A homecoming for Maddon?

2019-09-30 MikeSciosciaJoeMaddon

Joe Maddon (right) was Mike Scioscia’s consigliere in the Angels’ dugout before he became a successful manager himself.

So you think Joe Maddon isn’t the real reason the Cubs imploded down the stretch? What do you think about the man the Angels just cashiered while Maddon is a managerial free agent?

Sure, Los Angeles Times reporter Maria Torres has said Brad Ausmus was safe through the end of 2020 at minimum. And the Chicago Tribune said Maddon returning to the Angels was “unlikely.” But two better known and normally sharp baseball reporters, Buster Olney (ESPN) and Ken Rosenthal (The Athletic) have said a little more strongly that if Maddon became available, Ausmus became a retroactive lame duck.

Even as I sat down to write, the Angels weren’t the only team being tied to Maddon. The safest wager now is that Maddon’s unemployment isn’t liable to last as long the postseason probably will. It’s just a question of who’s going to employ him gainfully again.

Ausmus is the Angels’ first manager of the post-Mike Scioscia era, which ended sadly in three straight losing seasons. Hell of a way for the franchise’s single most successful manager to finish his tenure. But Ausmus started with one arm tied behind his back as it was and finished with his arms amputated, so to say. And he has even less culpability for the Angels’ disappearance than Maddon had for the Cubs’.

It wasn’t Ausmus’s brilliant idea that this year’s Angel starting rotation would be an injury-and-inconsistency infected mess almost from the beginning. Or that the Angel bullpen (their collective 5.10 ERA was the fifth worst in baseball this year) would be their own game morticians. Even working in one of the Show’s most favourable pitchers’ parks as their home park.

It wasn’t Ausmus’s idea to miss Justin Upton in the outfield for most of the year or that the Jonathan Lucroy experiment behind the plate and the Matt Harvey experiment on the mound would implode.

It wasn’t Ausmus’s idea that Albert Pujols—a Hall of Famer in waiting otherwise, but an injury-compromised wreck for most of his Angels life—can still play at mere replacement-level on his best days, now, no matter how earnest he remains, no matter how honest his effort. (For that matter, tell yourself it was Pujols’s idea that his legs and feet should begin a continuing betrayal after just his first Angels season.)

It wasn’t Ausmus’s idea that the morale winds got knocked completely out of the Angels’ sails when Tyler Skaggs was found dead in a Texas hotel room to begin their final road series before the All-Star break. Skaggs’s death shocked all baseball but nobody really knows just how deeply it cut into the Angels’s psyches. The Angels were a game under .500 at the All-Star break but 22 below it in the second half.

If you can consider it good news, Skaggs’s death brought Mike Trout forward as a team leader who leads with far more than just what he does in the field and at the plate. (He was striking firmly for his third American League Most Valuable Player award before his foot nerve issue forced him to season-ending surgery in early September. The Astros’ Alex Bregman could very easily win this year’s award if Trout doesn’t.)

But what good is leadership on a team that still isn’t really worthy of its own and baseball’s continuing greatest all-around player? Trout remained Trout and then some even after Skaggs’s death. Ended prematurely, his season was still a season for the books: he still led the majors in on-base percentage and OPS+ and the American League in slugging, OPS, and intentional walks.

The Angels otherwise? That magnificent combined no-hit blowout of the Mariners in their first home game after losing Skaggs was maybe the season’s most spiritually transcendent game—and maybe their last real gasp. Their clubhouse may have held together but they just weren’t a good team on the field. And it’s no more Trout’s fault than it is Ausmus’s.

Ausmus may not be one of the game’s better tactical or strategic managers but neither has he really made the kind of brain-twisters that may yet put paid to men like Mickey Callaway, Gabe Kapler, and maybe even a couple of postseason entrants whose futures probably depend on how far their teams go toward the Promised Land this time.

But Ausmus is now history with the Angels and Maddon has history with them. He took the bridge briefly in 1999 after Terry Collins walked rather than deal any longer with a clubhouse he helped blow up himself, when he was younger, more foolish, and more like a walking exposed nerve. He led those Angels to a 19-10 finish before handing Scioscia the bridge and becoming Scioscia’s consigliere on the bench.

He served long and well as Scioscia’s bench coach. He earned the respect and affection of owner Arte Moreno while he was at it. And now that he’s a free agent, the Angels—as MLB Trade Rumours so delicately phrases it—are “contemplating” Ausmus’s job status.

Rick Renteria, call your office. The Cubs “contemplated” your job status once upon a time as Maddon became available, too. You know how that worked out, amirite? Sure you might be content on the south side of Chicago helping to bring the White Sox back to the land of the living, but that’s not the same thing as you knowing the Cubs were on the threshold of postseason revival and conquest.

And the Angels aren’t considered the only prospective suitors for Maddon’s hand in managerial marriage.

The perpetually rebuilding Padres pinked Andy Green with eight games left this season and they’re thought to have eyes for Maddon now. The Mets and the Phillies are thought to be pondering execution orders for Mickey Callaway and Gabe Kapler, respectively. Don’t think Maddon isn’t in their dugout wet dreams now. (For that matter, don’t think all three teams aren’t pondering further alterations in the front offices, either.)

The Pirates dumped Clint Hurdle somewhat unceremoniously on the final day, letting bench coach Tom Prince have the bridge for a season-ending 3-1 loss to the Reds. The man who skippered the Pirates back to competitiveness for awhile watched his 2019 edition earn a reputation for headhunting, his front office swap out assets for liabilities on field and in the clubhouse, his clubhouse turn into a toxic mess, and himself almost helpless to stop the mass suicide.

(Early last year, when the Nationals were thought to have clubhouse trouble, former manager Dusty Baker observed, “Jayson Werth. That’s who they miss in that clubhouse.” The Pirates could probably say, “Andrew McCutchen. That’s who we miss in this clubhouse.” Just as the Cubs can say, “David Ross. That’s who we miss in this clubhouse.”)

Maddon may be in the Pirates’ periscope sights, too. But then, maybe not. Maddon isn’t the whiplash type. Like legendary Navy fleet admiral Chester Nimitz, Maddon’s command style is reason, not reaming. This collection of Pirates probably needs something more blunt in the dugout. And maybe something a lot more broad-sighted in the front office.

It must be humbling for Maddon, who’s not exactly bereft of modesty, to realise he’s one of those men who inspires others to dump their incumbents when he shows even a hint of actual or pending availability. But for growing members of the club becoming known as Men Fired (Or Likely To Be) That Joe Maddon Be Hired, it must be a little sobering.

Maddon era ends with a Cubs whimper

2019-09-29 JoeMaddon

Joe Maddon watches from the Busch Stadium visitors’ dugout on his final day as the Cubs’ skipper.

What was long enough presumed was made official Sunday. The Joe Maddon era in Chicago ended with the Cubs’ regular season finale, and a 9-0 loss to the National League Central-clinching Cardinals while they were at it.

