ALCS Game Three: Rock and troll

Carlos Correa, Eduardo Rodriguez

Rodriguez (right) couldn’t resist trolling Carlos (It’s My Time!) Correa as the top of the sixth ended . . .

Carlos Correa grounded out to end the Astros’s sixth Tuesday night. Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez couldn’t resist pointing to his wrist, trolling Correa’s becoming-more-familiar “It’s my time!” gesture whenever nailing a key Astros hit. There was a birthday boy in the house who wasn’t necessarily amused.

“No, no,” Alex Cora hollered, as Rodriguez returned to the dugout during the sides changing. “Don’t do that!” The last thing the manager wanted on his 46th birthday was any of his Red Sox poking the Houston bear they were taking down, before the bear could even think about stealing their picnic baskets.

Not even the pitcher who’d just pitched six solid innings the only blemish of which was a three-run homer two innings earlier. Not even while the Red Sox still held a six-run lead that finished in a 12-3 demolition giving the Red Sox a 2-1 American League Championship Series advantage and the Astros a monumental migraine.

An inning and a half worth of three-up, three-down baseball that looked to shape into a pitching duel between Rodriguez and Astros starter Jose Urquidy got ripped into a Red Sox demolition in the bottom of the second after starting as a mere tear. Two walks sandwiching a J.D. Martinez one-out double merely loaded the bases for Christian Vazquez’s line single the other way to right field and kept them there.

Oops. Christian Arroyo ripped one off the mound and off Astros second baseman Jose Altuve to send Martinez home with a second Red Sox run. Falling into an early 2-0 hole with ducks still on the pond against these Astros still seemed surmountable. Until Kyle Schwarber told them otherwise.

After taking ball one inside, ball two downstairs, and ball three just inside, Schwarber took Urquidy’s fastball around the middle halfway up the right field seats. It was the third salami slice for the Red Sox in three ALCS games. As if slicing two in Game Two wasn’t precedent enough, the Schwarbinator’s blast made the Red Sox the first ever to slice three in any postseason series.

Kiké Hernández followed Schwarber at once with a base hit pulled up the left field line, and Xander Bogaerts ripped a single up the pipe one out later, and finally Astros manager Dusty Baker got Urquidy out of there before the Red Sox could cover his grave. Yimi Garcia shook off a second-and-third-making wild pitch to dispatch Alex Verdugo for the side at last, but aftershocks were still to come.

They started an inning later, when Hunter Renfroe drew a one-out walk, stole second, then took third when Astros catcher Martin Maldonado’s throw to second bounced away from Altuve, before coming home on Vazquez’s floating base hit into short center. Then Arroyo drove Garcia’s slightly hanging slide into the rear row of the Green Monster seats.

The Astros may have punctured the impenetrable when Astros center fielder Kyle Tucker parked one into the right field seats with Michael Brantley (leadoff single) and Yordan Alvarez (one-out single banged off the Monster but played perfectly by left fielder Verdugo to hold him) aboard in the top of the fourth.

Two innings and three Astro pitchers later, Rafael Devers took a leadoff walk and the Astros got two outs quick enough to follow, especially center field insertion Jose Siri’s sliding catch running in long to take Verdugo’s floater into shallow center. Phil Maton then relieved Brooks Raley for the Astros, and he arrived just in time to feed Martinez something to hit into the Monster seats about as deep as Arroyo’s blast traveled.

Kyle Schwarber

The Schwarbinator slicing salami in the second to start the Red Sox romp in earnest . . .

Before this ALCS ends, the Red Sox may need to put new tires on the laundry cart into which they dump their home run hitters to celebrate the blasts in each moment. They’re already down to the last millimeter of tread as it is.

As if making sure the sealant on the first puncture held fast, Devers turned on Astro relieve Ryan Stanek’s first one-out pitch in the bottom of the eighth and sent that into the Monster seats, too. Renfroe’s diving catch on Correa’s two-out, opposite-field drive in the top of the ninth must have felt like the first mercy shown the Astros all night long.

Astros pitching coach Brent Strom wondered aloud whether his charges might be tipping pitches. Not willing to commit to that quite all the way, he acknowledged that—between the Red Sox’s postseason plate discipline and all-fields approaches and Astro pitchers falling behind in counts so often now—he’s more than a little concerned.

“This is a very good hitting team,” Strom said of the Red Sox, “and they’re very adept at picking up little things, much more so than most teams,” Strom said. “We need to be very cognizant of the little things, tipping-type things, things like that, that they’re very astute at. We’ve just gotten behind hitters.”

Cora said the Red Sox approach began changing when Schwarber came aboard in a July trade with the Nationals. “We were expanding,” Cora said, meaning the strike zone. “We didn’t walk too much, and when he got here and when he started playing, it was different. It’s a different at-bat, and other guys have followed his lead, and right now, like I said, this is the best I’ve seen this team this season offensively.”

Correa thinks the Red Sox aren’t picking up Astro pitch tips so much as they’re just doing their jobs at the plate when the Astros’ pitchers aren’t doing theirs on the mound. As an Astro, it’s murder for Correa. But as a baseball fan, pardon the expression, it’s a blast.

