From chaos to bedlam and Game Seven

2019-10-29 AnthonyRendon

Anthony Rendon knew exactly how to shake off a dubious umpire’s call in Game Six.

The second loveliest word pair in baseball is “Game Seven.” (The first, of course, is “Play ball!”) And oh, brother, are we going to get one in this World Series.

I did say going in that this Series, between these two teams, wasn’t likely to end in either a sweep or an extremely short series. But I sure as hell didn’t expect it to get to Game Seven the way it got there.

Oh, I figured that neither wind nor heat nor gloom of potential elimination would stay a courier named Stephen Strasburg from the reasonably swift completion of his appointed Game Six rounds if he could help it. And, they didn’t.

With one cojones-heavy eight-and-a-third innings performance Strasburg pitched his way into legend and his Nationals to a seventh game that looked anything but likely after the way the Astros battered them in all three Washington games.

But I didn’t expect the next best thing to a 21st Century Don Denkinger moment, either, in the top of the seventh or otherwise. And I sure didn’t expect to see this such moment fire a team up instead of deflate them irrevocably at all, never mind with a near-immediate two-run homer once the hoo-ha stopped hoo-ha-ing.

Plate umpire Sam Holbrook decided, in essence, that a long, bad throw from Astros relief pitcher Brad Peacock fielding Nats shortstop Trea Turner’s little squeaker up from the plate, pulling first baseman Yuli Gurriel off the base, enough to let the throw hit Turner on the back of the knee the split second after his foot hit the base, equaled runner interference.

Turner inadvertently brushed Gurriel’s mitt off his hand. If the throw had reached the inside of the base instead of traveling to its front, Gurriel’s mitt wouldn’t even have been near the onrushing Turner. And Turner’s speed still would have beaten the play at first.

“What else do you do? I don’t know,” said Turner after the game. “The batter’s box is in fair territory. First base is in fair territory. I swung, I ran in a straight line, I got hit with the ball and I’m out. I don’t understand it. I can understand if I veered one way or another. I didn’t.”

It amplified this World Series’s being full of questionable, controversial calls, mostly around the strike zone. And if interference is strictly a judgment call, and umpires really are baseball’s equivalent of judges, as the game’s romantics often analogise, there might be cries for impeachment louder than any cried against particular American presidents past or present.

The Nats fumed long enough over the call—which robbed them of second and third and nobody out—that the umpires donned the headsets and called the New York review nerve center. Not for a review, since runner interference isn’t reviewable, but to send the message that the Nats wanted to play the rest of the game under protest.

And, without manager Dave Martinez, who exploded over the call as the sides changed during the seventh inning stretch and finally got ejected despite two Nats coaches managing to move him back toward his dugout, the better to keep his recently-mended heart and blood pressure from blowing like a presidential tweet storm.

The call in question got thatclose to overshadowing Strasburg’s masterpiece and the otherwise staggering 7-2 Nats win. And, the now very real prospect that this could become the first World Series in which the road team wins every game, including the Game Seven clincher.

This also may prove the most famous instance of a World Series team victimised by an umpire’s controversial call not collapsing, fainting, or imploding afterward. Talking about you, 1985 Cardinals.

That team got a Game Six jobbing in the bottom of the ninth when an inning-opening, obvious-to-the-blind infield out was called safe by first base ump Denkinger, who admitted in due course that he blew the call. Which was nothing compared to the Cardinals blowing their stacks before the Royals went on to win Game Six in that ninth or imploding completely and practically from the beginning—and it didn’t help that the ump rotation planted Denkinger behind the plate—in Game Seven.

But these Nats aren’t those Cardinals. “We’re all human,” said Anthony Rendon after the game in a field interview. “Whether we make mistakes or not, nobody’s going to feel sorry for us, so we’ve got to keep going.” Except that Rendon looked superhuman just minutes after the coolest heads finally prevailed.

Nats catcher Yan Gomes returned to first, his leadoff single having started the seventh-inning shebang in the first place. Adam Eaton popped out to third. Then Rendon himself checked in at the plate. And lodged maybe the single most explosive protest associated with Washington baseball since heartsick fans stormed RFK Stadium’s field at the end of the last Senators home game ever.

That protest caused a forfeit to the Yankees in a game the Senators were an out from winning. Rendon’s idea of a protest was to turn on Peacock’s 1-0 meatball and send it right into the Crawford Boxes above the left field wall. In 1985, Denkinger defanged the bear. On Tuesday night Holbrook poked the bear and he roared back.

That plus Rendon’s subsequent two-run double off the top of the bullpen gate in the top of the ninth sealed the Nats’ return from the land of the living dead. Turns out the interference protest didn’t exactly put Rendon in that bad a mood. “I was out here pretty happy about the delay,” he said in a postgame field interview. “I got to sit down awhile.”

But in another, later interview, Rendon became far more thoughtful.

“You can’t let any outside elements get into the game,” he told ESPN’s Jeff Passan. “No matter if it’s the crowd. You’ve got 40,000 people cheering against you. Or whether it’s the weather or if we’re in D.C. and it’s 40 degrees, whatever it might be. No one is going to feel sorry for you. They’re going to expect you to go out there and just perform as best as you can, and they’re going to expect the best out of you.

“Because I feel like people put professional athletes on a pedestal, where they say, ‘Oh, who cares, they’re making millions of dollars, they’re playing a game for a living so it’s easy. They should go out there and be successful every day’,” he continued. “We try to just keep our head down and keep playing.”

Nobody was going to feel sorry for the Astros, necessarily, after Game Six ended with catcher Robinson Chirinos, proud possessor of two Series home runs, popping out behind second base on a full count with Carlos Correa aboard on a two-out double.