The final decision came Friday, apparently, despite the Cubs taking one from the Cardinals to start the weekend, when Maddon and president Theo Epstein met over a bottle of wine, and Epstein affirmed there’d be no contract renewal.

And it may not be quite as simple as saying that, if only the Cubs could have played just  last weekend the way they handled the Cardinals the first two games this weekend, Maddon might have survived.

Getting swept by the Cardinals in the Cubs’ final season set at Wrigley Field last weekend merely finished breaking their backs for the year. They still had another week and weekend to play and, until they hit St. Louis Friday night, the Cubs still looked and played broken—and against the Pirates, yet.

But the plain truth is that the Cubs were broken long before last weekend. And the breakage wasn’t Maddon’s fault entirely or exclusively. Maybe ESPN’s Jesse Rogers said it best after Sunday’s news broke: “Maddon’s dismissal from the Cubs boils down to one sentence: He wasn’t able to outmanage the mistakes the front office saddled him with.”

That happens only too often and not exclusively with the Cubs. But it feels magnified anyway because the Cubs delivered in 2016 what was long presumed impossible. And enough people in Cub Country and elsewhere really thought it was the opening salvo for a dynasty-to-be.

The dynasty that isn’t hit their wall in their own venerable playpen at the end last year. They slip-slid into a National League Central tiebreaker with the Brewers and lost that game. Then settled for the NL wild card game against the Rockies and lost that one, too. Scoring a grand total of two runs in both games, 22 innings worth of baseball.

The Maddon era qualifies cumulatively as a raging success, but its finish qualifies as a raging flop. For two straight seasons Maddon presided over a team that didn’t achieve what their talent demanded. He wasn’t necessarily in a great position to continue the earlier success, but he wasn’t necessarily able any longer to call his team to account before trouble spots became chronic.

Enemy teams came to salivate, not shiver, at the prospect of Cubs on the bases—they led the National League in baserunning outs this year. The other guys had only to put the bat on the ball and often as not save their prayers—this year’s Cubs were the league’s most error-prone defense.

“When you make a lot of errors in the field, when you make a lot of errors in the baserunning, that’s momentum,” pitcher Cole Hamels told Rogers. “That’s an area that could get corrected. There’s still a lot of players in here that are still learning.”

Hamels could have been talking about accountability, too. This year’s Cubs seemed to lose that. Maddon’s isn’t an in-your-face style of leadership, but as Rogers notes it’s believed that even when he did call players in to account for their mishaps, mistakes, and misses, “he didn’t address matters strongly enough . . . or the message didn’t get through.”

It’s not easy being as well respected as Maddon is for keeping his sanity when everything and everyone else around you has search parties out trolling to retrieve theirs. Neither is it easy to discover your remarkably sane and becalmed manner in keeping your clubhouse on message and on task no longer keeps it either.

“[P]eople — players, coaches, general managers, fans, even writers — came to see it is possible to work your butt off and still be a reasonable human being,” wrote Yahoo! Sports‘s Tim Brown. “You can be the boss without being condescending. You can lose and find hope. You can win and recognize that’s about an inch from losing.”

You can even manage the Cubs out of the wilderness, back to the Promised Land for the first time since the Roosevelt Administration (Theodore’s), and keep them in contention for the two seasons to follow, and still keep your marble (singular) when everything around you dissipates.

Which is probably the best reason while Maddon may not remain unemployed for very long. The rumour radar seems to be trained on the Mets, the Phillies, and the Padres as prospective new employers. The Padres job is open since Andy Green was pinked last week; the Mets and Phillies jobs may be opening very shortly.

A rumoured-enough possible Maddon successor is David Ross, whose clubhouse leadership and work as Miguel Montero’s co-backup behind the plate was invaluable to that 2016 World Series conquest. Ross retired after that Series. Don’t think for a moment that the Cubs didn’t miss him in the clubhouse from that point forward.

That was another problem after the ’16 triumph. The Cubs’ most tangible clubhouse leadership came by way of imports from other teams: Ross, Miguel Montero, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Jason Heyward. Their homegrown core led by example enough mostly but didn’t develop, or didn’t feel comfortable developing, more direct and over influence.

Ross retired after the World Series conquest. And Montero blew his leadership cred when he a) complained publicly about losing ’16 postseason playing time to Willson Contreras and Ross behind the plate; and, b) blamed Jake Arrieta publicly for the June 2017 day the Nationals ran wild on the bases (seven attempts, seven thefts) against Montero’s arm.

The latter got Montero run out of town post haste. Lackey retired after the 2017 season. Lester really started showing his age this season. Heyward is still a plus defender but a minus hitter.

But nobody expected Albert Almora, Jr. to stop hitting, or David Bote to become a defensive liability, or Hamels to be injured, or Contreras and Kyle Schwarber running the bases like trucks with flat tires, or Kyle Hendricks developing a seeming allergy to winning on the road. (At home in ’19: 2.05 ERA; .206 batting average against; 0.87 walks/hits per inning pitched. On the road in ’19: 5.02 ERA; .290 BAA; .141 WHIP.)

Hendricks himself reflected a major Cub dilemna this year. At Wrigley Field, if you don’t count that final weekend’s implosion, the Cubs played like a world champion in the making. On the road, they played like the 1962 Mets without the laughs. They dealt with key injuries, of course, and in abundance enough—but so did the Yankees and the Astros, and those two were deep enough to keep on winning.

Which is why Epstein himself may have some splainin’ to do. He didn’t exactly retool the retooling-needy bullpen with solid bulls. He depleted the farm to win the ’16 Series and beyond. The Cubs haven’t drafted a single major league-quality pitcher under the Ricketts/Epstein regime; the scouts haven’t mined deeper for jewels. Their 2018 round one pick, Nico Hoerner, proved a pleasant surprise. His September callup turned into a presence in the Cubs’ 2020 scheme, almost unexpectedly.

More than just the manager may be different next year. Hamels is about to test the free agency market. So does trade deadline acquisition Nicholas Castellanos, whose torrid play after joining the Cubs was too far from enough to help. So does relief pitcher Steve Cishek.

Aging utility man Ben Zobrist—whose season was disrupted by a harsh divorce, harsh enough to prompt his leaving the team to tend his children through it—may or may not retire. And there may (underline that, gang) be trade winds blowing around Almora, Kris Bryant, Jose Quintana, and the should-have-been-purged Addison Russell, whose too-much-proven domestic violence embarrassed everyone around the Cubs.

Maybe, too, Epstein overshot when he said last winter he wouldn’t even think about extending Maddon (if at all) until after this season was done. If it made Maddon too lame a duck maybe that extended to the players. Nobody likes that coming unemployment is a given for the boss you happen to love.

So why not send that boss out with a bang instead of a whimper? If the Cubs couldn’t stay the course to the postseason, the least they could have done was finish what they started and try forcing the Cardinals into an NL Central tiebreaker.

