California bombs, California rough stuff

The pandemic-mandated empty house aside, 5 October might as well be Alex Bregman Day . . .

Mr. October Fifth? What’s up with that?

It’s not Alex Bregman’s birthday. (For the record, that’s 30 March.) It’s not his engagement date. (He popped the question to a Colorado lady named Reagan Howard in January.) It’s not his future wedding date. There seems nothing significant elsewhere for him about that date.

Except when he plays postseason baseball. For a fourth consecutive 5 October Bregman found a pitch meaty enough to send long distance. Mark your 2021 calendar accordingly if you must.

He led off the top of the fourth against Oakland starter Chris Bassitt Monday afternoon, starting an American League division series, and sent a 1-2 service into the pandemically-required unoccupied left field bleachers.

It put his Houston Astros on the board after the Athletics helped themselves to a 3-0 lead on long balls themselves. It gave his infield teammate Carlos Correa thoughts about not wanting to be left out of the action after Kyle Tucker followed with a single through the left side of the infield, Correa hitting a 2-0 pitch over the center field fence.

And—with no small assistance from Oakland’s normally vacuum-handed shortstop Marcus Semien’s boot on Josh Reddick’s two-out grounder in the top of the sixth—the Astros seized the chance at new life, not letting something like a subsequent 5-3 deficit spoil the day, and finished with a 10-5 Game One win.

It almost figured.

There are far worse talismans to attach to a team than 10-5. Especially to a team who got into this convoluted postseason with a losing record and who spent 2018 and 2019 doing not even once what they did Monday—come back from a pair of multi-run deficits.

Especially when several signature Astro bats returned to life at last. Let’s see. George Springer going 4-for-5 after an irregular season in which he had no four-hit games. Correa dialing nine twice and sending four runs home, after an irregular season in which he didn’t send four home or homer twice. The quartet of Bregman, Correa, Springer, and Jose Altuve each driving in at least one run in the same game after not having done that together even once on the irregular season.

And, thanks to the bubble concept putting postseason teams from the division series forward into neutral parks, the Astros’ three postseason wins have now happened in ballparks not their own.

The third, of course, happened in . . . Dodger Stadium. The home of a team with whom they have, ahem, some recent history. The division series home for Games One, Two, and (if necessary) Five of an A’s team that includes the former Astro who blew the whistle on Astrogate at last, last November, after those too well aware of their illegal, off-field-base, altered or extra camera transmitting sign stealing schemes couldn’t convince anyone else to expose it.

“As the game got deeper, the at-bats got better,” said Springer of the Astros’ Monday breakout. “They played the later innings better than we did. We just didn’t have the at-bats we typically do at the end of the game,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin.

How much of a pitcher’s park is Dodger Stadium still, even if it’s not quite the equal of its first two decades? In 91 previous postseason games played there, not once were six home runs hit there. Bregman’s one and Correa’s two were joined by Oakland’s Khris Davis, Sean Murphy, and Matt Olson.

“I’ve never seen the ball carry like that here,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker, who played eight seasons for the Dodgers from the 1970s to the 1980s.

Bregman’s 5 October long-distance mastery has also broken the three-straight-same-date postseason strings of Hall of Famer-to-be Albert Pujols (17 October 2004-05-06) and Francisco Lindor (6 October 2016-17-18). But he’ll have to wait ’till next year for a shot at equaling the five-streaks of Pujols (five straight 30 Mays) and Ryan Braun (five straight 24 Julys) among still-active players.

What’s the regular-season record? Seven. Who holds it? Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig (8 June 1932-38) and former Astros mainstay Lance Berkman. (21 September 2001-07.)

Then the doings down the freeway in San Diego, in Petco Park, had to go steal the show. The Padres had nothing to do with it. The New York Yankees did. Their winning score against the AL East champion Tampa Bay Rays was a measly 9-3, but oh what a show the Yankees made of it.

Somehow, some way, the Yankees find ways to make history just when you think there isn’t a single piece of history left for that franchise to make. It only began with this: Not since 1956 (when Moose Skowron and Hall of Famer Yogi Berra did it in that World Series) had the Yankees hit two grand slams in a postseason at all—but Monday night they sliced salami for a second straight postseason game. No other American League team has ever done that.