“It’s fun to watch as a fan of the sport, see how everybody in the lineup has the same approach,” the shortstop said. “They’re not chasing. They’re staying in the zone. They’re not swinging at borderline pitches. It’s beautiful what they’re doing. We’ve got to find a way to throw more strikes and keep the ball in the ballpark.”

But as much talk came about Rodriguez giving Correa a taste of his own celebratory medicine as about the Red Sox’s thorough dismantling of the Astros’ balky pitching staff and shaky offense—particularly their big three of Altuve, Brantley, and Alex Bregman now standing a combined 5-for-36 in the set so far—after the game finally ended.

Cora didn’t exactly hold it against Rodriguez, making a point of embracing his pitcher when Rodriguez returned to the dugout. But he still didn’t want Rodriguez or any of his players re-awakening the suddenly sleeping Astro giants.

“We don’t act that way,” he said postgame. “We just show up, we play, and we move on, and he knows. I let him know. We don’t have to do that. If we’re looking for motivation outside of what we’re trying to accomplish, we’re in the wrong business. The only motivation we have is to win four games against them and move on to the next round.”

Correa didn’t exactly mind. The way he spoke postgame, you’d have thought the Astros forgot about such concepts as bulletin-board fodder. “He did my celebration,” said the shortstop liable to command a nice free agency deal this winter, no matter his Astrogate past.

“I thought it was kind of cool,” continued Correa, who’d done his “It’s my time” wrist-tap in Game One after breaking a three-all tie with an eighth-inning bomb. “It’s just the way baseball should trend. I loved it personally . . . I keep it real all the time and say how it is.”

Rodriguez admitted he was caught up in the moment after getting Correa to end the sixth. Cora was stern but not exactly harsh with his pitcher back in the dugout. His embrace fit perfectly with Rodriguez’s previous insistence that Cora was like a father or older brother to his players as well as a manager.

“He understands that we’re not that way.” said Cora, whose Red Sox almost got humbled out of the races in the second half between injuries, COVID sufferings, and a bullpen remake. “We talk about humble approach and humble players, and that’s who we are. We like to grind, and we like to play, but we don’t do that.”

Well, good Lord, a team hammering and blasting its way to a rout can’t be faulted for being just a little less than humble in the moment here and there. Can they?

ALCS Game One: The world didn’t implode

Jose Altuve

Jose Altuve’s two-run homer tied Game One and turned the game’s momentum to the Astros . . . (Fox Sports screen capture.)

Before the American League Championship Series began, it was easy to remember but so hard to forget. The elephant still lingered in the room.

The American League West-winning Astros. The American League wild card-winning Red Sox. Electronic sign-stealing cheaters versus electronic sign-stealing cheaters. Right?

Not quite that simple. Not even if Red Sox fans and others still cringe over the 2017-18 Astro Intelligence Agency. Not even if Astro fans and others still think the 2018 Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring proved the Astros weren’t alone in high-tech cheating.

Those Red Sox got nailed using their replay room as a sign-stealing helpmate. But they didn’t install the video apparatus in there, MLB did—for them and all thirty teams, behind all home and visitors’ dugouts in all thirty ballparks. Their way, and they probably weren’t the only team doing it, depended on having men on base to relay stolen signs to their batters.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it one more time: With the best intentions, MLB in essence were Mom and Dad leaving the keys to the liquor cabinet behind expecting the kids were mature enough not to open up and party while they were out of town for the weekend. The 2018 Rogue Sox opened up and partied. The 2017-18 Astros built their own distillery.

Their front office used an in-house-designed computer algorithm devised for sign stealing during games, despite the designer’s warning that doing it in-game was illegal. They used a high-speed, real-time camera to abrogate the mandatory eight-second transmission delay and send opposing signs to clubhouse monitors, next to which someone sent the hitters the dope via the infamous trash can bangs.

Both teams cheated then. Both teams seemed like deer frozen in the proverbial headlights when asked to show public accountability and contrition. The Astros were far, far worse. They went far, far above and beyond both the traditional on-the-field, in-the-dugout gamesmanship and the sort of boys-will-be-boys thing the Rogue Sox and others did with the MLB-gifted replay rooms.

Commissioner Rob Manfred may have erred in granting players from those teams immunity in return for the details, but his investigation did at least turn up and discipline the key overseers.

He suspended then-Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch before owner Jim Crane fired the pair. He suspended then-Astros bench coach Alex Cora over Astrogate, but determined the 2018 Rogue Sox’s prime culprit was video room operator J.T. Watkins while manager Cora, his coaches, the front office, and maybe half the Red Sox’s players weren’t in on the replay room reconnaissance ring.

Nobody can redeem those Astros or Red Sox, even if the Red Sox did re-hire a contrite-enough Cora to manage them this year. But we can remind ourselves that, today, only five Astrogate players remain with the team. We should remind ourselves that at least one such suspect, second baseman Jose Altuve, actually demurred from accepting stolen signs and even told his teammates and others to knock off the trash can banging while he was at the plate.

