Nick Punto's head-first dives into first base are legendary around these parts. They were part of the Persona of Punto -- the scrappy, dirty-uniformed, slick-fielding throwback who made hustle-lovers swoon and OPS-lovers gag.
In the last off-season, of course, Punto found out he was no longer in the Twins' plans. He eventually settled into a role with the Cardinals, taking his tail-battling-offness to St. Louis on a one-year contract.
He's had a classic Punto year: injuries, a middling batting average, no power, and presumably tons of hustle. (Though to be fair his .747 OPS in limited action this year would be fifth overall on the Twins this year, ahead of Joe Mauer and tons of others. Just shoot us now).
Most of the time, though, Punto's hustle is an amusing sideshow or even a helpful quality (the 2009 ALDS, Game 3, third base, notwithstanding). On Monday night, though, his hustle might have been the difference between the Cardinals making the postseason and missing it -- in a bad way.
With runners on second and third and two outs in a 4-4 game at Houston -- the Cardinals had rallied from a 4-2 deficit -- Punto came to the plate. He hit a bouncer to first base, as he is wont to do, but the first baseman bobbled the ball, turning a routine play into a very close play. Punto dove head first into the first base bag, as he so often does, and was thrown out by a fraction of a second -- basically about 6 inches if we have paused that MLB.com video at the right spot for the above screen grab. (Full video here).
Lest you wonder any longer if running through the bag or diving to the bag is the faster way to reach first, SCIENCE has already answered that question for us. This ESPN video from a year ago shows that a runner reaches first base .01 seconds faster by running through the bag than diving at it. How much of a difference is that, really? Well, when they slow the video down and show the overlapping runners, it looks to be about 6 inches or so.
Therefore, we say Punto would have been safe -- or at least could have been safe -- had he simply run through the bag. (You can hear the announcer lamenting the fact that he didn't just run through the bag on the MLB.com video. Sir, that's just not what Punto does).
The Cardinals would have taken the lead and perhaps held on to win the game. Instead, they lost in extra innings and remained one game behind the Braves in the wild card chase. If they finish that way, the Cardinals might be thinking about that Punto play at first for a long time.