Two from first in the National League

2019-10-12 MaxScherzer

Thanks large to Max the Knife, it’s “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and two from first in the National League” . . .

Max Scherzer wanted to be a Cardinal when he grew up. That’d teach him. He got to be a Tiger for long enough. Then he got to be a very wealthy National. Earning every last dollar of his delicious contract long enough before this year’s National League Championship Series.

And thanks to himself and Anibal Sanchez making for a little deja vu all over again, the Nats are halfway to their first World Series.

Now, remember, that’s only halfway. But right now the Nats can’t be feeling anything other than that all the way won’t necessarily be the hard way, if not no way.

That was 2013: Sanchez and Scherzer were Tigers who kept the Red Sox hitless through five in back-to-back American League Championship Series games. This is 2019: they  kept the Cardinals hitless through five or more in back-to-back NLCS games. The first teammates to do it once against a single team became the first to do it twice likewise.

They just hope the net result this time isn’t what it was six years ago. In 2013 the Red Sox still went all the way to a World Series triumph. In October 2019 the Nats would prefer that the Cardinals not even think about it.

Sanchez lost his would-be no-no to a pinch hitter with two out in the Game One eighth Friday night. After dueling Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright magnificently, matching him strikeout for strikeout and keeping the Redbirds unbalanced at the plate, Scherzer lost his to Cardinal first baseman Paul Goldschmidt leading off the Game Two seventh Saturday afternoon.

And, after he rid himself of the next three Cardinals swiftly enough to end his afternoon, what was Max the Knife’s reward?

Oh, nothing much except credit for a win and a late spell of hair-raising before Daniel Hudson nailed down the 3-1 final in Busch Stadium. Everything was as succulent as the Nats could ask until reliever Sean Doolittle nailed two outs to open the bottom of the eighth and Paul DeJong rapped a clean single to right center.

Then Jose Martinez pinch hit for Cardinals reliever Andrew Miller, a day after he broke Sanchez’s no-no in the same role. After wrestling Doolittle to a tenth pitch, Martinez hit a nice, neat line drive right at Nats center fielder Michael A. Taylor. All Taylor had to do was stand still, let the ball come right to him, hold his glove up for the catch, and breathe as he threw the ball back in.

But Taylor inexplicably pushed in a few steps, then broke right back realising he’d come in too short, and by the time he was back for a flying leap the ball flew over his outstretched glove and toward the wall. DeJong whipped his horse and galloped home with the Cardinals’ first run since the fourth inning of Game Five in their division series.

Just like that Taylor threatened to negate the first-swing leadoff yank off Wainwright that he sent about six or seven rows into the left field seats in the top of the third. Just like that, it may have felt more than a little that the Nats’ splendid, mostly self-made fortune was about to get waylaid by a tax collector.

Lucky for him and the Nats that Doolittle didn’t give the Cardinals the chance for their mostly dormant bats to awaken any further. He got Dexter Fowler to fly out almost promptly to erase the side.

And then Nats skipper Dave Martinez baffled just about everyone with Natitude except anyone paying attention to the past performance papers. With a lefthander already in the game, Martinez brought in Patrick Corbin, his already-designated Game Four starting lefthander, to open the bottom of the ninth against lefthanded hitting Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong.

Martinez remembered what the Cardinals probably wanted to forget, that Wong came to the plate having gone 0-for-5 with two strikeouts against Corbin previously. The last thing Martinez wanted was Wong reaching base somehow and turning the bases into a track meet. And, sure enough, Wong obeyed the script. On 0-1 Corbin lured him into a simple ground out to second base.

Then Martinez brought Hudson in to finish it off with Goldschmidt flying out to left and Marcell Ozuna popping out to first.

The game actually might have ended 1-0 if Cardinals manager Mike Shildt hadn’t blundered his way into a pair of Nats insurance runs in the top of the eighth. With first and second and one out, and after pitching coach Mike Maddux confabbed with Wainwright on the mound, Shildt elected to let his veteran righthander pitch to lefthanded Adam Eaton.

Eaton—who came into Game Two with a lifetime 1.169 OPS (5-for-11) against Wainwright. With the lefthanded Miller ready to go in the bullpen. Shildt paid more attention to Eaton’s so-far game-long struggle to hit in the peculiar Busch Stadium shadows than to Eaton’s history with Wainwright. And the shadows long enough progressed to the point where they weren’t quite so bothersome at the plate.

