A pitcher’s lament, a manager’s triumph

Dusty Baker

Astros manager Dusty Baker (second from left) joins his players—including Game Six starting pitcher Framber Valdez and World Series MVP Jeremy Peña (second from right), the first rookie to win that prize—hoisting the Series trophy after beating the Phillies 4-1 Saturday night.

If Jose Alvarado wants to find the nearest deep cave into which to make his residence until spring training, nobody should fault him. Not everyone can perform the impossible at will.

The Phillies’ redoubtable lefthanded reliever came into the bottom of the sixth of World Series Game Six with one key mission, take care of the Astros’ lefthanded munitions expert Yordan Alvarez with runners on the corners and one out. It might have been easier for Tom Thumb to scale the Empire State Building with a crosstown bus on his back.

This could have been construed as Phillies manager Rob Thomson believing he was still living a charmed life in his first two-thirds season on the bridge. Believing that a hard-won 1-0 Phillies lead could be kept in place or possibly enlarged the rest of the way.

Believing his righthanded starter Zack Wheeler wasn’t the right matchup for Alvarez looming with two occupied bases. Believing Alvarado would avoid the disaster into which he pitched when brought in for the same matchup in Game Five and hit Alvarez on the first pitch.

All Alvarez did now with a 2-1 pitch was send it over the farthest ledge behind center field, into some seats beneath a Blue Cross/Blue Shield advertising sign. All that did was sink the Phillies and yank the Astros to what they, and their fan base, needed in the worst way possible, a no-questions-asked, untainted World Series conquest.

Alvarado didn’t get beaten doing what he knew he wasn’t supposed to do. He didn’t get beaten serving a meatball without sauce. He got beaten throwing one of his best pitches, a nasty, shivering two-seam fastball, to a bomber who can and often does turn your best pitches into nuclear warheads no matter how they swivel up to the plate.

“Nothing moving. It didn’t move,” Alvarado said postgame. “If it moved, he had no chance. When he hit the ball, the sound says, ‘OK, that’s gone’. Because the guy is a power hitter. I watched it. But, again, sometimes you win, and sometimes you tip your cap.”

But Alvarado was wrong. The pitch moved enough. He got beaten by a hitter who moved his bat more than enough into it. Don’t condemn him. Don’t demand his post-haste measuring for a guillotine brace.

“[Y]ou’ve got Alvarado throwing 99 mph left-on-left sinkers,” Kyle Schwarber said. “And [Alvarez] ran into it and hit it out. Tip your cap. That’s a good hitter over there. I would take [Alvarado] on him any day of the week.”

Embrace Alvarado for having the guts to stare into the belly of the best a second straight World Series game and not run home to Mami at the very thought of it. A man with a regular-season 1.92 fielding-independent pitching rate earns more than a little respect.

Thomson may have some real explaining to do, though, as to why he kept Nick Castellanos—whose bat was as feeble as his glove had become a half-out-of-nowhere defensive weapon during the Series—batting behind Bryce Harper and, essentially, affording Harper as much protection as a tot with a pop gun offers a Brinks truck.

Just don’t be stupid enough to blame Alvarado for the Phillies’ inability to make Schwarber’s leadoff homer in the top of the sixth stick long enough to buy some insurance. Be better than that, this time, Phillie fan.

These upstart, self-resurrecting Phillies finally couldn’t hit what these Astro pitchers served them. They lunged at too many breakers instead of forcing them to come to their wheelhouses, they let too many fastballs elude them, and when they still had three innings left to overthrow the 4-1 Astro lead that stuck, they couldn’t and didn’t summon up enough.

Then give these Astros their due. Give them the credit they deserve for finally overcoming one World Series loss in which they won nothing at home, a second when they ran into a chain saw made in Atlanta, and the single worst cheating scandal in 21st century baseball, if not all baseball history.

Give these Astros the credit for playing untainted, un-sneaky, un-shifty (except on one or the other side of the infield here and there), unapologetically excellent baseball to beat these Phillies in six usually thrilling games.

Give them credit for making hash out of Commissioner Rube Goldberg’s more-cookies-for-everyone, three-wild-cards postseason array, not to mention defying the early-round upsets over the biggest-winning regular season teams, and living up to their 106 game-winning season where the 111 game-winning Dodgers couldn’t.

Give splended Astros rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña his props for earning both the Most Valuable Player Award of the American League Championship Series and the World Series (the first rook ever to win a Series MVP and a Gold Glove for his defense) and for damn near making Houston forget it ever had a fellow named Carlos Correa holding shortstop down.

Give center fielder Chas McCormick his props for running down what would have been J.T. Realmuto’s at-minimum eighth-inning double in Game Five and leaping to catch it before hitting the Citizens Bank Park scoreboard wall and landing in a heap on his back while leaving his imprint on the warning track and holding onto the ball like a life preserver.

Give Game Six starter Framber Valdez and the Astro bullpen their props for keeping the formerly vaunted Phillies offense—capable of turning games around in single swings until running into a no-hit wall in Game Four—from getting any ideas above and beyond The Schwarbinator’s liner into the right field seats.

And then give Astros manager Dusty Baker the biggest hug you’ve got to give for a man who’s been in this game fifty-four years as a player and manager, won a World Series ring as a player, had several postseason heartbreaks including World Series losses as a manager, and finally reached the Promised Land.

