“I try to control what I can control”

Jacob deGrom

He pitches like Tom Seaver for a team that hits like the St. Louis Browns when he’s on the mound.

Here we go yet again. And it’s getting more ridiculous than before. To the point where someone might be tempted to spike Jacob deGrom’s MP3 player with the Four Tops.

Once upon a time, that legendary Motown quartet sang, “It’s the same old song/with a different meaning since you’ve been gone.” Except it isn’t deGrom who’s gone, it’s the Mets offense when he’s on the mound.

He’s too much a team player to say it, but he must be tempted to wish his teammates wouldn’t just sing “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” but mean it and show it.

For the second time in his first two 2021 starts, deGrom pitched like a Hall of Famer. For the second time in his first two starts, his Mets could have been hauled into court for non-support and for trashing what he left behind. Or, at least, for impersonating the St. Louis Browns.

On Saturday his only blemish was the 0-2 fastball Marlins rookie Jazz Chisholm deposited over the right field fence in the top of the second, after deGrom struck Garrett Cooper and Brian Anderson out swinging.

Those were two of fourteen strikeouts deGrom nailed in eight innings’ work. He threw 95 pitches and 76 were strikes; he scattered five hits including the Chisholm bomb; he was, in other words, the Jacob deGrom who may still remain the favourite for this year’s National League Cy Young Award.

If the Mets keep playing this kind of baseball with deGrom on the mound, the righthander may set another precedent, even in theory: the first 20-game “loser” to win the Cy Young Award.

Don’t laugh, it could happen. DeGrom has an 0.64 ERA and a 1.55 fielding-independent pitching rate. Right now, these Mets seem capable entirely of going the distance to hang 20 losses in deGrom’s locker despite him making their late Hall of Famer Tom Seaver resemble the late Anthony Young.

Marlins rookie Trevor Rogers pitched like a deGrom aspirant on the other side, with ten punchouts in six innings and three measly hits against him while walking two to deGrom’s none. He threw 68 percent of his pitches for strikes to deGrom’s 80 percent. These Marlins need all the good news they can find and Rogers, a lefthander who stands an inch taller than deGrom does physically, may be some of their best news this year.

For eight innings the game stayed 1-0 and deGrom’s elegant assassination of the Marlins other than the Chisholm blast was rewarded with the Mets forgetting that it’s neither necessary nor possible to hit six-run homers every time they check in at the plate.

They had Brandon Nimmo opening the first with a double and taking third when the Marlins misplayed Francisco Lindor’s bunt at second base—and stranded him when Lindor got arrested for attempted grand theft second base followed by Michael Conforto and Pete Alonso striking out.

They had Dom Smith leading off the fifth with a line single past second base but James McCann dialing an immediate Area Code 6-4-3; then, they got the gift of Jeff McNeil wringing Rogers for a full count walk and taking second on a balk with Jonathan Villar at the plate—but they also got Villar striking out for the side.

They had deGrom himself leading off the sixth with a base hit, first and second when Nimmo followed immediately with a walk, and first and third when deGrom had room enough to tag for it on Lindor’s fly to the back of right field—and Conforto and Alfonso striking out for the side again.

They had six chances to get men in scoring position home and blew all six chances. Even allowing how tough Rogers was on the day, that’s six veterans unable to out-think the rookie when they were at the plate and give their own man even two runs to work with.

Of course, in deGrom’s first start the Mets actually let him leave a game with a lead only to see one inning of shutdown relief followed by another of the bullpen puking the bed. This time, the Mets left deGrom in a 1-0 hole—and the bullpen had another stomach upset.

Specifically, the one imposed by Edwin Diaz opening the Miami ninth. He served Starling Marte a grapefruit to hit for a long double on 0-1 and handed Jesus Aguilar a 1-0 meatball to dump into short right center for an RBI single. Just when it looked like Diaz would contain the damage with a fly out to center (Cooper) and a grounder to short (Anderson) forcing Aguilar at second, he walked Chisholm unintentionally and served Miguel Rojas an orange to shoot through the hole at shortstop and send Anderson home.

Then Jeurys Familia kept the damage to a pair by striking out Chad Wallach on three pitches. What was the reward in the bottom of the ninth? Doing nothing against Miami reliever Yimi Garcia. Lindor lined out to the right side of the infield, Conforto grounded out to second, and Alonso looked at strike three right on the floor of the zone on 1-2.

Guess Conforto couldn’t elbow his way into getting something going the way he did Thursday, when he did or didn’t quite get out of the way of a pitch that caught him on the elbow guard with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth.

Twenty viewings of that segment and I still couldn’t tell for dead last certain whether Conforto thought about a swing and snuffed the thought at once, or whether he thought he might get away with taking one for the team. Those who think Conforto was looking for a sneaky play should be reminded that his career-long habit with two strikes on him is to lean over the plate a little more than normal.

