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.

Here’s what enough are gonna say now, Astros

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astrogate messages at last?

2020-07-28 JoeKellyCarlosCorrea

Joe Kelly (left) jawing with Carlos Correa, whom he brushed back twice in the same plate appearance Tuesday night. Should the Astros be shocked that somebody sent them post-Astrogate messages at last?

It’s not that you didn’t expect it to happen, but no matter how you feel about the Houston Astros and their extralegal electronic cheating you merely hoped it might not happen. Even if Tuesday night was the first time the Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers met since that now-tainted 2017 World Series.

They weren’t expected to meet again unless they might tangle in another World Series. Then, the coronavirus world tour happened. When the Show returned at last, the pandemic and its mandate for extraordinary health and safety protocols prompted its governors to sketch regional scheduling featuring the Dodgers and the Astros in Houston this week, in Los Angeles come September.

You might think things are tough enough playing coronaball (reference, especially, the afflicted and drydocked-for-now Miami Marlnis) without the Dodgers having to face the team now believed to have cheated their way to that World Series title.

You might think things were tough enough without other Astro opponents still thinking in the backs of their minds that the Astros need to be taught a few little lessons in manners and in accepting responsibility in the sometimes-forgotten Astrogate wake.

You might have thought so until Joe Kelly relieved fellow Dodger reliever Brustar Graterol for the bottom of the sixth in Minute Maid Park Tuesday night.

With one out, Kelly had Houston third baseman Alex Bregman 3-0 when he decided ball four should be a fastball sailing up and past Bregman’s shoulders. The next batter, outfielder Michael Brantley, forced Bregman at second on a ground ball but made a point of stepping on Kelly’s foot as the pitcher covered first base on the play.

Kelly lingered just a little bit near the base after Brantley’s step-on and a voice was heard in the empty ballpark. It may or may not have been Astros manager Dusty Baker, but it hollered, “Get back on the mound, [maternal fornicator].” Kelly did return and go back to work.

Known to be erratic at times, and un-allergic to brushback pitches when he thinks they’re mandated, Kelly walked Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel on four straight pitches, then opened to Astros shortstop Carlos Correa with a breaking ball behind Correa’s head and all the way to the backstop.

Officially, of course, it was ruled a wild pitch. Unofficially, even the cardboard cutouts in the otherwise empty stands knew good and bloody well that Kelly wanted to remind the Astros once again that it wasn’t nice to set up a furtive closed-circuit, off-field-based television network for stealing opposing pitch signs and think they could get away with it.

Commissioner Rob Manfred helped them think they could get away with it. Foolishly or otherwise, Manfred handed all Astro players immunity from discipline in return for spilling about the Astro Intelligence Agency after former Astro/current Oakland Athletics pitcher Mike Fiers finally blew the whistle on the AIA to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich last November.

The AIA cost three managers (the Astros’ A.J. Hinch and two 2017 Astros-turned managers, Alex Cora in Boston, Carlos Beltran in New York, before he had a chance to manager even one Mets game) and one general manager (the Astros’ Jeff Luhnow) their jobs. (Any thought of Hinch possibly returning for 2021 was vapourised when the Astros exercised Baker’s 2021 club option.)

Astros owner Jim Crane was asked for no accountability beyond being fined for what amounts to maybe a year’s worth of tip money for him. Called upon to stand when spring training opened, Crane and assorted Astros players weren’t exactly apologetic for the AIA’s operations. Numerous opposing players fumed that, one way or the other, they’d find ways to administer justice, and no official edict was going to stop them.

2020-07-29 AlexBregman

“That’s dirty baseball,” Astros manager Dusty Baker fumed over this pitch to Alex Bregman from Joe Kelly. Would Baker call the Astros’ electronic sign-stealing  good clean baseball?

After Kelly struck Correa out swinging for the side, with a couple of more inside pitches in the mix, Correa was distinctly and, apparently, vocally unamused as Kelly walked off the mound and crossed the third base line to his dugout. Prompting Kelly to shoot a couple of mock crybaby faces and choice words Correa’s way.