Score nine or more runs in three straight postseason-opening games? Nobody did that before the Yankees did it this year. Score 31 runs in its first three postseason games? Nobody did that, either, until this year’s Yankees delivered.

So who the hell needed Gerritt Cole pitching six, striking out eight, and not letting a measly three runs shake him out of his skin before turning things over to Chad Green, Zack Britton, and Luis Cessa?

. . . but John Curtiss knocking down Gio Urshela (29) and Gleyber Torres after his salami was sliced was an uncalled-for and terrible look.

Luis who?

Simple: with a 9-3 lead, Yankee skipper Aaron Boone—with the spectre of no division series days off looming—wasn’t going to burn Aroldis Chapman unless the Rays got ornery in the ninth, which they didn’t. And Cessa got rid of the Rays with no interruption but a mere two-out walk.

Monday’s delicatessen slicer was Giancarlo Stanton in the top of the ninth against Rays reliever John Curtiss. It wasn’t as if Stanton was unfamiliar with Petco Park—he won the Home Run Derby there four years ago. Batting now on 2-2, Stanton caught hold of Curtiss’s slider just off the middle of the plate, and drove it just beyond Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier’s glove-extended leap and over the center field fence.

Then Curtiss just had to make the Rays look even worse, didn’t he? The next batter was Yankee, third baseman Gio Urshela—whose second-inning defense would have made ancient Yankees Clete Boyer and Graig Nettles plus Hall of Fame Oriole Brooks Robinson proud, with his leaping stab to pick Manuel Margot’s high hopper and throw him out, then his rolling seat-of-the-pants throw to nail Joey Wendle off a hard smash into the hole.

Curtiss sent Urshela sprawling on an up and in 0-1 pitch, with Urshela finally wrestling his way to popping out to the infield. Then Yankee shortstop Gleyber Torres checked in at the plate. Curtiss waited until 2-2 before playing Torres a little chin music. No wonder Torres couldn’t resist stealing second while Brett Gardner batted next.

Oops. Apparently, an awful lot of people called Torres out for the ninth-inning theft. “I don’t like seeing disrespectful things in the game,” crowed Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez on a TBS postgame show. Forget that the Yankees went 2-8 against the Rays on the irregular season and might be thinking that, no matter the score or the inning, every run counts.

Martinez might be the wrong man to ask, of course, but if you don’t like Torres stealing second with his team up by six in the ninth, did you like Curtiss making the usually likeable Rays—those unknown soldiers, who can normally beat you with the same aplomb as the big boys with the big names and the bigger paychecks—resemble unsportsmanlike sore losers?

Curtiss also made the Yankees look the way the beasts of the Bronx rarely look—sympathetic. And that’s over a month after Chapman nearly decapitated Michael Brousseau with a 101 mph fastball. But that was then, and Chapman’s been a little wild most of his career, anyway. He doesn’t have quite the control required to plan an execution. Not even with the Rays pitching inside tight to a few too many Yankees on the season before that head scratcher.

You’re embarrassed when a guy slices salami on your dollar? You man up, tip your hat, shake it off, and get the next guy out. You don’t knock that next guy and the guy following him down, off, back, or through just because your ego was sent into half orbit, with or without the bases loaded. (It would also help if you don’t surrender a leadoff single, a walk, a one-out RBI single, and a bases-loading walk to set it up, too.)

Things were notoriously tense enough between the Yankees and the Rays on the irregular season. Then, both sides tried to indicate going in that they were going to do their level best to play nice and no rough stuff. Then Curtiss had to deliver a little un-called for rough stuff anyway. No more Mr. Nice Guys?

Don’t be terribly shocked if Monday’s proceedings make Yankee rooters out of even those to whom rooting for the Yankees otherwise flouts family tradition. For this postseason, anyway, depending on whether the Rays behave reasonably from here on out.

Astrogate messages at last?

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Joe Kelly (left) jawing with Carlos Correa, whom he brushed back twice in the same plate appearance Tuesday night. Should the Astros be shocked that somebody sent them post-Astrogate messages at last?

It’s not that you didn’t expect it to happen, but no matter how you feel about the Houston Astros and their extralegal electronic cheating you merely hoped it might not happen. Even if Tuesday night was the first time the Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers met since that now-tainted 2017 World Series.

