The strike heard ’round the world

Don Denkinger, you’re off the hook. Flores checking his swing into the arguable worst blown call in postseason history

Giants manage Gabe Kapler wouldn’t say it, even though anyone with eyes to see would say it for him. Even the Dodger fans among them. Maybe it wouldn’t change the outcome with that wired a Max Scherzer on the mound.

But ending this National League division series with that bad an umpire’s call? For the final out of the season for one team, not the first out of the ninth as was Don Denkinger’s infamous blown call at first in Game Six of the 1985 World Series?

There isn’t a jury in the land that would rule Kapler unjustified if he’d blown his proverbial stack or even demanded an investigation. This tight a Game Five between two of baseball’s most bitter of blood rivals plus the two winningest teams in this year’s Show deserved better than that.

These Dodgers and these Giants deserved better than first base umpire Gabe Morales ruling Wilmer Flores’s checked swing a strike to end it, after home plate umpire Doug Eddings—to his eternal credit—called for Morales’s help. That kind of help neither Eddings nor the Giants needed.

Two teams who’d been even-up in their regular season meetings, had the same number of hits against each other (173), and entered Game Five with each having 109 wins for the year including the postseason thus far, deserved better than a 2-1 Dodger win tainted through no fault of either team’s own.

“There are other reasons we didn’t win today’s baseball game,” Kapler said post-game. “That was just the last call of the game.” That was like a Japanese commander saying Hiroshima and Nagasaki were just the last blows of World War II.

Let’s give Morales a temporary benefit of the doubt. “[C]heck-swings are one of the hardest calls we have,” he said post-game. “I don’t have the benefit of multiple camera angles when I’m watching it live. When it happened live I thought he went, so that’s why I called it a swing.”

But Morales was shown a replay of that final pitch. Then, someone asked if he’d still call it failed check swing. Ted Barrett, the crew chief, answered for him. Sort of. As if Morales was incapable of speaking for himself.

“Yeah, no, we, yeah, yeah, he doesn’t want to say,” Barrett said. If there’s a more mealymouthed response upon a blown call’s questioning on record, I’d love to see it. Even Denkinger wasn’t that foolish when confronted with how badly he’d blown it calling Jorge Orta safe at first despite being out by almost a full step.

“Obviously you don’t want a game to end that way,” Kapler also said. “Obviously it’s going to be frustrating to have a game end like that, but pretty high quality hitter at the plate that can climb back into that count. There’s no guarantee of success in that at-bat. It’s just a tough way to end it.”

Flores checked his swing on an 0-2 pitch that came in just under the low outside corner. All things considered, especially the proliferation of dubious pitch calls all series long against both the Dodgers and the Giants, it wouldn’t have been the worst possible outcome for the plate appearance to continue.

But Flores checked his swing. Eddings called to Morales. Morales rang Flores up for game, set, and match. Sending the Dodgers to a National League Championship Series against the Braves, sending Giants fans reaching for the nearest possible liquid salves, and soiling the Game Five this series deserved otherwise.

They’d gone tooth, fang, claw, and just about anything else not just to get to Game Five in the first place but to get to the bottom of the ninth with only a single run separating them.

The Dodgers had gone to a bullpen game, opening with reliever Corey Knebel, continuing with fellow reliever Brusdar Graterol, then sending starting pitcher Julio Urias out of the pen to pitch a solid enough third through sixth. Then back to the pen men Blake Treinen for the seventh and Kenley Jansen for the eighth.

The thinking was that the Giants—a club full of elders and anonymous role players for the most part—were so deadly in situational play that, as The Athletic‘s Andy McCullough observed, the Dodgers’ best shot at neutralising that advantage by throwing two-thirds of their bullpen at the Giants and returning Urias to the postseason role where he’d been so effective in the recent past while they were at it.

It’s not that teams haven’t gone to bullpen games before. The Rays make about a third of their living doing it. Why, almost a full century ago the Washington Senators (Washington—First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League) won the 1924 World Series going to a bullpen game prototype in Game Seven.

