Enjoy the lack of NL DH while you have it, if you must

Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton, a pitcher who thinks his breed at the plate, instead of throwing to it, is a waste of lineup slot.

Guess what you didn’t hear if you watched the World Series on Fox Sports Friday night. You didn’t hear as much about what happened in the bottom of the second as you should have heard. More’s the pity.

Right then, right there, in Truist Park, in Game Three, occurred a textbook example of what can happen when the life of a rally may depend upon a) a pitcher with a pool noodle for a bat looming on deck; or, b) that pitcher having to swing his pool noodle bat when there’s a chance to put runs on the scoreboard.

Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud was on second with a two-out double. The Astros ordered starting pitcher Luis (Rock-a-Bye Samba) Garcia to signal the intentional walk to Dansby Swanson. (Remember, you don’t have to make the pitcher throw four wide ones for the free pass anymore, which is a good thing for not adding wear on the arm.)

Looming on deck—Braves starter Ian Anderson. Rookie. Promising young pitcher, but swings a bat that might as well have been made by Ronzoni. Hit 54 cents on the regular season, hit zipadee-doodah in the postseason approaching the plate now. The net result? Garcia struck him out to end the threat and the inning.

What a surprise.

Neither Fox broadcaster Joe Buck nor John Smoltz—the Hall of Fame pitcher who pitched many a splendid game for the Braves in his career—spoke much if at all about the deeper significance of Anderson’s wasted plate appearance.

Oh, they’ve mentioned the coming of the universal DH, which is liable to begin next season, but if you were looking for the deep take you didn’t really get it. Especially from Smoltz, a pitcher who finished his career with a .159/.226/.207 slash line at the plate. They spoke more of Anderson having the maturity of a 65-year-old in his demeanor than they spoke of what his second inning plate appearance really indicated.

This year’s pitchers batted a whopping .110 with a .150 on-base percentage. Since the last decade of the dead-ball era, they’ve batted .162. It has been, it is, and it’ll always be the single most guaranteed lineup waste in baseball. It isn’t even close.

“For every Adam Wainwright,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said before Game Three, “there’s ten [pitchers] that can’t hit. They don’t hit anymore at a young age, they’re specializing in pitching or whatever at a young age, so after experiencing it last year, I’m all for the DH.”

Wainwright is the Cardinals’ grand old man who’s actually batted .193 in sixteen seasons to date, including ten home runs and 51 total extra-base hits over the span. For a pitcher, that’s splendid and outlying plate production, in most generations. He’s even managed to knock 75 runs home.

It’s a wonder Wainwright doesn’t threaten first degree murder every time he has to bat—he lost a full season of his career to an Achilles tendon injury incurred . . . running the bases.

You want to ask Smoltz’s longtime, Hall of Fame rotation mate Tom Glavine about it? The New York Times did. “Take the brutality, so to speak, of what pitcher hitting has become, and I still feel like it allows for way more strategy in the National League,” lamented the .203 lifetime-hitting lefthander. “I’m hoping that that part of the argument will certainly be a strong one, but it seems now that there’s more momentum than ever to get rid of it.”

The brutality of what it has become? How about the brutality of what it always was? Then-Pirates owner William Temple Chase wasn’t just talking to hear himself talk when he lamented his five main 1891 Pirates’ pitchers hitting .165 as a group and proposed that off-season that the game should adopt what we know as the designated hitter. (It failed by a single vote.)

“Every patron of the game is conversant with the utter worthlessness of the average pitcher when he goes up to try and hit the ball,” said the ancient paper Sporting Life in agreement with Temple. “It is most invariably a trial, and an unsuccessful one at that. If fortune does favor him with a base hit it is ten to one that he is so winded in getting to first or second base on it that when he goes into the box it is a matter of very little difficulty to pound him all over creation.”

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you I was a great hitter,” Glavine continued, “but as a pitcher, I was certainly a good hitter, and I felt like my ability to do that was an advantage every time I went out on the mound. I wasn’t necessarily going to get an RBI base hit or whatever, but I knew two things: Number one, if I had to bunt, I was going to get the bunt down, and number two, I wasn’t going to be an automatic out.”

Glavine was an out for 80 percent of his lifetime plate appearances. Getting the bunt down simply meant that thirteen percent of the time he was a wasted out while he and his Braves and Mets were at it. How is a pitcher bunting not normally an automatic out, anyway? Beating those bunts out for base hits isn’t exactly a constant thing with them, either.

How about if the National League had taken its head out of its colon in the first place—pitchers wouldn’t have to worry about wasting outs, and managers wouldn’t have to watch helplessly when their pitchers a) ended rallies, or b) injured or winded themselves running the bases on the rare occasions when they picked up base hits.

This time, I won’t apologise for beating a dead horse, because in this case the horse was and remains right, and the bottom of the second in Game Three Friday night proved it.

“It’s fun to see Max Scherzer slap a single to right field and run it out as if he thinks he’s Ty Cobb,” wrote now-retired Thomas Boswell in 2019. “But I’ll sacrifice that pleasure to get rid of the thousands of rallies I’ve seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the AL, you must pitch your way out of it, not ‘pitch around’ your way out of it.”

