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Erik Kratz, Brandon Belt, and a strikeout to remember

It was June 21, 2016, and the Giants were riding a wave of success they haven’t seen since. Playing .625 ball and mowing down just about every team they faced, they were 5-1/2 games ahead of the second-place Dodgers in the west and seemed unstoppable.

In a month, it would all collapse. But on this 82-degree Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, they were absolutely clobbering the Pirates, who were three games under .500 and third in the NL Central, 14 back of the division-leading and future World Champion Cubs.

Nevertheless, for one Giant it would be a day he will recall with dread for the rest of his life.

Johnny Cueto took the mound that night in his away greys, and he was good — really good. He tossed 105 pitches over 6-2/3 strong, and allowed just one run on four hits, striking out six. It would be his 11th win of the season.

Before it all fell apart, Pirates starter Wildredo Boscan held the Giants scoreless through three innings that night.

But this story isn’t about Cueto or Boscan. It’s not about any of the 11 Giants who would bat in the fourth to chase Boscan from his sixth and final game in the majors after he allowed a single, two doubles, two walks, two homers and seven runs without recording an out.

This is a story about a backup catcher who took the ball for the Pirates in the top of the ninth, down 15-3, after the Giants pummeled Pittsburgh for the previous five innings.

He had one job — to put an end to the drubbing and save the Pittsburgh bullpen in a hopeless game.

His name was Erik Kratz.

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Kratz has switched organizations 18 times in his major league career after being the only player ever drafted out of Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisburg, Virginia, in the 29th round of the 2002 draft by the Blue Jays.

He started the 2016 season with Houston as a backup catcher behind Jason Castro for a little over six weeks when the Astros released him, but not before he made a mound appearance in a blowout loss against Seattle.

Kratz said it was his first outing on a big league mound, though he’d offered his services in relief in the minors under similar circumstances:

“They were the same situations — ‘Who’s the person we care about the least’ — and you go out there and pitch. That’s how it goes when position players are pitching. ‘Who’s the one person who, if they get hurt, we don’t care.’”

For Houston, he faced six Mariners in the eighth inning, allowed two runs on three hits, two wild pitches and a passed ball, and eventually got himself out of the inning. He said:

“The passed ball was unfortunate, it was a good knuckleball. It was the one situation where a passed ball didn’t really affect me. Normally [as a catcher], passed balls are awful…. The shift killed me though, they didn’t know my movement on my pitches so the shift was awful for me.”

It would be the first of five outings on the mound in the years to come.

Five days after the Astros released him, the Angels signed Kratz as a free agent but he never played in Los Angeles. The Pirates everyday catcher, Francisco Cervelli, took a foul tip to the mask June 9 after sustaining two concussions the season before, and the team needed help behind the dish. June 11 the Pirates purchased Kratz’s contract for his second tour of duty in Pittsburgh to set the stage for the events of June 21.

After the Giants chased Boscan out of the major leagues in the fourth inning, a trio of Pirates relievers got Pittsburgh through five innings, but in that time the Giants added on eight more runs to the home team’s three.

In light of the crooked score and in a bid to save his bullpen, Pittsburgh skipper Clint Hurdle used the nuclear option and handed Kratz the ball, making him the first position player to pitch and catch for two major league teams since 1879. 

Kratz said:

“While it’s embarrassing that you’re out there, it actually is helping your team. It’s not making that reliever come out there for an extra inning [and] now those guys that don’t have to pitch get an opportunity to rest.”

In a strange twist of fate, it was Brandon Belt who came out to lead off the top of the ninth. Belt was a pitcher in college and has often begged Giants manager Bruce Bochy to put him on the mound, though he’s never been given the nod as Bochy doesn’t want to risk the first baseman’s arm.

Asked if the almost three-year-old at-bat stuck out in his mind, Belt said:

“HAH! Do I remember it? It was one of my darkest days — yes, I remember it.”

Belt said going up to face a position player is not fun in the least, but Kratz is the only position player he remembers having faced in his career:

“For one, you have no idea what they’re gonna throw, they can just throw whatever — they can make up a pitch and throw it up there. You’ve never seen what they look like throwing a baseball at you. If they just went up there and threw 80 the whole time then, yeah, that would be like BP, but the fact is they typically don’t. You’re just unsure what’s gonna happen.”

Belt said his mindset going into the at-bat was determined — determined to not be shown up:

“I was just thinking the whole time, ‘Don’t strike out. You can’t let a position player strike you out.’”

The Giants acquired Kratz as their backup catcher just days before Opening Day this year in a March 24 trade with the Brewers. The Giants penciled him in as their backup catcher on the eighth big league club’s roster of his career, and he said he wasted no time in reminding Belt of the at-bat.

The first pitch the now 38-year-old catcher threw to Belt was a 79.5-mph “fastball” for a called strike. He followed it up with a 52-mph pitch way outside for a ball.

Said Kratz:

“I just remember I got 0-2 on him and I actually threw a good knuckleball and he fouled it off. So then he ended up getting back to 3-2 and I just took a little something off of it and [threw it] right down the middle. He couldn’t wait on it.”

According to Baseball Reference, Kratz’s first pitch was a called strike followed by a ball, so he never did actually get him 0-2, but the sands of time blur less consequential details like this.

