The proliferation of infield shifts throughout the majors has for the first time in baseball history created an environment in which conversation has begun regarding the concept of crafting a rule that would define and then prohibit “illegal defense.”
Which brings us directly to the top of the seventh inning at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, when what transpired in the infield should have been illegal.
The original sin may have been committed by Brian McCann, the career catcher who botched a play at first base that was at once both routine and complex — routine for someone who knows his way around the neighborhood, complex for a neophyte — but the fault line was blurred considering the fact McCann had never started a game at first base before May 28 through a 10-year career in which he has been behind the plate 1,122 times.
But there McCann was, making his fifth straight start at first (and seventh all time, not counting his experience on a high-school-age travel team) in the absence of both the injured Mark Teixeira and the injured emergency backup Kelly Johnson.
There McCann was, when with runners on second and third and none out in what was a 2-2 game against Toronto, Dioner Navarro hit a grounder wide of the bag.
Melky Cabrera broke from third. Jose Bautista broke from second. McCann, with the ball in his glove without the benefit of hundreds of previous reps on such a play, seemed to freeze.
He didn’t touch first. He didn’t run at Cabrera. He didn’t fire the ball to third. And the Yankees didn’t get a crucial out. Instead, the Jays were able to squeeze the lead run out of what became a bases-loaded, none-out scenario for a 3-2 lead in what became a 6-4 victory.
And that lead run wasn’t driven in on a pristine play, either, with Dan Johnson’s tiny blooper somehow falling in front of second baseman Brian Roberts on the infield grass and spinning away after he was nudged by McCann while reliever Matt Thornton was in the vicinity, reduced to an innocent bystander.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen that play from that angle,” McCann, who had hit a two-run homer in the fourth inning, said of the botched Navarro grounder that was ruled a fielder’s choice. “The game speeded up on me and I didn’t make the play. I wish I could have slowed the game down.”
The ball somehow finds you in the least opportune moment in baseball. There is nowhere to hide in the plain sight of the diamond.
“It’s tough for him. He’s never played first,” said Roberts, who himself has been a bit of a tanglefoot in the field these last few weeks, challenged by simple and difficult plays alike. “Those plays instinctually, he doesn’t have a lot of time over there, [but] unfortunately that’s where we are now.”
The Yankees have been playing a man short since Teixeira went down with a strained lat following last Sunday, management thus far unwilling to place the first baseman on the disabled list as the club monitors his progress. When Johnson went down on Tuesday, manager Joe Girardi wasn’t left with many (all right, any) other options at first base.
“It’s part of the game,” Girardi said. “Sometimes you have to move guys around and take them out of their comfort zones a little bit.
“You live with the results.”
All was not lost at the Stadium. True, the game was, so was the four-game winning streak and so was the 17-game winning streak against Toronto in The Bronx that began before the Maple Leafs won their last Stanley Cup.
Well, not really, the Leafs having won the chalice in 1967, the Jays having previously last won at the Stadium in August 2012, but you get the point.
Still, the Yankees got a strong outing from Chris Capuano in his first start in pinstripes, the lefty joining Brandon McCarthy and Chase Headley as recent imports who have helped steady the Good Ship Bomber. They got a second home run in as many games from Carlos Beltran.
But they could not overcome the sketchy Toronto run in the seventh created by a brand of defense that should have been illegal.