Nobody was going to feel sorry for them, either, just because future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander didn’t have more than three shutout innings in him after Rendon’s first-inning RBI single. And, just because Verlander’s needle finally reached below E in the fifth, when Eaton pulled one down the right field line into the stands and, one out later, Juan Soto saw and raised with a skyrocket into the middle of the second deck past right.

“I didn’t really have great feel for the off-speed stuff,” Verlander, always a stand-up man, told interviewers after the game. “The last inning just a poorly executed slider and then really just kind of a fastball up and in.”

Nobody feels terribly sorry for a 107 regular-season winning team that raided Nationals Park like a S.W.A.T. team gone rogue in Games Three through Five after getting bastinadoed at home, then took an early 2-1 Game Six lead on George Springer’s hefty leadoff double ringing the top of the left field scoreboard, Jose Altuve’s sacrifice fly, and Alex Bregman’s solo bomb halfway up the Crawfords.

Nobody felt particularly sorry for the Nats, either, except perhaps in might-have-been terms, as the game went on and it looked again, too often, as though they’d forgotten how to hit with two strikes or otherwise, and how to see their men on base and in scoring position as wanderers to be invited home, not terminal patients allowed to die in peace.

Surely nobody would feel sorry for Strasburg, on the biggest night of his major league life, opening the game by tipping his pitches, as he subsequently admitted after pitching coach Paul Menhart pointed it out to him after the first inning ended.

He wouldn’t have let them, anyway. He pitched in and out of trouble like a sculptor resolving a particularly knotty chunk of stone midway through the game, then smoothed the knot into oblivion and nailed ten straight outs before he was lifted with one out in the bottom of the ninth.

“I saw an incredible pitcher,” said A.J. Hinch, the Astros’s equally thoughtful manager, after the game. “I mean he was really good, and as I said before the game, he has an uncanny ability to slow the game down when he is under any duress.”

Thus do we get a neck pain-relieved Max Scherzer versus Zack Greinke for Game Seven. With all hands on deck for both sides, very likely, including Gerrit Cole and Patrick Corbin and maybe even Anibal Sanchez. Ready to throw whatever kitchen sinks the Astros and the Nats can throw at each other without pulling their arms right out of their sockets.

Thus did we see Max the Knife throwing on flat ground before Game Six and a little in the bullpen during the game, as if to say the Sunday afternoon shot did what it was supposed to do, though certainly not without risk, and he was going to take the mound come hell, high water, or other pain in the neck.

Remember: this is the guy who pitched when he was black-and-blue in the face a day or so after he got hit by an errant batting practise foul bunt in June. A Sunday cortisone shot, and a little chiropractic, and Scherzer was back in the picture. The Nats thank God and His servant Bucky Harris that the game wasn’t dicey enough to compel Martinez to bring Scherzer in Tuesday night, as the skipper admitted crossed his mind while Scherzer threw just to loosen up at mound height.

As if these Nats are rookies at ducking disaster. Not a team that was 19-31 as of 23 May before doing exactly as the Astros did from that date through the end of Game Six: produce the same won-lost record since. And the Astros’ dominant season belies that they spent too much of it looking like an episode of E.R. If they win the Series you won’t know if they should get rings or medical board certification.

But all of a sudden the worst break of the Series for the Nats—Scherzer’s neck locking him up so severely Sunday morning his wife had to help him just wash and dress and he was a Game Five scratch—turned into maybe the greatest break in their history. Because Greinke has a postseason resume described best as modest. And Scherzer even in questionable health is Max the Knife.

The Nats went back to Houston with their heads squarely in Astro-fashioned nooses. On Tuesday night they threw the nooses off. “It had to be this way, right?” said Nats reliever Sean Doolittle, who shook off Correa’s ninth-inning double to finish what Strasburg and company started. “It’s the most 2019 Nats thing ever for this to go to a Game Seven.”

Some of us think just about the entire world otherwise might be surprised. But maybe Doolittle’s onto something. Why, Soto couldn’t resist getting his Bregman on in the fifth, carrying his bat to his first base coach after hitting his blast a la Bregman doing likewise after hitting his in the first.

Now for the stupid part. Bregman actually apologised after the game for his bat carry. The Sacred Unwritten Rules, you know. “I let my emotions get the best of me,” he told a reporter. “I’m sorry for doing that.”

No few grouses crawled all over him for doing it. Soto wasn’t one of them. “I just thought it was pretty cool,” he said of Bregman’s carry. “I wanted to do it.” Bregman, for his part, said he deserved Soto’s response.

Some Nats might have thought Bregman was being a little bit of an ass; Martinez said after the game, simply, “We didn’t like it.” Doolittle, who’s said in the past that he doesn’t care if those bombing him flip bats or mimick bazooka shootings, wasn’t one of those Nats.

“Knowing Soto, I don’t think there was any malice behind it,” Doolittle told a reporter. “And playing against Bregman for a long time, I don’t think there was any malice behind what he did, either. There’s just a lot of emotion in the game . . . Those are two exciting young players. I thought it was fun.”

Holster your weapons, Fun Police. A little mad fun even in Game Six isn’t a terrible thing. Let Bregman have his when he hits one out; let Soto have his when he hits one out. Especially compared to when it was just plain mad in the seventh inning. Especially when the umpire gives the bear a nastier poke than any big bopper carrying his club to his coach after his big bop.

Especially when we get a Game Seven during which we can expect the Nats and the Astros alike to bop till they drop. The only thing we can’t expect is a Washington or Houston legend like Walter Johnson or J.R. Richard coming in to pitch the ninth, then taking it hammer and tongs through extra innings’ shutout relief, until someone finally bends, breaks, gives, or growls.

Well, nobody said you could have everything. Both the Nats and the Astros will just have to settle for a very prospective kitchen sink Game Seven, and one will just have to settle for hoisting the World Series trophy after it. The lease to the Promised Land. The first such lease for any Washington major league team since the birth of IBM; the second such lease in three years for an Astro team that would secure dynastic status with it.

