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Limited action: Wilson Valdez used one inning to become a legend

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Over 15 years in professional baseball, many things happened to Wilson Valdez. One night in Philly, he happened to everybody else.

They call it “free baseball,” but it always costs something: The sleep you didn’t get when you’re driving home. The emotion you have to summon to stay invested in the 19th inning. The always present chance that you might still see the Phillies lose. I should be at home, say the nagging thoughts. I’ve got work. It’s a school night. I’ve been gone long enough that I’m sure something in my home is on fire.

By the end of the Phillies’ 19-inning game on May 25, 2011, nobody was in the right place. Placido Polanco was at second, not an unnatural position for him, but a move being made out of necessity rather than strategy. Carlos Ruiz was at third, moments away from throwing himself into the stands in desperate pursuit of the inning’s first out. Dane Sardinha was catching, weeks away from reportedly passing out on a Pittsburgh bar top. Despite being a catcher, Sardinha also somehow seemed out of position.

And on the mound was Wilson Valdez, the Phillies hard-throwing utility infielder whose career had been sewn together by signings and releases since 1997. There were not common misconceptions regarding his value, as the players for whom he’d be swapped over the years—Billy Koch, Mike Bumstead, R.D. Spiehs, Jarod Plummer, Jeremy Horst—were all about the same level of anonymity. By the time he’d signed as a free agent with the Phillies in November 2009, he’d played for the White Sox, Mariners, Padres, Dodgers, Mets, Kia Tigers (KBO), and Yakult Swallows (NPB) after spending his minor league career in the farm systems of the Expos and Marlins. Before the Phillies, he’d never appeared in more than 47 games with a single team in one season; his biggest chance in the majors had come in 2008 as a back-up infielder with the Dodgers, when shortstop Rafael Furcal had hurt his back.

The defining term of his career to this point (and after) would be “limited action:” The 2010 Baseball Prospectus annual referred to Valdez as one of the “aging utility scrubs” who had been signed by the Mets the previous year.

“If you walked out on the Mets before the credits rolled,” they wrote, “you missed the outtake where they picked up Valdez to serve as a multi-position warm body—hilarious! The Phillies signed him to do the same thing at Triple-A.”

That was the life of a Wilson Valdez; darting around the infield, plugging holes when needed, waiting for the Rafael Furcal’s of the world to need bones removed from their backs and free up some playing time. But the truth was, Valdez wasn’t a hitter. You can go look at the numbers and try to see something that’s not there, but not being able to put the bat on the ball really put a dent in his usefulness: A career .236 hitter with a .594 OPS isn’t going to be your hero with the game on the line.

Unless, maybe, you put him on the mound.

Roy Halladay pitched seven innings of the Phillies game on May 25, 2011, which wound up being roughly a third of it. He allowed 11 hits and three earned runs, leaving the game before the eighth in the hands of what would be almost the entire Phillies bullpen. Ben Francisco’s first inning home run had given Halladay a 2-0 lead, and John Mayberry had singled in a third run to give the ace all that he typically needed to transcend human performance. But the Reds’ two biggest offensive weapons, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, pricked him with a couple of RBI singles throughout the night, and by the time that Halladay had departed, the score was 3-3.

Charlie Manuel had used Michael Stutes and Ryan Madson to successfully keep the game tied, but once it stretched into the tenth inning, the game itself seemed ready to end. Bruce came back up and hammered the second pitch he got from Antonio Bastardo into the right field seats, and with a 4-3 lead, but Bastardo fought his way out of the inning without allowing any further damage, Ryan Howard led off the next inning with a solo shot to deep center.

And then, for a long time, nothing happened. Well—that’s not true. Danys Baez happened.

In the final season of his major league career, the veteran reliever had managed to push into fairly common territory for Phillies relievers, in that his name evoked frustration even when he was not currently pitching. Entering the game that night, he’d appeared in 18 games out of the Phillies bullpen, amassing a 4.18 ERA. His April had been pretty solid, when he had allowed only two earned runs and four walks in ten appearances. But when you’re only showing up for an inning or so, it doesn’t take a lot of base runners to ruin everything.

It had been a long road for Baez, morphing from starter to set-up man to closer to generic reliever for a multitude of teams in either league. In 1999, Baez received the largest signing bonus in Cleveland Indians history at $4.5 million. In 2002, he hit Torii Hunter in the leg with a pitch, and Hunter was so mad he threw the ball back at him. A quick perusal of social media archives indicates that Baez has become a comparison for untrustworthy relievers from David Hernandez to Jeff Manship to Tommy Hunter, but by the time he was released later in the summer, Jim Salisbury wasn’t taking any guff from Baez’s nay-sayers.