Baker really had to do this one the hard way. He took on the uphill job of managing a team riddled by the disgrace of Astrogate and their inability to speak entirely forthrightly about their 2017-18 cheating including about it being part of their 2017 Series triumph. It was comparable to Gerald Ford trying to clean up after the Nixon Administration’s Watergate mess.

But Ford lost the only presidential election for which he stood after that. Baker withstood the Astrogate heat, kept his head as the self-battered organisation turned itself and its Show roster over and away from the Astrogate stench, and brought his Israelites across the Jordan at last.

“Game Six has been my nightmare,” Baker told his team in the clubhouse after this Game Six. “I ain’t lying. I was like, damn that, man. We’re going to win today. I got Game Six off our ass, off my ass. We’ve got (Justin Verlander’s first credited World Series) win off his ass. And I’m telling you, you guys played your asses off. I didn’t have to do [poop].”

Baker and Game Sixes formerly meant disaster. 2002 World Series: he lifted starter Russ Ortiz with his Giants up 5-0 and ostentatiously handed Ortiz the “game ball.” The Angels thrashed back with three runs each in the next two innings, then ran away with Game Seven.

2003 National League Championship Series: Baker’s Cubs were five outs from going to the World Series when a double-play grounder bounded off his shortstop instead of turning two, opening the dam for a five-run Marlins rally and a Game Seven loss.

Game Six, last year’s World Series: Baker’s Astros didn’t incur anything close to those two disasters. The Braves made sure of that by shutting them out 7-0 to win the Series.

Now he couldn’t forget what his father told him after the 2002 deflation: “Man, after the way you lost that one, I don’t know if you’ll ever win another one.” Now, the son could be sanguine about the father’s fatalism.

“I was, like, I didn’t really want to get to Game Six again, but I was like, well, maybe this is how it’s supposed to be,” the son said Saturday night. “My dad didn’t mean anything negative . . . back in the old school, there was such thing as negative motivation. In the new school, negative motivation doesn’t work.”

No team had quite the negative motivation these otherwise filthy-dominant Astros have had since their 2017-18 cheating, which went above and beyond anything else devised and executed by teams past, exposing and staining them in the wake of their 2019 World Series loss.

It’s the black mark on a franchise that’s gone to six straight American League Championship Series and won four of them. A franchise that’s won two World Series titles over six years with a .622 winning percentage over those six regular seasons, something  almost never done, according to Hall of Fame writer Jayson Stark, by the greatest teams.

Not the Oakland Mustache Gang of the early 1970s. Not the Big Red Machine. Not the 1996-2002 Yankees. Not the Aughts’ Red Sox. Not the 2010s Giants. You’d have to go back to the 1953-58 Yankees—those of Hall of Famers Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, and manager Casey Stengel—to find one from the post-World War II era.

But guess what, ladies and gentlemen? Only three position players remained from the Astrogate teams. And they had almost nothing to do with the biggest of the big Series moments for these Astros and this manager. Air Yordan? Flying Jeremy? Tucker the Man and His Dream? Framber Valdez (is Coming)? Cristian (Soldier) Javier and his no-hit-opening oratorio? Every member of the bullpen that just rolled a Series ERA of 0.83? They didn’t show up until the Astrogate aftermath.

What the Astros needed most, said broadcast legend Bob Costas, himself a Frick Award winner thus enshrined in the Hall of Fame, was “to win outside the shadow of 2017 . . . ”

There will always be skeptics because of ’17. But they have now been a truly excellent team for a sustained period of time. I think fair-minded people already have put this in its proper context and proper proportion. So by winning again, especially with Dusty Baker as one of the faces of it, and five years removed from 2017, I think most people will have a fair sense of it.

Guess what else we can do now? We can put to bed forever all the talk over all the years about the long-suffering Baker’s “entitlement” to win a World Series at last.

It was both annoying as the day was long and absolutely unworthy of the man himself, the man who loved and encouraged all his players, from the last man on the roster to the cock of the walk, to exercise their abilities as they are, rather than as anyone else demanded, and was loved back by anyone who dealt with him over all those seasons.

Baker felt less “entitled” to anything than those who admire him and even criticise him when need be felt for him. Now he can put all that in a trunk, flashing one of his signature toothpick-punctuated grins, and lock it tight.

“After a while,” he said thoughtfully after Game Six, “I quit listening to folks telling me what I can’t do. All that does is motivate me more to do it because I know there’s a bunch of people in this country that are told the same thing, and it’s broken a lot of people. But my faith in God and my mom and dad always talking to me made me persevere even more.”

The 73-year-old man who once took too much blame for a few extraterrestrial calamities now didn’t give himself quite enough credit. There’s only so much Mom, Dad, and even God can do for a man, with a World Series or anything else.

“We’re going to play to the end”

Kyle Schwarber

Kyle Schwarber hitting his first-inning bomb off Justin Verlander in Game Five. “We’re going to play all the outs. We’re going to see where it takes us,” he says approaching Game Six. The “where,” of course, is up to Zack Wheeler and the Phillies against Framber Valdez again.

Approaching World Series Game Six, the Phillies could lean on the experience of one member who’d been there, done that, down 3-2 in a Series, then took the final two and the world championship. That was seven years ago, when he was a Cub, his season began (thanks to injury) in the World Series, and the Cubs finally did what seven-eighths of the earth thought wouldn’t happen in its lifetime.

