Hinch may get a second chance—in Detroit

A.J. Hinch (left) with Jeff Luhnow. Their Astrogate suspensions end after the World Series does.

Analysing a few scenarios such as general managers now on the hot seat (Billy Eppler, Los Angeles Angels, check the cushion temperature) and other off-field doings and possible undoings, The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal also ponders Ron Gardenhire’s possible successor. The Detroit Tigers manager elected to retire for his health’s sake over the weekend. Prospective successors, Rosenthal says, include A.J. Hinch.

A.J. Hinch?

Wasn’t he the manager who snoozed on Gerrit Cole in favour of Will Harris and got the rudest awakening when Howie Kendrick rung the Houston Astros’ bell in Game Seven of last year’s World Series? And didn’t it turn out he was the skipper who slept while the Astro Intelligence Agency burned his team’s legacy of three straight American League Wests, two pennants, and a city-healing World Series win?

The answers there are no, and yes.

It wasn’t even close to Hinch’s fault that the Astros couldn’t lay more glove on an obviously drained (by a long season and a barely-fixed neck and shoulder issue) Max Scherzer than a solo home run and an RBI single, before his own starter Zack Greinke ran out of fuel and into Anthony Rendon’s homer in the top of the seventh. Or, that their shortstop Carlos Correa would be the only Astro to hit safely with a man on second or better all night.

And while Cole manhandled the Nationals in Washington in Game Five, the Nats slapped him silly in Houston in Game One. Plus, with Cole never having entered a game in the middle of even the slightest jam in his entire professional pitching life, Harris—proud possessor to that point of a 1.50 regular season ERA and a postseason 0.93 entering Game Seven—really was Hinch’s best card to play in the moment. Even with Juan Soto on first.

Harris’s profession as a relief pitcher includes walking into the middle of fires running the scale from small trash can blazes to first-floor-and-climbing infernos. He threw the perfect retardant to Kendrick, a nasty little cutter off the middle of the plate and toward the low outside corner, and watched it bonk off the right field foul pole.

“It’s every reliever’s worst nightmare,” Harris said after game, set, and Series ended with the Dancing Nats dancing on the Astros’ Minute Maid Park graves. (They won, without precedent, entirely on the road.) “He made a championship play for a championship team.”

Soon enough, alas, we learned that Hinch was aware of but did nothing much to put the AIA out of business in 2017-18. A couple of cross words here, a couple of busted clubhouse monitors there, but otherwise Hinch couldn’t and didn’t summon up the authority to tell his already over-talented club and make it stick that they needed to cheat about as badly as Superman needed an airplane.

One of the game’s most sensitively intelligent managers got caught with his Astrogate pants down around his ankles.

But wasn’t Hinch thrown out of baseball over the AIA? Didn’t commissioner Rob Manfred—jolted out of his own slumber when Astro-turned-Tiger-turned Athletic pitcher Mike Fiers blew the whistle on Astrogate almost a year ago—hand the cheating players immunity in return for spilling and make Hinch, general manager Jeff Luhnow, and some choice draft picks to come, the sacrificial lambs?

Not quite. Hinch and Luhnow both were suspended merely for the 2020 season. Those suspensions end after the World Series does next month. Baseball’s official line will be that they did the crime, they did the time, they don’t get a do-over but they do get a fresh start if anyone’s willing to hand one to either or both.

If you’re going to ask whether they deserve second chances, period, you might say neither one of them considering the stain of the Astros’ level of illegal, off-field-based, electronic cheating. If you’re going to ask whom between them sooner deserves a second chance, you might pick Hinch in a heartbeat. Might.

No matter how far down his pants were, Hinch wasn’t even close to the one who fostered the atmosphere in which the cheaters could and did prosper. Luhnow is another story entirely. His win-at-all-cost atmosphere dehumanised his front office, and he was a lot more aware of his Astrogaters than he’s still willing to admit.

Hinch at least had the conscience and the grace to say in his own statement that “while the evidence consistently showed I didn’t endorse or participate in the sign stealing practices, I failed to stop them and I am deeply sorry.” Even a small handful of accountability goes long toward cleaning up your own mess.

It was more accountability than any Astro was seen to show during that notorious February presserunless they were ex-Astros. Then, Hinch sat down with Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci.

In hindsight I would have a meeting. I should have had a meeting and addressed it face-forward and really ended it. Leadership to me is often about what you preach. Your pillars of what you believe in. Leadership is also about what you tolerate. And I tolerated too much. And that outburst . . . I wanted to let people know that I didn’t like it. I should have done more. I should have addressed it more directly.

Luhnow himself also declined full accountability in the immediate fallout of the Manfred report. In fact, he lied through his proverbial teeth in the formal statement he issued, saying he didn’t “personally” direct, oversee, or engage in any shenanigans and insisting, “I am not a cheater.” The revelation of the Codebreaker algorithim for extralegal sign decoding, about which Luhnow was aware enough, put the lie to it.

His mess is still considered so toxic that it likely forced Alex Rodriguez and his lady Jennifer Lopez out of the running to buy the New York Mets, after it became known A-Rod sought Luhnow’s baseball administration counsel even informally while Luhnow remained under suspension. It was like seeking family counseling from Charles Manson.

All that said and done, how strong are the chances of Hinch taking the Tigers’ bridge? He has a friend in the Tigers’ front office, Rosenthal says, namely vice president of player personnel Scott Bream.

But former Atlanta Braves/Florida Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez—once thought the favourite for the Tiger job before they chose Gardenhire—has friends in high Tiger places, too. They are GM Al Avila and assistant GM David Chadd, all of whom go back with Gonzalez to his first managing gig with the Marlins in 2007-2010.

If the Tigers end up hiring Hinch, the public relations hit they’ll take would be a couple of water drops compared to the likely flood coming for any GM seekers hiring Luhnow. Hinch may be viewed as the hapless Astrogate fiddler but Luhnow is probably seen as the one who really allowed the joint to incinerate.

The Mets may be looking to get out from under GM Brodie Van Wagenen’s laughingstock lash. Cohen may want to bring in his own man no matter what. (Former GM Sandy Alderson has “a relationship” with him and might have a hand in a new GM pick.) If they were wary of selling to an Alex Rodriguez thinking nothing of engaging Luhnow even under the table, they’d have to be wary about handing Luhnow the front office.

