Starters-as-relievers postseason? As new as Lysol.

Walter Johnson

Hall of Famer Walter Johnson—a starter used in relief to help win the 1924 World Series.

Baseball’s capacity to amuse is almost as profound as the game’s ability to inspire. It’s amusing to see the gnashing of teeth and the wringing of hands over this postseason’s phalanx of starting pitchers who had to yield to their bullpens for assorted reasons. You’d almost think someone was trying to legislate the pitching star out of baseball.

If someone is, they simply weren’t watching the games or hearing the crowds. They also have a rather troublesome ignorance of baseball history. And maybe, too, a continuing bias against relief pitching.

Sure, we love to see and remember the greatest starters of our times. I grew up watching the Hall of Fame like of Jim Bunning, Steve Carlton, Don Drysdale, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Catfish Hunter, Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver.

But I also remember seeing and feeling the thrills and kicks when the bullpen like of Dick Radatz came into a game. Hell, Radatz was practically the only reason to bother with the 1963-65 Red Sox. He was big, beefy, intimidating-looking (not for nothing was his nickname The Monster), and looked as though he was about to eat the opposing hitters for lunch.

Until his shoulder deserted him (overwork, plus [speculated] taking someone’s advice trying to add a slider to his howitzer fastballs) some time in 1965, Radatz was as big a pitching star as any starting virtuoso. Even if he did come in for the ninth of the 1964 All-Star Game and surrender a walkoff bomb to then-Phillies star Johnny Callison.

There were more relief aces than you might remember in Radatz’s time. Ted Abernathy, for a few seasons, anyway. Lindy McDaniel. Elroy Face. Eddie Fisher. Stu Miller. Ron Perranoski. Pedro Ramos, at least for the final weeks of that staggering Yankee stretch drive to snatch the 1964 American League pennant. Phil (The Vulture) Regan. Larry Sherry (the 1959 World Series MVP). Hoyt Wilhelm (the first Hall of Fame relief pitcher). Al Worthington.

You might care to note that, whether you’re paying attention now or paid attention then, four of those relievers had top-five Most Valuable Player finishes: McDaniel (1960) and Radatz (1963) each had a fifth-place finish; Perranoski (1964) and Fisher (1965) each had a fourth-place finish.

Think about that for a moment: In four of those seasons there were MVP voters who thought a quartet of relief pitchers might have been among the most valuable players in baseball. Now, those voters then considered won-lost records; those guys were credited with double-digit wins, and a few of them probably got their wins after blowing leads but hanging in while their teams managed to eke or bang out the wins late.

(Face, of course, was an 18-game “winner” in 1959, still a record for relief pitchers, never mind that he also had nineteen save opportunities—applied retroactively—and blew nine of those. In fact, according to Cooperstown Cred, one of the major reasons Chicago Tribune scribe Jerome Holtzman came up with the dubious “save” stat was his feeling that Face’s won-lost record actually over-stated his real value.)

But still.

Were you really watching when AJ Minter and Tyler Matzek clamped the vault door shut on the Dodgers in Game Six of the National League Championship Series? The noise in Truist Park when that pair threw four scoreless relief innings, helping the Braves punch their tickets to the World Series, could have drowned a heavy metal concert out.

Especially when Matzek walked right into a small fire his immediate predecessor Luke Jackson left behind. With eight pitches, Jackson surrendered a leadoff double, a walk, and an RBI double setting up second and third. With eight more pitches, Matzek struck out the side—including future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols and fellow former MVP Mookie Betts.

When Matzek got the Mookie Monster swinging to finish that escape act—if you can go from crossing the high wire to breaking your way out of the chains in the tank in one inning, Matzek did—the Truist crowd went from nuclear to Crab Nebula.

There’s been no better moment of absolute pressure relief pitching than that in this postseason. So far. Who knows what the World Series will bring, above and beyond Yordan and Eddie Tonight? Whatever it brings, come on, baby, don’t fear the reliever. (Unless you have to hit against him.) Or, for that matter, the starter-as-reliever.

You say the starter-as-reliever is just another nefarious creation of today that’s ruining pitchers and pitching? It didn’t exactly come up roses for Max Scherzer this time, of course. But it hasn’t crossed a lot of minds, either, that maybe a 37-year-old man who threw a heavier workload in September than he had any month all season might have been bound for a dead arm by the time he had to say no to starting NLCS Game Six.

But it wasn’t exactly a new thing, either. Not. even. close.

Go back to the 1924 World Series, Game Seven, for openers. When Washington Senators manager Bucky Harris not only delivered what we call a bullpen game to win that Series but secured the Old Nats’ shot at it by bringing (and the crowd went wild, too) Hall of Fame starting pitcher Walter Johnson in from the bullpen for what proved four innings’ shutout relief.

When Casey Stengel managed the Yankees, his five straight pennants and World Series rings out of the chute came in no small measure because he was audacious enough to use a starter in relief. You may have heard of him: Allie Reynolds.

The Ol’ Perfesser used Reynolds as both a starter and reliever in several of those World Series. (Including in the ninth of Game Four, 1950 Series, when Stengel brought him in to get the final out of the Yankee sweep—after rookie Ford allowed the potential tying run to reach.)

Allie Reynolds

Allie Reynolds—Casey Stengel loved using his terrific starter in relief when it mattered most. Especially in a few World Series.

