Phoenix rising—for one night in Baltimore

Over the entrance to old Memorial Stadium, it saluted Baltimore’s war fallen: “Time Will Not Dim The Glory of Their Deeds.” Over the entrance to Camden Yards, the temptation is powerful enough to hang a sign reading “Deed.” Singular.

This is how badly the Orioles wanted to snap their losing streak before it arrived into the Terrible Twenties: Catcher Austin Wynns had sage shipped to Camden Yards, which he and first baseman Trey Mancini paraded around the park before the game. Mancini bragged about his freshly-grown superstition mustache, and center fielder Cedric Mullins went the opposite way and shaved his beard.

You’ll do anything to break the spell. If you’d seen assorted Orioles conducting a clubhouse seance asking for kind permission to address Frank Robinson in the Elysian Fields, you wouldn’t have been terribly shocked—though you might have expected Robinson to pass the line to any St. Louis Browns who happened to be eavesdropping.

The Orioles entered Wednesday with the sixth-lowest season’s winning percentage of any team in franchise history. Of the other five, four were Browns . . . and one was the sadder-sack 2018 Orioles. The last thing these Birds wanted was to continue like cooked geese.

They finally put superstition, supernatural, and extraterrestrial to one side and decided the only way to do it was to play baseball. When Angels third baseman David Fletcher flied out to deepest right field in the top of the ninth Wednesday night, the ballpark audience already on its feet roaring let out a scream as though their Woe-rioles had just won the seventh game of the World Series.

That’s what ending a nineteen-game winning streak with a 10-6 win does for a crowd maybe half of whom actually came to the park to see the Angels’ two-way star Shohei Ohtani. As if they were half conceding the game before Orioles opener Chris Ellis threw his first pitch of the evening.

That’s what prying, pushing, and pounding a five-run eighth out of the Angels’ bullpen does, an inning after it looked as though the Orioles wasted their best chance to overthrow the Angels for good.

That’s what shoving back after an early two-run lead turned to a still-too-early four-run deficit closed back up to a pair does. That’s what playing in the end like anything but a team designed explicitly to go into the tank for who knows how long does, too.

That’s also what knowing damn well you need to atone for one of the least-timely wasted outs of the season when you have only six outs left to play with, which is just what the Orioles in the eighth had to do about the seventh. Two on, nobody out, is the time to shove with your shoulder, not nudge with your hip.

Damn lucky for the Orioles that they had an eighth-inning push, shove, and mind over matter with a pair of bases-loaded walks setting up a bigger shove and a punctuation mark to nail the win that would keep them short of the gates of infamy for the time being. They haven’t joined the 20+ loss in a row club occupied ignominiously by the 1961 Phillies (23), the 1988 Orioles (21), the 1969 Expos (20), the 1943 and 1916 A’s (20 each), or the 1906 Boston Americans (20).

Yet.

But when Orioles manager Brandon Hyde ordered Austin Wynns to sacrifice with Jahmei Jones (leadoff single) on second and Victor Gutierrez (plunked) on first, jaws should have dropped. And Hyde should have had his hide tanned. Why not reach for Jorge Mateo—hitting .356 as a part-timer—to pinch-hit for Wynns and take over at shortstop the rest of the game, and insert Pedro Severino behind the plate, when you might get a two-run base hit out of Mateo?

Oops. Wynns dropped his bunt right back to the box. The Orioles merely closed the deficit to a single run. They had a lot to atone for in the eighth.

Lucky for them Mancini greeted Angels reliever Jake Petricka with a base hit up the pipe. Lucky for them that Anthony Santander—he taking the American League’s best OPS in August into the game—doubled to the right field corner almost promptly for second and third. Lucky for them Petricka and the Angels decided to hand D.J. Stewart first on the house to load the pads.

Lucky for them Jose Urias and, one out later, Gutierrez caught Petricka unable to find the strike zone if he’d sent out a surveillance mission, sending Mancini and Santander strolling home with the tying and go-ahead runs. Very lucky for them pinch hitter Austin Hays introduced himself rudely to Petricka’s relief James Hoyt with a double off the left field fence, and that Mullins greeted yet another Angel bull, Sam Selman, with a sacrifice fly to left.

