The Maplegate that isn’t

Martín Maldonado

Martín Maldondo using a bat gifted him by ex-teammate Albert Pujols to nail a Game One single. Maldonado had to put the bat away for Game Two when it was determined an illegal bat—by a rule Maldonado wasn’t aware of going in.

Let’s see. Framber Valdez manhandled the Phillies for six and a third Saturday night, and the only run charged to his ledger was surrendered by his relief. The Astros jumped Zack Wheeler for a very early lead and made it stick, this time, for a 5-2 win in World Series Game Two.

The Phillies had a couple of close calls in the batter’s nox but not close enough to overthrow the Astros a second straight game. The Series still goes to Philadelphia tied at a game each, and the Phillies now have a home-field advantage until or unless the Astros snatch it from them.

But enough of the paranoiac crowd harped on Astro catcher Martín Maldonado’s illegal Game One bat, most likely after hearing it discussed by Fox Sports announcers Joe Davis and Tom Verducci during the Game Two telecast.

The bat in question was a gift from Maldonado’s one-time Angels teammate, Hall of Famer-in-waiting Albert Pujols. The reason the bat was made illegal—pay very close attention, ladies, gentlemen, and miscellaneous—has nothing to do with any contraband thunder inside it and everything to do with safety.

Maple bats have been around since 1993 World Series hero Joe Carter hipped Barry Bonds to their virtues, and Bonds helped forge his controversial third act swinging them. The type Pujols used and passed on to Maldonado—a Marucci A5 model with a 2.75-inch diameter—was banned starting in 2011. The ban included a grandfather clause allowing those like Pujols who’d used them in the Show before that to continue using them.

“I don’t think it’s strange,” the 36-year-old veteran catcher told reporters postgame. “It’s a rule, and I’ll follow it.” Translation: This isn’t exactly something to call Maplegate.

Maldonado drove the second Astros run home in Game One with the Pujols poker. It was his only hit in the game. He wasn’t aware of the bat’s status until MLB officials let him know prior to Game Two. (Maldonado’s MLB career began after the ban took effect.) He went back to his normal bat supply posthaste and went 0-for-3 Saturday night.

He was far more effective shepherding Valdez through a start that more than atoned for the bushwhackings the smooth lefthander took from last year’s World Series-winning Braves. In a series or Series between any two other teams, the Maldonado bat would be a nothingburger, medium rare.

But because it involves the Astros, of course, and the Astros have a tainted World Series championship that still lingers, even this nothingburger’s going to be elevated to a chateaubriand of prospective chicanery.

Even if it involves a player who wasn’t anywhere near the Astrogate team until the Angels traded him at the 2018 non-waiver deadline for pitcher Patrick Sandoval. Not to mention the same player leaving as a free agent after 2018 but returning to Houston in a July 2019 trade from the Cubs.

So let’s forget the Astros jumping Zack Wheeler for three straight doubles delivering two runs without an out in the bottom of the first Saturday night. Let’s forget the inning’s third run coming when Phillies shortstop Edmundo Sosa threw Yuli Gurriel’s bouncer low and on the short hop to first baseman Rhys Hoskins who couldn’t hold the short hop, enabling Yordan Alvarez (the third straight double) to come home.

Let’s forget Valdez unbalancing the Phillie lineup with murderous breaking balls going over, under, sideways, down, anywhere but face-to-face meetings with Phillie bats that managed a mere four scattered hits before the Astros turned to their bullpen.

Let’s forget Alex Bregman—following a double play that needed review because it didn’t look clear at first that Sosa’s toe brushed second base as he took the throw from third baseman Alec Bohm in the overshift—blasting a two-run homer into the Planet Fitness arch behind left center field for what proved the Astros’ two insurance runs in the bottom of the fifth.

Let’s forget the bullpens continuing to keep each other throttled except for Jean Segura’s seventh-inning sacrifice fly in the seventh and Bohm scoring on an error at third off Brandon Marsh’s grounder in the ninth, before Astros closer Ryan Pressly induced the game-ending ground out.

Let’s forget Kyle Schwarber missing a tremendous two-run homer in the top of the eighth, that would have pulled the Phillies back to within a mere pair. The Schwarbinator’s 2-2 blast off Astros reliever Rafael Montero looked like a bomb until it wasn’t, passing the right field pole by a hair on the foul side. Then he blasted another one, on the next pitch, deep enough to push Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker up against the fence . . . to catch it.