What was bothersome was Eaton ripping one right past a diving Goldschmidt at first, up the right field line, and off the sidewall, letting Matt Adams (Scherzer’s pinch hitter with a one-out double) score standing up and Trea Turner (following Adams with a shuttlecock single to right center) to follow him, Turner diving across the plate like an Olympic swimmer with the third Nats run.

That’s the way to [fornicate] up anyone getting in your Cardinals’ way, Skip.

Scherzer and Wainwright put on yet another clinic in knocking the balance to one side Saturday afternoon, each righthander leaning at least as much if not more on breaking balls just off-speed enough to keep the hard hit balls down to a minimum and keep their defenses working possible overtime. Even running several deep counts Max the Knife thrust when he absolutely had to.

“I came in and my arm didn’t feel great,” he told reporters after the game. “But around the fourth or fifth inning I felt like everything kind of loosened up in my shoulder. I was able to find my arm slot and I was driving my fastball into locations where I wanted.”

Each struck out eleven batters; each threw first-pitch strikes two-thirds of the time; it was the duel of the masters that Wainwright described before Game Two as the next best thing to an early Christmas present. It sure didn’t hurt that the odd shadows crawling across the field for a little more than half the game made things very conducive to smart, sharp pitching.

Which is exactly what both teams and their fans expect on Monday night when Game Three begins in Nationals Park. When Jack Flaherty, the Cardinals’ boy wonder who all but ruled the National League from the mound in the season’s second half, tangles with Stephen Strasburg, a former boy wonder who carries a 1.32 lifetime postseason ERA on his jacket.

And since the Nats now have three reasonably reliable bullpen bulls to call upon, it won’t be quite as simple as just hoping Flaherty knocks the bats right out of the Nats’ hands. The Nats don’t let their bats get knocked away that way for very long these days.

The Cardinals’ starting players are now 2-for-54 in the NLCS. If they don’t figure out how to recalibrate their bats and hit, and fast, Flaherty can no-hit the Nats himself including strikeouts for every out, and the Nats will still find a way to win.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence in our hitters,” Wainwright said after the game. “I think our hitters are going to do something special in Washington.” With Strasburg looming and Corbin right behind him in Game Four, they’d better.

Right now they’re saying, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and two from first in the National League.” The Nats are too smart, too aware of their past postseason plotzes, to let this thrill knock them off task just yet.

So much for a young man’s game

2019-10-08 ZimmermanScherzer

Ryan Zimmerman (left) and Max Scherzer looked older at a postgame presser than they looked playing Game Five of the Nats’ division series against the Dodgers Monday night.

Once upon a time, a generation insisted you couldn’t trust anyone over thirty. Even that was pushing it; to hear some of them talk (I know, because it was my generation, even if the words never quite came out of my own mouth) you’d have thought trusting anyone over 25 was begging for trouble.

At times in recent years it’s seemed as though baseball’s unspoken but unbreakable mottos include not trusting anyone over thirty. Well, now. If thirty is baseball’s new forty, then baseball’s geriatric generation’s been doing a lot of heavy lifting this postseason and beyond. Without walkers, wheelchairs, canes, or portable respirators, even.

It’s hard to believe because it seems like yesterday, sometimes, that he was a hot draft, but Stephen Strasburg—in the Nationals’ original starters-as-relievers postseason scheme—got credit for the win in the National League wild card game with three spotless relief innings. At the ripe old age of 31.

Strasburg also pitched six with a single earned run against him in division series Game One against the Dodgers and takes a lifetime 0.94 postseason ERA into his Game Five start in Dodger Stadium Wednesday. The Nats aren’t exactly a mostly-young team but they’re putting their fate into thirtysomething hands.

That may be the problem. Even with the professiorial beard he wears now, Strasburg doesn’t look his age yet. He still looks like a lad on the threshold of sitting for his final exams in freshman year. He isn’t even close to being as grizzled as Max Scherzer. Few among even his fellow old Nats do.