Plate ump Ron Kulpa rung him up on strike three—then called hit batsman. A replay review didn’t overturn the call that Kulpa knew should have been strike three with the batter failing to get out of the way of the strike. Even the Mets’ own broadcast team—Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez, and Ron Darling—knew Conforto got away with manslaughter.

The ump declared mea Kulpa right after that game. He got cheered by the Citi Field crowd Saturday, appropriately. We know too much about ump malfeasance and umpires refusing to admit they blew one; we should expect an ump getting some love when he admits he made a big mistake.

The boo birds let the still-struggling Conforto have it in the sixth. Speculation abounds that Conforto in his contract walk year and other formidable Met hitters are pressing too heavily at the plate. (They’re 6-for-41 with men in scoring position so far.)

Nimmo all but admitted as much when he told a reporter, “That could be happening, I’m not in everyone’s mind, but I do try and talk and figure out what guys are thinking, but that definitely could be happening as the game goes on and the runs are not there . . . it definitely could be happening in some guys’ minds.”

Ask deGrom—as the same reporter did about him having a 2.06 ERA since 2018 while the Mets have been six games under .500 in his starts in the same span—and you’re not going to get him to admit he just might have those non-support papers ready to file at the nearest courthouse.

Even if he isn’t quite the most luck-afflicted of hard-luck pitchers. Nobody denies deGrom pitches in an ocean of rotten luck. But he’s not even the most hard-luck pitcher in Met history, believe it or not. That dubious honour belongs to Jon Matlack, whose 39 percent of starts with two runs or less to work with is the highest in franchise history. Higher than the 37 percent shared by Matt Harvey and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, higher than the 33 percent of Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, higher than deGrom’s 35 percent.

That could change rather drastically, if the Mets continue their very dubious practise of forgetting how to hit when deGrom is on the mound. Bless him, deGrom doesn’t want to think about things like that. Yet. “I try to control what I can control,” he insisted, “and that’s getting ready for my next start. I hadn’t seen that stat. These guys are great. They’re going out there giving 100 percent. Today we just got beat.”

If he doesn’t exactly sound like the abused spouse who’s willing to believe yet again that the abuser will keep the promise to never, ever, ever do that again, he’s not that far from it, either. If he keeps pitching like a Hall of Famer and wins a third Cy Young Award this year, despite his team making his “won-lost” record resemble an Anthony Young Award winner’s, someone’s going to have to do an intervention.

No-hit Joe from El Cajon

Joe Musgrove

Joe Musgrove, about to end the Padres’ 8,205-game no-hitter drought.

Right off, what does Joe Musgrove have in common with Cy Young? You can look it up: they both threw their first no-hitters for their hometown teams. More or less.

Musgrove grew up in El Cajon, California, a twenty-minute drive to San Diego if traffic behaves, rooting for the Padres. As a Padre he wears the uniform number of his favourite Padre growing up, Jake Peavy. Young’s first of three no-hitters was for the Cleveland Spiders; he’d grown up in Canton, Ohio, about an hour’s drive from Cleveland.

Breaking out to start 2021 with a distinct resemblance to a Cy Young Award winner in his first Padres start is nothing compared to what Musgrove did Friday night in Arlington.

He not only broke the Padres’ record-setting stretch of 8,205 regular season games without a single no-hitter on the ledger, but if he hadn’t plunked Joey Gallo in the fourth inning he’d have had a perfect game. If Musgrove has any regret from a night allowing none, he might be thinking he’d like to have that one pitch back.

Because, otherwise, he didn’t walk a batter and nobody reached on an error. He threw 112 pitches (average 12 pitches per inning), he’d retired the first eleven Rangers in order before catching Gallo with his first pitch and two outs, then retired the next sixteen he faced in order.

He struck out ten and benefited from ten ground outs and seven outs in the air including three line outs. Making him responsible directly for 59 percent of the game’s outs and thus more responsible for the outcome than his teammates. This no-no was more the real deal than many prove to be.

It also means that the end of the Padres’ no-hit drought means every Show franchise has had at least one no-hitter on its resume. Who better to nail it than the kid from Grossmont High in El Cajon?

Musgrove had only four full counts all night, each the only such heavy count of its inning, and only the third inning was truly work for him, going 2-2 on each batter before getting them out with a called strikeout (Jose Trevino), a fly out to the back of right center field (Eli White), and a ground out (Leody Taveras) to shortstop playing in short right in a shift.

I’ll resist the temptation to ask why Rangers manager Chris Woodward didn’t entertain a thought about ordering Taveras to think about bunting into that delicious open real estate left prone by the defensive shift. Uh, no, I won’t.