No, let’s just talk about the Maldonado bat switch for Game Two. Let’s just talk about how the Astrogate taint still holds deep enough that something for which any other team would have received a shrug receives red flags and white heat.

Maple bats have their own controversy for their tougher densities. The softer ash bat may be going the way of the canvas base bag thanks to a pestiferous pest that treats ash like dinner with all the trimmings. When maple bats splinter they’re believed more dangerous, even to the guy who swung it.

So let’s have a concurrent reality check. A none-too-well-hitting catcher whose presence is more for his pitchers’ benefit than his lineup’s isn’t going to provoke deep investigations for making the mistake of accepting as a gift and using a bat he didn’t know he wasn’t in the league long enough to ride a grandfather clause.

But a team that operated an illegal, above and beyond mere replay room reconnaissance and other sign-stealing sneakiness, electronically-based, unlawfully-camera’d, front-office-abetted (via the in-house-developed Codebreaker algorithm) sign-stealing intelligence agency?

A team still owned by the man who has never shown fealty to the ancient maxim that when you lead (or own) you take responsibility for what’s done by your subordinates?

The original Astrogate revelations‘ shocks hadn’t even hinted at wearing away when Jim Crane faced a very inquisitive followup press at the 2019 winter meetings and said, “If you want to talk about baseball, I’ll talk about baseball.” As if Astrogate had nothing to do with baseball. When the team held its infamous February 2020 non-apologetically apologetic presser, Crane said he “doesn’t think” he should have been held accountable.

On the threshold of the World Series there came credible speculation that Crane is thinking seriously about cashiering his general manager, James Click. Click’s done nothing since stepping in for the disgraced Jeff Luhnow but remake/remodel the Astros on the fly—especially building this year’s hammers-down Astros bullpen—to keep a great team on the field while simultaneously working his can off to leave Astrogate as far in the rear view mirror as possible.

Click plus manager Dusty Baker did the heaviest lifting to pull the Astros away from  Astrogate. And this is the thanks Click may yet receive? It’s one thing to acknowledge Crane felt as though Luhnow had torched him. It’s something else to seek more trustworthy advisors and operators yet fail to appreciate one of the key men pulling his team as far past that disgrace as possible while continuing to rule the American League.

Even Click can’t entirely negate the point that the Astros won’t cease to be suspect until or unless they win a World Series without even the merest suspicion of subterfuge. That’s as unfair as what the former Astros regime sanctioned in 2017-18. Suggesting Martín Maldonado was up to no good, using a gifted bat he had no knowledge was illegal for him to use, is likewise unfair.

We’re in for one hell of a World Series ride

J.T. Realmuto

Realmuto’s leadoff launch in the top of the tenth held up for the Phillies to win opening this World Series. But he almost didn’t make it that far . . .

Listen up, you sore-losing Met, Dodger, and Yankee fans. At least, those among you who think that there’s nothing more worth watching until hot stove season since your heroes (anti-heroes?) got pushed, shoved, and slugged out of the postseason.

Yours aren’t the only heroes (anti-heroes?) who got turned aside. So you can just boil yourselves alive in your harrumphing that the World Series means nothing to you. Because if Game One was any indication, the rest of us—including this Met fan since the day they were born—are in for one hell of a Series ride.

For those of us who put aside our personal rooting disappointments and watched, we got to see a script flipped Friday night.

We went in knowing that assorted polls pretty much sketched the Phillies as America’s team this time around. We also went in knowing numerous oddsmakings sketched the Astros as liable to grind the brave little Philsies into hamburger, one way or the other.

But we came away from the Phillies’s 6-5 Game One upending knowing we’d seen a dogfight turned strategic bombing turned bullfight all in the space of ten must-see innings. And, with just a few little shruggings un-shrugged along the way.

Until Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto hit an opposite-field home run leading off the top of the tenth, and Phillies reliever David Robertson shook off a one-out double and a two-out walk to make it stick, that is. And that’s when it might have hit, good and hard:

The ogres of the American League might have swept their way here in the first place, but they’re not exactly impenetrable or invincible. Last year’s Braves sure proved it, but some things need proving all over again. Come Friday night, the Phillies finally proved it. But it did take a little early survival to do so.

Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker got to within about a foot above several fans of pulling Realmuto’s drive back for what would have been a jaw-dropping out. He leaped, reached back, extended, everything short of a net springing from his gloves’ fingertips, but the ball eluded his reach by about a full visible foot.