If and when he does it, that is. Scherzer was 0-for-2021 at the plate, including four hitless postseason plate appearances and one sacrifice fly that doesn’t count as an “official” at-bat in the scoring. Forget Ty Cobb, Max the Knife didn’t even get to run it out as if he thought he was Ralph Kramden.

The word also is that, when the owners and the players start talking turkey to work out the next collective bargaining agreement, they may consider allowing the universal DH—at a price: the owners and commissioner Rob Manfred may actually demand that a team surrender its DH for the rest of the game unless their starting pitchers go a minimum number of innings.

Brilliant. As if the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers hasn’t screwed things up enough often enough? (Not just because too many managers are leaving them in beyond the third batter with opposing rallies in the making, either.)

Suppose they do impose a six- or seven-inning starters’ minimum in return for the universal DH. What happens to every starting pitcher who has a bad start and gets shot early, often, and full of more holes than a hanging target in a police shooting range?

Forget about blowing the poor sap’s ERA to infinity and beyond. You’re going to force him to stay in for a minimum six- or seven- and maybe sink his team so far that the Navy SEALs couldn’t get them out alive?

Baseball’s the thinking person’s sport. Those who govern and play it should start thinking again. At least one starting pitcher now lost for the rest of the World Series does some thinking.

“I’m always late to the on-deck circle, just because I need to unplug for a minute, and I like to worry about the job that I have to do on the mound,” said Braves pitcher Charlie Morton to the Times. “That’s what I’m paid to do, that’s what I’m prepared to do, spend the vast majority of my time doing. They’re paying guys lots of money and guys are working their tails off trying to be good hitters, and I’m up there taking at-bats.”

They used to say a player’s only as smart as his batting average. Morton’s a Ph.D. better than his lifetime .127 average.

WS Game One: Flash! Bash! Alakazam!

Jorge Soler

Soler swings into history and toward a Game One Braves win . . .

Yordan and Eddie Tonight, the Miniseries? The show went on, but they weren’t exactly the stars of the show Tuesday night.

Oh, they performed rather splendidly. But they turned out the headliners blown off the stage by the fourth-lowest opening performer and a wild animal act.

Which is just what Jorge Soler did with the third pitch of World Series Game One from Astros starter Framber Valdez. And, what the Braves bullpen did to the Astros the rest of the way in an emphatic enough 6-2 Braves win.

Fresh off his marquee performance against the Red Sox toward the Astros’ American League pennant, Valdez could only watch with everyone else in the Minute Maid Park house as Soler became the first player in major league history to open a World Series opener with a home run.

The audience could only watch, too, with a hybrid of frustration broken up only occasionally by their usual racket while four Braves relief pitchers kept the Astros to their only runs of the game. Not to mention helping guarantee the Braves a temporary home field advantage at least.

Valdez fell behind Soler 2-0 when he threw a sinker that dumped enough ballast en route the plate that it had altitude enough for Soler to send it on hefty flight into the Crawford Boxes above the left field scoreboard. A ground out (Freddie Freeman), an infield single (Ozzie Albies, beating out a grounder wide of the mound’s left side), and a quick theft of second later, Austin Riley split the left center gap with the RBI double.

The game wasn’t even half an hour old, and already fans of both teams must have asked, Yordan who? Eddie what?

That was before the Braves more or less snuck a third run home in the second—back-to-back opposite-field singles (Travis d’Arnaud to right, Joc Pederson to left), a long fly to the center field wall enabling two tag-ups and second and third, and Soler’s grounder to short getting Pederson caught in a rundown while d’Arnaud crossed the plate.

And, before Eddie Rosario pulled a leadoff base hit to right in the third and—following a come-back-on-message visit to Valdez from Astros pitching coach Brent Strom—Adam Duvall turned a hanging changeup into a cruise missile straight into the Crawfords and sent Valdez out of the game.

“It was my first World Series game, so I’m not going to tell you that I didn’t feel the pressure,” Valdez admitted postgame. “I think just being behind in the count so much is what hurt me more than anything in this game.”

In between Soler’s Series-opening history mark and Duvall’s two-run rip, Morton too a hard smash from Yuli Gurriel off his leg to open the Houston second. The ball ricocheted to Freeman at first for a simple enough out. Morton pitched on, getting the next two outs to end the second and then striking Jose Altuve out called on a particularly nasty curve ball.

“That one got me good,” Morton’s said to have told his catcher d’Arnaud of the Gurriel comebacker that ended up ending his season. “I’m sorry,” Morton told any and everyone who happened by after his exit and after the game ended.

He’d looked distinctly uncomfortable before throwing Altuve that out pitch. He looked pained but determined after it. Pained enough to come out of the game. He turned out to have pitched to three Astros on a broken fibula that means the end of his postseason and the Braves having to do what they’ve done best in an injury-dominated year—skip out of the way at the last second when disaster comes careening down the street.

