It is the dream-come-true of every sandlot slugger, every Wiffle-ball wizard, every Little League legend, every backyard bombardier: bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, the crowd on its feet, the pitcher on the ropes, the dugout going crazy, here comes your moment, here comes your pitch and …
… and it nicks your elbow?
“Well, obviously, that’s not the way I wanted to win the ballgame,” Michael Conforto said, not even trying to camouflage his sheepish grin after winning the ballgame, the Mets’ home opener, exactly that way, a walk-off nick that delivered a 3-2 win. “I wanted to go up there and put the ball in play and drive the ball somewhere.”
Don Mattingly wanted something else.
“I wanted it to be what it was,” the Marlins manager said, looking equal parts puzzled and punch-drunk. “It was a strike.”
It was, of course. No amount of orange-and-blue tint in your sunglasses can make it anything else. Miami catcher Chad Wallach called for a slider. Miami pitcher Anthony Bass threw a slider.
“He wanted to throw a strike on the inner half,” Wallach said. “And he executed that. He threw a strike on the inner half.”
Ron Kulpa certainly thought so. He rung Conforto up, and for about half a second it looked like the nightmarish start to Conforto’s season was about to be compounded. He’s already left an army of runners on base in four games. He was about to leave three more. Except Kulpa, the home plate umpire, did a most astonishing thing just then.
“He changed his mind,” Wallach said.
Kulpa heard the ball tick off Conforto’s elbow guard. Conforto was helpful enough, pointing to the elbow. Mets first-base coach Tony Tarasco yelled: “Get down here, touch the base, and let’s get out of here!” Conforto did as he was told. And afterward looked like he might rather be inside a confessional than at a podium, describing the moment.
“There might’ve been a little lift to my elbow out of habit or reaction,” he said, as close as he would come to reciting an Act of Contrition. “It barely skimmed the edge of my elbow guard. I knew there’d be some controversy.”
The call was so absurd, so bizarre, Mattingly couldn’t even work up a good Billy Martin lather, or kick up some dirt like Earl Weaver. He was exasperated as he searched for the right words.
“The ball is a strike and he went to call it a strike,” he said. “It’s in the strike zone, it should be a strike. He got hit by a strike. He went to call it and then he said it hit him.”
He shook his head.
“I honestly think Ron knew it was a strike,” Mattingly continued. “I honestly think he’s feeling bad. I bet he feels awful. They don’t want to do that, either. The umpires don’t want to mess it up.”
He was right. Kulpa later told a pool reporter: “The guy was hit by the pitch in the strike zone. I should have called him out.”
Down the Citi Field corridor, it sure seemed like Luis Rojas’ conscience wouldn’t allow him to pretend the world — or, at least, the sellout crowd of 8,011 that freckled Citi Field — hadn’t seen what they’d just seen. Asked directly if he thought Kulpa got the call right, here’s what Rojas said:
“Yeah. That’s what got us the win today. That’s why we were celebrating, that’s why Michael got the right to go to first base and force the runner from third to score.”
What, you expected him to throw it back like an undersized fish?
The ending obscured what had already been a terrific day at Citi, a game played in brilliant conditions featuring a fine debut effort by Taijuan Walker who held the Marlins to two runs in six innings but seemed destined to be a hard-luck loser until birthday boy Jeff McNeil snapped out of an 0-for-10 slide to start the season by tying the game with one mighty swing — and one epic bat flip — leading off the ninth.
Within 15 minutes, it was a footnote.
“It was tough for me to celebrate,” Conforto admitted. “I wanted to drive the runs in, but I guess I got the job done. Obviously I’d like to use the bat next time.”
Mattingly, caught somewhere between a seethe and a shrug, asked: “I wonder what happens when they put in the automated strike zone and [the ball] breaks the plane? Is it a strike then?”
Ron Kulpa might have expedited the relevance of that question Thursday afternoon, but it wouldn’t help Mattingly this day. And it wouldn’t hurt the Mets.
“A win’s a win,” Conforto said, and he’s a hitter so he knows that a bloop looks like a line drive in the box score. Same as a walk-off nick — a walk-off gift — looks like game-winning gapper in the standings.