The Yankees, only human after all

The Yankees watch their season dissipate in the three-up, three-down top of the ninth Friday night.

“Man,” tweeted a Yankee fan of my acquaintance after Friday night’s arms race between the Yankees and the Rays ended. “So sad. Every. single. year.”

Did you ever think you’d see the day when Yankee fans finally tasted what baseball’s hardest of hard luck franchise fans tasted for about as long as the Yankees once ruled the earth? Neither did I.

Did you ever think you’d hear Yankee fans talking the way Chicago Cub and Boston Red Sox fans spoke for decades before the 21st century arrived? Never mind the Red Sox—the Red Sox—owning more 21st century Series rings than the Yankees?

The team that owned most of the 20th century is finding the 21st century impossible to navigate. If it comforts Yankee fans any, their 20th century ancestors found the first two decades of that century tough to navigate, too.

From the birth of the American League through the end of 1919, the franchise finished as high as second place three times. The closest they got to a World Series then was finishing a game and a half behind (imagine that!) the Red Sox, then known as the Americans. When, you ask? The same year New York experienced a pair of firsts: its first underground subway, and its first New Year’s Eve blowout in Times Square.

The 21st century Yankees are actually a little more fortunate. They’ve been to sixteen postseasons, two World Series, and won one Series. Their ancestors of a century ago would have killed to take that kind of jacket into 1920.

Telling that to today’s Yankee fan might amount to wasted energy. There are more cliches attached to the Yankees for better or worse than to any other major league team, and the truest of those are 1) they don’t like to lose; and, 2) they define failure as any season in which they don’t win the World Series.

In most of the 20th century, once they got their bearings for keeps, it was a lot easier for the Yankees to live up to those type of self-imposed pressures. They owned the bulk of the reserve era, when they scouted the deepest of the deep bushes, traded or sold from strength, and plucked jewels suspected and unsuspected alike from the mere mortals.

The free agency era hasn’t been as kind to them as their adversaries thought at first. Turns out that buying pennants—which the Yankees haven’t been the only ones to accomplish, no matter what their riches and resources and Joe and Jane Fan lead you to believe—wasn’t going to be an annual Yankee accomplishment.

Since the Messersmith decision at the end of calendar 1975, the Yankees have been to 27 postseasons, won eleven pennants, and won seven World Series. That’s not exactly the same as their dynastic reserve era, but even the Yankees know there are 29 other major league franchises who’d sell their mothers and grandmothers to show even half that kind of success.

I haven’t heard of any groups of Yankee fans gathering yet to burn Aaron Boone or Aroldis Chapman in effigy after Game Five of the division series freshly lost. But any to come wouldn’t shock. If the truest cliche about the Yankees is that they don’t like to lose, the truest cliche about their fans this century is, “To err is human, to forgive is not Yankee fan policy.”

They’re not even burning longtime general manager Brian Cashman in effigy just yet. Not even if they’re fuming wrongly that Cashman invited too much analytics into the Yankee mindset. The only wonder about that might be what took the Yankees so long to dip into those waters in the first place.

Too much analytics? They just got shoved out of the postseason by a Rays team that lives on analytics. Analytics and assembling competitive teams out of painfully average players on annual budgets that don’t equal a third of Gerrit Cole’s entire nine-year Yankee contract.

Too much dependence on the home run? Well, now. They didn’t become the Bronx Bombers in the first place because they established a tradition of slap-hitting, scratch-hitting basepath pests. The Hitless Wonders, the Gas House Gang, the Go-Go Sox, and the Runnin’ Redbirds they ain’t.

News flash: When pitching doesn’t win postseasons, home runs do, more often than not. The Yankees lived and died by the bomb on the irregular season and hit fourteen more than the Rays. They just hit one fewer than the Rays in Game Five. (And, one fewer than the Rays all ALDS long, incidentally.)

