Only a few experiences have ever really given me butterflies as a photographer.
Wednesday night, I was full of them.
The first time was photographing West Virginia football as the Mountaineers took on LSU in the first ever 'ESPN GameDay' in Morgantown. The next was standing on the streets of Morgantown with a camera documenting the aftermath of Seal Team 6's success. But the Stanley Cup Final? Nope. There were no nerves, no worries of failing, just doing whatever I could to produce the best images I could.
Wednesday night, however, with the Dodgers' 37-year-old Rich Hill on the mound, and staring down the barrel of baseball's rarest feat, I had more butterflies than the 'Butterfly Forest' at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.
It's commonplace to photograph both pitchers in the first inning of a baseball game. A photographer sends one or two of each out to his outlet or wire service, and then you move on to the rest of the game until you need to shoot the pitchers again.
When I got into my standard third-baseline position, I shot Trevor Williams on the hill, and then I took a shot of Hill in the bottom of the frame. Now, being a Pittsburgh-themed outlet, I put most emphasis in the elation and dejection shown from the Pirates side of the ballgame. So, I wasn't necessarily upset with shooting Hill with his back to me as a lefty — not in the first inning at least.
As you can see, shots of lefties are just fine from their back side, but you don't get the ball in the frame. It's more of a 'follow through' and 'pitch face' kind of photograph. In the first inning, this was fine.
Fast forward to the eighth inning, though, and that photograph was no longer 'fine.' Five innings. Six innings. You can still call seven perfect innings a great game. That's an incredible game, in fact. But, when you get to the eighth, it's time to nearly ignore everything else and focus on the guy out there trying to put his name in record books, trying to complete the rarest accomplishment in the game.
So, the eighth inning came, and Hill was still perfect. And, boy was his count low with the Pirates K'ing on everything. I migrated to the camera well inside the visitors' dugout on the first base line, and I prepared to shoot Hill on the mound, shoot him in the batter's box when he was due up in the top of the ninth, and shoot him until perfection was achieved or the Pirates won the game.
Through eight, still perfect. But, only because Chase Utley, today's only participant older than Hill at 38, made 'that play.' You know what I mean. Every no-hitter, every perfect game. They all have 'that play' in common with each other. Utley laid out completely, parallel to the ground and quite a fall from it, and he robbed what looked to be the Pirates' first hit of the day.
We talk a lot about the shots that I get in Sunday's Best, but what about the ones I don't? This was a case of being 'on,' but not being 'on enough' to get focus on Utley and his acrobatics:
Top of the ninth, Hill due up second, and wouldn't it be perfect if he found the seats with a baseball to help his own cause? And, don't tell me you weren't pulling for the guy at this point, because you only get a handful of opportunities to see something like a perfect game, especially in person.
Hill didn't hit a home run, of course, and he certainly didn't put the Dodgers ahead. Neither did breakout star Chris Taylor, so it was on to the bottom of the ninth, 0-0.
Suddenly, the focus of the photographers went from, 'man, a perfect game' to 'ok, here comes yet another walk-off-win.' Let that sink in: Rich Hill is returning to the mound, dragging a perfect game behind him, and the Pirates were a swing from winning a game against baseball's best team and one of the year's best performances by a pitcher.
The hits didn't come, but a baserunner finally did. Logan Forsythe, playing third base instead of Justin Turner, who started the last two days in Pittsburgh, fumbled a ball hit at him on the corner. He scurried, reached for the loose ball, came up to throw but decided to hold on as he watched Jordy Mercer reach base as the first Pirate to do so safely.
Forsythe hung his head, kicked some dirt, and slowly got back to his spot at third while Hill took his time before his next pitch. It was an error, and both Dodgers immediately knew that a no-hitter would be special, but not 'perfect game special.'
Nevertheless, Hill persisted. He got through the inning and took the no-hitter into the 10th with only 94 deliveries registered to his arm.
Up until now, we're talking about something incredible in a perfect game or a no-hitter, but they have still been done before. Hill joining the ranks would have been incredible for me to photograph, but the baseball gods didn't allow it.
What the gods did dream up in their cornfield, though, was something that had never been done in a baseball game before, and that's a heck of a lot cooler than a perfect game, especially when the home crowd saw it go down.
I'm no stranger to Josh Harrison putting a cape on and flying to the rescue in heroic fashion, but Wednesday was different. As I'd hear him later say to Dan Potash following the game, "... it was the fourth time I saw him, and I had him ..."
Sorry, I forgot to mention 'spoilers' before giving away that J-Hay had an interview. That means the Pirates won, right?
In the bottom of the tenth inning, Harrison became the first player in baseball history to end a no-hitter bid with a walk-off home run. That's kind of an unfathomable feat, given the length of baseball's history and all, but it was spotted and confirmed by our stats guru Matt Gajtka as he monitored his like-minded channels following the game.
I joked before this game to my fellow photographers that "32 percent of the games we've seen have ended in walk-offs." That's not an accurate stat, but it feels like it. This was deservedly a Rich Hill story, until it wasn't, and J-Hay saved the day again.
It sounded like a home run, Hill's body language said home run, but it sounded like Curtis Granderson did everything he could to prevent Harrison's shot from leaving the yard. Like Hill, like the Dodgers, though, he came up short and Harrison's trot touched home.
Shooting from where I was, where most of the photographers were, is dangerous in a walk-off situation. Instead of a view of the hero, you get a view of the backs of his teammates waiting at home plate. On Wednesday, though, Harrison went through the celebration and came straight at us yelling while the rest of the guys chased after him, eventually lifting him too close to me for a picture using the equipment I was running with at the time.
I've gotten some walk-off images this year that I love. The Starling Marte pre-suspension walk-off, the Max Moroff single where he surfed above his teammates' hands, but this is my favorite of 2017 to date — pure emotion.
Following the initial celebration, you knew Josh Bell and company would follow up with some additional Powerade during the AT&T SportsNet interview. I mean, come on, these guys waste the flavored stuff for any home win, it seems, so this was a guarantee.
It wasn't Bell per usual, though, it was Sean Rodriguez, who was doused after his walk-off homer in his return game in Pittsburgh:
The next shower came from third base coach Joey Cora in the form of a fistful of bubble gum, thrown right over my left shoulder:
The gum barrage continues on a dripping J-Hay:
And, finally, J-Hay strikes back:
The assault on the Pirates' hero was over, the AT&T SportsNet interview with Potash was over, and MLB.TV was on deck. For me, I headed up the staircase Harrison would predictably ascend and I waited for No. 5 with a wide angle lens in hand.
Harrison didn't disappoint. Although he was likely showing off for the video camera waiting for him and not my lens, I was able to capture a final image of the hero as he flew to the locker room:
Thanks for the point, Josh. Let's do this again, sometime, yeah?
I'd still really love to shoot a perfect game sometime, though, so let's do that too. I can assure you there will be a Sunday's Best when that happens as well.
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