All the Dodgers needed was Urias on board with the idea. “He earned the right to pitch in this game,” said Dodgers pitching coach Mark Prior. “If he said, ‘No, I want it,’ he was going to get it.” They surveyed other Dodgers including starters Scherzer, injured Clayton Kershaw, and Walker Buehler, who’d pitched so effectively in the Dodgers’ Game Four win.

“When they were on board,” Prior said, “it made sense. Everyone is in it to win it. Let’s go.”

That’s how they countered the Giants sending their stout young starter Logan Webb out for Game Five. He gave the Dodgers as good as their pen game gave the Giants. He pitched seven solid innings. The only blemishes on Webb were Mookie Betts delivering three of the four Dodger hits against him, and Corey Seager sending the Mookie Monster home with a double down the left field line in the top of the sixth to deliver the game’s first run.

Until Scherzer came into the game, the only real blemish against the Dodgers’ pitching was Giants left fielder Darin Ruf tying the game at one leading off the bottom of the sixth, by hitting Urias’s full-count fastball over the center field fence.

But until the Flores check swing that should have been, the co-story of the game might have ended up being the Dodgers leaving the Giants behind with yet another Belli-ache plus Max the Knife plunged into their backs in the bottom of the ninth. More’s the pity.

Continuing his re-adjusted postseason revival—after an injury-marred regular season reduced him to terms so low people questioned why Dodger manager Dave Roberts kept running his former MVP out there at all—Cody Bellinger broke the one-all tie in the ninth.

He made the Giants pay after their young relief ace in the making Camilo Doval hit Justin Turner up and in on the first pitch after Will Smith grounded out to shortstop to open the top of the ninth. Gavin Lux snuck a base hit through the right side of the infield to set first and second up.

Then, Bellinger took ball one low, swung through a slider around the middle, bounced a foul ball off to the right, then shot one up the middle and into center field sending Turner home with the tiebreaking run. Which probably amped Scherzer up in the pen even more than he’d already sent himself.

When he wasn’t throwing warmup pitches, Scherzer paced and pranced like a maniac. It was a wonder nobody had to shoot a tranquiliser dart into his rump to make sure he could go in and pitch the bottom of the ninth without dismantling himself.

He all but shot in from the pen to the mound as the sides changed. It was so must-see television that the TBS broadcast obeyed the call, too, not cutting to a commercial break as he made his way to the mound. You’d have thought the back of his uniform carried not his surname and number 31 but Danger! High Explosives! Keep Back 500 Feet!

Pinch hitter Matt Beaty ended the top of the ninth by grounding out to Flores playing first for the Giants. “Flores touched first base,” said Betts with a laugh, “and it felt like Scherz was halfway to the mound.”

This was virgin territory: Scherzer had never recorded a relief save in his entire professional pitching career. Yet he flew in from the pen as though fourteen years’ worth of a Hall of Fame pitching career to date was merely the overture to his kind of Unfinished Symphony.

So, with Bellinger shifted from first base to center field and Billy McKinney out playing first, Max the Knife unsheathed. He got Crawford to line out the other way to left. He shook off Turner bobbling Kris Bryant’s grounder up the third base line enabling Bryant safe on the error to strike out Lamonte Wade, Jr., who’d been making a name for himself with assorted ninth-and-later heroics for the Giants.

Then came Flores, the former Met who’d been part of their 2015 run to the World Series. A slider hitting the middle of the zone for a called strike. A foul off. Then, the fateful slider coming down and just off the corner. The checked swing. Eddings’ appeal to Morales at first. Strike three. Game, and Giants’ season, over.

There are eleven categories of reviewable umpire calls that managers are allowed to challenge. In the postseason, a skipper gets two challenges instead of the one allowed during the regular season. Check swings and pitches aren’t among the eleven. Maybe in the postseason they ought to be.