Until Mike Brosseau ended a ten-pitch wrestling match with Chapman with a dramatic one-out home run in the bottom of the eighth Friday night, the Yankees and the Rays were enjoying and wrestling with their own Night of the Pitchers.

A game like that was the most appropriate way to honour the memory of Whitey Ford, the Yankees’ witty and popular Hall of Fame lefthander, who died at his Long Island home Thursday night while watching the Yankees and the Rays tangle.

Cole did exactly what the Yankees are paying him $324 million for nine years to do. The Rays’ and the Yankees’ bullpens did what top of the line bullpens are supposed to do, even though the key Yankee relievers weren’t quite as rested as the key Rays’ bulls.

Until the eighth those pitching staffs had only one run each torn out of them, both solo bombs. The pitching on both sides even shook off a few scattered defensive miscues on both sides.

What the Yankees missed all year—aside from a near-repeat injured list performance akin to 2019’s making the New England Journal of Medicine into the Yankee yearbook—was pitching depth.

They chugged, slugged, and bulled their way to second place in the AL East, blasted the Cleveland Indians to one side in the wild card round, but bumped into the AL East champion Rays. Discovering the Rays could take everything they could dish out from the comfort of their better-rounded bullpen depth and deployment.

The Yankees missed Luis Severino recovering from Tommy John surgery, they lost James Paxton to a flexor strain, and they lost Domingo German to a domestic violence suspension. They worked around Adam Ottavino’s fall from what’s considered the Yankees’ inner circle of bullpen trust.

And it blew up in their faces in Game Two, when Boone deciding to try out-Raying the Rays with an opener and a bullpen game blew up in the Yankees’ faces. That was the first of Boone’s two most egregious series mistakes.

The second was pinch hitting for Kyle Higashioka—establishing himself as the best Yankee option behind the plate—with slumping Mike Ford to open the top of the eighth, then sending Gary Sanchez out to catch the rest of the game. Sanchez’s bat was faltering and his plate work more so.

It was Sanchez who didn’t think that maybe Chapman should have served Brosseau a tenth-pitch splitter instead of a down-and-in fastball. It was Sanchez who may have forgotten that Chapman’s vaunted speed-of-light fastballs get more hittable the longer he works because they don’t climb the ladders or go out on the limbs as well as when he works his first few hitters.

And it was Sanchez and Boone who forgot Chapman nearly let that Game Seven thriller in the 2016 World Series get away from those Cubs with an RBI double and a game re-tying two-run homer. Not to mention failing to put Houston’s Jose Altuve aboard with two outs, George Springer on base, and a spaghetti bat on deck, the better to finish pushing last year’s ALCS to a seventh game.

Sanchez and Boone’s memory vapours disappeared over the left field fence. The only Yankee manager ever to lead his charges to back-to-back 100-plus win seasons in his first two seasons on the Yankee bridge has become Sisyphus in pinstripes.

Sooner or later, the jubilant Rays trolling the Yankees by singing along with Frank Sinatra’s version of “New York, New York” had to call it a night after a hard-earned hearty party. The questions around this Yankee edition won’t call it a night, or a day, too soon this winter.

Neither will the continuing humbling of Yankee fans, who are seen only too often, with too much justification, as among baseball’s most singularly arrogant. Their absolute lowest of the low might have been the subset who trolled Astros pitcher Zack Greinke over his longtime battle with clinical depression last October.

Their forebears were spoiled rotten by all those 20th century decades of Yankee imperialism but never that disgraceful. Now the sons and daughters of those old imperial Yankee fans have to learn, little by little, to live with the idea that the Yankees may be only human, after all.

The boundless world of Rays imagination

A TBS screen capture (including strike zone) as Michael Brosseau demolished Aroldis Chapman’s tenth-pitch fastball Friday night.

“The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless,” wrote the French philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Baseball is so often like that. His near-namesake Tampa Bay Rays utility man re-proved that Friday night.

