One for the road. And, the ages.

2019-10-31 WashingtonNationals

The road was anything but lonesome for the Nationals this World Series.

From early in the season, when the Nationals were left for dead, and their manager left for death row, gallows humour often salved. So has it done though a lot of the now-concluded World Series. Such humour didn’t exactly hurt after their stupefying Game Six win in Houston, either.

Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki, himself hoping for a Game Seven return appearance after an absence due to a hip issue, couldn’t resist, after Max Scherzer showed up alive and throwing Tuesday. “We were all kind of making fun of him,” Suzuki told an interviewer, “saying he was going to rise from the dead.”

You could say that about the Nats themselves. They’ve been rising from the dead since the regular season ended, too. They won the World Series, beating the Astros 6-2 in Game Seven, rising from the dead, too. Inspired in large part by a pitcher who looked for most of his five innings’ work as though his ghost was on the mound clanking in chains.

And, with neither team able to win at home this time around. For the first time in the history of any major team sport whose championship is chosen in a best-of-seven set. The Nats and the Astros burglarised each other’s houses and left nothing behind, not even an old, tarnished butter knife in the silverware drawer. And the Astros’ hard-earned home field advantage proved the Nats’ road to the Promised Land.

Unearth Canned Heat warbling “On the Road Again,” from the opening tamboura drone to the final harmonics and all harmonica-weeping points in between. Crank up the Doors swinging “Roadhouse Blues.” Pay particular attention to the closing couplet: The future’s uncertain/the end is always near.

For five innings Wednesday night the Nats’ future was as uncertain as the Astros’ end was as near and clear as a 2-0 lead could make it. And try to figure out just how Scherzer with less than nothing other than his sheer will kept it 2-0 while getting his . . .

No. Not Houdini, for all his Game Seven escape acts. Scherzer wasn’t even a brief impersonation of Max the Knife, but after Wednesday he ought to think about a stand in Las Vegas. He’d make Penn & Teller resemble a pair of street hustlers. David Copperfield’s a mere practical joker next to this.

“You can’t really call it a miracle,” said Nats right fielder Adam Eaton post-game, “but it will be a reality-TV movie. Come on, how many books are going to be written about this?” Let’s see . . . Bluff, The Magic Dragons? 20,000 Leagues Beneath Belief? Four Innings Before the Mast? The Nats in the Hat Come Back?

Making baseball’s best team on the year take a long walk into winter has all the simplicity of quantum physics. Doing it when you send a pitcher to the Game Seven mound with nothing but his stubborn will is only slightly less complex.

“I don’t think anybody really knew what to expect when he took the ball,” said Nats reliever Sean Doolittle after the game. “After what he went through with his neck, you don’t know how that’s going to hold up with his violent delivery. You don’t know what his stamina is going to be like. But with Max, we’ve come to expect the unexpected. It was gutsy, man . . . He willed us to stay in the game and that was awesome. I know guys fed off it.”

But on a night Astros starter Zack Greinke operated like a disciple of legendary Texas cardiovascular surgeon Michael DeBakey with the Nats practically on life support, that could have been fatal. Until Patrick Corbin, Anthony Rendon, Howie Kendrick, Juan Soto, Daniel Hudson, and—reality check, folks—the lack of Gerrit Cole made sure it wasn’t.

Scherzer pulled rabbits out of his hat and anyplace else he could find them and was almost lucky that only two of the hares treated him like Elmer Fudd. Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel sent a 2-1 slider with as much slide as a piece of sandpaper into the Crawford Boxes in the bottom of the second, and Carlos Correa whacked an RBI single off Anthony Rendon’s glove at third in the bottom of the fifth.

Nats manager Dave Martinez called for a review on that play, ostensibly to determine whether Yordan Alverez’s foot was actually off the pad after he rounded but was held at third on the play, but realistically to give Corbin a little more warmup time. Then Corbin went to work starting in the bottom of the sixth. And the Nats went to work in earnest in the top of the seventh.

With one out and Greinke still looking somewhat like a smooth operator, Rendon caught hold of a changeup reaching toward the floor of the strike zone and drove it midway up the Crawford Boxes. One walk to Soto later, Greinke was out of the game and Will Harris was in. With Cole—who’d paralysed the Nats in Game Five, and who was seen stirring in the Astro bullpen a little earlier Wednesday night—not even a topic.

For which the Astros’ usually clever, always sensitively intelligent manager A.J. Hinch is liable to be second guessed until the end of time or another Astros lease on the Promised Land, whichever comes first. If he thought Greinke at a measly eighty pitches was done, why not reach for Cole who’d hammerlocked the Nats in Game Five and probably had an inning or three in his tank?

“I wasn’t going to pitch him unless we were going to win the World Series and have a lead,” Hinch said matter-of-factly after the game. “He was going to help us win. He was available, and I felt it was a game that he was going to come in had we tied it or taken the lead. He was going to close the game in the ninth after I brought [Roberto] Osuna in had we kept the lead.”

“They got a good lineup, especially the top of the order,” Greinke himself said. “It’s tough to get through no matter one time, two times, three times. All of them are tough. Really good hitters up there.”

Except that Hinch still had a 2-1 lead when he thanked Greinke for a splendid night’s work.”He was absolutely incredible . . . he did everything we could ask for and more,” said Hinch when it was all over. “He was in complete control, he made very few mistakes, in the end the home run to walk was the only threat to him.”

You can bet that even the Nats thought Hinch would reach for Cole in that moment. It’s the Casey Stengel principle, as his biographer Robert W. Creamer once described: if you have an opening, shove with your shoulder. If you think your man is done but you still need a stopper, you reach for him like five minutes ago.

And in one or two corners of the Nats dugout the thought of Cole coming in was actually welcome. “When we saw Cole warming up,” coach Kevin Long told reporters after the game, “we were almost like, ‘Please bring him in.’ Because that’s how good Zack Greinke was.”

But Harris it was. He was one of the Astros’ most reliable bullpen bulls on the season, and he’d been mostly likewise through this postseason. But after swinging and missing on a curvaceous enough curve ball, Kendrick found the screws on a cutter off the middle and sent it the other way, down the right field line, and ringing off the foul pole with a bonk! that no one sitting in Minute Maid Park is liable to forget for ages yet to come.