“Honestly, I thought I got enough of it, but I kind of had flashbacks of the play that Tucker made on (Aaron) Judge’s ball [in the American League Championship Series],” Realmuto said postgame. “And once I saw him running back to the wall, I was thinking in my head, oh, please just don’t catch it, just don’t catch it. I knew it was going to be close.”

Nobody going in expected Game One itself to be that close.

I mean, admit it. Didn’t we think it was all but game over when Tucker took it upon himself to provide four-fifths of the Astros’ early scoring, staking future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander to a 5-0 lead after three innings?

Didn’t we think the Phillies might be a little demoralised after Aaron Nola—who’d pitched six and two-thirds perfect innings against the Astros to pull the Phillies towards their postseason berth clinch in the first place—got thumped by Tucker’s solo bomb halfway up the lower right field seats in the second and, when the game was still a manageable 2-0 Astro lead an inning later, his three-run blast a little further up those seatxs in the third?

Sure we did. We thought that, no matter how strong and deep would be the bullpen bulls for whom Phillies manager Rob Thomson would reach soon enough, the Astro machinery would either make that five-zip lead hold or pile another couple more on before the game was finally over.

We might even have thought Rhys Hoskins and Bryce Harper singling to set first and third up in the fourth, Nick Castellanos singling Harper home, then Alec Bohm lining a two-run double to left was just Verlander’s and the Astros’ way of toying with the Phillies, tossing them a couple of cookies before burying them alive.


We just didn’t quite bargain for Realmuto sending a two-run double of his own to the back of left center to tie it at five the very next inning. (For those to whom such things matter, in Minute Maid Park’s dimensions Realmuto’s double traveled 42 feet more than his tenth-inning bomb would.)

“No excuses,” Verlander said postgame. “I felt like I had some guys in good situations and just wasn’t able to quite make the pitches that I wanted to. A lot of credit to them as a lineup. They laid off some good pitches, and they were able to, when I did execute pitches, they were able to foul it off or put it in play and find a couple hits that way. Then when I did make a mistake, they hit it hard.”

“We knew they could hit when they came in here,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker. “They’re known for that. They just took it from us tonight.”

We didn’t quite bargain for five Phillies relief pitchers—including their scheduled Game Three starter Ranger Suarez—and four Astros relief pitchers keeping both sides scoreless, with a few hiccups along the way on both side.

We sure didn’t bargain for Castellanos, defying the Phillies’ season-long reputation as a defense-challenged team, running for his life in from deep right—where he’d positioned respecting Astros rookie Jeremy Peña’s power—to send the game to extras in the first place, taking it from Peña and the Astros with a past-textbook sliding, one-handed catch just short of the line.

“I felt like I read the swing pretty well,” Castellanos said postgame, “and as soon as I saw the direction of the ball I felt like I got a good jump on it. I just thought he had a better chance of trying to bloop something in there than torching something over my head. So that was kind of my thought process there, just thought of it on the fly.” Good thinking.

We didn’t quite bargain for Realmuto, either, squaring up Luis (Rock-a-Bye*) Garcia, usually a starter but pressed into relief duty this postseason—and a man Realmuto had never before faced in his life.

The count ran full. Then Garcia threw Realmuto a fastball reaching the outer edge of the strike zone. Realmuto reached, connected, and sent it on its way. Yet, for a few brief, shuddering moments four innings earlier, it was lucky for the Phillies he got that far in the first place.

Astros center fielder Chas McCormick foul-tipped a hard one straight back and straight into blasting Realmuto’s old school-style catcher’s mask right off his head. It also knocked the husky catcher backward and down. Those watching on the Fox Sports 1 telecast could hear plate umpire James Hoye say, “You all right? Stay there a minute.”

“Honestly, my head wasn’t the problem,” Realmuto said. “It just smoked my jaw pretty good. It’s probably not going to be very easy for me to eat dinner tonight, but as long as my head’s OK, I’ll be good to go.”

“I didn’t move,” said Phillies backup catcher Garrett Stubbs postgame. “That guy’s not coming out for anything.” He was right. He didn’t even move his pinkie as Thomson and Phillies trainer Paul Buchheit tended the temporarily fallen Realmuto.

These Phillies won’t come out for anything, either. Unless it’s for Game Two. And, maybe, another few steps toward their own October/November surprise. Listen up one more time, sore-losing Met/Dodger/Yankee fans. (Maybe even you, too, Padres fans.) You may end up missin’ a great Series.