You’ve heard of the Year of the Pitcher, right? Until Michael Brosseau squared off against recent near-executioner Aroldis Chapman in the bottom of the eighth, Friday was the Night of the Pitchers.

Neither the Yankees nor the Rays wanted to hear any nonsense about re-juiced postseason baseballs. They made Game Five of their American League division series into an arms race. With only three rude interruptions and Brousseau delivering the one that mattered most.

Brosseau. The guy Chapman nearly beheaded with a 101 mph fastball late in the regular season. The guy facing now facing Chapman after entering the game as a sixth-inning pinch hitter. The guy Thomas Boswell says was “undrafted, bypassed 1,216 times–is a ‘utility man’ who played every position except SS & C this year (including pitcher).”

The guy who wrestled Chapman to a ten-pitch plate appearance, after beginning with an 0-2 count, and hit that tenth pitch over the left field fence. Meaning, ultimately, game, set, and a Rays date with the Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series to come.

“I was just trying to get a runner on and get the next guy up,” Brosseau said after the game. “We knew the hits were coming not very often tonight . . . Obviously, going up there, trying to find a barrel, thankfully it happened.”

Brosseau may not have to buy his own steak in Tampa Bay for a very long time to come.

These Rays and these Yankees threw the kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room sinks at each other from the mound and got through seven and a half innings tied at one, with both runs on home runs and twenty strikeouts between them. And the Rays managed practically to sneak a 2-1 win.

That’s the number 28 payroll in all the Show taking down the number one payroll, if you’re scoring at home. (The Yankees actually hadn’t been the number-one payroll since 2011.) The barely no-name Rays, full of excrutiatingly average major league baseball players, taking down the Empire Emeritus and its usual pack of high-priced, high-profile spreaders.

The Rays, who survived Gerrit Cole’s first short-rest outing in his major league life, who got no-hit by Cole until Austin Meadows found the screws on a 1-1 fastball and sent it over the right field corner fence in the bottom of the fifth.

The Rays, whose first reliever on the night, Nick Andersen, didn’t let Aaron Judge’s fourth-inning leadoff launch to about the same region over the same fence knock him into praying to find the nearest available mouse hole into which to crawl in anguish. He shook it off and worked two full innings’ shutout relief from there. Nothing to it, folks.

The Rays, who withstood everything Zack Britton threw at them, pried one base hit and reached on one abnormal error by Yankee third baseman Gio Urshela but cashed neither of them in, until Brosseau won that showdown with Chapman.

“I knew it felt good,” Brosseau said about the immediate contact with that triple-digit-speed fastball. “I haven’t had much playing time [in Petco Park], so it’s kind of hard to read the dimensions, to see from daytime to nighttime, but it felt good off the bat.”

Just don’t ask him about payback. Everyone else noted poetic justice and karma turning superbitch. Not Brosseau. “No revenge,” he said. “We put that in the past. We came here to try and win a series. We came here to move on, do what we do best, and that’s play our game.”

Re-juiced postseason baseballs took about more than a third of postseason talk with all the home runs interfering in bunches with airline flight patterns until Friday night. The Yankees and the Rays must have drained them before getting started. Three hits all night long, and all three were home runs that almost barely cleared the top of the fences.

On normal rest Cole has a 2.74 earned run average. On five or more days rest, it’s 3.73. On short rest, it could have gone either way Friday night. Especially with the Rays having won the ten straight previous games in which Tyler Glasnow was their starting pitcher, or opener if you prefer. Not to mention the Rays’ key bullpenners entering the game rested slightly better than the key Yankee bulls.

It didn’t start brilliantly for Cole. He walked Brandon Lowe after striking Meadows out impressively, then drilled Randy Arozarena on the first pitch—days after Arozarena took Cole over the fence—which he didn’t likely mean to do, but good luck convincing the Rays, who’ve been waging bad-blood war against the Yankees all year as it is.