No such luck. Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty could have thrown from a sitting position, maybe even in a deep leather sofa Sunday afternoon. The Cardinals buried the Cubs, 9-0. It seemed almost like a mercy killing. And even a Cub win wouldn’t have forced the tiebreaker, after all: the Rockies beat the Brewers in thirteen in Coors Field. On a walkoff wild pitch.

But it might have shown a little pride.

Things in Busch Stadium began quietly enough and within reason with an RBI single by Paul Goldschmidt and a run-scoring Area Code 6-4-3 dialed by Marcel Ozuna in the first. The quiet lasted just long enough for Dexter Fowler—another element in the Cubs’ 2016 triumph allowed to leave—to hit one into the left field seats with Flaherty himself aboard on a base hit in the second.

And the Cardinals didn’t wait for the Cubs to regroup in the third, either. Ozuna singled home Goldschmidt and, after Yadier Molina walked, Matt Carpenter sent one over the right center field fence. Then Goldschmidt continued the party with a one-out bomb in the fourth.

It got so bad that Maddon sent Zobrist out to pitch the eighth. But Maddon wasn’t trying to be cute, even if there’ll be those sourpusses who decide he’d just surrendered completely without even a whiff of a fight back. He really did want to give a little gift to his 2016 World Series MVP, a personal favourite from their days together in Tampa Bay.

Zobrist walked Fowler to lead off but got a prompt line out to right center from Tommy Edman before walking Goldschmidt. He got a pop out to second baseman (and former Cardinal) Daniel Descalso. Then, he struck Molina out on 2-2 for the side. Molina couldn’t resist a sly grin as he lingered a moment in the batter’s box. Zobrist enjoyed the moment thoroughly. (He can also brag, wink wink, about a 0.00 lifetime ERA if he wants.)

It was a pleasant gesture and a pleasant way to accept the gift. God and His servant Jolly Cholly Grimm only knew how often the Cubs’ regular relievers got torched with men on and two outs during the season. Maybe Zobrist’s unlikely ability to wiggle into and out of trouble gives the front office a hint about fixing that bullpen. Among other things.

Two milestones, one rude interruption

2019-09-28 JustinVerlander

Justin Verlander captured after nailing his 3,000th strikeout Saturday night.

You thought there’d be no excitement possibility on this year’s regular season-closing weekend? Think again.

The National League Central turned out to have a surprise in store for you this weekend: the Cardinals and the Brewers entered Sunday with a chance at facing an NL Central title tiebreaker game.

A couple of less wealthy teams in the American League East and West put wild cards in the bank and got to say, Look, ma—no tanking!

And a nice guy who pitches for the Astros while standing to win this year’s American League Cy Young Award hit two milestones Saturday night—with one rude interruption to his achievements.

A nice guy who became the only member of the 3,000 strikeout club to surrender a home run to the first man up after he bagged the milestone punchout. And on the first pitch, yet. Who says Andujar’s Law (In baseball, there’s just one word: you never know—Joaquin Andujar, once an Astro himself) is ripe for repeal?

Justin Verlander, as smart on the mound as he is nice otherwise, started against the Angels Saturday night needing six strikeouts to reach 3,000. The game meant little enough by itself, other than the long-lost Angels celebrating their fan appreciation night; the Astros owned the AL West all year long and had home-field postseason advantage in the bank while they were at it.

There’d be plenty of time to get back to the business of serious competition, especially with these Astros not only winning a third straight American League West but inspiring some oddsmakers to put them at +200 for going all the way to win a second World Series in three seasons. Saturday night was a night for one man’s milestones.

With the Angels—whose season ended well out of the contention they were never really in, was punctured by unexpected tragedy, and once again proved them a team unworthy of its and baseball’s best all-around player—leading 1-0, Verlander hit his first one in the bottom of the fourth.

He got 3,000 when he threw Kole Calhoun a nasty, down-and-in slider on 2-2, Calhoun swinging and missing rather emphatically. The Angel Stadium crowd wasn’t sure for a moment what to cheer louder, Verlander nailing the milestone punchout or Calhoun reaching first when the ball went past catcher Robinson Chirinos enabling Calhoun’s reach in the first place.

The official scorer ruled a wild pitch. It could have been ruled a passed ball; Chirinos was moving to the inside as Verlander delivered and looked in solid position, mitt down, to stop the ball.

Thus only the third time in his major league life had Verlander struck a batter out to see him reach base on it. Making him the second member of the 3,000K club whose milestone punchout resulted in the batter reaching base. Hall of Famer Phil Niekro brought that one off on the Fourth of July in 1984, as a Yankee, when he led off the top of the fourth by striking out the Rangers’ Larry Parrish—only to see Parrish reach first when Knucksie’s famous knuckleball knuckled past catcher Butch Wynegar.

Verlander didn’t hold it against Chirinos. “He was like ‘Don’t worry about it’,” Chirinos said to reporters after the game. “I lost that pitch because Calhoun is so on top of the plate, so the ball was coming into him and it hit my foot and went the other way. I was laughing that it happened in the worst moment. Something to remember. Good thing he got to 3,000.”

No worries. The Angel Stadium crowd handed Verlander a loud ovation—their own team has its problems but Angel fans appreciate achievement, just as a Hall of Famer appreciates it when his own achievement is respected and appreciated on the road. He tipped his hat to the crowd and went right back to work.

“I honestly haven’t had a moment to really have it set in,” Verlander said after the game. “My teammates gave me a good speech after and everybody gave me a great hug. Hopefully this is one of those moments that we look at and it’s just one of the special moments of the season that was extremely special.”

But I’d bet only the Angel Stadium audience thought what happened next was special. Angel shortstop Andrelton Simmons checked in at the plate and hit one over the center field fence. How rude of him. It made Verlander the only member of the 3,000K club to surrender a home run to the next man up after the milestone punchout. And on the first pitch to the guy.

Verlander and the Astros had the last laugh, however. They went on to overthrow the 3-0 deficit into which Simmons’s launch put them and win, 6-3, after Jose Altuve (a two-run shot) and Josh Reddick (a three-run shot) cleared the fences in the sixth, and Altuve added an RBI double in the seventh.

And Verlander exacted a little milestone revenge against Calhoun in the bottom of the sixth. When he struck Calhoun out then, it made him plus Gerrit Cole only the second pair of teammates (Curt Schilling and Hall of Famer Randy Johnson were the other pair, for the 2001 Diamondbacks) to strike out 300+ in the same season.

Sweetening that particular pot: neither Verlander nor Cole had ever struck out 300+ batters in their careers until now. And Verlander is the second pitcher to nail his 3,000th strikeout in an Astros uniform, behind Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, who flattened Cincinnati’s Cesar Geronimo for that milestone on the Fourth of July in 1980.

I couldn’t resist. I looked up all eighteen games that included a 3,000th strikeout and what happened with the next man up in those innings after those pitchers bagged their milestones:

Walter Johnson (Senators)—The milestone: Stan Coveleski (Indians), bottom of the sixth, 22 July 1923. The next batter: Charlie Jamieson—fly out to left.