Game Six proved the viability of an old baseball cliche: Anything can happen—and usually does. Game Seven promises a banquet full of you ain’t seen nothing yet. Let’s hope the promise is kept. For Nats fans, for Astros fans, and for baseball itself.

Baby sharks? Try Jaws.

BruceTheShark02Well, World Series Game Two was a pitching duel after each side hung up a two-spot in their halves of the first inning. Justin Verlander and Stephen Strasburg ground and gritted and got their Houdinis on.

And then came the top of the seventh. A six-run Nationals inning that will live in Astro infamy and Nats legend. Deal with the Astros’ home field advantage? The Nats obliterated it with a little help from their spring training complex friends.

Baby Sharks? On Wednesday night the Astros got swallowed by Jaws. And in the top of the seventh they helped feed the beast that ran them out of their home aquarium, 12-3. And lost back-to-back games at home for only the second time since July.

“Reset, then come into an environment that we know is going to be pretty crazy,” said Verlander about the coming Game Three in Nationals Park, “and be ready to play baseball like we know we can.”

But there’s suddenly the nagging fear that the Astros may be the only ones who still know they can play that kind of baseball. They didn’t play it Game Two, against a team who shares with them both baseball’s best play since 24 May and a taste for making the other guys pay for their mistakes with usurious interest.

“Where would you like me to start?” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said as a reporter at the postgame presser asked about the top of the seventh. The one that only began with Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki’s leadoff home run.

Things actually began near the end of the bottom of the sixth, when the Astros had Yuli Gurriel on second with a double, rookie Yordan Alvarez aboard on an intentional walk, a game still tied at two, and two out.

That’s when Hinch elected to pinch hit for Verlander’s season-long personal catcher Robinson Chirinos, who’d shepherded Verlander through five shutout innings just the way Suzuki shepherded Strasburg through five and two thirds, with escape acts being the order of the hour as often as not no matter how much stronger the pair got after their two-run firsts.

Hinch sent up Kyle Tucker, figuring that his being lefthanded might have a better shot against the righthanded Strasburg. But Tucker helped Strasburg squirm out of the first-and-second chains by fighting his way into a called third strike. Then, Hinch sent Martin Maldonado out to catch Verlander for the seventh and for the first time all year long. And after Verlander served Suzuki an opening ball one a little upstairs, Suzuki served the next pitch richocheting off the edge of a large Lexus sign behind the Crawford Boxes.

“We’ve had our battles,” said Suzuki in a post-game on-field interview, and he took a lifetime 14-for-42 jacket with a pair of doubles against Verlander into Game Two. “He’s gotten me sometimes, sometimes I get him. He’s a great pitcher, and you’ve got to really zone in on one spot. He doesn’t make many mistakes, and when you get a pitch to hit you can’t miss it.”

“First-pitch curveball for a ball, and then fastball that was right there for him,” said Verlander, who more or less denied that being switched to Maldonado threw him off since he’d thrown to Maldonado “a lot” in 2018. “In the regular season, you’re like, ‘OK, here it is, hit it, right down the middle.’ In the World Series, it’s a different story. You can’t really ever do that. You still got to hit your spots.”

And if you don’t, you get hit. For distance, even. By a catcher whose body lately threatens to demand donation to forensic anthropology.

Then Verlander lost Victor Robles to a full count walk and his night was over. Becoming the first in Show to nail 200 career postseason strikeouts, breaking John Smoltz’s record of 199 when he fanned Robles in the top of the second, would have meant a lot more if the Astro bullpen didn’t perform an almost-from-nowhere, note-perfect impersonation of . . . the Nats’ bullpen as it looked for most of the regular season.

Hinch reached for Ryan Pressly and Trea Turner reached on another full count walk. And then the merry-go-round started going round enough that maybe, just maybe, the Astros were caught a little off guard and a lot more off balance.

Adam Eaton dropped a near-perfect bunt in front of the mound to push the runners to second and third, but Anthony Rendon—knowing the Nats wouldn’t pitch around him to get to Juan Soto—flied out to shallow center. Up came Soto. With the Astros having issued not a single intentional walk all year long to that point.

This may or may not qualify as calling the repairman when it isn’t broken, but Hinch ordered Soto walked on the house in favour of pitching to Howie Kendrick, who’s not exactly a simple out but isn’t exactly Juan Soto, his division series-conquering grand slam notwithstanding. The Astros saw more than enough of Soto’s mayhem in Game One. Not a second time.

It turned out to be the most powerful free pass of all time. For the Nats, that is.

Kendrick bounced one toward the hole at shortstop. Astros third baseman Alex Bregman scrambled left. He knocked the ball down to stop it from shooting through, then picked it up. Then, he dropped it. All hands safe and Robles home with a fourth Nats run. Then Asdrubal Cabrera, playing second for the Nats with Kendrick the DH in Houston, lined a two-run single up the pipe.

Up stepped Ryan Zimmerman, the Nats’ first base elder. Ball one hit the dirt and shot past Maldonado behind the plate allowing the runners to move back to second and third. Then Zimmerman on 2-2 bounced one weakly up the third base side and Bregman hustled in, barehanded the ball, but threw wildly down the line allowing Kendrick and Cabrera to come home and Zimmerman to take second.

Minute Maid Park turned into a graveside service. These were the Astros who entered the World Series as the heaviest favourites in history? The 107-game winners who took no prisoners and laid all in front of them to waste? And if the crowd couldn’t believe what they’d just seen, the Astros couldn’t believe it even more.

“They came into our building and played two really good games,” said Hinch at the presser. “We’re going to have to sleep off the latter one-third of the game. I don’t want to lump this into a horrible game. It was a horrible three innings. It wasn’t a horrible game.”