That all had to be far more satisfying than Mullins hitting Ohtani’s first pitch of the bottom of the first over the center field fence, or Santander sending an 0-1 fastball into the right field bleachers two outs later. Or, Stewart following Satander’s leadoff single in the bottom of the fourth with a blast over the left field fence.

The crash carts stayed on double red alert when the Angels tied at two with rookie Brandon Marsh lining a two-run single down the right field line. But after Marsh got thrown out stealing with Adell at the plate, and Juan Lagares lining out for the side, the game suddenly looked like a question of who’d outplay their own mistakes better.

When the Angels took the 6-2 lead in the fourth, it looked like the answer would be them. Ellis’s evening ended when Jared Walsh hit his inning-opening meatball into the right field bleachers. Reliever Marcos Diplan carried a 1.80 ERA over his past seven days in from the Oriole bullpen. Jose Iglesias was so unimpressed he whacked a double into the right field corner. Stassi was even less impressed, letting Diplan fail to find the strike zone even with a GPS and taking a leisurely walk up to first.

Up came Marsh, who resembles a young man with the life ambition to star in any future reboot of The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. He cared about Diplan’s impressive week’s ERA the least, sending his first career home run over the left center field fence. Making him the sixth Angel to hit his premiere Show bomb in Camden Yards.

I’m rooting for the Orioles to lose two more games,” tweeted an Oriole fan, “not because I don’t like them, but because at this point it’s like, why not go for the history books?”

“”There was tension in our dugout, there was pressure,” Hyde told reporters after the game. “Everybody was on the top step. “Our guys just really wanted this one. We’re tired of hearing, tired of seeing it on TV. Everybody’s tired of it.”

“”It’s electric in there,” Mullins said of the post-game clubhouse, after Wells got Fletcher to hit the game-ending fly out and took a hug with (read carefully) ninth-inning catching insertion Severino, while their mates celebrated more casually on the playing field than the fans in the stands.

Conner Greene relieved Diplan after ball one to Lagares and got rid of him, Ohtani, and Fletcher almost in a blink. On a night the Orioles couldn’t afford too many blinks. As if to remind his mates, Stewart followed Satander’s leadoff single in the bottom of the fourth with his own launch over the left center field fence. And Greene kept the Angels quiet in the top of the fifth.

Yet another Oriole bull, Cole Susler, shook Marsh’s leadoff single off in the top of the sixth to lure Adell into forcing him out at second before striking Lagares and Ohtani out swinging. At minimum, the Orioles might at least brag that they sent Ohtani’s season ERA up to three after five full innings.

Dillon Tate picked up where Susler left off in the Los Angeles seventh. Oriole fan kept telling him- or herself that a two-run deficit wasn’t equal to trying to climb the Transamerica Tower in beach sandals. Tate shook a two-out walk (to Walsh) off and lured Iglesias into an inning-ending ground out to third. Nine outs left to close and overcome.

Tate got rid of Stassi on an inning-opening ground out in the top of the eighth, then yielded to Tanner Scott. Scott struck Marsh out and got Adell to ground out to third. Swift enough inning. The Orioles still had six outs to play with, with three reasonably loaded weapons—Mancini, Santander, and Stewart—due up in the bottom of the eighth.

Wynns ought to buy Hays chateaubriand for dinner for the rest of the year, after Hays performed his penance for that seventh-inning bunt. The Orioles might want to send Ohtani a bottle of wine—Wednesday was the first time any team hit two or more home runs off him in the same game.

“These guys have dealt with a lot,” said Hyde. “Call it rebuilding or what you want, but it’s not fun to lose. You want to show your fans that the big league club is going to be fun to watch and there’s pieces coming. That’s what’s been disappointing.” If only Hyde could pound that into the thick skulls of the Orioles’ ten-thumbed ownership and by-design-hobbled front office.

No. We’ve already made that argument. It’ll be made again come the off-season and the talks for a new collective bargaining agreement. Tanking is a disgrace. It’s fan abuse and unworthy of the game. Even Oriole fans know the difference between this year’s model and the team that opened 1988 0-21 is that that team, at least, wasn’t built to tank.

Let’s push that all away for other days. There’s no percentage or pleasure in it now. On Wednesday night, the Orioles played and stood beyond. They played like . . . anybody but the Orioles.

