Wth both AL and NL Wildcard competitions heading for an exciting climax, and the European Baseball Championships starting this weekend, I was reflecting on my favourite play of the 2023 baseball season.
Not something like watching Shohei Ohtani or Ronald Acuña Jr. produce a couple of the most incredible seasons in my life, but more like Elly De La Cruz stealing second and third and home.
The obvious answer for the highlight play of the season, at least for someone not in the anti-WBC brigade, is the final at-bat in the World Baseball Classic final. Getting to see Ohtani as a ninth-inning closer strikeout Mike Trout was pure Hollywood. However, no matter how much I love both players, I had no vested interest in the result; plus, I wasn’t in the stands to watch the Japan v USA clash live. There is something very special about witnessing plays first-hand.
I was in the stand at Yankee Stadium in July when I saw Giancarlo Stanton destroy a baseball. I swear that the ball looked like it was rocket-propelled when it left his bat.
The scoreboard at Yankee Stadium is pretty good and flashed up 118 mph exit velocity. This was one of those times that my eyes did not deceive me. Unfortunately, none of the Yankee faithful sitting around me were as analytically inclined and seemed non-plussed at my exclamations of “one of the hardest-hit homers this season” and “there can only be about 100 balls hit harder in the history of the game.”
To be honest, I don’t know how many balls have been hit harder than 118.1 mph; I still wanted more fan recognition, but I guess they’ve seen Stanton do it many times before.
And so, to my highlight of the season. I appreciate that no one else on the entire planet will have this as their season’s highlight, but hey, that’s what makes sport so great.
To understand why this play will stay with me for the rest of my life, you have to know the backstory.
In October 2022, Great Britain qualified for the World Baseball Classic. They were pitted against Mexico, Colombia, Canada, and the USA in Phoenix. This was the first time GB had qualified; we were in unchartered waters.
GB coach, Drew Spencer had instilled a sense of belief in the players that was not widely shared among the baseball-watching public. My social media feed was full of people decrying my optimism with their presumption that Great Britain would be mercy-ruled in all four group games.
But even my glass-half-full outlook was nothing compared to that of the players. On Matt Mutton’s British Baseball Podcast, I wanted to know how the guys would recover in the mere 14 hours from finishing the USA game to starting the Canada game. Given that USA, with Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and a host of other household names, would represent the biggest game of their career so far, and Canada was a “far more winnable game.”
And so to Phoenix. In the opening game, Trayce Thompson, the best-known of the GB players, went deep in the first inning to give Great Britain a surprise lead and announce their (our?) arrival at the WBC. It’s unfair to say it went downhill from there, but when the opposition’s lineup starts Trout, Betts, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Kyle Schwarber, Trea Turner, and Kyle Tucker, downwards is the only likely trajectory.
With the withdrawal of major leaguers Lucius Fox and Jazz Chisholm Jr., Great Britain fielded a new-look infield. The soon-to-be Reading Fightin’ Phils third baseman Nick Ward moved to first, and no matter what Brad Pitt says, first base is incredibly difficult. Darnell Sweeney had impressed in training, so was given the shortstop gig, and outfield superstar Anfernee Seymour shifted inwards to second base. The Cubs’ potential 2025 third baseman, BJ “Bazza” Murray, was at the hot corner.
Seymour made a couple of effortless plays, but in the third inning, we got our first glimpse of what would become of one GB’s Achilles heels – infield defensive plays. The other would be the proliferation of walks issued by the pitchers.
A soft ground ball to short was corralled by Sweeney, but his throw dragged Ward off the bag. The reigning MVP, Goldschmidt, was aboard with only one out and Arenado coming to the plate. Moments later, the USA were level. The Cardinals duo are among the greatest players of our generation; they didn’t need extra assistance.
Kyle Tucker’s topspin line drive looked like an easy catch, but novice shortstop Sweeney misjudged the flight, which gave USA the lead. Watching MLB day-in, day-out, you get accustomed to seeing tricky defensive plays look easy.
Groundball pitcher, Dan Cooper was brought on in the sixth inning, but the roller from Goldschmidt dribbled between third and short. Once again, Arenado drove home the run. It was now 6-1 to the favourites.
The following inning, Cooper induced a chopper to third from J.T. Realmuto, but this time it was Murray who pulled Ward off the bag. In the blink of an eye, an easy out became another man on base. The speed of the USA team was probably surprising the GB infielders. Although GB had acquitted themselves well in the defeat to the USA, we knew that they could do better.
Buoyed by the positives GB took from the USA game, we viewed the Canada matchup as even more “winnable” than before. Yes, they had Tyler O’Neill and Freddie Freeman (and Matt Brash and Cal Quantrill and Edouard Julien and Bo Naylor and Abraham Toro), but Canada was the weakest of GB’s four group opponents.
After GB took a 3-0 lead in the first inning, I joked about the Mercy Rule being enforced, but Canada exposed my naivety by taking a 5-3 lead before Great Britain came back out for the second inning.
In the third inning, a terrific bunt towards third forced GB pitcher McKenzie Mills into defensive action, but he swivelled and drilled the ball wide of the diving Ward at the first.