Only nine Rogue Sox members remain in uniform today, too. And, the rules against electronic sign-stealing were tightened in Astrogate’s aftermath. Video room security is now three people deep. Video feed delays are now fifteen seconds over the previous eight. Players caught stealing signs electronically can be suspended without pay or credited major league service time.

This year’s Astros and this year’s Red Sox got to this year’s ALCS regardless. Remove their former taints, and you have two opponents who entered the set with suspect pitching (particularly the Astros, losing Lance McCullers, Jr. to a forearm issue) but very strong offenses. Then, you watched Game One Friday night, even if in spite of yourselves.

You watched Red Sox center fielder Kike Hernandez strike long twice but Altuve strike once to change the game’s momentum toward the eventual 5-4 Astros win.

You watched Astros starting pitcher Framber Valdez and Red Sox starter Chris Sale unable to get out of the third inning alive. You watched the ordinarily suspect Astros bullpen hold the Red Sox to four hits, one walk, and one measly run, when Hernandez—who tied the game leading off the top of the third by hitting a Valdez curve ball far over the left center field seats—caught hold of a Ryan Pressly slider and send it deep into the Crawfords in the top of the ninth.

You watched the Red Sox take a 3-1 lead in that third a ground out, a walk, and a base hit up the pipe later, when designated hitter J.D. Martinez’s hopping grounder bumped off Altuve’s glove to send shortstop Xander Bogaerts (the walk) home, before right fielder Hunter Renfroe ripped an RBI double past Astros third baseman Alex Bregman and down the left field line to score Bregman’s Red Sox counterpart Rafael Devers (the base hit).

You watched Altuve ruin that lead in the bottom of the sixth, with Astros center fielder Chas McCormick aboard on a one-out single, when he hit the first pitch he saw from Red Sox reliever Tanner Houck into the Crawfords.

You watched another Red Sox reliever, Hansel Robles, fire sub-100 mph bullets in the bottom of the seventh to get rid of Bregman on a grounder to short and left fielder Yordan Alvarez on a hard-swinging strikeout, before offering Astros shortstop Carlos Correa a changeup that hung up enough for him to yank into the Crawfords to break the three-all tie.

You watched a Red Sox reliever who hadn’t pitched in almost two weeks, Hirokazu Sawamura, surrender a leadoff walk to Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel before McCormick bounced a base hit in front of Red Sox left-field insertion Danny Santana (a top-of-the-eighth pinch hitter). You saw Martin Maldonado take a pitch off his right wrist to load the pads with nobody out.

And you saw Altuve hit a sacrifice fly to center to send Gurriel home with the fifth Houston run, though a slightly more on-line throw might have gotten Gurriel at the plate to keep things within a single run for Hernandez’s second launch of the night.

Kike Hernandez

Hernandez’s dive-and-roll catch of Michael Brantley’s second-inning-ending, bases-loaded sinking liner wasn’t enough to stop the Astros Friday night. Neither were his two long home runs. (Fox Sports screenshot.)

Hernandez’s mayhem—the two homers on a 4-for-5 night (the first such leadoff hitter in the Show to do it), bringing him to fourteen hits in 28 postseaon at-bats this time around, his MLB-record third lifetime postseason game of ten total bases—may not have been quite enough for the Red Sox to take Game One. But it was more than enough to impress Astros manager Dusty Baker.

“I haven’t seen a hitter this hot in the last week than Kike Hernandez,” the skipper said post-game, after Hernandez’s first launch came during Baker’s brief turn talking to Fox Sports broadcasters Joe Buck and Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz. “Boy, when I saw that ball go up, I was like, oh man, that was a blast. Then he blasted another one. It’s not a good feeling when you know you’re live on air and you see that ball leaving the ballpark.”

Hernandez wasn’t the only one dancing with the record books. Altuve and Correa became the first teammates to homer in the same postseason game for a fourth time. “He is just so dangerous,” said Correa of Altuve post-game. “His track record in the playoffs is insane, and he just inspires me. He inspires me without saying much.”

That track record includes tying Hall of Famer Derek Jeter for number three on the all-time postseason bomb roll with his 20th such launch Friday night. But you should have heard Altuve speak of Correa, too. “He is amazing,” the compact second baseman said of his keystone partner at shortstop. “He likes this kind of game. He wants to go out there and hit big homers. It seems like he expects to go out there and do it, so if you’re expecting something, eventually you’re going to make it happen, and that’s him.”

Hernandez also impressed the Astros and maybe even some of their home crowd Friday night with a few defensive gems, particularly his dive-and-roll catch of designated hitter Michael Brantley’s bases-loaded, sinking line drive to end the bottom of the second. But he’d have swapped all that for a Red Sox win.

“I think overall we played a good game,” he said postgame. “Once again, we didn’t do a good job of adding on to the lead, and at the end of the day, that’s why we lost. We weren’t able to add any more runs.” That was in large part because the usually suspect Astro bullpen managed to keep them to a measly four hits and a walk in the unexpected bullpen game.