* Just why is Luis Garcia’s rocking-the-baby motion while he does that little back-and-forth, samba-like step before delivering home just fine, while the Guardians’ Josh Naylor’s rocking-the-baby routine as he rounds the bases after hitting a home run is a capital crime

I don’t have an issue with either one, frankly. I’m still a big believer in letting the kids play and, if you want to see baseball played like Serious Business, find yourself a league where they play the game in three-piece suits.

But why isn’t Garcia accused of taunting the batters he faces with it while Naylor took heat for doing it to pitchers against whom he’s just gone the distance?

The Bronx is burning. Again.

Yankee Stadium

Nothing frustrated Yankee fans more than the pennant-winning Astros sweeping them out of the ALCS and celebrating in Yankee Stadium itself. Except maybe seventeen out of eighteen 21st century postseason push-outs and only one now fourteen-year-old World Series title.

Well. No wonder Yankee fans are somewhere between restless and roiled. Codify, a group whose specialty is “personalised game planning for greater pitching success” (their words, not mine), doesn’t restrict their observations to the mound alone. Two days ago, they noticed and shared something rather significant.

They noticed that, between 2010 and this year, the major league team that spends the most has gone to the World Series the least. That would be the team just flushed from the postseason by the ogres of the American League West in four straight American League Championship Series games.

Three out of six of, shall we say, the Show’s “thriftiest” teams (read: cheapest) have actually gone to the Series twice in that span. One was the team formerly known as the Indians, who fell to the Cubs (of all people) in seven in 2016. A second was the Rays, hosannaed perenially for the greatest ratio of competitiveness to roster payroll.

The third was the Royals, who went to the Series back to back and more or less had the second of them handed to them on a platter. (One more time: the Mets lost a 2015 Series that they could have won but for a defense that could have been tried by court martial for desertion.)

The Yankees, who spend almost habitually as though they’re the only baseball team authorised to operate their own mint presses, haven’t reached the World Series once in the same thirteen-year time frame. Only one other team within reach of their spending levels hasn’t, either, and that would be the fourth-highest spenders in Show over that span.

The Angels are a mess thanks to an owner who thought (erroneously) that baseball was marketing alone. (Said owner now plans to sell the team, which has Angel fans uncertain whether that’s a gift from the Elysian Fields gods or a reboot of My Mother, the Car in waiting.) The Yankees are a mess only in the terms by which their history and their fan base demands: if the Yankees aren’t in the Series, never mind winning it, the season is an abject failure and the Series is illegitimate.

Their 20th century success spoiled both the organisation and Yankee fans rotten. Their 21st century . . . well, you can’t really say a team that’s won ten AL East titles and gone to eighteen postseasons in 22 years is an abject failure. You can’t, I can’t, but Yankee fans can. And, do. Vociferously.

Across town, the Mets who haven’t enjoyed a quarter of the Yankees’ success have a fan base that gives cynicism a name rotten enough. The only thing needed to send too many Met fans into a spell of depression is a single bad inning in a game they might even win. In April.

They’re downright cheerful compared to the Yankee fan who thinks a single postseason game loss (never mind a postseason series loss) equals a mandate for summary executions. Preferably yesterday. (Remember: To err is human, to forgive is not necessarily Yankee fan’s policy.) Dodger fans are catching up to that rather rapidly.

Too many fan bases, what remains of them, would love to have those problems. Too many fan bases have been abused by tanking. Too many fan bases have been battered not by tanking but by brains gone to bed in the front offices of teams refusing to tank. A few make mythologies about of their teams’ signs of promise followed by surrealistic on-field calamties.

With or without blindfolding and spinning me, I could not find for you even one Yankee fan who would have believed, in his or her worst nightmares, that their historic rivals from New England would open a century with three more World Series rings than the Yankees have in the same century’s first 22 years.

That was then: The Red Sox opened the 20th century with four more Series rings than the Yankees in the century’s first 22 years, they now have their struggles and mishaps, but Red Sox Nation has graduated to a state of what you might call inverted bliss. They know the Red Sox will win again. They strain to avoid obnoxiousness when the Red Sox don’t.

This is now: 40 pennants, 27 World Series championships, and 58 postseason appearances can’t comfort the Yankee fan who believes to his or her soul that life was sweetness and light when it was only yesterday that the Yankees were never less than baseball’s practically annual masters of all they surveyed.

