Halt right there, Mr. Mayor

Hall of Famer Joe Morgan with Cincinnati mayor John Cranley.

Spare us, please, the political (lack of) class and its hyperbolic weigh-ins when sporting events transcend the particular sport itself, for better or worse. Or, when a sport legend passes on to the Elysian Fields. Mourning the death of a Reds legend, Cincinnati’s mayor proclaims concurrently a standing for the Reds’ arguable greatest team that the evidence rejects.

Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan’s death Sunday provoked an outpouring of loss and grief to be expected of a player whose performance equaled his gifts and who was at least as good a man as he was a baseball player. It also provoked Cincinnati mayor John Cranley to amplifying knowledge and wisdom by standing athwart both.

“We all know the Big Red Machine was the greatest baseball team of all time,” Cranley tweeted upon the news of Morgan’s death, accompanied by a photograph of himself and Morgan at an outdoor event. “Joe Morgan was the MVP of both back-to-back ‘75 and ‘76 Reds World Series wins, making him the greatest second baseman of all time. This is a devastating loss to the MLB and Cincinnati. RIP to a legend.”

What do you mean we, white man?

Let’s get the second hyperbolic out of the way first. Back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards are staggering achievements in their own right. If those alone illustrate a player’s cumulative greatness, Roger Maris (1960-61)—whose greatness was short-enough lived, thanks to six parts injuries and half a dozen parts the searing the 1961 Babe Ruth home run chase left upon him—would have reached Cooperstown in a walk. So would Dale Murphy (MVP, 1982-83), if injuries hadn’t hastened and turned his decline phase into a cliff dive.

Back-to-back MVPs alone didn’t leave Morgan as the arguable greatest second baseman in Show history. His all-around play at the plate, on the bases, and at second base, to say nothing of the most wins above replacement-level player for any second baseman playing a truly integrated game, accomplished that. You could remove Morgan’s MVPs and he would still shake out as being that great.

Now to the first. The Big Red Machine was the greatest team in the National League in its time. No questions asked. If you measure by consecutive World Series wins, the 1970s Reds were the only NL team to do it. Two American League teams did it, too: the Bronx Zoo Yankees (1977-78) and the Oakland Athletics earlier in the decade.

Oops. The Swingin’ A’s won three straight Series (1972-74) in the middle of winning five straight American League Wests. Including their beating the Machine in seven in 1972.

If you’re going by Hall of Famers on those teams, be careful. The Machine had three Hall of Famers (Morgan, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez) and might have had a fourth (Pete Rose) if he hadn’t had a problem with, you know, all that other stuff. Oh, all right, let’s give the Machine the four Hall of Famers just for argument’s sake.

For much of the 1960s the San Francisco Giants had five Hall of Famers in their ranks: Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, and Willie Mays. One of them (if you have to ask) is considered the arguably greatest all-around player who ever walked the face of the earth when fellow Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle isn’t. Here’s how many World Series those great Giants teams won: none.

They only reached one World Series and lost in six games to the last of the vintage Yankee teams. Those Giants had a little problem on their hands known as the Los Angeles Koufaxes to thwart them at their peaks. They weren’t the only Hall of Fame-packing team of that time to fall short, either.

Quick: Name the team with four Hall of Famers and not even a single shot at the Promised Land. Hint: Their manager burned them out down the stretch in the one season they almost won the National League East. Since you had to ask: the four Hall of Famers in question are Ernie Banks, Ferguson Jenkins, Ron Santo, and Billy Williams.

Let’s remove the Machine’s should-have-been Hall of Famer now and leave it with three. Well. The 1967-68 St. Louis Cardinals had a trio of Hall of Famers. (Cepeda, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson.) They went to back-to-back Series and won one of them. The 1969-74 Baltimore Orioles packed a trio Hall of Famers. (Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson, and Frank Robinson in 69-71.) They won five of six American League Easts and one World Series in three straight trips. The Seattle Mariners of the mid-1990s had a Hall of Fame trio, too. (Ken Griffey, Jr., Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez.) They’re still looking forward to their first World Series appearance, never mind conquest.