With Nathan Eovaldi starting Game Two, and the still-fresh memory of being shut out by the Rays to start a division series in which they won the next three straight, the Red Sox don’t exactly have reasons to cringe just yet. Even Sale admitted Eovaldi was their best foot forward to launch Saturday.

“We’ve got the right guy on the right mound, and that’s all we can say,” he said. “Our lineup is going to bang with the best of them. There’s no doubt about that. We’ve got to do the little things right, and with Nate taking the ball, that’s everything we could ask for.”

So guess what didn’t happen when the two teams still recovering from their own Astrogate and Rogue Sox scandals—yes, listed in the order of true gravity—tangled in Game One? Knowing that no one will be comfortable with either one wholly, but the Astros especially, until the last Astrogater or the last of the Rogue Sox no longer wears either uniform?

The world didn’t implode. The flora didn’t wilt. The fauna didn’t commit mass suicide. The moon didn’t fall into the river. The sun didn’t awaken before its appointed time. The nations didn’t fall from the earth. The earth didn’t go flat.

Unless there comes fresh contravening evidence, the Astros and the Red Sox played it straight, no chaser, in a game that would have classified as a bit of a thriller had it not been for that still-lingering elephant. The one aboard which the Astros, like it or not, still look far, far worse than the Red Sox or their fellow unverified-but-certain replay room rogues do.

Max the Knife comes up aces

Max Scherzer

Dodger fans asked Max the Knife for something he’d never had in his career before Wednesday night—a curtain call.

Nothing could spoil Max Scherzer’s mound premiere in a Dodger uniform Wednesday night. And it wasn’t for lack of trying by the Astros. Not even for lack of trying by one particularly brain dead Dodger fan down the right field line.

The Astros made a grand enough effort after Scherzer left the game following seven stellar innings and ten strikeouts marred only by a solo home run and an RBI single. They had to settle for losing by two runs instead of five.

The Dodger bullpen made a grand enough effort, too, letting the Astros pry three runs out of them including a two-run homer in the top of the ninth off Kenley Jansen before he finally struck out the side to end the 7-5 Dodger win without any further self-immolation.

The aforesaid meathead in the stands did his best to contribute to a potential overthrow, too. With two out in the top of the eighth, struggling Cody Bellinger playing right field, and Carlos Correa at the plate against his old buddy Joe Kelly, Correa on 1-0 lifted a long foul down the line. Bellinger had a running bead on the ball and a certain side-retiring catch ready and waiting.

Until he didn’t.

Bellinger jumped just enough to make the catch. Except that the idiot in a Mookie Betts jersey with a glove on his left meathook reached up to snatch the ball right before it would have landed in Bellinger’s glove. Some of the fans surrounding the jerk congratulated him. Others surrounding him looked as though they wanted to brain him.

Technically, the jerk didn’t quite cross the line into obvious fan interference. But you’d think even the most profit-hungering souvenir hunter would be smart enough to back down when the right fielder has a chance to end an inning with a catch just above the edge of the fence padding.

Instead of side retired, Correa got extra life against Kelly. He swung and missed for strike two immediately after the stolen foul out, fouled another off, then turned on a hanging slider and sent it almost halfway up the left field bleachers for the third Astro run of the night.

Dodger Stadium security removed the miscreant after Correa finished his trip around the bases. A few of the fans in the same region let the security people know just how happy they weren’t over that removal. They’d better be grateful that this wasn’t another World Series game.

They’d also better be grateful that not even jerks being jerks could spoil Scherzer’s first outing as a Dodger.

The packed, roaring house just gave Scherzer even more incentive to go forth and do what he tends to do best, refusing to let even Michael Brantley’s one-out bomb in the top of the first, or Kyle Tucker singling Yordan Alvarez home with two outs in the fourth keep him from his appointed ten punchouts thanks to an effective curve ball setting up the fastest fastballs he’s thrown all season.

“You live for this,” Max the Knife said after the game. “You live to pitch in front of 50,000 people going nuts.”

They went nuts enough that still-ailing Clayton Kershaw, his fellow three-time Cy Young Award winner, nudged Scherzer back out of the dugout after his outing ended to take what he’d never taken in his entire career to that point—a curtain call.

“With everything on the line, the way the crowd was, that was a high-adrenaline start, coming here,” the righthander continued. “Try not to do too much. Just pitch my game, go out there and do what I can do, and just try to navigate the lineup. The offense tonight went off.”

“Went off” was a polite way to put it. The Astros barely had time to let their opening 1-0 advantage sink in when Betts turned on Jake Odorizzi’s slider and sent it over the center field fence to lead the bottom of the first off. A walk, a swinging strikeout, and a Jose Altuve throwing error later, Will Smith turned on Odorizzi’s fastball and drove it into the right field bleachers.

One inning and one out after that, Betts struck again, hitting a 3-1 heater into the left field bleachers. An inning, two outs, and a walk after that, A.J. Pollock hit one over the left field fence and Odorizzi must have thought by then that he could have pulled an automatic pistol out of his pocket, fired toward the plate, and still watched the bullet travel out of the yard off the end of a Dodger bat.