A 37-year-old veteran channeling his inner Bob Gibson (1967: tried to pitch on after fellow Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente ripped one off his leg; fracture kept him out thirteen weeks)—and apologising for it postgame. “[I]f that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about Charlie Morton,” said Freeman postgame, “I’m not sure what does.

Morton’s been there, done that. His career’s first half was as much big and small injuries costing him a lot of his prime time as it was pitching like a craftsman in six postseasons with one World Series ring and a splendid-enough 3.35 lifetime postseason earned run average to show for it. The man is nothing if not a walking exercise in pain management.

“I didn’t think it was broken,” d’Arnaud said. “I just thought he took a line drive off of his leg. But to go out there and strike out the next guy with a broken leg, it blows my mind.” Actually, it turns out Morton’s first X-rays showed no break, but he probably stressed his leg into the break while working on Altuve.

This is the Braves’ lot in 2021 so far. They incurred, dodged, withstood, and found ways to sneak through disaster to get to the postseason in the first place, never mind the World Series. A leg fracture taking their elder starting pitcher out for the rest of the way? Tell them about it. It wouldn’t shock them if they woke up on Game Two day having been kidnapped for the unreachable ransom.

Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton, escorted from the field in the third.

“No kidding. I don’t want to know what’s next,” said manager Brian Snitker after Game One. “But this is what we do, right?” Right. Nothing to it. Hit them with a tidal wave. Send them another hurricane riding the oblivion express. To these Braves those are just sun showers and some autumn breezes.

So far. It’s not that the Braves push their luck by design or premeditation. But you can’t help wondering just how many times they can still just wave their magic bats, gloves, or arms, and—flash! bash! alakazam!—make the other guys disappear.

Snitker had to reach for one of those arms a lot sooner than he might have expected going in. He brought AJ Minter in to take over for Morton. Minter pitched two and two thirds that would have been shutout ball if shortstop Dansby Swanson, usually one of the most sure-handed, sure-footed of the breed, hadn’t inadvertently kicked Astro center fielder Chas McCormick’s hard one-out, first-and-third grounder aside, enabling Kyle Tucker (one-out double) to score the first Astro run.

Luke Jackson followed Minter with one and two-thirds scoreless pitching before handing off to Tyler Matzek with lefthanded swinger Michael Brantley coming up with two outs in the seventh. He shook Brantley’s base hit off to strike Alex Bregman out looking for the side. But he couldn’t do a thing about Alvarez’s leadoff triple to the rear of right center opening the bottom of the eighth.

Alverz came home almost predictably when the next Astro batter, Carlos Correa, grounded out to second. After Matzek struck Tucker out on a somewhat violent swing, Gurriel ripped a drive off the left center field wall whose carom Rosario played perfectly, before throwing in perfectly to nail Gurriel at second trying to stretch the hit.

Or was it? At first glance it looked as though Gurriel’s drive hit on or above the yellow line atop the wall, which would have meant home run. Several television replays confirmed what the umpires on review ruled for certain—the ball struck the wall clearly if just barely below the line. Hocus pocus!

Not that it would have mattered in the end. The Braves landed an extra insurance run in the top of the inning, when Swanson wrung himself into a one-out walk and Soler on a check swing squibbed one into no man’s land beyond the mound that Astros reliever Ryne Stanek couldn’t get on a dive. Enabling Swanson to take third, before Freeman popped out to short right with Swanson on the run home and sliding in safely around Astro catcher Martin Maldonado’s backswinging tag attempt. Shazam!

So the Braves’ M&M Bulls didn’t do it with quite the howitzer heft by which they pinned the Dodgers to the wall winning National League Championship Series Game Six. But they did just what they had to do and kept the Astros from even thinking about a Game One overthrow regardless.

Will Smith shook a leadoff walk to pinch-hitter Aledmys Diaz off in the bottom of the ninth to get three straight ground outs—two force outs at second base, and a ground out to second—and that ended the game.

Abracadabra!

“Our team doesn’t worry,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker postgame, “and our team’s very confident. We have the knack of bouncing back after losses, after tough losses because they don’t quit, they don’t give up, they don’t get down. That’s the secret of sports.”

Beware, Mr. Baker. Your very confident Astros are up against a team that’s had to bounce back from tougher losses than Game One.

These Braves had to bounce back from losing their junior franchise face to a season-ending injury, after losing key young pitcher to a re-injured Achilles tendon and a key bomber to domestic violence protocols. Not to mention losing their leadoff hitting right fielder to COVID for the entire division series and most of the NLCS.

So the Braves will have to find a few more creative ways to survive losing their elder starter and clubhouse sage for the rest of the Series, too? Big whoop. Bad as losing Morton is, this, too, comes right into this year’s wheel house. They’d surely rather not, but where other teams crumple under the weight of forced creativity, these Braves thrive on it. So far.

Starters-as-relievers postseason? As new as Lysol.

Walter Johnson

Hall of Famer Walter Johnson—a starter used in relief to help win the 1924 World Series.

