Heartbreak Hotel, Cleveland

James Karinchak, rocking a Ricky Vaughn haircut, but having been rocked by Gio Urshela Wednesday night.

Bad enough: Cleveland having to host the world babyweight championship bout that was Tuesday night’s allegedly presidential debate. Worse: The Indians won’t get the chance to win their first World Series since the births of Israel, NASCAR, the Polaroid Land camera, and Scrabble.

Again.

They won’t even get to play a division series after the New York Yankees swept them out of their wild card series. But to lose an almost five-hour Wednesday night grapple extended by two rain delays totaling 76 minutes and finishing in a 10-9 Yankee win, after both sides threw everything including the kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room sinks?

It’s not quite the same as losing Game Seven of the 2016 World Series after one somewhat long rain delay and an almost equally soul-wrenching back-and-forth. But it’s close enough. It isn’t quite the single most heartbreaking loss in Indians history. (Game Seven of the 1997 World Series still clings to the top. Barely)

But it’s close enough to have turned Progressive Field—in the city that also hosts the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—into Heartbreak Hotel.

The Indians unable to cash in for another tie at minimum in the bottom of the ninth—when Yankee closer Aroldis Chapman’s should-have-been game-ending strikeout turned into a wild pitch, enabling pinch hitter Orlando Mercado to take first on the house, before Chapman regrouped and struck out swinging another pinch hitter, Austin Hedges? It isn’t Edgar Renteria ruining Charles Nagy with a two-out RBI single in the bottom of the eleventh.

But it’s close enough.

The Show’s most reliable irregular season closer and one of the league’s better defenses handing the Yankees a re-tie and go-ahead in the top of the ninth? It isn’t Bryan Shaw surrendering a tie-breaking and a semi-insurance run, and the Indians able to get only one of those runs back, in the tenth inning in Game Seven, 2016 Series.

But it’s close enough.

While you’re at it, it won’t do any good to comfort the Indians by telling them the Yankees once lost a World Series Game Seven by a 10-9 score. Not even if you tell the Tribe the Yankees lost it when Hall of Famer Yogi Berra playing left field could only watch helplessly when Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski’s leadoff drive sailed over the left field wall in ancient Forbes Field.

Cleveland’s going to have a tough enough time trying to figure out which part hurt the most Wednesday night. They’ll have plenty of candidates. They’ll need plenty of salve.

“We had many different things and a lot of obstacles, but this group stayed together — by any means,” said Sandy Alomar, the Indians’ interim manager thanks to Terry Francona’s continuing health issues, who might yet get Manager of the Year votes just for getting the Indians to the postseason at all. “We had an eight-game losing streak, they came back. Today’s game reflected how much this team grinds and how much they fight.”

The candidates for the biggest hurt of the Indians’ now-finished season may only begin with Alomar deciding he needed a strikeout machine to handle Yankee third baseman Gio Urshela in the top of the fourth, with the bases loaded, nobody out, and the Tribe with a 4-1 lead they built with a pair of RBI doubles and an RBI single in the bottom of the first.

Alomar brought in James Karinchak to relieve starter Carlos Carrasco, cheated a bit by the rain delays The first pitch of the game was delayed by rain that hadn’t yet arrived. The second hit in the bottom of the first, and that time the rain lasted slightly over half an hour.

Until he entered Wednesday night, Karinchak’s young career showed 131 batters facing him and only one ever hitting anything out. It also shows him rocking the jagged-back haircut Charlie Sheen made famous as fictional flame-throwing Indians pitcher Ricky Vaughn in Major League. Now, Urshela and Karinchak wrestled to a full count.

The Wild Thing he wasn’t, but poor Karinchak’s young career now shows one postseason appearance and one disaster. With one swing and one launch into the left field bleachers, former Indian Urshela burned his old team four ways to eternity.

He also made Yankee history while he was at it. Thirteen Yankees have hit postseason grand slams, and Urshela is the first Yankee third baseman to slice such salami and the only Yankee anywhere to do it when the Yankees were behind.

