Andy Pettitte holds the ball. Poised, professional, the archetypal veteran pitcher, he's thinking about what to throw to the batter, J.D. Drew. He's concentrating intensely on the tough hitter, not even thinking about the runner on third, certainly not worrying about him.
Suddenly, a roar bursts out from the crowd. Pettitte rushes the throw to home plate, but it's too late. Jacoby Ellsbury has stolen home. [Click Continue Reading for more.]
Steals of home plate are exceedingly rare. Most of the time, they occur as part of a larger play, such as the delayed double steal (runner on 1st breaks, followed by the runner at 3rd). A straight steal of home, like Ellsbury's, is even rarer. As Ted Keith points out, Hall of Fame base-stealer Ricky Henderson had only 4 in his entire career, out of 1,406; Lou Brock never succeeded in a straight steal of home in his 938 thefts.
While Ellsbury has blazing speed, he is also very observant, reading pitchers' movements and keeping track of position players. The mark of a superb basestealer is not pure speed (although he has that), but not getting caught. Ellsbury's career success rate at stealing is 84.8%. In 2009, he stole 70 bases, more than anyone else in MLB (next highest were Michael Bourne with 61 and Carl Crawford with 60); he was only caught 12 times. Ellsbury had the skill to recognize the factors that allowed him to steal third base.
As a lefthanded pitcher, Andy Pettitte would not be facing third base during his delivery. Ellsbury was effectively sitting in his blindspot. Compounding this, Pettitte was pitching out of the windup rather than out of the stretch, meaning his delivery was slower and it would take longer for the ball to reach home. Finally, Yankees third baseman Angel Berroa was not covering his base closely, allowing Ellsbury to develop a large lead without incident.
Ellsbury knew everything was aligned perfectly. After the game he described the steal to reporters:
The Yankees went on to lose the game, 4-1, as Masterson pitched 5.1 innings of 1-run ball, and the bullpen (Hunter Jones, Michael Bowden and Takahasi Saito) slammed the door on New York.
In the end, the steal was not a game-changing play. It did not provide the pivotal run, or have much tactical significance. It didn't change the course of the Sox postseason, or inflame the Sox-Yankees rivalry. But it was a glorious display of skill, athleticism, and awareness, one that will be remembered for generations to come by Red Sox fans.
Ted Keith on Stealing Home
George Vass on Stealing Home
OTM Gamethread (steal reaction starts here, and the overflow thread is here)
OTM Postgame by the Inimitable Allen Chace
4/26/09 on Baseball-Reference
And for irony, see bs.uf's comment here on the game thread (before The Steal happened).