They weren’t expected to meet again unless they might tangle in another World Series. Then, the coronavirus world tour happened. When the Show returned at last, the pandemic and its mandate for extraordinary health and safety protocols prompted its governors to sketch regional scheduling featuring the Dodgers and the Astros in Houston this week, in Los Angeles come September.

You might think things are tough enough playing coronaball (reference, especially, the afflicted and drydocked-for-now Miami Marlnis) without the Dodgers having to face the team now believed to have cheated their way to that World Series title.

You might think things were tough enough without other Astro opponents still thinking in the backs of their minds that the Astros need to be taught a few little lessons in manners and in accepting responsibility in the sometimes-forgotten Astrogate wake.

You might have thought so until Joe Kelly relieved fellow Dodger reliever Brustar Graterol for the bottom of the sixth in Minute Maid Park Tuesday night.

With one out, Kelly had Houston third baseman Alex Bregman 3-0 when he decided ball four should be a fastball sailing up and past Bregman’s shoulders. The next batter, outfielder Michael Brantley, forced Bregman at second on a ground ball but made a point of stepping on Kelly’s foot as the pitcher covered first base on the play.

Kelly lingered just a little bit near the base after Brantley’s step-on and a voice was heard in the empty ballpark. It may or may not have been Astros manager Dusty Baker, but it hollered, “Get back on the mound, [maternal fornicator].” Kelly did return and go back to work.

Known to be erratic at times, and un-allergic to brushback pitches when he thinks they’re mandated, Kelly walked Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel on four straight pitches, then opened to Astros shortstop Carlos Correa with a breaking ball behind Correa’s head and all the way to the backstop.

Officially, of course, it was ruled a wild pitch. Unofficially, even the cardboard cutouts in the otherwise empty stands knew good and bloody well that Kelly wanted to remind the Astros once again that it wasn’t nice to set up a furtive closed-circuit, off-field-based television network for stealing opposing pitch signs and think they could get away with it.

Commissioner Rob Manfred helped them think they could get away with it. Foolishly or otherwise, Manfred handed all Astro players immunity from discipline in return for spilling about the Astro Intelligence Agency after former Astro/current Oakland Athletics pitcher Mike Fiers finally blew the whistle on the AIA to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich last November.

The AIA cost three managers (the Astros’ A.J. Hinch and two 2017 Astros-turned managers, Alex Cora in Boston, Carlos Beltran in New York, before he had a chance to manager even one Mets game) and one general manager (the Astros’ Jeff Luhnow) their jobs. (Any thought of Hinch possibly returning for 2021 was vapourised when the Astros exercised Baker’s 2021 club option.)

Astros owner Jim Crane was asked for no accountability beyond being fined for what amounts to maybe a year’s worth of tip money for him. Called upon to stand when spring training opened, Crane and assorted Astros players weren’t exactly apologetic for the AIA’s operations. Numerous opposing players fumed that, one way or the other, they’d find ways to administer justice, and no official edict was going to stop them.

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“That’s dirty baseball,” Astros manager Dusty Baker fumed over this pitch to Alex Bregman from Joe Kelly. Would Baker call the Astros’ electronic sign-stealing  good clean baseball?

After Kelly struck Correa out swinging for the side, with a couple of more inside pitches in the mix, Correa was distinctly and, apparently, vocally unamused as Kelly walked off the mound and crossed the third base line to his dugout. Prompting Kelly to shoot a couple of mock crybaby faces and choice words Correa’s way.

That may have been the specific flash point under which both benches emptied and milled around the plate area. They forgot some of the social distance protocols, meaning a fine or three might be forthcoming. The dispute was bark, no bite, unless the Astros and the Dodgers were willing to dissipate the tension with some six-feet-apart pantomime boxing, but neither side was in the mood for comedy.

Baker was quoted by USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale thus: “What really enraged everybody was what he told Carlos when he struck him out, ‘Nice swing bitch!”’ Not nice. Send the message, sure. Taunt them no matter what they did or didn’t jaw your way, not so fast. Naturally, one of the Twitterpated couldn’t resist defending Kelly’s taunts thus: “Should have said something along the lines of ‘hard to hit when you don’t know what’s coming’.”

