So much for a young man’s game

2019-10-08 ZimmermanScherzer

Ryan Zimmerman (left) and Max Scherzer looked older at a postgame presser than they looked playing Game Five of the Nats’ division series against the Dodgers Monday night.

Once upon a time, a generation insisted you couldn’t trust anyone over thirty. Even that was pushing it; to hear some of them talk (I know, because it was my generation, even if the words never quite came out of my own mouth) you’d have thought trusting anyone over 25 was begging for trouble.

At times in recent years it’s seemed as though baseball’s unspoken but unbreakable mottos include not trusting anyone over thirty. Well, now. If thirty is baseball’s new forty, then baseball’s geriatric generation’s been doing a lot of heavy lifting this postseason and beyond. Without walkers, wheelchairs, canes, or portable respirators, even.

It’s hard to believe because it seems like yesterday, sometimes, that he was a hot draft, but Stephen Strasburg—in the Nationals’ original starters-as-relievers postseason scheme—got credit for the win in the National League wild card game with three spotless relief innings. At the ripe old age of 31.

Strasburg also pitched six with a single earned run against him in division series Game One against the Dodgers and takes a lifetime 0.94 postseason ERA into his Game Five start in Dodger Stadium Wednesday. The Nats aren’t exactly a mostly-young team but they’re putting their fate into thirtysomething hands.

That may be the problem. Even with the professiorial beard he wears now, Strasburg doesn’t look his age yet. He still looks like a lad on the threshold of sitting for his final exams in freshman year. He isn’t even close to being as grizzled as Max Scherzer. Few among even his fellow old Nats do.

If you believe in respecting your elders (never mind how often your elders have betrayed your respect, as often they have), things get better from there. Consider, if you will:

* Two 35-year-old Nats, Max Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman, delivered the primary goods Monday night to push the Nats-Dodgers division series to a fifth game Wednesday. Max the Knife shook off a first-inning solo homer to go six and two-thirds scoreless including a crazy escape from a seventh-inning, ducks-on-the-pond jam, and Zimmerman jolted Nationals Park with a three-run homer into the crosswinds in the bottom of the fifth.

In those hours both Scherzer and Zimmerman looked as though they’d done it for the first time in their lives. Maybe there is such a thing as baseball’s fountain of youth.

* An ancient Cardinals catcher, Yadier Molina, tied Game Four of their division series with the Braves with an eighth-inning RBI single, then won the game with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the tenth. And, a followup bat flip the young’uns should envy.

* Another Cardinal ancient, Adam Wainwright, pitched maybe the best exhibition of pressure baseball of his life in Game Three. It went for nothing, unfortunately, since Wainwright left the game with the Cardinals behind 1-0. But Wainwright will tell his eventual grandchildren about the noisy standing O Grandpa got as he tipped his hat to the Busch Stadium faithful.

* On the other hand, if it took a young Braves whippersnapper (Dansby Swanson) to tie the game in the ninth, it took an old fart of 31 (Adam Duvall) to pinch hit immediately after and drive home what proved the winning runs with a single up the pipe. And I didn’t notice Duvall carrying a portable oxygen tank with him.

* “We got Verlandered,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said memorably after Pops Verlander, all 36 years old of him, threw seven shutout innings their way in Game One of their division series. And if you think 29 might as well be 30 and therefore on the threshold of dismissability, be reminded the Rays got Coled the following day. As in, Gerrit Cole’s seven and two-thirds, fifteen-strikeouts shutout innings.

* Abuelo Edwin Encarnacion, like Verlander an ancient 36, tied Game One between the Yankees and the Twins with an RBI double in the bottom of the first. A 30-year-old fart named D.J. LaMahieu put the Yankees up by a pair with a bottom-of-the-sixth home run; a 35-year-old creaker named Brett Gardner hit one out one out later, and the Yankees routed the Twins in Game One and the division series sweep.

Lest you think the postseason’s been the sole triumphant province of the senior citizenry, be reminded sadly that Nelson Cruz—all 39 years old of him, who had the regular season of a player young enough to be his grandson (41 home runs, 290 total bases, 1.031 OPS, 4.3 wins above a replacement-level player), and who hit one out to make a short-lived 2-0 Twins lead in Game One—ended Game Three on the wrong side when he looked at a third strike from all 31 years old worth of Yankee closer Aroldis Chapman.

Just as there’s a rule in sports that somebody has to lose, there’s a parallel rule that says sometimes one old man has to beat another old man to win.

A prehistoric Ray, Charlie Morton, took 35 years to the mound on Monday and threw five innings of one-run, three-hit, nine-strikeout baseball at his former Astros mates to keep the Rays alive, barely. And the Rays abused likewise 35-year-old Zack Greinke—who’d pitched like anything except a nursing home denizen since joining the Astros at the new single-season trade deadline—for six runs including three home runs in three and two-thirds innings’ work.

The Yankees only looked like old men when it seemed you couldn’t visit one New York-area hospital this season without finding a group of Yankees among the emergency room patients. The Astros only looked like old men likewise regarding Houston-area clinics this year. Except to their opponents, it’s funny how they don’t look like old men when they play baseball.

Pops Verlander’s getting another crack at the Rays in Game Four. Strasburg the Elder has to tangle with a whippersnapper named Walker Buehler in Game Five. The eyes of us seniors will be upon them.

Unfortunately, there are those elders who behave occasionally like the ancient Alice Cooper lyric: “I’ve got a baby’s brain/and an old man’s heart.” Molina did after he sent the Cardinals toward Game Five. Hands around his throat in a choke gesture aimed at the Braves. In a series pitting two of baseball’s more notorious Fun Police departments, that puts a new twist on police brutality and underscores why respecting your elders isĀ  easier said than done often enough.