The Astro righthander blamed poor mechanics since the All-Star break, but with a 4.95 ERA and a 5.06 fielding-independent pitching rate on the season you could almost wonder whether the Astros threw him up as a sacrificial lamb Wednesday night.

“My fastball has been flat,” Odorizzi said after the game. He could have said “flat-tened” and it wouldn’t have made a difference. “There are a lot of things I am working on between outings, but then I am reverting back to bad form.”

The bad news for the Dodgers was that such reversion threatened to ruin Jansen and them in the top of the ninth. He surrendered a leadoff single to Aledmys Diaz before Tucker sent a hanging cutter into the right field bullpen. Then Jansen re-horsed to strike Robel Garcia, Jason Castro, and pinch-hitter Meyers out swinging.

Nothing, though, could diminish Scherzer’s impact. Especially with the Dodgers in straits desperate enough in the starting pitching department. Walker Buehler and Julio Arias have had to hold fort while Kershaw’s forarm inflammation hasn’t subsided yet, and it’s already kept the lefthander out since early July.

Tony Gonsolin’s shoulder is inflamed likewise. Still-ailing Kansas City import Danny Duffy isn’t likely to be ready before September. And the execrable Trevor Bauer remains on administrative leave while MLB and the Pasadena police continue investigating sexual assault accusations against him.

The Dodgers hogged the headlines on trade deadline day when they swept in and snatched Scherzer (plus star infielder Trea Turner) from the Nationals and right out from under their downstate rival Padres’s noses. Now Scherzer had to live up to the headlines—just the way he forced himself to live up to the biggest noise of 2019 and pitch on nothing but fumes and will to keep the World Series-winning Nats in Game Seven just long enough to give them a chance to win it in the first place.

Manager Dave Roberts almost wasn’t worried. Almost. Buehler and Urias must have felt as though thousand-pound iron blocks were removed from both their shoulders after Scherzer’s evening’s work finished.

“From the moment I got to the ballpark, we got to the ballpark, you could just see that elevation, anticipation from our guys,” Roberts said post-game. “The buzz in the crowd from the first pitch, him taking the mound, donning the [Dodgers’ home uniform] for the first time—he delivered. He delivered. Just the intensity. It was so much fun. And it was just really cool to see the crowd smell it and want him to finish that seventh inning.”

“I mean, it’s Max Scherzer,” the Mookie Monster said post-game. “I think that kind of speaks for itself.” (In case you were curious, Betts had one hit—a double—in six lifetime plate appearances against Scherzer before they became teammates.)

For Scherzer, coming off the only mid-season trade of his distinguished career, and to the team he’d helped beat in the 2019 National League Division Series, the hardest part’s over. For now. “I’m a Dodger,” Max the Knife said. “It feels a lot more normal when you just go out there and pitch and win. Winning kind of cures everything.”

It might even get him the final home address of his career. Might.

If he keeps pitching the way he did Wednesday night, even at age 37, and nobody including Scherzer shouldn’t be shocked if the Dodgers decide to make it worth his while and his bank account to keep him in the family. At least until his arm finally decides to resign its commission a couple of years from now. Maybe with a couple of more World Series triumphs to its credit before he’s done.

One shortstop, one swing, one win

Carlos Correa—no, he wasn’t conducting The Four Seasons, either.

Realistically, nobody thought the Tampa Bay Rays and the Houston Astros were going to play a short American League Championship Series. Not even when the Rays bedeviled and bedazzled their way to a 3-0 series lead.

But if the acrobatic and customarily timely Rays end up falling home for the winter, Carlos Correa may yet prove the one who drew up the tickets to be punched.

The Rays and did overcome their opener John Curtiss serving George Springer one pitch to drive off the third patio of the Western Metal Supply Co. building behind the left field fence. They had eight more innings to do it Thursday afternoon, and they did.

But can they overcome Nick Anderson serving Correa a 1-1 pitch to send over the center field fence with one out in the bottom of the ninth to win it for the Astros, 4-3? Depending on the answer, the Rays will find themselves either going to the World Series or going home with questions to haunt them all winter and maybe beyond.

Maybe that sounds too pessimistic for a team still holding a 3-2 ALCS lead. But remember the 2004 New York Yankees. They still led that ALCS 3-2, too, despite the Boston Red Sox’s throwing a sweep prospect out the window at the eleventh hour and being on the apparent march. We still know how that worked out for the Empire Emeritus.

We also know the Rays and the Astros tried to play each other’s best games Thursday. The Rays showed long ball power at the plate—and little else. The Astros played the Rays’ bullpen game—and neutralised the Rays when things called for their usual merry-go-round approach. They left just enough room for Correa to wreck the Rays’ arguable best reliever of the year.

It’s not that Anderson was gassed or prone to doing things he wasn’t supposed to do, or that manager Kevin Cash failed to read his man fully. This wasn’t Arizona Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly throwing an already-overworked Byung-Hyun Kim out for a third inning to be ruined on his sixtieth pitch of the niight by Derek Jeter’s fabled Mr. November blast.

