An epic Yankee fall?

Aaron Boone

Aaron Boone—how often does a four-game division lead feel like the next rung down of a collapse?

“If we don’t dig ourselves out,” Yankee manager Aaron Boone told reporters after the Yankees lost to the Rays 2-1 Saturday night, “you’ll have a great story to write.” Sometimes, greatness is in the eye of the beholder. If the beholder is a typical Yankee fan, this kind of greatness is the last thing the Yankees need.

There’s always been a trunk full of cliches about the Yankees. The two most significant have been a) they don’t like to lose; and, b) their fans consider no postseason legitimate unless the Yankees are in it. (The third most significant, at least since a certain man bought the team in 1973: To err is human; to forgive is not Yankee policy.)

Even the terminally optimistic Boone feels the weight. If he’s telling reporters they’ll have a “great” story to write unless the Yankees find a way out of their current spinout, there’s no joy in half of New York. The other half is hanging with the Mets, who may have a mere two-game lead in the National League East but whose fans aren’t exactly ready to call for summary executions despite their team having ended May 10.5 games ahead of their divisional pack.

The Mets’ faithful learned from the crib that there’s no such thing as an entitlement to success. (Quick: Name any Yankee team ever called a miracle team.) The Yankee faithful were spoiled so rotten by their 20th Century success that their descendants still think the World Series trophy is fraudulent unless it has the Yankee name on it.

Maybe the Yankees will dig themselves out of their present funk. But maybe they won’t. They’re 15-16 in the second half so far and went 10-18 in August alone, but they awoke Sunday morning having lost six of nine. Dropping the first pair of a weekend set with the second-place Rays is one thing, but entering that set splitting four with the sad-sack Athletics and two of three to the equally sad-sack Angels is not the look the Yankees wanted going in.

Their toughest opponents the rest of the way will be those same Rays for a three-game set in Yankee Stadium starting 9 September. They return home from Tampa Bay to host the Twins for four, and the Twins are no pushovers, but they’re not exactly up to the Rays’ performance level just yet. They’re also not quite up to the level of the suddenly-amazing Orioles, whom the Yankees host to end September and open October.

The Orioles—who looked as though they’d surrendered their heart and soul when trading Trey Mancini at the trade deadline, which could have threatened their unlikely sightline to the wild card picture. While almost nobody was looking, the Orioles not only finished July with a 16-9 month but they consummated a 17-10 August and opened September with three straight wins—one against the AL Central-leading Guardians and two against the A’s. Once upon a time the victims of a miracle team (in 1969), these Orioles may yet <em>become</em> a miracle team themselves.

They were as deep as 23 games in the AL East hole as of 2 July. They were 35-44. They’ve since gone 36-25. This regular season may yet finish with a debate over which was greater, the Yankees’ collapse from a one-time 15.5 game AL East lead or the Orioles’ resurrection from a 23-game divisional deficit to a postseason berth.

Yankee and other eyes concurrently train upon Aaron Judge’s pursuit of the 60 home run barrier across which two Yankees have gone (Hall of Famer Babe Ruth’s 60 in 1927; Roger Maris’s 61 in ’61) and—after a healthy leadoff belt in the top of the ninth off Rays reliever Jason Adam Saturday night—Judge himself is only eight shy of meeting. Some think Judge is so locked in he may even meet the 70-bomb single-season barrier head-on before the regular season expires. He’d be the first player to reach it without being under suspicion of actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances, anyway.

But Yankee cynics make note that, for thirty days including Saturday night, the Yankees’ team slash line of .213/.289/.325 is only that high with Judge, himself the possessor of a .279/.446/.593 slash for the same span. Without him, they’d be .208/.268./.295. Their Lost Decade of 1965-75 looked better than that.

How on earth did the Yankees get here? Easy enough. Hal Steinbrenner isn’t the man his father was, good and bad. The good side: Prince Hal isn’t exactly the type to decide one bad inning is enough to demand heads on plates, and if he fires a manager he wouldn’t have the gall to say, “I didn’t fire him. The players did.” The bad side: He doesn’t like to invest half as much as his father did.

Say what you will about George Steinbrenner, but the man didn’t care how much he had to spend, either on the free agency market or on keeping the farm reasonably fresh. Prince Hal’s running the most profitable franchise in the American League as if they were a minor league outlier or the A’s, whichever comes first. Nobody wants the bad side of The Boss resurrected, no matter how often Yankee fans demand it now. But nobody wants the good side buried interminably, either.