A few days before Morgan’s passage, Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford passed away while watching his Yankees play the Tampa Bay Rays in an American League division series. Ford could have told Cranley plausibly that several generations of Yankee teams, including the ones for which he pitched, make the Big Red Machine resemble the Little Red Caboose.

Ford became a Yankee smack dab in the middle of their five-year World Series-winning streak. That provokes me to compare the first seven seasons of those Casey Stengel Yankees to the first seven seasons of the Machine. Allowing for the lack of divisional play in those Yankees’ time and the shorter seasons (by eight games), this is the result:

Team Won Lost Pennants World Series Titles
New York Yankees (1949-55) 686 389 6 5
Cincinnati Reds (1970-76) 683 443 4 2

The Machine is almost dead-even in the wins column but 54 ahead in the loss column. If you were to add eight games a season to the 1949-55 Yankees, it’s not implausible that they’d have totaled 700 wins or better and 400 losses or better.

Those Yankees do have a claim the Machine wouldn’t have wanted: a 103-win season in which they finished second—by eight games, yet, to an Indians team that picked 1954 to have their career year, so to say. (The Machine had three 100+ win seasons and won the NL West in all three.)

Did I forget to mention that those Yankees had four Hall of Famers aboard at a time a few times? The 1950 Yankees (Ford’s rookie season) included Ford, Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, and Phil Rizzuto. When Ford returned from military service in 1953, they had Ford, Berra, Rizzuto, and Mickey Mantle. Don’t go there, Mr. Mayor. They’ll match their questionable Hall of Famer Rizzuto to your questionable Hall of Famer Perez.

(Their primary National League rivals, the Boys of Summer Brooklyn Dodgers, had to settle for three, too: Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, and Duke Snider. Sandy Koufax was a beyond-marginal 1955 rookie.)

Fair enough. It’s not entirely fair to compare the Machine to the Berra-DiMaggio-Ford-Mantle Yankees. It’s a lot more fair to compare the Machine to a more contemporary aggregation:

Team Won Lost Pennants World Series Titles
New York Yankees (1996-2002) 685 445 5 4
Cincinnati Reds (1970-76) 683 443 4 2

The Machine is almost dead even to the Derek Jeter-Mariano Rivera Yankees. (They, too,  might have packed three Hall of Famers, if Roger Clemens hadn’t been considered persona non grata from Cooperstown because of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substance suspicions that have yet to be proven once and finis.) Almost.

Those Yankees, however, won five pennants and four World Series—including three straight—playing in slightly more difficult postseason conditions. I don’t need a lot of convincing that the Machine would likely have done just as well if they’d played in a three-division league having to plow through two postseason sets to reach the World Series. But the Yankees did have to play in such conditions to win one more pennant and two more leases on the Promised Land.

There are lots of teams who would kill for a piece of the Machine’s five division titles, four pennants, and two World Series conquests in seven years. There are also teams who would kill for a .686 single-season winning percentage. The Machine teams never posted a winning percentage quite that large. (Its best: 1975’s .667.) But one of their ancestral teams did.

Wait for it—the 1919 Reds. The ones who could damn well have beaten the infamous Black Sox in a straight-no-chaser World Series. There’s a cause for you if you’re interested, Mr. Mayor. How about a little agitation on behalf of removing the Black Sox taint from the 1919 Reds’ claim on the Promised Land? Your forebears wuz robbed.

Joe Morgan, RIP: The Machine’s main man

A portrait of the artist as a young Astro.

In terms of watching and following and loving baseball, I went back a very long way with Joe Morgan. In the early years of the Houston franchise, from the Colt .45s to the Astros, Morgan was one of the three Astros I knew immediately, the others being his middle infield partner Denis Menke and pitcher/eventual manager Larry Dierker.

At the plate Morgan was already something of an on-base machine whose smarts with a bat, not to mention unusual power for middle infielders in the 1960s, got challenged only too often by the cavernous-enough Astrodome. Around second base Morgan and Menke were as sleek and coordinated a double play team as you ever saw.

The Hall of Famer who’s widely considered the greatest all-around second baseman ever to play the game died Sunday at 77 in his Danville, California home after a long battle with leukemia developed from myelodysplastic syndrome and with a form of polyneuropathy.