“I made a pretty good pitch,” Harris said after the game. “He made a championship play for a championship team.”

“The pitch he made to Howie—I just don’t understand how he hit that out,” said Carlos Correa, the only Astro somehow to have a base hit with a runner on second or better Wednesday night. “It doesn’t add up. The way he throws his cutter, it’s one of the nastiest cutters in the game. Down and away, on the black, and he hits it off the foul pole. It was meant to be, I guess, for them. I thought we played great, but they played better. It was their year.”

Osuna relieved Harris and settled the Nats after surrendering an almost immediate base hit to Nats second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, but he wouldn’t be that fortunate in the eighth. He walked Eaton with one out, but Eaton stole second with Rendon at the plate and, after Rendon flied out, Soto pulled a line single to right to send Eaton home.

Ryan Pressly ended the inning by getting a line drive out from Cabrera, but another Astro reliever, Joe Smith, wouldn’t be that fortunate in the ninth. Ryan Zimmerman led off with a single up the pipe; Yan Gomes bounced one back to the box enabling Smith to get Zimmerman but not the double play; Victor Robles stroked a soft-punch line single into center; and, Trea Turner fought his way to a walk and ducks on the pond.

Hinch reached for Jose Urquidy, his Game Four opener and five-inning virtuoso back in Washington. But Eaton reached for and lined a hit into shallow enough center with Gomes scoring in a flash and Robles coming in behind him, freed up when Astro center fielder Jake Marisnick, usually one of the surest defensive hands they have, lost the handle on the ball and gave Robles room to move.

And, giving Hudson all the room he needed to pop George Springer out at second and to strike Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley out swinging to pop the corks and blow the lid off 95 years worth of Washington baseball frustration. Which looked impossible in late May, looked improbable just last weekend, but looks just as impossible the morning after.

Believing that Rendon could become only the fifth man to homer in Games Six and Seven of the same Series (behind Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Roberto Clemente, plus Allen Craig and—a mere two years ago—Springer himself) was more plausible. Believing Harris could become the first pitcher hung with a blown save in a Game Seven at home since Boston’s Roger Moret in 1975 wasn’t, necessarily.

But believing no World Series combatant would win even a single game at home in a seven game set defies everything. The Nats outscored the Astros 30-11 in Minute Maid Park; the Astros out-scored the Nats 19-3 in Nationals Park. The Astros played their heads, hearts, and tails off all year long to get the postseason’s home field advantage, and the Nats swooped in to rob them blind.

All game long the world seemed to think Martinez had lost his marble—singular—letting Scherzer stay on the mound despite have nothing to challenge the Astros with except meatballs, snowballs, and grapefruits. The skipper who eluded execution after 23 May now looked as though they’d pull the guillotine with his name on it back out of storage. Then the final three innings made him look like Alfred Hitchcock.

That 19-31 start to the Nats’ season? The worst for any team that went on to win that year’s World Series. From twelve under .500 to the Promised Land? You have company, now, 1914 Miracle Braves. An 8-1 postseason road record including eight straight road wins en route the trophy? Good morning, 1996 Yankees.

The first number one draft overall to end his season as the World Series MVP? Welcome to the party, Stephen Strasburg. The sixth man to hit a go-ahead homer in the seventh or later in a World Series? Roger Peckinpaugh, Hal Smith, Bill Mazeroski, Ray Knight, and Alfonso Soriano, meet Howie Kendrick, who’s now the only man in postseason history with more than one go-ahead homer in the seventh or later in elimination games.

The youngest man to hit the most homers in a single postseason and three in a single World Series? Today you are a man, Juan Soto.

All that courtesy of and ESPN’s Stats and Info department. They give you the numbers. But they can’t really account for that old Nats magic. Nobody can, try though they might. The Nats just hope this isn’t the end of it. Which might be tricky if the Nats can’t convince Anthony Rendon to stay rather than play the free agency market or Strasburg not to exercise his contract’s opt-out option.

Cole is also a pending free agent. And he plopped a postgame cap on his head bearing the logo of his agent Scott Boras’s operation. When an Astro spokesman asked him to talk to reporters after the game, he was heard saying, “I’m not an employee of the team.” Then, he said he’d talk “as a representative of myself, I guess.”

Liable to be this year’s American League Cy Young Award winner, and facing maybe the fattest payday ever handed to a prime pitcher, Cole wouldn’t say if the Astros losing the World Series prompted him to declare his free agency that swiftly, that emphatically. He wouldn’t say whether he was mad that Hinch didn’t bring him in.

“We just went over the game plan and he laid out the most advantageous times to use me,” Cole told reporters. “And we didn’t get to that position.”

For Altuve, arguably the heart and soul of the Astros on the field and in the clubhouse alike, the heartbreak was impossible to hide. “I don’t think I can handle this,” he said candidly. “It’s really hard to lose Game Seven of the World Series. What I can tell you is we did everything we could . . . We did everything to make it happen. We couldn’t, but that’s baseball.”

Sometimes it’s even harder to win Game Seven. That’s baseball, too. The Nats stand in the Promised Land as living, breathing, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in Show” proof.

Seven up

2019-10-30 MinuteMaidParkWS

Can Game Seven possibly top Game Six for extraterrestriality?

The number seven means lots of things. Days in the week. Colours in the rainbow. Circles in the Seed of Life signifying six days of creation. A former model of open-top two-seat Lotus car. The best-selling model of vintage Sunbeam Mixmaster. And, jackpot with three in a row on old-school slot machines, in Las Vegas and elsewhere.

It’s also going to mean a lease to the Promised Land for either the Astros or the Nationals in Houston Wednesday night.

The Astros would like to join the ranks of the dynastic in winning their second World Series in three years. The Nats would like to finish the precedent they’ve broken already and win the Series with every one of their wins happening on the road. Even if they had to return from the land of the living dead in Game Six to have a shot at it in the first place.