Sure they caught a few breaks and damn near wrecked their own cause themselves late. But they took fair advantage of the breaks they caught, atoned for their self-near-ruination in fine style, and looked for once in their lives like something resembling their well-storied forebears.

Cooked geese the night before, the Orioles became a phoenix for one night. For the first time in nineteen games, and maybe all season long, these built-for-failure Orioles found a way to play better than the way they were built.

Tanks for nothing

Do you really need a solid argument against tanking? We all know that two teams thought it would get them to the World Series. In their outlying cases, they were right.

We all know one has a long-tainted Series win, the year after the other won its first Series since fourteen days after the Model T Ford was launched officially.

We all know a number of other teams have gone in the tanks and come up with nothing remotely close to those two. The ones with that tainted Series win is still in the thick of the races with a decent chance to win a clean Series. The ones who ended their 108-year rebuilding effort with a Series win had a fire sale at this year’s trade deadline.

And we also know that there’s no greater argument against tanking teams, not to mention the baseball regime that lets them get away with it, than the team that once set the American League losing streak record while falling two short of the Show record.

What’s the difference between the 1988 Orioles and this year’s model? Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic asked and answered a few days ago: The ’88 Orioles were at least trying. They had two future Hall of Famers, a few former All-Stars, and a Hall of Fame outfielder who’d been ornery as a player but developed an amazing sense of the absurd as a skipper.

Told that a local disc jockey would stay on the air until his Orioles finally won a game, Frank Robinson deadpanned, “We’re gonna kill the poor guy.” Late in the streak, Robinson pulled his office desk drawer open and pulled out a button he’d been handed by a sympathetic fan for luck: “It’s been lovely, but I have to scream now.”

Those Orioles themselves developed considerable gallows humour as the streak continued apace. Spotting a writer new on the Oriole beat, Cal Ripken, Jr. beckoned him over: “Join the hostages.”

They finally broke the streak on 29 April 1988. It took a guy with a 4.00+ ERA starting to hold the White Sox scoreless while the most they could muster through six was a two-run homer (Hall of Famer Eddie Murray in the first) and a run home on a wild pitch (to Hall of Famer Ripken).

Look at the line score and it looks like the Orioles rose from the dead in the seventh. Look at the actual inning and it was an RBI double, another run home on a throwing error, another run home on a busted, bases-loaded fielder’s choice, and a third run home on a sacrifice fly. Except for the RBI double all four runs were unearned.

In the ninth, Ripken led off with a home run off the White Sox’s then-remarkable closer Bobby Thigpen, and Terry Kennedy sent Fred Lynn home with a single off Thigpen.

The inspiring words on the outside of Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium, on what was called Memorial Wall, read, “Time Will Not Dim the Glory of Their Deeds.” They finished the tribute to Baltimore’s wartime fallen. They took on a perverse new meaning when the Orioles ended that losing streak. Then the Orioles blew up again the day after, losing to the White Sox, 4-1. It must have been awful tempting to add a p.s. to the Memorial Wall: “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.”

This year’s model should only be that lucky.

This year’s Orioles have committed few good deeds and inflicted excess punishment—on their fans. Oriole jokes run rampant. (The Orioles can’t use the Internet—they can’t put three Ws together!)

This year’s model has a couple of former All-Stars turned reclamation projects that look one day like stickers and the next like the Orioles can’t wait for someone else to re-claim them. Though even they might be hard pressed to figure out why.

Even the in-season retirement of Chris Davis, bombardier turned walking deadman for too long, too sadly, too lacking for knowledge as to what really happened and why, didn’t leave room for a change in fortune.

Now these Orioles have lost nineteen straight. Number nineteen really hits where it hurts. The good news Monday was the Orioles scoring eight runs. The bad news was that they were destroyed by the Angels—a team one game under .500 but still going nowhere much, despite the presence of Two-Way Ohtani while still missing Mike (Mr. Everything) Trout on the injured list—before they got their second run of the game.

The Angels bludgeoned the Orioles, 14-8, with thirteen runs in three innings straight (five in the second and fourth, three in the third) before tacking another on in the eighth. All that was after the Orioles opened with a 1-0 lead thanks to Ryan Mountcastle’s one-out homer off former Oriole Dylan Bundy. No lead goes unpunished anymore, either.