Belt, too, said he had a strong recollection of the at-bat:

“He threw more fastballs, gave me a couple knuckleballs, [then] 3-2 he throws me what I guess is a fastball—it was like 75-mph—great swing I put on it, just a tick too early. I’ll never live it down.”

For the record, Baseball Savant lists the pitch at 79.9-mph, but the shame isn’t lessened by this fact. In a seven-pitch battle, Kratz whiffed the big lefty for the first strikeout of his newly-minted career as a “two-way player.”

Kratz conceded that his lower velocity may have actually been an advantage:

“Sometimes that’s the curse when you’re swinging well against the real pitchers and then the crappy guys throw 82 up there and you don’t quite got it.”

Despite allowing a pair of singles, the veteran backstop would pitch a scoreless ninth against the Giants on that June night.

He said he was disappointed that Belt managed to draw seven pitches out of him, but victory was still just as sweet and he saved the ball from his first strikeout. He’s since struck out two other big leaguers, Eugenio Suarez and Austin Barnes in outings for Milwaukee last season. 

Bochy said Kratz, who has racked up a total of five innings pitched since his 2016 pitching debut, would certainly be under consideration to take the mound in the event of a blow out:

“He would be one of my guys along with Pablo [Sandoval] if I need to use a position-player as a pitcher, ‘cause he’s been out there. You like those experienced position-players that have pitched.” 

Sandoval tossed a scoreless, three-up-three-down ninth inning in a laugher against the Dodgers last season. It was the first game of a doubleheader and offered necessary comic relief.

Brandon Crawford said he doesn’t remember his fellow-Brandon’s humiliating experience, nor does Buster Posey, but Joe Panik said he vaguely recalls it and has been present for the recent gloating:

“[Kratz] left it up on the computer during the home-opener against Tampa. I was in the video room and I was just looking at video and on the computer next to me I saw the same play going over and over again and it was of Erik striking out Brandon, so there’s video proof of it. It was just like straight 79 so I had a little fun with [Belt].”

Mark Melancon, who was a Pirate at the time, said he doesn’t remember the incident at all but was happy to put his two cents in as an unreliable witness anyway.

He said:

“I don’t remember it, but you can just say I said it was right down the middle.”

Another former-Pirate, Tony Watson, said he remembers seeing Kratz take the mound to close out the game they were “boat raced” in, but his vantage point was from the bullpen and details are fuzzy:

“I just remember that he had a strikeout and it was Belt, but any time that a position-player’s on the mound you’re always looking to see who the hitters are coming up. Then if he gets one strike it’s like, ‘Ok,’ but if he gets two strikes it’s like, Oh you’ve got a chance to punch this guy out.’”

It’s not uncommon for a player to end up on a team with guys they’ve faced on either side of the ball, Kratz’s career illustrates the extreme version of this. And players who’ve got “ownage” on their new teammates don’t waste the opportunity to bring it up—Kratz certainly didn’t.

The veteran catcher said:

“It’s just like if I hit a home run off somebody I’m gonna gloat about it just like if I punch somebody’s ticket I’m gonna gloat about it.”

Bochy said he remembers the at-bat, though not necessarily pitch-for-pitch. He does, however, recall quite well that Belt got his fair share of grousing from his teammates back then:

“Oh everybody was giving him a hard time. There’s nothing more embarrassing for a hitter than when a position-player strikes you out. It’s one thing if you make an out, but a strikeout— that’s embarrassing.”

The Giants skipper said he’s never undergone the humiliation Belt experienced that day, but said Belt earned all the grief he got and will continue to get:

“I have faced a position-player but I wasn’t gonna strike out. Brandon did, so, believe me, he wore it when he got back to the dugout.”

Panik echoed Bochy’s sentiment:

“As a position guy I almost wanna say it’s like a lose-lose. Everybody’s like, ‘Well yeah, you’re supposed to [get a hit].’ And then if you make contact and then you get out you’re like, ‘Come on, it’s a position-player,’ but if you strike out—it’s the worst.”

Belt said he was prepared for what was coming when Kratz joined the team. He said he broached the subject early on to get the gloating out of the way. Kratz, for his part, said he was more than prepared to jog the Texan’s memory.

Belt said:

“I actually think I brought it up first because I wanted to try to get it out there and joke about it like it really doesn’t affect me, but deep down it hurts.”

In his defense, Belt added:

“I was an All Star that year, by the way, I just wanna point that out. And I think he said that he struck out another All Star before so I don’t know who it is but I’m not the only one.” 

That other All Star was Suarez, whom Kratz struck out last season on four pitches—a foul ball and three called strikes—in a laugher against the Reds when Kratz was playing for the Brewers and they were down 10-3 in the eighth. Barnes joined the ‘Kratz K Klub’ a month later when he struck him out looking in the ninth inning of an 11-2 loss to LA.

Belt remains the only batter Kratz has whiffed, though, and he said that hurts. Kratz, meanwhile, said he plans to spend the entire season reminding Belt of that fateful night at PNC Park:

“The other guys [in the Giants clubhouse] were egging me on. I wasn’t going to have a tough time gloating about it. I’ll let him know the whole season. I think I’m gonna have him sign the ball.”

Watson wasn’t surprised in the least to find out Kratz had been taking the opportunity to rub salt in the wound:

“That doesn’t shock me at all. I would love to see if [Belt] actually signs [the ball], that would be funny. It’s just part of a baseball clubhouse, it’s all in good nature but, if he does a good job, you gotta tip your hat.”

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