That may have been the specific flash point under which both benches emptied and milled around the plate area. They forgot some of the social distance protocols, meaning a fine or three might be forthcoming. The dispute was bark, no bite, unless the Astros and the Dodgers were willing to dissipate the tension with some six-feet-apart pantomime boxing, but neither side was in the mood for comedy.

Baker was quoted by USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale thus: “What really enraged everybody was what he told Carlos when he struck him out, ‘Nice swing bitch!”’ Not nice. Send the message, sure. Taunt them no matter what they did or didn’t jaw your way, not so fast. Naturally, one of the Twitterpated couldn’t resist defending Kelly’s taunts thus: “Should have said something along the lines of ‘hard to hit when you don’t know what’s coming’.”

The warnings were handed to both sides after the second Correa duster. Perhaps naturally, Kelly said of the Bregman shoulder kisser, post-game, “It was a ball, obviously. It wasn’t my best pitch. Ball four, I walked him, never good to put a guy on when you’re leading the game.”

Of the breakers bending Correa, he said, “I guess he didn’t take too kind to a curve ball [inside]. It is what it is. I finally made one good pitch for the punchout . . . I pitch competitively, but with the no fans here it’s easy to hear some stuff.”

You stick to that story, son.

Some observers seemed to think, too, that the Astros were more infuriated by the buzzer  off Bregman’s shoulders than the two breakers dusting the otherwise non-entertained Correa. For his own part, Bregman merely shrugged it off when Kelly’s heat ricocheted off his shoulders and took his base. Almost as if he was well enough prepared for the incoming messages Tuesday and yet to come.

“The history obviously is out there,” said outfielder Joc Pederson before the series began. “Everybody knows what’s at stake and what happened. For being no fans, maybe sometimes the energy could be lacking a little bit. I don’t think that will be the case for this series.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean Pederson urged or condoned any message from any Dodger pitcher to any Astro hitter. Nor does it mean the Astros went into the game expecting nothing more than balls, strikes, hits, and outs, considering the jawing between the two teams before spring training was cut off at the coronavirus pass.

Recall: Dodger center fielder Cody Bellinger saying the Astros cheated for longer than affirmed and that their second baseman Jose Altuve stole the 2017 American League Most Valuable Player award from New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge. Recall, too: Correa rejoining that Bellinger thus spoke recklessly.

Just don’t kid yourselves that the Astros forgot for even a moment that a brushback or a knockdown was liable to come from any arm, at any time, in any game, no matter how much it seemed the pandemic pushed the long toxins of Astrogate to one side.

Until Tuesday night, only Gurriel and Correa were hit by pitches, both in the second game of the truncated season, at home against the Seattle Mariners. Until Kelly decided to lay down the law, however, all anyone thinking clearly probably thought was that the Astros were so thoroughly roasted in the immediate public Astrogate wake that throwing brushback or knockdown pitches would be as foolish as it would be unnecessary.

Like the Rogue Sox and their 2018 Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring, the Astro Intelligence Agency wear the stain of their extralegal cheating all season long, however long the season, whenever the season began. There but for the lack of grace of the coronavirus would fans and commentators alike remind both teams, good and strong, that crossing the proper gamesmanship line is filthy pool.

Only three Rogue Sox have been plunked on the truncated season thus far. But don’t fool yourself that they’re immune to thoughts that a little extra payback might be coming, too. It may not be quite as pronounced as any the Asterisks face, since they merely used what was available, predicated it with a man on base to transmit the pilfered intelligence, and didn’t install an illegal camera to begin their dirty work.

Baker himself seemed more enraged at the Kelly bullet that almost grazed the back of Bregman’s shoulders. “You don’t throw at a guy’s head,” the manager said. “That’s playing dirty baseball.” Baker’s in the unenviable position of having to help his team past the  Astrogate mess he wasn’t part or parcel of, but what would he call the AIA—good clean baseball?