The punchout of Meadows made Cole the fastest pitcher to reach a hundred postseason strikeouts, in 79 innings. He nudged the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw to one side with it. But he walked the bases loaded around a ground out before catching Joey Wendle looking at strike three for the side.

Cole struck out the side swinging in the second, with fastballs hitting just a hair’s breadth short of 100 mph and a generous helping of late movement, and off-speed breakers maybe two hairs’ breadth short of 90 but diving like paratroopers. And then, he struck out two out of three in a 1-2-3 third.

Why, he even made early mincemeat of a hitter who usually does likewise to him. He got rid of Ji-Man Choi twice on ground outs, after the husky Rays first baseman came into the game hitting .526 off Cole including four home runs.

Himself starting on two days’ rest, Glasnow could have ended up with two on and no outs to open the game if Choi hadn’t made a pair of acrobatic plays to turn a pair of bad throws into tight outs. Glasnow himself threw D.J. LeMahieu’s leadoff grounder back to the box offline, and shortstop Willy Adames did likewise with Judge’s followup hopper, before Aaron Hicks lined out to deep center for the side.

Pete Fairbanks and Diego Castillo finished what Glasnow and Andersen started. Castillo finished in reasonable style, striking Giancarlo Stanton and Luke Voit out before Urshela’s nasty liner up the third base line got snapped by third baseman Wendle as if having to catch a baby shot out of a cannon to save the little one’s dear life.

This wasn’t exactly the way the Yankees wanted to honour the memory of their Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford, who died Thursday night at home while watching the Yankees and the Rays tangle in Game Four. (Both teams honoured a moment of silence in Ford’s memory before the game began.)

It was almost a year since Chapman surrendered Jose Altuve’s ALCS-winning two-run homer. When not burning up social media calling for manager Aaron Boone’s head post-game, Yankee fans wasted little time calling for Chapman’s. Determining whom to rage against more was tough enough.

What wasn’t tough was to remind yourself that to err is human but to forgive is not fan policy. The good news is that, even with social-distancing considerations, no groups of Yankee fans have opened street parties at which they can run over Boone, Chapman, or other shortfalling Yankees’ jerseys. Yet.

The Yankees probably wish Ford and his Hall of Fame battery mate Yogi Berra had brewed a little mad chemistry from their Elysian Fields positions Friday night. The Rays only hope that, whatever mad science of their own got them through the Empire Emeritus will be enough for them to turn the Astros aside in the coming week.

“They’ve been the team to beat the last few years,” said Brosseau of the team the Rays got thatclose to knocking out in another tight full-five division series last year. “They knocked us out last year so it will be fun to face them again.”

Don’t bet against these Rays just yet. If they could get rid of the Yankees and their bomb squad, they won’t exactly let the thought of the Astros’ suddenly revived long distance callers shake their gill slits.

The Astros in the ALCS? Relax.

Manager Dusty Baker gets a hug from catcher Martin Maldonado as the Astros celebrate bumping the Athletics off in their ALDS Thursday.

We just got one step closer to the possibility of at least one losing irregular season team turning up in the World Series, anyway. Maybe it’ll still be enough to make commissioner Rob Manfred’s hopes of too-far-expanded postseasons future, which may or many not involve as many as sixteen teams, disappear. Maybe.

The best way to make that disappearance happen would have been a Houston Astros-Milwaukee Brewers World Series, of course. Unfortunately, the Brewers didn’t keep their side of the bargain. The National League West champion Los Angeles Dodgers wouldn’t let them. If anything, the chance of an Astros-Dodgers World Series re-match got a lot bigger after Thursday’s doings.

On Thursday night, the Dodgers destroyed the plucky, exuberant, fun-fun-fun San Diego Padres 12-3, to finish a National League division series sweep in which only one game turned out close thanks to a near-imploding Dodger bullpen. At least they know who they’ll face in the National League Championship Series, thanks to the NL East champion Atlanta Braves wiping the suddenly-upstart Miami Marlins out 7-0 in a dissimilar sweep.

