We just got one step closer to the possibility of at least one losing irregular season team turning up in the World Series, anyway. Maybe it’ll still be enough to make commissioner Rob Manfred’s hopes of too-far-expanded postseasons future, which may or many not involve as many as sixteen teams, disappear. Maybe.
The best way to make that disappearance happen would have been a Houston Astros-Milwaukee Brewers World Series, of course. Unfortunately, the Brewers didn’t keep their side of the bargain. The National League West champion Los Angeles Dodgers wouldn’t let them. If anything, the chance of an Astros-Dodgers World Series re-match got a lot bigger after Thursday’s doings.
On Thursday night, the Dodgers destroyed the plucky, exuberant, fun-fun-fun San Diego Padres 12-3, to finish a National League division series sweep in which only one game turned out close thanks to a near-imploding Dodger bullpen. At least they know who they’ll face in the National League Championship Series, thanks to the NL East champion Atlanta Braves wiping the suddenly-upstart Miami Marlins out 7-0 in a dissimilar sweep.
The Padres at least scored in each of the three games. The Marlins scored five in Game One but got shut out in Games Two and Three. By a Braves pitching staff that’s now pitched shutouts in four of their five postseason games. Maybe the chance of an Astros-Dodgers World Series re-match isn’t quite as powerful as you might think?
The Astros wrecked any Oakland Athletics comeback hopes by turning an early 3-0 deficit into an 11-6 Game Four demolition so profound that the A’s ninth-inning pushback resembled unanswerable cries for help from the bottom of the ocean after falling off the Bay Bridge just when they’d finally decided life was too precious to jump.
Admit it: When the A’s jumped Zack Greinke for three in the second it looked for awhile as though they’d force a Game Five. About a blink of awhile when all was said and done.
Matt Olson snuck a base hit through an Astro infield shift, Mark Canha hit one for which Astro shortstop Carlos Correa dove and barely missed for his first lifetime hit off Greinke, Ramon Laureano hit a full-count slider into the left field bleachers, and it looked like the Astros gamble with Greinke—sending him to start with his sore arm possibly not fully recovered—would fail.
Then the A’s starter Frankie Montas’s fortune ran cold in the fourth. How cold? Try Antarctic cold. Michael Brantley hit a two-run homer and Correa hit a three-run bomb, then Montas two more or less excuse-me outs while leaving first and second when manager Bob Melvin lifted him to go to his usually reliable bullpen.
This time, that bullpen didn’t have it. The Astros tore six runs out of that pen before they were finished. Between them, the Astros and the A’s finished setting a new division series record by hitting 24 into the seats all set long. Each team hit twelve. Including Brantley, Correa, and Laureano twice in Game Four. Altuve joined the Thursday bomb squad when he hit one out off Jake Diekman with Martin Maldonado aboard to complete the Astros’ scoring.
But there’s unfinished Friday business to come. The Astros don’t know yet whether they’ll meet the American League East champion Tampa Bay Rays or the AL East runner-up New York Yankees. The Yankees held the Rays off 5-1 on Thursday, somehow, some way, and they’ll open Friday with a distinct advantage named Gerrit Cole. Sort of.
The sort-of is that Cole has never pitched on short rest in his entire major league career. Ever. He’s pitched 106 games on four days’ rest, 67 on five days’ rest, and 31 on six or more days’ rest. It may be the first time in Cole’s sterling career when the phrase “roll of the dice” applies to him.
Can they get a miracle from Cole Friday? He faces Tyler Glasnow, credited with the Game Two win despite surrendering four Yankee runs. Glasnow hasn’t done it since he pitched nine games in relief for the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates. They were the only nine relief gigs of his career to date. And the Rays will likely turn it over to their bullpen if Glasnow gets into trouble early enough.
Either way, Friday’s Yankees-Rays show will be must-see TV for baseball lovers in general but the Astros in particular. What a way to have to spend one of their only two days off before the ALCS begins—in San Diego’s Petco Park, under the pandemic-inspired semi-bubble/neutral-site plan.
As if the Astros didn’t have enough migraines this year. They lost Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery and Cole to free agency. Greinke pitched better than his 4.03 irregular season ERA tells you before his arm soreness kicked over. (His 2020 fielding-independent pitching [FIP]: 2.80.) If their set with the A’s went to a fifth game, they’d have gone most likely to Framber Valdez to open and turned it over to their bullpen at the first sign of trouble.
Now they get to open the ALCS with Valdez—who beat the A’s with seven two-run innings in division series Game Two. Setting them up to work Greinke on his regular rest including a Game Seven if need be. Jose Urquidy will look to prove his ALDS Game Three outing—slapped silly for four home runs in four and a third innings—was an aberration, but beware: his irregular season 2.73 ERA was deceptive looking considering his 4.71 FIP.
They also get to show a little more that their 29-31 irregular season record just might have projected to an acquitting winning record, maybe even another AL West title, if the season had been full and normal. Might.
One key reason for that 29-31 record was being hit with an injury bug enough to rival the battered Yankees of the past two years. But, deeper reality check: this year’s Astros aren’t really as good as last year’s. Even if manager Dusty Baker finally overcame his lifelong prejudice and learned how to have as much faith in his youth as in his elder players.