“We’ve overcome a lot of things throughout the course of this year to be in this position,” said Phillies left fielder/bombardier/periodic base thief Kyle Schwarber as the Phillies traveled to Houston Friday. “I think when we get there, you’re going to see a really resilient club and we’re going to play until the very end and we’re going to see where it takes us.”

Funny, but that’s just about what every 2016 Cub said, too, when the then-Indians had them on the ropes with the Series returning to Cleveland for Games Six and Seven.

That was then: the Cubs pushed, shoved, pitched, and pounded their way through two arduous games. This is now: The Phillies, whose World Series drought is barely an eleventh of those Cubs’, will have to do all that plus rip, snarl, tear, slice, dice, and air fry. Just as when he was a 2016 Cub, the Schwarbinator won’t surrender, to these Astros or anyone else.

“It’s going to take everything,” said Schwarber, who did what he could to keep the Phillies from losing Game Five when he opened with a nasty home run off future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander in what proved a to-the-max 3-2 Phillies loss. “It’s going to take everyone. We’re excited. Trust me. Sure, it’s frustrating, but we’re also very excited.”

The Phillies are in a strange position this postseason. They enter Game Six with their first series deficit since they wrestled their way to the final National League wild card in the first place. Beyond that, they have reason not to fear. They’ve come back several times to get here in the first place.

Game One of the wild card set against the Cardinals? Down 2-0 in the top of the ninth. Then: bases-loaded hit batsman, two-run single, run-scoring infielder’s choice, RBI single, and a sacrifice fly, and two Cardinal runs in the bottom of the inning weren’t enough to deny the first win of a Phillie sweep.

Game Four, National League Championship Series? A four-run Padres first didn’t exactly bury them alive. Bottom of the first: Two-run homer (Rhys Hoskins), RBI double (Bryce Harper). Deficit cut to one. Bottom of the fourth: Tying RBI single. Bottom of the fifth, after Juan Soto put the Padres back up with a homer? Two-run homer (Hoskins, again), RBI double (Harper, again), RBI single, two-run Phillie lead. Bottom of the sixth: Solo bomb (Schwarber), three-run lead. Bottom of the seventh: Solo bomb (J.T. Realmuto), four-run lead, ultimately four-run win.

Game Five, NLCS? Call it the Mud and Guts Game if you must. Bottom of the third: Phillies take a 2-0 lead with another Hoskins two-run thump. Top of the fourth: Soto cuts the San Diego deficit in half with another solo smash. Top of the seventh, with the Citizens Bank Park rain turning the field into a swamp and pitching grips and strides into mush and mire? The Padres take a 3-2 lead with an RBI single and two wild pitches enabling a run. Bottom of the eighth? Harper fights and fouls his way to a dramatic opposite-field two-run homer. Two Phillies relievers make it stick for the pennant.

Game One, World Series? Kyle Tucker’s two bombs help the Astros bushwhack Aaron Nola in the first three innings. So the Phillies return the favour by ripping five out of Verlander—RBI single and immediate two-run double in the top of the fourth; two-run double in the top of the fifth. The score stays tied at five until Realmuto breaks it for keeps with a leadoff bomb in the top of the tenth, and David Robertson survives a double, a walk, a wild pitch for second and third, and gets the game and win-ending ground out.

All the Phillies need to do now is continue overcoming that nasty 0-for-20 with runners in scoring position until Jean Segura slapped an RBI single in the eighth in Game Five. They need Zack Wheeler to be his best self on the Game Six mound. They need to continue overthrowing their earlier reputation for defensive mishaps and cut the Astros off with more of the glovework and derring-do they began flashing during the Philadelphia leg of the Series.

They need, in other words, to be better than the best of their selves that pulled them into the Series and into the 2-1 Series lead the Astros wrested away from them on their own soil. Astros Game Six starter Framber Valdez, who manhandled them in Game Two, also in Houston, intends to let them do nothing of the sort.

“I think I’m just going to try to continue doing what I’ve been doing all season,” Valdez said through an interpreter after Game Five. “Just try and attack hitters early, try to breathe, try to stay calm, try to meditate. It’s something that’s really exciting. I think it’s something that really adds a lot to your career, and I’m really excited for this opportunity.”

It’ll add something to the Astros’ resume, too: their first untainted World Series rings. Not to mention handing their manager Dusty Baker—the man who steadied the Astro starship after it was strafed by the in-house phasers of Astrogate, keeping his gradually turning-over team playing through the aftermath, three seasons following its exposure, despite the organisation’s turmoil and grotesqueries—the first World Series triumph of his long and mostly distinguished managerial career.

The Astros know the Phillies won’t be simple pickings despite shutting them out back-to-back in Philadelphia, once with a combined no-hitter. It’s the Phillies’ job not to make things simple for the Astros.

“What a better storybook ending,” asked Castellanos, whose limp bat is almost forgotten when you’ve seen his defense turning into must-see television all of a sudden, “than if we can go there and win this in Game Seven?”

First things first, Schwarber would remind one and all.

“We’ve got a pretty good pitcher going for us in Game Six,” the Schwarbinator says. “We’ve got to be able to bounce back offensively. I don’t think anyone believes more in this group than we do. That’s going to be a big thing for us. We’ve just got to be able to play all the outs. We’re going to see where it takes us.”