Bob Gibson (Cardinals)—The milestone: Cesar Geronimo (Reds), top of the second, 17 July 1974. The next batter—None; Gibson retired the side with that strikeout.

Gaylord Perry (Padres)—The milestone: Joe Simpson (Dodgers), top of the eighth, 1 October 1978. The next batter: Pedro Guerrero—reached on an infield hit and took second on the throwing error.

Nolan Ryan (Astros)—The milestone: Cesar Geronimo (Reds), bottom of the second, 4 July 1980. The next batter: Junior Kennedy—walk. (Dubious co-milestone: It made Geronimo the only man to be the 3,000th strikeout victim of two pitchers.)

Tom Seaver (Reds)—The milestone: Keith Hernandez (Cardinals), top of the fourth, 18 April 1981. The next batter: None; side retired.

Steve Carlton (Phillies)—The milestone: Tim Wallach (Expos), top of the first, 29 April 1981. The next batter: None; Wallach was the third victim as Carlton opened the game striking out the side.

Ferguson Jenkins (Cubs)—The milestone: Garry Templeton (Padres), bottom of the third, 25 May 1982. The next batter: Ruppert Jones—fly out to left.

Don Sutton (Brewers)—The milestone: Alan Bannister (Indians), top of the eighth, 24 June 1983. The next batter: None; side retired.

Phil Niekro (Yankees)—The milestone: Larry Parrish (Rangers), bottom of the fourth, 4 July 1984. The next batter: Pete O’Brien—fly out to center.

Bert Blyleven (Twins)—The milestone: Mike Davis (Athletics), top of the fifth, 1 August 1986. The next batter: Mickey Tettleton—walk to load the bases.

Roger Clemens (Blue Jays)—The milestone: Randy Winn (Devil Rays), top of the third, 5 July 1998. The next batter: None; side retired.

Randy Johnson (Diamondbacks)—The milestone: Mike Lowell (Marlins), bottom of the fourth, 10 September 2000. The next batter: None; side retired.

Greg Maddux (Cubs)—The milestone: Omar Vizquel (Giants), top of the third, 26 July 2005. The next batter: None; side retired.

Curt Schilling (Red Sox)—The milestone: Nick Swisher (Athletics), bottom of the first, 30 August 2006. The next batter: Mark Kotsay—grounded out to second base. (Note: Swisher hit an RBI double off Schilling in the bottom of the fourth.)

Pedro Martinez (Mets)—The milestone: Aaron Harang (Reds), bottom of the second, 3 September 2007. The next batter: None; side retired.

John Smoltz (Braves)—The milestone: Felipe Lopez (Nationals), top of the third, 22 April 2008. The next batter: Cristian Guzman—grounded out to first unassisted for the side.

CC Sabathia (Yankees)—The milestone: John Ryan Murphy (Diamondbacks), 30 April 2019. The next batter: None; struck out the side. (Without a little trouble, though, since former Met Wilmer Flores hit one out against Sabathia with two out in the inning and Nick Ahmed singled right after, before Murphy came up.)

Thus we have eight pitchers whose 3,000th strikeouts retired the side and three whose 3000th strikeouts struck out the side. Two walked the next man up and one of the two loaded the bases with that walk. (Blyleven escaped that inning unscathed for runs.) Two got ground outs from the next batters; three got fly outs next. And two (Walter Johnson, Pedro Martinez) struck out fellow pitchers for their milestone punchouts.

Justin Verlander would probably have loved nothing better than to get rid of Andrelton Simmons immediately after he dispatched Kole Calhoun for number 3,000. I’m sure he’ll settle for being the only man to get the same guy for two milestones on one night.

The flip side, of course, is that Calhoun—a solid if not so spectacular Angel outfielder with 34 home runs on his 2019 ledger—would have loved nothing better than not being Verlander’s 300th strikeout of 2019 and 3,000th strikeout lifetime on the same night.

Joaquin Andujar, wherever you are in the Elysian Fields, call your office.

Minor subterfuge

2019-09-27 MikeMinor

Mike Minor nailed his 200th strikeout with a little sneaky help from his friends Thursday night.

Let me put it right on the table for you. What the Rangers did Thursday in a bid to fatten Mike Minor’s shot at 200 strikeouts on the season isn’t exactly the first time someone’s resorted to a little subterfuge in order to enable a particular milestone. And if you still believe that boys will be boys, it won’t be the last, either.

So the Red Sox are a little p.o.ed over Rangers first baseman Ronald Guzman charging Chris Owings’s one-out popup then pulling his mitt back to let the ball hit the foul grass in the ninth? The Rangers weren’t exactly thrilled at the Red Sox swinging on first pitches in the eighth, either.

“Mike Minor’s 200th strikeout should have a big asterisk. That was bush. Chasing a milestone that way is unprofessional,” fumed Boston Globe writer Pete Abraham in a tweet. “Ask me if I care, Pete,” Minor fumed back.

“I didn’t love the idea that we dropped the popup at the end,” said Rangers manager Chris Woodward to reporters after Minor nailed number 200 and, while they were at it, won the game 7-5. “But on the other side of that, they swung at three pitches in a row in the eighth inning down by two. If they have any beef with that — obviously I’m pretty sure [Red Sox manager Alex] Cora did — they chose to not try and win the game as well. They were trying to keep him from striking a guy out.”

The very nerve of the Red Sox. Trying to keep a pitcher from striking them out. What’ll they think of next? Their pitchers trying to keep hitters from hitting?

Good thing Minor wasn’t going for a no-hitter and the Rangers didn’t put the shifts onto the final Red Sox batters. The Red Sox might have been ornery enough to look at all that yummy open expanse gifted them, decided, “You’re stupid enough to give us that much room to hit, we’re not going to look a gift horse’s ass in the mouth,” and whacked a grounder or two into that gifted meadow.

But then Cora had something to say about the Guzman play. “I’m just happy our guys are playing the game the right way,” he told reporters himself. “We’re playing hard until the end. It’s been two weeks we’ve been eliminated, but we’ve been going at it the right way. That’s all I ask. I don’t manage the Rangers.”

I don’t want to be the wise guy, here, but stuff such as Guzman did to help his mate keep a shot at a milestone alive goes on more often than you think. Actual or alleged.

One of baseball’s oldest legends is the 1910 race to the American League batting title between Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie. The legend included Cobb sitting out the last two games to protect his average and the St. Louis Browns willing to give Lajoie, then with the Indians, his hits by hook, crook, and anything else they could get away with.

The Browns and the Tribe played a season-ending doubleheader while Cobb sat idle. Browns manager Jack O’Connor ordered his rookie third baseman Red Corriden to play on or at the edge of the outfield grass. Lajoie went 8-for-8 in the twin bill to win the title technically. American League president Ban Johnson declared Cobb the batting title winner after the shenanigans were taken to him.

The Chalmers Automobile Company, which awarded a car to the batting champion in those years, gave Cobb and Lajoie a new car each, pretty much deciding they were tied. Then, they changed the award the following season, giving the car to the league’s most valuable player, not the batting champion.