The Phillies may make GM Matt Klentak pay for their shockingly arsonic bullpen doing the most to keep them with a very tenuous postseason reach. A man with an image as a misogynistic cheater—who once defied his entire front office’s outrage to trade for relief pitcher Roberto Osuna while Osuna remained under domestic violence investigation—won’t exactly be at the top of owner John Middleton’s wish list.

Hinch first took the Astros’ bridge as they re-emerged from Luhnow’s controversial introduction of rebuilding by tanking, leading a newly-youthful team with a few veteran pitchers to the 2015 American League wild card game to beat the New York Yankees but lose the division series to the eventual world champion Kansas City Royals.

Two seasons later, Hinch’s Astros stood as now-tainted world champions. Assuming the Tigers have no thoughts of underground intelligence chicanery, and Hinch truly has learned the hard way about fiddling while his dugout empire burns him, he might be just the man to take a Tiger team transitioning to youth back into contention and maybe beyond in a year or two.

Gonzalez wouldn’t exactly be a lame horse. Until they began aging and the front office lost its grip, Gonzalez took his Braves to a couple of postseasons (with early exits, alas) and kept them in contention until a 9-28 opening in 2016 took him to the guillotine. Both Gonzalez and Hinch know a few things about keeping young or young-ish teams in the races.

If the Tigers seek experience on the bridge, there’s another dark horse lurking. Former Astrogate bench coach-turned-Soxgate World Series-winning manager Alex Cora’s suspension ends after the World Series, too. Officially, baseball might say he, too, did the time after doing the crimes.

Notice it’s crimes, plural. Cora was definitely culpable in Astrogate and may or may not have been directly culpable in the Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring. The Red Sox threw their video room operator under the bus to the unemployment line after they got bagged, and after Cora either resigned to keep from being fired or got fired anyway.

One more reminder: The Rogue Sox took the technology MLB provided them (and every other team) in the video rooms and clevered up the old-fashioned gamesmanship. The Astros either altered an existing camera off mandated transmission delay illegally, or installed another camera to operate in real time. Neither was right, but MLB handed the Rogue Sox (and probably others yet uncaught) the weaponry.

To avoid even a couple of days worth of PR fury, the Tigers might reach for Gonzalez. To show they believe in second chances and have enough kidney to survive the brief enough uproar—not to mention an experienced but still very young man with a balance between analytics and in-game eyes—they might reach for Hinch.

Someone once lost the presidency of the United States after not doing more to get to the bottom of the re-election committee crimes that caught him, too, with his pants down at first but joining their cover-up soon enough. However awkwardly, Richard Nixon admitted it in the statement with which he accepted his successor’s pardon.

Since it happened in his second term, Nixon was enjoined legally from seeking a do-over. Hinch doesn’t have that restriction. And he’s a far more sympathetic figure than Nixon was seen to have been.

He obeyed the mandate of his suspension to the letter. He didn’t show up near any team, at any ballpark or facility, either of which could have gotten him banned from baseball for life. If the Tigers reach out to him after the World Series, he would do well to tell them exactly what he told Verducci in February after he owned his Astrogate culpability:

I have to stand out front . . . [with] the message that we took it too far. And it didn’t need to happen . . . [I took] seriously the fact that I’ve been suspended based on the position I was in and what went on under my watch and I will come back stronger for it. I will come back a better leader, and I will be willing to do whatever it is to make the game better.

It would be further evidence that he deserves the second chance Luhnow doesn’t yet, if at all.

At last, an Astrogate apology

signstealingscandal.com

A video capture made infamous by Jonboy after the first Astrogate revelations: Evan Gattis at the plate in 2017, about to face a pitch from Danny Farquhar just before Farquhar called his catcher to the mound to switch signs . . .

Maybe Evan Gattis felt a little too much heat last week, when he snarked about being the last to land a nasty drinking cup with Mike Fiers’s face and the caption “Snitches Get Stitches.” And, when he hastened to walk it back after his boast got him a small firestorm (including “Cheaters Get Heaters”) of snark-back.

Maybe, too, the former Astros backup catcher was reminded that was him at the plate in a 2017 game against the White Sox, on preserved and notorious video, getting electronically stolen signs banged his way until White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar smelled the proverbial rat, called his catcher out to the mound, and changed signs posthaste.

Whatever compelled him, the now-retired Gattis isn’t feeling too snarky about Astrogate anymore. He unloaded to The Athletic‘s podcast 755 is Real this week. He unloaded a no-holds-barred apology for the Astro Intelligence Agency’s illegal, off-field-based electronic sign-stealing of 2017-18, even while acknowledging that by now no apology on earth will untaint or restore the Astros’ image.

And he’s also more than willing to give Fiers—the original Astrogate whistleblower, the only one among four 2017 Astros who was willing to put his name on the record to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich last November—his props, rather than saluting even a just-kidding threat against the now-Athletics pitcher.

“I don’t think I can win the hearts over of anyone right now at all, or maybe ever,” Gattis told 755 is Real. “I don’t know how to feel yet. I don’t think anybody—we didn’t look at our moral compass and say, ‘Yeah, this is right.’ It was almost like paranoia warfare or something. But what we did was wrong. Like, don’t get it twisted. It was wrong for the nature of competition, not even just baseball. Yeah, that was wrong. I will say that.”

Retired since the end of the 2018 season, Gattis didn’t stop there. “If our punishment is being hated by everybody forever, then (so be it),” he said, after saying he hated to see general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch fired almost the moment their suspensions for 2020 were handed down by commissioner Rob Manfred.

“And I don’t know what should have been done, but something had to be [fornicating] done,” the former catcher continued. “And I do agree with that, big time. I do think it’s good for baseball if we clean it up. But I really don’t know to this day, and I’ve thought about it a [spit] ton, know what I mean? And I still don’t know how to feel.

“I’ll get ripped by somebody—‘That’s not an apology’—and if I do apologize, that’s still not going to be good enough. No [spit], it’s not going to be good enough. I understand that it’s not [fornicating] good enough to say, sorry. I get it.”