First, it needs to take them past the Astros in Game Six. Then the Phillies can worry about who writes their storybook ending—the team of Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry (who wrote the screenplay for The Natural); or, any given Astro, plus Jack Benny and Fred Allen, climaxing their long-running mock on-air feud while satirising the notorious weeper quiz show Queen for a Day:

Allen: An expert operating the Hoffman Pressing Machine will press your trousers
Benny: Now wait a minute! (Studio audience laughter and noise.) Now wait a minute, Allen!
Allen: Keep your shirt on, King!
Benny: You bet I’ll keep my shirt on!
Allen: All right, folks, tune in again next—
Benny: Come on, Allen, give me my pants!
Allen: Quiet, King!
Benny: Where are my pants?
Allen: Benny, for fifteen years I’ve been waiting to catch you like this.
Benny: Allen, you haven’t seen the end of me!
Allen: It won’t be long now!

Now they have to do the impossible

Kyle Tucker, Chas McCormick

With Kyle Tucker backing him, Chas McCormick—who grew up a Phillies fan 35 miles away from Citizens Bank Park—made the possible catch of the Series off J.T. Realmuto’s eighth-inning drive to the right center field scoreboard wall in World Series Game Five Thursday night. 

This year’s Phillies, meet the 2019 Nationals. Sort of. Those Nats won every World Series game against that edition of Astros on the road including four in Houston. These Phillies split in Houston, then could win only once in their own cozy, stop-sign-shaped, noisy playpen. Now they have to do the kind of impossible those Nats did. If they can.

They have to win Game Six Saturday and then Game Seven Sunday. And if Game Five is evidence, they won’t get it without putting up a terrific battle. Better than the battle between the two that ended in a squeaker of a 3-2 Astros win Thursday night. Better than they were built to be.

Better than just half a collection of sluggers and a bullpen that can hang with any bullpen in the business. And enough to keep the Astros from saving themselves—until a forgotten Astro at first base and an Astro outfielder who grew up a Phillies fan saved the Astros’ lives in the bottom of the Game Five eighth and ninth, respectively.

Trey Mancini was a trade deadline acquisition from the Orioles but an 0-for-18 afterthought this postseason. Chas McCormick grew up 35 miles from Citizens Bank Park and never forgot the bloody nose then-Phillies outfielder Aaron Rowand incurred making a similar catch against the center field fence.

Mancini now found himself at first base after Astros veteran Yuli Gurriel had to come out a half inning after a collision resulting in a rundown out as he got trapped between third and the plate also resulted in a woozy head. With two out and Astros closer Ryan Pressly asked for an almost unheard-of-for-him five-out save, Kyle Schwarber loomed at the plate.

Schwarber electrified the ballpark in the bottom of the first when, with the Astros up 1-0 already, he drilled an 0-1 pitch from starter Justin Verlander into the right field seats to tie it. Now, with two out, first and third, and the Phillies back to within a run in the bottom of the eighth, Schwarber drilled one up the first base line on a single hop. The shot had extra bases down the line and the tying run home at least stamped on it.

Until it didn’t. Playing practically on the line as it was, Mancini hit his knees like a supplicant in prayer and the ball shot right into his mitt. While he was there, Mancini stepped on the pad. Side retired. In one flash Mancini went from self-made afterthought to the Astros’ man of the hour.

It’d take something even more stupefying to rob Mancini of that status. “That ball gets by him,” Pressly said postgame, “we’re looking at a different game.”

Something even more stupefying came along in the bottom of the ninth. When Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto sent Pressly’s 1-1 slider high and far toward the right center field scoreboard wall, with at least a double and likely more the likely result, the wall notorious for creating odd rebounds.

Until it wasn’t. Until McCormick ran to his left, took a flying leap, and snapped the ball into his glove a second before he hit the wall and landed on the track, the ball still securely in his glove, and by his own postgame admission stared up at whatever he could see of the Bank crowd he’d just snapped silent.

“I wanted to lay there longer,” he admitted postgame. “If it were the last out, I would have laid there all night.”

Pressly’s jaw fell as he saw McCormick nail the catch. As he remembered after the game, the only thing he could think as his hands clutched his head in wonder was, “Holy [you-know-what].”

Until that moment, the Astros and the Phillies wrestled and tussled like alley cats all Game Five long. The bad news was that the Phillies, the Show’s best on the season with runners in scoring position, extended to a third-longest World Series string of 0-for-20 with men in such position.

“[S]ometimes you go through times when you don’t hit with runners in scoring position,” said Phillies manager Rob Thomson postgame. “Then, three days later, everybody’s getting hits. So we just got to keep battling, that’s all.”

The Phillies can’t wait three days for hits. They have two days before it might be curtains. Three days maximum, after squandering what half the world thought would be the remarkable and ear-splitting home field advantage they’d stolen with a Series-opening split in Houston.

The worse news Thursday began when Astros’ rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña started the scoring when he singled up the pipe to send Jose Altuve (leadoff double, taking third on Phillies center fielder Brandon Marsh’s carom bobble) home in the top of the first.

After Schwarber’s ballpark-jolting bomb leading off the bottom, both sides wrestled each other’s starting pitchers, Verlander and Noah Syndergaard, into and out of a few more dicey jams—especially the Phillies loading the bases on Verlander with two out in the second before the future Hall of Fame righthander struck Rhys Hoskins out swinging rather violently.