Baseball’s capacity to amuse is almost as profound as the game’s ability to inspire. It’s amusing to see the gnashing of teeth and the wringing of hands over this postseason’s phalanx of starting pitchers who had to yield to their bullpens for assorted reasons. You’d almost think someone was trying to legislate the pitching star out of baseball.

If someone is, they simply weren’t watching the games or hearing the crowds. They also have a rather troublesome ignorance of baseball history. And maybe, too, a continuing bias against relief pitching.

Sure, we love to see and remember the greatest starters of our times. I grew up watching the Hall of Fame like of Jim Bunning, Steve Carlton, Don Drysdale, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Catfish Hunter, Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver.

But I also remember seeing and feeling the thrills and kicks when the bullpen like of Dick Radatz came into a game. Hell, Radatz was practically the only reason to bother with the 1963-65 Red Sox. He was big, beefy, intimidating-looking (not for nothing was his nickname The Monster), and looked as though he was about to eat the opposing hitters for lunch.

Until his shoulder deserted him (overwork, plus [speculated] taking someone’s advice trying to add a slider to his howitzer fastballs) some time in 1965, Radatz was as big a pitching star as any starting virtuoso. Even if he did come in for the ninth of the 1964 All-Star Game and surrender a walkoff bomb to then-Phillies star Johnny Callison.

There were more relief aces than you might remember in Radatz’s time. Ted Abernathy, for a few seasons, anyway. Lindy McDaniel. Elroy Face. Eddie Fisher. Stu Miller. Ron Perranoski. Pedro Ramos, at least for the final weeks of that staggering Yankee stretch drive to snatch the 1964 American League pennant. Phil (The Vulture) Regan. Larry Sherry (the 1959 World Series MVP). Hoyt Wilhelm (the first Hall of Fame relief pitcher). Al Worthington.

You might care to note that, whether you’re paying attention now or paid attention then, four of those relievers had top-five Most Valuable Player finishes: McDaniel (1960) and Radatz (1963) each had a fifth-place finish; Perranoski (1964) and Fisher (1965) each had a fourth-place finish.

Think about that for a moment: In four of those seasons there were MVP voters who thought a quartet of relief pitchers might have been among the most valuable players in baseball. Now, those voters then considered won-lost records; those guys were credited with double-digit wins, and a few of them probably got their wins after blowing leads but hanging in while their teams managed to eke or bang out the wins late.

(Face, of course, was an 18-game “winner” in 1959, still a record for relief pitchers, never mind that he also had nineteen save opportunities—applied retroactively—and blew nine of those. In fact, according to Cooperstown Cred, one of the major reasons Chicago Tribune scribe Jerome Holtzman came up with the dubious “save” stat was his feeling that Face’s won-lost record actually over-stated his real value.)

But still.

Were you really watching when AJ Minter and Tyler Matzek clamped the vault door shut on the Dodgers in Game Six of the National League Championship Series? The noise in Truist Park when that pair threw four scoreless relief innings, helping the Braves punch their tickets to the World Series, could have drowned a heavy metal concert out.

Especially when Matzek walked right into a small fire his immediate predecessor Luke Jackson left behind. With eight pitches, Jackson surrendered a leadoff double, a walk, and an RBI double setting up second and third. With eight more pitches, Matzek struck out the side—including future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols and fellow former MVP Mookie Betts.

When Matzek got the Mookie Monster swinging to finish that escape act—if you can go from crossing the high wire to breaking your way out of the chains in the tank in one inning, Matzek did—the Truist crowd went from nuclear to Crab Nebula.

There’s been no better moment of absolute pressure relief pitching than that in this postseason. So far. Who knows what the World Series will bring, above and beyond Yordan and Eddie Tonight? Whatever it brings, come on, baby, don’t fear the reliever. (Unless you have to hit against him.) Or, for that matter, the starter-as-reliever.

You say the starter-as-reliever is just another nefarious creation of today that’s ruining pitchers and pitching? It didn’t exactly come up roses for Max Scherzer this time, of course. But it hasn’t crossed a lot of minds, either, that maybe a 37-year-old man who threw a heavier workload in September than he had any month all season might have been bound for a dead arm by the time he had to say no to starting NLCS Game Six.

But it wasn’t exactly a new thing, either. Not. even. close.

Go back to the 1924 World Series, Game Seven, for openers. When Washington Senators manager Bucky Harris not only delivered what we call a bullpen game to win that Series but secured the Old Nats’ shot at it by bringing (and the crowd went wild, too) Hall of Fame starting pitcher Walter Johnson in from the bullpen for what proved four innings’ shutout relief.

When Casey Stengel managed the Yankees, his five straight pennants and World Series rings out of the chute came in no small measure because he was audacious enough to use a starter in relief. You may have heard of him: Allie Reynolds.

The Ol’ Perfesser used Reynolds as both a starter and reliever in several of those World Series. (Including in the ninth of Game Four, 1950 Series, when Stengel brought him in to get the final out of the Yankee sweep—after rookie Ford allowed the potential tying run to reach.)

Allie Reynolds

Allie Reynolds—Casey Stengel loved using his terrific starter in relief when it mattered most. Especially in a few World Series.