The Orioles have been in the tank since the 2016 wild card game. “I can sit here and tell you ten things you may not know about that situation, but nobody wants to hear it,” then-manager Buck Showalter still insisted four years later. “I’m at peace with that.”

Oriole fans (yes, there remain Oriole fans) may never be at peace with Showalter absolutely refusing to bring in the best relief pitcher of 2016 with two on, one out, and Edwin Encarnacion due to check in at the plate in the bottom of the eleventh—because Zack Britton doesn’t come in unless, you know, the Orioles have a lead to protect. The Gospel According to Blind Managers Needing a Stopper Five Seconds Ago.

So Showalter left Ubaldo Jimenez in. And Encarnacion left the Orioles behind when his three-run homer sailed into Rogers Centre’s second deck. Showalter’s still at peace with that? He’s lucky Earl Weaver didn’t throw lightning bolts down on his head from the Elysian Fields.

The Orioles decided the only way to get back to greatness from there was to go in the tank. They finished dead last in the American League East in three of the four seasons to follow, a fourth-place finish breaking the monotony. They’re 201-345 over the span. They also fired Showalter after their 47-115, fire-sale accented 2018. As if it was Showalter’s idea to go tanking the night away.

“The sport is cyclical,” Rosenthal wrote. “Teams, especially those with lower revenues, occasionally must rebuild. From 2012 to ’16, the Orioles won more regular-season games than any team in the American League. They were bound to regress. But even Major League Baseball is now implicitly acknowledging that some teams go too far in what Tony Clark, the head of the Players Association, once called “the race to the bottom.”

It won’t do to point to two more low-revenue teams and notice six trips to the postseason in the past nine years (a tip of the beak, Athletics) or six in the past thirteen including a pair of World Series appearances. (Greetings, Rays.) Those two teams have established front office brains. Orioles general manager Mike Elias came in in 2018—when Dan Duquette was executed after the season—with the Orioles tying one hand behind his back to open.

His own career having begun covering the Orioles for the Baltimore Evening Sun during that ’88 losing streak (was he the one Ripken invited to join the hostages?), Rosenthal points to Elias’s predecessor Dan Duquette stripping the major league roster with trades that haven’t proven successful yet, if they ever will.

The Orioles’ ten-thumbed ownership left Elias to spend his first few seasons on baseball’s version of poverty row. The team’s international and analytics departments need either a booster or an overhaul. These Orioles may also have the number two farm system at this writing, but they have the pitching depth of a match book up and down the organisation.

What a long, strange trip it’s been for an organisation that boasts seven men (Murray, Ripken, Brooks and Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Mike Mussina, and longtime manager Earl Weaver) wearing Orioles hats on their Hall of Fame plaques.

These Orioles, as Rosenthal says, should be hoisted as Exhibit A in the Tanking Hall of Shame. They’re the number one argument that tanking needs to be stopped, once and for all, that those who own major league franchises have an obligation to make their best efforts to put a competitive product on the field. Even modestly-endowed franchises can and have been known in the past to retool/remake/rebuild on the fly while continuing to keep competing.

It’s unhealthy for baseball when one of its formerly model franchises stands as the lead argument against what Rosenthal calls “owners perpetuat[ing] their rebuilding myths, getting away with lower payrolls and the losing that comes with them, knowing many fans will raise nary a whimper, wanting to see only the best in their favorite teams.”

“This is incredibly challenging and a huge gut check,” said manager Brandon Hyde after the Angels scorched the Camden Yards earth Monday. “We’re trying to keep our spirits high.” They may be tempted to drinking more than their fair share of spirits before this debacle ends.

If and when these Orioles finally figure out a way to keep from joining their 1988 forebears or the major league losing-streak record holders (the 1961 Phillies), I’m pretty sure they won’t resurrect the inspiring words posted on the outside of the late Memorial Stadium.

But they might hang a banner across the warehouse behind Camden Yards with a line from former Beatle George Harrison, of blessed memory: “All Things Must Pass.” The cynic will be ready to hang a next-day p.s.: “Including One-Game Winning Streaks.”