Syndergaard settled admirably after the first inning run and retired nine straight from that score forward. Verlander escaped another jam in the third, which might have been another bases-loaded escape but for Peña leaping to steal a base hit off Nick Castellanos’s hard liner, but after Alec Bohm spanked a single past shortstop to follow, Verlander got Phillies shortstop Bryson Stott to pop out to right for the side.

But Syndergaard—no longer the bullet-throwing Thor of old thanks to injuries, illnesses, and finally Tommy John surgery—ran out of luck in the top of the fourth, when Peña sent a 1-2 service into the left field seats. Connor Brogdon relieved him and shook off Alex Bregman’s one-out double while striking out the side.

Verlander pitched as clean a fourth as you could ask of a 39-year-old righthander with or without his particular career resume, then had to perform another escape act in the fifth after striking two out to open. Bryce Harper lined one to deep right that Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker bobbled toward the corner, ensuring Harper’s double. Castellanos wrestled Verlander to a full count before popping out to left center for the side.

From there, the bullpens wrestled each other. Then, top of the seventh, came Gurriel’s leadoff double. One out and a wild pitch later came McCormick with Gurriel on third. McCormick bounced one to third, with the infield in, and beginning with Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm they had Gurriel trapped like the top man on the FBI’s old ten most wanted list.

Bohm threw to Realmuto. Realmuto threw to Stott. Stott threw to first baseman Hoskins joining the party just in case, and Hoskins reached to tag Gurriel while tumbling over the veteran Astro. Gurriel landed awkwardly on his right knee as it was, but Hoskins’s knee on the tumble also jolted Gurriel’s head.

The elder first baseman—whose string of 48 straight postseason plate appearances without striking out ended at Brogdon’s hands in the fourth—managed to play his position in the top of the eighth but that was all he had left after the collision. “A little pain,” the sleepy-eyed first baseman tweeted postgame, A little pain but the win made my knee feel better fast . . . I will get some treatment to get ready for Saturday, thank you for the well wishes.”

But Altuve and Peña partnered on building the third Astro run in the top of the eighth, Altuve with a leadoff walk off Phillies reliever Seranthony Dominguez, and Peña shooting a base hit through the infield the other way to right, Altuve running on the pitch and helping himself to third easily. David Robertson relieved Dominguez but could only watch helplessly as Hoskins knocked Alvarez’s grounder up the line down and tag the Astro left fielder out while Altuve scampered home.

The best Robertston could do in the inning was keep the damage to a single run. He couldn’t stop the Astros’ defensive acrobatics in the bottom of the eighth and ninth. Nobody could. And even after McCormick’s robbery of Realmuto in the bottom of the ninth, the Phillies weren’t dead yet.

Pressly hit Harper in the foot on a 2-1 pitch. Up stepped Castellanos, who’d spent much of the game keeping his free-swinging in check and timing himself to a few hard hit outs and, then, the eighth-inning walk that turned into him scoring the second Phillies run on Jean Segura’s opposite-field base hit.

Now he wrestled Pressly to a full count with the Bank crowd as loud as conceivable. Then he bounced one to shortstop. Peña picked it clean, threw to first even more clean, and the Astros had it in the Bank. And Verlander—whom the Phillies abused in Game One—got credit for his first World Series win. Ever.

He’d sported an 0-6 won-lost record in the Series lifetime until Thursday night. And he  admitted postgame that Schwarber’s leadoff launch—the first such homer ever by a Phillie in postseason play—woke him up post haste.

“[A]s a starting pitcher, been there, done that,” Verlander told reporters after shaking off a particularly profound rookie-style celebratory shower in the clubhouse and savouring every moment of it. “It just sucks because of the moment and obviously all the questions and weight.

“You have to rely on the hundreds of starts and thousands of pitches I’ve thrown before and just kind of say, OK, I’ve given up leadoff home runs before,” the righthander continued. “It’s not going to be indicative of what’s going to happen the rest of this game, by any means. Let’s see what happens.”

What happened from there handed Verlander a win as moral as it was baseball and the Astros a Series return ticket home. And the Phillies—who’d gotten thatclose to fully avenging their having been no-hit in Game Four—another challenge to meet and conquer. If they can.

“What’s a better storybook ending than if we can go there and win this in Game Seven?” Castellanos asked postgame, well aware that the Phillies need to win Game Six first. So did the 2019 Nationals, in a Series in which neither team won at home but the Nats had to win the four they won in the Astros’ noisy-enough cape.

“We’re here, I think, because we trusted ourselves this far,” said Hoskins thoughtfully enough. “I don’t see why there is any reason to change that.”

They’re going to need that if they want just to come out of Game Six alive enough to play one more day. These Astros won’t exactly let them have it without making them work shields up, phasers on stun, for every degree of it.

Straight, No-hit Chaser

Rafael Montero, Bryan Abreu, Cristian Javier, Christian Vásquez, Ryan Pressly

The Cristian Javier Quintet—Javier (center) flanked (from left) by Rafael Montero, Bryan Abreu, Christian Vázquez, and Ryan Pressly—played music Philadelphia didn’t want to hear (never mind see) in World Series Game Four.

