Opening Day: Cross it off the bucket list

Shohei Ohtani

Shohei Ohtani, shown on the Angel Stadium video board during his pre-game warmup as the teams lined up on the foul lines, on Opening Day. He pitched brilliantly but in a lost cause, the Angels losing 3-1.

The owners probably won’t stop by to see what I’m about to write, but their otherwise ill-advised 1 December-10 March lockout did me one solid. But only one.

After the World Series, and as soon as they went on sale, I’d bought tickets for what I thought would be the Angels’ home opener. They were scheduled originally to open the season on the road. But commissioner Rob Manfred’s cancellation of the regular season’s first series, in light of the owners’ further goalpost-moving shenanigans, turned the Angels’ home opener into Opening Day, after all.

It wasn’t enough to turn my thinking toward the owners’ side one iota, but it did enable me to cross something off my bucket list. Despite a lifetime of loving the game and watching countless games in the stands and on television, I’d never actually had the chance to be at the ballpark on Opening Day. Until Thursday evening.

The best part of the evening was that I got to do it with my now 28-year-old son, Bryan. The second-best part was being able to cross another item off the baseball bucket list within half an hour of us getting our pre-game food and drink, after putting replica 1972-1990 Angels hats onto our heads.

The Ball

The foul ball, now crossed off my bucket list, sitting atop my notebook, before I handed it to my son.

While the visiting Astros took batting practise, a line drive sailed into our section down the right field line. Adjacent fans made it impossible for me to see just which Astro hit the ball, but the ball bounced around off seats in front of us, then under them, and riocheted off a fan two seats to our right, before rolling on the floor under us to where I could grab the ball before another fan reaching under the seat in front of me did.

I held the ball up to see for myself that I wasn’t seeing or imagining things, then handed it to my son. He’d only been asking to try to catch a ball at Angel Stadium since, oh, the first time I got to take him there—in 2000, when the Angels beat the visiting Yankees one fine evening by prying the winning run out of The Mariano himself. We’d gone to plenty of games since. Thursday night, it was pay dirt at long enough last.

Of course, there was now a game to play, and the Angels lost, 3-1. These are my ten takeaways:

1) Shoh-time! The good news for the Angels was Shohei Ohtani starting on the mound. I’m convinced that what looked to be a lockout-dejected, ho-hum crowd in advance, shot into a near-sellout once Ohtani was announced as the Opening Day pitcher. Lockout after-effect, I suspected: I’d checked the ticketing for the game just prior to the announcement and there were several thousand seats remaining for the taking.

Well, now. The day before I set out for southern California from my home in Las Vegas, I checked the ticketing again. The tickets seemed to have flown off the board once Angel fans knew it would be Shoh-time. And Ohtani didn’t disappoint, much. He pitched four and two-thirds innings of one-run, nine-strikeout, four-hit, one-walk baseball.

The best the Astros could do against him was the third inning, after he caught Martin Maldonado looking at strike three and blew Jose Altuve away with a swinging third strike: Michael Brantley banged a double off the right center field fence and Alex Bregman sent him home promptly with a base hit to left center.

As a matter of fact, when Ohtani wasn’t becoming the first player in Show history to throw his team’s first pitch of the season and make his team’s first plate appearance of the season (the Angels like to bat him leadoff), he manhandled Altuve for three strikeouts on the night, including the nasty slider that shot over Altuve’s hard swing for the third such strikeout in the top of the fiftyh.

2) The bad news: Astros starter Framber Valdez was just as effective in six and two-thirds innings. (The Angels planned to keep their starting pitchers on an 80-pitch limit for the time being, after the lockout-imposed too-short spring training.) He struck six out, walked one, and surrendered two of the Angels’ four hits on the night.

3) The worse news, for the Angels: They came to within inches of taking a 2-1 lead in the seventh. Mike Trout led off by beating out a throw from shortstop that should have been ruled an infield hit but was ruled an error. Then Anthony Rendon hit a high liner that sailed into the left field seats . . . but missed the foul pole on the wrong side by a hair.

“When I saw the ball flying in the air,” Valdez said post-game of his narrow escape, “I got mad with myself that I didn’t make my best pitch. I just took a deep breath and threw my best pitch.” That would be the hard sinkerball on which Rendon promptely dialed Area Code 4-6-3.

Matt Duffy promptly beat out an infield hit to third, which promptly moved Astros manager Dusty Baker to end Valdez’s night and bring Phil Maton in to strike Jo Adell out swinging for the side.

4) Cruising speed: Maton seemed on a bit of a cruise in relief until he hit Brandon Marsh with a pitch with two out in the bottom of the eighth and David Fletcher shot a 1-2 pitch through to the back of left center and gunned it for an RBI triple. That was the Angels’ first and last run of the game, alas.

5) The worse news, for baseball as a whole: That ridiculous three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. Under normal circumstances, if your reliever comes into the game and gets murdered right away—as Angels reliever Ryan Tepera was in the top of the eighth—you’d know he didn’t have it that night, right?

Father and son

Father (right) crossed Opening Day off his bucket list at last—and had the pleasure of doing it with his 28-year-old son.

Oops. Tepera’s first pitch to Alex Bregman sailed into the left field seats. The next Astros batter, Yordan Alvarez, hit a hanging slider on 1-1 over the center field fence. The Angels were lucky to escape with their lives after two prompt deep fly outs (Yuli Gurriel, Kyle Tucker) followed by a sinking liner up the middle (Jeremy Peña) that Trout caught on the dead run in from somewhat deep center to retire the side. (Trout also drew a loud ovation after he turned around and, from half-shallow center, winged the ball to fans halfway up the right center field bleachers.)

6) But there was good news on the relief front. Neither manager burned his relievers in the bullpens. If either Baker or Joe Maddon warmed a pitcher up, he either came into the game as soon as needed or he was handed what amounted to the rest of the night off. No Angels or Astros reliever was called upon to warm up more than once.