Reynolds also spent 1951 throwing two no-hitters and making six relief appearances on the regular season. Pay careful attention now: Reynolds, his Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra, and St. Louis Browns starter Ned Garver—credited with 20 wins for the hapless Brownies—tied for the most first-place votes in that year’s American League Most Valuable Player Award voting. (Yogi won the award by way of his superiority in the secondary votes.)

And, even with the stat applied retroactively, Allie Reynolds—who started 71 percent of his games and relieved in 29 percent of them—is tied for the third-most relief saves in World Series history, behind The Mariano and Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers.

Starters as relievers? Unprecedented and the End of the Grand Old Game As We Knew It? Please.

Smokey Joe Wood, 1912 World Series Game Eight. (Two scoreless after coming in in the eight; surrendered the tying run, bailed out by “Snodgrass’s Muff” in the tenth inning.) Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander, Game Seven 1926 Series. (The fabled bases-loaded, inning-ending strikeout of Hall of Famer Tony Lazzeri.)

Hank Borowy, 1945 Series. (Four scoreless relief innings, Game Six.) Harry Brecheen, 1946 Series. (Credited with his third win of the set in Game Seven—in relief.) Bob Turley. (Won the ’58 Series MVP winning one start and making two relief appearances including the Game Seven-winning seven-inning gig.)

Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven, Game Five 1979 Series. (Four innings shutout relief in a Pirate must-win.) Four Royals starters in relief in the 1985 World Series. Sid Fernandez, Game Seven, 1986 World Series. (Four strikeouts in two and a third’s shutdown relief enabling room for a Mets comeback win.)

Orel Hershiser, 1988 NLCS. (A save in Game Four.) Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, Game Seven 2001 Series. (An inning and a third shutout relief preceding Luis Gonzalez walking it off for the winning Diamondbacks.)

Madison Bumgarner

Starter-as-reliever: MadBum, Game Seven, 2014 World Series.

Madison Bumgarner, Game Seven 2014 Series. (Five scoreless in relief for the Giants’ third Series rings in five years.) Charlie Morton and Clayton Kershaw, Game Seven 2017 Series.

Nathan Eovaldi, 2018 Series. (The Game Three extras, six virtuoso before Max Muncy ended it with an eighteenth-inning home run.) Chris Sale, 2018 Series. (The final three Game Five outs for the Red Sox triumph.) Stephen Strasburg, 2019 NL wild card game. (Three scoreless in relief.) Max the Knife, Game Five, this year’s NLDS.

The only reason any of those ballpark crowds wouldn’t have gone nuts was because the deeds were done by the visiting pitchers. (Game Five, this year’s NLDS between the age-old-rival Dodgers and Giants in San Francisco, a notable exception.)

And if starters-as-relievers looks like a more contemporary phenomenon, it may well be because they’ve played more postseason games as the years went passing by.

Well, it was amusing to see the teeth gnashing and hand wringing over the starters-as-relievers this time around—for a little while. The problem is that it comes from lack of self-informing, willfully or otherwise. It’s not funny anymore to see some stubborn “purist” or “traditionalist”—in the stands, in front of television, or in the press—blow his or her gasket first and do their homework later.

NLCS Game Six: The Braves’ new world

Eddie Rosario

Eddie Rosario hits the three-run homer that proved the game/set/NLCS winner for the Braves. (TBS screen capture.)

You thought Yordan Alvarez was the force the Red Sox couldn’t stop in the American League Championship Series? Have a good, long look at Eddie Rosario, the force the Dodgers couldn’t stop in the National League Championship Series.

There should be some interesting showdowns in the forthcoming World Series. When each LCS Most Valuable Player threatens to throw every round of ammunition they have, including cruise missiles, at each other’s pitching and defenses. If Alvarez and Rosario stay as they just were, they’ll make World War II resemble a snowball fight.

Rosario’s three-run homer off Walker Buehler in the bottom of the fourth Saturday night, and the Braves bullpen—especially AJ Minter and Tyler Matzek—throwing five one-run, ten-strikeout, one-walk innings, sent the Braves to the World Series with a 4-2 win. The regular season’s least-winning division winner buried the season’s second-winningest team.

Maybe the Astros don’t resemble such overdogs after all? Maybe this year’s Braves resemble not on-paper favourites but a miracle team?

Wrestled by the Dodgers out of last year’s short-season, ghoulash-playoff National League pennant. Buried a game under .500 at this year’s All-Star break. Then spending the second half playing .611 baseball while most of the rest of the National League East—which wasn’t all that powerful in the first place—dissipated. The Astros were .604 at the break but .563 in the second half.

Now the Braves stand as National League champions with a legitimate shot at taking the Astros down. They manhandled the Dodgers when it mattered most Saturday night. They didn’t let a little thing like getting blown out 11-2 in Game Five to lose twice in three games in Dodger Stadium bother them all that much.

“We’re up 3-2, and we’re going home,” said Braves first baseman and franchise face Freddie Freeman after Game Five. “It’s a great position to be in.” The guy whose eighth-inning division series Game Four blast off Brewers relief ace Josh Hader made the NLCS possible for the Braves in the first place sounded like an incurable optimist then. After Game Six, he sounds like a prophet.

But he put any prophetic powers he had to one side in the middle of the Braves’ postgame celebration. “I think this might be the definition of pure joy,” he said. “It really is. I really don’t, it hasn’t hit me at all. I don’t really know how to feel.”

Rosario know exactly how to feel, especially after he caught hold of Buehler’s dangling cutter with Travis d’Arnaud (two-out walk) and pinch hitter Ehire Adrianza (two-out double) on second and lined it a few seats inside the right field foul pole. “It’s truly a great moment,” Rosario said amidst the celebration, “not just in my career, but in my life as well, but I want more. I want to win the World Series.”