This year’s Phillies weren’t exactly strangers to being no-hit collectively. Five Mets—Tylor Megill, Drew Smith, Joely Rodriguez, Seth Lugo, and Edwin Díaz—did just that to them on April’s next-to-last day. Nine of the Phillies in that day’s lineup, including their starting pitcher Aaron Nola, just so happened to be on the receiving end of that quintet’s performance.

But the night after the Phillies bludgeoned the Astros to take a 2-1 World Series lead, the Cristian Javier Quintet—starter Cristian Javier; relievers Bryan Abreu, Rafael Montero, and Ryan Pressly, with Christian Vázquez drumming for them behind the plate—played “Straight, No-Hit Chaser” in Citizens Bank Park.

This was baseball’s version of a classic Miles Davis Quintet. With Javier blowing transcendently through the first six innings, a pitching Miles delivering deceptively simple things that had more to say across bars than more exhibitionistic soloists say compressed into half a bar.

Then it was Abreu, Montero, and Pressly taking the final solos knowing full well they might keep the Phillies pinned to their seats without reaching quite for Javier’s heights.

The 5-0 Astro win provided only the second World Series no-hitter since Don Larsen’s perfect Game Five in 1956, tied the Series at two each, and guaranteed a return trip to Houston for one Series game at least.

“God willing,” Javier’s parents reportedly told him before Game Four began, knowing the Astros were handed their heads on plates in Game Three, and knowing what a thrill it was for their son to have them in Citizens Bank Park for the occasion, “you’ll throw a no-hitter.” Those folks should be buying lottery tickets before they return home.

The 25-year-old Dominican threw six no-hit innings before turning it over to his bullpen. Javier threw fastballs that didn’t carry heat so much as they carried movement and deceptive facial appearances away from Phillie bat arcs, occasional sliders that slid around those bats, and looked as though he was amusing himself making the Game Three thumpers resemble paper tigers.

“I remember being on the other end of that,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker, who’d managed the Reds team no-hit by the late Roy Halladay in the 2010 National League division series. “It was the seventh inning and it seemed like it was the second inning, and I looked up on the board and it’s the seventh inning already. Then you’re trying not to be no-hit and then you’re trying to win the ballgame and—yeah, that’s pretty remarkable.”

“Remarkable” would be a polite way to put Wednesday night.

“He’s got good extension, good ride, things like that,” said Phillies left fielder Kyle Schwarber, who went 0-for-3 with Javier in the game but worked Pressly for a proven-futile one-out walk in the bottom of the ninth. “When it says ’92’ up on the board, it’s playing a little bit harder than that.”

Javier was far from alone, of course. The Astros lineup pushed, shoved, bumped, and prodded through the first four against Nola, but had nothing on the scoreboard to show for it. They’d already played fifteen straight Series innings without scoring and must have begun wondering how they could buy a run or two on the black market if it came to that.

Then they loaded the pads on Nola to open the top of the fifth. Center fielder Chas McCormick opened with a grounder into the left-side hole that Phillies shortstop Bryson Stott backhanded breathlessly but couldn’t throw in time to stop McCormick. Jose Altuve lined one over Stott’s stretch for a quick base hit.

As Jose Alvarado got up and throwing in the Phillies bullpen, rookie Astro shortstop Jeremy Peña lined one so hard through short for a hit that there was no way McCormick could score.

Yet.

Even more so than earlier in the Series, Peña continued making the Astros feeling less regret about losing shortstop mainstay Carlos Correa to free agency last winter. And while he batted against Nola, Phillies manager Rob Thomson took no chances and got Jose Alvarado up and throwing in the bullpen. As soon as Peña stopped at first, Thomson reached for Alvarado, the stout lefthander, with lefthanded Astros bomber Yordan Alvarez due to hit.

Alvarado wanted to tie Alvarez up on the first pitch, going inside. The pitch sailed all the way into Alvarado’s ribs to send McCormick strolling home with the first Astros run. Some dare call it poking the bears.

Almost immediately, Astros third baseman Alex Bregman lined one the other way to deep right for a two-run double and Kyle Tucker sent Alvarez home on a sacrifice fly. Then Yuli Gurriel, the ancient Astros first baseman who’s still a tough strikeout, grounded an 0-2 service through shortstop to score Bregman.

“I was focused on the target,” Alvarado said postgame. “The same Alvarado as always. The last thing I want to do there is hit him.”

From there the two bullpens kept each other quiet enough, with only Phillies reliever Brad Hand surrendering a ninth-inning hit to Peña before stranding him on a pair of fly outs. But the Astros pen finishing what Javier started so brilliantly finished the real Game Four story.

“This,” Javier said postgame, “is the best gift I could have ever given my family, my parents. To me, it’s even more special knowing that they were able to see that in person.” It wasn’t exactly the worst gift he could have given his teammates, either.

“Just going into today’s game, we had so much confidence in him,” said McCormick. “Even coaches, I had a feeling—Javier’s going to shove today. And he’s been shoving.”

That’s a polite way to put it. Almost completely hidden all year long, at least until Wednesday night, according to the invaluable Jayson Stark, was Javier keeping opposing batters to a .170 average against him foe the season. For his last six starts including Game Four, Javier surrendered as many hits as Nola surrendered in Game Four alone. Batters across the six hit .067 against him.

Not even Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, or Randy Johnson ever had a six-start, five-plus-innings, seven-hit string of starts like that, Stark exhumed. No pitcher ever did something like that until Javier.