The warnings were handed to both sides after the second Correa duster. Perhaps naturally, Kelly said of the Bregman shoulder kisser, post-game, “It was a ball, obviously. It wasn’t my best pitch. Ball four, I walked him, never good to put a guy on when you’re leading the game.”

Of the breakers bending Correa, he said, “I guess he didn’t take too kind to a curve ball [inside]. It is what it is. I finally made one good pitch for the punchout . . . I pitch competitively, but with the no fans here it’s easy to hear some stuff.”

You stick to that story, son.

Some observers seemed to think, too, that the Astros were more infuriated by the buzzer  off Bregman’s shoulders than the two breakers dusting the otherwise non-entertained Correa. For his own part, Bregman merely shrugged it off when Kelly’s heat ricocheted off his shoulders and took his base. Almost as if he was well enough prepared for the incoming messages Tuesday and yet to come.

“The history obviously is out there,” said outfielder Joc Pederson before the series began. “Everybody knows what’s at stake and what happened. For being no fans, maybe sometimes the energy could be lacking a little bit. I don’t think that will be the case for this series.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean Pederson urged or condoned any message from any Dodger pitcher to any Astro hitter. Nor does it mean the Astros went into the game expecting nothing more than balls, strikes, hits, and outs, considering the jawing between the two teams before spring training was cut off at the coronavirus pass.

Recall: Dodger center fielder Cody Bellinger saying the Astros cheated for longer than affirmed and that their second baseman Jose Altuve stole the 2017 American League Most Valuable Player award from New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge. Recall, too: Correa rejoining that Bellinger thus spoke recklessly.

Just don’t kid yourselves that the Astros forgot for even a moment that a brushback or a knockdown was liable to come from any arm, at any time, in any game, no matter how much it seemed the pandemic pushed the long toxins of Astrogate to one side.

Until Tuesday night, only Gurriel and Correa were hit by pitches, both in the second game of the truncated season, at home against the Seattle Mariners. Until Kelly decided to lay down the law, however, all anyone thinking clearly probably thought was that the Astros were so thoroughly roasted in the immediate public Astrogate wake that throwing brushback or knockdown pitches would be as foolish as it would be unnecessary.

Like the Rogue Sox and their 2018 Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring, the Astro Intelligence Agency wear the stain of their extralegal cheating all season long, however long the season, whenever the season began. There but for the lack of grace of the coronavirus would fans and commentators alike remind both teams, good and strong, that crossing the proper gamesmanship line is filthy pool.

Only three Rogue Sox have been plunked on the truncated season thus far. But don’t fool yourself that they’re immune to thoughts that a little extra payback might be coming, too. It may not be quite as pronounced as any the Asterisks face, since they merely used what was available, predicated it with a man on base to transmit the pilfered intelligence, and didn’t install an illegal camera to begin their dirty work.

Baker himself seemed more enraged at the Kelly bullet that almost grazed the back of Bregman’s shoulders. “You don’t throw at a guy’s head,” the manager said. “That’s playing dirty baseball.” Baker’s in the unenviable position of having to help his team past the  Astrogate mess he wasn’t part or parcel of, but what would he call the AIA—good clean baseball?

Kelly wasn’t a Dodger when the AIA’s espionage operated. But he was one of the 2017 Red Sox downed by the Astros in the American League division series and the 2018 Red Sox who beat the Astros in that ALCS. You bear in mind that neither Astro nor Red Sox pitchers were co-operators of those teams’ Spy vs. Spy operations.

Kelly was also the hapless Dodger who served the pitch Washington Nationals second baseman Howie Kendrick destroyed for a tie-breaking, Dodger-burying, National League division series-winning grand slam in the Game Five top of the tenth. The last thing he needed even in abbreviated spring training was his Dodgers and the Astros getting into an Astrogate-inspired jawing contest.

Otherwise, Kelly was a pitcher in need of some kind of redemption, any kind of redemption in the eyes of Dodger fans in Los Angeles and elsewhere. The taunts were more than a little out of line. Perhaps Kelly didn’t need to send more than one brushback Correa’s way, but those weren’t half as juvenile. Well, boys will be boys, even in a time of pandemic.

