The pennant-winning Rays do several favours

Your American League champion Tampa Bay Rays, with Randy Arozarena (right front) holding his ALCS MVP award.

For those of you who still love to ponder baseball in economic terms alone, have your fun now. The third-lowest 2020 payroll in the Show just finished off the third-highest—after knocking off highest to have the opportunity. Shout it out loud. The Rays win the pennant! The Rays win the pennant!

They who have the gold don’t always rule. For that matter, neither do they who have the platinum.The Tampa Bay Rays—lucky to have a couple of steel pieces amidst a cache of aluminum, tin, and Reynolds Wrap—are one trip shy of the Promised Land as of Saturday night.

After pushing past the New York Yankees’s platinum a little over a week earlier, the Rays  melted the Houston Astros’ gold into a 4-2 win in Game Seven of the American League Championship Series. Playing twelve games in thirteen days, the Rays beat both in final win-or-be-gone games. That only begins to describe their flair for the impossible.

This collection of bargains enough to make you think Woolworth’s was reincarnated as a baseball team became the first in major league history to stand on the threshold of a postseason series sweep, lose the next three straight, then win the first elimination game they’d face in the set.

They became the first to send out a starting pitcher against another starting pitcher with whom he’d collaborated previously to win a seventh World Series game. Charlie Morton got the better of Lance McCullers, Jr. with five and two-thirds innings of two-hit shutout ball on his part and just a little help from the friends he says are an honour to play and compete with.

They became the first to feature a rookie hitting a seventh bomb just in the postseason, when left fielder and series MVP Randy Arozarena sent Lance McCullers, Jr.’s 2-2 fastball over the right center field fence in the bottom of the first—after McCullers hit Manuel Margot with the first pitch of the inning.

They had Mike Zunino—a Seattle trade surrender whose steady defense got undermined by a few passed balls in Game Six but whose power is steady enough when he isn’t injured—provide the rest of their Saturday night scoring with a one-out, full-count launch into the left field seats of McCullers in the second and a one-out sacrifice fly off Jose Urquidy working relief in the sixth.

And, after manager Kevin Cash hooked Morton with a better too soon than too late attitude, the Rays’ bullpen wavered and bent only in the eighth, when Carlos Correa—who’d hit Nick Anderson for the game-winning bomb in Game Five—knocked a bases-loaded two-run single off Pete Fairbanks, who then got Alex Bregman to climax his series-long futility with a furiously swinging strikeout.

If Morton follows through on earlier hints that he might actually retire at 37, he’ll retire as a member in good standing of one elite club. Name the five pitchers who’ve had multiple scoreless starts in postseason winner-takes-it-all games. The answers: Morton plus Madison Bumgarner, Bret Saberhagen, Hall of Famer John Smoltz, and Hall of Famer-to-be Justin Verlander.

Saturday night was Morton’s fourth time out in such a game and his third as a starter. In every one of them, he never threw a pitch while his team was behind. The modest righthander who starts his delivery slow motion before his right arm becomes a whip, whom the Rays could afford because his injury history made him a bargain, really has been late-career better than advertised. If you needed a reminder, he rid himself of thirteen of his twenty batters on three pitches or less.

Arozarena also became the first rookie to hit seven homers in a single postseason. He may have been the only one who wasn’t counting. “I try not to pay attention to the statistics,’’ he said postgame, “but with the Iinternet and everyone bringing it up, you’re kind of aware of it. Honestly, I don’t pay attention to the statistics outside of me and what I can control.”

When Fairbanks shook off Yuli Gurriel’s one-out single to right to strike Josh Reddick out and get Aledmys Diaz to fly out to Margot in right, it would have touched off an all-night party in Tampa Bay if not for the coronavirus social distancing protocols. Those protocols also kept the jubilant Rays from much more than what Zunino said was confetti-tossing and Silly String shooting.

“We’ve done a great job to make it as fun as possible . . . but there’s nothing better than popping bottles and having that seep in and burn your eyes,” the catcher said post-game. That’s one reason why even the World Series winner, whomever it may prove to be, might be the first to reach the Promised Land and holler out, “Wait ’till next year,” hopeful that the pandemic recedes enough to let baseball get back to whatever normal it can achieve.

“Probably more so this year than any other year, the motivation is doing it for each other,” Morton said. “You adhere to protocols; you’re social distancing from families at home. Telling their kids they can’t hug them. This has brought out a level of humanity and empathy that you wouldn’t see in a normal season.”

It also kept baseball’s Public Enemy Number One in the wake of Astrogate from facing the slings, arrows, protest banners, and live catcalls sure to have greeted them on road trips if the pandemic hadn’t substituted cardboard cutouts for live fans.That was the biggest unexpected break the Astros—having enough with being exposed as illegal high-tech cheaters—could have received.

Fans settled for social media slappings plus masking and social distancing while greeting the Astros’ team bus live with slings, arrows, protest banners, trash cans (the mode by which they sent the illegally stolen signs to their hitters in 2017 and part of 2018) and live catcalls whenever the bus pulled into the road ballpark’s parking lot.

The Rays did the Astros and the rest of us another favour by pushing them home for the winter. Assume as you shouldn’t that the Los Angeles Dodgers send the Atlanta Braves home for the winter in Game Seven of the National League Championship Series Sunday. (The Braves aren’t going to go down without a fight, their Game Six futility to one side.) The Rays prevented a World Series dominated by too-much-is-more-than-enough talk about a grudge rematch.

There’s probably no way on earth Astrogate will be forgiven or forgotten for a long time to come. But the spectre haunting America of the Astros going back to the World Series this time around haunts no more. The last thing the Series needs when America needs the Series most is to be half dominated by Astrogate regurgitation and appetites for revenge.

Be certain the Astros will return to the Series in due course. When they do, they’re liable to be just about finished with what has to be done put Astrogate into the past at last—roster and organisation turnover. They have the makings of an impressive young bullpen and a few young positional talents ready to come into their own, too.

The Rays also did us all a bigger favour than even the foregoing. Not only will there be no losing team in the World Series, there’ll be only division winners squaring off. All that early postseason mess, all commissioner Rob Manfred’s apparent wet dreams about permanently expanded postseasons. Put it behind you for now.

Just pray that Manfred doesn’t take the wrong message from it and dance this mess around permanently. Reminder: the Rays had the American League’s best irregular season record. And real division champions—of however truncated an irregular season—will battle to get to the Promised Land. That’s the way it should always be.

The only thing left is for the Rays to come to terms with going from faceless to familiar. That could prove the simplest and most pleasant of their battles.

So much for a young man’s game

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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 is  easier said than done often enough.

Mortoned and mashed

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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.