I paid as much attention to the relievers in the pen as I could, considering I was seated far opposite the pens behind the left field fence. The Angels used five relievers and the Astros, three. None of those eight pitchers threw any more than maybe 20-25 pitches before they were brought into the game. None of them could be called gassed going in.

Tepera simply didn’t have it Thursday night; Maton got vulnerable after ending one inning and getting two outs to open the next. The rest of the two teams’ bullpen corps (Hector Neris and Ryan Pressly for the Astros; Aaron Loup, Austin Warren, Jose Quijada, and Archie Bradley for the Angels) pitched clean-as-a-hound’s-tooth relief. Would that all major league managers were that judicious handling their pen men.

7) Memo to: Angel fans. Subject: The Wave. The 1980s called. They want their obnoxious, obstructive Wave back. One fan adjacent to our section kept calling for fans to do the Wave. I kept shaking my head, but I did notice that each of about ten attempts at it starting in our part of the park died before flowing to a fourth section of the field-level seats. Maybe there’s hope in such deaths, after all.

8) You were saying? The back-to-back Astro bombs to one side, this game wasn’t exactly the kind to send the old farts screaming to the whiskey shots. The game’s twelve total hits included three Astros doubles, Fletcher’s triple, and six singles. Altuve even stole second in the ninth, for whatever that was worth, since he ended up stranded.

9) Wasted Out Department: Altuve, the Astros’ pint-sized, gallon-hitting second baseman, also dropped a sacrifice bunt to third with one out in the seventh against righthanded reliever Warren, after Chas McCormick opened the inning with a double. Remember: A man on second with one out, and you have less chance of scoring a run after that bunt than you did before the bunt, even if you do exactly what Altuve did pushing McCormick to third.

Just what a man with a lifetime .512 Real Batting Average (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances), and a .297 lifetime hitting average with a man on second and one out, is doing thinking sacrifice escapes. With his team leading a mere 1-0 at the time, the Angels brought Quijada in to pitch to Brantley, and Brantley flied out shy of the track in right center for the side.

That’s what a wasted out did. The righthanded-hitting Altuve might have been futile against Ohtani on the night, but he has a lifetime .301 hitting average against righthanded pitchers. The Astros would have had a better chance scoring McCormick if Altuve hit away.

10) When Bregman checked in at the plate in the top of the eighth, the Angel Stadium video boards flashed a graphic with Bregman’s head shot plus this: [He] donated over 200 iPads  w/protective cases and iTunes gift cards to several Houston-area elementary schools that have autistic classrooms. He does that through his Bregman Cares charity, with a particular focus upon autistic children.

It was almost as admirable for the Angels to show Bregman such respectful acknowledgement as it was for Bregman and his wife, Reagan, to take such an interest in lending hands to autistic children. Even if Bregman’s idea of saying thank you for such respect was to smash a leadoff homer in reply.

The Angels bag Tony Two Bags

2019-12-12 AnthonyRendon

Anthony Rendon hitting the two-run homer that started yanking the Nationals toward winning World Series Game Seven. Tony Two Bags swaps his shark teeth for a halo now.

In need enough of upgrading their starting rotation, the Angels missed their chance to bring either Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg back to their California roots. So they signed Strasburg’s fellow now-ex-National, third baseman Anthony Rendon, for the same time and dollars (seven years, $245 million) it took for the Nats to grant Strasburg’s real wish to stay home in Washington (he’d bought a home there quite recently) for the rest of his baseball life.

Tony Two Bags swaps his shark’s teeth for a halo. And now that they’ve turned third base from a swamp into rolling rapids, the Angels can get right back to the pitching pursuit.

They needed to upgrade at third base almost as badly as they need a pitching upgrade. A trio of third basemen produced a combined 2019 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) .359 lower than Rendon’s 1.010. And if nothing else Angel fans should be frothing at the mouth over the prospect of Rendon joining the game’s prize Trout in a tag team that accounted for 14.6 wins above replacement-level last season. That’s a remarkable enough difference if they could have been together then.

Fourteen wins might have meant an 86-76 instead of a 72-90 Angels season. Assuming the Angels don’t stop with Rendon on this winter’s market, free agency or trading alike, they still have room for the pitching upgrade. And to say the Angels require a pitching upgrade is to say Washington, the government and not their world champion baseball team, requires remedial constitutional training.

The entire 2019 Angel staff encouraged walking for sound mind and body; they walked 3.9 batters per nine innings while striking out 8.8 per nine. Their collective earned run average was 5.12 and their collective fielding-independent pitching was 5.04. Collectively they were stingy when it came to surrendering big flies (1.7 average per nine innings) but generous beyond belief when it came to atoning for strikeouts by letting the other guys do the stroll. (2.44 K/BB ratio.)

The bullpen was superior enough to the rotation that you wondered for a few moments why the Angels didn’t go to more bullpen games when feasible than they did. (The crown jewel, of course, was that 13-0 combined no-hitter blowout against the Marines in their first home game following the shocking death of Tyler Skaggs, their best starting pitcher.) The only Angel with an ERA and an FIP below three? Hansel Robles, relief pitcher, the former Met who succeeded where another former Met (Matt Harvey, started) had his moments but collapsed enough to be designated for assignment and released.

What to do this winter, then? At this writing Madison Bumgarner, whose postseason jacket has only Strasburg for a near-equal match, remains on the market and a solid candidate to continue the remaking/remodeling he began in 2019. Also on the market is Hyun-Jin Ryu, the National League’s 2019 ERA leader. Angels owner Arte Moreno is nothing if not a man with stupid money to spend and a reputation for several times spending stupid, but the Angels aren’t exactly hurting for resources and a Rendon signing doesn’t pull them out of the market quite yet.

Bumgarner isn’t likely to cost as much now as he might have a few years ago, and the latest reporting as I write indicate he seeks five years at $100 million, pricey in terms of the average annual value but something of a bargain over the life of the deal. He has a reputation as a Fun Policeman but isn’t otherwise sinister so long as you keep him away from dirt bikes and remember that Angel Stadium’s power alleys don’t point into the Pacific Ocean or any other body of water.