So the righthander with the throwing-upstairs look in his delivery wasn’t exactly coming into Game Four unarmed. Now he manhandled a Phillies team that averaged seven runs a game this postseason coming in. And his bullpen finished what he started with near-similar manhandling.

“You get slapped in the face [in Game Three] and go back today and make a statement,” Pressly said. “You try to have the mind of the goldfish in this game. You try not to think about anything. You just want to go out there and try to produce and put a ‘W’ in the column.”

Never mind that Larsen, the Yankee righthander who kept the Dodgers hitless, runless, and runnerless in 1956, remains in his own postseason no-hit class for doing it all by his lonesome. This game takes its own place of singularity. Eighteen combined no-hitters have been thrown in Show history, but this was the first to happen in a World Series.

Astros catcher Martín Maldonado, who yielded in favour of Vásquez for Game Four, didn’t mind that Javier wouldn’t get the chance to go the distance with it.

“It’s about winning the game. That’s all. As long as we win the game, the result doesn’t matter. It’s about winning. The World Series is about winning. It’s not about a player or an achievement, or about player recognition or anything like that. The World Series is about winning. It’s about, ‘Give me as many innings as you can. Give us a chance to win’.”

And if a little history is made doing so, Maldonado won’t really complain. Especially since it guaranteed the Series getting back to Houston at all. They wouldn’t mind going there with a 3-2 Series lead and the upstart Phillies knocking on death’s door.

But the Phillies abused Justin Verlander in Game One and get another crack at the future Hall of Famer in Game Five. It’s not impossible that being no-hit the night after they flew the bombers down the Astros’ throats might give these Phillies—planning a bullpen game to be opened by Noah Syndergaard—the same kind of incentive the Astros took into Game Four.

Prick these Phillies and they’ll pounce back. Slap them, and they’ll shove back. “Confident as ever,” said third baseman Alec Bohm about the team mood after shaking off the no-hitter. “I don’t think anybody’s worried. Tonight stays here. Tomorrow’s a new day.”

“It’s just a loss,” said Schwarber. “Now it’s a race to two. See what happens.”

Now we’ll find out what these Phillies will or won’t do the day after their bats were tied behind their backs. But we’ll also find out whether the Astros can win a game, if not a World Series, of “Can You Top This?”

The Phlogging Phillies

Alec Bohm

Only 119 years after Jimmy Sebring hit the first one, off Hall of Famer Cy Young, Philadelphia’s Alec Bohm hits the 1,000th home run in World Series history off Houston’s Lance McCullers, Jr.

The mound can be the loneliest place on a baseball field at either of two extremes. One is when a pitcher is within the final out of consummating a perfect game. The other is when he’s getting murdered on that hill, in any game, never mind a World Series contest.

Lance McCullers, Jr. actually pitched two and a thirds clean innings in Game Three Tuesday night. It took two two-run innings him to get there, and it took two murderous swings to finish his night in the wrong page of the record book, on the absolute wrong end of a 7-0 Phillies win.

But don’t suggest, as the Fox Sports broadcast team and enough of the Twittersphere did, that McCullers might have been tipping his pitches. The Phillies sat so hard on his breaking balls and waited him out so patiently it seemed impossible to believe the guy who returned from a flexor pronator injury to post a 2.36 ERA since August was as vulnerable as he was in Game Three.

“I got whupped,” McCullers said emphatically postgame. “End of story. We got beat up pretty bad, and I got beat pretty bad. I obviously wanted to pitch well, and pitch much better than I did, but at the end of the day, all I can do at this point is get ready to go for a potential Game Seven.”

It may not be unreasonable to question whether the Series gets quite that far, after the Phillies—satisfied to split the opening pair in Houston and come home to the raucous sound of their stop sign-shaped playpen—blasted McCullers in three out of the four and a third innings the righthander managed to pitch.

And, hit the 1,000th home run in World Series play since the Series was introduced in 1903 while they were at it.

Bryce Harper, bottom of the first, with Kyle Schwarber aboard (leadoff walk) and two out—saw only one pitch in that plate appearance, a slightly hanging knuckle curve ball. He hung it two thirds of the way up the lower right center field seats. That made for the sixth time this postseason that Harper sent first pitches flying long distance. It also made for him starting his first World Series game ever in front of a home audience with a bang.

Alec Bohm, leading off bottom of the second—He got a little whispering from Harper before he checked in at the plate leading off. Then he got a McCullers sinker to open that didn’t sink quite enough off the middle of the plate and lined it into the left field seats. Series home run number one thousand, since Pittsburgh’s Jimmy Sebring legged an inside-the-park job off Hall of Famer Cy Young in 1903’s Game One.

Brandon Marsh—Two evil-looking strikeouts later, Marsh hit a 2-0 slider high enough above Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker . . . and in and out of a young fan’s glove above the right field wall. An umpires’ review confirmed what Marsh just finished running out: The fan hadn’t crossed the top of the wall when the ball bounded off the wall top and into and out of his glove back onto the field. Home run. Jeffrey Maier remains singular in fan infamy.

The Schwarbinator—After McCullers pitched two three-and-three innings and looked to be settling in well enough, Schwarber came up with Marsh aboard (one-out line single to right) in the bottom of the fifth and detonated a 1-2 changeup far over the center field fence. Into a greenery of Forest of Arbor Vitae trees.

