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.

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.

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.

“They threw the first punch”

ALCS Yankees Astros Baseball

Gleyber Torres, making Zack Greinke’s and the Astros’ Game One life miserable . . .

It was supposed to be a treat watching the Astros and the Yankees, mostly recovered from their regular season’s medical challenges. If you could say a pair of 100+ game winners were lucky to be there after they fought injury bugs as arduously as they fought field opponents, the Astros and the Yankees were just that.

Didn’t the Astros fight like six parts street gang and half a dozen parts cheetahs on speed to get their postseason home field advantage, going 12-2 to finish the season to nail down the point? Didn’t they look just that much better than the 6-8 finishing Yankees when the postseason began?

And hadn’t they survived an unexpectedly arduous division series with the upstart Rays—forcing them to open with Zack Greinke instead of Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole—to get to the American League Championship Series in the first place? While the Yankees turned out to have it so painfully simple sweeping the suddenly somnambulent Twins to get there that you could be forgiven for suggesting the Yankees might be just a little vulnerable?

There went those ideas in Game One Saturday night.

The Yankees were good on the road this year(.568 winning percentage) but they weren’t supposed to be able to handle the Astros there. They played each other seven times on the regular season with the Astros sweeping the Yankees in three in Minute Maid Park. But somebody forgot to remind the Yankees as they opened the ALCS.

At least, somebody forgot to remind Yankee second baseman Gleyber Torres. The Yankees shut the Astros out 7-0 in Game One and Torres was practically their one-man demolition operation. The Astros’ long term survival may now depend on how well they can keep Torres from even thinking about seeing and raising from Game Two forward.

Nobody’s going to accuse the Astros of being on the ropes after a Game One loss. The Yankees won’t be foolish enough to level that charge. Not even when they punctured the Astros’s hard won, hard desired home field advantage.

“We’ve been in the situation before,” said Astros second baseman Jose Altuve after the game, referring to 2017, when the Astros were down 3-2 in that ALCS but won. “Tomorrow we have Justin, we all know how good we feel about him, so it’s just one game, it’s a seven game series, so we still have a lot of baseball to play.”

With Verlander to start Game Two and Cole to start Game Three, everyone in Astroworld should be feeling good again. No matter how good these Yankees are at finding and exploiting even the tiniest rupture in the other guys’ armour.

“They played a great game,” said Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, “a near perfect game.”

But who the hell is Gleyber Torres? Oh, yeah—he’s the guy who became a Yankee when they traded Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs in the middle of 2016. But now he’s the youngest Yankee ever to drive in five in a single postseason game. And his clutch hit reputation is beginning to fan out beyond the Bronx.

You expected trouble going in with the Aaron Judges, Giancarlo Stantons, D.J. LaMahieus, Edwin Encarnacions, and Brett Gardners. The last one from whom you expected any pinstriped lip, never mind bat, is a kid middle infielder who may have hit the most quiet 38 regular season home runs of the year.

Outside New York, Torres isn’t exactly the Yankees’ biggest star yet. But on a night when Yankee starter Masahiro Tanaka was as untouchable as he was very touchable in the regular season, and Greinke proved vulnerable enough if not quite the pinata the Rays made out of him in the division series, Torres became the last guy the Astros wanted to see at the plate. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

“Man, they’re going to be telling stories about that kid for a while,” said Judge after the game. “He’s going to be a Yankee great, I know it. He just comes to work every single day. He’s always got a smile on his face. No situation is too big. I’ll see him in the box, bases loaded, big situation and he’ll give us a little smile in the dugout like he knows he’s going to go up there and do his job.”

At first it looked as though Tanaka and Greinke would turn Game One into a pitching clinic, if not quite the ones put on by Nationals pitchers Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer in the first two National League Championship Series games. Tanaka looked as untouchable as he normally does against the postseason Astros, and Greinke looked nothing like the guy who’d been humiliated at the hands and tails of the Rays.

“I thought Zack did a good job giving us a chance to win,” said Astros third baseman Alex Bregman, “and we just didn’t do anything offensively.”

“When you’re facing really good pitching, it makes hitting even harder,” said mostly struggling Astros center fielder George Springer, their 2017 World Series MVP but hitting a buck twenty in this postseason to date. “Hitting’s hard. But that being said, we’re a good team, and we understand that, so we’ve got to grind and string together some at-bats and we’ll see what happens.”