Maybe it’ll comfort Indians fans to know that the Buffalonto Blue Jays got shoved out of the postseason earlier and likewise Wednesday. When the Jays’ best pitcher, former Dodger Hyun-Jin Ryu, faced Hunter Renfroe, a Ray who’d been 2-for-18 with seven strikeouts lifetime against him, in the second inning . . . and Renfroe sliced what amounted to season-ending salami for the Jays.

All night long, the Indians had answers for the Yankees. Let Giancarlo Stanton put the Yankees up 6-4 with a sacrifice fly in the top of the fifth, three innings after Stanton accounted for the first Yankee run with a home run? Why, they’ll just let Jose Ramirez whack a two-run double down the right field line to re-tie in the bottom of the fifth.

Let Gary Sanchez—the embattled Yankee catcher benched for Game One after he made Mario Mendoza resemble Mickey Mantle on the irregular season, and batted ninth for Game Two—smack a two-run homer in the top of the sixth to break the six-all tie? Why, the Indians will just send Jason Luplow to the plate, pinch hitting for Josh Naylor—their return from San Diego, after unloading pitcher Mike Clevinger a fortnight after he violated  COVID protocol violations.

That was some cojones on Alomar pinch hitting for Naylor, who’d set a Show precedent with five hits in his first five postseason plate appearances. Good thing the Indians let Luplow smack a two-run double to the back of center field to re-tie the game at eight.

For good measure, they’ll even let Cesar Hernandez fight Chapman off to dump a floater of an RBI single into short center field to make it 9-8, Indians. Then, they’ll shake off Urshela’s likely game-saving double play start to end that eighth and bring in Brad Hand, who led the Show with sixteen saves and didn’t blow a single save opportunity all irregular season long while he was at it.

Hand picked the wrong night to open a save opportunity by walking Stanton. Urshela then singled Stanton’s pinch runner Mike Tauchman to second. Gleyber Torres beat out an infield dribbler to load the pillows, and Brett Gardner struck out, but Sanchez lofted a re-tying sacrifice fly to center field.

Up stepped American League batting champion D.J. LeMahieu. He called slider in the center pocket and cued it right up the middle and right through the Indians’ middle infield. And, alas, right under center fielder Delino DeShields’s down-stretched glove, enabling Urshela to score the tenth Yankee run.

The Indians ran out of answers in the bottom of the ninth.

One night after they punished American League Cy Young Award favourite Shane Bieber, the Yankees had to survive the elements and Indians tenacity to get themselves a division series date with the Rays, who beat them out of the American League East title and who lack both the Yankees’ star power and the meaning of the word “quit.”

“You don’t have to pour champagne on each other,” said Yankee manager Aaron Boone, whose winners stuck to the COVID protocols and exchanged mere fist bumps to celebrate, “to appreciate what an epic game that was and the fact that we’re moving on.”

Forgive Cleveland if the epic side of the game escapes for a good while. Embrace these Indians who fought the good fight against a Yankee team they never saw on the irregular season but had to get past excess familiarity with the medical profession for a second straight season.

So far as the Indians are concerned, these Yankees picked the wrong time to remember how to win on the road. And, the Tribe with the irregular season’s best pitching overall picked the wrong time to post an 11.00 ERA in two games against the Empire Emeritus with eleven walks in eighteen innings and seven home runs surrendered.

So far as these Yankees are concerned, they survived the best the Indians could throw at them to make it four times in the past four seasons they’ve sent either the Indians or the Minnesota Twins home for the winter early. But the Indians and their fans—already rubbing their eyes over Francisco Lindor, Franmil Reyes, and Carlos Santana going 1-for-23 at the plate this set—are going to wonder how their number one strength, their pitching, became their number-one vulnerability.

Don’t remind Cleveland that the same thing happened in the 1954 World Series, when another stellar Indians pitching staff—including Hall of Famers Bob Lemon and Early Wynn, Mike (The Big Bear) Garcia, and what still remained of Hall of Famer Bob Feller—led an 111-game winning team into a Series sweep by the New York Giants. It won’t make this one sting any more gently.