Broken precedent? The Washington Post‘s Scott Allen points out that no best-of-seven series ever, in any major team sport whose championships are decided that way, featured the road team winning the first six games. And that, Allen says, covers 1,420 baseball, basketball, and hockey games. That’s a lot of trophy hunting, ladies and gentlemen.

There’s big enough game at stake Wednesday night. The Astros had their best home record yet in 2019 . . . and lost Games One, Two, and Six by a combined 24-9. The Nats who laid that one on them lost Games Three through Five by a combined 19-3. The 1987 World Series’s theme song could have been Jr. Walker & the All Stars’s soul classic, “Home Cookin’.” This one threatens to make as its theme a Canned Heat blues classic—“On the Road Again.” 

With the Nats’ surrealistic Game Six win, there’s the promise that this Game Seven may well contribute to a long baseball tradition of Game Sevens that prove the truth in the ancient cliche, anything can happen—and usually does. What I’ve pointed out before, that one John Lennon lyric can apply to baseball (Baseball is what happens when you’re busy making other plans), is liable to apply to Minute Maid Park Wednesday night.

Much will be expected of the Nats and the Astros when you review some of the history of seventh World Series games. Including but certainly not limited to:

* Hall of Famer Ty Cobb’s final World Series appearance, in 1909, on the day Babe Adams chose to throw a six-hit shutout for the Pirates on one day’s rest. (Don’t go there: that was the dead ball era, in which pitchers didn’t have to try throwing like howitzers to get their outs and arms and shoulders weren’t half as likely to be destroyed in the doing.)

* Hall of Famer Walter Johnson going out to pitch the ninth in relief, working four shutout innings, and making it possible for the Senators to win the 1924 Series on a run-scoring bad hop over Hall of Famer Freddie Lindstrom’s head at third base—and, with a bullpen game in the first place.

* Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1926, wheeling in from the pen to strike Yankee Hall of Famer Tony Lazzeri out with the bases loaded to end the seventh and going the rest of the way—right up to the moment Hall of Famer Babe Ruth ended the game in the Cardinals’ favour when he tried and failed (by two country miles) to steal second . . . with Bob Meusel at the plate and a fourth Hall of Famer, Lou Gehrig, on deck.

* Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean defying the laws of orthopedics by throwing a six-hit shutout on one day’s rest in a 1934 Game Seven remembered too much more for the fight between Hall of Fame outfielder Joe Medwick and Tigers third baseman Marv Owen’s brawl over a hard slide at third, prompting fans to shower them with all the love glass bottles and fruit pouring onto the field can show.

* Enos Slaughter’s mad dash home in 1946, abetted by Red Sox center fielder Leon Culberson’s high throw in to cutoff shortstop Johnny Pesky.

* This year was Next Year as Johnny Podres—the number four man in the 1955 Dodgers’ rotation—shut the Yankees out . . . with a lot of help from Sandy Amoros’s running catch off Hall of Famer Yogi Berra and doubling up Gil McDougald at first base by way of Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese.

* Lew Burdette. Seven-hit shutout. Third 1957 Series win for the former Yankee prospect.

* “I was kneeling in the on-deck circle, thinking I was going to be the hero. And all of a sudden, I was out on the field jumping around.”—Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart, about Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski’s Game Seven-winning home run leading off the bottom of the ninth.

* Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax throwing a shutout on two day’s rest following his first shutout of the 1965 Series. The one he began by refusing to pitch Game One because it fell on Yom Kippur.

* Gibby and the Fat Man: A year after pitching and winning a Game Seven, Hall of Famer Bob Gibson picked the wrong Game Seven to suffer a fly lost in the sun turning into a game-changing triple and room for Mickey Lolich to win his third 1968 Series start . . . and the Series.

* Bill (Spaceman) Lee threw Hall of Famer Tony Perez a Game Seven eephus pitch in 1975 . . . and Perez drilled the insult onto Landowne Street behind the Green Monster in the top of the sixth, starting the Big Red Machine’s comeback win.

* The 1985 Cardinals merely blew their stacks over Don Denkinger’s game-changing, errant safe call in the ninth in Game Six. When the ump rotation moved Denkinger behind the plate for Game Seven, the Cardinals imploded completely and the Royals battered them 11-0.

* As if Game Six couldn’t have ended extraterrestrially enough, the 1986 Mets got extra insurance in the Game Seven bottom of the eighth (their first insurance: Darryl Strawberry’s leadoff Mars-shot home run, giving them a two-run lead) thanks to a sneak attack: relief pitcher Jesse Orosco deked the Red Sox infield into the rotation play by showing bunt . . . and swung away for a six-hop RBI single up the abandoned pipe.

* Hall of Famer Jack Morris pitched a ten-inning shutout as the 1991 Series-winning run for the Twins came home on Gene Larkin’s pinch hit RBI single.

* Edgar Renteria. Game and 1997 Series-winning RBI single for the Marlins in the chill of the night and the bottom of the eleventh. Not necessarily in that order.

* Facing Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera in 2001, the Diamondbacks’s Luis Gonzalez dumped an RBI quail and the Yankees in the bottom of the ninth.

* Madison Bumgarner, who’d already started and won a pair of 2014 Series games for the Giants, channeled his inner Joe Page, threw five shutout relief innings, and nailed the longest save in World Series history while he was at it—all protecting a measly one-run lead.

* After losing two 2016 Game Seven leads plus the Indians’ Rajai Davis’s game-tying two run homer in the eighth, then came the rain delay, there came Cub right fielder Jason Heyward’s clubhouse speech, and then came Cub utilityman Ben Zobrist’s tiebreaking double in the top of the tenth. Goodbye actual or alleged billy goat.

The Astros themselves won a charmer of a Game Seven two years ago. They caught then-Dodger starter Yu Darvish tipping his pitches where the Dodgers didn’t (unlike Paul Menhart warning Stephen Strasburg after the bottom of the first Tuesday night), slapped him and them silly, and cranked out a 5-1 win in Dodger Stadium.

Their slogan this year has been, “Take it Back!” The Nats, whose slogan now is “Finish the Fight,” prefer to make it, “Not so fast!”

Based on Game Six, which may or may not prove anti-climactic, there’s nothing stopping either or both teams from a little transdimensional theater, comedy, or both before Game Seven puts the Series into the history books.