And O’Connor and his coach Harry Howell were banned from baseball for life over the scandal. (Lajoie’s ninth plate appearance of the day resulted in him reaching on an error; Howell tried to bribe the official scorer into changing the ruling to a base hit, but the scorer declined.)

Decades later, Denny McLain had his 31st win of 1968 in the bag when he decided he’d help Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle secure the last milestone he wanted in his career, retiring past Jimmie Foxx on baseball’s all-time home run list. Mantle was already at 534, tied with Foxx and in third place on the list.

When Tiger catcher Bill Freehan greeted Mantle checking in at the plate, with one out in the top of the eighth, Freehan told Mantle he’d be told what was coming because McLain really wanted him to do it. Sure enough, Mantle got one where he wanted it and sent it into the upper deck, making the score 6-2, Tigers. Thanks, Denny. Mantle sweetened his own retirement pot the next day when he took Red Sox righthander Jim Lonborg deep for number 536.

Almost a decade earlier, Mantle’s far less controversial teammate was offered a season-ending gift. Bobby Richardson was a sharp defensive second baseman who was often made the Yankees’ leadoff hitter. How did a guy with a .299 lifetime on-base percentage become a leadoff hitter? For one reason only: Richardson was almost impossible to strike out. (His lifetime average strikeouts per 162 games: 28.)

Richardson was also a devout Christian then and now. His usual Yankee running mates were fellow clean-livers, shortstop Tony Kubek and pitcher Bobby Shantz, and the trio was nicknamed the Milk Shake Kids. The only skirts they ever chased were the ones wrapped around their own wives; the strongest drink they probably ever took was fresh lemonade.

In fact, they inadvertently helped expose the Great Yankee Private Detective Agency in the late 1950s. When GM George Weiss hired a firm in hopes of throttling some of the randier Yankees’ off-field pursuits, the joy boys shook the dicks but the dicks still latched onto a group of Yankees anyway, tailing them around town until discovering it was the Milk Shake Kids . . . and the vice to which they were in such hot pursuit was (wait for it!) ping pong.

On the final day of the 1959 season, Richardson stood with an excellent chance of becoming the only Yankee to hit .300 or better on the year. As Richardson remembered to New York Daily News writer Bill Madden for Pride of October: What It Was to Be Young and a Yankee, he was supposed to get two gifts that day. Manager Casey Stengel would lift him from the game if he got a hit his first time up, and the Orioles were willing to do anything to let him have his hit.

The Orioles’ scheduled starting pitcher Billy O’Dell, a friend of Richardson who shared quail hunting trips with him, told him before the game he’d be “throwing one right in there for you.” Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson said he’d play deep at third in case Richardson felt like a bunt. Even the day’s plate umpire, Ed Hurley, was in on the little fix: “If you hit it on the ground, just make it look close at first.”

Richardson and Madden would make you believe that, first time up, Richardson smacked a line drive to right—and Orioles right fielder Albie Pearson made a diving catch on it. Richardson laughed to Madden recalling it. “Pearson was one of my closest friends in the game—we’d spoken together at church! He must have been the only person in the ballpark who didn’t know I was supposed to get my hit!”

Richardson is as honest as the day is long; if he ever told a lie in his life his jaw would probably dislodge from his skull. But precise memory fails even the most honest of men. Because the record actually shows that Richardson got his hit leading off the bottom of the first . . . and Pearson was nowhere near the ball: it was a line double to left center field.

And Stengel didn’t lift Richardson from the game. In the third inning Richardson hit the liner on which Pearson dove for the catch, and he also smacked a one-out single in the bottom of the sixth. Richardson didn’t leave the game until the Yankees were in a 3-1 hole with one out in the bottom of the eighth (the score would hold for a season-ending Orioles win), and Stengel elected to pinch hit for him.

The pinch hitter: the future superstar of Original Mets calamity, Marv Throneberry, who wasn’t yet nicknamed Marvelous. And O’Dell struck him out. Which was less embarrassing than what happened to the next Yankee hitter after Mantle hit McLain’s gift out.

Joe Pepitone watched the Mantle-McLain comedy from the on-deck circle and concluded McLain wouldn’t quit feeling generous when he checked in at the plate. So, just as Mantle did during his at-bat, Pepitone waggled the barrel of the bat over the plate to say where he’d like some service. And McLain knocked Pepitone on his ass with the first pitch.

What’s brewing out of Milwaukee?

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Ryan Braun slammed the Brewers toward a postseason berth clinch Wednesday night.

This season’s been strange enough without picking out the unlikeliest feel-good stories of the year. You thought a season-long battle with the injured list making the Yankees actually seem lovable was strange enough? You thought slugging their way to the American League Central title makes the almost-unexpected Twins’ case?

Well, then, what do you think about the real feel-good story of the year? It’s out of Milwaukee, you know. It’s called Lose MVP, Make Postseason Anyway. And as of this morning it could start changing to Lose MVP, Take Division.

The Brewers are doing what lots of fans only wish their teams might have done. Everyone wants to see their teams rise from the dead. The Brewers are bloody well doing it. Just like they did last September. Except that this time around they looked a little worse for wear before the month began. And they won’t have Christian Yelich in service again until spring training.

Be real. A runaway success is well and good. For all intent and purpose, that was this year’s Astros, Braves, Dodgers, and even the Yankees. Jaw dropping as the Yankees’ endurance was despite their season being St. Elsewhere, Yankee Stadium, their organisational depth helped make sure the farthest behind the Yankees ever fell was five and a half games—on 18 April.

The Astros were probably baseball’s second-most injury-challenged team, maybe with the now also-ran Phillies right up there with them. But the Astros are made of a lot stronger stuff and are at least as deep as the Yankees. They’re liable to end up with baseball’s best regular season record, if the Yankees don’t. They were last seen near five games behind even earlier than the Yankees—on 3 April.

And with Mike Trout out of the picture since going down for the season over nerve surgery in his right foot, Alex Bregman—who’s been Trout’s only anywhere-near-viable competition for the prize this year—is liable to end up as the American League’s Most Valuable Player, with Justin Verlander the likely AL Cy Young Award winner. These Astros aren’t exactly sad sacks. They could even win this year’s World Series. Could.

So turn to the Brewers. Whose best player and team carrier got knocked out of the box literally on 10 September when he smashed his kneecap on his own foul off the plate. A knockout that had an awful lot of people, yours truly included, thinking the Brewers might have been knocked out right then and there. Even as they hung in anyway that day to beat the Marlins by a run.

They finished that day five games out in the NL Central and a game behind the Cubs for the same. They finished the same day a game behind the Cubs in the wild card standing. And with Yelich out of  the picture, for all manager Craig Counsell’s absence of fear for what’s outside or nowhere within reach of the box, it was too easy to wonder how soon, not whether the Brewers’ tickets home for the year would be punched.

Lots of teams take a refuse-to-lose posture when disaster strikes. But you can count on a single hand how many act like their posture then. The Brewers are 19-4 in September overall—but 12-2 since Yelich was lost.