Yester-century’s Red Soxs fan believed extraterrestrial disaster was their birthright. This century’s Yankee fan believes postseason arrest is a miscarriage of justice—for which every other Yankee in uniform or in administration must pay with his life. The Yankees have had seventeen postseason arrests in eighteen tries since the turn of this century. There are teams who’d have loved to have half of eighteen tries over the entire 54-year history of divisional play.

A retired New Jersey school principal and blog editor of my acquaintance, who is also a Yankee fan of impeccable stubbornness, writes (in the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America’s Here’s the Pitch newsletter, to which I also have the honour of contributing) that Philadelphia’s man of the year (so far), Bryce Harper, is the one the Yankees let get away—having failed to even think of making him an offer when he hit the free agency market for what he swore would be the only time in his life.

You might think that a professional educator would know without being reminded that the one who got away gets away only if you bait the hook and cast it in the first place. In Harper’s first Philadelphia season the Yankees had an AL East winner that swept the Twins in the division series but fell in six ALCS games to (sound familiar?) the Astros.

Those Phillies had only begun to hit their reset button. They play for a fan base that’s inspired people to imagine a Philadelphia wedding ceremony concluding with the clergyman instructing the gathering, “You may now boo the bride.” Show me a New York wedding featuring a hapless bridegroom who misses when stomping the napkin-wrapped goblet for good fortune, and I’ll show you a Yankee fan among the gathering demanding an immediate marital annulment.

It wasn’t a lack of Harper that took the Yankees out, then or now; it was lack of figuring out how to figure out the Astros’ solid starting pitchers and redoubtable relief corps. A lack of Harper didn’t send the Yankees home in an ALCS sweep this time; an inability to compel the Astros changing their diet from near-constant breaking balls on which they couldn’t even feed intravenously to just enough fastballs on which to gorge, did.

Aside from which, the Yankees had a Harper of their own in-house already, then and now. This time, they broke Aaron Judge under the weight of compelling him to carry them in the second half, while he made history as they went from ruthless conquerors to skin-of-their-teeth division-title survivors.

They had little enough to pick it up when Judge was finally unable to carry that weight any longer. Now, they risk losing him to another team willing to break their bank to sign him as a free agent, after he bet the house, the yacht, and half of the Bronx on his future at the season’s opening tables and ended up throwing 62 passes for openers.

Not even the most unapologetic but objective Yankee hater wishes real ill to fall upon them. Without Goliaths, baseball’s Davids have no targets. (It’s difficult to conceive the Yankees as David. This ALCS was Goliath vs. Goliath. The Phillies will be the World Series’s Davids.) Baseball’s health depends upon its Davids making honest efforts to win, top down. But too many baseball Davids surrender before the season’s first shots are slung.

Enough are baseball’s Goliaths who meet their Davids deep and often enough in the postseason. Their fans become frustrated, understandably. Fan noise sometimes makes it difficult to determine which is worse. Is it teams that invest unapologetically only to come up too short, too often? Is it teams that could invest but elect premedidated failure, on behalf of building for futures that depend on wiser minds than their incumbents?

You get the latters’ fans more than you get the formers’. And among the formers’ fans, none seem half as disgusted as Yankee fans. Or—to fans of the Davids, whether those Davids become so honestly or by premeditated, decadent design—half as disgusting.

AL dragons vs. NL dragonslayers

Houston Astros

The Astros celebrate winning the AL pennant Sunday night in New York. The AL’s dragons get to tangle with some NL dragonslayers from Philadelphia in the World Series.

Maybe the Astros would have found ways to beat the Yankees yet again regardless. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered if Aaron Judge could have tied Game Four of the American League Championship Series with one intercontinental ballistic launch and sent it to extra innings.

The Astros won their third American League pennant at the Yankees’ expense Sunday night in Yankee Stadium. They did it in 2017, 2019, and now this year. But if Game Four proves to be free agent-in-waiting Judge’s final game as a Yankee, it couldn’t have ended more ignominously for him and for them.

The engaging, still-young man who pushed Roger Maris aside as the AL’s single-season home run champion, already 1-for-14 in the ALCS when he checked in against Astros reliever Ryan Pressly with two out in the bottom of the ninth, swung on a slider somewhat outside on 1-2.

The guy who can hit a ball of yarn past the Van Allen Belt grounded it right back to Pressly, who speared it one-handed coming off the mound toward first base. Pressly trotted a few steps further before underhanding it to Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel for game, set, sweep, and the Yankees heading home for the winter.

It continued the second-longest Yankee pennant drought since 1979-1994. It made the Leaning Tower of 161st Street resemble the giant who’d carried an entire town on his shoulders from one end of the hemisphere to the other only to collapse under its weight at long enough last.