The “human element” be damned. When Whitey Herzog (Cardinals manager in 1985) called outright for replay in his 1998 memoir You’re Missin’ a Great Game, he had it as right as right can be: “This is for the championship—let’s get it right.” This was toward a potential championship and a win-or-wait-till-next-year game in the bargain. It should have been gotten right.

Seventy years ago, the Giants’ Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard ‘Round the World to finish a pennant playoff we’ve long since known, with full proof, was tainted by an off-field-based sign-stealing plot that helped those Giants come from thirteen games back to forcing that playoff in the first place.

Maybe it was tempting the fates a little too flagrantly when it turned out someone with the Giants—not a fan or fans, as I thought when seeing the sign in a flickering moment during the Game One telecast—tacked that “Remember ’51!” up on a deck rim in Oracle Park. Very clever, using a tainted triumph for motivation.

But ’51 was then, and this was Thursday night. Tainted not by cheating but by the kind of malfeasance that’s brought demands for further and fuller umpire accountability and for technology to help get the calls right. I don’t have to be as kind as Gabe Kapler.

Don Denkinger, you’re off the hook for the arguable worst blown call in postseason history. Maybe Scherzer would have retired Flores anyway if the proper call was made; maybe Flores would have kept the inning alive with a base hit. Maybe—unlikely as it might have been, considering his 0-for-17 lifetime jacket against Max the Knife—he might have tied or even won the game with one swing.

Maybe. We’ll never know now.

Until or unless baseball’s government effects real, substantial umpire accountability and stops allowing the “human element” to enable them to get away with murder, this NLDS Game Five’s finish should be known forever as The Strike Heard ‘Round the World.

From bull run to big swing

2019-10-19 JoseAltuve

Jose Altuve ended Game Six’s running of the bulls with one American League pennant-flying swing.

Brad Peacock took the mound to open American League Championship Series Game Six for the Astros on Saturday night. The moment he did, the righthander did something undone since the year Native Americans were finally awarded American citizenship, J. Edgar Hoover was named to run the FBI, and Macy’s held its first Thanksgiving Day parade.

He became the first pitcher to finish one postseason game and start the very next one, the very next day, since Washington Senators righthander Firpo Marberry nailed the final out of Game Three before starting Game Four, the following day, in the 1924 World Series.

The Series into which the Senators entered after finally making it, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in the American League.” In which the Old Nats won Game Seven against the New York Giants in twelve innings. With (oh, the horror!) a bullpen game. Climaxed by a starter-as-reliever finishing it. Instigated by a kid shortstop made player-manager who outsmarted a Hall of Fame manager.

It may not be nice to fool Mother Nature, the old bat, but Bucky Harris knew it was more than nice to fool John McGraw. He started a righthander named Curly Ogden to deke McGraw into loading his lineup with lefthanded hitters. What McGraw didn’t know or suspect was Harris and Ogden knowing going in that Ogden would face two batters maximum.

Then Harris reached for his Game Four starter, lefthander George Mogridge. And with the game tied three all going to the ninth, Harris married sentiment to baseball and brought in his Hall of Fame righthander Walter Johnson for the ninth. And, yes, the Griffith Stadium crowd went nuts. Johnson pitched four scoreless, the Senators pushed the winning run home in the bottom of the twelfth, and Bucky Harris looked like a genius.

For the Senators, of course, their Game Seven bullpen game was do or be dead. For the Astros Saturday night, Game Six was do or face a Game Seven showdown with the Yankees. For the Yankees, Game Six was, of course, do or be dead. This promised to be a very brisk and bristling running of the bulls.

Until it turned into a pennant-winning two-run homer. And the relief of the Astros not having to burn Gerrit Cole in a Game Seven so they can send him out to tangle with Max Scherzer when they open the World Series at home against the Nationals.

Peacock’s manager A.J. Hinch didn’t have to outsmart a Hall of Fame manager Saturday night. All he needed was Jose Altuve in the bottom of the ninth to prove what one of Washington’s favourite and most fabled sons made law: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

And unlike the 1924 Senators, the Astros didn’t have to send a future Hall of Famer out to the mound for the finish. Though it probably would have made as many people weep for joy if Justin Verlander went out for the ninth as wept for joy in the stands in Washington 95 years ago.