Luhnow and Hinch may have been suspended from baseball through the end of the 2020 season, whenever the season might be played if it’s played thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, but they’d be free to seek other baseball employment afterward. Even if 2020 ends up canceled entirely. There are those who say nobody should even think about hiring them even as concession hawkers.

Luhnow fostered the victory-uber-alles culture within the Astros organisation that too often operated according to Major Strasser’s law (expressed in a memorable line in Casablanca), “You’ll find that human life is cheap.” A culture that allowed Luhnow to dismiss internal alarm when he dealt for a relief pitcher still under suspension for domestic violence and call for an internally-developed sign-stealing algorithm that paved the way to the AIA.

Hinch didn’t exactly look the other way when he caught onto the AIA, but he did nothing to stop it other than smashing one or two of the monitors in the clubhouse from which the opposing signs picked up by an illegal camera were transmitted for translation to pass on to Astro hitters. He fiddled while the plot apparently led by his then-bench coach Alex Cora and his then-designated hitter Carlos Beltran—both of whom eventually lost managing jobs over their Astrogate culpability—burned opponents with little to no idea they walked into a stacked Astro deck.

“For some players that we faced, that I’d never faced before or something like that, even selfishly we didn’t get to find out how good those people are—and they didn’t either,” said Gattis to 755 is Real. “I think that was the one cool thing about playing in the big leagues, was just to find out how good you are, which I think is valuable. Everybody wants to be the best player in the [fornicating] world, man, and we cheated that, for sure. We obviously cheated baseball and cheated fans. Fans felt duped. I feel bad for fans.”

Gattis may have handed ammunition, inadvertently, to former major league pitcher Mike Bolsinger’s legal team, in Bolsinger’s lawsuit arguing that—when he was trying to hang in as a remade relief pitcher with the 2017 Blue Jays—the Astros’ illegal sign-stealing operation destroyed him in what proved his final major league appearance.

In that game, the Astros got more stolen signs banged on the can to their hitters than in any other game for which banging-the-can-slowly could be determined. They also got more when Bolsinger was on the mound than when they faced any other Blue Jays reliever that day. Bolsinger was torn apart for five runs when he entered with two out in the bottom of the fourth, escaping only when he managed to get Alex Bregman to fly out.

The Blue Jays sent Bolsinger to Triple A right after the game. He might have been a former starter reduced by injuries to a journeyman trying to remake himself as a reliever, and I’ve said this before elsewhere, but it’s worth a reminder: Even a marginal relief pitcher has the right to know that his major league career got torpedoed straight, no chaser.

The Astros have had the original Los Angeles judge in the Bolsinger lawsuit removed for “prejudice,” never mind that the judge was chosen at random. They followed that by filing to have the suit either thrown out or moved to Texas in the name of “fairness.” They also face a lawsuit back east from a group of fantasy baseball players arguing that the AIA tainted the games through which they played their fantasy ball.

Aside from handing both lawsuits’ plaintiffs valuable close air support, Gattis isn’t so willing to be snarky about Fiers anymore, either, if his comments to 755 is Real are any indication.

“With Fiers, he had something to say, dude,” the former catcher continued. “It probably started out with him saying exactly what he said—some of these guys coming into the league, they don’t [fornicating] know yet that this [spit] goes on. And I respect that. And he had something to say. So he had to [fornicating] say it. And then we had to get punished. Because if not, then what? It’ll get even more out of control.”

Gattis acknowledged that previous reports citing an anonymous 2017 Astro had it right that Brian McCann, the longtime Brave who joined the Astros for 2017-2018, who retired after a final tour with the Braves last season, objected to the AIA “and made his feelings known at least a couple of times,” as Athletic writer David O’Brien phrases it.

“I could tell it was eating him up,” Gattis told the podcast. “He didn’t like it one bit . . . He’s played so long, and he just understands what it takes to get to the big leagues, and he’s got a lot of respect for ballplayers. You could just tell.”

But you can also just tell that a man making his objections known at least a couple of times isn’t quite the same thing as a man in McCann’s position—a veteran with respect in the clubhouse, whose voice would be heeded assuming he puts more weight into it than a couple of objections made known—pushing a little further within his particular boundaries to turn mere objections into a needed confrontation.

And Gattis isn’t exactly ready to lay the Astrogate onus as heavily as others upon Beltran, whose standing as so respected a veteran, with a Hall of Fame-worthy playing resume, is said often enough to have felt just a little omnipotent among his younger teammates.

“[N]obody made us do [spit] — you know what I’m saying?” Gattis said. “Like, people saying, ‘This guy made us do this’ . . . That’s not it. But you have to understand, the situation was powerful. Like, you work your whole life to try to hit a ball, and you mean, you can tell me what’s coming? What? Like, it’s a powerful thing. And there’s millions of dollars on the line and shit? And what’s bad is, that’s how people got hurt. That’s not right; that’s not playing the game right.”

The Astros weren’t exactly overcome with remorse when Manfred’s Astrogate report was released in January. They weren’t exactly allergic to (depending on your viewpoint) non-apologetic apologies or apologetic non-apologies when spring training opened. Owner Jim Crane persists in his delusion that the Manfred report “exonerated” him and his ignorance that, when you lead, you assume responsibility for what’s done by your subordinates.

Now it’s only to lament that Gattis couldn’t have said upon his retirement what he finally said to 755 is Real. It might have made a far larger difference. Still, the fact that Gattis was willing to go on the public record as he now has to 755 is Real is staggering enough. Whether he saw the light, felt the heat, or came up somewhere in between.

It makes a fellow not so proud to be an Astro

2019-12-10 AJHinch

A.J. Hinch, looking as though at minimum he’s been sent to the principal’s office.

Once upon a time a very different generation of Astros amused themselves on team buses and planes by singing a randy song to the tune of legendary musical humourist  Tom Lehrer’s “It Makes a Fella Proud to Be a Soldier.” The late Jim Bouton, an Astro from August 1969 until his aging arm plus the hoopla over Ball Four farmed him out to stay in 1970, said every new Astro received a copy almost at once. Then, he recorded the complete lyrics including this verse:

Now our pitching staff’s composed of guys who think they’re pretty cool,
with a case of Scotch, a greenie, and an old beat-up whirlpool.
We’ll make the other hitters laugh
then calmly break their bats in half,
it makes a fellow proud to be an Astro.