He was one of three mid-season trades Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos delivered when the Braves resembled the walking dead. They’d lost young superman Ronald Acuna, Jr. for the year to a torn ACL. They’d lost young pitching comer Mike Soroka to an Achilles tendon blowout after nine months rehabbing its original tear. They’d lost bombardier Marcell Ozuna to domestic violence issues and administrative leave.

Only one man around or observing the Braves decided there was still something worth saving. Anthopolous brought in Rosario from the Indians plus former Dodger Joc Pederson from the Cubs, Adam Duvall from the Marlins, and Jorge Soler from the Royals.

Pederson made himself enough of a pain in the rump roast casting a string of pearls before swine against his former team with his NLCS heroics at the plate. But even Anthopolous couldn’t have predicted Rosario—traded from the Indians for faded early-season pinch-hitting wonder Pablo Sandoval; the guy who came to the Braves injured and unable to play until 28 August—would steal the show and the set in the end.

“It’s still not lost on any of us that we didn’t accomplish our goal,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts postgame. “But for me, I’m giving credit to the Braves, because they outplayed us, plain and simple.”

The Dodgers knew going in that winning Game Six Saturday night would be on wings and prayers almost regardless of the opponent. Especially after Max Scherzer’s wing still remained dead enough to keep him from starting the game. Especially having to put the ball into Buehler’s wing on three days’ rest for only the second time in his young and promising career and this postseason.

They couldn’t afford a bullpen game so close to the one that hoisted them while they blew the Braves out in Game Five. But for three innings Buehler looked more than capable of keeping the Braves at bay, other than Austin Riley’s ground rule RBI double in the bottom of the first.

“I could tell when I was warming up that it was still tired,” Scherzer said after his Game Six scratch. The concern is “arm fatigue.” Historically, “arm fatigue” or “shoulder fatigue” have proven too often that they’re euphemisms for more serious issues. Late Saturday we learned Max the Knife said he’d be good to go for starting Game Seven.

Could it be our boy’d done something rash? The Dodgers still had to get there first. So much for that idea.

Scherzer’s trade deadline acquisition from the Nationals along with shortstop Trea Turner helped secure the Dodgers’ postseason arrival in the first place. Now, no matter what Buehler had starting Saturday night, the Dodgers’ streak of seven straight postseason elimination wins started Game Six close to final jeopardy.

Even allowing their injury quotient, they’d played like minor leaguers in most of the first four NLCS games. Chris Taylor almost singlehandedly yanked them back to the majors with his three-bomb Game Five.

Even if they managed to make the Braves look somewhere between silly and foolish in that game, by way of a bullpen worn down to their own winging prayers, and a jack-of-most-trades who’d hit about half his own weight down the final season stretch but who suddenly resembled what used to be his Hall of Famer-in-waiting teammate Albert Pujols.

These Dodgers couldn’t afford much of anything entering Saturday. They entered the postseason without first baseman Max Muncy thanks to his dislocated elbow and without longtime pitching ace Clayton Kershaw thanks to an elbow strain, and Dustin May to Tommy John surgery.

They’d lost reliever Joe Kelly to an injured bicep and third baseman Justin Turner to a hamstring injury during the NLCS. Both were considered gone for the rest of the postseason, however long it might last for the team that won 106 regular-season games—but still had to win the wild card game before the division series triumph that put them here at all.

Dodger fans approaching Game Six wanted to think, “They have us right where we want them,” even in Atlanta. It turned out the Dodgers had the Braves right where the Braves wanted whatever remained of Los Angeles’s Blue Man Group.

It didn’t have to be a plunge. It had only to be Minter relieving starter Ian Anderson and pitching four-strikeout, three-up/three-down ball in the fifth and the sixth. It had only—and especially—to be Matzek, walking into a second-and-third, nobody-out Dodger fire, after A.J. Pollock doubled the second and final Dodger run home . . . and striking out the side on eleven pitches. Including the Mookie Monster on three straight, ending the last serious Dodger threat of the night.

The night before, Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi bulled his way out of a bases-loaded jam in Houston by striking out the side. The difference was that Eovaldi stuck his landing while his offense remained sound asleep. Matzek stuck his landings with a two-run lead to protect and hand off.

He dispatched the Dodgers three-and-three in the eighth, handed Braves reliever Will Smith the two run lead, and watched with a packed Truist Park as Smith struck out the first two before getting Pollock to end it with a ground out to shortstop.

Once upon a time, Matzek was a Rockies washout who had to re-invent his pitching career with the independent leagues’ Texas AirHog. Now he’d blown what air was left out of the Dodgers’ tires. With his room for error about the size of a linen closet.

“My job is simple,” the beefy lefthander said after the game. “It’s go ahead, get out there and just try to strike guys out . . . I can’t let a pop up or a ground ball go through. I am looking to get those guys out and strike them out. It’s a simple job. Just go out there and throw my best stuff and I was lucky that my best stuff worked tonight.”

Just about all the Braves’ best stuff worked Saturday night. Just about none of the Dodgers’ did.

Especially against that mid-season pluck from the Indians who just nailed a 1.647 OPS for the entire NLCS, with a posteason series record-tying fourteen hits, nine runs driven in, three home runs including two in Game Four, two four-hit games, plus the base hit that walked a second straight Braves win off in Game Two.