Kelly wasn’t a Dodger when the AIA’s espionage operated. But he was one of the 2017 Red Sox downed by the Astros in the American League division series and the 2018 Red Sox who beat the Astros in that ALCS. You bear in mind that neither Astro nor Red Sox pitchers were co-operators of those teams’ Spy vs. Spy operations.

Kelly was also the hapless Dodger who served the pitch Washington Nationals second baseman Howie Kendrick destroyed for a tie-breaking, Dodger-burying, National League division series-winning grand slam in the Game Five top of the tenth. The last thing he needed even in abbreviated spring training was his Dodgers and the Astros getting into an Astrogate-inspired jawing contest.

Otherwise, Kelly was a pitcher in need of some kind of redemption, any kind of redemption in the eyes of Dodger fans in Los Angeles and elsewhere. The taunts were more than a little out of line. Perhaps Kelly didn’t need to send more than one brushback Correa’s way, but those weren’t half as juvenile. Well, boys will be boys, even in a time of pandemic.

Still, somewhere in that fan base they’ll remember the Dodgers beat the Astros, 5-2, to open this series, but it’ll be a by-the-way remembrance. One that has to be rushed into the conversations, swiftly, amidst the hot take that Kelly made himself something nobody in Los Angeles thought he’d become to Dodger fans after last October. A hero.

The Washington bury-go-round

World Series - Houston Astros v Washington Nationals - Game Five

In his potentially final appearance as an Astro, Gerrit Cole pitched a Game Five masterpiece.

Hours before Game Five, the World Series weight on Nationals manager Dave Martinez’s shoulders went from that of the world to that of the universe. Scheduled starting pitcher Max Scherzer’s Saturday night neck spasms turned into a Sunday wakeup with his neck locked so tight he couldn’t lift his right arm and needed his wife’s help just to wash and dress.

Putting the Game Five fate of the Nats into the hands of Joe Ross. Who pitched a gutsy turn ruined only by a pair of two-run homers en route a 7-1 Astro win. On yet a third straight night in Washington that suggested the Nats left their offense behind in Houston after Games One and Two.

Hadn’t they manhandled Gerrit Cole in Game One? Hadn’t they out-scored the Astros 17-7 in Houston? That was then, this was Sunday night, and the Nats’ futility at the plate since the Series moved to Washington remained chronic enough to consider fitting them with GPSs to find their directions home when they did get men on in Game Five.

Now three games worth of the Astros outscoring the Nats 19-3 in Nationals Park suggests this World Series still has a chance of being only the second Series ever in which no home team wins a single game. Maybe an outside chance, but a chance nevertheless.

Ross brought the house down just walking out of the dugout for a pre-game round of stretches and limberings-up in the outfield. He sent it nuclear when he shook off George Springer’s leadoff walk to lure Jose Altuve into dialing Area Code 6-4-3 in the top of the first.

But after Yuli Gurriel bounced one high off Ross’s own glove for an infield hit leading off the second, Ross couldn’t stop Yordan Alvarez—getting his first start in the Washington leg after sitting two out due to the lack of designated hitter in the National League park—from hitting a 2-1 pitch almost into the middle of the left center field seats.

It was something Alvarez only waited for all Series long. “All my teammates were saying: ‘Today’s your day. Today’s your day’, ” he told reporters after Game Five. “And it happened.” Nobody ever accused his teammates of being dummies.

And in the fourth, with Alvarez aboard on a two-out single, home plate umpire Lance Barksdale called ball on what should have been strike three, outside corner, side retired with Carlos Correa at the plate. Two fouls and a wild pitch later, Correa hammered one into the left field seats.

Barksdale has a reputation as one of the better plate umpires in the business, but on Sunday night he called enough balls strikes and enough strikes balls against both the Nats and the Astros that calls began ringing out of the park and aboard Twitter for everything short of a federal investigation.