Those Astros hung on the fringe of the National League West race in divisional play’s first season. Today’s Astros, long since moved to the American League (they were the team to be named later in former commissioner Bud Selig’s move of his formerly owned team, the Brewers, to the National League), are three-time American League West winners in the midst of which also came two pennants and a World Series conquest.

Now the Astros have lost a pitcher who didn’t necessarily make the other hitters laugh while he broke their bats in half: Gerrit Cole, who served them better than well for two seasons and proved off-the-charts magnificent down this year’s stretch and in the first two postseason rounds. Reaching his first career free agency, Cole couldn’t resist the Yankees’ extending him a deal for nine years at $324 million, the highest ever to be paid to any major league pitcher.

Which tells you something about what can happen when a good pitcher in sound condition finally became a great pitcher in sound condition in 2019, after joining a team with deeper knowledge of the art and its array of correctives than his former team (the Pirates) ever seemed to allow. And Cole joins the team he helped defeat in this year’s American League Championship Series, the team he would have faced in Game Seven if not for Jose Altuve’s stupefying, game-set-and-pennant winning two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth in Game Six.

Everyone including myself ponders the immediacy of the winners and losers on this winter’s market after Cole’s signing. Including the Astros themselves, whose owner Jim Crane, as CBS Sports’s Dayn Perry observes, “is pointlessly worried about staying under the Competitive Balance Tax threshold. According to multiple reports, the Astros are even shopping star shortstop Carlos Correa in the name of payroll efficiency. The Astros are one hundred percent in win-now mode, and the idea of trading Correa and not bidding vigorously to retain Cole should have fans calling Crane to account.”

For that and a few other things, of course. And some of us including myself ponder, too, whether Cole will bring the Yankees such knowledge as he might have, intimate or otherwise, as regards, you know, the other stuff buffeting the Astros now. The Astrogate probe is now said looking beyond 2017, into both the seasons during which Cole suited up and pitched for the Astros, and you’d be less than human if you didn’t contemplate whether Cole would enlighten his new teammates on the Astro Intelligence Agency as did Mike Fiers when he signed with the Tigers, and subsequently joined the Athletics, after 2017.

Hours before the Cole signing detonated the world in general and the Twitterverse in particular, Astros manager A.J. Hinch discovered his presence at this week’s winter meetings in San Diego meant the press finding it impossible to resist asking him about Astrogate. It was certain that he wouldn’t answer questions about it because the commmissioner’s is an ongoing investigation. And far be it for Hinch to break the rules in this instance, one of which enjoins against speaking up or forth while such an investigation proceeds and progresses.

The cynic would chew on the continuing strain of accepting those rules you’re comfortable accepting and breaking those you’re comfortable breaking, on the assumption that Hinch was surely well aware of the AIA, since the concurrent presumption is that a baseball manager a) is responsible for the doings or undoings by those under his command and b) unlikely under most such circumstances to have disapproved above or beyond the customary “just don’t get caught, boys” admonition.

But still . . . but still . . . “If I was in your shoes, I would be on the other side of this table,” Hinch told the gathering in response to a question. “And I would want to ask questions and find answers and get some more information on the investigation and all the allegations and things like that. I know you’re probably expecting this, but I can’t comment on it. It is an ongoing investigation.”

Associated Press reporter Jake Seiner translated thus that Hinch “is eager to tell his side of the story regarding allegations Houston used electronics to steal signs en route to a 2017 World Series championship, but he is going to let Major League Baseball talk first.” The Athletic‘s Spink Award-winning Jayson Stark (presented his award in Cooperstown this past July) tweeted at about 5:34 p.m. Pacific time Tuesday, “”AJ Hinch just finished 19 uncomfortable minutes of meeting with the media. Mostly declined comment on anything related to the cheating investigation. Said he’s talked to MLB ‘a couple of times’ and now is just ‘waiting’ for a verdict. ‘Everything is in their hands’.”

If you’ve lost the track of the AIA flow chart, it’s this: Live, real-time camera operated from somewhere behind the center field playing area transmits live, real-time signs to the opposing pitcher, which transmission is seen on a large enough, duly connected monitor in the Astro clubhouse adjacent to the steps from the clubhouse to the dugout, in front of which someone, who knows whom just yet, deciphers the signs and transmits them to an Astro hitter with one or two bangs on a large plastic or vinyl trash can, dependent upon which pitch the victimised catcher called.

“I’ve committed my time and energy to cooperate with MLB,” Hinch went on to say Tuesday evening. “I’ve talked to them a couple times, and we continue to work with them as they navigate the investigation, and now we’re waiting with everything in their hands. So I know there’s still going to be questions. I hope there’s a day where I’m able to answer more questions, but I know today’s not that day. I know it will disappoint some people.”

In some other words, Hinch may be anxious to lay it down about Astrogate but any time you need Hinch—heretofore considered one of baseball’s most sensitively intelligent managers—don’t just whistle, and he won’t blow the whistle himself until he has some sort of official dispensation or pang of conscience to do so. If the rules of his profession enjoin against commenting publicly about an ongoing investigation, his immediate answer still leaves Hinch with a dubious look, though not even close to the one left to Crane when, at last month’s owners’ meetings, he, too, dismissed Astrogate questioning.

“If you want to talk about baseball, I’ll talk about baseball,” was Crane’s dismissal, as if electronic cheating from off the field, violating baseball’s specific rule against such espionage, and the likelihood that the Astros aren’t the only team operating such spy operations, had absolutely nothing to do with the game. The painfully few Astrogate comments from within the Astros’ apparatus have included hopes that the Astros don’t become the poster children for something not restricted to themselves, and that’s very much to do with baseball.

If Hinch and Crane were employed instead in the business of the government, answers like theirs might harry reporters and investigators toward exhuming a cover-up almost as ardently as they already harried to the original crime, misdemeanour, or contra-constitutional mischief. Reporters and investigators alike on the Astrogate trail are doing just that, surely. The safest assumption is that more than a handful of Astros knew about and availed themselves of the AIA that sauntered far past the accepted bounds of on-the-field gamesmanship.

