Mets, Indians learn sometimes little things -- not long ball -- make difference

NEW YORK -- As in so many games in this season of bountiful home runs, it appeared that a home run would decide Wednesday's clash between playoff contenders at Citi Field.

Carlos Santana, the veteran first baseman who has been Cleveland's best hitter all season, slugged his 30th home run in the top of the 10th inning, drilling a Luis Avilan changeup into the left-field seats to give the Indians a 3-2 lead over the Mets.

A few minutes later, Santana was involved in the key play of the game -- one small play that gets to the heart of the ongoing, often stormy debate about the barrage of home runs and strikeouts, and the declining amount of action aside from all those home runs and strikeouts.

The Mets won 4-3 on J.D. Davis' 107.7 mph rocket base hit into the left-field corner with two outs off All-Star closer Brad Hand, but the Indians had a chance to win the game two batters earlier. The situation: After Amed Rosario led off the inning with a double into the right-center gap and Joe Panik put down a perfect sacrifice bunt -- yes, small ball still exists on rare occasions in 2019 -- Indians manager Terry Francona intentionally walked Pete Alonso to set up a double play with the lefty-lefty matchup against Michael Conforto.

You can even get into the debate of putting the potential winning run on base. Hand is a strikeout pitcher, and Alonso fans 25.6% of the time. Alonso has a .248 average and 1.001 OPS against lefties, and Conforto has hit .239 with a .691 OPS and 27% strikeout rate against lefties. Hand's strikeout rate is actually slightly higher against right-handed batters (36.5% to 32.2%). You rarely see the winning run put on base, so that was a gamble on Francona's part, though if the Indians hadn't, they would have had to bring the infield in, which increases Alonso's batting average on ground balls. Still, I probably would have pitched to Alonso and taken my chances.

The big point in all this: Small ball forced the Indians to make some uncomfortable decisions.

The big play: Conforto hit a weak grounder to Santana, but the ball pulled Santana off the bag. Rosario broke for home on contact, and Santana had an easy out at home, but instead he turned and fired to second base, hoping for a game-ending double play. The problem? He was too far off first base to get back, and Hand had taken a quick step away from first base, and he couldn't get there either. Second baseman Jason Kipnis was too far away as well. Score tied.

From there, Wilson Ramos reached on a trickler down the third-base line, and Davis won it, handing Hand his third blown save in his past four appearances. The Mets go for the series sweep Thursday.

What should Santana have done? Even the Indians had different opinions on the play.

Francona: "The game is happening fast, but with a lefty on the mound, he's not going to be able to get over there [to cover first], so unless [Santana] can get back, there's nobody else there to take the throw. [Kipnis] can't get there."

Santana: "I mean, it's a tough play. I tried to make it with the double play, but it happened, and we lose the game."

Hand: "Obviously, with a one-run game, we can't let that run score right there. I thought maybe [Santana] could have gone home. I didn't know if the runner broke right away. A tough play all around. I kind of stopped, expecting him to throw it home. Once he wasn't throwing it home, I didn't really have a chance to get over there in time. Just a tough play."

Catcher Roberto Perez: "Brad had some time [to get over]. I'm not double-guessing the play. Santana is really good at first base, just took his chance to get a double play. Those things happen."

Kipnis: "It's not out of the realm of possibility to think [Santana] can turn that double play. It's been turned before. My guess is that Brad probably thought [Santana] was going home. I haven't looked at it. My job is to kind of hover and clean up the mess [if something happens]. I'm over a little bit, but I've never covered first for a double play in nine years. Granted, it doesn't mean it can't happen."

This is why the debate about all the home runs and strikeouts is an earnest one, not one simply rooted in old-timers -- such as Goose Gossage and Pete Rose -- saying things back in the good ol' days were better. It's a legitimate issue. Part of the beauty of baseball is the bang-bang decisions that fielders have to make at times. Like Francona said, the game happens fast. After talking to the participants, I don't even know if Santana made the right play or the wrong one. He just made the one that didn't work.

And the Mets won by doing things that still win games. A double in the gap. A bunt. Conforto put the ball in play, and even though he didn't hit it hard, he put pressure on the defense, and sometimes that's enough. Ramos got the lucky hit, and Davis had a terrific at-bat, fouling off three pitches with a 3-2 count (after falling behind 0-2) and connecting with a slider. That kind of inning is just as exciting -- and a lot more interesting -- than just another home run.

Old-school baseball? Let's just call it compelling baseball.