As the top of the fourth began each side had one base hit apiece and they’d both been negated by inning-ending double plays. Then LaMahieu opened the Yankee fourth with a base hit and swiped second while Judge struck out swinging on one of Grienke’s nastier sliders of the night. Up stepped Torres, whom Greinke struck out swinging to end the first. And he drove one to the back of left center bounding off the fence to score LaMahieu with the game’s first run.

Torres and Greinke squared off again in the sixth after Judge led off flying out to Astros center fielder George Springer. Once again Greinke’s first service looked just too good to Torres. This one got hammered into the middle of the Crawford Boxes.

And after a six-pitch, full count, wrestling strikeout to Encarnacion, Greinke battled Giancarlo Stanton—who’d only gotten to play eighteen regular season games thanks to two trips to the injured list—and, after wriggling his way to a full count after opening 0-2, Stanton nailed a fastball just under the middle of the plate and sent it into the Astros’ bullpen behind the right center field fence.

An inning later, Torres was in the middle of it yet again. With two outs, Yankee shortstop Didi Gregorius, LaMahieu, and Judge singled back-to-back-to-back, all into right field, off Astros reliever Ryan Pressly, before Torres sent the first pair home with a bloop single to center and helped himself to second when Springer threw in futilely toward the plate.

It was the kind of night on which Torres even making an out proved productive enough. With reliever Bryan Abreu on the mound for the top of the ninth Yankee third baseman Gio Urshela hit the first pitch of the inning, a slightly hanging slider, into the right field seats. Then with one out LaMahieu walked, Judge singled him to third, and—with the Astro infield drawn in just enough—Torres whacked a grounder to an oncoming shortstop Carlos Correa.

The good news: Correa pounced on the run to throw Torres out handily enough. The bad news: LaMahieu got such an excellent jump off third he could score the seventh Yankee run without fear even with Correa all over the Torres grounder well onto the infield grass.

The Astros hurt themselves when it was still a one-run game, though. In the bottom of the fifth, Bregman, their no-questions-asked MVP candidate, worked Tanaka for a leadoff walk and Yordan Alvarez, their probable no-questions-asked Rookie of the Year, slashed a line drive to right.

As Bregman led a little too far off first, as in more than half way to second, obviously thinking of third base as his immediate destination, Judge ran to snare Alvarez’s rope. Then the tall Yankee with the toothy grin of a kid a third his age fired in to first. Bregman slipped running back to the pillow but it almost wouldn’t have mattered since he’d had a bigger lead than the law allowed in the first place.

Was Judge catching Alvarez’s liner a guarantee? Fifty-fifty at best. But he has one of the better throwing arms among American League right fielders and with Bregman that far off the pillow, slip back or no, Bregman was dead meat.

It negated the spectacular theft Bregman committed in the top of the third, when he took a spinning leap behind third with his glove arm up like the Statue of Liberty to turn Urshela’s nasty line drive, which probably would have gone further up the line for extra bases, into a nasty out.

Tanaka can’t beat the Astros in the regular season, but in the postseason he looks like an ogre against them, taking a 2.00 lifetime postseason ERA against them into Game Two. He worked the corners like a craftsman and left the usually smart hitting Astros looking half lost at the plate.

“He was throwing the ball really good today,” said Altuve. “He was hitting spots with the slider, split, and fastball. He makes it out pretty good. You have to tip your hat to that. He got a late break, normally you can see the spin, but we couldn’t see anything.”

When they got into the Yankees’ effective bullpen, they actually pried a couple of base hits out of Adam Ottavino, back-to-back singles by Michael Brantley and Altuve, but Ottavino lured Bregman into dialing an inning-ending Area Code 6-4-3.

The Astros bullpen is usually one of the league’s best, too, but Pressly didn’t look comfortable in his turn and Abreu’s inexperience was exploited a little too readily. Especially against a Yankee team who—knowing Verlander and Cole awaited them in Games Two and Three—treated Game One like a must-win contest.

“They threw the first punch in Game One,” said Astros manager A.J. Hinch. “We get to the next day. We can punch right back tomorrow. I don’t think they’re going to be too comfortable tomorrow coming to the ballpark thinking they’ve got an easy game ahead of themselves.”

