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The Boston Globe

Sports

From the archives | 1998

Brian McRae dooms Red Sox with a balk

Some guys win 1-0 games with home runs. Some win 1-0 games with singles to center field. Brian McRae can now tell the grandchildren that he once won a 1-0 game by inducing a balk.

``You’re going to win two or three games a year on weird things,’’ he shrugged.

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McRae beat Tim Wakefield on a day when the knuckleballer was otherwise unbeatable, or, at least, unhittable. The Mets managed one hit off him in eight innings. Thanks almost exclusively to McRae, the Mets got a sixth-inning run -- in what New York manager Bobby Valentine labeled a ``wonderful game’’ -- without the necessity of a hit. All they needed were the legs and moxie of Hal’s Kid, who walked, took second on a seldom-seen delayed steal, advanced to third on a John Olerud grounder, and then scored when he made a menacing move down the line and a concerned Wakefield was charged with a balk by home plate umpire Terry Craft.

It was aggressive baseball. It was smart baseball. It was connoisseur’s baseball.

To Brian McRae, son of a major league baseball player, it was simple, common-sense baseball.

``The tone of the game, the way it was going,’’ said McRae, ``I thought the only way we were going to score a run was by trying to make something happen.’’

McRae led off the sixth inning of a scoreless game. In his first two at-bats, he had grounded to second and popped to short. ``He was throwing more balls that inning,’’ McRae recalled. The count went to 2-and-0 and 3-and-1 before McRae took ball four. It would be Wakefield’s only walk of the afternoon, and the 29-year-old center fielder was determined to take advantage of it.

He remained on first as Wakefield fanned Bernard Gilkey for out number one. Now he started thinking about stealing second, but against Wakefield this is not an easy thing to do.

``I wasn’t going to get it done on a straight steal,’’ he said. ``Wakefield is quick to the plate, and [catcher Scott] Hatteberg looks like he has a strong arm.’’

No problem. McRae had a Plan B. Some 20 times in his career he has successfully executed a delayed steal. The time had come to try it again.

He decided to go on a 2-and-1 pitch to Olerud.

``I got lucky,’’ he explained. ``The pitch was down in the dirt and Hatteberg probably couldn’t come right up with it.’’

No one in a Red Sox uniform was expecting anything funky. McRae stole second without drawing a throw.

The Olerud grounder moved him to third. When he got there with two away, he immediately liked what he saw: Wakefield would be pitching from a full windup.

It was now back to Spring Training 101. Valentine is a firm believer in trying to disrupt any pitcher trying to pitch from a full windup with a man on third. Mets players are taught to make hard moves down the line, and one thing about McRae is that he’s good at following instructions.

McRae made a pretty good move toward home on the first pitch, a called strike to cleanup batter Butch Huskey. As Wakefield went into his motion on the next pitch, McRae made a serious move, one that would have done Jackie Robinson proud. Wakefield reacted. He broke his motion, and Craft immediately ruled a balk. McRae came trotting home with the run that would make Bobby Jones a winner over Wakefield.

McRae is a solid major league player, but he is no star. He is a .265 lifetime hitter. This is his third big-league team. If he ever thought he was heading for Cooperstown, he was forced to abandon those thoughts a long time ago.

In order to make himself useful, he has had to offer managers more than raw skills. He has had to learn the game. And the very fact that he has a game put a W in the Mets’ pocket yesterday afternoon.

Start with the delayed steal, which is not something you see every day, week, or month in the big leagues.

``I learned that in Rookie ball from Joe Jones, who is now the Pirates’ first base coach,’’ McRae explained. ``He was my first manager in baseball. He taught me that there were many little things that can help you win baseball games.’’

As for the hard move on third base against a pitcher in a windup, McRae gave the credit to his manager.

``Bobby likes us to be aggressive,’’ McRae said. ``He says if you think you can steal home, don’t be afraid. Otherwise, you might get something out of it. The pitch could be in the dirt, the batter might get a better pitch to hit or, in this case, you might get a balk.’’

But Valentine can’t go out and make it happen. Only the player can do that, and McRae was textbook yesterday.

``You’ve really got to sell it,’’ he acknowledged. ``You can’t take a casual stroll.’’

It all came under the heading of Doing What You Had To Do against a pitcher who wasn’t otherwise forthcoming.

``We didn’t have a whole lot of good at-bats against him,’’ said McRae. ``He threw an awful lot of strikes. I bet if you asked him he’d say he had some of his best stuff this year.’’

(Ed. note: I asked him. He said yes.)

This was all a great display of baseball playing, but to Brian McRae it was just a matter of being a professional.

``It’s all part of my game,’’ he said. ``I work on it. You’ve got to know what your game is. You work on something, and it might win you one game a year.’’

Let’s hope someone had enough gratitude to buy this man some dinner.

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