We don’t know yet whether Morgan died watching his one-time, long-time Astros opening the American League Championship Series with a loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, as Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford died at home watching his Yankees tangle with the Rays last Thursday.

But one thing we do know is that the Astros handed the Cincinnati Reds the keys to the kingdom, not to mention two leases in the Promised Land, when they included Morgan—the final but most important gear in the Big Red Machine—in an eight-player swap with the Reds after the 1971 season.

The question is, why. The answer is, most likely, Harry Walker, the last Astros manager for whom Morgan played.

Aside from Walker tending to treat his non-white players like children with the brains of turnips, Harry the Hat had a habit from hell. He fancied himself a great hitting guru (he wasn’t) who’d had one unlikely success that he couldn’t live without trying to lather, rinse, repeat, repeatedly, in the years to come of his managing career.

The unlikely success was Matty Alou. He let Walker—newly installed to manage the Pittsburgh Pirates for 1966—convince him to marry a heavier bat to choking up and slap-and-tickling his way on base. Just the way Walker himself did in his own playing career. Then Alou made a huge mistake. He won the 1966 National League batting title with one of the emptiest .342 hitting averages you ever saw. He’d finish his career as one of the emptiest .300 hitters you ever saw.

Alou also finished his career with practically the same average run production per 162 games lifetime as Walker did: 120 for Harry the Hat, 117 for Alou.

When Walker took the Astro bridge, he went to work at once. He saw a pack of smart, solid hitters with decent power and able to reach base reasonably enough and failed to see them. Because what he really wanted to see was a lineup full of Matty Alous. He wanted to repeat his striking success with Alou (his batting average in ’66 was 82 points higher than his lifetime average going into that season) in the worst way possible.

And the worst way possible is exactly what Harry the Hat got for his trouble.

He tried to convince Morgan to channel the inner Matty Alou he didn’t have. He tried turning Bob Watson into the all-fields hitter he wasn’t and, while he was at it, turning Watson from a first baseman (which he was, more than capably) into a catcher (which he wasn’t, less than capably). He also tried to convince Jimmy Wynn to barrel up less and worry about his batting average more, never mind Wynn being one of the National League’s most consistent power hitters.

The fact that Wynn was an on-base machine himself by way of his smarts working out walks when need be didn’t turn up on Walker’s limited radar. Walker seemed to believe being smart enough to take the base on balls when the pitches didn’t look too hittable equaled laziness, lack of hustle.

Morgan was self-assured enough to stand athwart Walker regardless. Wynn couldn’t convince Harry the Hat that his strikeouts were an awful lot better than hitting into double plays. And neither Little Joe nor the Toy Cannon were exactly shy about letting the skipper know just that.

They tangled with Walker. (Jim Bouton, whose Ball Four covered his short stint with the 1969 Astros, remembered Wynn holding an empty rifle to Walker’s hotel room door just to blow off steam.) They lost.”The pruning of ‘troublemakers’ is a yearly project with the Astros,” snarked The Sporting News in 1971, “particularly so since Walker has been manager.”

More important, when Reds general manager Bob Howsam offered Lee May, Tommy Helms, and Jimmy Stewart to the Astros for Morgan, Menke, Ed Armbrister, Jack Billingham, and Cesar Geronimo, Astros GM Spec Richardson pounced. Richardson couldn’t yet admit that his malcontents had good reason for their malcontent and that his manager’s inveterate search for a lineup of Matty Alous did the Astros exactly one favour: none.

It did the Reds the biggest favour in their history. For the first five seasons of Morgan’s life as a Machinist, the Reds won four National League Wests, back-to-back pennants, and back-to-back World Series. The back-to-back Promised Land leases were accompanied by Morgan’s back-to-back National League Most Valuable Player awards. For the first five seasons of Morgan’s all-around, elbow-flapping, nail-driving tenure as a Machinist, he was the absolute best player on the team.

He was worth 47.8 wins above a replacement level player in just those five years. No other Red was close. Not Johnny Bench (32.4), not Pete Rose (31.4), not Tony Perez (18.3). The pain in the neck opponents saw at the plate or playing second base wasn’t just in their eyes. The objective and deeper measurements say the Big Red Machine would not have been at peak efficiency and would not have won without him.

