The series finale between the Mariners and Yankees was billed as a milestone pitching clash of Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka. Teammates on the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles for five years, the novelty of former Japanese teammates dueling in a major league game figured to find millions of fans in Japan staying up late (or waking up early) for a telecast that began at 2 a.m. in Tokyo.
And yet it was another veteran from Japan, the Mariners’ Nori Aoki, who almost the stole the show. Aoki hit a line drive in the fifth inning that got past diving center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, whose arm has never been associated with a cannon. As Aoki hustled toward third base, coach Manny Acta gestured with a windmill wave that is the international sign-language word — at least on a baseball field — for “run, dude, run!”
Aoki complied, then stopped. Ellsbury’s throw to the cutoff man was accurate, and Acta decided caution might be in order for a team that can’t afford to give up one-out, man-on-third opportunities. Sure enough, Seth Smith drove Aoki in with a single, briefly tying a game the Mariners eventually lost, 4-3.
Though the coach’s quick wits proved prudent, his change of heart denied fans on two continents the joy of watching Aoki attempt an inside-the-park home run. With the possible exception of the straight steal of home plate, the inside-the-park homer is the most thrilling play in baseball.
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It’s a recipe for fun that usually requires two ingredients: a well-struck ball off the bat of the hitter, and an outfield misplay not egregious enough to be scored an error. Once in a while there’s a crazy carom off the wall — Ichiro Suzuki’s inside-the-park shot to lead off the 2007 All-Star Game comes to mind — but much more often than not, inside jobs involve a breakdown of team defense.
Because big league players happen to be best in the world at what they do, inside-the-park homers are rare. The odds of any home run not clearing the fence are about 158-1, which might seem low for longtime season-ticket holders at Safeco Field.
Since it opened on July 15, 1999, the yard with the seemingly spacious outfield has been the scene of one inside-the-park homer: Adrian Beltre’s 2006 liner against the Red Sox, whose comical follies on the misplay featured an inevitable contribution from left fielder Manny Ramirez.
(As Beltre was chugging around second, Ramirez saw the ball and pointed to center fielder Coco Crisp, as if to say: “There it is. You make the play.”)
In the old days — the late 19th century and early 20th century days — inside-the-park homers were more common than conventional homers. When Ty Cobb won the AL Triple Crown in 1909, none of his league-leading nine homers cleared a fence.
Among hitters some of us actually remember, nobody was more adept at speeding around the bases with the ball in play than the former Royals outfielder Willie Wilson. Of his 41 career homers, 13 were inside the park.
Speaking of Kansas City, you might remember Alcides Escobar leading off Game 1 of the 2015 World Series by drilling a fastball off the Mets’ Matt Harvey to deep left-center. Yoenis Cespedes, whose brain lapses are comparable to those of Manny Ramirez, got a late jump on the ball and failed to make what should have been a routine catch.
It was the first inside-the-park homer in the World Series since the A’s Mule Haas went sorta deep against the 1929 Cubs. Haas’ three-run shot highlighted a seventh-inning rally that found the A’s, down 8-0, scoring 10 runs on 15 hits.
Haas was a center fielder, so I presume he was faster than 275-pound Prince Fielder. But the big fella once hit an inside-the-park homer against the Twins at the Metrodome, thanks to the positioning of a speaker-system amplifier attached to the roof.
Center fielder Lew Ford tried to track the ball, but how do you track a ball that bounces off a speaker-system amplifier? Fielder reached the plate with such ease, he didn’t even didn’t slide.
If the green light Aoki was given weren’t rescinded Sunday — had he sprinted home and avoided a tag on a bang-bang play at the plate — it would’ve have been the Mariners’ 23rd inside-the-park homer in the 39-year history of the franchise.
Rupert Jones, who hit three between 1977 and ’79, still ranks as the team leader. Dave Henderson and Ken Griffey Jr. each had two, as did Dan Wilson.
Nobody mourns the fact that artificial turf has been phased out of baseball, but I’ll give the fake stuff this much: It enabled a catcher like Dan Wilson, whose many skills did not find manager Lou Piniella inclined to use him as a pinch runner, to hit two inside-the-park homers in Seattle.
In any case, the Mariners’ inside-the-park totals shape up like this: 15 in the Kingdome, one in Safeco Field and six on the road, the most recent of which was supplied by Willie Bloomquist, at Houston in 2007.
Uncounted is the inside-the-park homer Al Cowens hit on the road in 1983. Cowens hit it at Kansas City, once home of the turf so friendly to bouncing balls. His homer was disallowed because umpire Tim Welke ruled he didn’t touch second base.
Because a presumably misplayed liner was negated by a missed step on the basepath, a homer became an out.
You’ve gotta touch ’em all, even if you’re in a hurry.