Believing Hinch knew nothing of or ignored the operation particularly when the bangs! or the bang-bangs! on the can went booming forth insults our own intelligence. What could he believe they were? Teammates rooting? Between-turns batting practise by players anxious not to be more than a few hops from stepping in as a pinch swinger and thus not repairing to the underground batting cages? Practise for banging a drum slowly during a victory parade?

Commissioner Rob Manfred and his bloodhounds may discover very well that the Astros aren’t the only major league team with a taste for espionage—if they haven’t discovered that already. (Published reporting suggests that as of this writing almost sixty witnesses and over seventy thousand e-mails have been gathered with more, much more to come.) But Hinch is in a position that can’t hold very long, and he may yet experience a pang of conscience akin to that of his former pitcher Fiers, who blew the whistle on and pulled the covers off the AIA in the first place.

Hinch heretofore earned a reputation as one of baseball’s most sensitively intelligent managers, a reputation in danger of being very badly vaporised. His face Tuesday evening showed every suggestion of the schoolboy who knows his trouble has only just begun after he’s finished in the principal’s office. Like Fiers, his conscience pang wouldn’t necessarily mean naming or implying suspects. But Hinch would be to baseball as Alexander Butterfield to the Nixon White House, exposing its sophisticated in-house taping system under Senate questioning during the early Watergate peaks.

Butterfield installed the White House system and owned up. Hinch may or may not have conceived the AIA himself. If he didn’t but he was genuinely unaware, his looks could well become those of a man whose smarts were invaded by incompetence that would strike some as cruelly comic and others as tragic. It makes a fellow not so proud to be an Astro.

Hinch didn’t blow it, the Nats won it.

2019-11-01 ZackGreinke

Zack Greinke walks off the field in Game Seven. His manager made the right move to follow. The Nats made the righter one to win.

It’s not going to make the pill any easier to swallow, but it wasn’t A.J. Hinch’s fault. He’s not the reason the Astros lost a World Series they seemed destined to win both going in and while they were just eight outs from the Promised Land.

I know Hinch didn’t even think about bringing Gerrit Cole in if he’d decided Zack Greinke had had enough. I second guessed it myself when first writing about Game Seven. And I was really wrong. Just as you are, Astroworld, to lay the loss on Hinch’s head. The Nats beat the Astros, plain and simple. Through no fault of Hinch’s.

He wasn’t even close to having lost his marble. Singular. He actually managed just right in that moment. It’s no more his fault that Howie Kendrick made him look like a fool right after he made his move than it was his fault the Astros couldn’t bury a Max Scherzer who had nothing but meatballs, snowballs, grapefruits, and cantaloupes to throw, two days after Scherzer’s neck locked up so tight it knocked him out of Game Five before the game even began.

Max the Knife wasn’t even a butter knife starting Game Seven and the best the Astros could do against him was an inning-opening solo home run by Yuli Gurriel and an RBI single by Carlos Correa. Remember, as so many love to bleat, the manager doesn’t play the game. Not since the end of the player-manager era.

And I get the psychological factor that would have been involved if Hinch brought Cole in instead of Will Harris. Likely American League Cy Young Award winner in waiting in to drop the hammer and nail down a win and a trophy. The Nats may have spanked Cole and company in Game One but Cole manhandled them in Game Five.

Even the Nats thought Cole was likely to come in if Greinke was coming out and, as their hitting coach Kevin Long said after Game Seven, they would have welcomed it after the surgery Greinke performed on them until the top of the seventh.

You had to appreciate an anyone-but-Greinke mindset among the Nats. Maybe even think within reason that that kind of thinking—never mind Anthony Rendon homering with one out in the top of the seventh— would leave them even more vulnerable once Cole went to work.

Pay attention, class. Cole pitched magnificently in 2019 and his earned run average was 2.19 with a postseason 1.72. But Harris, believe it or not, was a little bit better: his regular season ERA was 1.50 and his postseason ERA until Game Seven was (read carefully) 0.93.

Cole led the American League with a 2.64 fielding-independent pitching rate and Harris finished the season with a 3.15, but all that means is that Harris depends on the Astros’ stellar defense a little bit more than Cole does. And Harris walks into a few more dicey situations in his line of work. Plus, Cole never pitched even a third of an inning’s relief in his entire professional career, major and minor league alike.

Don’t even think about answering, “Madison Bumgarner.” Yes, Bumgarner closed out the 2014 World Series with shutout relief. And it began by going in clean starting in the bottom of the fifth. Bruce Bochy, who may or may not stay retired as I write, didn’t bring MadBum into a man on first/one-out scenario.

When Hinch said after Game Seven that he planned to use Cole to nail the game down shut if the Astros kept a lead, he was only saying he planned to use Cole where he was suited best, starting a clean inning, his natural habitat. Harris is one of his men whose profession involves walking into fires of all shapes and sizes when need be.

It was need-be time in Game Seven. Even Cole acknowledged as much in the breach, when he said postgame, “We just went over the game plan and he laid out the most advantageous times to use me. And we didn’t get to that position.”

Why lift Greinke after only eighty pitches on the night? Greinke historically is almost as tough on a lineup when he gets a third crack at it, but things really are a little bit different in the World Series. Even if Greinke did surrender a single run in four-and-two-thirds Game Three innings.

He may have performed microsurgery on the Nats through six but he’s not the long distance operator he used to be anymore, either, at 36. And he hadn’t exactly had an unblemished postseason before the Series. He’d been battered by the Rays in the division series; he’d been slapped enough by the Yankees in the ALCS.

As Hinch himself observed after Game Seven ended, “We asked him to do more today than he had done, and pitched deeper into the game more than he had done in the entire month of October. I wanted to take him out a bat or two early rather than a bat or two late.”

And Greinke himself believed the Nats were a lot more tough than their evening full of pre-seventh inning soft contacts at the plate indicated. “They got a good lineup, especially the top of the order,” he told reporters after the game. “It’s tough to get through no matter one time, two times, three times. All of them are tough. Really good hitters up there.”

He got the proof of that when Rendon hammered his 1-0 service halfway up the Crawford Boxes and Juan Soto focused for a walk on 3-1. When it’s winner-take-all you don’t want even a Greinke in a position to fail or for the Nats to be just a little bit better after all.