“That game is literally the definition of a rollercoaster ride right there,” said Indians relief pitcher Nick Wittgren after it ended Wednesday night. “It was amazing to see our guys fight back . . . We were fighting, battling the entire game. That was fun to watch. It would have been a little more fun to be playing tomorrow.”

Usque ad proximum annum expectare.

Here’s what enough are gonna say now, Astros

Carlos Correa hitting a tiebreaking homer to put the Astros up to stay and win Wednesday? Good. Carlos Correa challenging Astrogate critics after winning one sneak-in wild card set? Not so good.

So the Houston Astros bumped the Minnesota Twins to one side almost in a blink in their American League wild card series. They swept the Twins in the best-of-three in the Twins’ own playpen. Their 4-1 and 3-1 wins weren’t exactly overpowering but they don’t have to be bombing raids or ground massacres to be wins.

Not only does it make for the Twins losing eighteen straight postseason games they’ve played since 2004, it makes for losing them at home after being the best in Show at home this irregular season. When you beat a team in their house when their irregular season winning percentage was .774, you earn a couple of days’ bragging rights.

What you haven’t earned yet, you Astros who snuck into this overcompensating sixteen-team postseason with a 29-31 irregular season record, is the right to call out your Astrogate critics after this early two-game uprising by asking, as shortstop Carlos Correa—whose home run in the top of the seventh Wednesday busted a one-all tie—did post-game, asking, “What are they gonna say now?”

Let’s see. They’re gonna say the Astros haven’t even reached the World Series yet. They’re gonna say the Astros haven’t even played a division series yet, and don’t know at this writing whether they’ll face the Oakland Athletics or the Chicago White Sox in that set. The A’s regrouped after losing their Game One to beat the White Sox and former Astro Dallas Keuchel, 5-3, Wednesday.

Like it or not, whatever the reasons that got them there, they’re gonna say the Astros are still one of the two losing teams that got into this postseason thanks to Commissioner Nero and his ownership minions deciding the pandemically-irregular season required eight teams per league starting the postseason even at the risk of losing teams winning any of the six designated wild cards.

Like it or not, some of them are gonna say the Astros are still evoking the old maxim that even the worst teams in baseball can heat up, stand up, and iron up to win in a short burst. We’re still waiting for the likewise 29-31 Milwaukee Brewers to show if they’ll do likewise, since I sat down to write before they played so much as a single out against the Los Angeles Dodgers Wednesday.

And, as much as we’d love to see the Astros and the Brewers iron up enough to meet each other in the Series, the better to make Commissioner Nero think twice (if he can think) about making permanent the prospect of losing teams going to the postseason, it’s not going to make Astrogate just an unpleasant memory just yet.

What else are they gonna say now? It’ll take a lot more than one shortstop throwing down such a gauntlet, and one not-yet-likely 2020 World Series appearance, to eradicate the stain.

Don’t even go there, Astros. The Boston Red Sox getting caught sign-stealing with an AppleWatch in the dugout and, in due course, with deciphering signs in the video rooms to relay to runners to signal hitters, isn’t even close to what you did.

The AppleWatch coach was foolish enough to do it in plain sight and get caught by the New York Yankees. That was his own bright idea. But the video rooms were provided all teams by MLB itself. Do I have to say it again? It was Mom and Dad giving the teenagers the keys to the liquor cabinet while they went out of town for the weekend.

The only shock would have been if the Rogue Sox and any other team (including the Yankees, apparently) availing themselves accordingly had resisted the temptation to accept MLB’s gift horses without developing and operating their reconnaissance rings.

So far as we know for dead last certain, those teams didn’t either alter an existing ballpark camera off its mandatory eight-second transmission delay or install a second camera to transmit in real time. Nor did MLB provide second cameras or give exemptions allowing them to alter the first.