This is a National League champion who didn’t even reach the .500 level until 6 August. They broke the record for the latest .500 reach by three days. The previous record holder was a team that went on to win the pennant and sweep the World Series. You may have heard of them: the 1914 Miracle Braves.

Sometimes things that happen to be in your franchise DNA take awhile to manifest. For the not-so-miraculous Astros awaiting the World Series showdown, that may not prove to be a good thing. It may well depend upon which half of Yordan and Eddie Tonight proves the bigger performer.

They may not have the Hall of Fame power (pitchers Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz; third baseman Chipper Jones) of the last Braves World Series team. But there shouldn’t be anyone calling this year’s Braves flukish now.

ALCS Game Six: Not even close

None of Alex Cora’s tactical brilliance or strategic genius could re-awaken a slumbering collection of Red Sox.

This isn’t really going to rank among the greatest collapses in Red Sox history. But it hurts  nevertheless. It’s also likely to rank as maybe the single greatest revival in Astros history, whatever you do or don’t think of the Astros themselves.

Alex Verdugo running himself into a rally-killing double play to end the top of the seventh won’t bring him the infamy heaped upon assorted Red Sox pinatas past. This time, there’s no single figure on which Red Sox fans can take out their frustration, their rage, their sorrow.

This time, losing Game Six of this American League Championship Series and the American League pennant, there isn’t a 95th year of approaching the Promised Land only to be kicked from the mountaintop to the rocks below yet again.

Unfortunately, this time, there wasn’t an Andrew Benintendi to save their season by robbing Alex Bregman of a bases-clearing, game-winning extra base hit with a diving catch in left field. Or, a David Price to pitch six shutout innings the following day, or J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers to power their way to their last pennant.

Well, they still had Martinez and Devers this time around. But those two went 0-for-6 with a walk in seven combined plate appearances Friday night. The entire Red Sox corps went 2-for-29 with two walks in 31 plate appearances. In a game that was as tight as a hairpin turn until the bottom of the eighth.

The Red Sox rolled into the Fenway Park leg of the ALCS after splitting the first two in Minute Maid Park, then took a prompt 2-1 series lead and entered Game Four outscoring the Astros 25-13. They spent Games Four through Six being outscored by the Astros 23-3. They couldn’t even say they’d kept Game Six as tight as they’d kept Game One losing by a run.

They ran headlong into Yordan Alvarez’s ALCS MVP-winning batting show. They ran into a pair of embryonic Astros starting pitchers, Framber Valdez and Luis Garcia (especially) who picked themselves up, dusted themselves off from previous series humblings, and caught them either half asleep or over-amped at the plate.

“They were spitting on so many non-competitive breaking balls the first couple games,” Strom said of the Red Sox’s early demolitons of Valdez and Garcia, “I basically told [Valdez and Garcia], ‘If you’re going to get beat, throw your best stuff over the plate, and then you can sleep at night, rather than dance around the strike zone.’ Young pitchers start dancing a bit, and you can’t do that.”

The Red Sox proved they were better than the fringe contenders as which they were seen opening the regular season. But in the final three ALCS games, they never missed opportunities to miss opportunities. Opportunities that might have flipped any of those games into or at least toward their favour. None of manager Alex Cora’s tactical brilliance or strategic genius could overcome that.

Game Six starter Nathan Eovaldi? He Eovaldied as best he could with whatever he had left, coming out of the game in the fifth, after striking Jose Altuve out with Astros catcher Martin Maldonado (of all people) aboard with his only ALCS base hit.

But the Schwarbinator didn’t Schwarbinate. He got thatclose in the top of the sixth, but his drive to the back of left center didn’t have enough lift to leave the yard; otherwise, and he spent the evening going 0-for-4 with a walk.

The Red Sox bullpen bulled for the most part, even yielding a second Astros run in the bottom of the sixth, on behalf of getting a one-man double play by Schwarber at first. Schwarber stopped Kyle Tucker’s smash up the line, stepped on the pad, then tagged Carlos Correa out when the Astro shortstop stumbled returning to the pad.

They bulled, that is, until Tanner Houck’s third inning of work in the bottom of the eighth sandwiched two singles around a fly out to center. In came Adam Ottavino to induce a force out at second but to feed Tucker a three-run homer into the Crawford Boxes.

Kike Hernandez almost smashed his way to second and third at minimum in the top of the first, after Schwarber opened the game safe on a strikeout wild pitch. But Altuve took a splendid dive near proper shortstop in a defensive shift and stopped the ball before springing up and throwing Hernandez out by a step.

The guy the Dodgers once didn’t think was an everyday player went 1-for-4 on the night, but his one got close enough to setting up a potential tie game when he drove one bouncing high off the left center field wall for a two-out triple immediately following Schwarber’s near-miss.

That triple sent Garcia out of the game at last, after he’d manhandled the Red Sox over five-and-two-thirds innings of seven strikeout, one-hit, one-walk ball during which he exploited the Red Sox’s continuing, disappearing plate discipline with a savvy beyond his 24 years on earth and his 3.63 career fielding-independent pitching rate.

Garcia’s breaking balls danced only slightly more impressively Friday night than his routine when he’s about to throw a pitch. He does a rock-the-baby arm gesture in front of his stomach, then steps to his left, back to his right, back to his left, kicks, and throws. Let’s do the Time Warp again? Cha-cha-cha?