It’s not as though the third inning is a definite sign of something like a no-hitter brewing. And if it was, so what? They give you a gift like that, you say thank you, accept it, and unwrap it. If it was the later innings, so what again? Unwritten rules be damned, you need baserunners, you get them by hook, crook, and anything else you can think of. Especially if the other guys are foolish enough to lead you into overwhelming temptation.

As it happens, the Padres were already the proud possessors of a 3-0 lead in the third inning. They hung two up in the second, courtesy of Wil Myers’s RBI double and Tommy Pham’s sacrifice fly; they posted the third in the third when Manny Machado sent an RBI double to the rear of left center field.

That proved all Musgrove needed to work with. And when the ninth inning came around, Musgrove would have had an immaculate inning if he’d struck out all three Rangers he faced. Sort of. He had to settle for getting pinch-hitter David Dahl to line out to second on 1-1, for getting Taveras to ground out right back to the box on 0-2 with a foul off before the grounder, and for getting Isiah Kiner-Falefa to ground out to shortstop on 0-1.

The Globe Life Hangar audience roared approval. And Chris Young, the former pitcher turned commissioner’s office executive turned Rangers general manager, and coincidentally the last Padre to take a no-no as far as the ninth (in 2006, when Joe Randa hit a one-out bomb over the center field fence), couldn’t help himself, either.

“It was obviously a special night for Padres baseball and San Diego fans . . . just unfortunately at the expense of the Texas Rangers,” said Young answering a telephoned question. “But that’s OK.”

If there’s one thing which remains universally true in baseball, it’s that the home crowd and sometimes even the home brass finds itself appreciative when the other guys’ pitcher threatens to finish a no-hitter, never mind up and doing it.

I’m old enough to remember the Shea Stadium crowd suddenly shifting their loyalty when Hall of Famer Jim Bunning took his perfect game into the seventh on Father’s Day 1964. The Mets suddenly became the enemy in their own brand-new playpen and Bunning became the hero they wanted to see finish what he started. To the point where he got a standing ovation from a packed park when he batted late in the game.

Bunning’s fellow Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax had that experience only once: he pitched his 4 June 1964 no-no against the Phillies in Connie Mack Stadium. He pitched his three other no-nos—against the Original Mets (1962, which some wags said was doing it the too-easy way), the Giants (1963), and the Cubs (practise makes perfect, 1965)—in front of the home audience.

So did Hall of Famer Bob Feller. His first two no-nos: on the road in Chicago and New York. The third: At home. Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan was also a no-hit road rat: of his seven, he pitched four on the road: two as an Angel (against the Royals and the Tigers), and two as a Ranger. (Against the A’s and the Blue Jays.) Cue up the Creedence Clearwater Revival classic “Travelin’ Band.”

Musgrove would have to pitch a second no-hitter against the Rangers on the road to equal one unusual feat: Justin Verlander’s three no-hitters include two against the Jays, both of which were pitched in Toronto. Verlander isn’t the only pitcher to no-hit the same team twice (hello, Addie Joss and Tim Lincecum), but he’s the only one to do it in their sandbox.

“For him to do it growing up in San Diego and this being his team,” said Padres manager Jayce Tingler after Musgrove’s jewel, “it’s about the perfect story written.” Well, it might have been even more so if it happened in the home yard, but the Padres will take what they can get.

They had an inkling Musgrove would prove just the number three man they’d need while they spent much of the off-season overhauling their starting rotation. They dealt for Blake Snell and Yu Darvish so swiftly you almost missed the Darvish deal. A few weeks later, they had Musgrove coming aboard. He rewarded their faith by throwing six shutout innings at the Diamondbacks en route a 7-1 Padres win.

Who knew it was just a warmup for the Big One so far? Musgrove, too, will take it where he can get it. Especially since he’s gone from a World Series champion (with the 2017 Astros, a Series now considered tainted, though the pitchers aren’t exactly to blame for the Astro Intelligence Agency sign-stealing shenanigans) to a Pirate (the Astros traded him in the January 2018 deal that brought them Gerrit Cole) and, now, back home to San Diego.

“I think a no-hitter, regardless of where you’re playing, is really special,” he said after the game. “But it almost seems like this was meant to be . . . The city of San Diego has shown me so much love, even before I came to the Padres, just a San Diego kid who made it to the big leagues. So it feels even better to be able to do it in a Padres uniform and selfishly be able to do it for my city and have everyone know that the kid from Grossmont High threw the first no-hitter.”

The Padres won’t be home again until 16 April, when they host the Dodgers and the Pirates in succession. Bet on it. When Musgrove takes the mound during that homestand, the racket of love will be one of the noisiest rackets in San Diego baseball history. The man from nearby El Cajon will drink every drop appreciatively.

That new old fashioned medicated goo

Trevor Bauer

Trevor Bauer doesn’t like being singled out for medicating his pitches.