If you believe in respecting your elders (never mind how often your elders have betrayed your respect, as often they have), things get better from there. Consider, if you will:

* Two 35-year-old Nats, Max Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman, delivered the primary goods Monday night to push the Nats-Dodgers division series to a fifth game Wednesday. Max the Knife shook off a first-inning solo homer to go six and two-thirds scoreless including a crazy escape from a seventh-inning, ducks-on-the-pond jam, and Zimmerman jolted Nationals Park with a three-run homer into the crosswinds in the bottom of the fifth.

In those hours both Scherzer and Zimmerman looked as though they’d done it for the first time in their lives. Maybe there is such a thing as baseball’s fountain of youth.

* An ancient Cardinals catcher, Yadier Molina, tied Game Four of their division series with the Braves with an eighth-inning RBI single, then won the game with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the tenth. And, a followup bat flip the young’uns should envy.

* Another Cardinal ancient, Adam Wainwright, pitched maybe the best exhibition of pressure baseball of his life in Game Three. It went for nothing, unfortunately, since Wainwright left the game with the Cardinals behind 1-0. But Wainwright will tell his eventual grandchildren about the noisy standing O Grandpa got as he tipped his hat to the Busch Stadium faithful.

* On the other hand, if it took a young Braves whippersnapper (Dansby Swanson) to tie the game in the ninth, it took an old fart of 31 (Adam Duvall) to pinch hit immediately after and drive home what proved the winning runs with a single up the pipe. And I didn’t notice Duvall carrying a portable oxygen tank with him.

* “We got Verlandered,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said memorably after Pops Verlander, all 36 years old of him, threw seven shutout innings their way in Game One of their division series. And if you think 29 might as well be 30 and therefore on the threshold of dismissability, be reminded the Rays got Coled the following day. As in, Gerrit Cole’s seven and two-thirds, fifteen-strikeouts shutout innings.

* Abuelo Edwin Encarnacion, like Verlander an ancient 36, tied Game One between the Yankees and the Twins with an RBI double in the bottom of the first. A 30-year-old fart named D.J. LaMahieu put the Yankees up by a pair with a bottom-of-the-sixth home run; a 35-year-old creaker named Brett Gardner hit one out one out later, and the Yankees routed the Twins in Game One and the division series sweep.

Lest you think the postseason’s been the sole triumphant province of the senior citizenry, be reminded sadly that Nelson Cruz—all 39 years old of him, who had the regular season of a player young enough to be his grandson (41 home runs, 290 total bases, 1.031 OPS, 4.3 wins above a replacement-level player), and who hit one out to make a short-lived 2-0 Twins lead in Game One—ended Game Three on the wrong side when he looked at a third strike from all 31 years old worth of Yankee closer Aroldis Chapman.

Just as there’s a rule in sports that somebody has to lose, there’s a parallel rule that says sometimes one old man has to beat another old man to win.

A prehistoric Ray, Charlie Morton, took 35 years to the mound on Monday and threw five innings of one-run, three-hit, nine-strikeout baseball at his former Astros mates to keep the Rays alive, barely. And the Rays abused likewise 35-year-old Zack Greinke—who’d pitched like anything except a nursing home denizen since joining the Astros at the new single-season trade deadline—for six runs including three home runs in three and two-thirds innings’ work.

The Yankees only looked like old men when it seemed you couldn’t visit one New York-area hospital this season without finding a group of Yankees among the emergency room patients. The Astros only looked like old men likewise regarding Houston-area clinics this year. Except to their opponents, it’s funny how they don’t look like old men when they play baseball.

Pops Verlander’s getting another crack at the Rays in Game Four. Strasburg the Elder has to tangle with a whippersnapper named Walker Buehler in Game Five. The eyes of us seniors will be upon them.

Unfortunately, there are those elders who behave occasionally like the ancient Alice Cooper lyric: “I’ve got a baby’s brain/and an old man’s heart.” Molina did after he sent the Cardinals toward Game Five. Hands around his throat in a choke gesture aimed at the Braves. In a series pitting two of baseball’s more notorious Fun Police departments, that puts a new twist on police brutality and underscores why respecting your elders is  easier said than done often enough.

Sunday, bloody Sunday

2019 NLDS Game 3 - Atlanta Braves v. St. Louis Cardinals

Adam Wainwright’s Sunday virtuosity ended up going for naught.