Which means general manager Brian Cashman, the longest-tenured man in his job in baseball, had little choice but to cobble a roster with one proverbial hand tied behind his back. But that acknowledgement goes only so far. Cashman’s eye for diamonds in the rough has failed him long enough. The present Yankee roster makes some rebuilding teams (the Orioles, anyone?) resemble threshing machines.

Which also means Boone—the only man in Yankee history to manage back-to-back 100-game winners in his first two seasons on the bridge—looks a lot larger for his faltering in-game urgency managing and getting less than the best of the men not named Judge or (relief pitcher) Clay Holmes on his roster. So do the three Yankee hitting coaches who can’t seem to shake the non-Judge bats out of what one of them is quoted as calling the wrong case of the “[fornicate]-its.”

The definition to which those coaches hold is translated admirably by strongman designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton: “We’ve just got to give whoever is on the mound a tough at-bat, even if we get out. We’ve just gotta wear ’em down a little bit. Just be a little tougher on them.” The definition to which the Yankee bats have held mostly of late seems to be unintentional surrender.

Yes, the Yankees have been injury-addled. Yes, they’ve been playing a curious chess game with minor leaguers brought up to the club to the point where they had to send two promising pitchers back down because the roster was about as flexible as an iron gate. But the lack of urgency the Yankees seemed to feel when they looked like AL East runaways hasn’t been resolved just yet with the team looking as though they can be overtaken before this is over.

Once upon a time, New York was rocked by a Brooklyn Dodgers team that looked as though it was shooting the lights out in the National League but found itself overtaken into a pennant tie by a New York Giants team that was 13 games out at one point. That tie and subsequent playoff, of course, turned out to be as tainted as the day was long. (The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!)

To the best of anyone’s knowledge, nobody’s cheated their way back into the AL East race. If the Yankees keep up their current malaise, nobody would have to. Collapsing entirely from a 15.5 game lead would stand very much alone on the roll of Yankee infamy.

Sorry, Charlie

Charlie Montoyo

Montoyo takes the fall for somewhat less than gets other managers executed.

Let’s see. The Phillies sat 22-29 and having lost 11 of their previous 17 when they executed manager Joe Girardi in favour of Rob Thomson—whose team has gone 24-14 since.

The Angels went from 27-17 to 27-29, the first team in major league history to plunge from  ten games over .500 to a twelve-game losing streak, and sent manager Joe Maddon to the guillotine in favour of Phil Nevin. Nevin’s crew has gone 12-21 since, including 2-11 to open July.

The Blue Jays went 46-42 through Wednesday morning but suffered a five-game losing streak after opening July with a win, went 1-7 against one American League West wild-card contender and one of the division’s weaker teams, and awoke Wednesday at 2-12 for the month to date. Thus did they decide manager Charlie Montoya had a date with the firing squad despite the Jays beating those Phillies Tuesday.

Bench coach John Schneider was handed the bridge with the usual “interim” tag. The Blue Jays’ first act under their interim commander was to beat the Phillies to sweep a two-game set. Thomson’s been a steady skipper thus far; Nevin’s been little more than an apprentice seaman. One win isn’t enough to make the call on Schneider.

But something stunk about Montoya’s firing at first that was a little more profound than the fragrances surrounding the Girardi and Maddon executions. The timing especially.

Earlier this month first base coach Mark Budzinski’s seventeen-year-old daughter Julia was killed in a tubing accident. On Monday, Montoyo—who’d left the dugout with Budzinski in the middle of a doubleheader on receiving the news—joined other team reps in attending Julia Budzinski’s funeral.

Maybe collapsing to a 2-12 July opening gave the Jays enough reason to think Montoyo had to go, but with the All-Star break approaching it’s not unreasonable to think they might have waited just a short while longer, maybe on the eve of the break itself, to align the firing squad.

This may have been the second most cold-blooded managerial firing in modern major league history. The first would have to have been the Yankees dumping pennant-winning manager Yogi Berra in favour of the man who beat him in the 1964 World Series, the Cardinals’ Johnny Keane, the day after the Cardinals won in seven, a move that was planned back-channel before the Yankees put on the stretch drive (going 30-13) that nailed their pennant in the first place.

It looked even worse if you thought about was Montoyo having managed the Jays to 91 wins and a near-miss to the 2021 postseason despite the continuing coronavirus pan-damn-ic compelling the team to make three different cities the site of their home games.