Altuve decided to win the American League pennant a little more dramatically than Earl McNeely hitting the ball that hopped over Freddie Lindstrom’s head at third to send Muddy Ruel home with the 1924 Series-winning run. And Altuve had a tougher challenger in Aroldis Chapman.

Chapman shot through the Astros in the Game Five ninth, using only nine pitches to finish one-two-three. In Game Six, Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez called for so many sliders–one of which struck out Martin Maldonado swinging to open—it was as if he were trying to tell Chapman his fastball, which still had giddyup to spare, crossed over to the enemy side.

“I wanted to be on time for the fastball but looking up in the zone,” said the ALCS Most Valuable Player, half out of breath, after the game. “Something I can drive.”

On 2-1 he was on time enough for a Chapman slider landing just off the middle that he drove a two-run homer off the left center field pavilion. Finishing a 6-4 Astros win that knocked on the door of extra innings after a hard day’s night on both sides. “There’s nobody I want up in that situation other than José Altuve,” said Cole after the game. “He’s just got a gift from God.”

God apparently loves nothing more than a hair-raising finish to a mostly hair-raising game. Because with one on and one swing in the top of the ninth Yankee first baseman D.J. LeMahieu silenced the Minute Maid Park audience. And with one swing in the bottom of the ninth, Altuve ignited exponential pandemonium.

It was the most appropriate thing for which an Astro fan could have asked, even if it was the most extraterrestrial thing for which the Astros themselves could have seen. “I can’t believe that just happened,” said George Springer, whose two-out walk set Altuve’s table in the first place, and who had the hardest view in the house in the top of the ninth after moving to right field in a late defensive switch.

Springer wasn’t sure he could believe LeMahieu in the top of the inning, wrestling Astros closer Roberto Osuna to a tenth pitch, after four straight foul offs on 2-2 and ball three up and away, then driving a slightly hanging cutter over Springer’s leaping reach and into the right field seats to tie things up at four.

“He’s been a thorn in our side all series,” said Verlander, theoretically the World Series Game Two starter against Nats righthander Stephen Strasburg, of LeMahieu. One of the few thorns in the Astro sides all week.

For a few brief, shining moments, the Yankees—the St. Elsewhere Yankees, who’d survived and persevered in an injury-battered season as admirable as that of the Grey’s Anatomy Astros who’d survived and persevered likewise—had a hope of forcing the seventh game of a set in which they looked lost too often lost at the plate and too often like Candid Camera victims in the field.

The Yankees didn’t look that bad in the Game Six field. But the Astros in the field looked like they were playing Can You Top This, from Josh Reddick’s face-planting dive to catch Brett Gardner’s sinking liner to right with two on in the sixth, saving a potential two-run double, to Michael Brantley’s seventh-inning dive to catch Aaron Hicks’s shallow left popup before springing to his feet and throwing strong to double off Aaron Judge half way to second.

Not to mention at the plate in the bottom of the first, when Altuve drilled a one-out double up the alley in left center, Alex Bregman wrung Yankee opener Chad Green for a walk, and Yuli Gurriel hit the first pitch into the Crawford Boxes. LeMahieu got close in the top of the ninth but Altuve copped first prize in the bottom.

Brad Peacock performing his Firpo Marberry impression had a simple time getting three swift outs to open the game. Green, who’d opened fifteen Yankee games on the regular season with the Yankees winning eleven of them, probably had a hard time believing what just happened to him after one full inning in the book.

Seven Yankee pitchers surrendered six hits, struck out six, and walked six. If Jose Altuve’s a gift from God, the Yankees must think the devil is plaguing them. Seven Astro pitchers turned up deuces wild: two runs, two hits, two strikeouts. They didn’t have to do anything much more than that.