Postgame, the calls began ringing forth all over the Web to get the robots perfected, calibrated, and into service as soon as feasible. Who knows whether the Astros will get jobbed on critical calls in Houston? Who wants to take that chance too much longer?

“Just because the game itself is full of errors shouldn’t give leeway to its arbiters to be judged by that standard,” writes ESPN’s Jeff Passan. “Baseball is an extraordinarily fast game—so fast that umpires should have assistance. Technology has made their jobs even more difficult, exposing them when they miss a call and airing their conversations about those missed calls. Automated balls and strikes are their savior, not their enemy.”

With Donald Trump himself in the ballpark watching the game, it was tough to miss the irony when fans began chanting, “Lock him up! Lock him up!” in the bottom of the seventh. Not at President Tweety but at Barksdale.

Juan Soto, the Nats’ young star who’d found the home leg of the Series as trying as he’d found Game One a personal party in Houston, caught hold of enough of a 2-2 Cole service with one out to launch it just past a leaping Jake Marisnick’s reach and over the center field fence in the bottom of the seventh. A ground out later, Ryan Zimmerman worked a walk on a ball four that looked like it should have been an inning-ending strike.

Up stepped Victor Robles, heretofore one of the Nats most prominently seen in Washington with an invisible bat. In a Series full of full counts as it was, Cole and Robles wrestled to yet another full count with Anthony Rendon on deck. Then Cole threw Robles a nasty looking slider. The ball clearly crossed out of the zone off the low outside corner. Barksdale decided ball four was strike three, side retired.

If you were watching the game on television you could hear an extremely audible, “Come on, Lance! It’s the World Series! Wake up!” That was a miked Martinez. Even Astro fans in the stands—and there were many, including one wearing a Nolan Ryan jersey from his tour with the 1980s Astros, when their jerseys looked like striped orange-shaded pajama tops more than baseball uniforms—joined the calls to lock him up.

There wasn’t a Nat in the house who’d accuse Barksdale of costing them Game Five; Cole especially, but with just a little help from his friends Joe Smith and Ryan Pressley in the final two innings, did a splendid enough job of that. The third highest-scoring team in the Show on the regular season looked so lost at the plate in Game Five, with or without men on, that the GPS couldn’t help.

“Lance didn’t lose us the game tonight,” Zimmerman said. “Gerrit Cole beat us.”

The Nats’ bullpen did a splendid job of holding the fort after Martinez decided Ross had had it for the night. In a slightly surprising move, after Tanner Rainey all but zipped through the sixth with three fly outs, Martinez reached for Sean Doolittle, one of his only two reliable back-of-the-game men, for the seventh. And Doolittle coaxed Correa into dialing Area Code 5-4-3 after a leadoff single before shaking off a walk to get the side without damage.

Then Martinez decided Daniel Hudson was good to go for a second inning’s work after Springer’s leadoff double led to taking third on a ground out, an intentional walk to Michael Brantley, and Gurriel punching him home with a single through the right side of the infield. Despite having Wander Suero warm and ready.

A four-run deficit is still manageable after seven and a half. Except that the Nats once again couldn’t do anything with a man on base, this time Yan Gomes leading the bottom of the eighth off with a single. But it’s still manageable in the ninth. Until Martinez sent Hudson back out for the top of that inning.

And after a one-out single and a swinging strikeout, Hudson threw Springer a fastball with plenty of speed but no movement down the middle of the plate. Springer practically had no choice but to send it into the left field seats. Leaving even gimpy-kneed Astro reliever Ryan Pressly to put the Nats out of their miseries in order in the bottom of the ninth.

Forget the home run for a moment. The Nats would surely need Hudson in Games Six and (if the Series gets there) Seven. Suero took over after Springer’s launch and coaxed Altuve into an inning-ending lineout on a measly two pitches. They’d better hope they find their bats in Houston and make Hudson unneeded too soon in Game Six even with Monday’s travel day.

For Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who’s one of the more thoughtful men in his job today, it was simply a question of keeping his and his players’ wits about them no matter how badly they’d been bopped until they dropped in Houston last week.