It’s in the books before the first pitch, as it is. Game Seven will be the first World Series game to match former Cy Young Award winners (Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke) as starting pitchers. Scherzer will be the second since the Cardinals’ Joe Magrane (in 1987) to start Games One and Seven in a Series in which those were his only gigs.

And, it’ll be the first time since the 1970s that a decade has had five World Series Game Sevens. Not to mention the first World Series Game Seven ever to be played in Houston. Which reminds me that seven of the last eight teams to force a Game Seven on the road lost those games. (The only winner? The 2016 Cubs.)

“If you told me that in the beginning of the year we only had to win one game to be champions,” said Astros shortstop Carlos Correa after Game Six, “I’ll take the chances. Tomorrow we have to go out there and play our best game.”

“It’s going to be fun,” said Nats right fielder Juan Soto, who crunched one into the second deck above right field Tuesday night. “It’s going to be loud. We’re going to be good.”

That’s what happened in the seventh book of the Bible. The book during which Samson brought the temple of the Philistines down upon them and himself. Some think the Nats are this year’s Samsons out to slay the Houston Philistines. Some think it’s the other way around.

But neither side’s fans are coarse or vile about it. As these things go, Nats and Astros fans alike display this year’s greatest example in sports of ear-splitting enthusiasm unsoiled by grotesquery in the ballpark.

This is probably not the best time to mention that number seven also has meaning within the Tower of London: seven people have been beheaded inside the Tower’s walls, privately, on Tower Green. Because one or another World Series team will be beheaded Wednesday night, publicly, across the finely rolled green field of Minute Maid Park.

From chaos to bedlam and Game Seven

2019-10-29 AnthonyRendon

Anthony Rendon knew exactly how to shake off a dubious umpire’s call in Game Six.

The second loveliest word pair in baseball is “Game Seven.” (The first, of course, is “Play ball!”) And oh, brother, are we going to get one in this World Series.

I did say going in that this Series, between these two teams, wasn’t likely to end in either a sweep or an extremely short series. But I sure as hell didn’t expect it to get to Game Seven the way it got there.

Oh, I figured that neither wind nor heat nor gloom of potential elimination would stay a courier named Stephen Strasburg from the reasonably swift completion of his appointed Game Six rounds if he could help it. And, they didn’t.

With one cojones-heavy eight-and-a-third innings performance Strasburg pitched his way into legend and his Nationals to a seventh game that looked anything but likely after the way the Astros battered them in all three Washington games.

But I didn’t expect the next best thing to a 21st Century Don Denkinger moment, either, in the top of the seventh or otherwise. And I sure didn’t expect to see this such moment fire a team up instead of deflate them irrevocably at all, never mind with a near-immediate two-run homer once the hoo-ha stopped hoo-ha-ing.

Plate umpire Sam Holbrook decided, in essence, that a long, bad throw from Astros relief pitcher Brad Peacock fielding Nats shortstop Trea Turner’s little squeaker up from the plate, pulling first baseman Yuli Gurriel off the base, enough to let the throw hit Turner on the back of the knee the split second after his foot hit the base, equaled runner interference.

Turner inadvertently brushed Gurriel’s mitt off his hand. If the throw had reached the inside of the base instead of traveling to its front, Gurriel’s mitt wouldn’t even have been near the onrushing Turner. And Turner’s speed still would have beaten the play at first.

“What else do you do? I don’t know,” said Turner after the game. “The batter’s box is in fair territory. First base is in fair territory. I swung, I ran in a straight line, I got hit with the ball and I’m out. I don’t understand it. I can understand if I veered one way or another. I didn’t.”

It amplified this World Series’s being full of questionable, controversial calls, mostly around the strike zone. And if interference is strictly a judgment call, and umpires really are baseball’s equivalent of judges, as the game’s romantics often analogise, there might be cries for impeachment louder than any cried against particular American presidents past or present.

The Nats fumed long enough over the call—which robbed them of second and third and nobody out—that the umpires donned the headsets and called the New York review nerve center. Not for a review, since runner interference isn’t reviewable, but to send the message that the Nats wanted to play the rest of the game under protest.

And, without manager Dave Martinez, who exploded over the call as the sides changed during the seventh inning stretch and finally got ejected despite two Nats coaches managing to move him back toward his dugout, the better to keep his recently-mended heart and blood pressure from blowing like a presidential tweet storm.

The call in question got thatclose to overshadowing Strasburg’s masterpiece and the otherwise staggering 7-2 Nats win. And, the now very real prospect that this could become the first World Series in which the road team wins every game, including the Game Seven clincher.

This also may prove the most famous instance of a World Series team victimised by an umpire’s controversial call not collapsing, fainting, or imploding afterward. Talking about you, 1985 Cardinals.

That team got a Game Six jobbing in the bottom of the ninth when an inning-opening, obvious-to-the-blind infield out was called safe by first base ump Denkinger, who admitted in due course that he blew the call. Which was nothing compared to the Cardinals blowing their stacks before the Royals went on to win Game Six in that ninth or imploding completely and practically from the beginning—and it didn’t help that the ump rotation planted Denkinger behind the plate—in Game Seven.

But these Nats aren’t those Cardinals. “We’re all human,” said Anthony Rendon after the game in a field interview. “Whether we make mistakes or not, nobody’s going to feel sorry for us, so we’ve got to keep going.” Except that Rendon looked superhuman just minutes after the coolest heads finally prevailed.

Nats catcher Yan Gomes returned to first, his leadoff single having started the seventh-inning shebang in the first place. Adam Eaton popped out to third. Then Rendon himself checked in at the plate. And lodged maybe the single most explosive protest associated with Washington baseball since heartsick fans stormed RFK Stadium’s field at the end of the last Senators home game ever.

That protest caused a forfeit to the Yankees in a game the Senators were an out from winning. Rendon’s idea of a protest was to turn on Peacock’s 1-0 meatball and send it right into the Crawford Boxes above the left field wall. In 1985, Denkinger defanged the bear. On Tuesday night Holbrook poked the bear and he roared back.