They lost their best player of the future, 2019 Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez, to a season-ending injury. Altuve struggled early, found his stroke later in August, then hit the injured list with a knee sprain. They’ve lost key pitchers Chris Devenski, Brad Peacock, and Roberto Osuna to season-ending injuries. This postseason Astro staff could be called, plausibly, Greinke, Urquidy, and the Newer Kids on the Block.
Even with those compromises, this year’s Astro Core Five (Altuve, Correa, Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel, and George Springer) had a lower weighted on-base percentage than last year’s edition. It looked better for the Astros that they bombed twelve homers and averaged 8.3 runs a game against the A’s better-than-they-look pitching staff. Of course, the chatter about slightly deadened balls on the irregular season and slightly amplified balls for the postseason is entirely coincidental.
It bodes well for the Astros whether they get the Rays or the Yankees in the ALCS, and they know neither of those teams are pushovers. Scoring 33 runs against a crew of A’s that scored 22, knowing that often as not 22 runs are good enough to win a short set, gives the Astros a little extra comfort to take in.
It even bodes well for them that somehow, some way, they’ve managed to get this far even under the still-hovering clouds of Astrogate. They hit the irregular season running with only nine men left on the roster from the 2017-18 cheaters. They’re closer than you might think or accept to turning what’s left of that roster over and finally putting the Astrogate stain behind them.
Turning what’s left of that roster over? Well, Gurriel has re-upped for another season. But Springer and Reddick face free agency this winter. New general manager James Click has said he’d like to keep Springer on board even with young Kyle Tucker’s emergence, but whether the Astros have the dollars to do it (they’d like to avoid luxury tax penalisation if possible) is another question yet to be answered.
The pandemic did the Astros a huge favour in keeping them from normal ballpark crowds who surely would have let them have it long and loud, over both the scandal of their illegal electronic sign-stealing cheating and their more sad than sickening, mealymouthed non-apologies at that disaster of a February presser.
(Don’t even think about it. Once more with feeling: there’s a Grand Canyon-size difference between a team like the Boston Rogue Sox using what MLB itself provided already in video rooms to steal signs and send them to baserunners to send hitters—you know, Mom and Dad give the kiddies the liquor cabinet keys daring them not to drink unlawfully—and the Astros who a) took an existing outfield camera off mandatory transmission delay, or b) installed a second, illegal real-time camera to send enemy signs to extra clubhouse monitors.)
Now, let’s be absolutely fair about this. Continuing to bop this year’s Astros on the nose over Astrogate when they have only eight men left playing from that tainted 2017 edition is unfair. Unfair but unstoppable, unfortunately, human nature being what it is.
Human nature includes being aghast that genuinely great teams who would have demolished the league regardless felt compelled to operating the 2017 Astro Intelligence Agency or the 2018 Red Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring.
To too many people, cheaters once, cheaters always. Right? But nobody claimed the San Francisco Giants remained tainted for how their 1951 edition in New York cheated telescopically to pull off that dazzling pennant-race comeback and playoff force. Nobody really thinks the real curse upon the Cleveland Indians has to do with their 1948 telescopic cheating. (It doesn’t really have that much to do with trading Rocky Colavito at the end of spring training 1960, either.)
By all means hold the 2017-18 Astros to account in public opinion if Commissioner Nero didn’t, beyond a fine, a couple of stripped draft picks, and suspending their since-fired general manager, manager, bench coach (the Red Sox squeezed Alex Cora out as manager), and designated hitter. (The Mets squeezed Carlos Beltran out as manager before he even got to manage a spring training game for them.)
But don’t keep hammering this year’s Astros for it, until or unless someone discovers and produces proof of this year’s edition crossing to the dark side. (The Red Sox didn’t need anyone hammering them for their 2018 taint and similarly mealymouthed non-apologies. They plotzed this year all by themselves.)
You don’t have to root for or even like the Astros to give them whatever fair shake they deserve now. They’re a lot easier to like when you just watch them play baseball the way they normally play than they are when you have to listen to them talking to reporters. Which is what people have said about teams like the Yankees, the Dodgers, and even the St. Louis Cardinals for several generations, too, no?
Yet new manager Dusty Baker took their bridge and kept his and their marble (singular) through this season’s pandemic weirdness and Astrogate aftermath to sneak into the postseason at all. That has Baker in the Manager of the Year conversation and the Astros on the brink of a possible third pennant in four seasons. The last team to go to three World Series in four seasons? Ladies and gentlemen, your 1998-2001 New York Yankees.
Consider this, too: With fans still kept out of the stands so far this postseason, it became too simple to hear every sound, noise, and utterance coming from the dugouts. Nobody heard anything this week that’s comparable to the Astrogaters banging the can slowly in 2017.
About the most suspicious sound coming out of Dodger Stadium during the Astros-A’s ALDS was the PA system DJ playing Booker T. & the MGs’ “Green Onions” at every opportunity. (That song was a huge hit—the year Dodger Stadium was born.) Some might wonder since when do today’s ballpark sound people have that kind of historic music sense. Speaking personally, it was music to my rhythm and blues ears.