GORDON WHITE: Rarest of the Rare: Baseball's Unassisted Triple Plays
Decimated by a series of injuries that have sidelined their four leading hitters and two best starting pitchers, the New York Mets are struggling through another of their miserable seasons that began with high hopes in April.
Then along comes one of the rarest plays in baseball, an unassisted triple play, to snuff out the Mets' ninth-inning rally a week ago today.
These Mets must be thinking that the gods of baseball are not looking favorably upon Citi Field, that brand new cathedral playground for the New York Metropolitan Baseball Club Inc.
This is a team that was born with little or no talent in 1962. Late in this, their 48th season, the Mets look more like the 1962 Mets than the 1969 "Amazin' Mets" who won the World Series in the team's first of four appearances in the Fall Classic.
With things going so badly, they surely did not need to be whipped by one of the most unusual plays in Major League Baseball annals. It was a quick thrust at their heart by the National League East's leading Philadelphia Phillies and truly an insult added to all those injuries.
But it was exciting to watch.
The Mets trailed the Phillies, 9-6, as the bottom of the ninth began. Because of two consecutive errors by Ryan Howard, the Phils' first baseman, and Eric Bruntlett, the second baseman, the Mets scored one run and had Luis Castillo on first base.
With the score now 9-7, Daniel Murphy of the Mets hit a hard ground ball over second base that Bruntlett lunged at but could not get in time to prevent Murphy reaching first and Castillo getting to second.
The stage was thus set for Jeff Francoeur, the Mets' next batter, who stepped in against Brad Lidge, the Phils' highly rated closer who has not been performing up to snuff lately. Also about to play a big part in the next sequence was the Mets' manager, Jerry Manuel.
When the count reached 2 balls and 2 strikes, Manuel ordered a run and hit on the next pitch. As Lidge let fly with that pitch, Murphy and Castillo took off running from first and second and Francoeur weighed in with a hefty swing. He did well by lining a hard drive directly over the mound and out over second base.
Trouble is, when the runners took off Bruntlett also ran to his right to cover second base in order to cut down Murphy on a possible steal attempt. This put Bruntlett right in position to catch Francoeur's line drive for the first out.
Then the Phils' second baseman continued a couple of running steps to touch second base for the second out on Castillo who was by then very close to third base with no chance to return to second in time.
Murphy, running full speed, nearly collided with Bruntlett at second base. But for a second or two he danced away from the Phils' second baseman who finally tagged Murphy back of second base for the third out. That not only completed the unassisted triple play but ended the game.
The Mets must have felt they have been snake bitten in 2009.
The odds of this happening are so infinitesimal that no player or fan in Citi Field could ever have imagined Francoeur was about to slam his way into the Major League Baseball record books in a fashion he did not appreciate.
Bruntlett, on the other hand, became only the 15th player in MLB history to execute an unassisted triple play since 1900 and only the second MLBplayer to end a game by doing so.
Triple plays are rare enough. There have been 533 of them in MLB since the American League was formed in 1901 to join the National League in creating the current two major leagues. But the unassisted triple play is so rare that no one will speculate on the odds of one taking place.
In order for a triple play to occur there must be two or three runners on base with no one out. How many times do you think that situation has arisen since the start of the 1901 major league season? Maybe a gazillion times or a few thousand times a gazillion.
And in all those potential settings for an unassisted triple play, there have been only 15 of these quick rally killers in MLB. I leave it to others to figure out what the odds were that Francoeur would hit into an unassisted triple play.
The Society for American Baseball Research and the Baseball Almanac, organizations that provided the stats for this column, don't have any idea of the odds involved.
The last time and only previous time that an unassisted triple play ended a MLB game happened May 31, 1927. The Detroit Tigers led the Cleveland Indians, 1-0, in the top of the ninth at Detroit's Navin Field and the teams were faced with much the same situation as the Mets and Phils had last Sunday.
Cleveland runners were on first and second with no outs. The Indians' Homer Summa hit a hard line drive to Detroit's first baseman, Johnny Neun, who caught the ball. Neun then ran toward second base and tagged Charlie Jamieson, the runner who was trying to get back to first base.
Neun just kept on running to step on second base and put out Glenn Myatt of the Indians, who was caught too far off second base. This completed the unassisted triple play and a unique two days of major league baseball that I believe will never be equaled again. And I am one who has always believed you never say "never". This is an exception to prove my rule.
That unassisted triple play by Neun was the second MLB unassisted triple play in two days.
When you realize there have been only 15 of these things over the last 109 years and that two of them took place on successive days, it is one of those hard-to-believe points in baseball history.
The day before Neun turned the fancy trick, the Chicago Cubs' shortstop, Jimmy Cooney, ran to his left to grab a line drive by the great Pittsburgh Pirate outfielder, Paul (Big Poison) Waner. Cooney then stepped on second to double up Paul's brother, Lloyd (Little Poison) Waner, who was running from second to third.
Clyde Barnett, the Pirate runner from first, went sliding into second base thinking the ball was hit over Cooney's head into center field. Barnett was easily tagged out by Cooney for the final out of the unassisted triple play in the bottom of the fourth inning at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, May 30, 1927.
Although Cooney, like all those other 14 unassisted triple play athletes, is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame, both Waner brothers are enshrined in the Cooperstown Hall.
Of the 15 unassisted triple plays, two were executed by first basemen, eight by shortstops and five by second basemen. One was turned in a World Series when Cleveland's second baseman, Bill Wambsganss, performed the act in the fifth inning of game five in the 1920 World Series against the Brooklyn Robins (later Dodgers).
Triple plays are more common than no-hit pitching performances. There have been 533 of the former since 1900 and 215 of the latter in that time. But there have been only those 15 unassisted triple plays while there have been 16 perfect games pitched since 1900.
Those poor Mets. They just can't beat the odds even when it's about 100 gazillion to 1 in their favor.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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