Well, it didn’t start that way, even if Rendon slashed a two-run double off Verlander and the left field wall with one out in the top of the first and Bregman hit a two-run homer off the back wall of the Crawfords in the bottom of the first.

If the Nats couldn’t cash in their few chances against Verlander over the following five innings, the Astros weren’t exactly doing much more to Strasburg other than periodically pinning him to the wall those same five innings only to discover he had more than a few escape routes to travel.

“You know it’s going to be a storm out there,” said Strasburg during one post-game interview, the man whose younger self might have fumed the rest of the game over Bregman’s first-inning bomb but whose mature self just shakes it off. “You’re going to weather it.”

And to think that the whole seventh-inning disaster was launched by a catcher who’d been 2-for-25 this postseason and 5-for-his-last-39 overall. The Nats generally don’t care who gets it started as long as it gets started, but Los Viejos, as Max Scherzer calls their veterans, have as much fun as the young’uns at it.

“Just trying to go out there and play for the guy next to you,” Strasburg eventually told MLB Network’s MLB Tonight after the game. “It was a hard-fought battle there. And they made me work every single inning.”

Maybe so, but the Astros are hitting .176 (3-for-17) with men on second or better so far in the Series, while the Nats are hitting .333 (7-for-21) with them. The Nats have out-scored the Astros 16-7 and hit a collective .307/.366/.547 slash line to the Astros’ .257/.321/.432 slash.

Both sides’ pitching is missing bats—eighteen strikeouts for the Nats, twenty for the Astros so far—but the Astros’ biggest two starters, Verlander and Gerrit Cole, pack a 6.22 Series ERA so far to the Nats’ big two’s (Scherzer, Strasburg) 3.30 Series ERA. It was June when the Astros last lost back-to-back Verlander and Cole starts, and those two pitchers hadn’t been saddled with losses on their ledgers back-to-back since August . . . 2018.

And thanks to STATS, LLC, we know that Verlander and Cole have done something no pair of same-season, same-team 20-game winners has done in 55 years: lost the first two games in a World Series. The last to do that: Hall of Famers Don Drysdale (Game One) and Sandy Koufax (Game Two) in 1965.

Since those Dodgers went on to win in seven, with Koufax throwing a pair of shutouts, you don’t need me to tell you the Astros would like to do likewise and the Nats would prefer they not. Right now, the odds of the Astros doing it have fallen to the basement and the Nats’ odds of stopping them have hit the observation deck.

Some might have thought the Nats blew the Astros the loudest raspberry in the southwest, when they sent Fernando Rodney out to pitch the bottom of the seventh Wednesday night, and he navigated a leadoff walk into a force at second, a pop out behind the infield, and a ground out to first. Rodney, after all, is the only active player in the Show who may have been an eyewitness to the Red Sea crossing.

Nah. Even with their by-now-too-famous dugout dancings after home runs big and small, the Nats aren’t that crass. But you could forgive Astroworld if it believes the Dancing Nats—whose theme song by now ought to be the Archie Bell & the Drells soul classic, “I Can’t Stop Dancing”—have a merciless streak of their own when their sharks smell blood in or on the Astro waters.

With reliever Josh James held over to open the top of the eighth, Maldonado couldn’t hold onto strike three to Robles leading off. A strikeout to Turner later, Eaton couldn’t hold off sending James’s first-pitch fastball right down the middle right onto a high line ending in the right field seats.

And after making his way through the Nats’ now-customary dugout dance, he plopped onto the bench next to Kendrick, where the pair of them began thrusting their arms out and barking like seals beating their flippers after being thrown particularly succulent fish.

Then Michael A. Taylor, inserted into center field in the bottom of the eighth, stood in to hit against Astros reliever Chris Devenski with one out in the top of the ninth. One pitch. One Game Two at-bat. One launch into the Crawford Boxes. One 12-2 Nats lead that became 12-3 when Maldonado sent spare Nats reliever Javy Guerra’s one-out, 1-0 fastball into a balcony past the Crawfords. It’s ok if you want to believe Guerra wanted to show just a little mercy.

But only a little. Rendon fielded but threw George Springer’s grounder to third just off enough that Zimmerman couldn’t dig it out. Then Jose Altuve lined a base hit up the pipe, ninth-inning center field insertion Jake Marisnick grounded one to third that Rendon threw cleanly to first, and the game finally ended.

And the Astros were clean where they didn’t expect to be. Home field advantage swallowed alive. Facing a trip to Washington where they’d prefer to nuke the Nats in kind, or at least get past them for once. Their theme song after Game Two could be Alice Cooper’s chestnut, “Welcome to My Nightmare.”

The last thing the Astros want to know is that only three teams in baseball history have gone on to win the World Series after losing the first two games at home: the 1985 Royals, the 1986 Mets, and the 1996 Yankees. Or, that among the last eighteen teams who won the first two Series games only one didn’t go on to win the rings—the 1996 Braves.

Don’t tell the Nats, either. They haven’t surrendered their May-forward mentality of hoping to go 1-0 each day. “The truth is, winning these games here does nothing for us on Friday,” Zimmerman said thoughtfully after Game Two. “Zack Greinke’s pitching. And Zack Greinke is pretty good, too. So believe me, we know there’s no let-up with that team over there. So we’ve just got to keep going and keep playing like we’ve been playing.”

“I think the message is, don’t hang your head,” Verlander said just as thoughtfully. “We didn’t play our best baseball, things didn’t go our way, we have an off day tomorrow but we don’t have time to feel bad about ourselves.”

The Nats probably have no interest in giving them that time, either. The Baby Sharks are halfway to swimming in the Promised Land. The second half won’t necessarily be easy. But they’ve beaten the best Astro arms, gotten the Astros to help beat themselves, and discovered the Astros aren’t exactly Moby Dick.