Morgan even got to make a return engagement with the Astros after the Reds began dismantling the Machine rather than accommodate to the new free agency era. The Astros brought Morgan home on a free agency signing and he got to be part of the Astros’ surprise but engaging run to the 1980 National League Championship Series.

He even got to help the 1983 Philadelphia Wheeze Kids into the postseason. Not to mention joining the Giants and hitting the season-killing blow for the Dodgers, a two-out, three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh putting the game out of reach and assuring the Dodgers of a second-place NL West finish.

In later life Morgan became a popular and respected baseball announcer, providing insight astride Jon Miller’s play-by-play for years of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. He also became a member of the Hall of Fame’s board of directors. He was friendly and open, talking to anyone with a brain and discouraging people from calling him anything more formal than Joe, especially fellow former players.

His aplomb could be disarming, such as when he and Miller were at the mikes when the Loma Prieta earthquake rudely interrupted the 1989 World Series. “Well, I grew up in the Bay Area,” he said dryly, “so I’ve been in earthquakes before.” He wasn’t exactly bragging about it.

He was engagingly candid and realistic about his on-air presence and style. “I don’t see myself as a Larry King or somebody,” he once said. “When you do interviews, sometimes it turns to interrogations. I’m more of a conversationalist, not throwing hardball questions.”

Yet even he could never entirely avoid the mistreatment to which black people remain subject. He was once detained roughly in 1988, at Los Angeles International Airport, by undercover police assuming him a drug courier.

“Over the next hours, the nightmare deepened, and it was all because I was just another black man,” he wrote in his memoir. “No longer a celebrity, as anonymous as any other black man, I was exposed to whatever fury was going to be meted out.” He proved his identity at police headquarters and was also exposed to a $796,000 settlement in his favour by the Los Angeles City Council.

Morgan’s most wounding flaw as an analyst was his war against sabermetric analysis. This engaging man, with one of the finest minds his sport has ever known, dismissed the very idea of deep analysis of his sport, of which statistics are the very life blood, in the kind of shrillery and incoherence you’d sooner expect of an office seeker rejecting what was plain to see in front of him as an illusion, if not fake news.

Even when sabermetrics rated Morgan the greatest second baseman ever to play the game, ahead of Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby. To Morgan, Hornsby’s .358 lifetime batting average reigned supreme. Hornsby’s lackings as an all-around second baseman, and his compiling outrageous batting stats in a heavily hitter-friendly, all-daytime, non-integrated game, didn’t even register.

This was the same man whose gracious Hall of Fame acceptance speech included, “I take my vote as a salute to the little guy, the one who doesn’t hit 500 home runs. I was one of the guys that did all they could to win. I’m proud of my stats, but I don’t think I ever got on for [those].”

So let us remember Morgan the strong-willed little big man, flapping his left arm in the batter’s box before ripping a screaming line drive or a high-lining home run, turning basepaths into guerrilla warfare turf like his hero Jackie Robinson, making second base a place for the death of an enemy rally, the field lieutenant absolutely sure he’ll clear out the thickets for himself and his troops to neutralise all opposing weapons.

Let’s also remember Morgan the family man, raising two daughters who became college athletes, divorced when he and his first wife drifted apart but remarrying happily and having twin daughters with his second wife. Morgan makes the sixth Hall of Famer we’ve lost to the Elysian Fields this surrealistic season, but their loss can only be deeper.

Waste not, want not

Like Trevor Bauer in Game One, Luis Castillo’s Game Two effort was wasted by the Reds’ absentee bats and futile running.

Joey Votto said going in that his Cincinnati Reds in the postseason, however rough and tumble things had to be to get them there, would be a “[fornicating] nightmare.” He just didn’t bargain on every man in a Red uniform at the plate or on the bases being their own worst nightmares.

If the Reds wish to remain postseason competitive, waste management means waste avoidance. Because if you don’t avoid waste, no matter how efficient your pitching might be, you’ll get wasted the way the Atlanta Braves wasted the Reds late but imperatively Thursday afternoon.