And after jumping the Reds for six in the first en route a 9-2 win Wednesday night—Ryan Braun’s grand salami on the game’s 20th pitch was merely the opening blow—they had the pleasure of delivering knockout punches to two teams for the price of one: the Cubs, who’ve spent September imploding; and, the Mets, whose post-All Star pluck and jive turned out to be less pluck than jive, after all.

The Brewers are not going to get cocky and kid either you or themselves that this makes Yelich expendable. They may be insane, but they’re not that crazy. But they weren’t exactly a threshing machine before September, either: they entered the month three games over .500 after an August that proved their season’s worst month.

They opened September 2-2, winning once and losing once each to the Cubs and the Astros. And then . . . and then . . .

* They took three straight from the Cubs.

* They beat the Marlins two straight before and including the night Yelich kneecapped himself, then beat them two straight more.

* They took two out of three from the Cardinals and three out of four from the Padres.

* They swept the Pirates, whose internal dysfunction this season was the year’s saddest feel-bad story, and now sit on the threshold of sweeping Cincinnati.

Go ahead and say it. The Brewers fattened themselves this month the way the Mets did out of the All-Star break, on preponderantly weaker pickings. But just as the Mets had to figure ways to elude both a bullpen made of 95 percent arsonists and a moment-challenged manager, the Brewers had to overcome:

* An entire roster whose individual wins above replacement-level player this year didn’t even show a single other All-Star level player, never mind anyone within a hundred nautical miles of Yelich’s level. And that’s despite five Brewers hitting 20 home runs or more this season (including Yelich’s 44), two (Yelich and Mike Moustakas) hitting 35 or more as of this morning, and the team’s on-base percentage sitting fifth in the league (.329) as of this morning, too.

* A starting rotation with only one member (Brandon Woodruff) showing a fielding-independent pitching rate under 4.00. (Woodruff missed all of August and most of September on the injured list.)

* A bullpen showing only one member (closer Josh Hader) with an FIP and an ERA below 3.00, with the average FIP (among its regular bulls) otherwise being 4.46. (They might have had a second bull close enough to Hader if Corey Knebel didn’t miss the season following Tommy John surgery.)

Now the Brewers are fighting on two fronts. They have a clean shot at sneaking the NL Central title right out from under the Cardinals’ noses. Or, they might have, if the Cardinals got to finish the regular season against anyone other than the Cubs. The Cubs have imploded so severely that winning even one of the final three this weekend might require a clergyman to verify the miracle.

More realistically, the Brewers have home field in the wild card game at stake. If the season ended this instant, the game would be played in Washington. But if the Brewers could end up tying the Nats’ season record, the game would be played in Miller Park, since the Brewers beat the Nats in their season series 4-2.

And the Nats—who had to find ways to survive their own manager’s periodic tactical lapses and their own self-immolating bullpen—won’t have it easy. After they finish with the Phillies today, they get to end the season interleague and against the Indians, still in the postseason hunt despite waking up this morning a game and a half behind the Rays for the second AL wild card.

The Indians won’t make things easy for the Nats. If they could survive a sweep at the Mets’ hands in New York, which proved maybe the true last grand stand of the Mets’ season, and stay in the hunt since, they won’t go down without a battle to the Nats.

But stranger things have been known to happen, including the Brewers being this far in the first place. Maybe the Cubs find enough self pride to give the Cardinals a run for it this weekend. Maybe enough, assuming the Brewers spend the weekend in Coors Field reminding the Rockies (whom they haven’t seen since may) who they’re dealing with, to set up a possible NL Central tiebreaker game.

They’re not strangers to that circumstance. Just last year they forced a division tiebreaker with the Cubs and beat them to force the Cubs to the wild card game they lost to the Rockies. These Brewers don’t seem to fear anything yet. Which gives this year’s almost-as-feel-good Cardinals a little more incentive than just rivalry pride to keep the Cubs in their apparent place on the final weekend.

But don’t bet too heavily against the Brewers, anyway. A team that loses its MVP and carrier and continues the September binge they started with him is not a team who’s going to dry up and blow away upon command.

David Clyde still fights for pension fairness

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David Clyde at home in Texas, at peace with his mishandled career, but in the battle to redress pensions for short-career players between 1949 and 1980. (NGSC Sports photo.)

Hyped, mishandled, injured, finally discarded. Former Rangers pitching phenom David Clyde has long been at peace with his aborted career. He’d like to see himself and his fellow short-career players at peace, too, with even a small entry into baseball’s pension plan.

That plan was re-aligned in 1980. It now vested health benefits after one day’s major league time, granted a retirement allowance after 43 days’ major league time, but excluded players like Clyde whose major leaguer careers were short and occurred between 1949 and 1980.

When not recovering from spinal fusion surgery last winter, or continuing to coach youth baseball, Clyde continues fighting in his way to help get what he considers financial justice for those players. Once upon a time, he joined the battle for its own sake, since before his recent health issues he didn’t need the extra help himself.

“I got involved initially just because it was the right thing to do,” says Clyde, who sounds at 64 more like an amiable Texas rancher than the teenager who struck eight Twins out in his circus-like first major league start right out of high school. “I guess the biggest thing I’m disappointed in is why the [Major League Baseball] Players Association doesn’t feel like it’s . . . bound to do a dad gum thing for us.”

Legally, the players union and MLB alike aren’t bound to lift a finger on their behalf. Clyde and his fellows understand only too well. But for them it’s not a legal matter. “I think it’s beyond morally and ethically,” says Clyde, who missed his full pension vesting under the pre-1980 plan by 37 days.

“I guess what bothers me the most about it is, the Players Association—they loathe being called a union—didn’t hesitate one bit taking my dues when I was a major league player,” he says. “But as soon as you’re no longer a major league player, they basically don’t want to have anything to do with you.”

Staying engaged is one thing. But it’s a little more difficult for Clyde to press forward formally now. Not too long ago, Clyde, former Braves pitcher Gary Neibauer, and former longtime first baseman-turned-executive Eddie Robinson, three key voices on behalf of the short-career players, were removed from the Pension Services Committee of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association.

And interesting and engaging fans and major media, sports and otherwise, is an issue by itself. Douglas Gladstone—whose 2010 book A Bitter Cup of Coffee first exposed what the 1980 re-alignment didn’t mean for Clyde and his fellow short-career players—continues battling to get the major media engaged. To precious little avail.

“You tell me why people who are in a position to bring this to the public’s light on a national basis refuse to even acknowledge it exists,” Clyde says.

And he has a point. A fair number of former players have made high enough-profile second careers as baseball broadcasters. They include Hall of Famers Dennis Eckersley (with the Red Sox), Joe Morgan (a longtime ESPN fixture), and John Smoltz (Fox Sports), plus former pitchers Ron Darling (with the Mets), Mike Krukow (with the Giants), and Rick Sutcliffe (ESPN); former infielders Keith Hernandez (Mets), Eric Karros (Fox Sports), Jerry Remy (the Red Sox), and Alex Rodriguez (ESPN); and, former outfielder Harold Reynolds (formerly ESPN; now MLB Network).