The Yankees’s series-long futility hitting with men in scoring position made it almost as easy for Peacock, Josh James, Ryan Pressly, Jose Urquidy, Will Harris, Joe Smith, and—until LeMahieu teed off in the ninth—Osuna to keep the Yankees from too much mischief.

They pushed a run home in the second on Didi Gregorius’s one-out double off the right field fence and Sanchez’s almost immediate single up the middle. They yanked one home in the fourth when Gio Urshela with one out hit Urquidy’s first pitch to him into the right center field seats. And that was all until the top of the ninth.

Again the Yankees flashed a series-long allergy to cashing in scoring opportunities, especially with the bases loaded. Aaron Judge worked a one-out, full-count walk off James in the third, Gleyber Torres fought back on 2-2 to send a soft liner into left center, and Edwin Encarnacion—back in the DH slot after Giancarlo Stanton didn’t deliver in the slot in Game Five—wrung James for a four-pitch walk to load the pillows.

That’s when Pressly came in. He threw one pitch to Gregorius. He got Gregorius to bounce back to the first base side of the mound, fielded it himself, tagged Gregorius for the side, and promptly left the game with a knee strain that scared the Astros a spell, since if he had to go off the roster injured he wouldn’t be eligible to return for the Series. He’s being listed day to day for now.

But after Urshela’s rip Urquidy held fort for two and two thirds and probably saved Hinch from reducing his Tums supply by a third at least. With the Yankees left to ponder whether Reddick’s or Brantley’s dives finished the coffin into which Altuve eventually hammered the nails.

“You can’t script it,” said Verlander. “I’m just trying to take it all in, see the crowd, feel the atmosphere.” That’s what two World Series trips in three seasons does for you.

You can say Yankee general manager Brian Cashman punted at the new single mid-season trade deadline by failing to land one more serviceable starting pitcher. That fail ended up biting the Yankees severely when Domingo German landed on the suspended list in late September over a domestic violence incident involving the mother of his two children—on the same day the Yankees honoured retiring CC Sabathia at a Hudson Yards party.

And you can point to a tiny handful of tactical moves manager Aaron Boone made that backfired, after he’d spent so much of the season essentially preparing his bullpen for the postseason, knowing his starting dearth and losing one of his bulls, Dellin Betances, to an Achilles tendon tear, tied one hand behind his back going in.

Boone’s heartaches now will include that he’s just become the only man in major league history to hit a pennant-winning walk-off homer as a player and surrender a pennant-losing home run as a manager. In the same uniform, yet.

And this loss is on the Yankee players as much as the Astros’ triumph is on their players. From a remarkable .294/.372/.518 collective regular-season slash line with runners on second or better, and 11-for-34 in that situation against the Twins in the division series, the Yankees in the ALCS seemed to approach men on second or better as though they thought someone would shoot them dead if they even thought about cashing in.

They went 6-for-35 in that situation all ALCS long and 1-for-6 in Game Six. Their threats amounted to the none-too-strong parent who admonishes his overindulged child, “If you do that again, so help me God I’m going to . . . be very, very angry at you!” Against these Astros, who don’t know the meaning of the word mercy when they spot weakness, that was tantamount to a death wish.

Put their pitching to one side and the Astros were smarter on the bases, they were stingier than Jack Benny (the radio and television character, not the man himself) in the field, and they weren’t ignorant at the plate when they saw Yankee relief arms more often than they might have expected going in.

“That’s a helluva team over there,” said Springer after the game, still catching breaths after the surrealistic finish. “That was a fight. I have a lot of respect for them.”

Some among the least forgiving Yankee fans—and that’s saying too much considering no fans in baseball are less forgiving, and few are more obnoxious, than Yankee fans denied World Series trips they still believe to be their annual birthright—would tell Springer that Game Six’s running of the bulls merely exposed the Yankees as full of it.

The only heartaches awaiting the Astros now will be whichever ones the just-as-hungering Nats might have in store for them. They’re not exactly worried. Yet. “We are a team that’s working together and pulling in the right direction,” Altuve said after the game. And that’s no bull.