Troll this, Harper haters

2019-10-17 BryceHarper

Even as they celebrate a stupefying sweep to the National League pennant, the Nationals really would have had 2019 life easier with the departed Bryce Harper. Says who? Says the evidence.

Are we over the false addition-by-subtraction narrative involving a certain former National yet? I don’t want to throw any sand in the eyes of Nats fans delirious over their team’s romp to the World Series, but ask not for whom the bell trolls, it trolls for thee.

The Nats’ previous postseason foul-ups, bleeps, and blunders had little to nothing to do with Harper himself. They went to four postseasons with him and didn’t get past the division series. So Nats fans and observers alike think getting past this year’s division series and into the World Series could only have happened without him.

Maybe it wouldn’t have been quite so ramped up if the Nats hadn’t so happened to finish sweeping the Cardinals out of the National League Championship Series the night before Harper’s 27th birthday. In a season before which Harper committed a Freudian slip during his welcome-to-the-Phillies presser (I want to bring a championship to D.C.) with which nobody could resist trolling him now.

Maybe what even the least-believing Nats fans can’t admit to themselves in the flush of the Nats’ surrealistic achievement is that in their heart of hearts—no matter how many catcalls or signs saying “Snake!” or “M(oney)L(oving)B(ryce)!” or “Bryce Arnold” (pasting Harper’s head atop Benedict’s body) showed up—they may think it would have been easier to do with Harper.

If that’s what they really think, they’re actually right. It’s just a shame that what’s proving a glorious Nats season after all had to begin under another false narrative.

Nats fans who misspelled T-R-A-T-I-O-R before Harper smashed a homecoming home run late in his first return to Nationals Park in enemy fatigues either forgot, or chose to ignore, that the Nats lost him after trying to slip him the proverbial mickey as 2018 wound down.

They offered him ten years and $300 million with $100 million of it to be deferred enabling Harper to collect checks until he reaches five years short of Social Security. The part everyone missed or chose to ignore: Deferred money decreases the actual value because it’s a set figure that doesn’t adjust for inflation. In essence, and with the best intentions, the Nats actually offered Harper below his market value to stay.

And when Harper and the Phillies began talking this past February, with Harper essentially telling his agent Scott Boras to keep his big trap shut while he talked turkey with Phillies owner John Middleton, the Phillies didn’t even think about trying to low-ball him.

Harper previously made no secret of wanting to stay in Washington. He knew how appreciated he was in the ballpark and in the city. But if you tell me you’d rather take what proves less than what your fair market tells you you’re really worth, I’ll tell you you’re lying through your teeth. The Nats as much as told him, “We appreciate you, too, but not as much as you think.”

It wasn’t as though the Nats’ owners were going broke, either. The Lerners are actually the wealthiest owners in baseball; Ted Lerner is recorded being worth $4.9 billion. Middleton is merely the third wealthiest baseball owner at $3.2 billion. But Middleton had no problem showing Harper the real market value and securing, not lowballing him.

And don’t go there about the postseasons to which the Nats went with Harper but without getting past the division series. It wasn’t even close to Harper’s fault. Don’t believe me? Ask NBC Sports’ Bill Baer, who also remembers as I do that:

* It wasn’t Harper who let the Cardinals hang four runs on the scoreboard in the top of the ninth in Game Five, 2012 division series—after the Nats jumped the Redbirds for six in the first three innings (with Harper himself starting the scoring with a first-inning RBI triple off Adam Wainwright, then going on to nail Wainwright with a leadoff home run in the third), and following starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez wild-pitching and then walking the Cardinals back to a three-run distance.

* It wasn’t Harper—whose notorious second home run of the set off then-Giants/now-Nats arsonist Hunter Strickland tied Game Five of the 2014 division series—who wild-pitched Joe Panik home with Pablo Sandoval at the plate to break a two-all tie or who stranded himself after a two-out walk in the top of the ninth to end that game and the Nats’ season.

* It also wasn’t Harper’s bright idea to hook Jordan Zimmermann one out from a Game Two shutout in that set, which would have tied the set at a game each; or to leave the better bullpen arms plus available Stephen Strasburg untroubled in Game Five, either.

* It wasn’t Harper who let the Dodgers hang up a four-spot in the top of the seventh of Game Five, 2016 NLDS, or did nothing much from there to answer back even while Clayton Kershaw pitched the ninth to save it. In his final two plate appearances after that seventh, Harper singled a pinch runner to third and worked Kershaw for a one-out walk.

* It wasn’t Harper who puked the Nats’ bed in the fifth inning of Game Five, 2017 NLDS, when an exhausted Max Scherzer was sent to the mound in relief, surrendered a two-run double, and then watched in horror with everyone else when his catcher committed a run-scoring passed ball and a throwing error on the same play, then committed catcher’s interference to load the bases, before the inning’s fourth run scored when Scherzer plunked Jon Jay.

* Harper did, however, set up the next Nats scoring in the bottom of the sixth, when he doubled Jayson Werth to third right before Werth scored on a wild-pitch walk and Ryan Zimmerman doubled Harper home. And after the Cubs made it 9-6, Harper sent the seventh Nats run home with a sacrifice fly.

But no. Everyone wants to remember he struck out to end the game. Nobody wants to remember he wasn’t the reason the Cubs went forward and not the Nats, or that the Cubs made a still-manageable 7-4 game into an 8-4 game when Addison Russell doubled Ben Zobrist home in the top of the sixth.

What of 2019, after the Phillies signed Harper to a platinum contract making him a Phillie for life? Who replaced Harper in right field for the Nats this season, trolls? Fellow named Adam Eaton. Nice fellow. Wouldn’t harm the proverbial fly, seemingly. Good ballplayer. Didn’t exactly hurt the team. Pitched in big in that seven-run first in Game Four.