That plus Rendon’s subsequent two-run double off the top of the bullpen gate in the top of the ninth sealed the Nats’ return from the land of the living dead. Turns out the interference protest didn’t exactly put Rendon in that bad a mood. “I was out here pretty happy about the delay,” he said in a postgame field interview. “I got to sit down awhile.”

But in another, later interview, Rendon became far more thoughtful.

“You can’t let any outside elements get into the game,” he told ESPN’s Jeff Passan. “No matter if it’s the crowd. You’ve got 40,000 people cheering against you. Or whether it’s the weather or if we’re in D.C. and it’s 40 degrees, whatever it might be. No one is going to feel sorry for you. They’re going to expect you to go out there and just perform as best as you can, and they’re going to expect the best out of you.

“Because I feel like people put professional athletes on a pedestal, where they say, ‘Oh, who cares, they’re making millions of dollars, they’re playing a game for a living so it’s easy. They should go out there and be successful every day’,” he continued. “We try to just keep our head down and keep playing.”

Nobody was going to feel sorry for the Astros, necessarily, after Game Six ended with catcher Robinson Chirinos, proud possessor of two Series home runs, popping out behind second base on a full count with Carlos Correa aboard on a two-out double.

Nobody was going to feel sorry for them, either, just because future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander didn’t have more than three shutout innings in him after Rendon’s first-inning RBI single. And, just because Verlander’s needle finally reached below E in the fifth, when Eaton pulled one down the right field line into the stands and, one out later, Juan Soto saw and raised with a skyrocket into the middle of the second deck past right.

“I didn’t really have great feel for the off-speed stuff,” Verlander, always a stand-up man, told interviewers after the game. “The last inning just a poorly executed slider and then really just kind of a fastball up and in.”

Nobody feels terribly sorry for a 107 regular-season winning team that raided Nationals Park like a S.W.A.T. team gone rogue in Games Three through Five after getting bastinadoed at home, then took an early 2-1 Game Six lead on George Springer’s hefty leadoff double ringing the top of the left field scoreboard, Jose Altuve’s sacrifice fly, and Alex Bregman’s solo bomb halfway up the Crawfords.

Nobody felt particularly sorry for the Nats, either, except perhaps in might-have-been terms, as the game went on and it looked again, too often, as though they’d forgotten how to hit with two strikes or otherwise, and how to see their men on base and in scoring position as wanderers to be invited home, not terminal patients allowed to die in peace.

Surely nobody would feel sorry for Strasburg, on the biggest night of his major league life, opening the game by tipping his pitches, as he subsequently admitted after pitching coach Paul Menhart pointed it out to him after the first inning ended.

He wouldn’t have let them, anyway. He pitched in and out of trouble like a sculptor resolving a particularly knotty chunk of stone midway through the game, then smoothed the knot into oblivion and nailed ten straight outs before he was lifted with one out in the bottom of the ninth.

“I saw an incredible pitcher,” said A.J. Hinch, the Astros’s equally thoughtful manager, after the game. “I mean he was really good, and as I said before the game, he has an uncanny ability to slow the game down when he is under any duress.”

Thus do we get a neck pain-relieved Max Scherzer versus Zack Greinke for Game Seven. With all hands on deck for both sides, very likely, including Gerrit Cole and Patrick Corbin and maybe even Anibal Sanchez. Ready to throw whatever kitchen sinks the Astros and the Nats can throw at each other without pulling their arms right out of their sockets.

Thus did we see Max the Knife throwing on flat ground before Game Six and a little in the bullpen during the game, as if to say the Sunday afternoon shot did what it was supposed to do, though certainly not without risk, and he was going to take the mound come hell, high water, or other pain in the neck.

Remember: this is the guy who pitched when he was black-and-blue in the face a day or so after he got hit by an errant batting practise foul bunt in June. A Sunday cortisone shot, and a little chiropractic, and Scherzer was back in the picture. The Nats thank God and His servant Bucky Harris that the game wasn’t dicey enough to compel Martinez to bring Scherzer in Tuesday night, as the skipper admitted crossed his mind while Scherzer threw just to loosen up at mound height.

As if these Nats are rookies at ducking disaster. Not a team that was 19-31 as of 23 May before doing exactly as the Astros did from that date through the end of Game Six: produce the same won-lost record since. And the Astros’ dominant season belies that they spent too much of it looking like an episode of E.R. If they win the Series you won’t know if they should get rings or medical board certification.

But all of a sudden the worst break of the Series for the Nats—Scherzer’s neck locking him up so severely Sunday morning his wife had to help him just wash and dress and he was a Game Five scratch—turned into maybe the greatest break in their history. Because Greinke has a postseason resume described best as modest. And Scherzer even in questionable health is Max the Knife.

The Nats went back to Houston with their heads squarely in Astro-fashioned nooses. On Tuesday night they threw the nooses off. “It had to be this way, right?” said Nats reliever Sean Doolittle, who shook off Correa’s ninth-inning double to finish what Strasburg and company started. “It’s the most 2019 Nats thing ever for this to go to a Game Seven.”

Some of us think just about the entire world otherwise might be surprised. But maybe Doolittle’s onto something. Why, Soto couldn’t resist getting his Bregman on in the fifth, carrying his bat to his first base coach after hitting his blast a la Bregman doing likewise after hitting his in the first.

Now for the stupid part. Bregman actually apologised after the game for his bat carry. The Sacred Unwritten Rules, you know. “I let my emotions get the best of me,” he told a reporter. “I’m sorry for doing that.”

No few grouses crawled all over him for doing it. Soto wasn’t one of them. “I just thought it was pretty cool,” he said of Bregman’s carry. “I wanted to do it.” Bregman, for his part, said he deserved Soto’s response.

Some Nats might have thought Bregman was being a little bit of an ass; Martinez said after the game, simply, “We didn’t like it.” Doolittle, who’s said in the past that he doesn’t care if those bombing him flip bats or mimick bazooka shootings, wasn’t one of those Nats.

“Knowing Soto, I don’t think there was any malice behind it,” Doolittle told a reporter. “And playing against Bregman for a long time, I don’t think there was any malice behind what he did, either. There’s just a lot of emotion in the game . . . Those are two exciting young players. I thought it was fun.”