Hinch wasn’t going to walk his effective but lately erratic closer Roberto Osuna into this moment despite Osuna’s 2.63 ERA, 0.88 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, and league-leading 38 saves on the regular season. Osuna’s postseason ERA was up over 3.50 and his WHIP was reaching 2.00.

So Hinch, one of the most thoughtful and sensitively intelligent managers in the game today, really did reach for his absolute best option in the moment. He was right, I was wrong, and the only thing wrong with Hinch’s move wore a Nationals uniform.

The best teams in baseball get beaten now and then. The best pitchers in the game get beaten. The smartest managers in the game get beaten even when they make the right move. The only more inviolable baseball law than Berra’s Law is the law that says somebody has to lose. And now and then someone’s going to beat the best you have in the moment.

This was not Joe McCarthy starting Denny Galehouse over Mel Parnell with the 1948 pennant on the line.

This was not Casey Stengel failing to align his World Series rotation so Hall of Famer Whitey Ford (whose two shutouts are evidence for the prosecution) could start more than two 1960 World Series games.

This was not Gene Mauch panicking after a rookie stole home on his best pickoff pitcher and thinking he could use Hall of Famer Jim Bunning and Chris Short on two days’ rest in the last days of 1964.

This was not Don Zimmer doghousing Bill Lee, his best lefthander against the Yankees, and choosing Bobby (Ice Water In His Veins) Sprowl over Luis Tiant to stop what became the Boston Massacre in 1978.

This was not John McNamara with a weak bullpen and a heart overruling his head to send ankle-compromised Bill Buckner out to play one more inning at first base in the bottom of the tenth, Game Six, 1986.

This was not Dusty Baker sending an already season long-overworked Mark Prior back out for the top of the eighth with the Cubs six outs from going to the 2003 World Series.

This was not Grady Little measuring Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez’s heart but forgetting to check his petrol tank in Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series.

This was not Mike Matheny refusing to even think about his best reliever, Trevor Rosenthal, simply because it wasn’t yet a “proper” save situation with two on, a rusty Michael Wacha on the mound, and Travis Ishikawa checking in at the plate in the bottom of the ninth in Game Five of the 2014 National League Championship Series.

This was not Buck Showalter getting his Matheny on with the best relief pitcher in baseball (Zach Britton) not even throwing in the pen, never mind ready to go, with two on and Edwin Encarnacion checking in—in a two-all tie in the bottom of the eleventh—against a mere Ubaldo Jimenez at the 2016 American League wild card game plate. Because that, too, just wasn’t, you know, a “proper” save situation.

Hinch did exactly he should have done in the moment if he was going to lift Greinke. He reached for the right tool for the job. So did Mauch, in the 1986 ALCS, with the Angels on the threshold of the 1986 World Series, if he was going to lift Mike Witt but not trust Gary Lucas after the latter plunked Rich Gedman, turning it over to Donnie Moore.

It wasn’t Mauch’s or Moore’s fault that he threw Dave Henderson the perfect nasty knee-high, outer-edge forkball, the exact match to the one Henderson had just foul tipped away, and Henderson had to reach hard and wide again to send it over the left field fence.

It wasn’t Hinch’s fault that Harris threw Kendrick the best he had to throw, too, a cutter off the middle and at the low outside corner, and watched it bonk off the right field foul pole. Just ask Harris himself, as a reporter did after Game Seven: “It’s every reliever’s worst nightmare. [Kendrick] made a championship play for a championship team.”

Better yet, ask Correa, the only Astro somehow to have a base hit with a runner on second or better Wednesday night. “The pitch he made to Howie—I just don’t understand how he hit that out,” he said. “It doesn’t add up. The way he throws his cutter, it’s one of the nastiest cutters in the game. Down and away, on the black, and he hits it off the foul pole.”

Now and then even the best teams in the game get beaten. Now and then even the best pitchers in the game get beaten. Sometimes more than now and then. Nobody was better in their absolute primes this century than Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander. Yet Kershaw has a postseason resume described most politely as dubious and Verlander’s lifetime World Series ERA is 5.68.

And even the smartest skippers in the game lose. Hall of Famer John McGraw got outsmarted by a kid player-manager named Bucky Harris in Game Seven of the 1924 World Series, though even Harris needed four shutout relief innings from aging Hall of Famer Walter Johnson and a bad hop over Giants third baseman Freddie Lindstrom to secure what was previously Washington’s only known major league World Series conquest.

McCarthy and Stengel were at or near the end of Hall of Fame managing careers (Stengel was really more of a caretaker as the 1962-65 Mets sent out the clowns while their front office built an organisation) when they made their most fatal mis-judgments.

And yet another Hall of Famer, Tony La Russa, suffered a fatal brain freeze. His failure to even think about his Hall of Fame relief ace Dennis Eckersley earlier than the ninth-inning save situations cost him twice and would have kept the Reds from a 1990 Series sweep, if not from winning the Series itself.

The Astros had seven men bat with men in scoring position in Game Seven and only Correa nailed a base hit. The Nats went 2-for-9 in the same position. And, for a change, left three fewer men on than the Astros did.

The Astros couldn’t hit a gimp with a hangar door. The Nats punctured an Astro who dealt trump for six innings and made two fateful mistakes in the seventh that the Nats took complete advantage of. Then their best relief option in the moment got thumped with his absolute best pitch.

Because baseball isn’t immune to the law of unintended consequences, either. It never was. It never will be. The Astros were the better team until the World Series. The Nats ended up the better team in the World Series. And that isn’t exactly unheard of, either.

Few teams in baseball have been better than the 1906 Cubs, the 1914 Philadelphia Athletics, the 1954 Indians, the 1960 Yankees, the 1969 Orioles, the 1987 Cardinals, the 1988 and 1990 A’s, the 2003 Yankees, and the 2006 Tigers. They all lost World Series in those years. And two of them (’60 Yankees; ’87 Cardinals) went the distance before losing.

Yet the Nats scored the greatest upset in the history of the Series, and not just because they’re the first to reach the Promised Land entirely on the road. The Astros were Series favourites by the largest margin ever going in. And only the 1914 Braves were down lower during their regular season than the Nats were in late May this year.

But that year’s A’s, the first of two Connie Mack dynasties, weren’t favoured as heavily to win as this year’s Astros.