And wasn’t as good as Harper in 2019. Not even close.

It only begins in right field itself. For a guy whose defense has been solid one season and not so solid the next, Harper in 2019 was worth nine runs saved above the league average to the Phillies in right. Eaton to the Nats? One. I submit a man who saves his teams nine runs above average is more valuable at that position than a man who saves his team but one.

The sourpusses to whom the incomplete traditional batting average (which should really be considered just a hitting average) is the alpha and omega of hitter measurement will look at Harper’s .260 traditional batting average against Eaton’s .279 and decide right then and there, with no further need to examine, apparently, that you should want Eaton at the plate more than Harper.

Well, no, you shouldn’t.

Harper also had an .882 OPS to Eaton’s .792 this season. Harper’s on-base percentage was .372 to Eaton’s .365. I submit that right then and there the argument ought to have stopped. Bryce Harper would have been more valuable to the Nationals than Adam Eaton was this season and beyond.

And so what if Harper struck out 62 more times than Eaton? Harper on a team that turned out not to be quite as good as the Nats this season produced 219 runs (the sum of his runs scored and driven in) to Eaton’s 152. Since Harper’s Phillies finished 2019 with a .327 on-base percentage and Eaton’s Nats finished with a .352 on-base percentage, I submit that Harper looks even better for seeing his opportunities and seizing them.

On a more advanced examination level, Harper created 115 runs to Eaton’s 95; Harper’s run creation boils down to 7.0 runs created per game to Eaton’s 5.9, and Harper used 3.8 outs per run to Eaton’s 4.5 outs per run. You read it right. Bryce Harper in 2019 used fewer outs than Adam Eaton to account for more scoring.

That’s without observing that Harper delivered 72 out of 149 hits for extra bases overall (that’s a .483 extra base hit percentage) while Eaton delivered 47 out of 158 hits for extra bases overall (a .297 extra base hit percentage). And I didn’t even mention Harper hitting 35 home runs to Eaton’s fifteen until this very second.

By the way, if you want to talk about doings on the bases, you might care to observe that Harper and Eaton had the same number of stolen bases and arrests trying in 2019: fifteen thefts, three caught. That’s about the only way in which the Nats got equal value from Eaton this year.

Now we get to the proverbial nitty gritty, the thing that separates the boys from the men around here: how did these two guys do when they checked in at the plate in the highest-leverage moments, the moments that most mean runs on the scoreboard and/or chances to take leads and even win if these guys are at the plate?

All you people who still think the Nats were better off with Adam Eaton than they would have been with Bryce Harper this season aren’t going to like this:

High Leverage Hitting PA H XBH RBI BA OBP SLG OPS TB
Bryce Harper, 2019 127 35 21 50 .307 .370 .667 1.037 76
Adam Eaton, 2019 87 17 5 16 .236 .305 .333 .638 24

The Nats scored the second-most runs (873) in the National League in 2019 behind the Dodgers (886). I submit that Harper would have made the Nats the most-scoring team in the league by a few runs. And if you wanted someone to get the job done when you had runners on second or better and two outs, Harper’s the one you wanted: he has a 2019 OPS of 1.214 in that situation against Eaton’s .559.

Do you still want to tell me this year’s Nats are better off not having had Harper but having had Eaton? Even remembering the world lamented Harper’s low traditional batting average in the first half, consider Harper’s season-long high-leverage hitting and consider in hand whether that would have helped the Nats to far enough better than that much-discussed 19-31 start.

Without denigrating one degree the Nats’ stupefying October run from the wild card game to the World Series they’re now waiting to play, I think it’s fair to say that Harper would have made the Nats’ off-the-charts postseason pitching breathe that much easier whether in right field or at the plate.

Ain’t I a stinker? And I didn’t even think about wins above a replacement-level player until now.

But being the stinker I am, I have to do it: Harper was worth 4.2 WAR by Baseball Reference‘s measurement, and Eaton was worth 1.6. On the Phillies only catcher J.T. Realmuto (4.4) was worth a feather more than Harper and probably because he played a far tougher field position. On the Nats, five position players were well ahead of Eaton, from Anthony Rendon’s 6.3 to Howie Kendrick’s 2.6.

Think about that for a moment. While it seems like too much of the world thinks the Nats were better off this year without Bryce Harper but with Adam Eaton in right field, an aging, injury-historied veteran Nats infielder was worth one full WAR more than Eaton. (And of course you have to love it that Kendrick, worth that one full WAR more, dropped the bomb that yanked the Nats into their freshly-swept NLCS in the first place.)

Stinker that I am further, I have to measure Harper and Eaton by what I call a real batting average. Once again: the traditional batting average is a false measurement because it accounts for nothing more than your hits divided by your official at-bats and treats all your hits as having equal value.

You don’t need more than a nursery school education to know that all hits do not have equal value. But if you think a single is worth a double, a double is worth a triple, or all the above are worth a home run, maybe you should think about going back to night school. In kindergarten. Failing to account for every trip made to the plate is simply an incomplete measure of a batter’s value at the plate.

A real batting average would add your total bases (which do measure the true value of your hits), your walks, your intentional walks (once again: you deserve extra credit when the other guys decide they’d rather you take first base than their pitcher’s head off), your sacrifices, and the times you got hit by a pitch, then divide that total by all your plate appearances.

So—how do Harper and Eaton account for themselves in terms of a real batting average? Again, the Harper-haters aren’t going to like this one:

Real Batting Averages PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Bryce Harper, 2019 682 292 99 11 4 6 .604
Adam Eaton, 2019 656 242 65 0 3 9 .486

Would you care to remember that the real reason the Phillies ended up four games under .500 had nothing to do with Harper and everything to do with a) their none-too-good pitching this year, b) the apparent regressions of Rhys Hoskins and Maikel Franco; c) losing Andrew McCutchen for the season to injury after 59 games; and, d) their now-executed manager.

