ST. LOUIS – In the ninth inning, the manager called for a pinch-runner.
The pinch-runner was playing in his first World Series. He took first base. He took his lead.
And, with all of America watching him for the first time in his life, he was promptly picked off.
This was not Kolten Wong of the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday, in Game 4 of this World Series. This was Herb Washington of the Oakland Athletics in 1974, in Game 2 of the World Series.
Washington had to live with that scar. Never did baseball offer him another chance to star on the grand stage.
Washington was a track star, recruited by A's owner Charlie Finley to be a designated runner. As he learned the hard way, and as Wong showed Sunday, baserunning is much more than pure speed.
Washington was a world-class sprinter. He played in 105 games for the A’s. He never batted.
He stole 31 bases, but he was caught 17 times. That is about learning how to take a lead off the base, and how to read a pitcher.
Wong failed on both counts Sunday. For the first time in World Series history, a game ended on a pickoff and, worse, with Carlos Beltran at the plate, one of the most prolific hitters in postseason history representing the tying run.
After the game, Manager Mike Matheny said Wong had been alerted that Boston Red Sox closer Koji Uehara had a good pickoff move. He said Wong was told not only in pregame meetings, but as he went out to pinch-run.
“Also, he was reminded that run didn’t mean much, be careful, shorten up [on the lead off first base],” Matheny said. “And he got a little extra. Then he slipped, and the slip cost him.”
Wong fought back tears as he addressed the media after the game, recounting his gaffe to wave upon wave of reporters.
He also took to Twitter to apologize to the St. Louis fans.
“All i want to say is i'm sorry #CardinalNation I go out everyday playing this game as hard as I can and leaving everything on the field,” he tweeted.
He followed with this tweet: “I want tho tell everyone thank you for the support.”
That support came not only from Cardinals fans, but from his Cardinals teammates.
“We’ve got a couple guys, myself included, that have said some things to him,” second baseman Matt Carpenter said, “the message most importantly being that that was not the reason we lost the game.
“That was how the game ended, but … certainly it was not the reason we lost. There were a lot of other factors that were in play.”
Matheny said he was heartened that Wong took the aftermath of the pickoff so seriously.
“There’s nothing wrong with sitting on it for awhile,” Matheny said.
Learn from it, Matheny said, and move on.
“The moment just got the best of him,” Matheny said. “And, yeah, it affected him, because he’s human and he cares.”
Matheny also said he was grateful for the Cardinals veterans who took it upon themselves to share their stories of failure with Wong.
“Maybe not getting picked off to end a game in the World Series,” Matheny said, “but they’ve had their issues that we’ve all had, decisions that we’ve made that didn’t necessarily work out. And you figure out how to get through it.”
For Washington, the World Series pickoff was pretty much the end of his baseball career. The A’s kept him on their roster when they broke spring-training camp in 1975, then dumped him one month into the season.
For Wong, this is only the beginning. The Cardinals selected him from the University of Hawaii in the first round of the 2011 draft. He is one of eight players from that first round to surface in the majors, although the only ones to have made significant contributions so far are Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole, the first overall pick, Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez and Oakland pitcher Sonny Gray.
Wong, 23, could be the Cardinals’ starting second baseman sometime soon. In the meantime, he can console himself with this: He did get picked off to end Game 4, but his career World Series batting average is 1.000.
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