He might find himself having a blast challenging two-way Shohei Ohtani to home run contests in batting practise. And, swapping notes on postseason heroism with Rendon, who landed himself a lifetime of quaffs and steaks on the house or at cut rates with such heroics as Game Five of this year’s division series, Game Seven of the World Series, and a 1.093 OPS toward the Nats’ run to the Promised Land.

Ryu may or may not be a more elusive target, not that he’s seeking stupid money but that there are several teams training their sights upon him, including (it’s said as of this morning) the White Sox, the Twins, and the Dodgers for whom Ryu laboured six seasons. And the White Sox have a kind of incentive with Ryu’s former Dodger catcher Yasmani Grandal having signed with the White Sox for four years and $73 million and said with certainty enough that he’d love to catch Ryu once again.

The better incumbents among the Angels’ starting pitchers, Andrew Heaney and Griffin Canning, are suited better to number three and four positionings pending any adjustments they might begin making come spring. The talent is there for both pitchers but so has been the inconsistency. But the Angels have a concurrent dilemna with teams interested in prying Canning and their plus right field prospect Jo Adell away in any trades the Angels might seek for a starting pitcher. The Angels may have interest in David Price (a trade candidate) and Price might find himself having a bounceback in Angel Stadium, and the Indians’ Corey Kluber, another former Cy Young Award winner and incumbent bounceback candidate, might be another trade target, but general manager Billy Eppler’s challenge would be to bring them aboard without surrendering the family jewels or at least the holiday china.

Still, you have to hand it to the Angels for landing Rendon, the no-questions-asked best regular player on the open market this winter, who’s going to earn more per season than any third baseman in major league history. Just when it looked as though the Rangers had the most solid track to lay down for Rendon, they derailed it when they offered him six years when the third baseman sought the seven to which the Angels agreed. That, and not such silliness as ejaculated by some who think it’s the media’s fault because, you know, the media prefers the Rendons to be in New York or Boston or southern California, not Texas, is why Rendon chose to wear the halo. That and (never discount this car on a baseball player’s train of thought) the challenge of becoming a big enough part of the Angels’ return to contention and, who knows, the postseason soon enough.

Which is no less than the least the Angels could do en route reconstructing themselves into a team their and the game’s best all-around player, the one who made himself an Angel for life last spring, can be proud of. ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez isolates the point: “In short, the Angels want to win, they know there is a sizable gap to make up, and they’re willing to do what it takes to accelerate their timeline. They made a promise to Trout, who eschewed free agency to sign a 12-year, $426.5 million extension, despite barely sniffing October relevance. And the Angels made a promise to [Joe] Maddon, who chose to return to the organization, despite having his pick of managing jobs. The Angels told them they were going to do what it takes to compete. And with the Houston Astros engulfed in a sign-stealing scandal that could yield significant punishment, perhaps now is as good a time as any to take the leap.”

Nationals shortstop Trea Turner only wishes the Angels hadn’t taken the leap at their expense. He got tight enough with Rendon that they had T-shirts made proclaiming each other best friends. When Turner got the news that Rendon has become an Angel, he had shot for himself a video showing him removing his “Anthony Rendon is my favorite player” T from his drawer and kicking it against the wall. Nats reliever Sean Doolittle was a little less, shall we say, demonstrative, posting a GIF of Baby Yoda and a simple, “Goodbye, Tony.”

Maybe the Lerners could have afforded both Strasburg and Rendon. I thought so myself. But then Thomas Boswell knocked me back down to the planet in gentle but firm terms, when he wrote after the Nats re-signed Strasburg, “Before chanting, ‘The Lerners are billionaires, so just pay Rendon his money!’ look ahead just one year. After 2020, the Nats will have to replace or re-sign — in most cases at higher prices — Adam Eaton, Aníbal Sánchez, Sean Doolittle, Kendrick and Kurt Suzuki. Also, Trea Turner and Juan Soto will soon cost much more.” So maybe they couldn’t afford to keep Rendon among the sharks, too.

The champion Nats and affordability

2019-12-06 AnthonyRendonStephenStrasburg

Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg share a high five in Atlanta during 2019. The Nats say they can’t afford to keep both. Depends on how you look at it? (USA Today photo.)

One of the Nationals’ postseason titans will remain a Nat for 2020 at least. Howie Kendrick’s reward for putting paid to the Dodgers’ 2019 and for bombing the Nats ahead to stay in Game Seven of the World Series is a one-year, $6.25 million deal.

That’s the good news. The bad news for Nats fans is that owner Mark Lerner says they can afford to keep only one of their two homegrowns who are now testing their first serious free agency markets.

At minimum, it seems, either Stephen Strasburg or Anthony Rendon is “affordable” even for the team whose ownership—if you include Lerner’s father, Ted, whose fortune anchors in real estate—is baseball’s second richest (net worth $5.3 billion) at this writing, with Giants owner Charles Johnson first richest (net worth $5.1 billion) pending the Mets’ transition to Steve Cohen’s ownership. (Cohen’s net worth: around $15 billion.)

But they can’t afford both.

“We really can only afford to have one of those two guys,” said Lerner about Strasburg and Rendon to NBC Sports Washington Thursday. “They’re huge numbers. We already have a really large payroll to begin with. So we’re pursuing them, we’re pursuing other free agents in case they decide to go elsewhere.”

Kendrick became a Nat in 2018, lost most of the season to a torn Achilles tendon, regrouped in 2019 for a .966 OPS, and became one of the keys to the Nats’ postseason conquest. His National League Championship Series MVP was merely the roast beef between the slices of boutique bread he surrounded it with before and after. Kendrick makes opposing managers look silly.

He took complete advantage of Dodger manager Dave Roberts almost inexplicably leaving Joe Kelly in for a second relief inning and hit a monstrous top of the tenth grand slam to finish the postseason hopes of the team for whom he played in 2015-2016 following nine better than useful seasons as an Angel.