He may be the most fun pitcher to watch on the mound since Hall of Famer Juan Marichal with his eighteen assorted windups and ten differing leg kicks. Or, Luis Tiant with his shaky hands out of the stretch. Or, Al Hrabosky with his mad-bull stomp around the mound between pitches. Whatever Garcia’s dance was, he kept the Red Sox dance card empty.

Hernandez’s destiny was to die on third, alas, when Astro reliever Phil Maton got Devers to pop the first pitch up behind shortstop for the side. The next and last Red Sox threat came in the top of the seventh, when Martinez worked himself into a full-count walk and Verdugo bounced a base hit over Astro first baseman Yuli Gurriel’s head into right, enabling Martinez to take third.

Up to the plate came Travis Shaw, pinch hitting for Red Sox second baseman Christian Arroyo. With one of the weakest leads off first base possible, and one of the weakest pinch hitters in the series at the plate, Verdugo bolted for second as Astro reliever Kendall Graveman struck Shaw out swinging. Verdugo was a dead pigeon when Maldonado’s throw hit Correa’s glove perfectly to tag.

Nobody really had to say it. Verdugo missed his shot at a theft by about three steps worth of a decent lead. But don’t plant the goat horns into his forehead. When all was said and too much was undone, the Red Sox for Games Four through Six had almost a full postseason roster in the goat pen.

At long enough last, they ran out of whatever fuel got them into the postseason in the first place. Against a team that knows only too well how to exploit an opponent’s shortcomings. Say what you will about the Astros—and many still do with reason enough—but they didn’t win this pennant because they fell asleep at the wrong switches at the wrong times.

Unless anyone develops real and sound evidence to the contrary, this year’s Astros did things the right way. They actually won clean this time around. Never mind having only five left from the Astrogate team. Maybe those five learned that the only thing you can do, after you’ve been exposed in the first place, is to go forth and prove you can do it straight, no chaser.

Yordan Alvarez

Yordan Alvarez—the Red Sox couldn’t get the ALCS MVP out with a search warrant or a subpoena.

They bore the brunt of their 2017-18 shame as best they could on the 2021 road before still-hostile crowds. Crowds still fuming that their lack of apologetics when exposed as illegal electronic sign-stealing cheaters were married to the pan-damn-ic last year to deny real chances to let the Astros have it.

“We’ve made mistakes in the past, but you can’t go back. All we can do is continue to move forward, play good baseball, stay within our clubhouse and our amazing city, and just do our thing,” said Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers, reduced to one of the team cheerleaders by an arm injury that may still keep him from the World Series.

Maybe saying it that way, too, indicates that the Astros still don’t quite get why the rest of the world would rather have seen anyone including an organised crime family going to the Series now. Cora, the 2017 Astros bench coach who helped mastermind what became Astrogate, has long since been more genuinely contrite and remorseful for his role than any Astrogater still with the team. Those 2017-18 Astros who’ve shown real enough remorse did so after leaving the team.

You can’t go back, you can only go forward. You don’t want to know how many abuse victims heard that from or about their abusers, knowing in their hearts that the only proper reply was, and is, an eight-letter euphemism for steer feces. The Astros won’t really escape Astrogate’s ignominy until the last Astrogater standing on the team is gone.

Moreover, out of the remaining Astrogate minority on this year’s team, only Gurriel had a good ALCS at the plate. He might even have shaken out as the series’ MVP—he hit .455 for the set with a staggering 1.156 OPS while scoring four runs, driving six home, and going 10-for-22. If not for the one-man show named Yordan Alvarez.

Altuve? He did hit two homers but posted a .214 on-base percentage for the set. Bregman? One bomb, but a .217/.308/.348 slash line. Correa? He hit one out, too, but he didn’t exactly hit overall in the ALCS like the All-Star he was this season.

Alvarez didn’t turn up in an Astro uniform until 2019, when he was the American League’s Rookie of the Year. He lost all but two games of the short 2020 season to knee injuries and underwent two knee surgeries. He revived in 2021 with a 33-homer season. Then in the ALCS he went ludicrous.

Maybe the only time Alvarez didn’t nail yet another base hit, send another Astro runner home (his six RBIs equaled Gurriel’s), or score another run (his seven led the team in the ALCS), was whenever he might have had to answer nature’s call during any particular game.

When it mattered most, the Red Sox couldn’t get him out with a search warrant or a subpoena. Alvarez had more hits in Games Five and Six than the entire Red Sox roster did. No player before—not even any group of Hall of Famers—ever out-hit an entire team in the final two games of any postseason series. Ever.

“I think there are a lot of things that I could say that’s behind the trophy,” the Cuban-born outfielder said through his interpreter postgame, hoisting his series MVP trophy, “but all I can say is it just means everything.”

It meant everything to the Astros. It helped them keep their foundations from buckling when Eovaldi in the fourth became the first postseason pitcher since 2012 (Doug Fister, Tigers, ALCS Game One) to strike out the side allowing no runs when he had second and third and then the bases loaded.

It also kept reliever Ryan Pressly from quaking when he entered the ninth with a five-run lead but the three most dangerous Red Sox hitters looming. Nothing to it, folks. He induced a fly out to short left center from Hernandez. He struck Devers out on four pitches. Then, he got Xander Bogaerts—finishing an embarrassing 5-for-26 series, with only a two-run homer early in Game Four to show, really—to fly out to left for game, set, and Astros pennant.