The Reds’ irregular season’s grind just to claim one of this year’s ten wild cards got wasted, too, even worse than Marcell Ozuna and Adam Duvall wasted relief pitcher Raisel Iglesias’s canteloupes.

Nobody wants to take anything away from the National League East-winning Braves. They clung stubbornly in their wild card set, held on to win Thursday, 5-0, and didn’t let the Reds’ stellar starting pitching blow the spirit out of them no matter how long it took. The Reds made it a little too simple for them in the end.

The Reds won’t live this one down too readily. They’re going to have to try explaining how they became the first team in Show history to be shut out for an entire postseason set, 22 innings worth, even if it was a mere best-of-three.

They’re going to have to try explaining how Trevor Bauer in Game One struck out twelve Braves without walking a soul or surrendering a run, without getting credit for a win, but with the Reds losing in the thirteenth inning on the game’s only run—on a measly RBI single by likely National League Most Valuable Player Freddie Freeman.

They’re going to have to explain how Luis Castillo’s first-ever postseason start produced seven strikeouts in five and a third innings, only one run surrendered, only one batter walked, and Iglesias getting blown up in the eighth after Lucas Sims spelled Castillo with an inning and two-thirds of spotless relief.

Ronald Acuna, Jr. doubling home Austin Riley off Castillo with two out in the fifth only made it 1-0. But Iglesias walking Freeman to open the eighth was flirting with death. Death accepted the invitation when Ozuna found a 1-0 meatball so irresistible he yanked it into the empty left center field seats.

Walking Ozzie Alibes after striking Travis d’Arnaud out following that launch wasn’t advisable, either. How inadvisable came too clear when Duvall licked his chops at an even meatier, 0-2 meatball, and sent it out down the left field line.

“Such a professional hitter,” Braves rookie starting pitcher Ian Anderson said of Ozuna after the game, calling Ozuna the life of the club all year long. “Loves the big moment. And I know it was getting to him a little bit, the way his at-bats had unfolded up until that point. Yeah, he couldn’t have been happier, and we couldn’t have been happier for him. That was a huge hit for the team. You could kind of sense that the dugout relaxed then, just a little bit.”

The Braves now wait to see who wins the win-or-be-gone game between the Miami Marlins and the Chicago Cubs in Wrigley Field, which might have been played Thursday but for the rain saying “not so fast.”

The Reds are also going to have to explain why they couldn’t find more than two hits off Anderson but found their way to nine strikeouts against the rook making his first postseason start following six irregular season assignments and a shimmering 1.95 ERA.

Those thirteen runners the Reds stranded need some explaining, too. So does having nothing to show against three Braves relievers from the seventh through the ninth.

They’re also going to have to explain why a team with baseball’s worst collective batting average (.212) despite a few offensive upgrades last winter couldn’t find ways to avoid becoming baseball’s first to be shut out of an entire postseason series.

How many times did the Reds answer opportunity’s knocking with “Go away, we gave at the office?”

When they greeted Max Fried in Game One with back-to-back singles giving them first and third and nobody out, only to see Votto—Mr. On-Base Machine—ground out to first, Eugenio Suarez line a badminton shuttlecock to Ozzie Albies at second base, and Mike Moustakas ground out?

When manager David Bell thought he could get away with a play that even the Little League won’t try all that often, having Kyle Farmer on first and Aristedes Aquino on third try a double steal the Braves could smell from about five minutes prior to attempt, with Aquino bagged in an even more kiddie-looking rundown?

When Bell sent spaghetti-bat veteran Freddy Galvis out to pinch hit for Shogo Akiyama with two out and two on in the top of the twelfth, despite Akiyama hitting well enough down the stretch to earn the opportunity, and Galvis rewarded Bell for his unexpected faith by looking at strike three right down the middle?

When they spent Game Two with no non Venezuelan-born Red getting a single base hit, and no Red from any geography reaching base between Galvis’s walk in the second and his off-the-pillow base hit up the first base line in the fifth? When no Red from there got so much as a hit by pitch to reach base and seven out of the final thirteen Red batters struck out?