Still, somewhere in that fan base they’ll remember the Dodgers beat the Astros, 5-2, to open this series, but it’ll be a by-the-way remembrance. One that has to be rushed into the conversations, swiftly, amidst the hot take that Kelly made himself something nobody in Los Angeles thought he’d become to Dodger fans after last October. A hero.

Rank desertion? Don’t even go there.

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San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey has opted out of playing this year for the sake of his children—an incumbent pair of twins and a pair of twin newborns freshly adopted. Some dare call it desertion—erroneously.

Whatever else you think about those major league players who have opted out of playing in 2020, or who think about doing so, here’s something that shouldn’t come into play: someone snarking about such players committing “rank desertion.” (So help me, that’s how someone phrased it in one online baseball forum.) Ignore them. Let them rant their heads off, but you’re under no obligation to listen.

That’s one of the beauties of free speech, what’s left of it. You can rant your head off any old time and place it strikes you to rant. You also bear no known mandatory obligation to listen to any particular ranter for any particular reason.

Militarily, of course, “rank desertion” equals one soldier, sailor, marine, or airman, or a group of them, walking away from their units or posts without call, usually but not exclusively in wartime. In civilian terms, “rank desertion” implies someone or a group of someones walking off the job where there’s no known option aside from a labour strike or formal resignation to do it.

The players were given the opt-out option after all those weeks of haggling between the owners trying to game them out of agreed-upon-in-March pay protocols before they finally agreed to give what remained of a 2020 season a try. Handed that option, those players exercising it cannot be accused credibly of rank desertion.

There’s a coronavirus still on world tour, to various extents, and baseball players play and sojourn in places that still present exposure risks they’re not entirely anxious to bring home. Especially when they have loved ones considered in the high-risk category.

San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey may be the highest-profile player to opt out of the season to date. There but for the curse of injuries might he be in the Hall of Fame conversation; maybe two or even three more injury-free seasons on his jacket might keep him there. He could still get those seasons beginning next year.

As was his right under the current protocols, Posey thought more than twice about the twin babies he and his wife, Kristin, are adopting. They were born prematurely last week and at this writing remain in neonatal intensive care. The San Francisco Chronicle says the little girls are doing well enough in the circumstance.

Already the father of incumbent twin children, Posey weighed the risk and pondered the opt-out option that has yet to be rescinded. Then, he made his decision for the sake of his children’s health. The same decision Los Angeles Angels demigod Mike Trout continues weighing as the birth of his first child with his wife, Jessica, looms next month.

Trout isn’t exactly on poverty row so far as major league baseball players are concerned. Neither is Posey, even if Trout is above and beyond his and any other player’s pay grade. Atlanta Braves outfielder Nick Markakis has a family to consider as well, and he’s not exactly going to be among the poor by opting out of 2020, either, as he did during the week now past.

Two factors moved Markakis to opt out, the risk to his family and the very real COVID-19 infection incurred by his franchise co-face face teammate Freddie Freeman. (Braves fans have a case to make that Freeman now shares the distinction with Markakis’s fellow outfielder Ronald Acuna, Jr. Markakis also admits playing with no audience at first doesn’t exactly pose a thrill.)

Markakis spoke to Freeman by phone and learned fast enough. “Just hearing him, the way he sounded on the phone, it was tough,” he told reporters last Monday. “It was kind of eye-opening. With everything that’s going on, not just with baseball but all over the world, it makes you open your eyes.”

Felix Hernandez, the longtime Seattle pitching bellwether now trying to resuscitate his career with the Braves, has also opted out of 2020. So has Michael Kopech, the Chicago White Sox pitcher who’d otherwise hoped to begin his return from his 2018 Tommy John surgery. So has Colorado Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond, whose teammate Charlie Blackmon was hit with COVID-19 and who has alarms about equal to health alarms for doing so.

On health terms, Desmond and his wife, Chelsey, are already parents of four young children and Mrs. Desmond is pregnant with their fifth. That’s the immediate reason Desmond exercised his opt-out option. But it provided him a chance to speak publicly enough on social and even spiritual terms.