The Mets add the unwritten rule-breaking Sisco Kid

Chance Sisco, Jose Berrios

Leave a man open turf, don’t whine when he accepts the gift.

“This is what I call taking a chance,” said Old Grumpy Elder. He called to tell me the Mets picked Orioles catcher Chance Sisco off the waiver wire, and he took no chances on missing the opportunity for a dubious pun.

I happened to spot the news courtesy of New York Daily News writer Deesha Thosar on Twitter just before Old Grumpy rang. I couldn’t resist asking whether she was tempted to cue up Johnny Mathis’s ancient hit, “Chances Are.” She hasn’t answered at this writing.

From the look of it, the Mets decided they needed either a spare part or someone to pick up some minor league depth slack. Sisco didn’t exactly make Baltimore people forget Elrod Hendricks or Rick Dempsey behind the plate. He’s not ugly, so he wouldn’t make them forget Andy Etchebarren, either.

Sisco is still considered a catcher with talent despite not having turned his minor league advancements into comparable Show deliverance. The Mets optioned him to Syracuse (Triple-A) for now. His wounding flaw in the Show: proneness to striking out, though it beats hitting into double plays. (He’s averaged 1.3 hits into double plays a year so far.)

“He was actually having a decent turn behind the plate when he got there this year,” I said. “He got into 21 games and started nineteen of them. He was actually three runs saved above the league’s average at his position.”

“Never mind the esoteric crap,” Grumpy snorted. “What’s his fielding average this year?”

“Seven points above his league average for catchers.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I’m serious. He’s fielding a thousand percent behind the plate this year and the league average for catchers is .993.”

“OK, yeah,” Grumpy said. Then I heard him snap his fingers. “Hey! Now I remember him. From three years ago. That game against the Twins. This guy’s gonna get the Mets into hot water if he pulls a stunt like that again.”

That was a reference to the April Fool’s Day 2018 game in which the Orioles were down 7-0 in the ninth and Sisco beat out a bunt for a base hit. Not because he’s any kind of road runner, but because the Twins were foolish enough to put an overshift on him to the right side of the infield.

The small details: Twins pitcher Jose Berrios was trying to finish a one-hitter and had one out in the ninth. Sisco’s a lefthanded batter. He’d also had the only Oriole hit of the game to that point. The Twins thought a guy who hit .181 and batted (according to Real Batting Average) a mere .364 was liable to go Yogi Berra on them.

So they left him enough third base-side real estate for a homesteader to build himself a five-bedroom mini-mansion. Sure enough, Sisco dropped the bunt there and was safer at first than a nursing baby.

Berrios and the Twins were steaming mad over it. Even after they finished the Orioles despite a followup unintentional walk and a line single up the pipe to load the pillows. It took a pop out foul behind the plate and a strikeout to do it.

“You blame them for being p.o.ed at him?” Grumpy asked, deadly serious.

“I don’t care if he’s bunting,” Berrios told reporters after the game. “I just know it’s not good for baseball in that situation, that’s it.”

I quoted that back to Grumpy. “The only thing worse,” he said, “would have been if Berrios was trying to finish a no-hitter.”

“Well, then,” I began, “who was the genius who told the Twins infield to leave the third base side unprotected?”

“Irrelevant,” Grumpy answered. “You ever heard of respect for the game? You ever heard of sportsmanship? You ever heard of fair’s fair?”

“You ever heard of all’s fair in love, war, and baseball?” I came back. “You don’t want your guy to blow a no-hitter or a one-hitter, you don’t leave the other guy territory that wide open. Then you’re begging for trouble.”

“C’mon,” Grumpy pleaded, “you know better than that crap. The Orioles were down 7-0. It’s not like they had a prayer left.”

“Did you forget that after Sisco helped himself to what the Twins offered on the house they loaded the bases with still only one out? Seems to me they had five prayers left at least—three on the bases and two more minimum coming to the plate.”

I heard Grumpy make a noise on the other end. I couldn’t tell if it was a snort, a grunt, a cough, or flatulence.

“Yes, his team was down 7-0,” I said. “But whatever happened to playing until the absolute last out? Since when do you just hand the other guys the finish to a one-hitter without making the best stand possible to push back and, you know, win?”