Rhys Hoskins—Immediately following Schwarber’s nuke, Hoskins wrestled McCullers to a 2-2 count, then drove it about five rows into the left field seats. It also drove McCullers out of the game at last, not to mention driving Astros manager Dusty Baker toward the second-guessers’ booth.

“Hitting itself is a contagious thing without the crowd,” said Hoskins postgame. “But, you throw in the crowd and the noise and the cheers, and I think it just makes it more contagious.” And, noisy. If they’d used a decibel meter in Citizens Bank Park Tuesday night, it would have been broken after the game’s first pitch.

That’s when Phillies starter Ranger Suárez threw Jose Altuve an outside sinker that the Astros’ mighty mite lined the other way to right, and Phillies right fielder Nick Castellanos ran in hard before catching it as he fell into a slide. “When Castellanos made that play in right field,” said Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto, “that was about as loud as I’ve ever heard that stadium.”

“It actually made me think about it,” said Suárez through his interpreter. “If we start like this, then we’re only going to finish even better.” How right he proved to be, even if his five smooth innings pitched turned out to be the footnote to the Phillies’ phlogging.

But why hadn’t Baker gone to his bullpen when the Astros were down by a more manageable four, on a night McCullers didn’t exactly have his A-game? Particularly remembering that the Yankees forced McCullers to battle in Game Four of the American League Championship Series, even if the Yankees didn’t wreak half the Phillies’ Game Three havoc?

Why did Baker let his man stay in long enough to set his own record of surrendering five bombs in a single Series game, enabling the Phillies to be the first in Series history to hit five bombs in five innings of a single game?

“The thought process,” Baker said postgame, “was the fact that he had had two good innings, two real good innings. Then they hit a blooper, a homer, and then I couldn’t get anybody loose. It was my decision.”

Baker brought Ryne Stanek in to stop the fifth inning bleeding and Stanek did his job by striking out the two Phillies he faced to end the inning. Then Baker went to Jose Urquidy, usually a starter but tasked as the long man out of the Astro pen for the postseason.

If the mound itself can be the loneliest place, the second-loneliest might be the long man’s status when his team’s played nine postseason games without need of a bullpen long man. Urquidy was almost the Astro pitching staff’s forgotten man until Tuesday night.

And it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to expect him to show enough rust when he arrived and went to work, even though Urquidy himself told reporters postgame that he works every day, a little warming up pregame, a lot of mental preparation during, just in case.

Except for inning-opening baserunners he wild pitched to second and third in the bottom of the sixth, though, Urquidy managed somehow to keep the carnage from metastasising the rest of the way. Making Baker look just a little foolish for letting McCullers start to see the Phillie lineup a third time in the fifth despite his two clean preceding innings.

“It was kind of mind-boggling,” Baker said, “because he doesn’t give up homers. He usually keeps the ball in the ballpark . . . What can I say? The line score looks bad, but they were just hitting us.”

“Give those guys credit,” McCullers said.

So what did Harper tell Bohm, before the Phillie third baseman checked in and laid McCullers’s first second-inning pitch to waste? Neither Harper nor Bohm would say when asked. “Nothing,” Bohm said, with a little grin.

“I think anytime you have information, you want to be able to give that to your teammates at any point,’’ was just about all Harper would say of it. “So anytime I can help my teammates, throughout the whole season we’ve done that.”  But helping his teammates also sent Harper yet another place into the record books.

His last plate appearance in the Bank prior to Game Three ended in the opposite-field, mud-drenched two-run homer he hit that ended up sending the Phillies to the Series in the first place. Then he detonated the first pitch he saw in the Bank Tuesday night. Nobody before him finished his LCS work at home with a bomb and started his World Series work at home with a bomb a week later.

“He’s a showman,” Realmuto said. “That’s what he is. There’s no doubt about that. He lives for these moments. He really feeds off this crowd and the emotions that they bring. And he doesn’t ever seem to let us down in those moments.”

Phillie shortstop Bryson Scott could only marvel at the early bombings, the first time five of a team’s first twenty batters ever homered in a single Series game at all, never mind against the same man on the mound.

“Ooh,” Stott began. “Bohm’s was cool. Line drive . . . Schwarber’s, though . . . Well, Rhys’ was cool, too. But Schwarber’s, into the trees . . . Bryce’s was awesome, too . . . But Schwarber’s into the trees . . . Oh, and Marsh’s was cool . . .The tree ball, though.” Based on the Gospel According to Stott, the Schwarbinator went tree for Game Three.

But Bohm hit the record books in a way that nobody else possibly can. One hundred and nineteen years after the Series first. Not the Bryce that’s right. Not the Monster Marsh. Not Rhys’s Pieces. Not the Schwarbinator.

The only thing the Bohmbardier seemed able to say after the game was no, man, we might be built like the ancient Strategic Air Command, but we’re really just the Third Army in disguise. “Guys aren’t trying to go up there and just hit homers. We’re hitters. Guys were working at-bats. Guys are taking singles the other way. And sometimes they make a mistake and we get ‘em.”

Sometimes, says the guy who connected on the first Game Three pitch he saw. I just hope the fan who came up with the Bohmb in the stands was told of the millenial milestone and sends it right to the Hall of Fame. Where it’s displayed behind a tiny plaque engraved, only, “Bohm’s Away!”