The Padres at least scored in each of the three games. The Marlins scored five in Game One but got shut out in Games Two and Three. By a Braves pitching staff that’s now pitched shutouts in four of their five postseason games. Maybe the chance of an Astros-Dodgers World Series re-match isn’t quite as powerful as you might think?

The Astros wrecked any Oakland Athletics comeback hopes by turning an early 3-0 deficit into an 11-6 Game Four demolition so profound that the A’s ninth-inning pushback resembled unanswerable cries for help from the bottom of the ocean after falling off the Bay Bridge just when they’d finally decided life was too precious to jump.

Admit it: When the A’s jumped Zack Greinke for three in the second it looked for awhile as though they’d force a Game Five. About a blink of awhile when all was said and done.

Matt Olson snuck a base hit through an Astro infield shift, Mark Canha hit one for which Astro shortstop Carlos Correa dove and barely missed for his first lifetime hit off Greinke, Ramon Laureano hit a full-count slider into the left field bleachers, and it looked like the Astros gamble with Greinke—sending him to start with his sore arm possibly not fully recovered—would fail.

Then the A’s starter Frankie Montas’s fortune ran cold in the fourth. How cold? Try Antarctic cold. Michael Brantley hit a two-run homer and Correa hit a three-run bomb, then Montas two more or less excuse-me outs while leaving first and second when manager Bob Melvin lifted him to go to his usually reliable bullpen.

This time, that bullpen didn’t have it. The Astros tore six runs out of that pen before they were finished. Between them, the Astros and the A’s finished setting a new division series record by hitting 24 into the seats all set long. Each team hit twelve. Including Brantley, Correa, and Laureano twice in Game Four. Altuve joined the Thursday bomb squad when he hit one out off Jake Diekman with Martin Maldonado aboard to complete the Astros’ scoring.

But there’s unfinished Friday business to come. The Astros don’t know yet whether they’ll meet the American League East champion Tampa Bay Rays or the AL East runner-up New York Yankees. The Yankees held the Rays off 5-1 on Thursday, somehow, some way, and they’ll open Friday with a distinct advantage named Gerrit Cole. Sort of.

The sort-of is that Cole has never pitched on short rest in his entire major league career. Ever. He’s pitched 106 games on four days’ rest, 67 on five days’ rest, and 31 on six or more days’ rest. It may be the first time in Cole’s sterling career when the phrase “roll of the dice” applies to him.

Can they get a miracle from Cole Friday? He faces Tyler Glasnow, credited with the Game Two win despite surrendering four Yankee runs. Glasnow hasn’t done it since he pitched nine games in relief for the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates. They were the only nine relief gigs of his career to date. And the Rays will likely turn it over to their bullpen if Glasnow gets into trouble early enough.

Either way, Friday’s Yankees-Rays show will be must-see TV for baseball lovers in general but the Astros in particular. What a way to have to spend one of their only two days off before the ALCS begins—in San Diego’s Petco Park, under the pandemic-inspired semi-bubble/neutral-site plan.

As if the Astros didn’t have enough migraines this year. They lost Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery and Cole to free agency. Greinke pitched better than his 4.03 irregular season ERA tells you before his arm soreness kicked over. (His 2020 fielding-independent pitching [FIP]: 2.80.) If their set with the A’s went to a fifth game, they’d have gone most likely to Framber Valdez to open and turned it over to their bullpen at the first sign of trouble.

Now they get to open the ALCS with Valdez—who beat the A’s with seven two-run innings in division series Game Two. Setting them up to work Greinke on his regular rest including a Game Seven if need be. Jose Urquidy will look to prove his ALDS Game Three outing—slapped silly for four home runs in four and a third innings—was an aberration, but beware: his irregular season 2.73 ERA was deceptive looking considering his 4.71 FIP.

They also get to show a little more that their 29-31 irregular season record just might have projected to an acquitting winning record, maybe even another AL West title, if the season had been full and normal. Might.

