Taillon’s night of immortality. Just a few minutes later, they reminded him — and us — just how fleeting that quest for immortality truly is.