But as Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic pointed out in the immediacy of Montoyo’s execution, the Jays may have their still-euphemistic “compelling reasons” to give the command to fire. If that’s true, maybe they shouldn’t have let him stay on the bridge with a one-year extension and a couple of option years to follow to open the season in the first place.

Like Girardi and Maddon before him, Montoya bore the burden of a misconstructed team even if it’s a team still in the new but dubious wild card hunt. It wasn’t Montoya who delivered a bullpen that finds as many bats as it misses or a starting rotation whose rear end resembles the northbound end of a southbound moose.

They opened July in second place in the tough American League East, but hitting the skid let the re-horsing Red Sox and the Rays pass them in the division standings while letting the Mariners match them for the third wild card thus far.

Now it comes forth, too, that some in the Jays clubhouse thought they needed a somewhat firmer hand when they hit the skid and Montoyo, as loved and popular as he was on the bridge, wasn’t quite the man to offer that hand.

Athletic Blue Jays beat reporter Kaitlyn McGrath found at least two players willing to talk about the clubhouse atmosphere, one anonymously but another willing to go on the record. Of course.

The anonymous Jay told McGrath that hitting the skid required what Montoyo apparently lacked. “When you’re [in a] 1-9 [slump], you’re looking for someone to come in and either kick you in the ass or pump you up, just something, some guidance,” the player said. “And you could have it as players, for sure, and we did, but you really do need it coming from the top and that just wasn’t happening . . . If we were playing better, this wouldn’t have been as much of an issue, but we weren’t, so you’re looking for leadership and a lot of us felt like it wasn’t really there.”

But even that didn’t erode the respect the Jays’ players have for Montoyo the man, if you take the word of pitcher Ross Stripling, who earned the Wednesday win against the Phillies with six strikouts but eight ground outs and ten fly outs in seven innings during which he surrendered two earned runs on two hits.

“I don’t think anyone would ever think that he doesn’t want us to have success individually or as a team, the whole Blue Jays organization,” Stripling told McGrath.

He had our backs all the time and wanted us to win baseball games. And it’s a shame—he’s been here since 2019, when this kind of young core got going—that he’s not going to be there to see a lot of their success and where they go and where we go as a team. But I think everyone would say thank you to him and the effort that he gave us for the years that he did and that we love him and wish him well.

General manager Ross Atkins, who carried the execution forth, said it’s not “necessarily” good starting pitching and good bullpens alone that contend and win. “Look at the history of the game,” he said, “good teams win championships. The person to look to is me. I’m the one that needs to be accountable. And we will continue to work hard in every area of our team to improve.”

In other words, don’t blame me because Charlie couldn’t make do with shallow starting and bullpen bulls.

For now the Phillies have lived a somewhat charmed team life since Girardi’s dismissal, even while losing Bryce Harper to a thumb fracture after the right fielder was limited to DH duty thanks to an elbow injury. They’re only nine games out of first in the National League East, though they have a formidable wall to climb with the first-place Mets and the second-place (and defending World Series champion) Braves making life none too simple.

The Angels? They could bring Casey Stengel back from the dead and still sputter. Especially since, in addition to their still-usual pitching problems not named Shohei Ohtani, the bottom of their order became such a trainwreck that it didn’t matter what the bigger bats did. It comes into sadder play when such bigger bats hit the slumps to which all bats are prone, even those of future Hall of Famers.

Nevin’s tenure has been a plane crash thus far. Especially when he landed himself a ten-game suspension for being none too subtle about looking to avenge a ninth-inning Mike Trout head hunt the night before and sending an opener to start the game and exact revenge. The Mariners may have had it coming, but one behind-the-back pitch and a subsequent plunk was out of line.

And while the umpires sounded mealymouthed in not starting the game with warnings after Trout was inches from decapitation in the ninth the night before, the ensuing brawl after Andrew Wantz hit Jesse Winker in the hip cost Nevin a key relief pitcher (Archie Bradley) for a month, at least, when he hopped over the rail to join the fracas and broke a bone in his pitching elbow.

It’s gotten to the point where the published calls for the Angels to start thinking about the once-impossible: trading both Trout at this year’s trade deadline and Ohtani before he reaches his first free agency, the better to get a replenishing return (hopefully, with pitching slightly above the level of arthritic cleaning crews) while the getting is prime—aren’t waiting until their season is all but officially dead.