The Dodgers were overwhelming National League favourites to get to this World Series—until Kendrick’s monstrous tenth-inning grand slam. Then the Cardinals were favoured enough to make it—until they ran into a Washington vacuum cleaner that beat, swept, and cleaned them four straight.

The Astros didn’t have it that easy getting to this Series. The ornery upstart Rays made them win a pair of elimination games first. Then it took Yankee skipper Aaron Boone’s dice roll in the bottom of the ALCS Game Six ninth—refusing to walk Jose Altuve with George Springer aboard and comparative spaghetti-bat Jake Marisnick on deck—to enable Altuve’s mammoth two-run homer off a faltering Aroldis Chapman with the pennant attached.

Hinch made the right move in the circumstance and the moment and the Nats made the righter play. The championship play, as Correa put it. The play for the Promised Land. Soto’s eighth-inning RBI single and Eaton’s ninth-inning two-run single were just insurance policies.

When Hinch says that not bringing in Cole was a mistake he’d have to live with, he shouldered a blame that wasn’t his to shoulder. Even if his happen to be the strongest in Astroworld.

One for the road. And, the ages.

2019-10-31 WashingtonNationals

The road was anything but lonesome for the Nationals this World Series.

From early in the season, when the Nationals were left for dead, and their manager left for death row, gallows humour often salved. So has it done though a lot of the now-concluded World Series. Such humour didn’t exactly hurt after their stupefying Game Six win in Houston, either.

Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki, himself hoping for a Game Seven return appearance after an absence due to a hip issue, couldn’t resist, after Max Scherzer showed up alive and throwing Tuesday. “We were all kind of making fun of him,” Suzuki told an interviewer, “saying he was going to rise from the dead.”

You could say that about the Nats themselves. They’ve been rising from the dead since the regular season ended, too. They won the World Series, beating the Astros 6-2 in Game Seven, rising from the dead, too. Inspired in large part by a pitcher who looked for most of his five innings’ work as though his ghost was on the mound clanking in chains.

And, with neither team able to win at home this time around. For the first time in the history of any major team sport whose championship is chosen in a best-of-seven set. The Nats and the Astros burglarised each other’s houses and left nothing behind, not even an old, tarnished butter knife in the silverware drawer. And the Astros’ hard-earned home field advantage proved the Nats’ road to the Promised Land.

Unearth Canned Heat warbling “On the Road Again,” from the opening tamboura drone to the final harmonics and all harmonica-weeping points in between. Crank up the Doors swinging “Roadhouse Blues.” Pay particular attention to the closing couplet: The future’s uncertain/the end is always near.

For five innings Wednesday night the Nats’ future was as uncertain as the Astros’ end was as near and clear as a 2-0 lead could make it. And try to figure out just how Scherzer with less than nothing other than his sheer will kept it 2-0 while getting his . . .

No. Not Houdini, for all his Game Seven escape acts. Scherzer wasn’t even a brief impersonation of Max the Knife, but after Wednesday he ought to think about a stand in Las Vegas. He’d make Penn & Teller resemble a pair of street hustlers. David Copperfield’s a mere practical joker next to this.

“You can’t really call it a miracle,” said Nats right fielder Adam Eaton post-game, “but it will be a reality-TV movie. Come on, how many books are going to be written about this?” Let’s see . . . Bluff, The Magic Dragons? 20,000 Leagues Beneath Belief? Four Innings Before the Mast? The Nats in the Hat Come Back?

Making baseball’s best team on the year take a long walk into winter has all the simplicity of quantum physics. Doing it when you send a pitcher to the Game Seven mound with nothing but his stubborn will is only slightly less complex.

“I don’t think anybody really knew what to expect when he took the ball,” said Nats reliever Sean Doolittle after the game. “After what he went through with his neck, you don’t know how that’s going to hold up with his violent delivery. You don’t know what his stamina is going to be like. But with Max, we’ve come to expect the unexpected. It was gutsy, man . . . He willed us to stay in the game and that was awesome. I know guys fed off it.”

But on a night Astros starter Zack Greinke operated like a disciple of legendary Texas cardiovascular surgeon Michael DeBakey with the Nats practically on life support, that could have been fatal. Until Patrick Corbin, Anthony Rendon, Howie Kendrick, Juan Soto, Daniel Hudson, and—reality check, folks—the lack of Gerrit Cole made sure it wasn’t.

Scherzer pulled rabbits out of his hat and anyplace else he could find them and was almost lucky that only two of the hares treated him like Elmer Fudd. Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel sent a 2-1 slider with as much slide as a piece of sandpaper into the Crawford Boxes in the bottom of the second, and Carlos Correa whacked an RBI single off Anthony Rendon’s glove at third in the bottom of the fifth.

Nats manager Dave Martinez called for a review on that play, ostensibly to determine whether Yordan Alverez’s foot was actually off the pad after he rounded but was held at third on the play, but realistically to give Corbin a little more warmup time. Then Corbin went to work starting in the bottom of the sixth. And the Nats went to work in earnest in the top of the seventh.

With one out and Greinke still looking somewhat like a smooth operator, Rendon caught hold of a changeup reaching toward the floor of the strike zone and drove it midway up the Crawford Boxes. One walk to Soto later, Greinke was out of the game and Will Harris was in. With Cole—who’d paralysed the Nats in Game Five, and who was seen stirring in the Astro bullpen a little earlier Wednesday night—not even a topic.

For which the Astros’ usually clever, always sensitively intelligent manager A.J. Hinch is liable to be second guessed until the end of time or another Astros lease on the Promised Land, whichever comes first. If he thought Greinke at a measly eighty pitches was done, why not reach for Cole who’d hammerlocked the Nats in Game Five and probably had an inning or three in his tank?

“I wasn’t going to pitch him unless we were going to win the World Series and have a lead,” Hinch said matter-of-factly after the game. “He was going to help us win. He was available, and I felt it was a game that he was going to come in had we tied it or taken the lead. He was going to close the game in the ninth after I brought [Roberto] Osuna in had we kept the lead.”

“They got a good lineup, especially the top of the order,” Greinke himself said. “It’s tough to get through no matter one time, two times, three times. All of them are tough. Really good hitters up there.”