Holster your weapons, Fun Police. A little mad fun even in Game Six isn’t a terrible thing. Let Bregman have his when he hits one out; let Soto have his when he hits one out. Especially compared to when it was just plain mad in the seventh inning. Especially when the umpire gives the bear a nastier poke than any big bopper carrying his club to his coach after his big bop.

Especially when we get a Game Seven during which we can expect the Nats and the Astros alike to bop till they drop. The only thing we can’t expect is a Washington or Houston legend like Walter Johnson or J.R. Richard coming in to pitch the ninth, then taking it hammer and tongs through extra innings’ shutout relief, until someone finally bends, breaks, gives, or growls.

Well, nobody said you could have everything. Both the Nats and the Astros will just have to settle for a very prospective kitchen sink Game Seven, and one will just have to settle for hoisting the World Series trophy after it. The lease to the Promised Land. The first such lease for any Washington major league team since the birth of IBM; the second such lease in three years for an Astro team that would secure dynastic status with it.

Game Six proved the viability of an old baseball cliche: Anything can happen—and usually does. Game Seven promises a banquet full of you ain’t seen nothing yet. Let’s hope the promise is kept. For Nats fans, for Astros fans, and for baseball itself.

They boo presidents, don’t they?

2019-10-27 NationalsPark

The boo birds arose when the president was shown at World Series Game Five Sunday night.

This may disappoint those among his loyal fans who like to think everything he does is without precedent, but Donald Trump isn’t even close to being the first sitting president who was ever booed at a baseball game. That news might bother President Tweety, too, since he likes to think he does things that nobody else has done or would do.

It might surprise no few of Trump’s sycophancy to know that even Democrats were troubled when the president’s mug from a Nationals Park luxury box hit the large video screen on the scoreboard before World Series Game Five and the boo birds chirped and sang “Lock him up!” through the booing.

Frankly think the office of the president deserves respect,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware), “even when the actions of our president at times don’t.”

Trump, of course, played some high school baseball and was actually scouted by the Phillies at the time, choosing instead to follow his father into the real estate game. From his presidential inauguration until Game Five, however, President Tweety hadn’t gone to a single live Washington sporting event. Not even when the Nationals reached the postseason in 2017.

In the seventh inning during the Astros’ 7-1 Game Five win, the Nats Park crowd began chanting “Lock him up! Lock him up!” again. But the target that time wasn’t Trump, it was home plate umpire Lance Barksdale, whose evening full of dubious pitch calls—especially the ball four he called strike three with Nats center fielder Victor Robles at the plate that inning—had both Nats and Astros fans outraged.

The problem with Coons’s distinction between the man and the office is that it works far more intellectually than viscerally. Human nature is what human nature is. Ordinary American citizens write screeds against presidents they despise without being accused of despising the office except by those who adore the targets of their wrath. The law is mostly wonderful that way.

And ballpark crowds have booed individual presidents in the past without once believing they’re booing the presidency, even if they don’t always throw in chants to lock them up. Always have, as the Washington Post‘s “D.C. Sports Bog” writer Matt Bonesteel reminds us. And one or two of them were former baseball people themselves.

Herbert Hoover, for example. He played ball at Stanford University, and also served as its team’s student manager. He played shortstop until a dislocated finger compelled him to stop, but it isn’t known whether he played the position like the signature product of the non-related manufacturing family that bore his surname.

Bonesteel reminds us Hoover’s favourite newspaper reading was the sports section. He made a point of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at every Washington Senators home Opening Day during his single-term presidency. He also went to World Series games in three years, all to watch the Philadelphia Athletics.

And when he went to his final such game in Shibe Park in 1931, the Philadelphia boo birds chirped. Loud. Not because the A’s were doing horribly (they lost two of the three games in Shibe, and would lose the Series in seven to the Cardinals) but because the country was. The Great Depression took hold in earnest, and Prohibition-weary Philadelphians needed a drink pretty much as badly as the rest of the country did.

Hoover was a lukewarm Prohibitionist at best but he often urged the country to dry up about the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act. Upon his World Series presence the Shibe Park audience chanted “We want beer!” when not booing. “Perhaps,” wrote the (shall we say) acidic columnist Westbrook Pegler, referencing bootlegging, “Philadelphia is tired of whiskey and gin.”

About two decades later, the country wasn’t entirely tired of Douglas MacArthur even if Harry Truman was. Truman had canned MacArthur as commander of U.N. Forces Korea, and the day before Opening Day 1951 in Washington’s Griffith Stadium MacArthur delivered his fabled “Old Soldiers Never Die” valedictory to a joint session of Congress.

When Truman attended that Opening Day and threw out a ceremonial first pitch, the crowd gave Harry a little hell. He got booed even more lustily as the eighth inning approached and the public address announcer asked the crowd to stay seated until the president and his entourage left the park.

Trump isn’t even the first president under the threat of impeachment to get booed at a baseball game. Sen. Robert A. Taft (R-Ohio) called for immediate impeachment hearings when Truman pinked MacArthur, and Truman’s approval ratings sank lower than the worst of Richard Nixon’s during the worst of the Watergate scandal. There goes another precedent, Mr. President.

The first President Bush-, a former Yale first baseman, took it on the chin from the boo birds at the 1992 All-Star Game in San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium—Hall of Famer Willie Mays served as an honourary National League captain—perhaps as lingering fury over his broken tax hike promise.

The president didn’t throw out the ceremoninal first pitch that day; San Diego’s native-son Hall of Famer Ted Williams did, after a handshake and pat on the back from the chief executive. But when Bush was introduced formally before the game, the booing cascaded downward.

The second President Bush, formerly the co-owner of the former Senators long entrenched in Texas as the Rangers, got a lusty round of applause when major league baseball returned to Washington in 2005 and he threw out the ceremonial first pitch not long after he was renewed for a White House lease.

He used the ball former Senators pitcher Joe Grzenda didn’t get to pitch to Horace Clarke to try finishing a Senators win in their last-ever home game—because heartsick fans stormed the field, rioted, and compelled a forfeit to the Yankees. And he fired a near-perfect strike to further lusty applause.