Good golly Polly shame on you
Cause Molly made a stew that’ll make a new girl out of you
So follow me, it’s good for you
That good ole fashion medicated goo
Steve Winwood, Jimmy Miller (for Traffic)

Ahhhhhhhhhhh, this is more like it, you can hear more than a few people thinking. Just like the Good Old Days. The Good Old Days in question here being the days when more than a few pitchers were suspected of putting more on their pitches than just their fingers.

The kind of potential cheating scandal that inspires wink-winks, nudge-nudges, not pontificating protest and near-universal outrage. The kind involving whether one of baseball’s more (shall we say) outspoken pitchers is giving the (shall we say) treatment to his pitches, thus to the batters, and maybe to the game itself.

Trevor Bauer has a few reputations, from misogynistic all the way back to the nutty professor. Now the Show’s government would love to know whether Bauer also deserves a reputation as a genuine throwback—to the lives and times when pitchers looked for every last edge they could get including but not limited to whatever they could think of to put on the ball, blissfully uncaring about breaking the law.

From publicly pondering since 2018 how often (not whether) pitchers are mixing up some new old fashioned medicated goo to get (hee hee) better grips on the balls, Bauer himself is now suspect. When he started for the Dodgers against the Athletics this week, umpires collected a fair number of balls he’d thrown that were claimed to be sticky and scuffy. How many depends upon whom you read on the subject.

Last month MLB sent its teams a pair of memos saying, essentially, “We’ve got our eyes on your balls.” None of that sneaky stuff. Keep the strange brews to yourselves. The season’s barely past a week old, and Bauer has already provided a crash course in pitch paranoia.

Not to mention a few arched brows, not because of whether Bauer has joined the society of spitballers but because of whether he’s been singled out particularly—and thus a victim of a little leaking subterfuge himself.

That one pitcher is drawing scrutiny over the foreign substance rules — in this case, Trevor Bauer — seemingly through leaks and innuendo is kind of gross,” tweets ESPN’s Buster Olney. “MLB should either step up and grab the steering wheel and publicly insist that umpires enforce the rule, or stand down.”

If Thomas Boswell was right to say in the late 1970s that cheating was baseball’s oldest profession, it’s also right to say that different cheats provoke different responses.

Find a team altering off-field cameras illegally and tying them to clubhouse monitors for sign stealing? It’s Astrogate. Find a team turning the MLB-provided video room into an illegal helpmate for old-fashioned sign-stealing gamesmanship (sending pilfered intelligence to baserunners to transmit to batters)? It’s Soxgate.

Find a pitcher putting a little goop, gunk, or glop on what he throws? Even the morally outraged can’t resist a little snicker. A little snicker, a lot of mad fun trying to catch him in the act and write standup comedy routines about it, and maybe a couple of gags—such as the time longtime manager Gene Mauch suggested Gaylord Perry’s Hall of Fame plaque should have a tube of K-Y jelly (Perry’s reputed substance of preference) attached. (Was it fellow Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson who once sent Perry a gallon of lard as a birthday present?)

The MLB memos told teams the Show’s government would review Statcast data on pitch spin rates closely enough to determine whether abrupt changes in pitcher’s career spin norms might suggest foreign aid. Which reminds me of George Frazier, the last man charged with three losses in a single World Series: “I don’t use foreign substances. Everything I use is made in the U.S. of A.”

The suspicion toward Bauer, who’s been outspoken about pondering himself whether some pitchers are mixing up the medicine to hike their pitches’ spin rates, didn’t come from a Statcast analysis but from suspicious umpires.

“Pitchers use tacky substances to improve their grip on the ball and increase movement on their pitches,” writes The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal. “In November, The Athletic’s Eno Sarris quoted a coach with experience in several major-league organizations as saying, ‘Almost everyone is using something.’ A player-development executive told Sarris the benefits are ‘better than steroids’.”

Yet in the same article Rosenthal said that whatever is or isn’t found on Bauer’s balls (don’t even think about going there!), “it remains to be seen whether the league can prove he was responsible for their application, or whether any punishment imposed by commissioner Rob Manfred would stand.”

Ever since the spitter was outlawed formally after the 1920 season, there’ve been pitchers caught or at least formally suspected who thought of protesting, “It wasn’t me!” It wasn’t as out of bounds as you might think.

For decades it’s been known that Hall of Famer Whitey Ford—in his final years, anyway—benefited from his catcher Elston Howard scraping balls against his shin guard buckles before returning them to Ford. (“The buckle ball,” Jim Bouton wrote in Ball Four, “sang two arias from Aida.”) Howard was also crafty at scraping a ball on particularly wet dirt around the plate before sending it back.