Reynolds also spent 1951 throwing two no-hitters and making six relief appearances on the regular season. Pay careful attention now: Reynolds, his Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra, and St. Louis Browns starter Ned Garver—credited with 20 wins for the hapless Brownies—tied for the most first-place votes in that year’s American League Most Valuable Player Award voting. (Yogi won the award by way of his superiority in the secondary votes.)

And, even with the stat applied retroactively, Allie Reynolds—who started 71 percent of his games and relieved in 29 percent of them—is tied for the third-most relief saves in World Series history, behind The Mariano and Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers.

Starters as relievers? Unprecedented and the End of the Grand Old Game As We Knew It? Please.

Smokey Joe Wood, 1912 World Series Game Eight. (Two scoreless after coming in in the eight; surrendered the tying run, bailed out by “Snodgrass’s Muff” in the tenth inning.) Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander, Game Seven 1926 Series. (The fabled bases-loaded, inning-ending strikeout of Hall of Famer Tony Lazzeri.)

Hank Borowy, 1945 Series. (Four scoreless relief innings, Game Six.) Harry Brecheen, 1946 Series. (Credited with his third win of the set in Game Seven—in relief.) Bob Turley. (Won the ’58 Series MVP winning one start and making two relief appearances including the Game Seven-winning seven-inning gig.)

Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven, Game Five 1979 Series. (Four innings shutout relief in a Pirate must-win.) Four Royals starters in relief in the 1985 World Series. Sid Fernandez, Game Seven, 1986 World Series. (Four strikeouts in two and a third’s shutdown relief enabling room for a Mets comeback win.)

Orel Hershiser, 1988 NLCS. (A save in Game Four.) Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, Game Seven 2001 Series. (An inning and a third shutout relief preceding Luis Gonzalez walking it off for the winning Diamondbacks.)

Madison Bumgarner

Starter-as-reliever: MadBum, Game Seven, 2014 World Series.

Madison Bumgarner, Game Seven 2014 Series. (Five scoreless in relief for the Giants’ third Series rings in five years.) Charlie Morton and Clayton Kershaw, Game Seven 2017 Series.

Nathan Eovaldi, 2018 Series. (The Game Three extras, six virtuoso before Max Muncy ended it with an eighteenth-inning home run.) Chris Sale, 2018 Series. (The final three Game Five outs for the Red Sox triumph.) Stephen Strasburg, 2019 NL wild card game. (Three scoreless in relief.) Max the Knife, Game Five, this year’s NLDS.

The only reason any of those ballpark crowds wouldn’t have gone nuts was because the deeds were done by the visiting pitchers. (Game Five, this year’s NLDS between the age-old-rival Dodgers and Giants in San Francisco, a notable exception.)

And if starters-as-relievers looks like a more contemporary phenomenon, it may well be because they’ve played more postseason games as the years went passing by.

Well, it was amusing to see the teeth gnashing and hand wringing over the starters-as-relievers this time around—for a little while. The problem is that it comes from lack of self-informing, willfully or otherwise. It’s not funny anymore to see some stubborn “purist” or “traditionalist”—in the stands, in front of television, or in the press—blow his or her gasket first and do their homework later.

The Phillies look a gift Brave in the mouth

Will Smith, Travis d'Arnaud

Will Smith and Travis d’Arnaud, after the Phillies somehow declined the gift Smith tried to give in the ninth Tuesday.

Until the top of the ninth Tuesday night the Phillies hadn’t scored a single run in their previous twenty innings. Then the Braves all but gifted the Phillies a run in that ninth. They’d even gifted the Phillies the potential go-ahead run and then the bases loaded with one out.

The problem was the Phillies picking the wrong way to say thank you. All that got them was elimination from the National League’s wild card race with a 2-1 loss. It’s win the NL East or wait till next year for them now.

But the ninth-inning high-wire routines of lefthanded relief pitcher Will Smith—with a rather remarkable ability to get himself into hot water—got a little too high on the wire Tuesday night.

It wasn’t so much that he and the Braves escaped as that the Phillies sent a helicopter overhead to lift him to safety when they should have left him and the Braves wiring mad. The Braves won’t always find the opposition that willing to bail them out.

Thanks in large part to their grand old man Charlie Morton’s seven-inning, ten-strikeout, shutout-ball gem, while managing to pry only two runs out of Phillies starter Zack Wheeler in seven otherwise-strong innings, the Braves may have been lucky to take a 2-0 lead into that ninth.

But with Smith having the opening advantage against lefthanded Bryce Harper, the major leagues’ OPS leader, Smith found himself in a wrestling match that ended with Harper wringing himself aboard with a leadoff walk. Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto now represented the potential game-tying run at the plate.

Realmuto hit one on a high line to right center that ninth-inning center field insertion Guillermo Heredia had to run down long to catch on a high backhand. That spot of Braves fortune lasted just long enough for Phillies pinch-hitter Matt Vierling to hit a high liner to left, where Braves left fielder Eddie Rosario ran over, extended his glove, and watched the ball carom off its fingertips, setting up second and third for the Phillies.