Desmond—who is bi-racial—laments what the George Floyd murder at police hands in Minneapolis re-exposes of society in general and, from his perspective, the game he loves otherwise. “Think about it: right now in baseball we’ve got a labor war,” Desmond began in a round of jolting but thought-provoking Instagram posts.

We’ve got rampant individualism on the field. In clubhouses we’ve got racist, sexist, homophobic jokes or flat-out problems. We’ve got cheating. We’ve got a minority issue from the top down. One African American GM. Two African American managers. Less than 8% Black players. No Black majority team owners.

Perhaps most disheartening of all is a puzzling lack of focus on understanding how to change those numbers. A lack of focus on making baseball accessible and possible for all kids, not just those who are privileged enough to afford it.

If baseball is America’s pastime, maybe it’s never been a more fitting one than now . . .

Other opt-outs, also for familial health concerns, include Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher David Price (who has yet to throw a pitch in regular-season competition for them), and three Washington Nationals: first baseman and elder statesman Ryan Zimmerman, relief pitcher Joe Ross, and catcher Welington Castillo.

Baseball’s coronavirus testings have not exactly proven the epitome of consistency or coordination. Teams like the Giants, the Nationals, the Houston Astros, the St. Louis Cardinals have postponed several “summer camp” workouts over them. Astros third baseman Alex Bregman skipped a subsequent Astros workout when his test didn’t arrive back on time. That had a few of his teammates more than a little shaky.

“We want to know how these test results are going to work out for us,” said outfielder Michael Brantley. “Not having Alex here today was just another day he didn’t get to prepare. As I read around the league, a lot of players are voicing their opinions that we need our test results back faster.”

You can say anything you wish about those players opting out and others yet to come who opt out of 2020 for their health’s sake first. If baseball’s testings continue being that inconsistently performed and handled, would you really be shocked to see more players deciding their health and their families’ health just can’t be entrusted to that? Regardless of their salaries?

You can also say as you wish about Desmond’s not-to-be-dismissed-out-of-hand thoughts regarding the first American team sport to end segregation officially while still having issues 73 years later accepting and assimilating non-white personnel on and off the playing field. You don’t need to demand a quota system to say baseball can, should, and must do a better job of it.

Much as we’ve missed a major league season thus far, we seem to need reminders more often than comfortable that certain things cut both ways. Things like the “human element,” for example. The traditionalists screamed blue murder over technological advances they thought (erroneously) would erode the “human element.” But it isn’t just traditionalists dismissing the opting-out as rank deserters.

That dismissal is a plain, no-further-discussion-necessary false dismissal of, what do you know, the human element. The element that says baseball players are not invincible androids who can’t be felled by or transmit disease but mere human men, prone to all manner of incurring and transmitting affliction, particularly during a pandemic that’s become as much a political football as a challenge to medicine.

The rank desertion accusers should be asked how swiftly they’d step in and take the risk for the sake of playing a game much beloved but not without risk. When they answer, “five minutes ago,” they should be asked just as promptly whether they’d like to bring an infection back to their loved ones.

The crickets should be heard playing the entirety of a classic jazz album—In a Silent Way.

From chaos to bedlam and Game Seven

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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.

Santa serves early Christmas salami

2019-10-27 AlexBregman

Santa showed up early for Alex Bregman and the Astros Saturday night.

Did we say World Series Game Four was going to be a bullpen game? Didn’t quite turn out that way. Did we say the Astro pen wasn’t guaranteed to equal bona fide Nationals fourth starter Patrick Corbin? Boy did we get that one wrong.

Not only did the Astros’ rookie designated opener Jose Urquidy pitch the quality start of his young baseball life, he out-pitched both Corbin and his own team’s still formidable but lately vulnerable Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole.

And he did it on a night the regular season version of the Astros finally, once and for all, turned up. Big. 8-1 big. They finished what they started in Game Three and obliterated any chance of the short series nobody with a brain really thought was likely to happen in the first place.

Michael Brantley with two hits thus far on the night, plus Alex Bregman still trying to shake away an overall postseason hitting funk despite one launch earlier in the set, remembered especially what Nationals manager Dave Martinez forgot in the seventh inning.

He forgot that these Astros are the greediest little suckers in the American League when handed gifts. They don’t stop at “Thank you.” They demand more, help themselves, and make you look like a battered fool before they’re done. Turning the seventh inning stretch into a visit to the urgent care clinic.