“Not the point,” Grumpy harrumphed.

“Horseshit,” I harrumphed back. “You really think Sisco was supposed to take that overshift as an April Fool’s joke and then thank the nice Twins for the laugh by hitting it right into that packed right side like a good little boy?”

“No fair,” Grumpy whined. “You’re quoting yourself.”

“So what?” I said with a short laugh. “You think I’m the first writer who ever quoted himself?”

Then I remembered Twins second baseman Brian Dozier’s postgame comments. I read them back to Grumpy: “Obviously, we’re not a fan of it. He’s a young kid. I could’ve said something at second base but they have tremendous veteran leadership over there.”

“Good for him,” Grumpy said.

“Well,” I said, “I still think it’s to wonder whether the Twins’ own tremendous veteran leadership thought for a moment that overshifting with a 7-0 lead against a sub-mediocre team’s sub-mediocre batter was less criminal than that kid seeing a big fat hole onto which to hit and doing just that. Who says even a bad team’s supposed to just roll over and play dead down seven in the ninth no matter what?”

“Winning isn’t everything.”

“What about not trying to win?” I countered. “Especially when the other guys are dumb enough to give you everything short of a gilt-edged, engraved invitation to make mischief?”

I can’t transcribe Grumpy’s answer in polite company. In impolite company, it would get him served a fist on rye with mustard.

Knuckleballer meets knuckleheads

Mickey Jannis

TV broadcast screen capture shows 33-year-old rookie knuckleballer Mickey Jannis’s MLB debut interrupted by a naughty-sauce frisk. Seriously?

“In putting the [naughty sauce crackdown] plan together,” said commissioner Rob Manfred to The Athletic‘s Brittany Ghiroli on Wednesday, “we tried to come up with a plan that was as unobtrusive as possible given the practicalities of the game and the need to move the game along. We thought the checks between innings was a good way to de-escalate them, maybe is the right word (to use).”

The knucklehead didn’t bank on a knuckleballer being stopped and frisked in a cop stop so ridiculous the most corrupt police department alive wouldn’t find any graft opportunity in it.

“When do you figure we can say for sure that this mid-season crackdown on foreign substances has gone from the ridiculous to the knuckleheaded?” asked Tortilla Fats, with appropriate indignation.

He called me this morning after watching the Astros—whom he doesn’t care about, emphatically—demolish the Orioles 13-0 Wednesday. And, after reading Commissioner Nero’s Athletic comments.

“What are you talking about?” I answered. “Isn’t provoking a couple of pitchers into near-stripteases on or around the mound enough evidence, if you’ll pardon the expression?”

“Go look up what happened after Mickey Jannis pitched the top of the sixth for the Orioles,” Fats said. “You won’t believe it.”

These days, when it comes to baseball in the Age of Manfred, I’d believe just about anything. Fats knows it, too. So when he tells me now that I won’t believe what I’m about to see, I take him at his word.

I knew Jannis was one of those guys who scuffled (not scuffed), shuffled, and shouldered along in the minors as best he could for a long enough time. He’d only been doing it since he was 22 in 2010. Finally, at 33 in 2021, he got the break he’d only been praying for since he went from somewhat low-level Rays prospect to independent leaguer to Mets minor league asset to out of the game, seemingly, until the Orioles took a minor league flyer on him this spring.

I also knew Jannis’s aspiring money pitch was the knuckleball. The pitch that floats like a butterfly and stings just about the same if you happen to get hit by one at the plate. Thrown right, it relies almost entirely on the elements to make its way to the plate doing anything from a line dance to the cha-cha-cha and back to a break dance, before it arrives snickering into or around or within a parking space of the strike zone.

Thrown wrong, it tends to hover like a rescue helicopter. That’s the only thing it has in common with the whirlybirds. Rescue helicopters don’t get hit into the next area codes.

Thrown at all these days, it’s as much of a genuine novelty as baseball people only thought it was back in the so-called Good Old Days of the Grand Old Game.

“You got it yet?” Fats asked impatiently.

“I got it,” I said. I watched Jannis in the fifth strike Yordan Alvarez out, get Carlos Correa to fly out to right, walk Kyle Tucker, and then escape in advance when Oriole catcher Austin Wynns threw Tucker out trying to commit grand theft second. The Orioles might still be down 6-0 at that point but the Camden Yards crowd sure did show the old rookie some new appreciation.