So the Blue Jays aren’t exactly that bad off just yet. It’s still too soon to call a single win under a new bridge commander the beginning of an in-season resurgence. Who knows what Atkins might move upon as the trade deadline approaches? But there’s still something badly disconcerting about the Montoya execution. The man’s been a class act who’ll probably get another chance to take another major league bridge soon enough.

There may yet be more to come in the way of deeper details. As often as not, there usually are. And it’s not impossible to ponder whether Atkins himself might now be on a seat whose temperature rises a little more as the season goes forward.

On a sober anniversary

New York Mets, New York Yankees

Honouring the murdered and the fallen who tried to save them during the original 9/11 atrocity at the World Trade Center, the Mets and the Yankees stood shoulder-to-shoulder before Saturday night’s game. Shown left to right here: Pete Alonso, Gleyber Torres, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, Jonathan Villar, Giancarlo Stanton, Brandon Nimmo (still on the injured list), and Aaron Judge.

Members of the 2001 Mets, including Hall of Famer Mike Piazza, escorted various groups of first responders onto and around the field Saturday night. The Citi Field audience cheered loud and long, not just for those Mets but for those first responders who survived or whose comrades were lost in the 11 September 2001 atrocity upon the World Trade Center.

Several of today’s Yankees and Mets—wearing assorted New York first-responder hats, this time with the blessing of baseball’s government—lined up intermingled on the baseline and came close enough to tears. The Mets wore the same non-pinstriped home whites the team wore in 2001, complete with “9-11-2001” embroidered on the right sleeve, but this time with a  black-shadowed version of their “New York” traveling letters across the chest.

After a moment of silence in honour of those murdered in the WTC attacks,  and those who died trying to rescue the attacked, the New York City Cops & Kids Choir sang “The Star Spangled Banner” in a striking balance of chorale, section, and soloist. The cheer at the finish amounted as much to a prayer that a country now fragmented in enough ways might yet un-fragment once again in enough ways, as it did the performance that truly honoured the dead.

The Fox Sports telecast cut to a special anniversary video story, recalling the moment New York can never forget, ten days after baseball ended its self-imposed hiatus following the original atrocities—Piazza blasting what proved a game-winning, two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth, in old Shea Stadium, off Braves reliever Steve Karsay, off the second tier of a television camera stand behind the center field fence.

Then, the Mets’ and Yankees’ 2001 managers, Bobby Valentine and Hall of Famer Joe Torre, threw ceremonial first pitches to the plate, after Valentine puckishly ran back onto the mound to toe the rubber. That was a very far cry from Valentine having led his 2001 Mets in running rescue-and-recovery efforts outside old Shea Stadium itself—and having fear of further danger, as he’s acknowledged often since—after the WTC attacks.

After a commercial break—including a stunning montage of a young lady named Rowen Emerson Jones playing “God Bless America” on her violin, at various New York spots including the Brooklyn Bridge and a 9/11 memorial—it was time at last to set sober reflection and ceremony to one side, play baseball, and grip the Citi Field crowd until the last out of an 8-7 Yankee win.

On baseball terms, the Mets’ home crowd would have loved to have back the awkward should-have-been double play finisher second baseman Javier Baez—hurrying the throw to first—sent airmail past first baseman Pete Alonso that allowed the eighth Yankee run in the top of the eighth in the first place.

This was an interleague game whose sole significance otherwise rested solely in the now-faint postseason hopes of both the Mets in the National League East and the Yankees in the American League East. Had it not been for 9/11’s twentieth anniversary, the bigger baseball news of the night might have been Brewers pitchers Corbin Burnes and Josh Hader collaborating on a major league record ninth no-hitter of the season in their 3-0 win over the Indians—now the first team to be no-hit three times in a season.

The Yankees and the Mets exchanged single-hit halves of the first inning off their starting pitchers, Corey Kluber for the Yankees and Taijuan Walker for the Mets. The baseball fun really began in the top of the second, when the Yankees battered Walker for a pair of two-run homers (catcher Kyle Higashioka, center fielder Brett Gardner), a solo bomb (Aaron Judge, right after Gardner), and a too-early 5-0 lead.

Aaron Judge

Judge led the Yankee attack with two home runs Saturday night.