Then Astros manager A.J. Hinch confounded fans and no few analysts alike by reaching for Will Harris instead of Gerrit Cole, as Game Seven starter Zack Greinke’s tank ran past E following a homer to Rendon and a followup walk to Juan Soto. And Kendrick made what Harris himself called “a championship play for a championship team.” It was the right move (Cole never pitched in relief in his life) made wrong.

Harris threw Kendrick a nasty cutter traveling low and away, and Kendrick sent it on a high line the other way until it went bonk! off the right field foul pole. Kendrick’s shot gave the Nats the Game Seven lead they didn’t relinquish and himself the likelihood that he’ll never have to buy his own drinks in Washington again. And it got him his reward for 2020, where he’ll have all season to accept thanks and, just maybe, deliver enough timely swings to send the Nats toward a successful renewal of their lease to the Promised Land.

But what of Strasburg, their World Series MVP, their postseason lancer whose lifetime 1.46 postseason ERA and 2019 1.37 postseason ERA overall hoists as a big-game pitcher the still young man who was their highest-hyped pitching prospect ever? Who survived second-year Tommy John surgery and assorted injuries to come to become first a good, then an above average, and finally a genuinely great pitcher who thrives the best when the moment’s the biggest?

And what of Rendon, their third-place National League MVP finisher in 2019, whose 1.059 postseason OPS and 25 runs postseason runs produced on the way to the Nats’ World Series triumph was at least as valuable to that conquest? Not to mention a third baseman who’s improved in leaps each season at the plate and at the hot corner?

(Rendon’s OPS from 2017-2019: .952; his real batting average [total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifices + hit by pitches divided by total plate appearances] over the span: .630. His lifetime RBA so far: .562. Out of eight Hall of Fame third basemen whose careers happened in the post-World War II/post-integration/night ball era, only four are higher than Rendon, in ascending order: George Brett, Eddie Mathews, Chipper Jones, and Mike Schmidt.)

Kendrick threatened to become the face of the postseason early and often, but Strasburg, Rendon, Max Scherzer, Juan Soto, and Ryan Zimmerman are the arguable none-too-small faces of the Nats. They personify the agenda Thomas Boswell says should be the Nats’ pursuit: “preserving the team’s culture.”

Maybe since-departed (for Japan, where he’ll get to play more than part time) Gerardo Parra brought the Nats the Baby Shark and opened their can of fearless fun factor in 2019. Parra may be crossing the Pacific but nobody wants to dispense with the Baby Shark just yet. Maybe not ever.

Boswell says the Nats must weigh such value as Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman, and “the versatile” Asdrubal Cabrera, Brian Dozier, Matt Adams, “and the modest but must-re-sign [Daniel] Hudson.” Sensibly enough.

But how about weighing the values of Strasburg and Rendon? And how about marrying those and the aforesaid values to an overall Nats culture of winning and having a blast doing it? No team in baseball was more plain fun to watch in 2019 than the Nats. Even the near-stoic Strasburg learned how to loosen up and shake a tail feather in the dugout.

Beware, Lerners. And general manager Mike Rizzo. You may think the Yankees have eyes for Strasburg, you may think the Phillies have likewise (remember what happened when you tried to get cute with Bryce Harper after 2018), but now the Angels may be laying in the weeds for him.

And that would be awfully tempting for Strasburg. Not just because there’d be a challenge for him in yanking their still-in-need-of-remodeling pitching staff into real competitiveness, but because they play an hour’s drive (assuming the traffic is decent, which is never a safe assumption in southern California) from Strasburg’s roots. Often as not in baseball you can go home again.

He’s not the only one with a California team pondering his presence. Rendon may be getting more than glances from the Dodgers he helped destroy in October. In fact, Strasburg and Rendon are both said to be on the Dodger radar, with incumbent Justin Turner willing to move to first base if Rendon becomes his new teammate. Beware, Nats. If you can’t or won’t keep them, the Dodgers might be only too happy to take them.

This would be called joining them if you can’t beat them. It was Strasburg who held down the fort in division series Game Five and didn’t let an early 3-0 Dodger lead knock him out of his zone. And it was Rendon who opened the game-tying top of the eighth, when Roberts gambled on Clayton Kershaw opening the inning, with a yank into the left field bleachers followed immediately by Soto’s yank into the opposite bleachers.

There’s only one thing that might hold the Dodgers back: luxury tax implications. That and that they’ve rarely handed out contracts for more than five years. And Strasburg and Rendon can leverage their southern California overtures when bargaining with other interested teams. (For Rendon, one is thought the Rangers, a homecoming for him as the Angels or Dodgers would be for Strasburg.)

Something to ponder, too, if the Nats let Strasburg and Rendon walk. Cole has suitors to burn, the Yankees in particular, reportedly, but then Scherzer did, too, a few years ago—and the Nats made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

It’s not unrealistic to think that losing Strasburg and Rendon alike equals gaining Cole on the mound and, maybe, Josh Donaldson for third base. Donaldson’s still better than serviceable at age 33 and he’s a lot less expensive than Rendon, and Boswell notes that Donaldson’s would be a personality fit in the Nats’ clubhouse.

But losing either Strasburg or Rendon, never mind both, would lose a particular degree of Nats gravitas.

“What cannot and need not be lost is the culture that this Finish the Fight team brought to life,” Boswell concludes. “Rosters change. Lucky and luckless seasons both arrive. But once a team sees what values it wants to embody—and what kind of players and people make that possible—then that’s the lodestar to follow.”

Strasburg and Rendon are two of those players and two of those people. The Lerners may want to keep that very much in mind before they decide once and for all that saving a few bucks is just a little more pressing than keeping what’s already proven aboard.

Maybe Cole, Donaldson, and a couple of other imports would fit the Nat culture. Maybe they really won’t. It’s the crapshoot every great team joins every year, similar to reading the size label on the shirt you bought and discovering the label lied in one or another direction. But a good gambler knows the moment when pushing his or her luck means disaster.