Now the Phillies had veteran Andrew McCutchen—a long way from his days as a center field gazelle and a 2015 NL Most Valuable Player for a better array of Pirates—coming to the plate. McCutchen isn’t the danger he was once seen to be anymore, but he’s a veteran who still knows what he’s doing at the plate, and the Braves had no intention of letting his righthanded bat lay them to waste.

So the Braves ordered McCutchen walked intentionally, putting the potential second go-ahead run aboard, even while it looked as though Smith fooled nobody at the plate. The problem was that putting McCutchen aboard also put the Phillies’ fate into two bats described best as balky.

Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius continued playing through a bothersome elbow and a shrunken ability to handle pitching from the same side as which he swings, lefthanded. Third baseman Freddy Galvis, lately pressed into everyday service, simply keeps proving why the Phillies unloaded him in the first place four years ago—he’s not truly an everyday player, and though he switch-hits he’s not exactly a game-breaker at the plate.

The Braves now had only to pray that Smith could survive. The Phillies had only to pray that Gregorius and Galvis had a few more unexpected surprises in their bats. Every Braves fan in Atlanta’s Truist Park had to pray that Smith could put his own fire out with a real retardant, not with gasoline.

He served Gregorius a 1-1 offering, and Gregorius hit a high liner that looked for a few seconds as though it would find a way off the right field wall—but Braves right fielder Adam Duvall ambled back in front of the track to haul it in for the critical second out even as Harper was able to tag and score from third.

Now Smith went to work against Galvis. Two balls in the dirt, ball three high, a grounded foul for strike one, a called strike right down the pipe, and a hard line foul down the left field side out of play. Then, Smith threw Galvis a meatball so fat it could have been hit with a cardboard paper towel tube.

Galvis swung right through it. Strike three and the game.

The Cardinals won their seventeenth straight behind the aging arm of their own grand old man Adam Wainwright and a trio of home runs in a 6-2 win over the Brewers Tuesday night. The Phillies’ postseason hopes shrank to a hair in their none-too-formidable division.

“We have to win out,” said Phillies first baseman Brad Miller postgame. Easier said than done. They have to beat the Braves tonight and tomorrow and hope the Mess (er, Mets) beat the Braves over the coming weekend.

That’s what happens when you open a game the way the Phillies did, with back-to-back singles in the top of the first, but you can’t cash them in after a force out, a swinging strikeout, and an infield ground out—two days after the Phillies were shut out by the NL Central bottom-feeding Pirates, of all people.

That’s what happens when Morton—the last man standing on the mound when the Astros won their now-tainted 2017 World Series title—all but toyed with them the rest of the way, the 37-year-old righthander making the Phillies’ lefthanded lineup stack look silly in going 2-for-15 with a walk before his evening ended.

“The moment doesn’t get too big for him, I know that,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker about Old Man Morton, who kept the Phillies off-balance on a deftly blended diet of curve balls, changeups, and fastballs. “I think he does a really good job of just staying with the next pitch and doesn’t get caught up in the big picture. And it’s just about making the next pitch, which is really, really good. That was, gosh, seven really good innings.”

That’s what happens when Wheeler, the National League’s strikeout leader among pitchers entering Tuesday, could manhandle the more formidable portion of the Braves’ lineup but couldn’t quite contain their lower-leverage bottom of the order in the bottom of the third—a leadoff double (Travis d’Arnaud, hitting seventh), an immediate first-pitch single (Dansby Swanson, hitting eighth) put Braves on the corners with nobody out.

Morton then bunted a high chop off the plate that pushed Swanson to second on the out, but Jorge Soler, the Braves’ leadoff hitter in the lineup, ripped a hard single down the left field line to send both runners home easily enough, before Wheeler retired Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies on grounders to second baseman Jean Segura.

That was the game until that too-close ninth. But the game put the Phillies’ core flaws into stark light, too. Even before the Phillies and the Braves squared off, The Athletic‘s Matt Gelb isolated the point: “[T]hey have too many holes right now.”

Didi Gregorius is tough to play against lefties. Andrew McCutchen is tough to play against righties. They love what Brad Miller has done, but he won’t start against lefties. Matt Vierling has provided a surprise boost for the Phillies in September, but he hasn’t gained the full trust of [manager] Joe Girardi.

The Phillies also lack the one thing that’s enabled the Braves to hang in and stand now on the threshold of wrapping an NL East that wasn’t exactly a division of baseball terrorists in the first place. Sure, the Mets spent 103 days leading the division—deceptively, as things turned out—but nobody in the NL East looked that much like a powerhouse.

What the Phillies lack that the Braves proved to have in abundance is depth. Their Harpers, Realmutos, and Wheelers all but willed them to stay in the race in the first place, but it may not have been enough. They just weren’t deep enough to hang in without major effort. A coming off-season overhaul may not shock anyone.

The Braves were deep enough in system and in the thought process of general manager Alex Anthopoulos that they withstood the full-season loss of their best young pitcher (Mike Soroka) and the rest-of-season loss of franchise center fielder Ronald Acuna, Jr. to serious injuries.

