There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good defensive play. Yes, I obviously love when one of the Yankees’ big boppers belts a blast over the bullpen, and Gerrit Cole blowing fastballs past the game’s best hitters never gets old. As much fun as it is to watch home runs and strikeouts on repeat, however, defense — both good and bad — has always captured my attention as a writer. While to me, a home run or a great pitch look fairly similar on repeated viewings, every time I watch re-watch a defensive highlight, I pick up something new about the play.
As it so happens, 10 years ago today was one of those defensive plays that always bears returning to, and in vintage 2013 fashion, the figures involved ran the gamut. Facing a Baltimore Orioles team that had won 93 games and took them the distance in the ALDS the previous season, the battered and bruised Yankees had a 5-2 lead in the eighth inning. With staff ace CC Sabathia reaching the century mark on his pitch count, however, the O’s began to put together a big inning. Leadoff hitter Alexi Casilla grounded a single through the left side of the infield, then Nick Markakis did the same to put runners on first and second with nobody out for the ever-dangerous Manny Machado. After battling each other to a full count, Machado laced a one-hopper to Yankees superstar Robinson Canó, an easy 4-6-3 double play that would have diffused the situation greatly, putting just one runner at third with two away.
Obviously, if that was what happened, we wouldn’t be here now, would we?
A fun and memorable play, for sure, but as these things tend to go, everything had to work out absolutely perfectly for this 4-6-5-6-5-3-4 triple play to get turned. Let’s start from the very beginning, with Canó fielding the ball.
Right from this image, you have a tailor-made double play ball. As Canó is fielding the ball, the shortstop (Jayson Nix) is breaking for second base, while the batter isn’t even out of the batter’s box. But what both Nix and third baseman Kevin Youkilis — yes, this was basically the Boston icon’s only good moment from a regrettable cameo in pinstripes — notice, however, is that because of how close Canó came to fielding the ball on the fly, Casilla’s first move was back towards second base. Taking advantage of this, Nix* fires the ball to Youkilis, catching Casilla in a rundown for the second out.
*Nix: He just does something every game, Suzyn.
Had the play ended there, it would have been a resounding success — the only thing better than a standard 4-6-3 double play here would be a double play that puts the runner on first instead of third. But once again, another heads-up play, this time by Youkilis, allows for additional heroics.
As Youkilis chases down and tags out Casilla, he keeps one eye on Machado, who had strayed far off first to put himself to advance to second if Casilla could keep the rundown going long enough. Had the Baltimore second baseman been able to outrun Youkilis, who was never known for his speed, it would have worked: Youk would have had to throw the ball to Canó, leaving second largely uncovered.*
*Yes, Brett Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki were running in from the outfield to cover, but it’s unclear whether they would have been able to arrive in time.
By applying the tag himself, Youkilis allowed Canó to remain at second; he then threw behind Machado, forcing him to commit to second. Veteran Lyle Overbay took the throw cleanly, then delivered a perfect strike to second base.
Technically speaking, this play did not end the game — the Yankees still had to hit in the bottom of the eighth, and the O’s got one last lick in the top of the ninth. But 10 years ago, the Yankees had a certain fella by the name of Mariano Rivera looming late in games. Although he allowed a two-out single to Chris Davis, he did exactly what you’d expect from the GOAT: he slammed the door shut.
Thanks to the heads-up play by the Yankees defense, however, he had three runs to work with, making his job all the more easy.