I honestly don’t know how much first base Ward had played. I know he played second base for the Adelaide Giants, but what I can tell you is that he is 5-foot-9, which is quite… short for a first baseman. Canada’s first baseman is 6-foot-5, and having seen Freeman up close, he looks even bigger in real life. Extra inches matter. Stop sniggering!
With the bases loaded, O’Neill drove in three to take Canada’s score to double-digits.
I was sandwiched between the mega-brain of Russell Eassom, Baseball America’s Kyle Glaser, and WBC authority Shaun Spradling. Had I been positioned among less knowledgeable minds, perhaps they would have struggled to tell which of the two teams was full of MLB talent.
GB allowed another infield hit to score and then failed to convert a double-play opportunity. And then, in the fifth inning, a chopper down the middle was well grabbed by Sweeney, but the throw once again pulled Ward off first base. No play was routine for GB’s infielders, and the team continued to gift Canada base runners.
In the sixth inning, with a nine-run margin, the Mercy Rule beckoning, and two men on base, Freeman pulled a ground ball and yet again a double-play opportunity was missed. Moments later, the bases were loaded, again. The continual stream of base runners caused by erratic defensive plays and pitchers’ walks – GB pitchers would end up issuing 16 free passes in this game – was taking its toll.
In a play that summed up Great Britain’s infield defensive woes, another groundball up the middle was swept up by Sweeney, who stepped onto second base but airmailed it over Ward’s outstretched glove.
Canada was awarded the game on the Run Rule (Mercy Rule) when the score reached 8-18 in the seventh inning and it was beginning to feel like GB would fail to leave their mark on the tournament.
After the respectability of the USA result, the Canada game was a gut punch. However, those of us with continual positivity running through our veins kept the faith. If you don’t believe me, listen.
A couple of areas of weakness should not undermine the fantastic play of Drew Spencer’s team. It didn’t need much to change for GB to win their first-ever WBC game.
Despite wearing their stunning red (home) jerseys, the infield inefficiencies continued in the Colombia game with the failure to convert the most routine of routine plays when Sweeney threw a little wide, and it popped out of the glove of Ward at first.
Seymour again reacted superbly with a deflected bounce and tagged the runner, but again, the double-play could not be turned as the ball failed to stick in Ward’s glove. By comparison, Colombia converted every opportunity.
With Colombia 3-0 up, Sweeney charged a chopped ball; he dropped it but recovered, and Ward was able to pick it at first to get the out. This felt pivotal. GB couldn’t allow the score to get away.
Murray drove in Ford, and then Young plated two with a cup-of-tea-deserving double to tie the scores. This was getting exciting.
Angels’ Gio Urshela chopped one wide of third base that Murray took with Machadoesque ease. He swivelled and got back to his feet to throw across the diamond for Ward to secure the out and keep the score level. That was big, especially as Jaden Rudd doubled to drive in two, and suddenly GB were ahead.
Everyone knew that the two-run lead was not enough. So a Harry Ford solo homer and Nick Ward run on a wild pitch gave breathing space as the game entered the ninth.
GB’s four-run lead was immediately reduced to three with a pinch-hit home run from Dilson Herrera.
Just three outs from victory, but the tension was ratcheted up when another routine play was botched. Harold Ramirez dragged the ball to Murray at the hot corner, but his throw was off target, and it bounced wide of Ward with Ramirez scampering to second.
Urshela flew out to Young in left field and Ramirez wisely decided not to test the GB outfielder’s arm. Jorge Alfaro singled, and ominously, with two on, Colombia had the tying run at the plate.
A ball in the dirt allowed Alfaro to move to second. The double-play situation was avoided. Runners at second and third. The tension was palpable.
Gibaut induced the groundball. It rolled slowly to short. I held my breath. Sweeney grabbed it and steadied. A run scored as Ramirez crossed home plate but Sweeney wasn’t heading home, he was always going to first. Rodriguez had wheels, this was going to be a bang-bang play.
Sweeney gripped the ball out of his glove. I was still holding my breath. Those two seconds in Phoenix felt like two minutes underwater. Sweeney’s throws today had been over Ward’s head and wide of Ward’s glove. Everyone in Chase Field knew the magnitude of this throw.
The ball flew across the infield but noooooooo, it was dragging Ward wide again. I’m not a heightist, but Ward is only 5-foot-9. It’s just not fair. My eyes followed the trajectory of the ball towards the Colombia dugout. Rodriguez would surely end up at second with two runs scoring. But wait, Ward had dug the ball out of the dirt. And his stretch kept his foot on the bag. It was a textbook scoop at first. He had only gone and done it. I took a breath. I needed it.
That was the play. This is my highlight of the season. Your season highlight might be more spectacular, but I don’t think I will ever forget Nick Ward stepping up and producing the goods when the pressure was at its highest.
With two outs, it was left to Gibaut to secure Great Britain’s first-ever win in the WBC. Subsequent results would mean that GB will appear in the next World Baseball Classic, strengthening the future of baseball in the UK.
What was your highlight play of 2023? Think outside of the box. Make it personal. Let us know in the comments or on social media.