Then I watch Jannis in the sixth. He got Abraham Toro—who was at the plate when Tucker was cuffed and read his rights to end the fifth—to ground out to second. He got Myles Straw to fly out to center. He threw a knuckler with about as much rhythm as a garden slug to Martin Maldonado, and Maldonado swatted the little slimer into left for a base hit. He walked Jose Altuve on five pitches, two of which were four-seam fastballs that couldn’t out-race a horse-drawn produce wagon. But he threw Michael Brantley a nasty little butterfly that Brantley might have been lucky to send to left for an RBI single before Yuli Gurriel flied out for the side.

Then I got what agitated Fats.

The umps decided side retired after one run on two hits and a walk was the perfect moment to stop and frisk Jannis for naughty sauce. It was almost as Twilight Zone as the umps who stopped to frisk Yankee relief pitcher Jonathan Loaisiga—who isn’t a knuckleballer—after he was spanked for four runs on five hits in an inning.

“Knuckleballer searched by knuckleheads,” Fats fumed. “You ought to make that your column headline.”

“I don’t believe it either, Fats,” I said. “That pitch has about as much spin as a windmill. Matter of fact, I’ve seen windmills with more spin rate. What were those umps thinking?”

“You assume they were thinking.”

“My mistake.”

“Anyone with a third grade education can tell you there’s no reason on earth a knuckleball pitcher wants anything on his hands except flesh and fingernails.”

“Have you seen Jannis’s grip?” I said. “He doesn’t use the seams. He’s got his first two fingertips on the meat between the seams. He has his other two fingers inside the turn on one seam and the ball of his thumb under the ball just up against that seam. So why the hell do the umps want to have him checked for naughty sauce?”

“You tell me,” Fats replied. “You’re the expert. I’m just a guy who doesn’t care about the Astros.”

“Jannis isn’t an Astro, remember? That run made the game 7-0, Astros.”

“It’s the Astros, so I don’t care.”

Astros starter Jose Urquidy shook off a leadoff single to rid himself of the Orioles on back-to-back popups and a ground out in the bottom of the sixth. Jannis went out for the seventh. It didn’t exactly go well for him. It only began with Alvarez fouling off two knuckleballs before he got one that didn’t even side step and drove it over the left center field fence.

From there, it was double to the back of center field (Correa), walk (Tucker, again), and Toro catching hold of another knuckler with cement shoes for dancing shoes and hitting a three-run homer. Poor Jannis also had to work the seventh and surrender a one-out solo bomb (to Alverez’s late left field replacement Chas McCormick); then, single, double, RBI single, before he escaped on a ground out and a called strikeout sandwiching another walk.

And, before his evening ended mercifully enough. Something just doesn’t seem right when a guy who waited 33 years to throw major league innings gets left in one inning past his evening’s shelf life.

Did the very absurdity of umpires checking the knuckleballer for naughty sauce squat inside Jannis’s head rent free? Even very well seasoned veterans up from the long days’ journey into the major league night can be leveled by a knuckle sandwich from just about any source.

Did the umps themselves think of how absurd the very idea of it is? Even if most umpires haven’t seen too many knuckleballs since the middle of the Obama Administration, the crew stopping and frisking Jannis had to think the commissioner’s orders now put them smack dab in the middle of a routine that ended up in Sam Kinison’s discard pile.

“The one kind of pitcher you could say doesn’t have problems going in with all these experimental baseballs the last few years should be knuckleballers,” Fats said. “They’re rare enough as it is. Unless this new dead fish ball is so dead that even their fingertips lose a grip.”

“I couldn’t tell you for dead last certain,” I replied. “But it still doesn’t make any sense on earth. Unless there’s some law of physics that doesn’t show up in the usual books, I’d think the only thing the real naughty sauce would do with a knuckleballer is keep the ball stuck in his fingertips.”

“Balk one,” Fats said.

“Only if men are on base,” I said.

“Well, let’s not get technical.”

Technical I can live with. A knuckleballer getting his knuckles rapped on shakier ground than that above an earthquake isn’t all that livable.