“I could sit here and make excuses about if a ball falls this way, a ball drops that way or a pitch is made here and there,” Judge lamented after Game Four ended. “But what it comes down to is they just played better than us.”

The Yankees spoiled themselves leaning on Judge as their in-house extraterrestrial. The Astros, say what you still will about them, didn’t make that mistake. They didn’t lean too heavily upon any single big man, either winning the second-most games in the regular season or sweeping their way to the coming World Series.

Leaning that heavily upon one big man merely held the Yankees’ other issues aloft too high. Their bullpen was injured and inconsistent. They lost key secondary elements such as D.J. LeMahieu and Andrew Benintendi to injuries. Anthony Rizzo and Giancarlo Stanton weren’t consistent second bananas to the Judge Show. If Harrison Bader proved a pleasant surprise at the October plate, it wasn’t enough to overcome Judge and Stanton combining to go 6-for-32 the entire postseason.

Oh, the Astros had some heroics of their own, of course. Yordan Alvarez looked like Paul Bunyan earlier in the postseason, enough so that enough thought he alone might be the one to blast the Astros forward. But he was awful quiet in the ALCS. There lay the Astros’ real secret weapon this time, though: if one guy falters, there are others too happy to pick up the slack.

Rookie Jeremy Peña said, “Sure, no problem-o.” A kid whose regular-season on-base percentage fell well enough short of just .300 tied Game Four in the top of the third, with two on aboard back-to-back inning-opening walks, when an ailing Yankee starting pitcher Nestor Cortes hung a cutter and Peña hung it down the left field line and over the fence fair past the foul pole.

“It’s surreal,” said Peña postgame, after he was named the ALCS’s Most Valuable Player. “You dream about this stuff when you’re a kid.” Nobody among his teammates cared two pins that he was a rookie stealing the thunder.

“If you’re in this clubhouse, you’re one of us,” said Lance McCullers, Jr., the Astros’ Game Four starting pitcher. “You don’t need to earn your stripes with us. You don’t need service time. If you’re in this clubhouse and you’re wearing this uniform, you’re one of us. It doesn’t matter if you’re here for a day or you’re here for seventeen years.”

“It’s been a blessing to play with this group,” said third baseman Alex Bregman, who’d sent Peña home with what proved the insurance run in the seventh, after yet another fielding mishap that came to define the Yankees’ postseason collapse the way their deflation from 15.5 games atop the AL East to a 10-18 August defined their regular-season descent from surreal to mere division champion.

Alvarez may not have provided strategic bombing in this ALCS, but after Yankee second baseman Gleyber Torres flipped what should have been a seventh inning-ending double play-starting toss past shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa, he re-tied the game at five each by swatting Peña home with an RBI single off Yankee reliever Jonathan Loaisaga.

Just like that, the Yankees handed the Astros the means to end the lead Bader handed his team in the bottom of the sixth, when the former Cardinal caught hold of Hector Neris’s first two-out pitch to him and sent it into the left field seats.

When Gurriel clutched Pressly’s underhand toss for the final series out, it handed baseball its first day with both pennants clinched since 1992. It handed the Astros yet another chance to give manager Dusty Baker yet another chance at the one thing that’s eluded him in his long and mostly distinguished managing career—a lease to the Promised Land.

Baker took on the Astros after Astrogate cost them A.J. Hinch, whose failure to put the brakes on the Astro Intelligence Agency’s illegal, off-field-based, electronic sign-stealing operation could have broken both the game and the organisation in half when it was exposed after the Astros fell to the Nationals in the 2019 World Series.

He might be the sentimental favourite come Series time—individually. The Astros will be up against a Phillies team that electrified their city and maybe most of the country with their own pennant conquest at home Sunday afternoon. Baker may be America’s manager but the Phillies may be America’s team this time. And Bryce Harper just may be America’s man within America’s team, if that’s the case.

No Astro delivered quite the transcendent blow Sunday that Harper did in the bottom of the eighth. Judge’s record-breaking 62nd home run merely broke a hallowed AL and Yankee team record and guaranteed his coming free agency riches. Harper’s deficit-overthrowing two-run homer held up to mean the pennant, in a rainy game that looked as though the Phillies and the Padres did more mud wrestling than ball playing.

The pitchers couldn’t grip properly or resist their landing feet sliding more than single inches on the muddy mound. The hitters changed batting gloves as often as they could. Batting helmets shone with rain water on top. New York wasn’t exactly paradise but Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park was practically a swamp. And no fan dared leave until it was done.

