Monday, September 23, 2013

Jason Kendall: Forgotten Hero

On September 23, 2008 the Brewers hosted the Pirates in a game that marked the beginning of the most exhilarating week of regular season baseball Milwaukee has ever seen. It was a week of walk-off home runs, great pitching, and dominance of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The playoff push is best remembered for Ryan Braun hitting an 8th inning go-ahead home run and CC Sabathia pitching a complete game in the season finale, but the iconic clincher mayn't have been without the unlikely heroics of our favorite light-hitting catcher.

The Brewers led 4-3 going in to the top of the 8th inning. Guillermo Mota started the inning by walking Doug "The Alphabet" Mientkiewicz and subsequently served a homer to Steve Pearce. Trailing 5-4 the Brewers were looking into the abyss of another October free of baseball. After Mota retired the side with no further damage, JJ Hardy led off the bottom half of the frame with a single to center. Corey Hart sacrificed Hardy to second, followed by Bill Hall popping out to first. This brought Jason Kendall, he of the .641 OPS, to the plate.

Jason Kendall inspired me with an irrational sense of confidence. He did not hit for power and he did not hit for average, but he almost always put the ball in play. You had a comforting feeling that there was at least a chance something good would happen. After 26 years of futility, the Brewers were due, right? Facing a 1-2 count Kendall proved that if you flip a coin enough eventually it will land on its side by punching a line drive to right field, just barely out of Steve Pearce's reach. With the game tied at 5-5 the stage was set for a dramatic finish.

After Salomon Torres worked around trouble to pitch a scoreless inning, TJ Beam took the mound for the bottom of the 9th instead of Pirates closer Matt Capps. Beam was a slightly above average pitcher in 2008 (his last in the majors), posting a 4.14 ERA (101 ERA+) in 45.2 innings. However, he was not nearly as effective Capps, who had a 3.02 ERA that season. The difference between marginal major league talent and a reliably effective reliever* became apparent when Prince Fielder blasted a 2-0 offering to deep right-center field, marking the beginning of the end of Milwaukee's playoff drought.

*Capps pitched 8 seasons with a 3.52 ERA in 439.2 innings.

The forgotten heroics of Jason Kendall were especially important to me because when that ball hit the outfield grass I truly believed the Brewers were going to make the playoffs. After being let down for so many years it was a delightful shock to realize that it's not impossible for the Brewers to get a big hit in a playoff race.

Looking back five years after the fact, Kendall's hit is a reminder of how rich baseball memories can be. It never just the home run, it's the good take that leads to the hanging slider. Or in this case, the gritty slap hitter getting a hit while down to his final strike.

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