The Angel of Doom dooms a no-no

Brandon Bielak, Maikel Franco, Angel Hernandez

If this was ball one, I have X-ray vision. Even with a bad framing job that pitch crossed the plate under the strike zone’s ceiling.

Angel Hernandez sued MLB and lost when he tried claiming his race alone denied him postseason umpiring assignments. That was about at the end of spring training. Then, the Angel of Doom went out and continued proving you don’t have to be white to be among the top three to five reasons Robby the Umpbot will soon have major league employment.

Two things especially have stood out. Which may be saying something, depending on your experience.

Thing One: Hernandez called balls and strikes in Anaheim, in April, with the Angels playing the Astros, and blew a verified 24 pitch calls for an 83.2 percent rate of correct calls.

Thing Two: Hernandez may have cost the Astros a combined no-hitter Monday, when he blew an 0-2 strike from Astro righthander Brandon Bielak to Oriole third baseman Maikel Franco on the upper outside corner, still well within the zone, in the eighth inning.

What should have been strike three was ball one. And, with one out and one aboard on a walk, it was enough of reprieve for Franco to hit the next pitch over the left center field fence. Goodbye no-hitter, goodbye shutout.

Never mind the Astros going on to finish what they started otherwise, a 10-2 drubbing of the Woe-rioles. There was and remains no way strike three should have been called ball one.

It was a breaking ball that broke above the zone line but crossed the plate well inside the upper zone, even with Astros catcher Jason Castro trying to frame the pitch lower in the zone.

Unfortunately, it was Hernandez behind the plate. Putting pitchers into Hernandez’s hands is like putting skyjackers in charge of air traffic control.

“It’s the Astros, so I don’t care,” said Tortilla Fats on a face-time call.

“Let me guess,” I said. “You forgot there are only five members of the Astrogate team left on the roster.”

“It’s still the Astros, and I still don’t care,” Fats harrumphed back. “Cheaters once, cheaters always.”

“I bet you would have been an absolute alegria if you were a White Sox fan,” I said. “After all, game fixers once, game fixers always, right?”

“It’s still the Astros, so I don’t care,” Fats doubled down.

“So what if it was Jacob deGrom working the no-no in the eighth with one out, one aboard, Hernandez behind the plate, Endier Inciarte on the Mendoza Line at the plate, and it’s 0-2,” I said. “What if deGrom throws that breaking ball that climbs upstairs and drops right into the upper zone? What if Hernandez calls that ball one, and Inciarte hits deGrom’s next pitch over the fence?”

“He’s not on the Astros,” Fats tripled down. “He’s also Jacob deGrom. Even Angel Hernandez knows that. DeGrom’s not gonna lose a strike and then serve the murcielago espaugeti a meatball.”

“OK, bad example,” I admitted. “Suppose it was Shohei Ohtani. Jacob deGrom he ain’t. Suppose he has Franco 0-2 with one out, one on, and Hernandez behind the plate? Suppose Ohtani throws that breaker starting upstairs and falling right into the zone? Suppose the Angel of Doom blows that strike into ball one? Suppose Franco hits him over the left center field fence?”

“Ohtani’s not an Astro,” Fats quadrupled down. “So I still don’t care. Anyway, the Astros won the game, didn’t they? So what the hell do they have to complain about?”

I reminded Fats that losing a no-hitter—solo, combined, whatever—isn’t exactly celebration fodder. There are those fans who’d rather go to funerals than see no-hitters broken up in the latest innings.

“It’s still the Astros,” Fats quintupled down. “So I still don’t care.”

This was getting worse than Pedro Baez stopping to shop Amazon Prime between pitches.

“Fats, you’re the guy who agreed with me that the human element needs help,” I said. “You’re the guy who said the umpires have gotten so human that Roberto el arbitro roboto can’t come too soon. You said it because you said I was right. You agreed the blown calls have gone pandemic enough. You agreed—blown calls need to be reduced to just the occasional honest mistake and not a goddam habit. With Hernandez its more than a habit, it’s a way of life, apparently.”

“It’s still the Astros,” Fats sextupled down. “So I still don’t care.”

He has this much in common with the Angel of Doom. Sometimes, there’s just no reasoning with Fats.