Harper stunned the Padres first by taking a tumbling Robert Suarez changeup on which he might have swung otherwise, once upon a time. He anticipated Suarez bringing a fastball soon enough, hoping only to find an outfield gap into which to send one, enough to bring J.T. Realmuto home from first with a tying run.

He got and did better than he hoped. He got a cutter hovering over the outer half of the plate and swung. The ball traveled about three or four rows the other way into the left field seats. The city that once hosted a record label proudly calling its brand of soul music The Sound of Philadelphia now had a new sound: bedlam.

The Biblical admonition goes that the last shall be first. The Phillies entered the postseason aboard the new three wild card system with the weakest regular season record of any postseason entrant and the eleventh-best record in the Show.

They’d survived an early season hump prompting their front office to throw out the first manager of the year. They’d survived injuries, including the two-month loss of Harper who needed the rest of the regular season to get his groove back. Both the Phillies and the Padres hit a partial re-set button at mid-season and burrowed their ways to their wild cards.

The Padres slew the NL dragons out of New York and Los Angeles. The Phillies slew those out of St. Louis and Atlanta. Then the Phillies won the pennant by taking four of five from the Padres. They ground, pushed, thumped, slashed, and thundered their way to the Series.

They reminded you that, when the dragonslayers meet each other, one of them gets fried.

They’re going to go up against an Astro team that still isn’t America’s favourite team thanks to the continuing taint of Astrogate. Never mind that only three position players from those 2017-18 cheaters remain with the team. Never mind mind that one (Jose Altuve) actually rejected being part of it. I say again, sadly: the taint won’t dissipate until the last member of the Astrogate teams no longer wears their uniform.

The Phillies haven’t won a World Series ring since the final months of the second George W. Bush administration. The Astros still hunt their first un-stained World Series rings. If the Astros think the Phillies can be taken as readily as the Yankees, the Astros may be in for a Series that’ll only feel as long as the Yankee winter now begun.

A mudswinging victory

Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper launches what proved his NLCS-winning two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth. Wild? The crowd went nuclear.

Bruce McClure, the membership ambassador for the Society for American Baseball Research, tweeted: “Why in the world did they insist on playing the [National League Championship Series] game in the pouring rain?” I had an answer immediately.

“Because,” I replied, “they wanted to see Bryce Harper drop every jaw in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the bottom of the eighth?”

“You win, good sir,” Mr. McClure answered.

Well, I didn’t win on Sunday afternoon. The Phillies did. At this writing, it’s fair to say those $330 million dollars Phillies owner John Middleton agreed to pay Harper over thirteen years might have been bargain-basement rate. It’s also fair to say no timetable should be placed upon the finish of Philadelphia going berserk over this.

One and a half innings after the elements and the mound mud they formulated helped the Padres to an overthrow one-run lead, and with J.T. Realmuto on first after a leadoff single against Padres reliever Robert Suarez, Harper checked in with the elements receding just enough and hit the biggest home run of his major league life. It took a little hair-raising in the top of the ninth to make it stick, but stick it did, sending the Phillies to the World Series.

“I knew he’d come with his best pitch,” Harper told Fox Sports field reporter/Sports Illustrated columnist Tom Verducci at one end of the dugout minutes after he ran it out. “I took the best swing I could. I just want to win this game.”

He’d just have to wait until the Phillies slithered out of a final Padres push in the ninth, when reliever David Robertson lost back-to-back one-out walks and gave way to Ranger Suárez, customarily a starter but also a lefthanded pitcher with a lefthanded batter due up.

Then Trent Grisham—a breakout star when the Padres slew the Mets’ dragon in the wild card series but almost a non-topic in this National League Championship Series—elected to try dragging a bunt for a base hit on Suárez’s first pitch. Neither he nor the Padres bargained on Suárez himself springing from the mound like a cat overdosing on Red Bull. Suárez threw him out at first almost in a blink.

The next man up was Austin Nola, the Padres’ catcher who hogged the headlines over the Padres’ lone NLCS win for starting the scoring with a base hit off brother Aaron on the mound for the Phillies. The only thing that might have made it sweeter if Big Brother Nola could land a hit now would have been if Little Brother Aaron was on the mound again.

But Little Brother was in the Phillies dugout on the same pins and cushions (thank you, Mrs. Ace) as his teammates until Big Brother skied Suárez’s first pitch to shallow right field, where Nick Castellanos ambled in, held off second baseman Juan Segura ambling out, and snapped the ball into his glove with the pennant attached.