The Mets got right back into the game in the bottom of the inning. Second baseman Javier Baez, one of the notorious Thumb Bunch, waited out a leadoff four-pitch walk and stole second while left fielder Jeff McNeil struck out swinging. Then a second Thumb Buncher, Kevin Pillar, drove Baez home with a liner just inside the left field line, before catcher James McCann—who’s seen as one of the Mets’ more dubious free agency signings ordinarily—hit a drive that eluding a leaping Judge at the right field wall into an RBI triple. Walker himself followed with a line single to right sending McCann home effortlessly.

From there, Walker overcame his own wounding flaw, trouble commanding his fastball, and retired each the next thirteen Yankees he faced. Along the way, Baez turned on a Kluber service with two out in the bottom of the third and ripped it on a fast high line into the lower left field seats to pull the Mets back to within a run.

Kluber endured through four innings before Yankee manager Aaron Boone opened his bullpen and brought Lucas Luetge in to work the bottom of the fifth. The good news for the Yankees: Luetge shook off a one-out base hit by Mets right fielder Michael Conforto, shot through unoccupied shortstop territory on the defensive shift, to get rid of Alonso on a fly to the back of right field and Baez on a bullet liner Yankee third baseman Gio Urshela speared in a somewhat spinning crouch for the side.

The bad news for the Yankees was Luetge opening the Mets’ half of the sixth by walking McNeil on four straight pitches. Exit Luetge, enter Chad Green in a double switch sending Tyler Wade to play third base. Unfortunately, enter three baseballs thrown onto the field in right by unknown Citi Field idiots, followed by another couple of jackasses running onto the field but taken down swiftly enough by stadium security.

The unruly delay knocked Pillar out of his batting rhythm and into a swinging strikeout. But it didn’t stop McCann from turning on a 1-1 service and driving it into the left field seats, yanking the Mets into a 6-4 lead and inspiring one fan adjacent to the broadcast booth to holler, “Rock ’em! Sock ’em!” Those who remembered Piazza’s 2001 blast hoped against hope that another Met catcher’s bomb would prove the winner on the actual 9/11 anniversary, instead of in the first Mets home game back after baseball’s self-imposed September 2001 break.

The Mets had one more run in them in the bottom of the seventh, when with two outs and Clay Holmes on the mound for the Yankees, Baez chopped one off the plate up toward third, with Wade having a tough throw to make and Baez beating it by a hair as a few television replays plus the umpires’ review showed. McNeil singled him to third, Pillar singled him home with a liner to left, and it looked as though the Mets had an insurance run.

Seth Lugo had relieved Walker and thrown a spotless top of the sixth, and now Trevor May took over for the seventh. Oops. Gardner opened with a base hit through the hole at second, and Judge hit a parabolic punt sailing above the top of the stadium roof but landing halfway up the left field seats to tie the game at six. Yankee left fielder Giancarlo Stanton chased May with a long single, and Aaron Loup took the mound for the Mets.

It looked like Loup would have a simple gig when he got rid of Yankee first baseman Anthony Rizzo in a hurry on a fly out that nudged Conforto back almost to the track in right. Shortstop Gleyber Torres smashed one hard enough on the ground to short that his Mets counterpart Francisco Lindor couldn’t handle properly and got ruled a base hit.

Luke Voit pinch hit for Holmes. He grounded one to short on a very weird hop, but this time Lindor snapped it up at once and threw to second to get Torres. Baez in his rush to end the inning threw flatfoot off his right leg, mid-pivot, and the ball sailed over and past Alonso, enabling Stanton’s pinch runner Andrew Velasquez to score the eighth Yankee run.

The blameless Loup promptly struck Higashioka swinging on four pitches, but the Mets couldn’t cash in the two-out baserunner they got when Lindor wrung Yankee reliever Albert Abreu for a full-count walk. After another delay from another idiot running on the field—Hall of Fame pitcher/Fox Sports analyst John Smoltz wondered aloud, and appropriately, why people pick even evenings of sober commemoration for their “look at me!” moments—Conforto wrung Abreu for another walk.

Up to the plate came Alonso, the Met everyone in the ballpark wanted in this situation. He gave it his best shot, too. On 1-1 he hit one high and deep to center field, but he’d connected just on the underside of the ball, enough to give the Yankees a momentary jolt but not enough to keep Gardner from catching it on the edge of the track.

Veteran Mets relief pickup Brad Hand rid himself of Wade (ground out to second), Yankee second baseman D.J. LeMahieu (identical ground out to second), and Gardner (foul tip swinging strikeout) in the top of the ninth. But Mets pinch-hitter J.D. Davis’s one-out ground-rule double wasn’t enough in the bottom. He took third when strike three escaped Higashioka but the Yankee catcher recovered the ball soon enough to keep Pillar from taking first by just a step.

