It's April 12, the top of the ninth inning, and the Colorado Rockies lead 5-3. LaTroy Hawkins, the only stable reliever in a bullpen that ruined our lives time and time again in 2014, stands on the bump, just a few good pitches away from closing out the Chicago Cubs.
Only, he doesn't. He allows three runs. Dexter Fowler, the former Rockies outfielder himself, hits a two-run home run to the bullpen in right field, and the Rockies lose the lead. They go quietly in the bottom half of the inning, of course; just when you had started to count your blessings on another Rockies victory, they find a way to lose the game.
April 12 wasn't the first time a team has blown a multi-run lead in the 9th inning, and it certainly wasn't the last. Hell, the Mets did it in the World Series last year. But each time it happens, it feels like the first time. They say it gets easier, having your heart broken, but I haven't met a bullpen meltdown where I didn't feel tremendous anger and sorrow after experiencing it. The worst part of a bullpen meltdown is knowing how the other side feels, knowing that you've been on that side before and the elation and glee they are feeling is pure and honest.
Bullpen meltdowns are an emotional experience that is unknown to any other sport. The slow buildup to a devastating outcome isn't in other sports. They move too quickly, and your emotions aren't involved until the play is over, but in a bullpen meltdown they're constantly there. The entire time your brain is destroying itself as you reason with emotions and pessimism. Meanwhile, you have to keep watching every pitch to see if, by the grace of whatever deity you're praying to, this team can avoid looking like freaking idiots and win a damn game.
But they never do, do they? They never do.
These are the phases of a bullpen meltdown.
Phase One: The First Sliver of Doubt
For the majority of bullpen meltdowns, you start with at least a shred of confidence that your guy has this in the bag. That the guy on the mound has been good, will be good, and won't ruin your night. But you enter phase one fairly quickly. The crippling feeling of doubt enters your brain after the first at-bat. Usually, it's a walk that starts the machine. Sometimes, it's a bloop hit that should've been caught or a seeing eye grounder that finds its way through the hole. But it's usually a walk. A quick walk, too. It's never a long at-bat with some good pitches fought off. No, it's five pitches at most, none of which are that close to being a strike.
The initial problems with command begin the tidal wave of emotions, like the clouds of a coming storm. Still, this lead is more than just one base runner. Surely the initial walk can be dealt with, maybe even with a double play. The catcher jogs out to talk to the closer, using hand motions that signal "calm down", and you can see the pitcher nod and take deep breaths. He's going to be okay, he just needed that first at-bat to get the nerves out, right?
The second hitter starts with a ball in the dirt. You throw your hands up in your living room or shake your head in the stands. He couldn't really be doing this, could he? Not tonight. This should be easy.
The next pitch is a bloop hit. It was a good pitch, too; they show the replay and the color guy says something like "sometimes you just gotta tip your cap" because that pitch was 96 mph on the inside corner. Nobody should get their hands inside that pitch, but this guy did. The waves of doubt become more ferocious. You stand up from your chair, you take three concurrent drinks of water to slow down your nerves.
"It's okay," you say to nobody in particular. "It's okay."
Phase Two: The Coming Storm
The clouds have gathered now. First and second with nobody out. There's still a multiple run lead. Hell, you could give up another hit and still be fine at this point. You begin to pace in your living room or you grab the shoulders of whoever you came to the game with and shout "tell me it's going to be okay." But they don't tell you that. How could they know if it's going to be okay? The doubt that overwhelms you now is consuming their heart as well; you're both feeling this together. A guy three rows up, a road fan, has his hat tipped inside out as a rally cap. You begin to plot his murder if this continues.
Your guy stares at his next hitter. Usually, it's a pinch hitter. A guy hitting .238 this year and who hasn't gotten a hit in ten days. He gets ahead of the hitter 1-2 before missing on two straight. It's 3-2, which means the runners are moving and the double play is likely out of reach, and even a hard hit single could score a run. The pitch comes in and it's slapped back at the pitcher. Oh good, an easy out, at least there's one. But it's not. He bobbles it, he can't grab it off the grass. "NO!!" you shout as he looks like he's going to make an off-balance throw towards first.
He holds the ball.
The bases are now loaded. For the first time all night, the doubt becomes full time worry. You see the wave cresting above you, and you know this isn't going to end well. Nothing ever ends well. Life is a fool's game and one you've lost.