But they still have to find ways to neutralise that ninth-inning high-wire act.

Don’t let the 36 saves fool you. Smith’s 3.55 ERA and 4.28 fielding-independent pitching (FIP) should tell you the real story. So should 28 walks against 84 strikeouts in 66 innings’ work so far, not to mention 3.8 walks per nine innings. He seems too much to play with matches.

Snitker has two far-superior pen men to send forth when the game gets late and dicey, Luke Jackson (1.90 ERA) and Tyler Matzek (2.66 ERA). Between them, Jackson and Matzek pack a 3.34 FIP, a lot more comfortable than Smith’s. They should be considered more than in passing as viable ninth-inning options.

If these Braves want to get past postseason round one, they may want to consider how much less Jackson and Matzek like to tempt fate or challenge for baseball Darwin Awards. The last thing the Braves need now is to be the cobra with its own ninth-inning mongoose.

A 2-1 Dodger advantage feels more like 3-1

At any angle, from any view, Walker Buehler overpowered the Rays Friday night.

“They’re more of a manufacturing team than a pure slugging team like Atlanta might be,” said Walker Buehler, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Game Three starting pitcher, before he actually went out and pitched against the Tampa Bay Rays. “You never know what lineup you get. We’re trying to figure out what they may do against you and work off that.”

Buehler then went out and hung a “Closed for Repairs” sign outside the manufacturers’ plant. The Rays don’t exactly have all the time in the world to put the repair crews to work.

The fixings will probably begin with otherwise stout Rays starter Charlie Morton. The same guy who flattend his old buddies from Houston to help the Rays win the pennant in the first place. The Dodgers slashed five runs on seven hits out of Morton in four and a third innings while Buehler refused to let the Rays catch hold of his full-zone fastballs or force him to work off-speed. Making it feel as though the eventual 6-2 final was a lot worse than a four-run deficit usually is.

Buehler does that when he’s on. He even takes a no-hitter into the fifth when need be. With one slightly off-the-charts outing the righthander suddenly turned the World Series from anyone’s to win to the Rays’s to lose. The Dodgers’ 2-1 Series advantage felt more like 3-1 when it finally ended.

“That might be the best I’ve ever seen his stuff,” said his catcher Austin Barnes after the game.

Buehler didn’t just expose the Rays’ continuing postseason flaw of striking out when they can’t and don’t make contact. The Rays have now done what no postseason team in history has accomplished, striking out 180 times.

They also have 113 hits, making them the only postseason team in history to hit 67 fewer times than they’ve struck out. In the middle of that, they went ten straight games—Game Four of their division series through Game Two of this World Series—with more strikeouts than hits.

Buehler’s thirteen punchouts also left the Rays striking out nine times or more in ten straight postseason games and a twelfth postseason game this time in which they struck out ten times or more. And, with thirteen hitters getting K’ed three times or more in single games.

“It’s like . . . people always say, ‘Why don’t they just hit the ball the other way when they shift?’” said Rays manager Kevin Cash Friday postgame. He laughed like Figaro, that he might not weep. “It’s hard enough just to hit the ball.” Against Buehler, whose three hits surrendered seemed like momentary lapses into generosity, it was impossible enough.

Against Morton, alas, with his fastballs not finding their intended destinations and his breaking balls left a little too readily over the plate, for a change, he might have been fortunate that seven hits were all the Dodgers could get. Begging the question as to why Cash, who normally thinks nothing of such moves when he smells trouble, left him in as long as he did this time around.

Sure Cash thought nothing of hooking Morton in Game Seven of the American League Championship Series at the first sign of trouble in the top of the sixth. And the world went bonkers over that. Since when does a manager that fearless not get his bullpen working and his man the hell out of there when he’s in the hole 3-0 with two out but two on in the third—the first of whom got there as a hit batsman off the foot?

All three of the Dodgers’ hits have come with two strikes,” tweeted ESPN’s Jeff Passan after the third. “And all three have been on pitches Charlie Morton left over the plate. Dodgers lead, 3-0, and they’re doing it against a pitcher whose opponents hit .170/.207/.284 vs. him with two strikes this year.

The Dodgers now have 87 runs this postseason. Fifty of them have come with two outs. “There’s two outs, but you can still build an inning, not giving away at-bats,” says the Mookie Monster, one of four Dodgers to knock in at least a run with two outs Friday night. “That’s the recipe. That’s how you win a World Series.”

I’m always fascinated by Kevin Cash’s pitching decisions,” tweeted The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark after the fourth inning. “Last Saturday, Charlie Morton had 66 pitches and a 2-hit shutout in the 6th – and Cash took him out. Tonight, he was down 5-0 with 78 pitches through the 4th – and got left in. Much quicker hook when Cash has a lead.”

Much harder for Cash to get away with bass-ackwards thinking, too. Not a single Rays bull poked his nose out of his stall before and after Max Muncy lined a two-run single to center. It took until the fifth—after Dodger catcher Austin Barnes dropped his safety-squeeze RBI bunt and Mookie Betts’s full-count, followup RBI single made it 5-0 in the fourth—before the Rays bullpen gate finally swung open.