Verlander gives the Astros a far above average chance to punch back in Game Two. The last thing they want is going to the south Bronx in the hole. The Yankees have ways of burying people once they’re in holes against them. One of them is a 22-year-old second baseman who prefers hitting with men on base and has the numbers to prove it so far.

“The way he’s able to get to all kinds of pitches on different planes is impressive,” said Yankee relief pitcher Zach Britton, who worked a near-spotless eighth (one walk, two punchouts) Saturday night.

“As a pitcher, you know you have to executive every single pitch throughout an at-bat or you know he’s going to beat you,” Britton continued. “That’s where the bat-to-ball skill comes in. It’s crazy. You just don’t see it in such a young player.”

You do now.

Masterpiece, then theater

2019-10-06 GerritCole

Gerrit Cole was the Dali of pitchers Saturday night . . .

You’d think a man who pitches like Bob Gibson in a postseason contest wouldn’t have to see his masterpiece turned into a hair raiser after he finally has to leave the game. But you can rest assured Gerrit Cole has seen a lot worse than the ninth inning Saturday night.

And you can rest assured further that he’d rather have seen his Astros survive that inning and come out one game from sweeping their way to the American League Championship Series than any known alternative.

Fifteen strikeouts. Five third strikes fastballs, five on curveballs, five on sliders. Missing by one measly walk an immaculate inning in which all three punchouts went swinging strike, foul, swinging strike. His lone walk being the one that ended his evening at last when his petrol ran empty at last.

Mentioned without apology in the same conversations as Gibson (with whom Cole shares uniform number 45), Howard Ehmke, Kevin Brown, and Gibson’s fellow Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Mike Mussina, among single postseason game punchout artists.

And what was Cole’s final reward for painting such a masterpiece as Dali himself would envy? Other than watching his Astros more or less sneak a run home in the seventh and eighth, to pad the lead Alex Bregman provided with a leadoff home run in the top of the fourth?

He had to watch his relief Roberto Osuna go from striking out Yandy Diaz—without whom the Rays wouldn’t even have been in the division series in the first place—on three pitches to end the eighth to stringing maybe the skinniest tightrope the Astros could possibly walk in the top of the ninth.

He had to watch Austin Meadows greet Osuna with a liner down the left field line that George Springer, moved over from center in a defensive re-alignment, couldn’t get to in time for a leadoff hit. He had to watch Tommy Pham stroke an immediate followup single right up the pipe. He had to watch Osuna walk Ji-Man Choi to load the bases once.

Then, he had to watch Bregman uncharacteristically bobble for just a moment Avisail Garcia’s bouncer to the left, settling for a force at second but no shot at a double play, and allowing Meadows to score. And, he had to watch Osuna wrestle Brandon Lowe to a full count before walking him to re-load the bases.

Exit Osuna, enter Will Harris, exit Rays catcher Travis d’Arnaud on a hard-earned swinging strikeout, exit Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier on a bouncer to first, and for the first time since the eighth Cole and the Astros could breathe without reaching for the oxygen tanks. And the 3-1 win put the Rays’s season on a respirator after all.

“Not the way we wanted to end it,” said Astros shortstop Carlos Correa after the game, “but we got it done and it’s a W.” Maybe the hardest-earned W of a season in which the Astros pushed 107 winning chips to the postseason table. Sometimes even the most powerful threshers in baseball don’t thank their mound lancers by finishing what he started simply.

If Rays manager Kevin Cash thought his team was Verlandered in Game One, they got even more Coled in Game Two. And the Astros’ bullpen got thatclose to throwing Game Two away. Astros manager A.J. Hinch must be feeling very fortunate that he has the kind of starters who make things like the Rays’ and others’ bullpenning a non-topic for him.

“Whether it’s about the new-age opener or pulling guys third time through, most of the people that support that haven’t had Verlander or Cole on their team,” the skipper said, and he’s speaking only the plain truth. Most teams would thank God and His servant Stengel for having just one superstud starter. He’s got three; Nationals manager Dave Martinez also has three.

“It’s hard for me to relate to having to pull guys early or wanting to pull guys early when these guys are putting up these kinds of performances,” Hinch continued. Right again, skip. “I’m going to roll with these boys while we have them.”