Then McCann gave one a ride out to right. It wasn’t enough of a ride. Judge snapped the ball into his glove to end the game, snapping a low for the Yankees in which they’d entered Saturday night having lost seven straight and—how cruel the irony—nine of eleven.

In baseball terms, the win put the Yankees into a tie with the Blue Jays for the second AL wild card, the Blue Jays having taken a doubleheader from the hapless Orioles. The loss kept the Mets five behind the Braves in the NL East and four behind the Reds and the Padres—both defeated earlier Saturday—for the second NL wild card.

In spiritual terms, the full Citi Field house, the pre-game ceremonies, and the shoulder-to-shoulder interweaving of Mets and Yankees on the baseline during those ceremonies reminded people of the better sides of New York City. The sides that show recovery and perseverance with little more than just basic effort of the heart. Even commemorating the anniversary of an atrocity that—who could have predicted—killed fewer people than were reported to have died Friday alone from COVID-19-related illness.

Maybe sports don’t really heal, but maybe something like a baseball game relieves the sting of certain atrocities, pestilences, and sorrows for just a little while.

But to the idiots throwing balls on the field, running onto the field, and even booing the 7 Line Army—that particular group of orange-shirted, die-hard Met fans—for refusing to partake of the still-idiotic Wave in the seventh inning (if the 1980s call demanding it back, let them have it back, unapologetically), three words: Go to hell.

The upstarts of West Camden Street?

20200508_124212-01

Whichever era’s gear you like, it looks safe to be an Oriole fan again. So far. All things considered.

I’m not seeing things, really, I keep telling myself. So do most of you who aren’t part of the fan base. So, probably, do most of those whose allegiance—in cardboard cutouts this pandemic season, unfortunately—anchors at 333 West Camden Street in Baltimore.

Where the Orioles have suddenly re-graduated themselves from birds of prey, as in prey for the other guys, to the American League East’s second-best record behind the beasts of the south Bronx and fourth-best record in the entire league.

Entering Sunday the Orioles had the fourth-most runs per game (5.35), the sixth-best team on-base percentage (.334), the second-best team slugging percentage (.466), the second-best team OPS (.800), the second-highest total bases (320), and the sixth-lowest team number of hitters banging into double plays (10) . . . in the entire Show.

So far.

They didn’t do it against their fellow presumed cream puffs, either. They’ve beaten the world champion Washington Nationals four out of five times, and the Philadelphia Phillies and the Tampa Bay Rays both three out of three.

They’re also one of the Show’s most prolific road shows, too, even in this coronavirus-nourished Quiet, Please! Alfred Hitchcock Presents Dimension X Minus One Fella’s Family of a season—nine road games, eight wins.

They’ve even had a six-game winning streak and they’ve won seven out of eight, including those four wins dropped on the Nats pending today’s skirmish in Camden Yards.

All that despite their pitching being near the bottom third of the league’s team ERA pack and near it in team pitching strikeouts while being just about dead center for surrendering the big flies.

It’s enough to make even generic baseball collectors reach for their Oriole hats of any era, plop them atop their heads almost daily, and wonder what strange new feats of derring-do await from a team who’d turned too profoundly into the AL East’s feats of derring-don’t even think about it.

Maybe the only more surprising ensembles in the Show right now are the Miami Marlins, who didn’t let a little thing such as practically the entire team waylaid by COVID-19 positives stop them from remaking/remodeling on the fly and entering Sunday afternoon with the number five winning percentage.

Most fish get the ick and croak. These Fish either got or laid dormant the coronavirus, lost what seemed like half their first-third of the season . . . and went from the guppies of the National League East to its barracudas. Just pray that they don’t begin behaving like real barracuda and start eating their young. Oops. Maybe the Marlins already did that—their average age is 29.4.

Come to think of it, the Marlins won nine games so far entering Sunday, and four of them came against . . . the Orioles. With this season’s cockamamie-looking playoff plan, it may not be thinking two thousand light years from home to imagine these Birds of Prey against those Flying Fish. It might be jarring, it might seem to threaten the natural order of things, but it may not be all that surreal.

So what went on in Camden Yards on Sunday afternoon? A little comic relief from Nats manager Dave Martinez, for openers, objecting to a pitch call with an extremely emphatic Horse[spit]! Horse [fornicating] [spit]! Didya hear me? in the bottom of the second. (O Vin Scully, where is thy sting?)