One key reason for that 29-31 record was being hit with an injury bug enough to rival the battered Yankees of the past two years. But, deeper reality check: this year’s Astros aren’t really as good as last year’s. Even if manager Dusty Baker finally overcame his lifelong prejudice and learned how to have as much faith in his youth as in his elder players.

They lost their best player of the future, 2019 Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez, to a season-ending injury. Altuve struggled early, found his stroke later in August, then hit the injured list with a knee sprain. They’ve lost key pitchers Chris Devenski, Brad Peacock, and Roberto Osuna to season-ending injuries. This postseason Astro staff could be called, plausibly, Greinke, Urquidy, and the Newer Kids on the Block.

Even with those compromises, this year’s Astro Core Five (Altuve, Correa, Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel, and George Springer) had a lower weighted on-base percentage than last year’s edition. It looked better for the Astros that they bombed twelve homers and averaged 8.3 runs a game against the A’s better-than-they-look pitching staff. Of course, the chatter about slightly deadened balls on the irregular season and slightly amplified balls for the postseason is entirely coincidental.

It bodes well for the Astros whether they get the Rays or the Yankees in the ALCS, and they know neither of those teams are pushovers. Scoring 33 runs against a crew of A’s that scored 22, knowing that often as not 22 runs are good enough to win a short set, gives the Astros a little extra comfort to take in.

It even bodes well for them that somehow, some way, they’ve managed to get this far even under the still-hovering clouds of Astrogate. They hit the irregular season running with only nine men left on the roster from the 2017-18 cheaters. They’re closer than you might think or accept to turning what’s left of that roster over and finally putting the Astrogate stain behind them.

Turning what’s left of that roster over? Well, Gurriel has re-upped for another season. But Springer and Reddick face free agency this winter. New general manager James Click has said he’d like to keep Springer on board even with young Kyle Tucker’s emergence, but whether the Astros have the dollars to do it (they’d like to avoid luxury tax penalisation if possible) is another question yet to be answered.

The pandemic did the Astros a huge favour in keeping them from normal ballpark crowds who surely would have let them have it long and loud, over both the scandal of their illegal electronic sign-stealing cheating and their more sad than sickening, mealymouthed non-apologies at that disaster of a February presser.

(Don’t even think about it. Once more with feeling: there’s a Grand Canyon-size difference between a team like the Boston Rogue Sox using what MLB itself provided already in video rooms to steal signs and send them to baserunners to send hitters—you know, Mom and Dad give the kiddies the liquor cabinet keys daring them not to drink unlawfully—and the Astros who a) took an existing outfield camera off mandatory transmission delay, or b) installed a second, illegal real-time camera to send enemy signs to extra clubhouse monitors.)

Now, let’s be absolutely fair about this. Continuing to bop this year’s Astros on the nose over Astrogate when they have only eight men left playing from that tainted 2017 edition is unfair. Unfair but unstoppable, unfortunately, human nature being what it is.

Human nature includes being aghast that genuinely great teamsĀ  who would have demolished the league regardless felt compelled to operating the 2017 Astro Intelligence Agency or the 2018 Red Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring.

To too many people, cheaters once, cheaters always. Right? But nobody claimed the San Francisco Giants remained tainted for how their 1951 edition in New York cheated telescopically to pull off that dazzling pennant-race comeback and playoff force. Nobody really thinks the real curse upon the Cleveland Indians has to do with their 1948 telescopic cheating. (It doesn’t really have that much to do with trading Rocky Colavito at the end of spring training 1960, either.)

By all means hold the 2017-18 Astros to account in public opinion if Commissioner Nero didn’t, beyond a fine, a couple of stripped draft picks, and suspending their since-fired general manager, manager, bench coach (the Red Sox squeezed Alex Cora out as manager), and designated hitter. (The Mets squeezed Carlos Beltran out as manager before he even got to manage a spring training game for them.)