Maybe no verdict on the Red Sox’s end—after being better than their notices in the regular season; after driving the Yankees out of the wild card game; after beating the 100 game-winning Rays in the division series three straight after losing Game One—will prove more true than that of Chad Jennings, writing in The Athletic:

They were, only five days ago, in control of the ALCS with the World Series nearly within reach. They were a good team. They are a good team. They could have made it to the World Series. They had a chance, a real chance, to win it all.

That is both the feather in their cap and their black mark of wasted opportunity. For nearly seven months, the Red Sox proved themselves capable of more than anyone expected, but in the three most important games of the year, they didn’t live up to the standard they themselves had set.

They’ll have all off-season to figure out how and why and to do whatever needs to be done about it. Institutionally, the Red Sox have ended past seasons in far worse shape or circumstance than now.

NLCS Game Five: Dead men make tales

Chris Taylor

Taylor starts the Dodger party in the bottom of the second Thursday night, hitting the first of his three bombs on the evening off Max Fried’s fastball down the chute. (TBS screen capture.)

Memorandum to: Boston Red Sox; Minute Maid Park, Houston. Subject: How to return from the dead.

Dear Red Sox: Pay attention to what the Dodgers did Thursday night. It isn’t the only way to keep postseason elimination outside the door. But it was as profound and unlikely as the night was long.

You’ve certainly got the firepower capable of doing together what Chris Taylor did almost by himself to the Braves all the live long night. You’ve got the mind over matter power to coax your bullpen back to reasonable efficiency. You’ve got the defense that’s capable of turning prospective Astro hits into definitive Astro outs.

You’re also needing two straight triumphs on the road to return from the dead to the World Series. It’ll be no simpler for you to do that than it will for the Dodgers in Atlanta. But it’s not impossible, either. Impossible is in the eye of the beholder. You proved that winning the 2018 American League Championship Series against the Astros, remember?

Just like Dodger manager Dave Roberts, who isn’t quite the tactical conqueror or strategic genius your Alex Cora happens to be, you haven’t quit believing in the impossible just yet. Have you?

Hopefully not, because you Red Sox know better than I know that anything can happen in baseball—and usually does. All you have to do is be as certain as mere human men can be that, when anything happens, it’s you making it happen, not you to whom it happens.

If Taylor can yank himself even further onto the high plateau to hit three insane home runs all by himself during an 11-2 blowout of the Braves, you Red Sox have a collection of bats who need only provide one burst of power each, preferably with someone on base ahead of him.

Hopefully, you won’t have to sacrifice a key pitching arm to save and continue your season. It might have been curtains for the Dodgers when their National League Championship Series Game Five opener Joe Kelly had to leave the game with a biceps strain in the top of the first, while in the middle of pitching to Austin Riley.

Suddenly the lack of genuine snap to Kelly’s bread-and-butter curve balls in the inning, one of which Freddie Freeman smashed into the right center field bleachers for a two-run homer, made sickening sense.

Kelly’s gone for the rest of the postseason, however long it lasts for the Dodgers. Roberts pulled six pitching rabbits out of his hat after Kelly went down, and they pitched eight and a thirds worth of three-hit, nine-strikeout, no-walk shutout relief. Taylor did most of the rest of the work for him.

You Red Sox may have such postseason supermen as Kike Hernandez to send to the plate, but you’re smart enough not to count on him alone to run roughshod over the Astros in their house. Roberts didn’t exactly plan that Taylor should be responsible for 55 percent of the Dodger runs Thursday night.

He merely leaned forward and enjoyed it with the rest of Dodger Stadium’s throng and the millions in front of the telly, the radio, or the Internet. He enjoyed the Dodger batters stretching their plate appearances, going the other way when need be, refusing to see the Braves’ pitches as incoming carnivores. He sure as hell loved the power, too.

Dodgers left fielder A.J. Pollock started the fun when he hit Braves starter Max Fried’s second pitch of the bottom of the second over the left field fence. Old Albert Pujols, starting at first base because he still has a useful bat against lefthanded pitchers, slipped a base hit to left immediately. Immediately after that, Taylor Tonight went on the air.

Fried started Taylor with a fastball right down the chute. And Taylor started the blowout by driving it clean to the rear end of the Dodger bullpen in left.

One inning later, with one out, Pollock lined a single to left with one out, Pujols cued a single the other way into right, and Taylor flared one into short center, beyond the reach of onrushing Braves shortstop Ozzie Albies and incoming Braves center fielder Adam Duvall, to single Pollock home.

Two innings after that, a leadoff walk to Will Smith turned into Pollock dialing Area Code 6-4-3. But Pujols hung in to work a full count walk out of Fried, which walked Fried out of the game in favour of Braves reliever Chris Martin. For having the audacity to start Taylor off with two strikes, Martin’s reward was his head on the proverbial plate. Also known the unsinking sinker getting sunk into the right center field bleachers.

Dylan Lee took over for the Braves in the sixth and made the Dodgers behave themselves despite Corey Seager’s two-out single, and Lee even kept the Dodgers on time out for the first two outs of the bottom of the seventh. Then he ran into Taylor. He ran Taylor to 2-2. But then Lee somehow hung a changeup, and Taylor hung it into the left field bleachers.

The Dodgers abusing yet another Braves reliever, Jacob Webb, for three in the eighth—Trea Turner singling Mookie Betts home with nobody out; Pollock sending a three-run homer into the left center field bleachers—seemed as though they were saying, “Who died and named Taylor in his will to have all the fun tonight?”