It just might be worth every extra dollar for the Lerners not to push their luck this time. Especially with two franchise faces who just so happen to be far more than just a couple of franchise faces, and have been since the days they were baseball born in Nats jumpers. (Not to mention a third, Zimmerman, who’s been a Nat since the day they were re-born in Washington, and would settle for one more year at a reasonable rate for a part-timer who just can’t hang it up quite yet.)

Contrary to what the giddoff-mah-lawn baseball romantics like to think, loyalty was never a prime baseball commodity. Not before the free agency era, not since, and not exclusively on the players’ sides. (Yes, Mr. Thurber, we can look it up.) This time, the Lerners have a splendid chance to show some to two of the guys who stayed the course and finally helped them reach the Promised Land.

Hinch didn’t blow it, the Nats won it.

2019-11-01 ZackGreinke

Zack Greinke walks off the field in Game Seven. His manager made the right move to follow. The Nats made the righter one to win.

It’s not going to make the pill any easier to swallow, but it wasn’t A.J. Hinch’s fault. He’s not the reason the Astros lost a World Series they seemed destined to win both going in and while they were just eight outs from the Promised Land.

I know Hinch didn’t even think about bringing Gerrit Cole in if he’d decided Zack Greinke had had enough. I second guessed it myself when first writing about Game Seven. And I was really wrong. Just as you are, Astroworld, to lay the loss on Hinch’s head. The Nats beat the Astros, plain and simple. Through no fault of Hinch’s.

He wasn’t even close to having lost his marble. Singular. He actually managed just right in that moment. It’s no more his fault that Howie Kendrick made him look like a fool right after he made his move than it was his fault the Astros couldn’t bury a Max Scherzer who had nothing but meatballs, snowballs, grapefruits, and cantaloupes to throw, two days after Scherzer’s neck locked up so tight it knocked him out of Game Five before the game even began.

Max the Knife wasn’t even a butter knife starting Game Seven and the best the Astros could do against him was an inning-opening solo home run by Yuli Gurriel and an RBI single by Carlos Correa. Remember, as so many love to bleat, the manager doesn’t play the game. Not since the end of the player-manager era.

And I get the psychological factor that would have been involved if Hinch brought Cole in instead of Will Harris. Likely American League Cy Young Award winner in waiting in to drop the hammer and nail down a win and a trophy. The Nats may have spanked Cole and company in Game One but Cole manhandled them in Game Five.

Even the Nats thought Cole was likely to come in if Greinke was coming out and, as their hitting coach Kevin Long said after Game Seven, they would have welcomed it after the surgery Greinke performed on them until the top of the seventh.

You had to appreciate an anyone-but-Greinke mindset among the Nats. Maybe even think within reason that that kind of thinking—never mind Anthony Rendon homering with one out in the top of the seventh— would leave them even more vulnerable once Cole went to work.

Pay attention, class. Cole pitched magnificently in 2019 and his earned run average was 2.19 with a postseason 1.72. But Harris, believe it or not, was a little bit better: his regular season ERA was 1.50 and his postseason ERA until Game Seven was (read carefully) 0.93.

Cole led the American League with a 2.64 fielding-independent pitching rate and Harris finished the season with a 3.15, but all that means is that Harris depends on the Astros’ stellar defense a little bit more than Cole does. And Harris walks into a few more dicey situations in his line of work. Plus, Cole never pitched even a third of an inning’s relief in his entire professional career, major and minor league alike.

Don’t even think about answering, “Madison Bumgarner.” Yes, Bumgarner closed out the 2014 World Series with shutout relief. And it began by going in clean starting in the bottom of the fifth. Bruce Bochy, who may or may not stay retired as I write, didn’t bring MadBum into a man on first/one-out scenario.

When Hinch said after Game Seven that he planned to use Cole to nail the game down shut if the Astros kept a lead, he was only saying he planned to use Cole where he was suited best, starting a clean inning, his natural habitat. Harris is one of his men whose profession involves walking into fires of all shapes and sizes when need be.

It was need-be time in Game Seven. Even Cole acknowledged as much in the breach, when he said postgame, “We just went over the game plan and he laid out the most advantageous times to use me. And we didn’t get to that position.”

Why lift Greinke after only eighty pitches on the night? Greinke historically is almost as tough on a lineup when he gets a third crack at it, but things really are a little bit different in the World Series. Even if Greinke did surrender a single run in four-and-two-thirds Game Three innings.

He may have performed microsurgery on the Nats through six but he’s not the long distance operator he used to be anymore, either, at 36. And he hadn’t exactly had an unblemished postseason before the Series. He’d been battered by the Rays in the division series; he’d been slapped enough by the Yankees in the ALCS.

As Hinch himself observed after Game Seven ended, “We asked him to do more today than he had done, and pitched deeper into the game more than he had done in the entire month of October. I wanted to take him out a bat or two early rather than a bat or two late.”

And Greinke himself believed the Nats were a lot more tough than their evening full of pre-seventh inning soft contacts at the plate indicated. “They got a good lineup, especially the top of the order,” he told reporters after the game. “It’s tough to get through no matter one time, two times, three times. All of them are tough. Really good hitters up there.”

He got the proof of that when Rendon hammered his 1-0 service halfway up the Crawford Boxes and Juan Soto focused for a walk on 3-1. When it’s winner-take-all you don’t want even a Greinke in a position to fail or for the Nats to be just a little bit better after all.

Hinch wasn’t going to walk his effective but lately erratic closer Roberto Osuna into this moment despite Osuna’s 2.63 ERA, 0.88 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, and league-leading 38 saves on the regular season. Osuna’s postseason ERA was up over 3.50 and his WHIP was reaching 2.00.

So Hinch, one of the most thoughtful and sensitively intelligent managers in the game today, really did reach for his absolute best option in the moment. He was right, I was wrong, and the only thing wrong with Hinch’s move wore a Nationals uniform.

The best teams in baseball get beaten now and then. The best pitchers in the game get beaten. The smartest managers in the game get beaten even when they make the right move. The only more inviolable baseball law than Berra’s Law is the law that says somebody has to lose. And now and then someone’s going to beat the best you have in the moment.