“We feel like we’re in every game,” Hinch said. “We’ve had games where we’ve come from behind. We’ve had games where we’ve stretched the lead. We’ve had games like today where we just methodically kept going with big swings and we look up and we have a comfortable win.

“We took a pretty heavy punch in the gut when it came to the first two games,” he continued. “The Nats came out hot . . . And when you take a step back, and you’re like, ‘We’re still in the World Series and it’s still a race to four wins.’ You win that first win.” And the second. And the third.

It’s even easier when you have an Altuve hitting .360 in the Series and still threatening to break Darin Erstad’s record for hits in a single postseason. And, when you have Brantley hitting .400. And, when you have super-rook Alvarez and cagey veteran Springer re-discovering their previously missing batting strokes.

And, when you have a Cole—in what was his final performance as an Astro, potentially—who tightens up his case for the largest free-agency contract for a pitcher in the game’s history yet with a masterpiece of a Sunday night soiree.

But it still ain’t that easy, Clyde. “When we won in 2017, and then didn’t win last year, you remember how it feels,” Springer told The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark. “You remember the goodness that comes. The fun. The honor. To celebrate with your teammates and your friends and all that stuff. Once you get a taste of that, you never want it to go away.”

The Astros yanked themselves back to within a game of their second such taste in three years on Sunday night. And there went Martinez’s likely pre-Game Five hope that Ross and/or someone else could or would prove as surprise a World Series hero as had such previous until-then obscurities as Howard Ehmke (1929), Johnny Podres (1955), Don Larsen (1956), and Moe Drabowsky (1966).

No Series record-setting strikeout performance for Ross, as the end-of-the-line Ehmke did in Game One of the 1929 Series for the Philadelphia Athletics. No shutout heroics, as Podres, the number four man in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ rotation, did in Game Seven of the 1955 Series. Don’t even think about a perfect game such as Larsen delivered for the Yankees in Game Five, 1956.

And don’t even think about a Nat reliever, any Nat reliever, delivering what Drabowsky—until that point a veteran relief rat and superior prankster—delivered for the Orioles in relief of Dave McNally: eleven strikeouts, including striking out the side back-to-back in the fourth and fifth innings, in Game One, 1966.

Martinez wasn’t destined to be that fortunate. But now a World Series that went into Game Five at Defcon Three, before Scherzer’s literal pain in the neck bumped it up to Defcon Two-Five, goes to Houston with the Nats at straight Defcon Two. Even with Strasburg, taking a lifetime 1.34 postseason ERA into Game Six, starting the first of two potential elimination games.

As always, history doesn’t always favour one or the other going to Game Six. Ten teams have lost the first two World Series games before winning the next three, and three—the Cardinals (1987), the Braves (1991), and the Yankees (2001)—lost those Series, anyway. The Cardinals’ loss remains unique in World Series lore: every game won by the home team.

But so far so does this Series: it’s only the third time the road team has won the first five games. It last happened in the 1996 Series that the Yankees eventually won in Game Six, when the set moved back to New York. Now, for the fun part, or at least the part the Nats hope to make fun: they’d like to be the first to win a World Series entirely on the road.

The real road. The 1906 Series between the 116 game-winning Cubs and the “Hitless Wonders” White Sox was not only one of the greatest Series upsets of all time, the White Sox winning in six, but almost every game in that Series was won by the visiting team. (The White Sox won Game Six at home.) But let’s be real: it’s not as though the White Sox had to jump anything traveling farther than a crosstown trolley car to get from one ballpark to the other.

So if the Nats find a way to pillage and plunder the Astros in Games Six and Seven the way they did in Games One and Two, they’ll become the first team ever to win a World Series entirely on the bona fide road, with miles and miles between Nationals Park and Minute Maid Field. It ain’t just a trolley hop, kiddies.

But if Strasburg proves too human and the Nats don’t find the bats they left behind on Tuesday night, forget the trolley hop. They’ll go home for the winter in hearses.