"Stuckness shouldn't be avoided. It's the psychic predecessor of all real understanding."
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
When it comes to hitting Joe Nathan, most of Major League Baseball has been stuck. No answer. Honked. Kaput. It's a miserable experience emotionally. They're losing time. They're incompetent. They don't know what they are doing. They should be ashamed of themselves.
And then, like a Zen parable, it's the figurative (and literal) children of MLB - the Tampa Bay Devil Rays - that embrace their stuckness and find an answer.
The change in Pirsig's attitude reflected above is his way of embracing "stuckness", the feeling of helplessness when a problem can't be solved. In the book, his example is a screw that is stripped and won't allow the mechanic to take the cover off the broken motorcycle to fix it.
After fruitless efforts to unscrew it, the stuckness opens his mind. He recognizes the stripped screw isn't just a 5-cent piece of metal, but a malfunctioning adhesive that is currently worth the entire price of the motorcycle, since it is stopping him from fixing it. That realization leads him to all kinds of solutions, such as drilling the screw out, or using a solvent. The solution becomes unimportant, almost trivial, once the realization is reached.
Against Nathan the challenge is how to handle a closer that throws a 95-mph fastball. He compliments that with a slider that looks like the fastball, except it dives a foot below where the fastball should be. And if that wasn't unfair emough, he can throw two off-speed pitches for strikes too? That's the kind of repetoire that makes a stripped screw look desirable.
The solution? It's the kind that can only develop after fruitless efforts to overcome the challenge, stuckness is achieved, and minds are opened. By embracing the fact that there already is almost no chance to reach base, previously inconceivable chances can be taken, even if they seem suicidal.
Q: What's the only thing worse than facing a 95 mph fastball/slider combo?
A: Facing a 95 mph fastball/slider combo and looking for something off-speed. Check that - facing a 95 mph fastball/slider combo and looking for something off-speed while you're behind in the count.
That's counter-intuitive to most batters, because it's awfully hard to catch up to a fastball when looking for something slower. The only reason to do so is when you've essentially given up hope. You do it because, darn it, you're not hitting the fastball anyway. You might as well look for a pitch you can handle.
And Sunday afternoon it worked, because when Nathan and Mike Redmond got ahead of batters, they started throwing off-speed pitches to keep the batters off-balance. Except that two Devil Rays, Akinora Iwamura and Dionner Navarro, realized they were hopelessly off-balance before their at-bat started, and were waiting for a breaking ball. They each got it when they had two strikes, and they each lined it into right field for a double.
And suddenly they were unstuck.
The good news for Twins fans is that it didn't take long for Nathan to adjust. He threw eleven pitches after that, and every one was a fastball or a slider. The next group that faces Nathan in the ninth will likely need to come up with their own solution.
But first, they'll likely need to recognize they're stuck.