Let’s see . . . an RBI single, a sacrifice fly, and another RBI single put the Nats up 3-0 in the top of the first. Oriole right fielder Anthony Satlander got one back in the bottom, off Max Scherzer, with a one-out blast into the right field bleachers. A sacrifice fly and another RBI single made it 5-1, Nats in the top of the fifth.

Orioles catcher Pedro Severino said, “That’s what you think,” with two aboard in the bottom of the sixth, catching hold of a Scherzer fastball practically down the chute and sending it over the left field fence. An inning later, Satlander found the screws on Scherzer’s two-out, 2-1 repeat changeup and repeated what he did in the first, to practically the same section of unoccupied real estate.

Tied at five. If the Orioles are really playing over their own heads, they weren’t going to let even Mad Max take them without a fight.

Oops. With two out and Juan Soto on second in the top of the eighth, Oriole third baseman Rio Ruiz threw Kurt Suzuki’s should-have-been inning-ending grounder wild enough to let Soto score and Suzuki have first and then second on the house.

That was no time for surprise generosity, Orioles. Unless it wasn’t that much of a surprise. The Orioles entered Sunday fifth in the American League with fourteen errors. Well, nobody’s perfect, and the Orioles are still trying to get used to winning again, however surrealistic the truncated season.

Heavy sighs of relief, mostly from the Oriole dugout, unless someone figured out a way to send the canned crowd sounds through any cutouts in the park. Oriole reliever Paul Fry got Nats pinch-hitter Eric Thames to pop out to shortstop Jose Iglesias for the side. Staying within one run was child’s play.

Wsn’t it?

It wasn’t. Not when Nats reliever Tanner Rainey struck out the side after opening the Oriole eighth by plunking designated hitter Renato Nunez and World Series finisher Daniel Hudson struck out two after opening the Oriole ninth with a ground ball out. Even upstarts like these Orioles can’t have everything yet, can they?

Horse [spit] Horse [fornicating] [spit]! Didya hear me?

The survival of the unfittest

2019-09-19 NewYorkYankees

To the best of anyone’s knowledge, no Yankee was injured during the making of this division-clinching celebration.

Future baseball trivia contests should feature this question: “Name the team that won the 2019 American League East despite making a M*A*S*H triage seem like a day camp’s first aid station.” Then, they should add, “P.S. Name the American League’s 2019 Manager of the Year—according to major league baseball and the American Red Cross.”

Aaron Boone must have days when he thinks he’s not a major league manager but the hapless chief administrator of an overworked urgent care clinic. The Broken Bombers  must have days when they think the umpire isn’t going to start a game hollering “Play ball!” but pulling out a bugle to sound sick call.

They locked down the American League East Thursday night with their 100th win, beating the hapless, Mike Trout-less Angels 9-1 at home in St. Elsewhere, Yankee Stadium. And they still had twelve players—not including the apparently terminally hapless Jacoby Ellsbury—either on the injured list or listed day-to-day with one or another ailment.

“Nothing has got in their way,” said Boone after the game. “Whatever has come adversity-wise, they faced it and powered right through it.” As almost usual, Boone deflected most attention toward his players, rather modestly for the first manager to win 100 games in each of his first two seasons on the job.

Nobody else has done that. Not John McGraw. Not Connie Mack. Not Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, or Casey Stengel. Not Walter Alston, Earl Weaver, Sparky Anderson, Davey Johnson, Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox, or Terry Francona. The man who once broke Boston hearts by nailing the 2003 American League pennant with an eleventh-inning home run in the old Yankee Stadium sits alone with those C-notes.

Boone may not be one of the game’s premier tacticians or strategists, but maybe he doesn’t have to be for now. Just sending a Yankee team to the field every day in spite of the ceaseless call of calamity was probably enough for the 46-year-old skipper. That and a few tranquilisers.

There’s no truth to any speculation that Johns Hopkins is negotiating for the rights to present the Yankees as medical school exhibits yet. But don’t be shocked if the talks begin any time soon.

Only the Astros among the American League’s powerhouses had an injury overload anywhere near the one that accompanied the Yankees this year. They were episodes of Bones, House, Private Practise, Grey’s Anatomy, E.R., Chicago Hope, Medical Center, and Marcus Welby, M.D. on any given day of the week. Their bangs, bruises, and batterings got so profound so often that Yankee fans could have been forgiven if they felt compelled to claim the New England Journal of Medicine as this year’s Yankee yearbook.