Mortoned and mashed

2019-10-07 KevinKiermaier

Kevin Kiermaier trots home after his three-run homer in the second opened the can against Zack Greinke and the Astros Monday afternoon.

There’s only one problem with having three stud starting pitchers. You might have one of them going for you on too much rest. And just as too little rest is hazardous to a pitcher’s health, too much rest can get him killed to death, too. In Tropicana Field or elsewhere.

Just ask Zack Greinke, stud starter number three for the Astros. Who hadn’t pitched since 25 September. And, who got killed to death in American League division series Game Three Monday by a Rays team looking to keep their season alive in the first place.

After getting Verlandered in Game One and Coled in Game Two, the Rays flipped the script. They didn’t just Morton the Astros in Game Three, they bludgeoned Greinke for five runs before Greinke could get out of the fourth inning alive.

Charlie Morton, who was key enough to the Astros’ World Series triumph two years ago, had just enough to keep the Astros to Jose Altuve’s one-out, first-inning solo launch over the center field wall. And Greinke had little enough to resist early and often firepower, opening the gates to a 10-3 beating.

Remember with apologies to John Lennon: Baseball’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans. Put it in the bank—the Astros didn’t plan for a fourth division series game or anything else that didn’t involve opening an American League Championship Series with Justin Verlander on the mound against whomever. (Likely the Yankees at this writing, unless the Twins awaken somehow in their Game Three.)

Thanks to the Rays abusing Greinke and about half the Astro bullpen, A.J. Hinch had a decision to make, because Game Three exposed the Astros’ one wounding flaw: they, too, have a bullpen described most politely as questionable. And they’re up against baseball’s arguable best bullpen of the year.

It probably took Hinch all of about five seconds to decide. He wants the Rays to get Verlandered again in Game Four. On short rest, which fazes Verlander about as much as the sunrise fazes a rooster. On three days’ rest, which he’s done only once before in his major league life and almost a decade ago at that.

That may or may not prove a break for the Rays whose bats finally arose from the dead in Game Three. And the resurrection only began when a shaky second inning for Greinke climaxed after two hard earned outs sandwiching Avisail Garcia’s single up the pipe, when Greinke plunked Travis d’Arnaud and Kevin Kiermaier almost promptly hit one high over the left field wall

Just when Greinke looked briefly as though he’d find some reserves by bagging Austin Meadows and Tommy Pham on back-to-back swinging strikeouts in the bottom of the third, Ji-Man Choi, the Rays’ hefty and popular first baseman, unloaded on 2-2 and drove one over the right field wall.

And then the Rays really got rude after Morton—who’d been so important to the Astros’ 2017 World Series triumph, especially his Game Seven finish—shook off Altuve’s leadoff double to get an infield ground out and back-to-back strikeouts (Alex Bregman swinging, Yordan Alvarez looking) in the top of the fourth.

Brandon Lowe, the Rays’ second baseman, hit Greinke’s first service of the bottom of the fourth over the left center field wall. A line out, a strikeout, and a walk to Rays shortstop Willy Adames later, Greinke’s afternoon ended almost mercifully and Hector Rondon entered in time for Matt Duffy—who’d taken over at third in the third after Yandy Diaz experienced a sore foot—to single up the middle and send Rondon out in favour of Wade Miley.

Then Meadows sent one over Astros center fielder George Springer’s head and off the wall to send Adames and Duffy home And Pham slashed the next pitch into right for a base hit sending Meadows home. And after Choi walked but Garcia forced him at second for the side, there the Rays stood with an 8-1 lead after four.

The Astros managed two off Rays reliever Chad Roe in the top of the sixth when Bregman singled, Alvarez doubled, and Yuli Gurriel sent them both home with a turf-hop single up the pipe. But Carlos Correa lined out softly to second base and, after Brandon McKay relieved Roe, Aledmys Diaz pinch hitting for Josh Reddick flied out to right.

At the rate things were going by now it seemed almost natural for Adames to drive a 2-2 pitch over the left center field wall to make it 9-3, Rays in the bottom of the sixth. Or, for Choi to reach on an unlikely high throwing error from Bregman at third, Lowe to send Choi to third with a base hit right over Altuve’s reaching leap at second, and—after Joe Smith, the sidearmer, relieved Miley—d’Arnaud to fly deep enough to right to let Choi almost stroll home with the tenth Rays run in the bottom of the seventh.

In the interim, Oliver Drake pitched two strong innings in the seventh and eighth to further save the bigger bulls of the Rays pen for Game Four, namely Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, and Emilio Pagan, with Colin Poche sandwiching a strikeout between a shallow pop out to center and a fly to normal right field depth to finish it.

These Astros who normally swing with authority went only 1-for-6 with men in scoring position Monday to the Rays going 3-for-7. Altuve’s first-inning launch tied him with Chase Utley for the most postseason home runs (ten) by second basemen in Show history, while Greinke continued his futility in Tampa Bay—he’s never won a game any time he’s ever pitched in the Trop.

Seven of the Rays’ runs scored with two out; seven Rays drove in runs. Not counting Diaz having to leave early with his foot issue, only d’Arnaud failed to hit safely even once otherwise.

And the Astros’ old buddy Morton showed no respect, either, striking out nine in five innings’ work and remaining perfect in postseason elimination games. Doing it Monday tied him at four such postseason elimination wins with Verlander, John Smoltz, Randy Johnson, Curt Schillling, and Clay Carroll.

Tuesday won’t give Verlander a shot at a fifth such win since the Astros still lead the set 2-1, but you can rest comfortably knowing he won’t complain. Unswept as they remain in postseason play, the Rays could still get Verlandered one more time in Game Four. They’ve never needed a running of their bulls as much as they will come Tuesday.