Kovacevic: Forever baseball’s prettiest play ☕


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Jacob Stallings tags out the Angels' Kole Calhoun in the fifth inning Tuesday night in Anaheim. - AP

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Fire everyone.

Meaning from both teams this time.

Look, there's no fairly stripping credit from these Pirates, particularly after all they've absorbed since the All-Star break, but let's not ignore that their 10-7 outslugging of the Angels on this Tuesday night at Angel Stadium came against an opponent that's now lost 10 of 12, that's routinely pulling pitchers by the third or fourth inning, that's ... that's ... OK, just watch:

That was a Josh Bell bloop single in the third inning that somehow scored two runs without an RBI.

Look familiar?

And the home team's pitcher up there, Griffin Canning, had such an awful start that he'd later observe of that comical sequence, "I probably deserved it."


But I'll repeat: There's no way to fairly strip credit from these Pirates. Because someone still had to hammer out 17 hits for a second double-digit run total in as many days, someone still had to navigate through Trevor Williams' latest seasick start, and someone still had to do this:

Oh. My.

"So pretty," Clint Hurdle called it.

"Unreal," Kevin Newman called it.

"Not fair," Josh Bell would say.

That play, my friends, is what I love about baseball. Not this sloppy, sluggish game between going-nowhere-rapidly teams. But that play, in general, is just the pinnacle of what this beautiful sport still can bring, no matter the era, no matter the context.

So, yeah, let's toss out all of that crusty context of late and have a little fun.

It was the fifth inning. It wasn't Williams' night, to be kind. After he'd spotted the Angels the first four runs, his teammates fought back for a 7-5 lead. And here he was, about to concede a sixth when Matt Thaiss skied a ball to medium-depth center. Deep enough for Kole Calhoun to tag from third.

Not deep enough to beat Marte, who'd record his seventh outfield assist of the season and 71st of his career  and 59th in the past five years  alone:

I had two questions for him afterward:

How much pride do you take in that arm?

"It's something I'm very proud of. As a ballplayer, as an athlete, you have all these attributes, and it's one I enjoy a lot. It's important to be a good hitter. It's important to field well and to run. But to also have a strong arm that's respected around the league, that's huge for me."

Wait, if they respect you, why does anyone still run on you on a routine tag from third?

"I don't know," he'd reply with a broad smile and playful shrug.

The confidence is evident in his form as he sets for the throw. Rather than doing the momentum-building run-up to the catch that every child is taught worldwide, he simply waits for it -- actually backpedals slightly -- then throws off the back foot:

Wait, back foot?

"Back foot!" Bell would gush. "Who does that?"

Someone with that God-given arm that Rene Gayo found on the sandlots of the Dominican Republic more than a dozen years ago. And all those other tools, of course.

Still, it takes two to make a great throw. No one remembers Dave Parker's All-Star aerial if Gary Carter doesn't catch and tag. No one remembers Jose Guillen's Coors Field cannon if Keith Osik doesn't catch and tag. I'm not comparing those throws, the two best by the Pirates within my lifetime, to this. Rather, it's to stress that the ball might as well sail into the sun if it doesn't result in an out.

A wide receiver feels it on a quarterback's great pass. A winger feels it on a center's great feed. A power forward feels it when the point guard goes no-look.

Jacob Stallings, son of a basketball coach, gets this.

"When it's coming your way, when you can feel it's a great throw, when it's coming from someone like Starling ... just don't drop it," he'd tell me afterward with a little laugh. "That's part of what you're thinking, believe me. You want to do your best to match it."

He might have done more than match it. As Newman began saying to me before tellingly cutting himself off, "Starling's throw was incredible, but that tag might have been ... right up there."

Here's why: Although the throw arrived in a raging hurry, it did require Stallings to backhand the ball a bit up the first base line and, as I'd confirm, it left him literally out of time to apply any thought to how he'd tag Calhoun.

A closer, slower look:

"Any throws that you get from right field or the ones from center that maybe go a little up the line, that really limits my visibility on the runner," Stallings told me. "So all I could do was just dive across to where I thought the play would be. But luckily, it worked out. We got him."

Never mind that Stallings would get clipped in the mask by Calhoun's elbow, though he'd say he was "fine" from that.

As for the throw, "Honestly, I wasn't sure we'd have a chance because I thought Thaiss hit it pretty good. But Marte's got that arm."

There was one final variable and, small as it'll seem, all concerned cited it: The grass in Southern California stadiums tends to play slicker than others. Hurdle brought it up in suggesting that's why Marte's throw didn't lose any steam upon skipping just below the mound, and Stallings went further, saying it kept him from worrying whether the ball might take a detour.

OK, that's beautiful about baseball, too.

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