Phase Three: Reasoning
"This is fine, we just need a couple outs and it's all okay," you say to yourself in your living room. If you don't say this, if you don't speak it out loud, the worry will consume you. You need to reassure yourself because there is no one to reassure you. Jesus Christ himself could walk into your room and tell you it's going to be okay, but you wouldn't believe him. How would he know? He died 2000 years ago, he barely understands the basic strategies of baseball. No, you have to say it to yourself.
A strike out. Your guy gets their guy swinging. There is one out on the board and an out at every base. The infield backs up. They can give up a run for an out still, there's a multiple run lead after all. You breathe.
The next guy strides in and the pitching coach jogs to the mound to have a small meeting on the strategy of these next two hitters.
Your guy is up around 20-25 pitches now, usually the top end of his endurance. You know this, but you've convinced yourself he's okay. You see the manager pick up the phone and two relievers, one of each hand, stand up and get warm.
"Why did he wait until just now to get them up?" you shout into the void. "Why didn't he do that at the first sign of trouble?" You don't realize that your manager, like you in the crowd or at home, is feeling the same emotions as you. He's reasoned with himself that it's going to be okay, too. He now sees the cresting wave, but he still believes.
Phase Four: Detachment From Reality
Nothing seems real anymore. This is all a nightmare. Your guy fires a fastball and their guy is on top of it, he flares it into the outfield gap, two runs score, runners at second and third. The game is tied.
At home, you throw your remote at your couch, or you punch a pillow. You remember your significant other is asleep and quickly stare at the closed door hoping you didn't wake them up. There's no noise. You breathe a sigh of relief. At least you didn't make them mad on top of all this. At the park, in the crowd, you begin to move closer to rally cap guy so as to kill him without mercy.
The manager comes out now. You think, "it seems a little early to be pulling him. Or maybe a little late. I don't know, all of life is pain."
He doesn't pull him though. He's buying time for the bullpen. The leading run is on third however so the time for the 'pen trick seems irrelevant, because if he can't get this guy out you're losing anyway.
Things begin to feel less real. You forget you have an early morning meeting tomorrow. You rub your face with your hands so hard it starts to burn.
Phase Five: Acceptance
During commercials you find Knocked Up is playing on FX so you flip over for a few seconds to see if it's a funny part you can laugh at while the manager calms down your guy. It is not. It's the part where Kat Heigl tells Seth Rogen that they can't be together.
"Oh for God's sakes," you shout in your living room before covering up your mouth so your significant other doesn't wake up.
Back to the game: in steps the other team's best hitter. You stare at the screen, but at this point you've accepted the cresting wave, knowing the water will consume you and carry you out to the ocean of despair. You will be sad for 24 hours now. This will be the death of your emotions.
The infield is in, protecting against any ground ball, and that's just what your guy gets. A ground ball to second, the second baseman checks the runner and fires to first. Two outs. Tie game. There's hope still.
Phase Six: The Crushing Weight of Despair and the Overwhelming Pit of Knowing
You knew this was going to happen all along. That's the worst part about this whole situation. Once that first walk happened a little voice in your head said "well, they're going to blow this."
But you didn't listen. You never listen to the little voice.
The next hitter slaps the second pitch and it rolls past the shortstop into the outfield grass. One run scores, two runs score. Suddenly, you're losing by two. All of the hopes and dreams you had are in the trash can next to the pizza box you had for dinner last night and the four beers you drank earlier. In the stands, you drop your head to the ground and sigh. The meltdown is complete.
The manager comes out to get the closer four batters too late. The next guy comes in and gets three straight strikes to get out of the inning. But what's the point? You're down two runs but they feel like a thousand. You've lost one baseball game out of 162, but you feel like someone just fired an arrow into your throat.
The only thing you can think is that this is the worst it can get in this sport.
But the little voice pops up again and says, "until it happens again next month."
You don't listen to the little voice. You never listen to the little voice.
Phase Seven: Reclamation of Hope
You convince yourself it's never going to happen again. That the bullpen had it's moment and that will be the worst it's going to get. You assure yourself this pain is fleeting.
How foolish we are, relying on men. The meltdown has well and thoroughly ruined the evening, and it doesn't seem like life can improve.
What time does tomorrow's game start again?