The only thing Anderson did was throw Correa a nasty fastball tailing toward the outer part of the zone. But the only thing Correa did was exercise an adjustment he said postgame that he made in the clubhouse cage, with hitting coach Alex Cintron, earlier on the afternoon, then send that would-be tailer into postseason immortality when it looked to most as though Game Five headed to extra innings.

Correa saved his manager Dusty Baker from doing what he would have had to do but with as much enthusiasm as a mid-20th century child taking his castor oil for an illness. Having pushed just about every bullpen chip he had to the middle of the table, Baker would likely have had to reach for his intended Game Six starter, Framber Valdez. He could match the Rays bullpen for bullpen through nine. After nine, he’d have made a suicide bet.

With one swing Correa saved Valdez for his intended assignment and put himself and the Astros into the record book. Name one other postseason game in which the winning team homered on the first and the final pitch. You can send Magellan on an around-the-world sail and come up with only one. The one Correa won.

Name any other player in Show history to hit two postseason game-winning home runs without ever doing it in the regular season? Did you say Red Sox legend David Ortiz? Big Papi had eleven in regular-season play. Did you say Bernie Williams, the longtime Yankee center field stalwart? Williams did it three times in regular-season play. But if you said Carlos Correa, give yourself a pat on the back at least as hearty as the flip Correa gave his bat as he proceeded up the first base line to run it out.

Name any other shortstop in Show history to hit a game-winning bomb in a postseason elimination before Correa teed off. If you said nobody, make that pat on the back a big pounding slap. Jeter’s rip off Kim? Tied the 2001 World Series at two games each. Ozzie Smith’s gone-crazy-folks blast off Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Tom Niedenfuer, in Game Five of the 1985 National League Championship Series? All that did was put the St. Louis Cardinals ahead 3-2.

Once again, Correa swings alone.

“That’s as big a moment as I’ve ever been involved in,” Baker said after Thursday’s game.  “That’s one of the reasons I came back . . . That’s as sweet as it gets right there.” Baker should know. In a nineteen-season playing career and a 23-season managing career, Baker was never part of any postseason game that ended with a home run until now.

(Yes, folks. That was the same Tom Niedenfuer who’d get destroyed in Game Six in 1985, when Tommy Lasorda thought it was perfectly safe to let him pitch to Jack Clark with first base open and the Dodgers one out from going to the World Series, and Jack the Ripper thought it was even safer to hit a first-pitch three-run homer for which the Dodgers had no response in the bottom of that ninth.)

The magnitude of Correa’s blast is yet to find its full definition. That would require the Astros hanging in to win the ALCS. If they do, Hall of Fame writer Jayson Stark has news for you: they’d buy Correa membership in a very exclusive club of players whose postseason game-winners kept their eventual World Series-winning teams from going home for the winter if they’d lost the games won by their game-winners.

That club now is merely Bill Mazeroski (Game Seven, 1960 World Series), Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett (Game Six, 1991 World Series), Hall of Famer-in-waiting Ortiz (Game Four, 2004 ALCS), and David Freese (Game Six, 2011 World Series). Mazeroski’s, of course, won that World Series. Puckett, Ortiz, Freese, and now Correa bought their teams another day to play.

Correa didn’t point to the fences the way Babe Ruth remains alleged to have done in the 1932 World Series, but Baker swore after the game Correa told him before going out to the plate in the ninth that he was going to end the game right there. Correa swore he told Jose Altuve the same thing.

“Please Lord,’’ Baker did admit to praying, “let us walk it off.”

“I wanted to drive the ball,” Correa told reporters, “and I felt I could do it. So when I was walking on the field, I said, ‘I’m going to end it’.’’

Until or unless someone else spills and says the shortstop and the skipper were full of it, give them the benefit of that doubt. It’s maybe the first such benefit any Astro has earned this year. They brought enough of that lack of benefit upon themselves in the Astrogate aftermath. They should have considered themselves sadly fortunate the pandemic-mandated empty ballparks in which they played kept them from facing maybe the most hostile road crowds baseball’s seen this side of its classic blood rivalries.

It’s going to be tough enough for the Astros to finish what’s been done only once before, rise from the dead to win after being down 3-0 in a postseason set. Third baseman Alex Bregman illuminated that for his teammates, say a few published reports: he showed them a documentary of those 2004 Red Sox.

Those Red Sox did it to their historic rivals. These Astros aren’t trying to take it to, say, the Oakland Athletics or the Texas Rangers. OK, so there’s no blood feud involved. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, not one Astro has any particular animus against the Rays themselves. Just as happened in last year’s division series, the one the Rays almost swiped from the Astros, the Rays are just another obstacle on the Astros’ way back to the World Series. For now.

Are the Rays worried yet? Maybe they should be. Unless they can remember how to hit situationally and stop trying to get their Yankees on. Cash can say all he wants that he doesn’t think the Rays are getting home run happy, but all of a sudden the Rays are doing nearly all their scoring with the long ball.