But at the Nats’ home opener for 2008, Bush—again wearing a Nationals team jacket as he had in 2005—walked out of the dugout to throw out another ceremonial first pitch. This time, the boo birds out-hollered the cheers rather convincingly for a few moments. The country’s war weariness and economic jitters probably had more than something to do with it.

The boos faded back enough by the time Bush reached the mound to fire one high and to the left of then-Nats manager Manny Acta. A lefthanded hitter would have stood at ball one; a righthanded hitter would have been clutching his head after hitting the batter’s box with a thump.

Barack Obama got his when the boo birds in St. Louis competed with the cheers, as he strode to the Busch Stadium mound—in a White Sox jacket—to throw out a ceremonial first pitch before the 2009 All-Star Game. Obama threw an eephus pitch that might have been clobbered for a home run by a hitter smart enough to wait it out and take a couple of steps forward in the box.

Strangely enough, I could find no record of such presidents as Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton being booed (or, in Nixon’s and Clinton’s cases, hit with “lock him up” chants or similar hollers) when they threw out ceremonial first pitches. Hard to believe considering Vietnam, Watergate, and Whitewatermonicagate.

But when Hillary Clinton was First Lady and threw one at Wrigley Field’s Opening Day 1994, she got some boos mixed in with the cheers, doubtless residue from the HillaryCare debacle. And she threw the ball the old fashioned way—from a box seat, not from the mound. She would never have cut the mustard in Mary Tyler Moore’s parlour.

So President Tweety, his minions, and his fanbois and girls can relax. He’s not the first president controversial enough to get a phlegm-and-bile bath at the old ball game. And, whether he is re-elected, or someone from among the Democratic Party’s current gaggle of geese is plain elected next year, he’s not likely to be the last, either.

The Washington bury-go-round

World Series - Houston Astros v Washington Nationals - Game Five

In his potentially final appearance as an Astro, Gerrit Cole pitched a Game Five masterpiece.

Hours before Game Five, the World Series weight on Nationals manager Dave Martinez’s shoulders went from that of the world to that of the universe. Scheduled starting pitcher Max Scherzer’s Saturday night neck spasms turned into a Sunday wakeup with his neck locked so tight he couldn’t lift his right arm and needed his wife’s help just to wash and dress.

Putting the Game Five fate of the Nats into the hands of Joe Ross. Who pitched a gutsy turn ruined only by a pair of two-run homers en route a 7-1 Astro win. On yet a third straight night in Washington that suggested the Nats left their offense behind in Houston after Games One and Two.

Hadn’t they manhandled Gerrit Cole in Game One? Hadn’t they out-scored the Astros 17-7 in Houston? That was then, this was Sunday night, and the Nats’ futility at the plate since the Series moved to Washington remained chronic enough to consider fitting them with GPSs to find their directions home when they did get men on in Game Five.

Now three games worth of the Astros outscoring the Nats 19-3 in Nationals Park suggests this World Series still has a chance of being only the second Series ever in which no home team wins a single game. Maybe an outside chance, but a chance nevertheless.

Ross brought the house down just walking out of the dugout for a pre-game round of stretches and limberings-up in the outfield. He sent it nuclear when he shook off George Springer’s leadoff walk to lure Jose Altuve into dialing Area Code 6-4-3 in the top of the first.

But after Yuli Gurriel bounced one high off Ross’s own glove for an infield hit leading off the second, Ross couldn’t stop Yordan Alvarez—getting his first start in the Washington leg after sitting two out due to the lack of designated hitter in the National League park—from hitting a 2-1 pitch almost into the middle of the left center field seats.

It was something Alvarez only waited for all Series long. “All my teammates were saying: ‘Today’s your day. Today’s your day’, ” he told reporters after Game Five. “And it happened.” Nobody ever accused his teammates of being dummies.

And in the fourth, with Alvarez aboard on a two-out single, home plate umpire Lance Barksdale called ball on what should have been strike three, outside corner, side retired with Carlos Correa at the plate. Two fouls and a wild pitch later, Correa hammered one into the left field seats.

Barksdale has a reputation as one of the better plate umpires in the business, but on Sunday night he called enough balls strikes and enough strikes balls against both the Nats and the Astros that calls began ringing out of the park and aboard Twitter for everything short of a federal investigation.

Postgame, the calls began ringing forth all over the Web to get the robots perfected, calibrated, and into service as soon as feasible. Who knows whether the Astros will get jobbed on critical calls in Houston? Who wants to take that chance too much longer?

“Just because the game itself is full of errors shouldn’t give leeway to its arbiters to be judged by that standard,” writes ESPN’s Jeff Passan. “Baseball is an extraordinarily fast game—so fast that umpires should have assistance. Technology has made their jobs even more difficult, exposing them when they miss a call and airing their conversations about those missed calls. Automated balls and strikes are their savior, not their enemy.”

With Donald Trump himself in the ballpark watching the game, it was tough to miss the irony when fans began chanting, “Lock him up! Lock him up!” in the bottom of the seventh. Not at President Tweety but at Barksdale.

Juan Soto, the Nats’ young star who’d found the home leg of the Series as trying as he’d found Game One a personal party in Houston, caught hold of enough of a 2-2 Cole service with one out to launch it just past a leaping Jake Marisnick’s reach and over the center field fence in the bottom of the seventh. A ground out later, Ryan Zimmerman worked a walk on a ball four that looked like it should have been an inning-ending strike.

Up stepped Victor Robles, heretofore one of the Nats most prominently seen in Washington with an invisible bat. In a Series full of full counts as it was, Cole and Robles wrestled to yet another full count with Anthony Rendon on deck. Then Cole threw Robles a nasty looking slider. The ball clearly crossed out of the zone off the low outside corner. Barksdale decided ball four was strike three, side retired.

If you were watching the game on television you could hear an extremely audible, “Come on, Lance! It’s the World Series! Wake up!” That was a miked Martinez. Even Astro fans in the stands—and there were many, including one wearing a Nolan Ryan jersey from his tour with the 1980s Astros, when their jerseys looked like striped orange-shaded pajama tops more than baseball uniforms—joined the calls to lock him up.