Nor did those teams tie such cameras to monitors in the clubhouse for translators to decipher opposing signs and transmit them by banging the can none too slowly depending on which pitch they wanted hitters to expect.

Those cameras, those monitors, and that trash can drumming were the Astros’ own ideas. They were above and beyond boys being boys and figuring out how to get away with unlocking and indulging the liquor cabinet.

What else are they gonna say now? How about that the Astros haven’t yet proven how elite they are at the plate this postseason. They’ve still got the horses no matter how feebly too many of them swung during the irregular season. The one thing they do have in common with the Rogue Sox is that they had (and have) too many talented hitters (still) for them to have needed a surreptitious intelligence agency.

But when they muster a mere seven runs on thirteen hits over two wild card games, they’re not exactly earning an image as this postseason’s Murderer’s Row II just yet. Zack Greinke, Jose Urquidy, and the Astros’ bullpen deserve more credit for stopping the Twins’ thumpers than their bats deserve for delivering close enough to the bare minimum.

Remember, too, that most of the rest of baseball and most of baseball’s fans were outraged not only that the Astros were exposed as extra-legal sign-stealing cheaters but that Commissioner Nero for various reasons saw fit to give the cheating players immunity in return for spilling.

The spilling didn’t outrage people, the getting off the hook did. So did owner Jim Crane and since-deposed general manager Jeff Luhnow trying to blame everyone else for the poisonous organisational culture they brewed that opened the passway through which the Astro Intelligence Agency passed.

A.J. Hinch—the hapless manager, who couldn’t or wouldn’t muster enough strength to do more to stop his high-tech cheaters except smashing a couple of the clubhouse monitors, and maybe telling them if he caught them doing it again he’d be . . . very, very angry at them—is long enough gone. Of any Astrogate figure Hinch, whose Astrogate suspension from baseball ends when the World Series does, probably deserves a second chance the most. But he’s liable to find it elsewhere. Sadder but, hopefully, wiser.

Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran, the 2017 bench coach and designated hitter who co-masterminded enough of the Astro Intelligence Agency’s operating apparatus, are also gone. So are all but eight members of the 2017-18 players’ roster.

It’ll probably take the final, complete remake of the roster and overhaul of the organisation for the Astros to lose the entire Astrogate stain. Even that may not remove all of it. Just as history renders the 1951 New York Giants forever not as a daring thirteen-game-out comeback team but as off-field-based, illegal telescopic cheaters (The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!), history renders the 2017 (Astros) and 2018 (Rogue Sox) World Series winners as tainted forever.

Because Astrogate took until late 2019 to expose, this year’s Astros were going to take their lumps no matter what. Their mealymouthed pre-pandemic shutdown February presser just compounded the outrage.

But the Giants got past the ’51 cheaters in due course. So did several other pennant-winning teams whom history has long since exposed as comparable cheaters.

The Philadelphia Athletics got past 1910-14, never mind periodic suspicions that their off-field-based sign-stealing had almost as much hand as economics in Connie Mack’s first notorious fire sale. The Detroit Tigers got past their 1940 cheaters. So did the 1948 World Series-winning Cleveland Indians. So did the 1961 Cincinnati Reds. So, too, will the Astros and the Red Sox in due course.

Just a World Series presence this year—as unlikely as it might still seem now, but achieved straight, no chaser—would be a flood of Febreze removing a lot more of the Astrogate stain. Until it does, Correa may want to remember God gave him two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and only one mouth for a very good reason.

They were a little hard on the Bieber last night

Aaron Judge runs out the bomb he detonated off Shane Bieber on the fourth pitch of the game Tuesday night.

New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone is fond of saying his team can turn on a dime. He’d much rather they keep turning on the Cleveland Indians the way they did to open their American League wild card set. As a matter of fact, Boone’s wards were a little hard on the Bieber Tuesday night.

The Yankees and the Indians opened in Cleveland the same night the first debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden went down. Depending upon where you peeked, the country had a hard time determining which wildfire was worse—the allegedly presidential debate, or the Yankees’ 12-3 demolition. The jury may be out until Election Day.