That five-run fifth in Game Three was a usually-typical Rays uprising—single, force out, single, two-run single, sacrifice bunt, back-to-back hit batsmen the second of which forced in a run, two-run double. The only aberration was the bunt. The Rays didn’t sac bunt all year before then. (Neither did anyone else in this postseason.) Just like old Casey Stengel (and how today’s boring old-school farts forget!), the Rays don’t believe in surrendering outs normally.

Innings and rallies like that seem distant memories. And you can’t go to the World Series on any kind of memories.

They scored two of their three Game Four runs on a two-run homer. They scored all three of their Game Five runs with home runs. When first baseman Ji-Man Choi led off the top of the eighth pulling one into the right field seats off Astros reliever Josh James, it tied the score at three and had one and all thinking along with the Astros: “We have them right where they want us.”

Late innings. The Astros’ largely youthful bullpen spent for the day. The Rays’ other high-leverage bulls still lurking, with Baker in danger of having to burn Valdez and force himself into a Game Six alternative.

Then Correa shook away Bregman’s leadoff pop fly out to short right field, speared by Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe running toward the line from the infield shift/fourth-outfielder array. Correa took a ball one curve ball up and a little in, then swung and missed on an Anderson curve that dropped smack dab in the middle of the strike zone.

Then Anderson threw that fastball tailing away from the middle of the zone. It didn’t tail away quick enough to keep Correa from turning it into a satellite.

The Rays’ missing man refuses to surrender. Kevin Kiermaier hadn’t been seen since he was drilled on the wrist during that Game Three fifth-inning push, until he pinch-ran for Mike Zunino in the top of the ninth and stayed in the game for center field defense. His absence in Game Four and almost all Game Five probably hurt more than the Rays would ever admit.

“We like our chances,” Kiermaier said postgame. “We have a lot of confidence in our bunch that we’ll get the job done . . . We have to work at-bats, have solid approaches, move base to base like usual.”

They beat Valdez and company sort of that way in Game One, a solo homer, an RBI single, and their don’t-even-think-about-it bullpen. They’ll have to do it again in Game Six. Not even a lineup of nine Randy Arozarenas can hit home runs every time up.

Their best chance to hang in and win is playing Rayball and not letting the Astros even think about playing it. Thanks to Correa, the Astros now have other thoughts in mind.

California bombs, California rough stuff

The pandemic-mandated empty house aside, 5 October might as well be Alex Bregman Day . . .

Mr. October Fifth? What’s up with that?

It’s not Alex Bregman’s birthday. (For the record, that’s 30 March.) It’s not his engagement date. (He popped the question to a Colorado lady named Reagan Howard in January.) It’s not his future wedding date. There seems nothing significant elsewhere for him about that date.

Except when he plays postseason baseball. For a fourth consecutive 5 October Bregman found a pitch meaty enough to send long distance. Mark your 2021 calendar accordingly if you must.

He led off the top of the fourth against Oakland starter Chris Bassitt Monday afternoon, starting an American League division series, and sent a 1-2 service into the pandemically-required unoccupied left field bleachers.

It put his Houston Astros on the board after the Athletics helped themselves to a 3-0 lead on long balls themselves. It gave his infield teammate Carlos Correa thoughts about not wanting to be left out of the action after Kyle Tucker followed with a single through the left side of the infield, Correa hitting a 2-0 pitch over the center field fence.

And—with no small assistance from Oakland’s normally vacuum-handed shortstop Marcus Semien’s boot on Josh Reddick’s two-out grounder in the top of the sixth—the Astros seized the chance at new life, not letting something like a subsequent 5-3 deficit spoil the day, and finished with a 10-5 Game One win.

It almost figured.

There are far worse talismans to attach to a team than 10-5. Especially to a team who got into this convoluted postseason with a losing record and who spent 2018 and 2019 doing not even once what they did Monday—come back from a pair of multi-run deficits.

Especially when several signature Astro bats returned to life at last. Let’s see. George Springer going 4-for-5 after an irregular season in which he had no four-hit games. Correa dialing nine twice and sending four runs home, after an irregular season in which he didn’t send four home or homer twice. The quartet of Bregman, Correa, Springer, and Jose Altuve each driving in at least one run in the same game after not having done that together even once on the irregular season.

And, thanks to the bubble concept putting postseason teams from the division series forward into neutral parks, the Astros’ three postseason wins have now happened in ballparks not their own.

The third, of course, happened in . . . Dodger Stadium. The home of a team with whom they have, ahem, some recent history. The division series home for Games One, Two, and (if necessary) Five of an A’s team that includes the former Astro who blew the whistle on Astrogate at last, last November, after those too well aware of their illegal, off-field-base, altered or extra camera transmitting sign stealing schemes couldn’t convince anyone else to expose it.

“As the game got deeper, the at-bats got better,” said Springer of the Astros’ Monday breakout. “They played the later innings better than we did. We just didn’t have the at-bats we typically do at the end of the game,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin.

How much of a pitcher’s park is Dodger Stadium still, even if it’s not quite the equal of its first two decades? In 91 previous postseason games played there, not once were six home runs hit there. Bregman’s one and Correa’s two were joined by Oakland’s Khris Davis, Sean Murphy, and Matt Olson.