Let the second guessing begin, mostly because it’s going to begin with or without any hint from me. The biggest one is probably going to be, thinking of the righthanded Robert Suarez staying in to face Harper the portside pulveriser, “Why the hell didn’t Bob Melvin bring Josh Hader in with Harper checking in at the plate?”

Reaching for the best bull in your pen when it’s shy of the ninth inning and your “save” situation is five minutes ago with a hard-mudslidden one-run lead isn’t just sound strategy, it’s absolutely mandatory. That’s smart baseball. Especially when your best just so happens to match ideally to their best and their best is due up next. Wasn’t that why the Padres dealt for Hader at the deadline, banking on the self-resurrection he’d make after leaving Milwaukee.

Of course it was. But just maybe Melvin just saw his Phillies counterpart do likewise with his best bull and get third-degree burned through no fault of either his or his man’s own. Melvin wasn’t going to let that happen to him or to his team. Mother Nature was being defiant enough all day long. And Harper had faced Robert Suarez in the eighth in Game Two, their only previous known confrontation—whacking into a double play.

The Padres mud-wrestled their way back from a 2-1 deficit in the seventh—Rhys Hoskins’s two-run bomb in the bottom of the third threatened to hold up otherwise despite Juan Solo’s solo satellite in the top of the fourth—because Phillies manager Rob Thomson’s reach for Seranthony Domínguez backfired under Mother Nature’s pouring.

The mound was muddy. The infield dirt was muddy. Both starting pitchers, Zack Wheeler for the Phillies and Yu Darvish for the Padres, had visible trouble keeping their landing feet from sliding more than a bare inch on the mudded mound downslope. Domínguez in the heavier rain had visible trouble holding and throwing his usually precise fastballs.

With Wheeler pushed out at the inning’s opening by Jake Cronenworth’s leadoff single, Domínguez fell behind 3-1 before throwing Josh Bell a fastball meaty enough to bang into right for an RBI double—after wild-pitching Cronenworth to second to make it simpler. After Domínguez looked to be finding a workable rain handle with back-to-back strikeouts, he threw two wild pitches while working to Grisham, enabling pinch-runner Jose Azocar to take third and score the Padres’ third run.

Grisham flied out to right for the side. Melvin surely appreciated having the lead handed to the Padres for the first and only time in the game. But seeing Thomson’s best-bull-forward move get thrown in the mud that dramatically must have put one thought in the back of his mind: We are not going to let that happen to us in this dreck.

Darvish surrendered an eighth inning-opening  double to right to Bryson Stott, yielding to Robert Suarez. Suarez wrestled through the seventh unscathed. Hader was up and throwing in the Padres bullpen. But Realmuto began Suarez’s eighth-inning scathing by whacking an 0-2 pitch into left for a clean single. (As clean as the wet conditions allowed, of course.)

Still no sign of Hader. Suarez and Harper wrestled through two 1-2 foul balls to 2-2. The next pitch was a sinker hanging up in the outer middle region of the strike zone. Harper launched it parabolically, the opposite way, into the left field seats. Every occupant of Citizens Bank Park dared to believe it. The Phillies had just won the pennant. The top of the ninth would be a mere formality.

Not exactly, of course. It wasn’t easy for either team to get here in the first place, no matter how easy the Phillies made it look shoving the Cardinals and the Braves aside, no matter how easy the Padres made it look shoving the Mets and the Dodgers to one side.

Both teams had to hit the mid-season reset buttons. The Phillies had to get to the postseason in the first place almost despite losing Harper first to designated hitter-only duty after a shoulder injury and then for two months with a thumb fracture—on a pitch from the Padres’ Game Three starter Blake Snell, of all people.

It took Harper long enough to get anything resembling his groove back in the first place. The Phillies claimed the final National League wild card in the nick of time. Harper found his groove almost the moment the postseason began. Now he stands as the NLCS’s Most Valuable Player. The stupid money (Middleton’s term for his willingness to spend and invest in the team) looks absolutely Mensa now.

Harper’s hit five bombs all postseason long thus far and tied a franchise record for postseason for extra base hits. He’s hit a lot of indelible nukes in his career. Not even the ultimate grand slam he smashed against the Cubs a little over three years ago compares.

That one will become just a footnote to his career. Wherever the Phillies go from here, this one’s going to be cast in plutonium.