Adam Wainwright had every reason on earth to feel nothing but a powerful desire to arrange Carlos Martinez’s necktie party Sunday. So did every citizen of Cardinal Country. So did every last baseball fan who prayed for and got an impeccable pitchers’ duel, with the Braves’ Mike Soroka playing Dickey Betts to Wainwright’s Duane Allman for virtuosity.

The duel that ended with Martinez’s Spike Jones sneaking explosives into the drums and the Braves standing one win from a National League Championship Series engagement. It’s a good thing for Martinez that Wainwright is a forgiving soul. He had no intention after the staggering 3-1 Braves win in Busch Stadium of doing anything but giving Martinez a big hug.

“And Carlos will be ready tomorrow,” the 38-year-old righthander who may be approaching the end of a solid if injury-compromised career. “Let’s hope one moment doesn’t define his season, because I’d like to see him get another chance.”

Unfortunately, Wainwright and Cardinals manager Mike Schildt may be the only one with that wish. “He’ll be in that spot [Monday],” the skipper said, “and I’ll have full confidence in him.” He says that now, but . . .

Even Braves closer Mark Melancon had Martinez’s back after the game. “You’re not looking to see guys fail,” he told a reporter. “You want to do it the right way, big on big and beat somebody. We’ve all been there. I can’t say that I didn’t want to win, but Carlos is an incredible pitcher. We’ve got to come back strong tomorrow because he’s going to come back, I’m sure.”

After opening with a leadoff double but two straight strikeouts Sunday afternoon, Martinez surrendering back-to-back RBI hits that broke the Cardinals’ backs and Cardinal Country’s hearts for the bottom of the ninth means nobody’s really sure. “There were some pitches that didn’t go where they were supposed to go,” the righthander said afterward. “I didn’t have the best grip on the slider. I tried to get that pitch to do what it was supposed to do and I didn’t get to it.”

The single greatest exhibition of pressure pitching of Wainwright’s life was laid to waste right there.

With an enviable enough postseason pitching record as it is—he has a lifetime 2.79 ERA and 1.03 walks/hits per inning pitched rate in October—Wainwright for seven innings couldn’t be stopped with a subpoena, never mind a S.W.A.T. team. Especially throwing the curve ball he calls King Charles, the way Mets legend Dwight Gooden’s curve was once known as Lord Charles.

If Wainwright wasn’t quite as masterly as the Astros’ Gerrit Cole the day before, he was close enough and too much so for the Braves’ discomfort. He nailed eight strikeouts, trusted his defenders just enough, didn’t let plate umpire Sam Holbrook’s microscopic strike zone faze him any more than Soroka did, didn’t let his own club’s lack of cash-in offense bother him, and made a 1-0 lead—acquired on a Marcell Ozuna double, a Yadier Molina ground out pushing Ozuna to third, and a Matt Carpenter sacrifice fly in the second inning—feel almost like a 10-0 lead.

Then, after Brian McCann popped out to the third base side near the plate to open the top of the eighth, Wainwright’s tank ran past E. Dansby Swanson shot one through the hole at short for a single. Soroka’s pinch hitter Adam Duvall lined out to third but Ronald Acuna, Jr. worked himself to a full-count walk, Wainwright’s first of the day. And Ozzie Albies walked on 3-1 to load the pads for Freddie Freeman.

Exit Wainwright, enter Andrew Miller, who hasn’t been the same as he was with the Indians thanks to their overworking him while he was hot and a couple of injuries to follow that have sapped his once-formidable repertoire if not his heart. The Cardinals needed it to be classic Miller Time in the worst way possible now.

And after a swinging strike to open, Miller got Freeman to fly out to Dexter Fowler in center field and strand the ducks on the pond.

The problem was, the Cardinals weren’t any better after pushing Soroka’s relief Max Fried in the bottom of the eighth. Fried walked Carpenter to open, with Schildt sending swift Harrison Bader out to run for the veteran. Bader distracted Fried enough to compel a walk to Tommy Edman before Paul DeJong flied out toward the right field line. Exit Fried, enter Darren O’Day.