He may not yet have to get as creative with his boys as Martinez has had to with Stephen Strasburg relieved by Max Scherzer Friday night, but then Hinch normally doesn’t have a bullpen full of arsonists, either. Hinch has three stud relievers in Osuna, Smith, and Ryan Pressly. Make large room for all the bullpens who’d be grateful to have just one.

Pressly was a non-factor Saturday for having worked in Game One. It’s not scarifying just yet for Osuna to have one off-night, but even these finely tuned, well-oiled, near-perfectly calibrated Astros can’t afford another one too soon if at all. Because even superstud starters like Verlander and Cole have their absolute limits.

Let’s admit that for seven innings Cole didn’t know the meaning of the word “limits.” For seven innings he pitched like two Hall of Famers for the price of one, even as for six  innings the Astros pushed Rays starter Blake Snell—pitching gutsily after missing two thirds of the season on the injured list—and two Rays relievers but couldn’t quite break them except once.

Cole throttled the Rays with his mind almost more than his arm. His reputation in the game, very well earned by now, is that of a man who’ll throw a pitch in the first inning thinking it’s going to set up a pitch four or five innings later.

“He goes to areas of the strike zone whenever he needs to, whenever he wants to, whenever he sees something. That’s creative,” Hinch said after the game. “When we talk about creative, we often talk about guys that don’t have elite stuff like this. He can execute virtually any game plan for a reason . . . His mind and his ability to trust his adjustments set him apart.”

The only real breakage the Astros gave Snell opened the bottom of the fourth. Bregman worked  himself back from 0-2 with three straight solid takes on pitches low and away from him, fouled off an inside fastball, then sent the next fastball to the back of the Crawford Boxes to start what little scoring there’d be in the game.

Cash lifted Snell after he struck out Astros uber-rook Yordan Alvarez swinging right after the Bregman bomb. The Rays bullpen kept the Astros to just that run until the bottom of the seventh, while Cole looked more and more as though he’d go the entire distance without so much as a twitch of nerve or a flicker of exhaustion.

With the Rays’s usual closer Emilio Pagan opening the Houston seventh, Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel grounded one hard to the hole at short and Willy Adames grabbed it, bobbled it, and threw in the dirt past first. Correa promptly ripped the first pitch down the left field line to the wall for second and third.

After rookie Kyle Tucker grounded out right back to the box, Astros catcher Martin Maldonado, Cole’s personal catcher who doesn’t hit well but handles pitchers like a symphonic conductor, checked in at the plate. He hit well enough this time, dumping a quail into left center enabling Gurriel to beat a throw home for a second Astros run.

It could have been worse for the Rays but somehow Pagan got George Springer to pop out to second and Jose Altuve, Game One’s co-hero, to fly out to the edge of the right field track to escape for the time being.

No such luck in the bottom of the eighth with Nick Anderson on the mound. Diaz knocked Bregman’s hard one-out grounder and threw wide of first enabling Bregman’s infield single. Alvarez then tore the first pitch into right for a base hit and first and second, and Gurriel flied deep enough to right to push Bregman tagging to third.

Then Correa slashed a 0-1 fastball into right to send Bregman home, before Colin Poche relieved Anderson and caught Tucker looking at strike three.

“We’ve got a lot more work to take care of,” said Cole after the game. “There’s a few months this winter that maybe we can sit back and have a drink about it. Right now, it’s on to the next one.”

That may come sooner than even the Astros think. And considering the results in New York—where the Yankees bludgeoned the Twins in the first two games of their division series, outscoring the Twins 18-6 over the two, with the crowning burial Didi Gregorius’s monstrous grand slam in a seven-run third Saturday—they’ve probably got the scouting reports on the Battered Bombers well enough studied.

An Astros-Yankees American League Championship Series would be a hell raiser. The league’s two most triumphant teams and their two most injury battered on the season, both of whom showed they were deeper than the Pacific Ocean when the casualties began. Gray’s Anatomy vs. House.

Says Cash: his guys know what’s at stake. Says Twins manager Rocco Baldelli: his guys know they can turn it around. Say the Astros and the Yankees, with Wade Miley (Astros) and Luis Severino (Yankees) due to start their Game Threes, and just as the man used to say on the radio: it ain’t gonna be easy, Clyde.