Did you guess what happened from there right? If not, here it is: Four Rays relievers kept the Dodgers to a single run and three hits in their four and two-thirds innings work. They walked only two and struck out four. In other words, the Rays’ bullpen did what the Rays’ bullpen normally does. They just started four and a third innings too late Friday night.

It doesn’t discredit the Dodgers’ hitters to suggest Cash might have let them break into the house—only beginning with Justin Turner’s one-out, high line home run in the top of the first—and steal all the jewels and cash they could carry. The only thing the Dodgers swiped once Cash finally reached for the armed guards was Barnes catching hold of a John Curtiss slider that didn’t slide as far under the middle as it was supposed to slide and sending it over the center field fence in the top of the sixth.

Get the feeling the Dodgers are turning brand-new Globe Life Field into Dodger Stadium II? They’re not just pitching as though it’s their own vacation home, but they’ve hit one more home run in sixteen postseason games there than the Texas Rangers hit in thirty irregular season games in their brand new house.

Delayed security is not the best idea when you’re up against a Buehler who’s hell bent on making sure nobody got into the Dodgers’ house except Manuel Margot with a one-out double and Willy Adames with a two-out RBI double in the bottom of the fifth.

“Being a big-game pitcher and really succeeding on this stage, there’s only a few guys currently and throughout history,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts postgame. “He’s in some really elite company, and I’m just happy he’s wearing a Dodger uniform.”

With Friday night’s flush and the prospect of facing Buehler in Game Seven if the Series goes that far, the Rays would prefer he wear a police, fire, or military uniform right now. Those they can handle. Buehler they couldn’t. When he finished the fifth his lifetime postseason ERA stood at 2.34 and his 2020 postseason ERA alone stood at 1.88. And his streak of nine straight postseason gigs with a minimum six strikeouts and two runs allowed or less became the longest in Show history while he was at it.

“I think the more you do these things the calmer you get,” said Buehler postgame. Not about any records but just about pitching up when you’re striking for the Promised Land. “I don’t want to keep harping on it, but I enjoy doing this. And I feel good in these spots.”

As for World Series games pitched with ten or more punchouts, no walks, and no bombs surrendered, Buehler became only the eighth pitcher to have one. The previous Magnificent Seven: Sandy Koufax (1965), Bob Gibson (1968), Tom Seaver (1973), Randy Johnson (2001), Roger Clemens (2001), Cliff Lee (2009), and Adam Wainwright (2013).

Tampa Bay left fielder Randy Arozarena hit an excuse-us solo homer off Dodger closer Kenley Jansen with two out in the ninth. He’s now hit as many home runs in this postseason (eight) as he did when he was finally past his COVID-19 bout and saddled up for what was left of the irregular season. He also set postseason records with what’s now 52 total bases and 23 postseason hits as a rookie.

Turner had to settle merely for his first postseason bomb since 2017 and for tying Hall of Famer Duke Snider on the Dodgers’ postseason homer list with his eleventh. Barnes also slipped into the record books. Only one man previously had ever homered and squeezed a run home in the same Series game, and that was more than half a century ago.

We take you back to Hector (What a Pair of Hands) Lopez, New York Yankees outfielder, off Cincinnati Reds pitcher Bob Purkey in the deciding 1961 Series Game Five. Barnes is thus the only catcher ever to turn the single Series game bomb-squeeze trick. Roll over Bill Dickey, and tell Yogi Berra the news.

If only Arozarena’s bombings had better timers. Only four of his eight postseason bombs so far have either tied a game or given the Rays a lead. The rook whose 1.340 OPS in the first three rounds widened as many eyes as his home runs has a mere .885 OPS in the Series thus far.

The Rays overall are only hitting a .206/.250/.381 Series slash. They’ve actually struck out at the plate six fewer times than the Dodgers, but they’ve been out-hit by five, out-homered by three, and out-scored by seven. With Morton’s ghastly 10.38 Game Three ERA and Game One starter Tyler Glasnow’s grotesque 12.46, you have to remove them to find the Rays otherwise with a 2.10 Series ERA. Remove Dylan Floro and Dustin May from the Game Two equation, and the Dodgers otherwise have a 2.20 Series ERA thus far.

Timing is everything in this Series. The Rays’ inability to find theirs at the plate against Buehler and Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ finding and finer tuning theirs against Morton and Glasnow, and Cash’s timing off twice on charging his bulls, are three major reasons why the Dodgers holding a 2-1 Series lead feels more like a 3-1 lead going into Saturday night.

This is what the Dodgers saved Julio Urias for. You may have heard a little chirping after he didn’t appear even in a bullpen stir during Game Two, when the Dodgers couldn’t beat the Rays at their own bullpen game. They’d better hope he isn’t too well rested; he hasn’t pitched since he closed out NLCS Game Seven with three shutdown innings last Saturday. And he’s going up against a by-necessity Rays bullpen game with Ryan Yarbrough possibly opening and possibly going three.

That’s the game the Rays usually master. Now it’s the mastery they need desperately enough.