Clyde says he’s even tried talking to assorted Hall of Famers (he wouldn’t drop names) who agreed players such as himself should be brought back into the pension plan. They even crafted a letter to present at a mid-2000s Hall of Fame ceremony. But “at the last minute,” he continues, “the face of that letter withdrew his support.”

If that sounds jarring or alarming, Clyde won’t argue with you. “I’m still very good friends with [that] person,” he says. “I’ve never approached the subject with him, I wouldn’t want to put him on the spot of possibly harming our friendship. [But] the letter itself could be worth a retirement plan with the signatures on it.”

At that, Clyde laughs heartily. But he becomes serious again.

“I don’t know what baseball is so afraid of,” he says. “When you talk to some of the ownership side, the ownership says, ‘We can’t talk about it, the players have to bring it up.’ And when you talk to the players, ‘Well, we don’t have any legal obligation to represent them’.”

By the time Gladstone wrote A Bitter Cup of Coffee, what began as involving about 1,100 short-career players was down to 875. Almost two decades after the book first appeared (Gladstone published an updated edition earlier this year), 248 of those players passed away, leaving 627 short-career former players hoping.

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David Clyde on the mound. He wore number 32 in tribute to his boyhood hero Sandy Koufax.

“By the day, it’s getting cheaper for [baseball] if they ever decide to do it,” Clyde says wryly. “When this thing started, it was going to cost about $15 million a year to fund this thing.” Per affected player, that equals less than a single minimum major league salary per team today, he says.

“You have players today who could single-handedly fund it,” Clyde continues, referring to several of baseball’s nine-figure stars. “And I would think there would be tremendous tax benefits to it.”

But Clyde and his fellows remain left to their own devices and open to suggestions. One, tendered by former Mets pitcher Bill Denehy, might be placing cards outlining the pension struggle along with items people send former players to autograph. (Clyde says he still gets between five and ten such requests a week on average.)

“That’s a great idea,” he says, acknowledging the actual phrasing would have to be worked out. “But who are we sending them to? “Are a majority [of autograph requests] coming from card dealers, eleven-year-old kids?

“If they’re coming from kids, then they don’t have a whole lot of say-so,” he continues. “How do we know that they’d actually be getting to the people who need to know? Why does the national media not want to touch this thing with a twenty-foot pole?”

In 2011, then-commissioner Bud Selig and then-Players Association executive director Michael Weiner announced a small redress: Players frozen out of the original re-alignment would get $625 for every 43 days major league time, with the 43 days representing a quarter and a limit of sixteen quarters, good for $10,000 before taxes. The bad news: If a player dies before collecting the last of those payments, the remaining payments can’t be passed on to their widows and children.

Volumes have been written about Clyde’s baseball saga. Perhaps nobody captured it better in thumbnail than Fort Worth Star-Telegram sportswriter Mike Shropshire in 1996, in Seasons in Hell: With Billy Martin, Whitey Herzog, and “The Worst Team in Baseball History”—The 1973-1975 Texas Rangers.

“If there is anything of enduring value from the narrative of (the book),” Shropshire wrote, “it’s the David Clyde saga: the tale of the teen phenom who gets a pile of dough, gets exploited by the ownership, and ends up with a career that is shot.”

Clyde idolised Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax growing up; he wore uniform number 32 in tribute to his hero. His pitching career at Houston’s Westchester High evoked what you might have imagined Koufax in high school if baseball was his sport. A warehouse full of strikeouts. A backpack full of no-hitters. But Clyde also represented something else to then-Rangers owner Bob Short.

Short despaired of credibility for the club after moving it from Washington. He wanted and needed to goose his gate. He saw Clyde’s goose overloaded with golden eggs right out of high school and took him number one in the June 1973 draft. And, he insisted the eighteen-year-old lefthander with the live arm step right onto a major league mound, without a drop of badly needed minor league experience and maturing first.

Clyde won his first start and pitched well overall in his first two starts. He did what Short hoped he’d do—make the Rangers credible and, coincidentally, help rescue the team’s finances. Some called Clyde the franchise saviour, and still do. He denies “saving” the franchise, but he’ll agree he made the team viable in their part of Texas.

But Short reneged on a promise to manager Whitey Herzog and refused to send Clyde to the minors. When you suggest to Clyde that Herzog may have been the only man in the Rangers organisation of the time wanting to do right by him, he replies, “As far as I know, that’s the absolute truth.”

A boy among men, subsequently saddled with Billy Martin as his manager when the White Rat was canned before the end of the 1973 season, Clyde ended up a mess. Martin’s notorious lack of patience with pitching youth was magnified regarding Clyde, who’d now pitch only occasionally. Not until 1975 was he allowed to see the minors—after one start followed by a shoulder injury.

He spent three years in the minors from there, returned to the majors with the Indians in 1978. He had scattered success and less scattered failures; he was traded back to the Rangers after the 1979 season but released as “damaged goods” after more shoulder trouble. A 1981 comeback attempt in the Astros organisation came to nothing, and in spring 1982 he retired.

Clyde made a second career in the lumber business, leaving in 2003 but continuing his youth baseball coaching activities, especially pitching and the pitfalls and pratfalls that too often accompany young players to the professional game. He cautions them that the professional sports world won’t always be as honest or as upright as the values with which he and they are raised at home.

“Look out for yourself, first,” Clyde says he advises his young charges in hand with pitching knowledge. “Once you’ve used up your usefulness to them, they’re done with you. So I’ve always told my guys look out after number one first, make sure you don’t believe everything they’re telling you.

“I was in a very unique situation, a perfect Catch-22 situation, and probably, in my opinion if any other organisation beside the Rangers had drafted me, we might not be having this conversation today.”

Most writings about Clyde in recent years paint a portrait of a man with no bitterness about the way his pitching career turned out, no matter how it was compromised by forces past his control.

“I have been a blessed individual my whole life,” he says. “I’m still blessed to this day, I’m very thankful for everything the good Lord has given me. Why should I be bitter? I had my chance. Granted, a lot of people may say it was under the best of circumstances, and I can argue it was under the worst of circumstances, but I did get the chance.”

He drew an insight toward such perspective one day while working in his garage and listening to a sports radio program. The broadcaster said  “at that time there were about fifteen thousand people who ever played major league baseball, and of that fifteen thousand, roughly half of them were pitchers.

“So you have seventy-five hundred players in over a hundred years who have ever toed the rubber on a major league mound when the umpire says, ‘Play ball’,” Clyde continues. “When you narrow it down to those terms, no matter how much we sucked, we were still pretty good.”

He hopes only that for short-timers such as himself, it’s still pretty good to get them un-frozen from baseball pensions.

Wrigley agonistes

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Joe Maddon (left) and Anthony Rizzo after the Cubs’ Sunday loss.

“Adversity,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon pronounced before they played their first home game this season, “is good for the soul, brother.” Did Maddon and the Cubs absolutely have to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy?