Tommy John could claim plausibly that he didn’t actually put something on the ball or give it a scrape or a smudge. His particular specialty was finding scuffs on balls that were just in play and not yet removed from the game and then, as Boswell once noted, “turn[ing] the tiniest scratch into a double play grounder.”

Nobody ever quite knew what Hall of Famer Don Sutton was applying, but when he started a game against John late in both men’s careers, a scout in the press box cracked, “Tommy John and Don Sutton. If anyone can find one smooth ball from that game, he ought to send it to Cooperstown.”

If there was one pitcher who could claim even more plausibly not to use foreign substances, it was probably Phil (The Vulture) Regan, the mid-to-late 1960s relief star. Regan’s trick of the trade was his own propensity to sweat somewhat heavily; he’d let it run down his arm into his hand and go to work. At least, he did until a combination of an ump or two catching on plus Leo Durocher burning him out from overuse as a Cub ruined his late-career effectiveness.

A little over a year ago, the Angels’ longtime visitors clubhouse attendant Brian Harkins was fired after the Show’s government showed the Angels Harkins was mixing up a little froth for the opposing pitchers, a blend of pine tar, rosin, and maybe a couple of other things. Harkins sued the Angels and the Show for defamation; the suit was thrown out of court in January.

It was too simple to have a sad laugh over the Harkins case. Why on earth would he have been compelled to give opposing pitchers the breaks considering that the Angels haven’t exactly been known as a pitching powerhouse the last few seasons? Harkins himself claimed he did it for safety reasons, since mixtures such as his were longtime helpmates for rubbing up fresh, smooth, hard-to-handle balls before games.

That’s what then-Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers said, too, when he was caught on camera with a particularly vivid brownish smudge on his pitching hand in the first inning in Game Two of the 2006 World Series. (He pitched eight shutout innings in the game, running his shutout inning streak that postseason to 23.) When he went back out for the second inning, the smudge was history.

“It was a big clump of dirt. I didn’t know it was there,” Rogers told reporters after the game. “They told me about, but it was no big deal. It was dirt and rosin put together. That’s what happens when you rub [the ball] up.  I just went and wiped if off. I didn’t think it was an issue. After the first inning, it was fine. I felt I was pretty comfortable after that.”

Not everybody bought it, of course. Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci pronounced himself “deeply disappointed” that the only thing happening to Rogers that night was being told to go back and wash his hands before he continued eating the Cardinals for supper:

The entire world saw Rogers using what appeared to be a foreign substance on his pitching hand and he incurred no penalty, not even an inspection by the umpires of the offending hand we saw on TV. It was worse for the sport than if Rogers, like Jay Howell in the 1988 NLCS, was examined, ejected and suspended. [Too much pine tar on Howell’s hat had the Mets suspicious of the Dodger reliever—JK.] At least in that case there was enforcement of the rule book. This was just another example of the perverse culture in the game, this twisted code of “honor” among the scoundrels and cheats in baseball in which the act of calling somebody out for cheating is deemed worse than the cheating itself.

Seven years later, Verducci was a little more kind to then-Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester during the 2013 World Series: “This time of year, especially when it’s colder and the balls are slicker, pitchers need something on their fingers to throw the baseball without putting hitters at risk.”

But nobody thought Lester’s pitches were dancing, double-axeling, or singing “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” either. (Not for public consumption, anyway, so far as I remember.) “Somebody said they thought they saw pine tar on [Rogers],” Cardinals second baseman Aaron Miles told ESPN after that Game Two. “That’s about it. Whether he got rid of it, or he never had it in the first place, we don’t know. His stuff was good all game.”

Sutton was so proud of his defiance that he once said he “ought to get a Black & Decker commercial out of it.” He did, in due course. He also threatened to sue umpire Doug Harvey and the National League after being cuffed and stuffed on one occasion. Nobody thought to offer Joe Niekro a Maybelline commercial, after the knuckleballer was caught infamously (and hilariously) trying to confiscate an emery board when caught by umpires, but Niekro never contemplated taking it to court, either.

Niekro’s infamous capture came on a day he was struggling on the mound. Bauer’s outing against the A’s Wednesday wasn’t exactly something you’d call lights out—nothing like the near no-hitter he pitched in his first Dodger start—though it wasn’t a terrible outing, either.

He threw 110 pitches and only 61 percent were strikes. Of those strikes, 24 were called, thirteen were swinging strikes, and 67 were either fouls or balls put into play. He struck out six, walked four, and surrendered five hits plus two earned runs. He left with a 3-2 lead, two outs, and one on in the seventh after surrendering Matt Chapman’s leadoff home run, leaving Kenley Jansen to surrender the tying run in the ninth and Jimmy Nelson to surrender the winning run in the tenth.