Baez had defined his career with erratic pitching that could be good for stretches, but certainly not reliable. But the Phillies were way past needing someone “reliable” on the mound at this point—they just needed somebody to get out there and pitch. Baez threw five scoreless innings of relief, three of which went 1-2-3 and none of which saw him face more than four batters. It’s got to be some of the best pitching of his career—as was the next hurler’s.

Things have changed around baseball in regards to position players pitching, but I’ll say by the 12th or 13th inning of any game, it’s all anybody wants to see.

“Enough normal baseball!” we scream. “Give us the weird stuff!”

“You got it,” Rob Manfred replies, revealing the miniature horse base runners will from now on have to ride around the diamond starting in the 15th inning.

“Whoa, not that weird!!” we shout, but it’s too late. The miniature horse is now a fixture in the sport we love.

Anyway, this game had decided it was not going to end until somebody who wasn’t supposed to be on the mound was on the mound, and in the top of the 19th, things got weird enough for Wilson Valdez to pitch. And in a fun twist, Valdez’s first task would be facing the two hitters responsible for some of the game’s only runs.

First to the plate came the defending National League MVP, Joey Votto, who you may have heard was not the game’s easiest out. Facing a 32-year-old infielder on the mound, it was no surprise to see Votto draw a three-ball count as Valdez pretty much side-armed an 85 m.p.h. pitch that got lost on its way to the plate.

This pitch started here and only got further away from the catcher.

Given the green light on 3-1, Votto unloaded on Valdez’s next 86 m.p.h. offering in what looked off the bat to be the game-winner. As the stadium’s echoing enthusiasm tightened into groans, Michael Martinez scrambled to the warning track in center and confidently parked under it for the first out.

Next up was former Phillies star Scott Rolen. In the right place and time, when Valdez hit Rolen with a pitch, it would have been enough to complete his legacy as a Phillies folk legend. Instead, it served as a reminder of how quickly this could all go wrong and make five clean innings from Danys Baez worthless.

The Phillies dugout shared our excitement.

“Look away, boys. Look away.”

The Reds had a runner on, and the thought drifted into our minds that, hey, Valdez could feasibly just hitter batters until the bases were loaded. There was literally no reason to think he would get out of this, especially since the next hitter was all-star slugger Jay Bruce, who was in the middle of hitting eight home runs in 12 games (including this one).

Valdez threw him a called strike, and then dropped another pitch into the zone, which Bruce cracked off the end of his bat, robbing it of the depth it needed to leave the park. Once again, Martinez came sprinting in from center, arm extended firmly in the air, and made the catch.

The second out really livened things up in the Phillies dugout.

Calm down, Ryan; still got an out to go.

And finally, with no pinch hitters left to shove out there, the Reds sent reliever Carlos Fisher to the plate. At first, it seemed like an assured third out was headed to the plate, but a moment of reflection on this reminded us that now, the Reds were more likely than ever to take the lead.

A Phillies villain on the bases, waiting to be knocked in as the go-ahead run? A relief pitcher batting, with the two best Reds hitters already retired? This had all the makings of Fisher dropping a Texas leaguer in front of Michael Martinez in center or bopping a slow grounder that would roll foul and then fair again. At this moment, Fisher was the Reds’ most dangerous hitter, simply because he was holding a bat.

He was still holding it when he popped out, screaming in frustration, the most aggressive response to an out of any hitter that inning.

It would be infamously said weeks later, on a recorded television feed where everyone could hear it, that Valdez’s higher fielding percentage gave him an edge over Chase Utley as a second baseman. In 2010, Valdez had appeared in 111 games with the Phillies, the only time he’d make it into over 100 games in a season. The year of his relief appearance in this game, the Phillies were hit by a slew of injuries to their infield and Valdez saw action in 99 games. Given his pivotal role in their defense, some would be shockedshockedwhen the Phillies traded Valdez to the Reds in 2012.

There was a moment during this sequence in which Valdez shook off his catcher. Ryan Howard would joke about this later, as he had seen it happen and looked around, wondering “...what does he have?” in regards to pitch selection beyond that smoldering mid-80s heater.

But Valdez wasn’t out there to lose; he was going to use every pitch in his limited arsenal to try and stop this game from having a 20th inning. He would never pitch again, nor had he ever pitched before. But when all you get is limited action, the last thing you can do is limit yourself.