This was not Joe McCarthy starting Denny Galehouse over Mel Parnell with the 1948 pennant on the line.

This was not Casey Stengel failing to align his World Series rotation so Hall of Famer Whitey Ford (whose two shutouts are evidence for the prosecution) could start more than two 1960 World Series games.

This was not Gene Mauch panicking after a rookie stole home on his best pickoff pitcher and thinking he could use Hall of Famer Jim Bunning and Chris Short on two days’ rest in the last days of 1964.

This was not Don Zimmer doghousing Bill Lee, his best lefthander against the Yankees, and choosing Bobby (Ice Water In His Veins) Sprowl over Luis Tiant to stop what became the Boston Massacre in 1978.

This was not John McNamara with a weak bullpen and a heart overruling his head to send ankle-compromised Bill Buckner out to play one more inning at first base in the bottom of the tenth, Game Six, 1986.

This was not Dusty Baker sending an already season long-overworked Mark Prior back out for the top of the eighth with the Cubs six outs from going to the 2003 World Series.

This was not Grady Little measuring Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez’s heart but forgetting to check his petrol tank in Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series.

This was not Mike Matheny refusing to even think about his best reliever, Trevor Rosenthal, simply because it wasn’t yet a “proper” save situation with two on, a rusty Michael Wacha on the mound, and Travis Ishikawa checking in at the plate in the bottom of the ninth in Game Five of the 2014 National League Championship Series.

This was not Buck Showalter getting his Matheny on with the best relief pitcher in baseball (Zach Britton) not even throwing in the pen, never mind ready to go, with two on and Edwin Encarnacion checking in—in a two-all tie in the bottom of the eleventh—against a mere Ubaldo Jimenez at the 2016 American League wild card game plate. Because that, too, just wasn’t, you know, a “proper” save situation.

Hinch did exactly he should have done in the moment if he was going to lift Greinke. He reached for the right tool for the job. So did Mauch, in the 1986 ALCS, with the Angels on the threshold of the 1986 World Series, if he was going to lift Mike Witt but not trust Gary Lucas after the latter plunked Rich Gedman, turning it over to Donnie Moore.

It wasn’t Mauch’s or Moore’s fault that he threw Dave Henderson the perfect nasty knee-high, outer-edge forkball, the exact match to the one Henderson had just foul tipped away, and Henderson had to reach hard and wide again to send it over the left field fence.

It wasn’t Hinch’s fault that Harris threw Kendrick the best he had to throw, too, a cutter off the middle and at the low outside corner, and watched it bonk off the right field foul pole. Just ask Harris himself, as a reporter did after Game Seven: “It’s every reliever’s worst nightmare. [Kendrick] made a championship play for a championship team.”

Better yet, ask Correa, the only Astro somehow to have a base hit with a runner on second or better Wednesday night. “The pitch he made to Howie—I just don’t understand how he hit that out,” he said. “It doesn’t add up. The way he throws his cutter, it’s one of the nastiest cutters in the game. Down and away, on the black, and he hits it off the foul pole.”

Now and then even the best teams in the game get beaten. Now and then even the best pitchers in the game get beaten. Sometimes more than now and then. Nobody was better in their absolute primes this century than Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander. Yet Kershaw has a postseason resume described most politely as dubious and Verlander’s lifetime World Series ERA is 5.68.

And even the smartest skippers in the game lose. Hall of Famer John McGraw got outsmarted by a kid player-manager named Bucky Harris in Game Seven of the 1924 World Series, though even Harris needed four shutout relief innings from aging Hall of Famer Walter Johnson and a bad hop over Giants third baseman Freddie Lindstrom to secure what was previously Washington’s only known major league World Series conquest.

McCarthy and Stengel were at or near the end of Hall of Fame managing careers (Stengel was really more of a caretaker as the 1962-65 Mets sent out the clowns while their front office built an organisation) when they made their most fatal mis-judgments.

And yet another Hall of Famer, Tony La Russa, suffered a fatal brain freeze. His failure to even think about his Hall of Fame relief ace Dennis Eckersley earlier than the ninth-inning save situations cost him twice and would have kept the Reds from a 1990 Series sweep, if not from winning the Series itself.

The Astros had seven men bat with men in scoring position in Game Seven and only Correa nailed a base hit. The Nats went 2-for-9 in the same position. And, for a change, left three fewer men on than the Astros did.

The Astros couldn’t hit a gimp with a hangar door. The Nats punctured an Astro who dealt trump for six innings and made two fateful mistakes in the seventh that the Nats took complete advantage of. Then their best relief option in the moment got thumped with his absolute best pitch.

Because baseball isn’t immune to the law of unintended consequences, either. It never was. It never will be. The Astros were the better team until the World Series. The Nats ended up the better team in the World Series. And that isn’t exactly unheard of, either.

Few teams in baseball have been better than the 1906 Cubs, the 1914 Philadelphia Athletics, the 1954 Indians, the 1960 Yankees, the 1969 Orioles, the 1987 Cardinals, the 1988 and 1990 A’s, the 2003 Yankees, and the 2006 Tigers. They all lost World Series in those years. And two of them (’60 Yankees; ’87 Cardinals) went the distance before losing.

Yet the Nats scored the greatest upset in the history of the Series, and not just because they’re the first to reach the Promised Land entirely on the road. The Astros were Series favourites by the largest margin ever going in. And only the 1914 Braves were down lower during their regular season than the Nats were in late May this year.

But that year’s A’s, the first of two Connie Mack dynasties, weren’t favoured as heavily to win as this year’s Astros.

The Dodgers were overwhelming National League favourites to get to this World Series—until Kendrick’s monstrous tenth-inning grand slam. Then the Cardinals were favoured enough to make it—until they ran into a Washington vacuum cleaner that beat, swept, and cleaned them four straight.

