The bases were loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning. There were no outs.
David Berner, the Jethawks closer, leaned in for the sign from his catcher. He got it, and gave the tiny nod of acknowledgment. Then the tall, broad-shouldered southpaw went to his set stretch position. He checked the runners, he kicked into his motion, and he delivered the 1-0 pitch.
It was a fastball.
The Giants batter, big, strong right-handed-hitting James Simmons, wasn’t fooled. He didn’t try to pull the low-and-away location, but instead calmly stepped into the pitch and hit it squarely to the opposite field.
Had Simmons hit the ball any more squarely, the result would certainly have been a home run, a grand slam which would tie the score at 4-4. However, though Simmons hit the pitch very well, he got just slightly underneath it. He loudly smacked a towering fly ball, arcing high, tremendously high into the black midsummer night sky, and slicing toward the right field corner.
Jethawks right fielder Brandon Barnes raced back, and to his left, further back, and further to his left, tracking the monster fly, rapidly moving closer and closer to the high wooden fence—colorfully festooned with advertisements—320 feet from home plate at the foul line.
The baseball came down, angrily hissing with velocity, and Barnes leaped high for it.
His outstretched glove intercepted the ball precisely at the wall, and then banged hard against the boards. It was a marvelous catch, snagging Simmons’ wicked fly at the last possible microsecond before it would have ricocheted high off the fence for a dramatically productive extra-base hit.
That was the first out of the inning.
The trailing baserunners—Jose Flores on second base and Wendell Fairley on first—had gone halfway on contact, and now both simultaneously committed the same unforgivable blunder. Neither was sure whether Barnes had caught the ball for the out, or if he’d trapped it against the fence for a hit. But neither Flores nor Fairley acted decisively in either regard. Neither ran hard on the assumption the ball was in play, nor did either race back to his base to tag safely. Instead, each nervously stammered in the middle of his no-man’s-land basepath, in paralyzed confusion.
Barnes held the ball high for an instant, understandably though wastefully displaying his elegantly captured prey for the umpires’ benefit, before whistling it back to the infield. Shortstop Barry Butera received the throw, and then tagged the befuddled Fairley for out No. 2, and stepped on second base to force out Flores for out No. 3.
Inning over. Game over. The Lancaster Jethawks beat the San Jose Giants, 4-0.
I’ve been intensely watching professional baseball for about 45 years now. This was the first time I have ever witnessed, live, a triple play. And I’d never imagined seeing one as bizarre as this.
Bizarre though it was, here’s what made it incredibly sweet as well: my wife and I have known 22-year-old David Berner, the 2010 Lancaster Jethawks closer, since he was a tiny crawling baby. David is a fully wonderful young man, and he and his parents are dear family friends. And all of us were in attendance—my wife and me, and David’s parents (and his sister and his brother, and his grandparents, and who knows how many other family and friends; our tailgate party was pretty damn fine)—to watch this California League game last night at Municipal Stadium in San Jose.
David will readily tell you—as he told all of us, sweatily and embarrassedly grinning, after the game—that this was about a million miles from his most effective pitching. But he’ll also tell you that this is baseball, the sport to which he’s ardently devoting his professional life, the sport he loves more than anything except his family and his entirely adorable girlfriend Megan. This is baseball. It will amaze you and confound you, and always find a way to keep you guessing.