Except that Hinch still had a 2-1 lead when he thanked Greinke for a splendid night’s work.”He was absolutely incredible . . . he did everything we could ask for and more,” said Hinch when it was all over. “He was in complete control, he made very few mistakes, in the end the home run to walk was the only threat to him.”

You can bet that even the Nats thought Hinch would reach for Cole in that moment. It’s the Casey Stengel principle, as his biographer Robert W. Creamer once described: if you have an opening, shove with your shoulder. If you think your man is done but you still need a stopper, you reach for him like five minutes ago.

And in one or two corners of the Nats dugout the thought of Cole coming in was actually welcome. “When we saw Cole warming up,” coach Kevin Long told reporters after the game, “we were almost like, ‘Please bring him in.’ Because that’s how good Zack Greinke was.”

But Harris it was. He was one of the Astros’ most reliable bullpen bulls on the season, and he’d been mostly likewise through this postseason. But after swinging and missing on a curvaceous enough curve ball, Kendrick found the screws on a cutter off the middle and sent it the other way, down the right field line, and ringing off the foul pole with a bonk! that no one sitting in Minute Maid Park is liable to forget for ages yet to come.

“I made a pretty good pitch,” Harris said after the game. “He made a championship play for a championship team.”

“The pitch he made to Howie—I just don’t understand how he hit that out,” said Carlos Correa, the only Astro somehow to have a base hit with a runner on second or better Wednesday night. “It doesn’t add up. The way he throws his cutter, it’s one of the nastiest cutters in the game. Down and away, on the black, and he hits it off the foul pole. It was meant to be, I guess, for them. I thought we played great, but they played better. It was their year.”

Osuna relieved Harris and settled the Nats after surrendering an almost immediate base hit to Nats second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, but he wouldn’t be that fortunate in the eighth. He walked Eaton with one out, but Eaton stole second with Rendon at the plate and, after Rendon flied out, Soto pulled a line single to right to send Eaton home.

Ryan Pressly ended the inning by getting a line drive out from Cabrera, but another Astro reliever, Joe Smith, wouldn’t be that fortunate in the ninth. Ryan Zimmerman led off with a single up the pipe; Yan Gomes bounced one back to the box enabling Smith to get Zimmerman but not the double play; Victor Robles stroked a soft-punch line single into center; and, Trea Turner fought his way to a walk and ducks on the pond.

Hinch reached for Jose Urquidy, his Game Four opener and five-inning virtuoso back in Washington. But Eaton reached for and lined a hit into shallow enough center with Gomes scoring in a flash and Robles coming in behind him, freed up when Astro center fielder Jake Marisnick, usually one of the surest defensive hands they have, lost the handle on the ball and gave Robles room to move.

And, giving Hudson all the room he needed to pop George Springer out at second and to strike Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley out swinging to pop the corks and blow the lid off 95 years worth of Washington baseball frustration. Which looked impossible in late May, looked improbable just last weekend, but looks just as impossible the morning after.

Believing that Rendon could become only the fifth man to homer in Games Six and Seven of the same Series (behind Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Roberto Clemente, plus Allen Craig and—a mere two years ago—Springer himself) was more plausible. Believing Harris could become the first pitcher hung with a blown save in a Game Seven at home since Boston’s Roger Moret in 1975 wasn’t, necessarily.

But believing no World Series combatant would win even a single game at home in a seven game set defies everything. The Nats outscored the Astros 30-11 in Minute Maid Park; the Astros out-scored the Nats 19-3 in Nationals Park. The Astros played their heads, hearts, and tails off all year long to get the postseason’s home field advantage, and the Nats swooped in to rob them blind.

All game long the world seemed to think Martinez had lost his marble—singular—letting Scherzer stay on the mound despite have nothing to challenge the Astros with except meatballs, snowballs, and grapefruits. The skipper who eluded execution after 23 May now looked as though they’d pull the guillotine with his name on it back out of storage. Then the final three innings made him look like Alfred Hitchcock.

That 19-31 start to the Nats’ season? The worst for any team that went on to win that year’s World Series. From twelve under .500 to the Promised Land? You have company, now, 1914 Miracle Braves. An 8-1 postseason road record including eight straight road wins en route the trophy? Good morning, 1996 Yankees.

The first number one draft overall to end his season as the World Series MVP? Welcome to the party, Stephen Strasburg. The sixth man to hit a go-ahead homer in the seventh or later in a World Series? Roger Peckinpaugh, Hal Smith, Bill Mazeroski, Ray Knight, and Alfonso Soriano, meet Howie Kendrick, who’s now the only man in postseason history with more than one go-ahead homer in the seventh or later in elimination games.

The youngest man to hit the most homers in a single postseason and three in a single World Series? Today you are a man, Juan Soto.

All that courtesy of MLB.com and ESPN’s Stats and Info department. They give you the numbers. But they can’t really account for that old Nats magic. Nobody can, try though they might. The Nats just hope this isn’t the end of it. Which might be tricky if the Nats can’t convince Anthony Rendon to stay rather than play the free agency market or Strasburg not to exercise his contract’s opt-out option.

Cole is also a pending free agent. And he plopped a postgame cap on his head bearing the logo of his agent Scott Boras’s operation. When an Astro spokesman asked him to talk to reporters after the game, he was heard saying, “I’m not an employee of the team.” Then, he said he’d talk “as a representative of myself, I guess.”

Liable to be this year’s American League Cy Young Award winner, and facing maybe the fattest payday ever handed to a prime pitcher, Cole wouldn’t say if the Astros losing the World Series prompted him to declare his free agency that swiftly, that emphatically. He wouldn’t say whether he was mad that Hinch didn’t bring him in.

“We just went over the game plan and he laid out the most advantageous times to use me,” Cole told reporters. “And we didn’t get to that position.”

For Altuve, arguably the heart and soul of the Astros on the field and in the clubhouse alike, the heartbreak was impossible to hide. “I don’t think I can handle this,” he said candidly. “It’s really hard to lose Game Seven of the World Series. What I can tell you is we did everything we could . . . We did everything to make it happen. We couldn’t, but that’s baseball.”

Sometimes it’s even harder to win Game Seven. That’s baseball, too. The Nats stand in the Promised Land as living, breathing, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in Show” proof.