The Astros didn’t have it that easy getting to this Series. The ornery upstart Rays made them win a pair of elimination games first. Then it took Yankee skipper Aaron Boone’s dice roll in the bottom of the ALCS Game Six ninth—refusing to walk Jose Altuve with George Springer aboard and comparative spaghetti-bat Jake Marisnick on deck—to enable Altuve’s mammoth two-run homer off a faltering Aroldis Chapman with the pennant attached.

Hinch made the right move in the circumstance and the moment and the Nats made the righter play. The championship play, as Correa put it. The play for the Promised Land. Soto’s eighth-inning RBI single and Eaton’s ninth-inning two-run single were just insurance policies.

When Hinch says that not bringing in Cole was a mistake he’d have to live with, he shouldered a blame that wasn’t his to shoulder. Even if his happen to be the strongest in Astroworld.

One for the road. And, the ages.

2019-10-31 WashingtonNationals

The road was anything but lonesome for the Nationals this World Series.

From early in the season, when the Nationals were left for dead, and their manager left for death row, gallows humour often salved. So has it done though a lot of the now-concluded World Series. Such humour didn’t exactly hurt after their stupefying Game Six win in Houston, either.

Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki, himself hoping for a Game Seven return appearance after an absence due to a hip issue, couldn’t resist, after Max Scherzer showed up alive and throwing Tuesday. “We were all kind of making fun of him,” Suzuki told an interviewer, “saying he was going to rise from the dead.”

You could say that about the Nats themselves. They’ve been rising from the dead since the regular season ended, too. They won the World Series, beating the Astros 6-2 in Game Seven, rising from the dead, too. Inspired in large part by a pitcher who looked for most of his five innings’ work as though his ghost was on the mound clanking in chains.

And, with neither team able to win at home this time around. For the first time in the history of any major team sport whose championship is chosen in a best-of-seven set. The Nats and the Astros burglarised each other’s houses and left nothing behind, not even an old, tarnished butter knife in the silverware drawer. And the Astros’ hard-earned home field advantage proved the Nats’ road to the Promised Land.

Unearth Canned Heat warbling “On the Road Again,” from the opening tamboura drone to the final harmonics and all harmonica-weeping points in between. Crank up the Doors swinging “Roadhouse Blues.” Pay particular attention to the closing couplet: The future’s uncertain/the end is always near.

For five innings Wednesday night the Nats’ future was as uncertain as the Astros’ end was as near and clear as a 2-0 lead could make it. And try to figure out just how Scherzer with less than nothing other than his sheer will kept it 2-0 while getting his . . .

No. Not Houdini, for all his Game Seven escape acts. Scherzer wasn’t even a brief impersonation of Max the Knife, but after Wednesday he ought to think about a stand in Las Vegas. He’d make Penn & Teller resemble a pair of street hustlers. David Copperfield’s a mere practical joker next to this.

“You can’t really call it a miracle,” said Nats right fielder Adam Eaton post-game, “but it will be a reality-TV movie. Come on, how many books are going to be written about this?” Let’s see . . . Bluff, The Magic Dragons? 20,000 Leagues Beneath Belief? Four Innings Before the Mast? The Nats in the Hat Come Back?

Making baseball’s best team on the year take a long walk into winter has all the simplicity of quantum physics. Doing it when you send a pitcher to the Game Seven mound with nothing but his stubborn will is only slightly less complex.

“I don’t think anybody really knew what to expect when he took the ball,” said Nats reliever Sean Doolittle after the game. “After what he went through with his neck, you don’t know how that’s going to hold up with his violent delivery. You don’t know what his stamina is going to be like. But with Max, we’ve come to expect the unexpected. It was gutsy, man . . . He willed us to stay in the game and that was awesome. I know guys fed off it.”

But on a night Astros starter Zack Greinke operated like a disciple of legendary Texas cardiovascular surgeon Michael DeBakey with the Nats practically on life support, that could have been fatal. Until Patrick Corbin, Anthony Rendon, Howie Kendrick, Juan Soto, Daniel Hudson, and—reality check, folks—the lack of Gerrit Cole made sure it wasn’t.

Scherzer pulled rabbits out of his hat and anyplace else he could find them and was almost lucky that only two of the hares treated him like Elmer Fudd. Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel sent a 2-1 slider with as much slide as a piece of sandpaper into the Crawford Boxes in the bottom of the second, and Carlos Correa whacked an RBI single off Anthony Rendon’s glove at third in the bottom of the fifth.

Nats manager Dave Martinez called for a review on that play, ostensibly to determine whether Yordan Alverez’s foot was actually off the pad after he rounded but was held at third on the play, but realistically to give Corbin a little more warmup time. Then Corbin went to work starting in the bottom of the sixth. And the Nats went to work in earnest in the top of the seventh.

With one out and Greinke still looking somewhat like a smooth operator, Rendon caught hold of a changeup reaching toward the floor of the strike zone and drove it midway up the Crawford Boxes. One walk to Soto later, Greinke was out of the game and Will Harris was in. With Cole—who’d paralysed the Nats in Game Five, and who was seen stirring in the Astro bullpen a little earlier Wednesday night—not even a topic.

For which the Astros’ usually clever, always sensitively intelligent manager A.J. Hinch is liable to be second guessed until the end of time or another Astros lease on the Promised Land, whichever comes first. If he thought Greinke at a measly eighty pitches was done, why not reach for Cole who’d hammerlocked the Nats in Game Five and probably had an inning or three in his tank?

“I wasn’t going to pitch him unless we were going to win the World Series and have a lead,” Hinch said matter-of-factly after the game. “He was going to help us win. He was available, and I felt it was a game that he was going to come in had we tied it or taken the lead. He was going to close the game in the ninth after I brought [Roberto] Osuna in had we kept the lead.”

“They got a good lineup, especially the top of the order,” Greinke himself said. “It’s tough to get through no matter one time, two times, three times. All of them are tough. Really good hitters up there.”

Except that Hinch still had a 2-1 lead when he thanked Greinke for a splendid night’s work.”He was absolutely incredible . . . he did everything we could ask for and more,” said Hinch when it was all over. “He was in complete control, he made very few mistakes, in the end the home run to walk was the only threat to him.”