Who also died and left in his will that the Dodgers were particularly vulnerable to lefthanded pitchers? They’d gone 4-for-40 against Braves portsiders entering Game Five . . . and carved Fried up like a Halloween pumpkin going 8-for-21 before his evening ended mercifully enough.

“At the end of the day, it’s playoff baseball,” said Fried, who denied calmly that pitching playoff baseball in front of his home folks from Santa Monica (TBS broadcasters observed he’d left sixty game passes for them) got to him worse than the Dodgers did. “It’s a really good team that won a lot of games, and you’ve got to be on top of your game. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as sharp as I needed to be.”

The guy who sent the Dodgers past the National League wild card game in the first place with his eleventh-minute two-run homer didn’t need anything but to remind one and all it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing, or three of them. Some Dodger fans think that RBI single in the third only proved that Taylor’s only human, after all.

Jackie Robinson. Duke Snider. Roy Campanella. Gil Hodges. Frank Howard. Steve Garvey. Ron Cey. Pedro Guerrero. Mike Piazza. Shawn Green. None of those Dodger bombers of legend—and there are four Hall of Famers in the lot—ever hit three into the seats or beyond in a single postseason game.

What do Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Stan Musial, and Cal Ripken, Jr. have in common? They hit three postseason homers at all . . . one each: Mays, 1971 NLCS; Musial, 1944 World Series; Ripken, 1997 ALCS. It must be humbling to think you did more in one postseason game than three of the game’s all-time greatest did in their postseason lives.

What do Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, and George Brett have in common? They each hit three bombs in one postseason game and Ruth did it twice—but none of those three did it the way Taylor did, going 4-for-5 with six runs batted in in those games. One other man hitting three out in one postseason game ever did the same four-fer with six steaks: Taylor’s teammate Pujols.

And none of the above on the postseason three-bomb game did it in a game their teams absolutely had to win if they weren’t in the mood to be home in time to deck the halls and yards for Halloween. Or, to leave their teams standing as the only such team to win seven consecutive win-or-be-dead postseason games.

Taylor had one spell of three homers in a single week this year before he partied hearty Thursday night. He went 8-for-72 over the regular season’s final five weeks—and now stands 9-for-17 in this NLCS alone, including his Thursday night 4-for-5.

“The highlights,” Pujols said of Taylor postgame, “are going to be there the rest of his life. That’s something you’re going to share forever.”

“The only thing that excites him, I’ve seen, is he likes to have a beer,” Pollock said of Taylor. “He gets excited about that, a beer with the boys, and then he loves watching surfing. Maybe the three home runs today might have spiked his adrenaline, but probably not. Most likely just the beer and watching surfing.”

So, naturally, a beer-loving surfer dude who battled with a balky neck down the stretch does in a little over two weeks what nobody else has done in an entire career—namely, walk one postseason game off with a home run and then hit three in a postseason elimination game. Let’s go surfin’ now, come on on safari with me.

The only thing the Dodgers have to do now is sweep the Braves back in Atlanta. As the man once said on the radio, it ain’t easy, Clyde. Writing the Braves off this year has proven an exercise in presumptuousness so far.

Remember that, Red Sox. You, too, have been written off often enough this year. You may not have a Taylor in your midst, but the foot you’re said to have in the grave isn’t as far beneath its surface line as you think.

“You name it, we have to do it,” Cora has said approaching ALCS Game Six.

Meaning Nathan Eovaldi gotta Eovaldi when he starts Game Six. Meaning Kike Hernandez can’t take another night off at the plate the way he did, somewhat surprisingly, in Game Five. Meaning the Schwarbinator gotta Schwarbinate, and shake off his Games Four and Five plate absences.

Meaning, too, that the bullpen gotta bullpen, especially if you get to Game Seven and Nick Pivetta, Garrett Whitlock, and Tanner Houck are recalibrated fully, critical when the pen’s depth is still under compromise. (And closer Matt Barnes is still injured and among the missing.)

Meaning Xander Bogaerts has to get his bat back to where his glove at shortstop mostly remains, top of the line or close enough. Meaning the next time you pinch hit Bobby Dalbec and Travis Shaw, make sure they’re not carrying pool noodles to the plate.

Nobody has to make Chris Taylor’s kind of history Friday night, Red Sox. But your manager’s right. You name it, you have to do it. Whatever it takes to win twice in a row. The Astros won’t make it easy for you. But you didn’t get here the easy way, this time, anyway.

You have nothing to lose but your season. You have a pennant to win. Red Sox of all shapes, sizes, swings, and slings, unite.

ALCS Game Five: Nuts to that

Chris Sale

“I was good for five, then sucked for one. I left my nuts out on that mound.”—Chris Sale, after ALCS Game Five.

It’s bad enough when the move you make gets turned into disaster. It’s worse when the move you don’t make explodes in your face—and puts you on the threshold of postseason elimination.

Red Sox manager Alex Cora, more creative and fearless than many managers in baseball today, learned the hard way in the top of the sixth in American League Championship Series Game Five Wednesday evening.

He needed to keep the Astros to a 1-0 lead on a night the usually formidable, tenacious, but suddenly feeble Red Sox bats had nothing to show against Astros starting pitcher Framber Valdez.

Valdez would carve them like turkeys over most of his eventual eight innings’ work other than one seventh-inning slice. But it was Astros left fielder Yordan Alvarez who stuffed the Red Sox birds first and almost foremost.

With Jose Altuve opening the sixth with a walk, Michael Brantley aboard when Red Sox first baseman Kyle Schwarber couldn’t hold onto Xander Bogaerts’s throw from shortstop, and second and third when Alex Bregman was thrown out at first on a clunking grounder back to Red Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale, up stepped Alvarez.