Bad enough rookie Nats reliever Tanner Rainey handed the Astros the gifts of back-to-back inning-opening walks before closing the giveaway with Jose Altuve flying out to right. Martinez put on his Santa suit and gave the Astros an extra early merry Christmas.

He reached for ancient Fernando Rodney. Against whom Brantley took a lifetime .462 batting average and 1.038 OPS to the plate. Instead of Wander Suero, who’s almost young enough to be Rodney’s son, and against whom Brantley before Game Four only ever batted once and had nothing to show for it but a measly out.

Respecting your elders goes only so far with a World Series game on the line and the other guys in one of the highest leverages of the night. Brantley’s respect went only far enough to line a base hit up the pipe into short center field that wasn’t quite deep enough for leadoff pinch hitter Kyle Tucker to score.

So the Astros settled for ducks on the pond. And Martinez, who’d managed mostly to turn his infamously shaky bullpen into something resembling a respectable postseason crew, re-learned the hard way about generosity’s limits. Bregman delivered that hard re-education and duck dinner when he sent an 0-1 pitch on a high parabola into the left field seats.

That one re-ignited Bregman’s fire and put the game so far out of reach the Nats couldn’t bring it back with a search party and a band of bloodhounds.

Not on a night when they sent less traffic to the bases than they’d wasted in Game Three and got their only run of the night in the sixth with the bases loaded, one out, and Juan Soto—who doesn’t quite looking so superhuman anymore—grounding out in almost slow motion to Astro first baseman Yuli Gurriel, enough to score Gerardo Parra, before Astro reliever Will Harris struck Howie Kendrick out swinging for the side.

The Nats picked the wrong time to get their shark off. And they may have picked the wrong time to even think about walking Brantley to get to Bregman’s then still-cold postseason bat in Game Three. That proves to have been poking the barracuda.

“In Game Three, we stopped the bleeding,” Bregman told reporters after Game Four. “Then we played well tonight. We want to keep rolling. We’re fired up. It’s really exciting. It’s a great atmosphere here. The fans are into the game, [and] it’s good to know we’re going home.”

Now  Cole and Max Scherzer have a rematch in Game Five to look forward to. And Max the Knife won’t be pitching just to beat the Astros, he’ll be pitching to help save the Nats’ very skins and fins.

Ordinarily, you might be tempted to stop right there and pull out your history book. It would tell you that the 1986 World Series began with the first four games being won in the road ballpark, too. The Red Sox won Games One and Two in Shea Stadium, the Mets won Games Three and Four in Fenway Park.

But those Red Sox won Game Five in the Fens before returning to Shea Stadium, losing Game Six in the second most heartbreaking way in Red Sox history before getting bopped until they dropped by the Mets in Game Seven.

Then in 1996, the Braves won the first pair in Yankee Stadium and the Yankees won the next three in Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. The set moved back to the Bronx and the Yankees won Game Six. Nope, that’s not a reference to encourage the Nats, either. But it sure should have the Astros feeling like early Christmas.

Corbin picked the wrong night to spot the Astros a pair of first inning runs. And, to spot them another pair when Astro catcher Robinson Chirinos, who’d rung the left field foul pole net in Game Three, hit a no-doubt two-run homer halfway up the seats in the top of the fourth.

And Urqiudy picked the right night to take advantage of the Nats’ sudden inability to do what they’d done most of the postseason to date, adjust on the fly to pitchers dialing up the Mixmasters.

“When you go in with a game plan of kind of working off his scouting report and he goes the complete opposite with it,” said Nats right fielder Adam Eaton, whom Urquidy kept to a pair of measly popup outs, “by the time you kind of make the adjustment, it’s too late.”

The husky righthander also picked the perfect night to display a changeup that may yet qualify for designation as a weapon of mass destruction. It’s not that his fastball or his slider were necessarily weakfish, but that changeup was the perfect setup pitch for him on a night the Nats couldn’t and didn’t adjust, kind-of or otherwise.

When he deigned to throw it at all, that is. If the Nats did their homework on Urquidy, knowing he was changeup reliant, Urquidy had them figured almost the way Nimitz had the Japanese navy figured during the Pacific branch of World War II. He was the Astros’ one-man can of shark repellant Saturday night.