But don’t keep hammering this year’s Astros for it, until or unless someone discovers and produces proof of this year’s edition crossing to the dark side. (The Red Sox didn’t need anyone hammering them for their 2018 taint and similarly mealymouthed non-apologies. They plotzed this year all by themselves.)

You don’t have to root for or even like the Astros to give them whatever fair shake they deserve now. They’re a lot easier to like when you just watch them play baseball the way they normally play than they are when you have to listen to them talking to reporters. Which is what people have said about teams like the Yankees, the Dodgers, and even the St. Louis Cardinals for several generations, too, no?

Yet new manager Dusty Baker took their bridge and kept his and their marble (singular) through this season’s pandemic weirdness and Astrogate aftermath to sneak into the postseason at all. That has Baker in the Manager of the Year conversation and the AstrosĀ  on the brink of a possible third pennant in four seasons. The last team to go to three World Series in four seasons? Ladies and gentlemen, your 1998-2001 New York Yankees.

Consider this, too: With fans still kept out of the stands so far this postseason, it became too simple to hear every sound, noise, and utterance coming from the dugouts. Nobody heard anything this week that’s comparable to the Astrogaters banging the can slowly in 2017.

About the most suspicious sound coming out of Dodger Stadium during the Astros-A’s ALDS was the PA system DJ playing Booker T. & the MGs’ “Green Onions” at every opportunity. (That song was a huge hit—the year Dodger Stadium was born.) Some might wonder since when do today’s ballpark sound people have that kind of historic music sense. Speaking personally, it was music to my rhythm and blues ears.

The Great Escape

Liam Hendriks, who just might be able
to bust his way out of a double-chain-
locked footlocker if asked to do it.

Postseason baseball is littered enough with mishaps, mistakes, and acts of God (we think, often as not) that turn certain triumph into disaster in less than the proverbial New York minute. The Oakland Athletics got thatclose to seeing for themselves in the bottom of the eighth Wednesday afternoon.

When A’s catcher Sean Murphy’s glove was hit by the bat of Houston Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker with Carlos Correa aboard and nobody out, the catcher’s interference call stood an excellent chance of standing as the arguable worst postseason moment in A’s history.

That’s because it happened immediately after the A’s sacrificed their way back to a two-run lead in the top of the inning, with a pair of sac flies, one inning after Chad Pinder yanked them back from the dead and into a fresh tie with a long distance call.

The interference suddenly turned Oakland closer Liam Hendriks’s day’s work from somewhat routine with a three-up, three-down seventh into an eight-inning wrestling match. That was not what the A’s needed with a tenuous late, re-claimed lead, in a game they had to win to stay alive in the division series the Astros threatened to sweep.

It also could have made A’s manager Bob Melvin go from looking like a genius for bringing Hendriks in so soon in the first place to looking like a nut for . . . bringing him in so soon. But it turns out that Hendriks doesn’t like leaving his manager looking like a straitjacket candidate.

The husky righthander also isn’t averse to a hard wrestling match. Not even against these Astros whose 29-31 irregular season record belied their postseason batting revival thus far.

Not when Hendriks could get Yuli Gurriel to pop out to first, Aleidmys Diaz to ground out to second, and Josh Reddick to strike out so violently on a pitch that barely missed the middle of the plate that Reddick—pinch hitting for Astros catcher Martin Maldonado—fumed and broke the bat over his knee angrily as he left the plate area.

A’s fans might have a difficult time deciding the day’s biggest hero. Was it Pinder nailing Astros reliever Josh James’s first pitch after seventh inning-opening back-to-back singles for that game re-tying three-run homer into the right field corner cutouts? Was it Hendriks making Harry Houdini resemble a clumsy Watergate burglar in that 19th-nervous-breakdown eighth?

In a Game Three that featured seven home runs, a 4-2 Oakland lead turned into a 7-4 Houston lead with a five-run fifth, and five lead changes before Pinder launched—who would have wagered that the day’s heaviest drama would be an eighth inning like that? Even on a day George Springer, who treats Dodger Stadium like his personal batting cage, struck out three times and didn’t hit a lick?