If Bauer’s using any particular blend for a little extra oomph in his repertoire, he may not be as fearworthy as he and others think he looks. He might also have learned the hard way what happens when a suspect pitch is “hit on the dry side,” as the old-timers said about how to hit the spitter.

Remember: In baseball, talent won’t get you as far as skill, and for all its formal illegality and semi-formal outrage (and snickering) throwing a spitter isn’t the easiest skill, either. “For every career it salvages, there is probably another that it helps to ruin,” Boswell once wrote. “For every hanging curve that finds a bleacher grave, there is a spitter with too much spin that floats like a batting practise fastball into the batter’s power zone and disappears.”

If Bauer did try throwing Chapman (ahem) a creamy spitter, Chapman caught the dry side and creamed it over the left center field fence.

So how does Bauer feel about falling under particular scrutiny for sneaky services? He’s a little furious about being leaked when he may not be even close to the only pitcher in the game rubbing up with extra elixir for reasons above and beyond merely getting better grips on the ball. And he’s not necessarily wrong.

When he asks “[W]here are the articles about balls from every other pitcher being taken out of play in literally every other game this season?” he’s not wrong. Being un-shy about speaking out has its downside on the backside of its upside. Rightly, wrongly, the unapologetic controversialist paints his own back with a target.

He wouldn’t be Trevor Bauer if he dummied up, of course. But it’s awful tempting to ponder whether he, too, would think about throwing a ball to the plate with bolts attached to it. Actually—never mind. Bauer already has enough people thinking he needs to return to the lab every other day to have his bolts tightened.

Kimbrel keeps the crash carts at bay—so far

Kimbrel still resembles the old TWA terminal at JFK Airport when he leans to take his signs—but so far he doesn’t resemble the guy who used to force the crash carts on immediate standby.

Ordinarily, a week-old season wouldn’t (shouldn’t) have you either pushing panic buttons or awarding pennants before they’re actually won. Enough fans and social media crawlers hoist up the earliest numbers as though they’re final revelation or final condemnation.

But there’s a spectre haunting no more, for three games worth of the new season, anyway. Craig Kimbrel—the closer whose “saves” too often involved tempting, not being tempted by the devil—is not a spectre any more.

So far. Any temptation the Cubs have had to keep the crash carts on double-secret red alert whenever they’ve had to reach for him is quelled.

For now.

Three assignments. Three innings pitched. Nine batters faced. No hits surrendered. Six strikeouts; a two-per-inning average. He actually punched out the side in his first assignment (against the Pirates), landed two punchouts in his second (also against the Pirates), and landed one in his third (against the Brewers).

The Cubs won Kimbrel’s first two gigs and lost the third through no fault of his own: he worked a spotless ninth, but Brandon Workman came on to pitch the tenth and surrendered a three-run homer for which the Cubs had only an RBI single to answer in the bottom for the loss.

Kimbrel has only one save to his credit for his early effort, simply because in his first gig against the Pirates the Cubs handed him a four-run lead to protect. Kimbrel not only treated his assignment as though the entire fate of the Cubs rested on it, he struck out the side with every batter facing him looking at strike three.

For a moment or two you could have sworn you’d heard assorted Pirates muttering to themselves that they couldn’t reconcile this to the guy who’d become infamous a couple of postseasons ago for running up cardiac surgeons’ bills.

In the second Pirate gig, well, yes, these are still the Pirates, but the Cubs handed him a mere one-run lead to protect. The kind of narrow lead with which Kimbrel once raised temperatures if not blood pressures the moment he arrived on the mound.

He struck Michael Perez out swinging on 2-2. He caught Anthony Alford looking at a full-count third strike. He got Wilmer Difo to line out to shortstop on 0-2 for the side and the game.

“It’s too early to definitively say that Kimbrel is back to his old self after struggling in 2019 and 2020,” says RotoWire, “but it’s certainly encouraging to see him get off to a good start.” They only left out 2018’s postseason. The one which “struggling” didn’t even begin to describe.

When Worcester Telegram writer Bill Ballou first threatened not to vote for Mariano Rivera for the Hall of Fame (under protest ferocious enough he changed his mind), his initial defense included Kimbrel’s incendiary 2018 postseason performances: “When he pitched,” Ballou wrote, “Boston’s victories felt like defeats. In 10-2/3 innings he had an ERA of 5.90, and permitted nineteen baserunners. He was also six for six converting saves — a perfect record.”

That was then, when the Red Sox managed to win the World Series decisively enough, if now controversially enough. This is now: So far this season, Kimbrel resembles the kid howitzer who had a 1.43 ERA, a 1.52 fielding-independent pitching rate, a 14.8 strikeouts-per-nine rate, and a 266 ERA+ in his first four seasons, with the Braves.

“His presence on the mound, throwing strikes, being really aggressive with the heater — that’s Craig Kimbrel,” says Cub center fielder Ian Happ. The knuckle curve he works in isn’t exactly flat or hesitant so far, either.