“I’ve never seen the ball carry like that here,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker, who played eight seasons for the Dodgers from the 1970s to the 1980s.

Bregman’s 5 October long-distance mastery has also broken the three-straight-same-date postseason strings of Hall of Famer-to-be Albert Pujols (17 October 2004-05-06) and Francisco Lindor (6 October 2016-17-18). But he’ll have to wait ’till next year for a shot at equaling the five-streaks of Pujols (five straight 30 Mays) and Ryan Braun (five straight 24 Julys) among still-active players.

What’s the regular-season record? Seven. Who holds it? Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig (8 June 1932-38) and former Astros mainstay Lance Berkman. (21 September 2001-07.)

Then the doings down the freeway in San Diego, in Petco Park, had to go steal the show. The Padres had nothing to do with it. The New York Yankees did. Their winning score against the AL East champion Tampa Bay Rays was a measly 9-3, but oh what a show the Yankees made of it.

Somehow, some way, the Yankees find ways to make history just when you think there isn’t a single piece of history left for that franchise to make. It only began with this: Not since 1956 (when Moose Skowron and Hall of Famer Yogi Berra did it in that World Series) had the Yankees hit two grand slams in a postseason at all—but Monday night they sliced salami for a second straight postseason game. No other American League team has ever done that.

Score nine or more runs in three straight postseason-opening games? Nobody did that before the Yankees did it this year. Score 31 runs in its first three postseason games? Nobody did that, either, until this year’s Yankees delivered.

So who the hell needed Gerritt Cole pitching six, striking out eight, and not letting a measly three runs shake him out of his skin before turning things over to Chad Green, Zack Britton, and Luis Cessa?

. . . but John Curtiss knocking down Gio Urshela (29) and Gleyber Torres after his salami was sliced was an uncalled-for and terrible look.

Luis who?

Simple: with a 9-3 lead, Yankee skipper Aaron Boone—with the spectre of no division series days off looming—wasn’t going to burn Aroldis Chapman unless the Rays got ornery in the ninth, which they didn’t. And Cessa got rid of the Rays with no interruption but a mere two-out walk.

Monday’s delicatessen slicer was Giancarlo Stanton in the top of the ninth against Rays reliever John Curtiss. It wasn’t as if Stanton was unfamiliar with Petco Park—he won the Home Run Derby there four years ago. Batting now on 2-2, Stanton caught hold of Curtiss’s slider just off the middle of the plate, and drove it just beyond Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier’s glove-extended leap and over the center field fence.

Then Curtiss just had to make the Rays look even worse, didn’t he? The next batter was Yankee, third baseman Gio Urshela—whose second-inning defense would have made ancient Yankees Clete Boyer and Graig Nettles plus Hall of Fame Oriole Brooks Robinson proud, with his leaping stab to pick Manuel Margot’s high hopper and throw him out, then his rolling seat-of-the-pants throw to nail Joey Wendle off a hard smash into the hole.

Curtiss sent Urshela sprawling on an up and in 0-1 pitch, with Urshela finally wrestling his way to popping out to the infield. Then Yankee shortstop Gleyber Torres checked in at the plate. Curtiss waited until 2-2 before playing Torres a little chin music. No wonder Torres couldn’t resist stealing second while Brett Gardner batted next.

Oops. Apparently, an awful lot of people called Torres out for the ninth-inning theft. “I don’t like seeing disrespectful things in the game,” crowed Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez on a TBS postgame show. Forget that the Yankees went 2-8 against the Rays on the irregular season and might be thinking that, no matter the score or the inning, every run counts.

Martinez might be the wrong man to ask, of course, but if you don’t like Torres stealing second with his team up by six in the ninth, did you like Curtiss making the usually likeable Rays—those unknown soldiers, who can normally beat you with the same aplomb as the big boys with the big names and the bigger paychecks—resemble unsportsmanlike sore losers?

Curtiss also made the Yankees look the way the beasts of the Bronx rarely look—sympathetic. And that’s over a month after Chapman nearly decapitated Michael Brousseau with a 101 mph fastball. But that was then, and Chapman’s been a little wild most of his career, anyway. He doesn’t have quite the control required to plan an execution. Not even with the Rays pitching inside tight to a few too many Yankees on the season before that head scratcher.

You’re embarrassed when a guy slices salami on your dollar? You man up, tip your hat, shake it off, and get the next guy out. You don’t knock that next guy and the guy following him down, off, back, or through just because your ego was sent into half orbit, with or without the bases loaded. (It would also help if you don’t surrender a leadoff single, a walk, a one-out RBI single, and a bases-loading walk to set it up, too.)

Things were notoriously tense enough between the Yankees and the Rays on the irregular season. Then, both sides tried to indicate going in that they were going to do their level best to play nice and no rough stuff. Then Curtiss had to deliver a little un-called for rough stuff anyway. No more Mr. Nice Guys?

Don’t be terribly shocked if Monday’s proceedings make Yankee rooters out of even those to whom rooting for the Yankees otherwise flouts family tradition. For this postseason, anyway, depending on whether the Rays behave reasonably from here on out.