If you thought the Nats coming home to bathe in the Washington love became too great a weight to bear in Games Three and Four, a possibility not exactly out of bounds, Urquidy—who’d gone from nothing special up and down the minors before getting his callup to never better as a bona-fide Astro late in the season and now Saturday night—only let the magnitude hit him once.

“Yes, a couple moments, a couple moments I was thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I’m in the World Series pitching’.” the 24-year-old who’s only the third Mexican (behind Jaime Garcia and Fernando Valenzuela) to start a World Series game said after Game Four. “It was awesome.” “It” was nothing compared to him.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch went in hoping Urquidy could give him two, maybe three, please-please-please four innings. He got a performance Verlander and Cole themselves just might have envied. And if Game Four was To Tell the Truth, Hinch’s Bud Collyer got the best surprise of his life when he asked, “Will the real Alex Bregman please stand up?”

Oh, brother, did Bregman stand up. Only nineteen previous players ever hit grand salamis in World Series games. Only three of them were hit by Hall of Famers: Tony Lazzeri (Game Two, 1936), Mickey Mantle (Game Five, 1953), and Yogi Berra (Game Two, 1956). And only two were ever hit in a Game Four: Chuck Hiller (1962) and Ken Boyer (1964).

Boyer hit his two games before talented but troubled young Yankee first baseman Joe Pepitone nailed a salami in the ’64 Series. The Astros actually got gifted a shot at only the second salami in the same inning, when Grandpa Rodney was left in after Bregman launched and re-loaded the bases on a trio of walks interrupted only by a ground ball force out.

Then Martinez reached for Suero, with Tucker coming up for a encore. And Suero struck Tucker out swinging to end the nightmare at last. The rest of the game seemed like a mere formality.

Even when the Nats put first and second aboard in the bottom of the eighth, abetted by a throwing error when Altuve fielded Rendon’s hopper on the far side of second but threw off line. Soto worked out a walk immediately following, but Astro reliever Brad Peacock struck Kendrick out and got Ryan Zimmerman to pop out to George Springer playing right field for the night.

Bregman was rather gracious after the game about his confrontation with Rodney. “He’s really tough to face,” the third baseman told reporters. “He’s got an incredible change-up. His fastball is dirty, has a lot of sink to it. He has another fastball he throws, a four-seamer, that has some jump to it. He’s not an easy at-bat all.”

“He got him 0-1 and the ball just didn’t sink where he wanted it to be,” said Martinez after the game. “But he’s come in two innings and done really well for us.” That he had. “I like Rodney in that spot,” Martinez added. Unfortunately, Bregman liked Rodney in that spot even more.

Indeed, Rodney started Bregman with a changeup that dove right into the low inside corner. Even Bregman wouldn’t have been able to hit it with a five-iron. The next pitch was the four-seamer and it forgot to jump. Bregman didn’t. He jumped it for maybe the single most world-shattering hit of his life.

Did it shatter the world of the Nats who’d gone from the living dead in late May to the live-and-very-well the rest of the season and all the way through Game Two? Who hadn’t lost back-to-back games since 13-14 September? Who had to be taught the hard way all over again how unwise it is to stake the Astros to an early Christmas?

“We’re tied after four games,” shortstop Trea Turner told reporters. “It’s all about perspective and how you perceive it.”

“At this point in time, you literally just live and breathe each and every day,” said Scherzer, into whose hands the Nats place the live-and-breathe ball Sunday night.

“I’ll take it,” said Eaton. “We don’t mind where we’re at—a best-of-three with Scherzer and Stras going the next two days.” Not to mention the Nats’ absolute two best relief options, Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle, untroubled in Game Four and well enough rested if needed in Five and Six. If.

On paper that looks like advantage, Nats. Psychologically, this is exactly what Nats fans signed up for. Max the Knife and Not-So-Stoic-Stephen. Just plunge the blade in before it goes back to Houston, Max the Knife. If you do, two nights in hell will be worth it.

There’s just one problem. Namely, an Astro team that knows the differences between paper and performance but marries them effectively until death do they part. And for these Astros, the wedding night is never enough. Maybe even in spite of Scherzer and Stras. Maybe.