Finish the Astros off in the ninth? Child’s play. Strike out Springer, lure Jose Altuve into popping out to first, and get Michael Brantley to fly out to left? Simpler than shaving in the morning, right? There’s a clearance sale on bathing suits at the North Pole waiting for you.

The Atlanta Braves throwing their third shutout in four postseason tries at the Miami Marlins earlier in the day? Ho-hum. Pending whatever came between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays in another ALDS, plus the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres in another NLDS, the A’s and the Astros claimed Thursday’s Alfred Hitchcock Prize for High Drama.

To think that it looked like just another routine long distance exchange before the bottom of the eighth arrived.

Tommy LaStella, who had to leave the game in the eighth after he was hit on the arm by an Andre Scrubb pitch (and when will they change the name of the bone away from “humerus,” since LaStella thought it was as funny as a vampire managing the blood bank) opened the barrage with a first-inning, one-out launch over the center field fence.

Altuve faced Oakland starter Jesus Luzardo in the bottom of the first with one out. He caught hold of a changeup hanging a little off the middle of the zone and hung it to the same real estate but about 25 feet farther out. Brantley coming home on an infield ground out later in the inning merely made for a 2-1 Astro lead. Big deal.

A’s left fielder Mark Canha said “not so fast” leading off the top of the second and sent Astros starter Jose Urquidy’s 1-2 dangling slider dangling over and into LaStella’s and Altuve’s real estate—but landing at a mere 394 feet.

A’s first baseman Matt Olson decided the three half innings preceding him leading off the top of the fourth were a little too quiet. He hit Urquidy’s first pitch into the right field bleachers for a 3-2 A’s lead. Shortstop Marcus Semien decided the A’s punished Urquidy enough for one day, chasing him with one out in the top of the fifth with yet another launch over the center field fence.

Houston reliever Blake Taylor then put first claim on the day’s Houdini award, when he worked his way out of the subterranean chains slapped around him by LaStella’s walk and Pinder’s single by getting Khris Davis to fly out to center and—after walking Olson to load the pillows—getting Canha to fly out to center for the side.

Then it was the Astros’ turn to make up for lost time. They chased Luzardo in the bottom of the fifth when Diaz made him pay for walking Yuli Gurriel to lead off by hitting one into the left field bleachers. Luzardo rid himself of Maldonado when the Houston catcher bunted a line out to third before coming out.

But A’s reliever Yusmeiro Petit hit Springer with a first-pitch fastball, allowed Altuve to beat out an infield hit up the third base side, and served Brantley a pitch good enough to drive Springer home with a base hit. The good news for the A’s: Altuve got thrown out at third trying an extra advance. The bad news: Alex Bregman whacked an RBI double to the back of left center field.

Melvin let Petit put Correa aboard before lifting him for Jake Diekman. Tucker swatted an RBI single to short center before Diekman got Gurriel to ground out to third with the 7-4 Astros lead looking only too ominous for A’s fans’ comfort.

But when it was all over and the A’s lived to play a Game Four, the first thought would be how Melvin might have to shuffle his bullpen after Hendriks worked three innings Thursday, making him most likely unavailable until a Game Five if the set gets that far.

The second thought was who the Astros might send out to start if ailing Zack Greinke’s arm still isn’t ready to take a chance. Not to mention the sudden realisation that the Astros’ bullpen—which shut the A’s out in the first two games—may not be as invincible as Games One and Two made them look.

The third thought? Easy enough. If the A’s hang in there to overthrow the Astros, they’ll have a hard time deciding which Game Three moment was the one that lit the turnaround’s powder keg, Pinder’s seventh-inning solar plexus punch, or Hendriks’s eighth-inning escape.

They may debate that even longer than they would have debated where the interference call rated for postseason calamity.

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.