Their number one irregular season issue, their inability to hit in multiples in most innings, swallowed them deeper than the Braves’ own pitching turned out to do.

“You can look at the defensive positioning, you can look at hard-hit balls that didn’t go for hits,” Bell said after the Game Two loss. “But, it’s something we have to take a closer look at because all teams are really good at defensive positioning and can hit into bad luck at times. Why did that happen for us? We just have to really take a close look at it. We did all year. Yeah, I say, we absolutely do believe in our guys, we made adjustments as much as we possibly could. But we have to find a way to get better.”

Right he is. Every Reds position player except for three will be back in 2021, and enough of them will be on the far enough side of thirty years old. They’ll still have most of their solid pitching, though the Braves didn’t get to see Sonny Gray this week, but Bauer could walk into the free agency market this year with as many potential suitors as a debutante.

Another, older Ian Anderson, leading a British band known as Jethro Tull, sang the epitaph for this year’s Reds a little over half a century ago: It was a new day yesterday, but it’s an old day now.

The Braves get the lucky thirteenth

Freddie Freeman finally drives in the only run of the game . . . in the bottom of the thirteenth.

Put Commissioner Nero and his itch to fix what isn’t broken plus his allergy to fixing what might be to one side. The second loveliest word pair in the English language is “extra innings”—right there behind “play ball!” The Cincinnati Reds and the Atlanta Braves certainly believed in lovely word pairs Wednesday afternoon.

We just didn’t think they’d take it to a 12.5 inning shutout extreme while they were at it, before the Braves finally won 1-0 in the bottom of the thirteenth.

Neither did we think fourteen pitchers would combine for 37 strikeouts that only began with Braves starter Max Fried’s five in seven innings and Reds starter Trevor Bauer’s 12 in seven-and-two-thirds. That would mean twelve relief pitchers combining for 25 strikeouts.

It also meant history’s first Show postseason game that ever went scoreless for 12.5 innings. Not to mention Bauer become first in Show ever to throw seven-plus shutout innings with no walks and twelve or more strikeouts.

Now, Fried and Bauer were masterful. No question. But then they were also smart enough to exploit a pair of teams whose diets are dominated by long bombs. Teams who also spent six part of their first National League wild card game trying to hit eight-run homers and half a dozen parts running the bases like Dick Van Dyke trying and failing to avoid somersaulting over the ottoman after he’s only three steps through the front door.

Try not to miss the free cookie on second base to start each team’s extra half inning, either. It’s not part of the postseason, but still. Until Freddie Freeman knocked home the winning run in the bottom of the thirteenth, these Reds and these Braves spent the day proving that if they did have the cookies they still would have stranded them.

Except for the top of the tenth and the bottom of the eleventh in Truist Park, neither side could get anyone home even if they’d paid ransom remands. The Reds even stranded the bases loaded in the eleventh and the thirteenth. Atop an afternoon aboard which the Reds went 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position and the Braves went 1-for-10 likewise.

Freeman’s was the one that counted. With Amir Garrett on the mound for the Reds, and pinch runner Cristian Pache plus Ronald Acuna, Jr. aboard with one out, he lined a slightly hanging slider into right center field far enough for Pache to hit the plate unmolested.

For the Braves first baseman who prayed COVID-19 wouldn’t get him an early transfer to the Elysian Fields before the irregular season opened, it had to be the single most satisfying hit of his career to date.

It was the least Freeman and his mates could do after reliever Shane Greene left successor A.J. Minter with the bases loaded and one out in the top of the thirteenth. Thanks large for lunch, you could imagine Minter thinking as Aristedes Aquino checked in at the plate, I was dying for a jam sandwich, anyway.

Aquino wrestled Minter to 1-2 including four foul-offs before Minter lunged for and missed a changeup that broke so far low and away Aquino would have needed a search party to make serious contact. Then Minter served Jose Garcia just enough to hit a grounder up the middle that forced Mike Moustakas out for the side.

Memo to the Reds and the Braves hitters: When beasts like Fried and Bauer are on the mound, it’s wise men who heed the wise advisory, “Please don’t feed the animals.”