Also enter Jose Martinez pinch hitting in Miller’s lineup slot. O’Day faked a throw over and Bader took off, only to get hung up between second and third before O’Day threw him out at third. Then Martinez hit a sinking liner to left that Duvall on his horse could only reach and trap. You could taste the RBI that wasn’t on a plate dipped in A-1 sauce.

Bader’s arrest for attempted grand theft loomed even larger after Sean Newcomb relieved Day and got Fowler to fly out to his center field counterpart Acuna for the side. Then Schildt put Bader into center field, moved Edman from right field to third base, shifted Fowler to right field, and called on Carlos Martinez.

Josh Donaldson might have ripped a double past the diving Edman at third and down the left field line into the corner for a leadoff double, but Martinez bagged Nick Markakis and pinch hitter Adeiny Hechevarria—who’d been 4-for-6 in that role since joining the Braves—back to back on swinging strikeouts.

The bad news was Donaldson’s pinch runner Billy Hamilton, whose road running on the bases is almost his only ability that enables him to play major league baseball, getting too much into Martinez’s head. So much so that when Hechevarria swung strike three Hamilton stole third without so much as a beat cop hollering “Stop, thief!”

“At the time you want to get to third with one out, so that was a bad break,” Hamilton told reporters after the game. “But getting to third even with two outs, what if Martinez bounces one in the dirt? I could score. And maybe he has to pitch the next guy differently.”

Then, after Molina and Martinez confabbed at the mound with Molina obviously upset and Schildt joining them to settle them down and get back to business, McCann—the potential go-ahead run—was awarded first on the house and Rafael Ortega assigned to pinch run for the prodigal Braves’ catcher.

Swanson checked in at the plate 0-for-6 lifetime against Martinez. Every star aligned in Martinez’s favour. “The Cardinals start doing game management,” said McCann after the game, “and then Dansby came up clutch.”

Clutch enough to send one off the left field fence and send Hamilton home to tie it at one. “God blessed me with good hand-eye coordination,” the Braves’ shortstop said after the game. “In those situations, you just try and breathe and relax. It’s easier said than done.”

And Duvall dumped a quail into short center down for a base hit, scoring Ortega readily with Bader throwing home but well off and over the third base line, enabling Swanson to score the third run.

Only after walking Acuna did Martinez escape, getting Albies to line out to right. And after Freeman made a sensational extension to hold a wide throw from shortstop and keep his toe on first base to nail Kolten Wong opening, Paul Goldschmidt banked a double off the right field side wall off Melancon. But Ozuna looked at strike three on the inside corner and Molina flied out to center.

It gave the Braves their first postseason series lead in seventeen years and gave the Cardinals a reminder of what they might have really lost when Jordan Hicks, their originally assigned closer, having a solid season to that point, went down with Tommy John surgery in late June. Might.

Maybe a healthy Hicks keeps the Braves pinned in the ninth Sunday. Maybe he doesn’t. Two days after Martinez barely survived to keep a Cardinal win a win, he didn’t survive. And the Cardinals get to host the Braves for Game Four on the fiftieth anniversary of making the trade that helped change baseball.

It was 7 October 1969 when they traded center field mainstay Curt Flood to the Phillies. The trade Flood rejected for the reserve clause challenge that went all the way to the Supreme Court before losing—yet pushing open the door through which Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter and then Andy Messersmith would escort free agency’s advent.

Fifty years ago, too, the Miracle Mets shocked the world with their division, pennant, and World Series triumphs. Their golden anniversary team couldn’t stay the distance even toward a wild card game spot. The Cardinals have bigger stakes to play for on the Flood trade’s golden anniversary.

And a lot to make up for to Adam Wainwright, who’d love nothing more than one more postseason start at minimum. He won’t say he’ll retire after the Cardinals’ season ends; he won’t say he won’t, either.

“(I)n my mind, I’ve got two more series to pitch through, you know?” Wainwright said Sunday evening. “We got the NLCS (and) the World Series pitch through. But first we got to win (Monday). That’s where my head’s at right now. But no, I never once felt like today was it. Either we’ve got more games to win, or I’ve got more games to pitch.”

If his injuries over the years keep him from thinking about the Hall of Fame, Wainwright at least thinks the way a Hall of Famer does. Against a group of Braves who don’t know the meaning of the word surrender just yet, that attitude needs to rub off a lot more on the Cardinals now.