The game was almost over last night. Yankees ace, CC Sabathia, had successfully bounced back from a rough first inning to give up only three runs over eight innings. The offense, led by Brett Gardner and Travis Hafner, showed just enough combined patience, timing and power to eke out a win. Only Mariano Rivera needed to come in and shut the door against his 2001 World Series nemesis the Arizona Diamondbacks.
It was the bottom of the ninth inning and the batter was Eric Chavez. Rivera worked him to a 2-2 count then seemed to win the battle by inducing what seemed to be a routine groundball to shortstop. Except the current shortstop for the New York Yankees is Eduardo Nunez.
The same Nunez who committed four errors in fifty-eight total chances at shortstop in the major leagues last season and was consequently sent down to the minor leagues. The same Nunez who has a career .934 fielding percentage at the shortstop position. And the same Nunez who makes a Yankees fan take and hold a deep breath when the ball is hit to him in the bottom of the ninth of a one run game.
Let's pause for a moment and acknowledge that the man Nunez is temporarily replacing, Yankee Captain Derek Jeter, is not exactly renowned for his defense. He is a five time Gold Glove winner but his range is somewhat limited and routinely mocked. However, while the Captain may not make the flashy plays anymore (his patented jump throw aside), he usually always makes the routine ones. And, in the bottom of the ninth inning of a game that would give the Yankees a chance to win only their second series of 2013 thus far, the shortstop needs to make a routine play.
Back to the game action: Chavez, a lefty, sprang out of the box sprinting toward first and the ball bounced its way toward Nunez who came barreling in to grab it. Nunez scooped it up. Then he paused. He paused! He got a firm grip on the ball (this was no accidental double clutch), planted his feet and let loose an accurate throw to Kevin Youkilis at first base to get Chavez easily. Two down. Rivera got another ground ball for the final out and the Yankees win was secure.
On Wednesday night there was plenty of praise to go around: to Sabathia for settling in and delivering a solid and lengthy performance, to Brett Gardner for a clutch at bat to deliver the game tying single, to Joe Girardi for pinch hitting Travis Hafner, to Hafner for making good on his manager's faith by delivering a go ahead home run and, of course, to Rivera for shutting the door.
With all that, it would be easy to dismiss the second out of the ninth inning. The ball was hit cleanly to Nunez and he fielded it cleanly. No big deal. Except in 2011 and 2012, in his haste to make the play, he would have thrown on the run, airmailed the ball into the stands and Chavez would have been on second base.
But last night, Nunez made the play. The youngster made a conscious and obvious decision to assess the runner and know that he had time to plant himself and still make a good throw. This spring, as quoted in the LoHud Yankees Blog, Nunez said "I tell myself, I work hard and I (will) prove them wrong. The people that talked about me bad, they’re wrong"
And last night they were because the Yankees shortstop made the routine play.