There may not be a baseball team alive that figured out ways to win 100 regular season games and counting despite putting every New York area emergency room on double red alert. And it didn’t seem like any single Yankee faction becoming so injury prone. The 2019 injury bug did the equal-opportunity Yankee panky.

About the only Yankees on or near the field who didn’t have dates with the doctors were the bat and ball boys and girls. Boone was probably ready more than once a week to decide whether he needed an internist on call—or Frasier.

And when the Yankees closed out the Angels Thursday night they didn’t dare dogpile, chest bump, forearm bump, fist bump, jersey strip, or anything else to which celebrating baseball players take these days when celebrating arduous wins or even divisional clinches. With their luck, five Yankees might have ended up in traction.

“We’re just trying to avoid injuries,” deadpanned second baseman D.J. LaMahieu, whose three-run homer with two out in the bottom of the third began the Thursday night thrashing. All things considered, it’s a wonder making that comment didn’t instigate a case of lockjaw.

“There’s a couple guys that are irreplaceable here,” said catcher Austin Romine in April, little knowing he’d have to step in bigger for Gary Sanchez who just went down with a tight groin and could be gone until the postseason rounds, “but we’ve got to find a way to do it. We’re still winning games. We’ve got guys stepping up left and right.” Careful. With the Yankees’ luck, one of them is liable to twist an ankle on the landing.

Guys stepping up left and right? The Yankees practically led the league in reaching down and finding help on the farm, lots of it, enough to make you wonder—even allowing their seemingly infinite financial resources—why other teams who aren’t as financially strapped as they let you believe can’t figure out as well as the Yankees how to re-tool on the fly without tanking and within in far less extreme circumstances.

That should be good enough to earn longtime general manager Brian Cashman consideration as baseball’s Executive of the Year. Whether he gets it from the game or from the American Medical Association probably doesn’t matter.

They’ve used 53 different players and sent thirty to the injured list this year, the latter being the most for any team since 2004. And they couldn’t even win Thursday night without more medical emergencies preceding it.

Relief pitcher Dellin Betances was barely back from shoulder and lat muscle issues that kept him drydocked until Sunday—when he faced two Blue Jays in the bottom of the fourth and struck them both out . . . then somehow incurred a partial Achilles tendon tear doing the happy dance after the second punchout.  Surgery he won’t need. But his season ended before it began even partially.

And Aaron Judge is being watched day-to-day after Hizzoner landed hard on his right shoulder Wednesday night trying for a diving catch.

The Yankees already had to live a lot of the season without Judge, Betances, Sanchez, Luis Severino, Aaron Hicks, Miguel Andjuar, Didi Gregorius, Giancarlo Stanton, Jake Barrett, and Greg Bird. Among others. They’ll have to live the rest of the season and postseason without David Hale, Jonathan Holder, and Mike Tauchman. Possibly among others. Tauchman went from an obscure spring acquisition from the Rockies to a co-household name with Gio Urshela—until he, too, pulled up injured with a likely season-ending calf strain.

They’ve managed to comport themselves like overly seasoned professionals in spite of the still-preponderant youth of the team. (Their average age: 28.) But it wasn’t easy this year. Even the most stoic professional can get frazzled when reporting to work the next day to discover yet another colleague in need of major repairs.

And you’d have to be either ignorant or a pure Yankee hater not to appreciate an irony in this year’s AL East conquest. The last time the Yankees won the division, Hall of Famer in waiting Derek Jeter wrecked his ankle in the twelfth inning of what turned into a sweep out of their 2012 division series by the Tigers. They wouldn’t be human if they didn’t have even a tiny similar fear of even a hint of similar calamity awaiting them this time.

It may rankle Yankee fans that their heroes have only one 21st Century World Series ring to the rival Red Sox’s four. But they shouldn’t be too hard on the Yankees if they don’t quite make it back to the Promised Land this time around. If baseball’s cliches include that great or even persevering teams become the forgotten men once they don’t reach the Promised Land, these Yankees have a chance to stand it on its own head.

Just pray, while you toast the Yankees’ season long witness to survival of the unfittest, that doing it doesn’t tear another Yankee muscle, fracture another Yankee bone, tear another Yankee Achilles, strain another Yankee lat. Or, send even their uncannily resilient manager to the E.R. If not the psychiatrist’s couch.