And, memo to everyone banging Reds manager David Bell for not putting Freeman aboard with a base open and only one out—Freeman may be the National League’s Most Valuable Player in waiting, but he’s far less effective against lefthanded pitchers (.250 batting average against portsiders this year) than righthanded. (.341.) And Garrett this year kept the lefthanded swingers to hitting .043 against him.

Lurking behind Freeman? Righthanded Marcell Ozuna, his 1.067 2020  OPS, and his penchant for demolishing lefthanders like condemned buildings and righthanders close enough to that. (.345 batting average against lefthanders this year; .333 against the starboard arms.) You want to pitch to that with the bases loaded, instead of chancing your man luring Freeman into a double play? Cream Puff the Magic Dragon Ozuna ain’t.

So Bell made the only move he could have made and left his lefthander in to face the lefthanded. You give Freeman all the credit on earth for jumping Garrett’s hanging slider. For better or worse there are times when doing the right thing isn’t as right as the other guy doing it.

Better that Reds fan is frustrated by Adam Duvall and Austin Riley collaborating on nailing Nick Castellanos at third in the sixth, when he tried taking the extra base on a single and Duvall thre the kind of strike requiring nothing but the best tag Riley could get down on Castellanos.

Or, by Aquino channeling his inner Little Leaguer with two out in the seventh, getting himself canned in a rundown between third and home. To think he reached base in the first place after a swing and a miss that dropped him on his can before singling to left with one out.

Now the Reds get to play Game Two hoping they can drop Ian Anderson and the Braves on their cans, instead of ending up singing, “It was a new day yesterday/but it’s an old day now.”

Headhunters ball

Of course our guy didn’t throw at your guy’s attic on purpose. And of course we’ll take that polar beach club off your hands for twice the market value!

A little Saturday rough stuff between the Chicago Cubs and the Cincinnati Reds may or may not be surprising. But is it all that surprising that Angel Hernandez’s umpiring crew sent it near nuclear? Not Hernandez himself, for a change, but still.

The Cubs and the Reds played a doubleheader in Great American Ballpark. Thanks to his performance in the Cubs’ first-game win (3-0), Anthony Rizzo wasn’t exactly the Reds’ favourite person on the day. Neither was Cubs starting pitcher Yu Darvish, who was so effective he could (and did) drop his glove while delivering and still throw a strike.

First, Rizzo wrestled Reds starter Trevor Bauer to a ninth pitch and drilled it down the right field line and out of sight in the top of the third. Then, in the top of the sixth, Rizzo made shorter work of Bauer by hitting a fourth-pitch 1-2 service deeper into the right field seats.

But in the top of the nightcap’s fourth, rookie Cincinnati relief pitcher Tejay Antone greeted Rizzo leading off with a pitch straight over Rizzo’s head. Rookie though he may be, Antone had all the right moves at the ready, looking at his pitching hand immediately as he turned to his right.

Of course the ball just slipped away off course against the guy who took the Reds deep twice in the first game. And of course you can have that Antarctican beach club for twice the market value. Rizzo’s reputation for plate crowding doesn’t fly here, either. If you’re going to push a batter back off the plate, you’re going to throw inside and tight, not upstairs above the attic.

“We’ve played against the Reds a long time and they do like to move my feet,” Rizzo told reporters after Cubs relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel wild-pitched the winning Reds run home in the bottom of the seventh.

It’s just part of their reports–it’s been for years. I don’t think any pitcher would purposefully throw at someone’s head. I give the benefit of the doubt to every pitcher, especially Antone. He’s a rookie. He’s been throwing really well. The pitch inside was definitely for a purpose. It’s just, it’s at the head and that’s scary stuff.

No sale. Both dugouts barked. Hernandez’s ump crew confabbed as Antone stepped into his errant-hand routine around the mound. Home plate umpire Nic Lentz handed warnings to both sides. Cubs manager David Ross, who wouldn’t have paid a wooden nickel for the pitch-slipping plea, was distinctly unamused.

Ross came out of his dugout at first, returned, then came back out after Lentz handed the warnings down. “I thought our dugout got pretty animated and the umpires stepped in and issued warnings, which I didn’t understand,” Grandpa Rossy told reporters later. “We hadn’t done anything from our perspective. A young man tried to take things into his own hands and send a message, and then it kind of escaped from there.”