Gabe Kapler may have been deft with analytics, but he seemed blissfully unaware of the best ways to apply the data and seemed clumsy too often in the actual, critical, in-the-game, game-on-the-line moment. He forgot, if he ever knew, that the arguable accidental grandfather of analytics, Casey Stengel, boiled it down to one simple sentence: Baseball is percentage plus execution. Steeped in percentage, Kapler—with or without any string pulling from the front office—seemed ignorant of execution until it wasn’t executed but he finally was.

The Nats aren’t allergic to analytics at all, even if they don’t play it up the way other analytically-inclined teams like the Astros do. But they, like the Astros, execute. That’s the real reason why they finally executed the Dodgers before so thoroughly vaporising the Cardinals to reach the coming World Series. The real evidence says the Nats would have had that much more execution if they hadn’t essentially low-balled Harper last year.

So have your fun, Nats fans and others who still can’t resist trolling Harper over the Nats going there without him. I get that you resent him going to the enemy after everything Washington did for him, and you’re not liable to root for him in enemy fatigues, ever.

I also get that it should make you pray that much harder that the Lerners learned their lesson and don’t compel Anthony Rendon further to test his first free agency market, rather than offering to do him right by his actual market value. And, that they do what it takes to make Stephen Strasburg want to ignore the opt-out clause he can exercise this off-season to come and stay in the Nats family after all.

But I don’t get why you cling to the false narratives that say the Nats’ administration had no responsibility for Harper’s departure and that the Nats really were that much better off without him this year. Yes, they won the pennant without him. But the evidence says winning the pennant would have been a lot easier with him.

The Angels win with overloaded hearts

2019-07-03 TrevorCahill

Angels relief pitcher Trevor Cahill gives a salute to the late Tyler Skaggs. Showing class to burn, the Rangers installed Skaggs’ uniform number—in the Angels’ uniform font—behind their pitching rubber in memorial tribute for Tuesday’s game.

A teammate dies without warning as a season comes to within sight of the halfway marker. Your scheduled road opponent is gracious enough to cancel the game scheduled that night out of respect for your loss. The grief within your clubhouse and your front office is too real to suppress. And back home your fans are laying out item after item, flower after flower, message after message in your teammate and friend’s memory.

“LTBU in heaven!” said a scrawl on one souvenir batting helmet left among the memory gifts, referring to Angel fans’ customary call (Light that baby up!) after Angels wins, to light the halo around the original stadium big A scoreboard now implanted in the back parking lot.

Angel fans get to mourn Tyler Skaggs a little longer than the Angels themselves in terms of the schedule, because the Angels still had a game to play against the Rangers in Arlington Tuesday night.

Whether you’re in the depth of a pennant race, on the race’s fringes, or headed for the repose where the also-rans will commiserate when it’s all over, you know in your heart of hearts, gut of guts, and mind of minds, that the young man you mourn would rather you suit up, shape up, and step up on the mound, at the plate, on the bases, in the field, than spend more than a single day’s grief without playing the game he loved with you.

So the Angels did what they knew their lost brother wanted. They suited up, shaped up, stepped up, with Skaggs’s uniform number (45) on a small round black patch on their jerseys’ left breasts. They carried Skaggs’s Angels jersey for a pre-game moment of silence in his honour.

“It was just kind of something unplanned. His jersey was hanging in his locker. We wanted to take him out there with us one more time,” said pitcher Andrew Heaney later. “He was definitely my best friend. There’s probably about 100 other people out there that would say he was their best friend, too, because he treated everybody like that.”

His best friends beat the Rangers, 9-4, on a night during which the Rangers showed the Angels such respect as canning the walkup music and others among the normal rackets for Ranger feats at home. The Rangers even installed a red number 45 behind the pitching rubber. In the Angels’ uniform font. To do Skaggs and his team honour.

And not a single Angel tried to hide his grief at a post-game conference.

Their all-everything center fielder, Mike Trout, spent most of the game walking three times and scoring on a base hit. Maybe the single greatest star in the Angels’ firmament, ever, Trout couldn’t get through a simple expression of what Skaggs meant to himself and their team without several chokings back of tears.

“Lost a teammate, lost a friend, a brother, we just got to get through it,” he said shakily. “He was an unbelievable person. It’s all about him. Husband of Carli, what a sweet girl, Debbie his mom, you know, a good relationship with them. You know, it’s just a tough, you know, 24 hours.

“We’re getting through it, tough playing out there today, but like Brad [Ausmus, the Angels’ manager] said earlier, Skaggs, you know, he wouldn’t want us to take another day off,” Trout continued. “The energy he brought into this clubhouse, you know, every time you saw him he’d pick you up. It’s going to be tough, you know, these next couple of days, the rest of the season, the rest of our lives, you know, to lose a friend . . . All these guys in here, you know, I see these guys more than my family. To lose somebody like him is tough.”

In Washington, Nationals pitcher Patrick Corbin, close friends with Skaggs since their Diamondbacks days, switched his uniform from 46 to Skaggs’s 45. Then he went out to pitch his regular turn, his manager Dave Martinez saying it was just about all Corbin could do. Corbin himself affirmed it after the Nats beat the Marlins, 3-2, Trea Turner walking it off with an RBI hit.

“When you have a loss, you want to keep things as normal as you can and just try to go out there and do what you have to do,” Corbin said after that game. But he never said it would be easy to pitch through the memories of their being drafted together by the Angels, traded together to the Diamondbacks, and in each other’s wedding parties this past offseason.

Corbin not only changed his uniform number to Skaggs’s but scratched the number in the dirt behind the mound before he managed to pitch seven innings despite being disrupted by a rain delay of over an hour, surrendering one run, no walks, and seven strikeouts.