The Yankees could be seen as having had less time to prepare for Indians starter Shane Bieber than Trump and Biden had to face each other. They hadn’t faced the presumptive American League Cy Young Award winner all irregular season long, anywhere. They also went in having lost six of their last seven irregular season games and compiled an 11-18 road record.

Bieber had twelve season starts and faced four postseason teams—three of whom had winning records—seven times. Nobody took him long in any of his starts. Only once all year did he surrender a single run in the first or fifth innings. Nobody scored on his dollar at home all year.

Then the Yankees caught hold of him Tuesday night.

They needed only four straight fastballs to rip two runs out of him in the top of the first. American League batting champion D.J. LeMahieu saw a third straight fastball and lined a single to right field. Aaron Judge started his first plate appearance to follow seeing a fourth straight Bieber fastball. He finished it with that fastball, too, sending it over the right center field wall.

“We had a big, long hitter’s meeting,” Judge said after the game, “about all sticking to the same plan and just trying to work counts, get pitches to drive and I think, as a whole, we did that. That’s when this team is dangerous, when we go out there and we can just grind out at-bats. Any mistakes that are thrown up there, we hammer them.”

Bieber’s fastball sat so easily up or under in the zone to open that LeMahieu wouldn’t exactly call a three-pitch plate appearance a hard grind when pitch three sat right in the middle. Then the slender righthander who hadn’t surrendered a home run at home all irregular season long made the same mistake to Judge over the middle of the plate.

“The first inning didn’t go as planned,” said Bieber, showing a gift for understatement lacking too vividly in the presidential debate hall. “I wish I would have been with my off-speed stuff in the zone, and challenged those guys a little more. I forced myself into some bad situations and some bad counts on top of not having my best stuff and making mistakes. No excuses. It was not good.”

Neither was the rest of Bieber’s outing on a night Gerrit Cole struck out thirteen Indians in seven innings while walking nobody, had only one truly shaky inning (the third) and escaped with only an RBI double by Indians third baseman Jose Ramirez, then surrendered his only other run an inning after that, when left fielder Josh Naylor hit one over the right center field wall.

Cole otherwise looked even better than the guy who didn’t let five walks stop him from beating the Yankees in Game Four of last year’s American League Championship Series. The guy the Houston Astros let walk into free agency and right into the Yankees’ $324 million arms last winter.

In case you were wondering, only one pitcher before Cole ever struck out thirteen without walking a man in a postseason assignment—the late Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, in Game One of the 1973 National League Championship Series, and that was a game Seaver lost to the Cincinnati Reds, 2-1.

When he blew away the Indians’ middle infield, Francisco Lindor and Cesar Hernandez, on swinging strikeouts, before convincing Ramirez his only recourse was to pop one out to Torres behind shortstop, Cole let the Indians know early enough and often enough that they weren’t going to have a simple evening’s baseball to play.

Only nobody paid as much attention to Cole’s work or his marriage with postseason history as they might have paid if the Yankees hadn’t turned Bieber and a couple of Indians relievers into their personal batting practise pitchers.

They slapped Bieber for a single run in the third, two each in the fourth and the fifth. In order, it was AL home run champion Luke Voit doubling Aaron Hicks home with two out in the third, Brett Gardner doubling home Gleyber Torres and LeMahieu catching the Indian infield asleep with an infield RBI single pushing Gardner home in the fourth, and Torres with Gio Urshela aboard hitting one out in the fifth.

That was the 105th pitch of Bieber’s evening, corroborating Judge’s observation of the Yankee game plan at last. By that point, Bieber was probably itching to tell the Yankees what Biden told Trump during one of the president’s more insistent of his nightlong harangues, “Will you shut up, man?”