“My first two appearances have been good,” Kimbrel said after his second dispatch of the Pirates. “I’ve successfully hit my spots and executed pitches how I wanted to. The life and movement on my pitches have definitely been there and with that, I’ve had some success.”

He also said having a normal spring training—as opposed to last year’s pan-damn-ically enforced quick “summer camp” and, more markedly, his midseason 2019 signing that compelled him to try rushing into form, doing him and the Cubs few favours—mattered this time around. It enabled him to iron out the knots without putting himself on the rack.

“I had an opportunity to get into games and work on things without the runs mattering,” he said, “and being more concerned on getting out there and executing what I was trying to do gameplan-wise each and every time instead of worrying about how many runs are getting across the plate. That was definitely helpful. As we saw at the start of spring training, [I] gave up some runs, gave up hits and as we went, I was able to throw more strikes and miss more bats. It was a good six weeks and we’ve gotten off to a pretty good start so far.”

That’s far, far, far away from the look he left after Game Four of the Red Sox’s 2018 division series triumph over the Yankees in four games. When he walked Aaron Judge on four pitches to open that ninth, surrendered a base hit (Didi Gregorius), struck Giancarlo Stanton out, but walked the bases loaded (Luke Voit) and hit Neil Walker with the first pitch before surrendering a sacrifice fly (Gary Sanchez) that shrunk the Red Sox lead to one run.

When Kimbrel got Gleyber Torres to ground out for game and set, Red Sox Nation didn’t know whether to thank him for the escape or kill him for dangling a few too many lamb chops in front of the Yankee wolves.

He “saved” Games Two and Four of that American League Championship Series by tempting the Astro wolves a little too much—well, since-departed (to the Royals) left fielder Andrew Benintendi really saved Game Four with that electrifying diving catch, on Alex Bregman’s sinking liner that would have crawled to the back of the yard for possibly three runs and an Astro win otherwise. And that was after Kimbrel walked the bases loaded again.

That was then; this is now. For now. Whether it proves too good to last no crystal ball can show with certainty. But for the bearded righthander who still resembles the old TWA terminal at Kennedy when he leans in to take his signs, it’s a season start he hasn’t experienced in too long. The Cubs won’t complain. Yet. It’s tricky and pricey keeping the crash carts on double-secret red alert.

Dusty does the whatabout

He had nothing to do with Astrogate, but manager Dusty Baker isn’t helping his team move on by calling out fan trolling on whatabout grounds, either.

You wouldn’t expect Dusty Baker to find the catcalls, trash canning, booing, and other trolling of his Astros all that amusing. You get that he’d love nothing more than to have the long stench of Astrogate away from his team. You’d even want to award him a Nobel Grace Under Pressure Prize for taking the job in the Astrogate wake in the first place.

But you sure wouldn’t have wanted Baker to resort to whataboutism when the fan trollings began and continued in earnest. Except that that’s what he’s done, according to the Houston Chronicle‘s Astros beat writer Chandler Rome.

How many (fans) in the stands have never done anything wrong in their life?” Rome quotes Baker as asking. “We paid the price for it. How many people have not cheated on a test or whatever at some point in time. It’s easy when you live in glass houses, but we don’t live in glass houses . . . When you hear things, what are the kids supposed to think in the stands?”

Admittedly, Baker wasn’t quite as harsh as some social media scribblers who asked how many hadn’t cheated on their spouses or their job applications, or committed robbery or higher crimes including murder. But committing whataboutism about the scandal that destroyed the Astros’ credibility is a very bad look, especially for a man as sensitively intelligent as Baker is.

You really want to play whatabout? Whatabout what the kids were supposed to think when the 2017-18 Astros were exposed as flagrant cheaters who just might have cheated their way to the 2017 World Series championship? That boys will be boys?

Didn’t we all grow up with our parents hammering into us that two wrongs didn’t make a right? Didn’t we drive ourselves batshit cray-cray the last few years over two halves of a country essentially telling each other two wrongs make a new wrong right? And that was before Astrogate.

We carried the message our parents hammered into us . . . until we didn’t, usually when someone we liked did something merely wrong or undeniably criminal.

Picture if you will a corrupt police officer on trial for bribery. The key witnesses against him won’t all be model citizens. Now, picture that cop getting off with acquittal or a hung jury because the jury simply couldn’t take the word of the criminals among the witnesses over the word of a cop. More extreme on the flip side: Just because George Floyd might have resisted arrest did that give an arresting officer the right to kill him?