You want adversity? This year’s Cubs laid it on themselves good and thick. This weekend and this month. Right down to the moment Maddon decided it was a good idea with a 2-1 lead to send a gallant but past his single-game sell-by date Yu Darvish out to pitch the top of the ninth Sunday afternoon.

He probably did it because when everything else was said and done Brother Joe couldn’t or wouldn’t trust practically his whole bullpen as far as he could throw any home run pitch surrendered by Cardiac Kimbrel this weekend without the benefit of the ball flying off the end of someone else’s bat.

But pinch hitter Jose Martinez led off hitting a 1-0 cutter to the back of center field that just did elude a diving Albert Almora, Jr. for a triple. Former Cub Dexter Fowler sent pinch-runner Tyler O’Neill home promptly with a sacrifice fly. Then Tommy Edman singled to right, Paul Goldschmidt doubled him home, and then Maddon reached for Pedro Strop, who followed a prompt walk with two swinging strikeouts.

And the Cubs had nothing left against even a less-than-his-old-self Andrew Miller in the bottom of the ninth beyond Jason Heyward’s two-out single. The home side of their 2019 ended in four whimpers. Obviously, ending 118 years worth of adversity three years ago just wasn’t good enough for the soul, brother.

“If you just play back the tape,” Maddon said after Sunday’s game, “it’s almost unbelievable that it turned out this way.” The problem is that it’s only too believable. On a weekend when the Cubs needed to play like their 2016 selves in the worst way possible, they played like their 1909-2015 selves—in the worst ways possible.

The Cardinals, though, had just enough left. “There was a time when we could have mailed it in,” said shortstop Paul DeJong after Saturday night’s survival. “But we kept pushing. We’re at a point in the year where we smell blood and we’re trying to take what’s ours.”

Thus did the Cardinals clinch at least a postseason trip. Their magic number for a division clinch is two. The Cubs’ tragic number for even wild card elimination is five. They may get to regroup against what’s left of the Pirates for three in PNC Park, but guess who they end the regular season against and where next weekend?

Does Kris Bryant still think St. Louis is a boring town? I’ve never been there but I know this much about their Cardinals: They have been and they are a good many things. Boring isn’t one of them. Even the best baseball fans on earth, which is the reputation Cardinal fans do have, won’t be able to resist letting the Cubs have it but good next weekend.

The problem is, the Cubs are many things except boring, too, but their kind of excitement did the Cardinals the biggest favour of their month and, just maybe, their season. And if you want to talk about karma, be reminded that Bryant had to leave Sunday’s game after spraining his ankle trying to beat a third inning-ending double play.

Now it’s almost impossible to believe the Cubs began the four-game set against the Cardinals with a clean shot at overthrowing the NL Central leaders. And all four losses were by a single run, making for the longest streak of one-run losses (five) the Cubs have had since 1947, the last time they’d lost four straight one-run games.

How much it would have kept the Cubs’ almost-dissipated postseason hopes alive can’t be known now, but in a season during which he’s been second guessed frequently enough one more won’t kill Maddon.

If he wasn’t even going to think about Kimbrel Sunday, and he probably would have been executed on the spot if he did, why didn’t he give Darvish a pat on the fanny and thanks for a job done well above and beyond the call, and send Strop out to open the top of the ninth?

It’s not that that was the single decision above all that sank the Cubs this year. They were done in by a combination of factors, especially their terrible road results. Yet if Strop had a season to forget for the most part his September’s been plenty strong. He has only one earned run surrendered in six and a third innings’ September work, including five strikeouts now in two and a third innings against the Cardinals this weekend.

But the Cardinals had their own issues. They looked pitiful enough at the All-Star break, their shutdown closer Jordan Hicks went down to Tommy John surgery in June, and even the best fans on earth couldn’t resist the itch to demand president John Mozeliak’s head on the proverbial plate.

Then they picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and went 44-23 after the break so far, against the Cubs’ post-break 35-30. Mozeliak is presumed safe from the guillotine. The Cardinals don’t necessarily see adversity as good for the soul so much as they see it means time to see what they’re really made of. It looks like they’re made of a lot stronger stuff than even their own fans thought.

Some Cub heads may roll soon enough. A few of those heads may remain Chicago icons for their parts in the 2016 conquest, but a team whose fans too long lamented, “This year is next year,” isn’t really in the mood to go forward saying, “Ahhhh, wait till three years ago.”

Maddon wasn’t offered a contract extension and he’s liable to finish the season as another ex-Cub manager, never mind the one who finally led them to their first World Series conquest since the Roosevelt Administration. (Theodore’s.)

President Theo Epstein’s most recent signings weighed against the net results this year could have him placed on probation, figuratively speaking. This year’s Cubs “were done as soon as ‘urgency’ and ‘October starts in March’ became the alternatives to actually fixing a lineup the front office said ‘broke’ and a bullpen that was an obvious weak link coming out of spring training,” wrote Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Morrissey Saturday.

Strop plus trade deadline find Nicholas Castellanos, Cole Hamels, Steve Cishek, and others face free agency this winter. Ben Zobrist—whose season was disrupted sadly by his difficult divorce, which prompted him to leave the team for a spell to tend his children through it—may or may not retire after it’s over.

And Chicago Tribune columnist Paul Sullivan thinks aloud that, if Epstein’s recent talk about days of reckoning can be believed, it’s not impossible that Bryant, Almora, Jose Quintana, and the should-have-been-purged Addison Russell (it wasn’t a great look when the Cubs stood by him despite his too-much-proven domestic violence) will find new uniforms to wear next year.

Adversity may be good for the soul, but not everybody turns it into postseason possibilities. The Yankees and the Astros underwent a lot more adversity this year, but now the Yankees have an American League East clinch, the Astros have a postseason berth clinched at minimum, and those two are battling to see who finishes with baseball’s best record on the season.

This year’s Cubs were a good, not great team, as Morrissey notes. Maybe Maddon should get a re-consideration considering the Cubs managed to get to within a fortnight of securing just the second wild card at all. Maybe. Maybe not.

But Maddon didn’t help his cause or his case Sunday afternoon. The much-maligned, oft-struggling Darvish has been the Cubs’ best pitcher in this year’s second half: a .194 batting average against him; a .605 opposition OPS; a 2.70 ERA; a 0.81 walks/hits per inning pitched rate. He gave the Cubs everything he had Sunday until Maddon asked him for what wasn’t left. And failed to see Darvish’s tank on fumes.

Maybe Epstein should get just a little more than mere probation especially since the promised player development machine over the last eight years has been a broken promise except for Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, David Bote, and this stretch drive’s pleasant-surprise emergency call-up Nico Hoerner. As Morrissey reminds, not one homegrown Cub has thrown a postseason pitch or stuck around for more than a full season.

If adversity’s good for the soul, it should be better for a top down rethinking. There won’t be any more baseball at Wrigley Field this year, barring divine intervention. The angels have only so much kindness to spread around.