Another Nat had personal ties to Skaggs. Adam Eaton played in the fall instructional leagues with Skaggs. And they were eventually traded away from the Diamondbacks in the same three-way deal that returned Skaggs to the Angels and sent Eaton to the White Sox.

“Saw his debut. Saw his first hit. Saw his first strikeout. Know his wife. My wife knows his family. It’s just . . . I’m not quite sure it’s hit me yet,” the outfielder said, shades covering his teary eyes. “My family, our hearts go out to his family. He’s kind of kicked us in the pants in his passing that we need to take every day as it’s our last and enjoy our family and love our family and what’s important in our life, and know that we’re blessed to play this game every day. That’s the gift he’s given us, even after.”

As for the Angels, they started the game with a first-inning, run-scoring ground out before a first-inning sacrifice fly, a third-inning solo homer, and a double steal including home put the Rangers up 3-1. The Angels tied it in the fifth on a base hit that turned into two runs home on an outfield throwing error; a four-run sixth—an RBI single, a runner-advancing throwing error, another RBI single, and a sacrifice fly—put them ahead to stay.

The Rangers got their final run on another sacrifice fly, and the Angels got their final two when shortstop Andrelton Simmons opened the top of the eighth with a walk and, one out later, right fielder Kole Calhoun drove a middle-high fastball parabolically over the right center field fence. The win pulled the Angels back to .500 and to within four games of the American League wild card hunt.

Those small details were probably the last things on their minds Tuesday night. They might be a little more concerned for Tommy La Stella, their breakout All-Star, who had to leave the game in the sixth after fouling a pitch off his right leg below his knee. But La Stella probably thought his injury was tiny compared to the wrench in the team’s hearts.

“It’s bigger than the game. The friendship and the love I had for him and his family, it’s more than that,” Trout said.

“Today it was just different,” said Calhoun after the game, “and there’s no playbook on how it’s supposed to go today and you’re supposed to act and react. But getting back to the game definitely is what he would have wanted. Today was a day that we leaned on each other like we really needed to do.”

The same thing happened ten years earlier, after rookie pitcher Nick Adenhart was killed by a drunk driver while out celebrating after a splendid first start of the season. The day after Adenhart’s death, the Angels beat the Red Sox, 6-3, in Angel Stadium. The win was only partial comfort then just as it was Tuesday night in Arlington.

It doesn’t always work that way.

Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile died unexpectedly of a heart attack in June 2002, while the Cardinals were in Chicago to play the Cubs. The following day, they lost to the Cubs, 8-2, with the Cubs scoring all eight before the eighth inning including a four-run sixth, and the Cardinals able to muster only two in the eighth—on future Hall of Famer (and current Angel) Albert Pujols’s two-run homer—and one in the ninth on an RBI single.

When Yankee catcher Thurman Munson was killed in the crash of his own aircraft, the Yankees played the Orioles the day after and lost a 1-0 heartbreaker in Yankee Stadium. In a game featuring three future Hall of Famers (Eddie Murray, Reggie Jackson, and Goose Gossage) and a pitching duel between Scott McGregor of the Orioles and Luis Tiant of the Yankees, the lone run came when John Lowenstein hammered a Tiant service over the fence.

A year earlier, Angels outfielder Lyman Bostock was murdered while on a visit to Gary, Indiana, in a car, when a man fired at the car hoping to hit his estranged wife, whom he suspected having an involvement, shall we say, with another man in the car. The next day, the Angels beat the Brewers in extra innings, Carney Lansford singling home Danny Goodwin with two out in the tenth.

Death in season sometimes rallies teams and other times knocks them apart. Maybe no death in Reds’ history was as shocking as the 2 August 1940 suicide of reserve catcher Will Hershberger—whose own father had committed suicide previously. Blaming himself for a doubleheader loss, Hershberger reportedly told manager Bill McKechnie more than that troubled him but nothing to do with the team, and McKechnie never disclosed the rest.

The Reds played another doubleheader the day after Hershberger’s death. They swept the Boston Braves (then known as the Bees), then went on to win the pennant with a 23-8 September before beating the Tigers in seven in the World Series. McKechnie publicly dedicated the rest of the season and the pennant chase to Hershberger, and the Reds awarded a full winning World Series share to Hershberger’s mother while they were at it.

And when Indians shortstop Ray Chapman died after being coned by Carl Mays’s fastball in 1920, the stricken Tribe—with just a little help from the explosion of the Eight Men Out being taken out in Chicago at almost season’s end—ended up winning the pennant and the World Series.

The 1955 Red Sox were headed only to a fourth place finish but they suffered the unexpected death of promising young first baseman Harry Agganis to a pulmonary embolish on 27 June that year. The following day, the Red Sox swept the Washington Senators in a doubleheader compelled by a rainout earlier that season. The scores were 4-0 in the opener and 8-2 in the nightcap.

These Angels may or may not band up and make a surprise run to the postseason from here. But they honoured their effervescent pitching teammate now gone in the only coin all accounts suggest Skaggs would have accepted. They played ball. And they beat a team who probably didn’t really mind getting their tails kicked for just one night, because the grief felt around baseball over Skaggs’s unexpected death was just too real.

“We knew what they were dealing with on the other side,” Rangers manager Chris Woodward said after the game. “We were trying to comprehend the impact something like that would have on our ball club. I can’t even describe the feelings they were having. Obviously, it wasn’t our best game, but clearly it affected us in some way. Honestly, I don’t know how to describe that feeling. It was just kind of obvious they deserved to win.”

“We know we’ve got an angel watching over us now,” Calhoun said. “When I got to the plate, it felt right to pay some respect to him, and like I said, we know we’ve got somebody watching over us up there.” Somebody who didn’t deserve to die at 27.