Interim manager Sandy Alomar, filling in for ailing Terry Francona, was kind enough to lift Bieber after that 105th pitch of the outing traveled from Torres’s bat to the bleachers. He didn’t tell the Yankees to shut up, man, on a night nobody could. But Alomar—whose guidance of the Indians into the postseason in the first place may actually get him Manager of the Year votes despite his interim status—did speak kindly of his still-young pitcher.

“Seems to be he was too excited,” Alomar said after the demolition ended at last. “He was the best pitcher in the American League this year. He had a bad game tonight.” That was like saying the Japanese navy had a bad set at Midway.

Even injury-hobbled Giancarlo Stanton joined in the fun. After striking out twice in four previous plate appearances on the night, the Yankee designated hitter squared off against reliever Cam Hill with one out in the top of the of the ninth and tore a 1-0 fastball—also arriving in the meatiest part of the zone—over the left center field fence.

The Yankee assault and battery almost wiped Chicago White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito out of the day’s memory bank, thirty-four days after Giolito pitched a no-hitter the too-easy way against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He went into the top of the seventh threatening to become the only pitcher other than Hall of Famer Roy Halladay to pitch a regular-season no-hitter (that was Halladay’s perfect game) and a postseason no-no the same year.

Former Cardinal/Angel Tommy La Stella said not so fast leading off the bottom of the seventh in the Oakland Athletics’ ramshackle ballpark. With the White Sox up 3-0 already, La Stella took what he could get on a 2-2 service and snuck a base hit right through the middle.

Even playing without their best all-around player, Matt Chapman, the A’s made things a little too easy for Giolito and the White Sox. It only began when they were foolish enough to send lefthander Jesus Luzardo, young, gifted, but inconsistent, against a lineup so full of righthanded bats it’s a wonder the Oakland Coliseum didn’t list when they batted.

“Nothing against him,” said White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson when learning they’d face Luzardo, “but we have been doing good against lefties. I guess they haven’t done their homework so hopefully we can go out and continue to do what we’ve been doing against lefties.”

They did. They got six of their nine Game One hits off Luzardo and chased him in the fourth inning. In the third, they had Anderson on second with two out, Jose Abreu at the plate with a 2-0 count, first base open, and previous called strikeout victim James McCann on deck, and A’s manager Bob Melvin elected to let Luzardo keep pitching to Abreu.

Abreu elected to hit the next pitch, a fastball Luzardo intended to sail toward the outer edge of the plate but disobeyed orders and arrived smack dab in the middle. The ball disappeared smack dab over the left field fence. “Obviously,” Luzardo said post-game, “the guy’s an MVP-caliber type hitter, so you’ve got to be careful. I made a mistake. That’s not where I intended to put it.”

An inning before that, Luzardo intended to throw Adam Engel an 0-2 fastball up and in, and the ball disobeyed orders then, too. That disobedient ball went up, out, and into the bleachers.

It’s been that way for the Billy Beane-era A’s every time they reach the postseason. His A’s have been a second-guesser’s delight. This time, the second-guessers get to guess why Melvin insisted on starting Luzardo instead of rested righthander Mike Fiers against the starboard-hitting White Sox. Saying as the manager did that the White Sox hadn’t seen a lefty with Luzardo’s kind of stuff all year won’t fly half as far as Engel’s and Abreu’s home runs did.

This year’s bizarro-world postseason is barely a game old and the A’s and the Indians face elimination games Wednesday. So do the American League Central-winning Minnesota Twins after the 29-31 Houston Astros beat them 4-1 in Target Field Tuesday. So do the Buffalonto Blue Jays (third) after the AL East-winning Tampa Bay Rays edged them 3-1 in Tropicana Field.

The only solace for the A’s, the Twins, and the Jays is that none of them suffered anything close to the assault with deadly weapons the Indians suffered. Those three aren’t presumed to be half as cursed as the Indians—the last time the Indians won the World Series was during the Berlin Airlift.

With the same pairs playing Wednesday, plus the National League’s wild card sets beginning the same day, it’s to wonder only what further strange brews are liable to boil and which boils get lanced. At least there won’t be a presidential schoolyard argument to detract from the main events.