The same Alvarez responsible for the game’s only scoring with a first-pitch leadoff home run into the Green Monster seats in the top of the second. The same Alvarez who nailed a long one-out single off the top of the Monster sending Bregman to third in the top of the fourth, before Sale struck Carlos Correa and Kyle Tucker out swinging to end that inning.

This was one time today’s version of Casey Stengel might have been served far better if he’d decided no way would Alvarez get a third crack at Sale, and ordered the intentional walk to load the bases, setting up a prospective inning-ending double play.

Cora would have had far better odds letting Sale pitch instead to Correa, whom he’d struck out twice on the day already. But he let Sale pitch to Alvarez first. And Alvarez shot a line drive the other way down the left field line, sending Altuve and Brantley home with the second and third unanswered Astro runs.

Cora lifted his stout starter—who’d pitched five innings of one-run, seven-strikeout, two-hit baseball until he walked out for the sixth. Sale wouldn’t blame Cora, though. “I was good for five, then sucked for one,” said the lefthander still getting his wings back into tune after recovering from Tommy John surgery. “I left my nuts out on that mound tonight, that’s for sure.”

You have to give Sale credit for a somewhat unique way to express his self-verdict. You may yet end up giving him the blame for writing the Red Sox’s 2021 postseason epitaph.

Whatever Sale left on the mound, the Red Sox bullpen had enough of their nuts handed to them, coarsely chopped, for six more runs and a 9-1 Astros win that sends the ALCS back to Houston, with the Astros having two chances to go to the World Series and the Red Sox needing to beg, borrow, steal, sneak themselves two. Whatever works.

Ryan Brasier relieved Sale to let an RBI single tack a fourth run onto Sale’s jacket before allowing two of his own, on Jose Siri’s shallow floating single to right sending Tucker and Yuli Gurriel home.

Hansel Robles’s throwing error on a pickoff attempt in the top of the seventh let Altuve have second on the house and set Brantley up to fire an RBI single up the pipe, before getting Bregman to dial Area Code 6-4-3 and stepping aside for Darwinzon Hernandez.

Hernandez dropped a called third strike in on Alvarez, of all people, to end the inning. He yielded to Hirokazu Sawamura after a one-out walk to Tucker in the eighth. Sawamura surrendered a single to Gurriel and wild-pitched him to second but bumped his way out a first-and-second jam striking Siri out and getting Altuve to line out to left for the side.

But Martin Perez came on for the ninth and found himself with two on, nobody out, when Alvarez bounced sharply right back to the box and Perez knocked the ball down, chased briefly, grabbed it, and threw Alverez out.

Then Cora ordered the free pass—to Correa, who hadn’t exactly bedeviled the Red Sox on the night. And when Red Sox second baseman Christian Arroyo took Tucker’s grounder on the dead run in and threw home to force a sliding Brantley out at the plate, it was impossible to forget the intentional walk that wasn’t back in the sixth. Especially when Gurriel promptly punched a base hit to center, sending Bregman and Correa home too handily.

The only Red Sox answer for any of that mayhem was Rafael Devers sending a one-out, none-on tracer into the Monster seats in the bottom of the seventh. Otherwise they spent the evening doing what the Astros did earlier in the set, showing futility with men in scoring position (0-for-4) while the Astros looked more like the earlier-set Red Sox. (6-for-15.)

What compelled Cora to send Sale back out for the sixth? The Red Sox manager to his credit has rarely if ever shown an allergy to hooking a starter before that starter can get hooked.

“I understand how people think,” Cora said postgame, “but there were two lefties coming up too in that pocket, right? Brantley, who he did an amazing job early on, and we had Alvarez. Still, he is Chris Sale. He is a lefty. He has made a living getting lefties out.”

Sale did strike Brantley out twice before the sixth. But it couldn’t and shouldn’t have escaped Cora’s usually fine-tuned eye that Alvarez was manhandling Sale entirely on his own before the sixth.

Nor should it have escaped Cora’s analytically-inclined eye that, since Alvarez showed up in the Show at all, the Astros left fielder has .580 slugging percentage against lefthanded pitching—the highest lefthander-on-lefthander slugging percentage in the majors over that span.

Cora may also think twice before using Perez in high leverage again. The lefthander’s regular-season 4.82 fielding-independent pitching rate should have been flashing “danger, Will Robinson” as it was. But Perez only appeared in high leverage 32 percent of his season’s assignments. In the Game Four ninth, Brantley tore a three-run double out of him to put the game beyond reach at last.

We’ll learn the hard way, too, whether using his Game Six starter Nathan Eovaldi to open the Game Four ninth in relief will end up hurting, not helping. Especially with Eovaldi now going out to pitch not to send the Red Sox to the World Series but to stay alive at all.

Sure, the Red Sox got jobbed when plate umpire Laz Diaz called ball two on what should have been inning-ending strike three, enabling the Red Sox a better shot at coming back to win. But giving the Astros an unnecessarily extra look at the tenacious righthander may yet burn Cora and the Sox.

First things first. If the Red Sox want a little extra inspiration and moral support, Cora can’t afford to outsmart himself again. Then, they ought to dial the 2019 Nationals.

Winning that World Series, the Nats proved you can wreck the Astros in their own house even once back-to-back, never mind twice in the biggest set of them all. To get to that biggest set this time, the Red Sox now need all of that kind of help that they can get.