The Watergate burglars could argue very plausibly that crime on behalf of politics didn’t exactly begin with them. (Unfortunately, it didn’t exactly end with them, either.) Did that make them innocent? (Lots of people said yes on whatabout grounds.) Richard Nixon wasn’t the first (nor the last) sitting president to ponder covering up crime committed on his behalf. Would that have made him less impeachable if he hadn’t resigned in August 1974?

Bill Clinton wasn’t the first president to cheat on his wife in the White House. But he may have been the first to commit three actual crimes trying to cover it up and thus make himself impeachable. Hollering whatabout regarding prior presidents and who knew how many members of both houses of Congress over the years didn’t help him. The Senate that refused to even think about convicting and removing him did.

Senators and Representatives caught en flagrante indicto or confirmed committing crimes usually get thrown out or kinda sorta forced out before they can be thrown out. Just ask J. Parnell Thomas, Wayne Hays, Ray Lederer, Harrison Williams, Bob Packwood, Mario Biaggi, Bob Livingston, Mel Reynolds, Duke Cunningham, and Jim Trafficant, among others. All the whatabout arguments on earth didn’t do them any favours.

Donald Trump was impeached twice. Two immediate predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, did quite a few things that warranted articles of impeachment, but none were drawn up despite calls for them from those who opposed them. If you wanted to say Trump didn’t cross the line to impeachability, you needed a lot better evidence than the absence of Bush or Obama impeachments.

More than enough tried whatabouting Astrogate. Whatabout the Yankees caught flatfoot (and merely slapped on the wrist) using an Apple Watch to steal signs from their dugout? Whatabout the Red Sox turning their video rooms at home and on the road into sign-stealing apparatus? Whatabout other teams doing or thinking about doing as the Rogue Sox did?

Not only didn’t two or more wrongs make an Astrogate right, the Astros went a lot farther. They not only had a long-since-deposed and disgraced general manager soliciting algorithms to enable high-tech chicanery, they either took a center field camera off its mandatory eight-second transmission delay or installed a fresh camera operating on real time.

Remember: whichever camera it was, it sent real-time opposition signs to clubhouse monitors next to which someone banged the can slowly to signal Astro hitters. The trash can bangings that have inspired as much amusement as outrage—and given fans in Oakland and Anaheim troll fodder so far—were merely the finishing rinse, not the entire shampoo.

The least shocking thing in baseball should have been that fans returning to the ballparks this year, in whatever limited capacity deemed best according to pandemic safety protocols, would want to make up for lost time and do what they couldn’t do with last irregular season’s cutout crowds. (Unless they bought trash can cutouts to plant in the stands, as lots of fans surely did. Or, lined up socially distant but massive enough to troll the Astros’ team bus—as Dodger fans at least did.)

It might have been slightly out of line, but at least the large black-and-gray inflatable imitation trash can falling from the right field bleachers to the warning track in Angel Stadium Monday night was amusing and hardly dangerous. (Jose Altuve certainly seemed to think so, showing a tiny smile from the plate.) It wasn’t funny when a real trash can, large, square, and mostly pink, landed on the track elsewhere during the game. That kind of troll is dangerous. Even the Astros don’t deserve that.

Baker’s in a precarious position, and you feel for the man. Only five members of the Astrogate teams (2017-18) remain with them now. In his heart of hearts, he has to know how patently unfair it is that the many current Astros (including himself) who had nothing to do with the Astro Intelligence Agency should have to suffer the slings, arrows, catcalls, and bangs in and from the stands for the baseball crimes involving the very few remaining.

He also has to understand how outraged were so many fans, and practically four-fifths of the game itself, not just over the depth of Astrogate but the lack of discipline imposed on the players themselves. It cost the Astros a GM and a manager, but the players walked scot-free. Maybe it wouldn’t have been simple to discipline them even if they were willing to spill the deets without immunity, but Commissioner Nero either barely even tried or listened to short-sighted legal counsel.

Starting the season 4-1 didn’t neutralise the trolling. Going whatabout certainly won’t. It was painful to say and is painful to repeat, but the stench and the trolling of Astrogate won’t dissipate until the last Astro standing from the 2017-18 teams no longer wears that uniform. That’s not what Baker wants to hear, of course. The right to boo, hiss, catcall, or bang the can slowly (so long as you don’t let the real cans hit the field) comes with the price of admission.

From sports time immemorial, fans have booed teams for far more ridiculous reasons than proven cheating. From sports time immemorial, too, unfortunately, there have been fan bases who inspire others to think booing is in their DNA. (What’s an old gag about Philadelphia fans? The minister tells the newlywed Philadelphia couple, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” then tells the husband and the chapel gathering, “You may now boo the bride.”)

The Astros, not the fans, wrote the script that inspires the trolling in the first place. You get why Baker feels that the devil plagues him without warrant. But most of the game and its fans think the Astros still don’t get it. Going whatabout won’t do anything other than exacerbate Astrogate, not eradicate it.