With the Cubs dugout still bristling over Antone’s attic pitch to Rizzo, not to mention Antone still bristling quietly over having exchanged a few “grunts” with the Cubs previously, Ross and his pitching/catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello were ejected. It’s the first ejection in Ross’s managerial career. Welcome to Angel’s Hell, Gramps. You’re not supposed to say anything but “three bags full, sir” to the crew of the legend in his own mind.

Then the Reds got a taste of both theirs and Hernandez’s own medicine in the bottom of the fourth. Cubs reliever Adbert Adzolay zipped Reds center fielder Shogo Akiyama up, in, and tight. You’d have had to be a U.S. postmaster general not to know that Adzolay wanted to send the Reds a little return message about going upstairs against the guy who took you downtown twice in the first game.

That prompted veteran Reds leader and designated hitter for the game Joey Votto to bark at the Cubs, Kyle Schwarber in particular. Cincinnati skipper David Bell returned to the field for another conversation with the umps, during which Rizzo hollered at him from first base, which lured Votto and Reds outfielder Jesse Winker out to have it out with Rizzo.

First base umpire Dan Bellino tried and failed to convince Votto and Winker to knock it the hell off, then he invited both to kindly remove themselves from the game, at which point—pandemic protocols be damned—both benches and bullpens emptied to the field, although nobody even thought about throwing a punch.

“I went over to get an explanation for what happened,” Bell told reporters afterward. “And then I believe Anthony Rizzo started walking towards me and yelling at me,” Bell said. “I don’t know what he was saying, it didn’t really matter to me. And at that point, a couple of our players jumped over the railing and the umpire just started throwing everybody out of the game. Not everybody, but Jesse Winker, Joey Votto and myself.”

“Having each other’s backs and the Reds and all their guys and David Bell are going to have each other’s backs and we’re going to have our backs,” said Rizzo, who speaks fondly of Bell otherwise from Bell’s days as a Cubs infield coach. “That’s what happens when you’re competing anytime through baseball, but especially this year when it’s all heightened and you can hear every little thing.”

The Twitterverse erupted with a round of brickbats against Hernandez as the leader of the crew, but in absolute fairness this was one time when Hernandez himself didn’t jump the first bullet train to make himself the object of everyone’s attention. That’s about as far as absolute fairness should go, thanks to a time-honoured precept that when you lead you take responsibility for what your subordinates do, for better or worse.

Including making the headhunters captured by the game the story of the day, instead of Darvish’s virtuosity on the mound in the first game. Or even the hapless and once-formidable Kimbrel’s ninth-inning nightcap disaster, when he was brought in to try saving a 5-4 Cubs lead and should-have-been win. Oops.

He walked Reds catcher Curt Casali on 3-1 to open the bottom of the ninth. He struck Votto’s successor Mark Payton out, but he wild-pitched Casali’s pinch runner Freddy Galvis to second before walking Nicholas Castellanos. Winker’s successor Aristedes Aquino singled Galvis home, then Kimbrel wild-pitched Castellanos and Aquino to third and second, respectively, before walking Eugenio Suarez.

The good news: Cardiac Kimbrel struck Mike Moustakas and Jose Garcia swinging, back to back, Garcia especially on one of the filthiest curve balls Kimbrel’s thrown in recent times. The bad news: That strikeout pitch escaped not just Garcia’s bat but one and all around and behind the plate, enabling Castellanos to score the Reds’ winning run.

Too-vivid reminders of how Kimbrel, formerly one of the most automatic closers in the Show, kept the crash carts on red alert during the 2018 Boston Red Sox’s postseason run even when credited with saves. The poor man threw four first-pitch strikes out of his six batters but only three of his eleven total strikes were called and his earned run average now matched a ten-dollar bill.

“We’re behind him every single day,” Rizzo said of Kimbrel. “Every time he comes to the mound, we’re behind him and have full confidence in him. He’s Craig Kimbrel. He has his resume for a reason.” That door swings both ways, unfortunately.