You can bet that even the Nats thought Hinch would reach for Cole in that moment. It’s the Casey Stengel principle, as his biographer Robert W. Creamer once described: if you have an opening, shove with your shoulder. If you think your man is done but you still need a stopper, you reach for him like five minutes ago.

And in one or two corners of the Nats dugout the thought of Cole coming in was actually welcome. “When we saw Cole warming up,” coach Kevin Long told reporters after the game, “we were almost like, ‘Please bring him in.’ Because that’s how good Zack Greinke was.”

But Harris it was. He was one of the Astros’ most reliable bullpen bulls on the season, and he’d been mostly likewise through this postseason. But after swinging and missing on a curvaceous enough curve ball, Kendrick found the screws on a cutter off the middle and sent it the other way, down the right field line, and ringing off the foul pole with a bonk! that no one sitting in Minute Maid Park is liable to forget for ages yet to come.

“I made a pretty good pitch,” Harris said after the game. “He made a championship play for a championship team.”

“The pitch he made to Howie—I just don’t understand how he hit that out,” said Carlos Correa, the only Astro somehow to have a base hit with a runner on second or better Wednesday night. “It doesn’t add up. The way he throws his cutter, it’s one of the nastiest cutters in the game. Down and away, on the black, and he hits it off the foul pole. It was meant to be, I guess, for them. I thought we played great, but they played better. It was their year.”

Osuna relieved Harris and settled the Nats after surrendering an almost immediate base hit to Nats second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, but he wouldn’t be that fortunate in the eighth. He walked Eaton with one out, but Eaton stole second with Rendon at the plate and, after Rendon flied out, Soto pulled a line single to right to send Eaton home.

Ryan Pressly ended the inning by getting a line drive out from Cabrera, but another Astro reliever, Joe Smith, wouldn’t be that fortunate in the ninth. Ryan Zimmerman led off with a single up the pipe; Yan Gomes bounced one back to the box enabling Smith to get Zimmerman but not the double play; Victor Robles stroked a soft-punch line single into center; and, Trea Turner fought his way to a walk and ducks on the pond.

Hinch reached for Jose Urquidy, his Game Four opener and five-inning virtuoso back in Washington. But Eaton reached for and lined a hit into shallow enough center with Gomes scoring in a flash and Robles coming in behind him, freed up when Astro center fielder Jake Marisnick, usually one of the surest defensive hands they have, lost the handle on the ball and gave Robles room to move.

And, giving Hudson all the room he needed to pop George Springer out at second and to strike Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley out swinging to pop the corks and blow the lid off 95 years worth of Washington baseball frustration. Which looked impossible in late May, looked improbable just last weekend, but looks just as impossible the morning after.

Believing that Rendon could become only the fifth man to homer in Games Six and Seven of the same Series (behind Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Roberto Clemente, plus Allen Craig and—a mere two years ago—Springer himself) was more plausible. Believing Harris could become the first pitcher hung with a blown save in a Game Seven at home since Boston’s Roger Moret in 1975 wasn’t, necessarily.

But believing no World Series combatant would win even a single game at home in a seven game set defies everything. The Nats outscored the Astros 30-11 in Minute Maid Park; the Astros out-scored the Nats 19-3 in Nationals Park. The Astros played their heads, hearts, and tails off all year long to get the postseason’s home field advantage, and the Nats swooped in to rob them blind.

All game long the world seemed to think Martinez had lost his marble—singular—letting Scherzer stay on the mound despite have nothing to challenge the Astros with except meatballs, snowballs, and grapefruits. The skipper who eluded execution after 23 May now looked as though they’d pull the guillotine with his name on it back out of storage. Then the final three innings made him look like Alfred Hitchcock.

That 19-31 start to the Nats’ season? The worst for any team that went on to win that year’s World Series. From twelve under .500 to the Promised Land? You have company, now, 1914 Miracle Braves. An 8-1 postseason road record including eight straight road wins en route the trophy? Good morning, 1996 Yankees.

The first number one draft overall to end his season as the World Series MVP? Welcome to the party, Stephen Strasburg. The sixth man to hit a go-ahead homer in the seventh or later in a World Series? Roger Peckinpaugh, Hal Smith, Bill Mazeroski, Ray Knight, and Alfonso Soriano, meet Howie Kendrick, who’s now the only man in postseason history with more than one go-ahead homer in the seventh or later in elimination games.

The youngest man to hit the most homers in a single postseason and three in a single World Series? Today you are a man, Juan Soto.

All that courtesy of MLB.com and ESPN’s Stats and Info department. They give you the numbers. But they can’t really account for that old Nats magic. Nobody can, try though they might. The Nats just hope this isn’t the end of it. Which might be tricky if the Nats can’t convince Anthony Rendon to stay rather than play the free agency market or Strasburg not to exercise his contract’s opt-out option.

Cole is also a pending free agent. And he plopped a postgame cap on his head bearing the logo of his agent Scott Boras’s operation. When an Astro spokesman asked him to talk to reporters after the game, he was heard saying, “I’m not an employee of the team.” Then, he said he’d talk “as a representative of myself, I guess.”

Liable to be this year’s American League Cy Young Award winner, and facing maybe the fattest payday ever handed to a prime pitcher, Cole wouldn’t say if the Astros losing the World Series prompted him to declare his free agency that swiftly, that emphatically. He wouldn’t say whether he was mad that Hinch didn’t bring him in.

“We just went over the game plan and he laid out the most advantageous times to use me,” Cole told reporters. “And we didn’t get to that position.”

For Altuve, arguably the heart and soul of the Astros on the field and in the clubhouse alike, the heartbreak was impossible to hide. “I don’t think I can handle this,” he said candidly. “It’s really hard to lose Game Seven of the World Series. What I can tell you is we did everything we could . . . We did everything to make it happen. We couldn’t, but that’s baseball.”

Sometimes it’s even harder to win Game Seven. That’s baseball, too. The Nats stand in the Promised Land as living, breathing, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in Show” proof.