There wasn’t a Nat in the house who’d accuse Barksdale of costing them Game Five; Cole especially, but with just a little help from his friends Joe Smith and Ryan Pressley in the final two innings, did a splendid enough job of that. The third highest-scoring team in the Show on the regular season looked so lost at the plate in Game Five, with or without men on, that the GPS couldn’t help.

“Lance didn’t lose us the game tonight,” Zimmerman said. “Gerrit Cole beat us.”

The Nats’ bullpen did a splendid job of holding the fort after Martinez decided Ross had had it for the night. In a slightly surprising move, after Tanner Rainey all but zipped through the sixth with three fly outs, Martinez reached for Sean Doolittle, one of his only two reliable back-of-the-game men, for the seventh. And Doolittle coaxed Correa into dialing Area Code 5-4-3 after a leadoff single before shaking off a walk to get the side without damage.

Then Martinez decided Daniel Hudson was good to go for a second inning’s work after Springer’s leadoff double led to taking third on a ground out, an intentional walk to Michael Brantley, and Gurriel punching him home with a single through the right side of the infield. Despite having Wander Suero warm and ready.

A four-run deficit is still manageable after seven and a half. Except that the Nats once again couldn’t do anything with a man on base, this time Yan Gomes leading the bottom of the eighth off with a single. But it’s still manageable in the ninth. Until Martinez sent Hudson back out for the top of that inning.

And after a one-out single and a swinging strikeout, Hudson threw Springer a fastball with plenty of speed but no movement down the middle of the plate. Springer practically had no choice but to send it into the left field seats. Leaving even gimpy-kneed Astro reliever Ryan Pressly to put the Nats out of their miseries in order in the bottom of the ninth.

Forget the home run for a moment. The Nats would surely need Hudson in Games Six and (if the Series gets there) Seven. Suero took over after Springer’s launch and coaxed Altuve into an inning-ending lineout on a measly two pitches. They’d better hope they find their bats in Houston and make Hudson unneeded too soon in Game Six even with Monday’s travel day.

For Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who’s one of the more thoughtful men in his job today, it was simply a question of keeping his and his players’ wits about them no matter how badly they’d been bopped until they dropped in Houston last week.

“We feel like we’re in every game,” Hinch said. “We’ve had games where we’ve come from behind. We’ve had games where we’ve stretched the lead. We’ve had games like today where we just methodically kept going with big swings and we look up and we have a comfortable win.

“We took a pretty heavy punch in the gut when it came to the first two games,” he continued. “The Nats came out hot . . . And when you take a step back, and you’re like, ‘We’re still in the World Series and it’s still a race to four wins.’ You win that first win.” And the second. And the third.

It’s even easier when you have an Altuve hitting .360 in the Series and still threatening to break Darin Erstad’s record for hits in a single postseason. And, when you have Brantley hitting .400. And, when you have super-rook Alvarez and cagey veteran Springer re-discovering their previously missing batting strokes.

And, when you have a Cole—in what was his final performance as an Astro, potentially—who tightens up his case for the largest free-agency contract for a pitcher in the game’s history yet with a masterpiece of a Sunday night soiree.

But it still ain’t that easy, Clyde. “When we won in 2017, and then didn’t win last year, you remember how it feels,” Springer told The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark. “You remember the goodness that comes. The fun. The honor. To celebrate with your teammates and your friends and all that stuff. Once you get a taste of that, you never want it to go away.”

The Astros yanked themselves back to within a game of their second such taste in three years on Sunday night. And there went Martinez’s likely pre-Game Five hope that Ross and/or someone else could or would prove as surprise a World Series hero as had such previous until-then obscurities as Howard Ehmke (1929), Johnny Podres (1955), Don Larsen (1956), and Moe Drabowsky (1966).

No Series record-setting strikeout performance for Ross, as the end-of-the-line Ehmke did in Game One of the 1929 Series for the Philadelphia Athletics. No shutout heroics, as Podres, the number four man in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ rotation, did in Game Seven of the 1955 Series. Don’t even think about a perfect game such as Larsen delivered for the Yankees in Game Five, 1956.

And don’t even think about a Nat reliever, any Nat reliever, delivering what Drabowsky—until that point a veteran relief rat and superior prankster—delivered for the Orioles in relief of Dave McNally: eleven strikeouts, including striking out the side back-to-back in the fourth and fifth innings, in Game One, 1966.

Martinez wasn’t destined to be that fortunate. But now a World Series that went into Game Five at Defcon Three, before Scherzer’s literal pain in the neck bumped it up to Defcon Two-Five, goes to Houston with the Nats at straight Defcon Two. Even with Strasburg, taking a lifetime 1.34 postseason ERA into Game Six, starting the first of two potential elimination games.

As always, history doesn’t always favour one or the other going to Game Six. Ten teams have lost the first two World Series games before winning the next three, and three—the Cardinals (1987), the Braves (1991), and the Yankees (2001)—lost those Series, anyway. The Cardinals’ loss remains unique in World Series lore: every game won by the home team.

But so far so does this Series: it’s only the third time the road team has won the first five games. It last happened in the 1996 Series that the Yankees eventually won in Game Six, when the set moved back to New York. Now, for the fun part, or at least the part the Nats hope to make fun: they’d like to be the first to win a World Series entirely on the road.

The real road. The 1906 Series between the 116 game-winning Cubs and the “Hitless Wonders” White Sox was not only one of the greatest Series upsets of all time, the White Sox winning in six, but almost every game in that Series was won by the visiting team. (The White Sox won Game Six at home.) But let’s be real: it’s not as though the White Sox had to jump anything traveling farther than a crosstown trolley car to get from one ballpark to the other.

So if the Nats find a way to pillage and plunder the Astros in Games Six and Seven the way they did in Games One and Two, they’ll become the first team ever to win a World Series entirely on the bona fide road, with miles and miles between Nationals Park and Minute Maid Field. It ain’t just a trolley hop, kiddies.

But if Strasburg proves too human and the Nats don’t find the bats they left behind on Tuesday night, forget the trolley hop. They’ll go home for the winter in hearses.