Opening Day: Snow fooling

There was nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. The snow took control of the transmission when Miguel Cabrera hit this Opening Day home run . . .

Just because the expected Opening Day marquee battle between Jacob deGrom (Mets) and Max Scherzer (Nationals) had to be postponed (COVID-positive Nats players and a team staffer to quarantine), that didn’t mean Wednesday was going to lack for the good, the bad, and the bizarre. This is baseball. Where anything can happen—and usually does.

Especially if Opening Day is also April Fool’s Day. The part that wasn’t a gag—fans in the stands again, at long enough last. The sound was glorious, even if reduced from most normal capacities thanks to the continuing if only slightly receding pan-damn-ic.

Comerica Park should have been playing “Winter Wonderland” Wednesday. The Tigers’ aging star Miguel Cabrera shouldn’t be blamed if he was singing “Let it Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.” Especially when he more than a little hard on the Bieber, turning on the Indian ace’s rising snowball, hitting a two-run homer, and . . . sliding into second base, unable to tell through the snow that the ball flew out.

I don’t know if the Coors Field public address people had it cued up, but they could and should have sounded “Don’t Pass Me By” after Dodger first baseman Cody Bellinger hit an RBI single . . . off Rockies left fielder Raimel Tapia’s glove and over the left field fence. The problem: Justin (Who Was That Unmasked Man) Turner not seeing the ball reach the seats and retreating to first, compelling Bellinger to pass him on the basepath.

Oops. On a day the Rockies thumped Clayton Kershaw and managed to squeeze a win out after doing what Rockies usually do in the off-season—in this case, unloading their franchise player and all but reveling in front office dissembly and mission abandonment—Turner was the gift that . . . added insult to injury for the defending World Series winners.

The sleeper star in waiting in Blue Jays silks might have thought about singing an ancient  T. Rex number called “The Slider.” Gerrit Cole’s was just too juicy for Teoscar Hernandez to resist in the sixth. He sent it into earth orbit or 437 feet and into the left field bleachers at Yankee Stadium—whichever came first. Who needed Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.?

Just one thing was wrong. Hernandez needs to work on his bat flips. He didn’t have one. A blast like that was just begging for him to go Willson Contreras. Hernandez just ambled up the base line carrying his bat, then kind of nudged it away to the grass. He’s young, with plenty of time to learn, though. And his blast tied the game the Jays went on to win, 3-2.

Which is the score by which the Phillies beat the Braves in ten innings—after Bryce Harper began the inning as the free cookie on second base, took third on J.T. (Nothing Is) Realmuto’s ground out, waited patiently as Didi Gregorius was handed first on the house, then came home with the winner when Jean Segura sliced a single to left.

The game got to the tenth in the first place because Phillies manager Joe Girardi decided he wasn’t quite ready to trust the National League’s leading arsonists with taking over from certified innings-eater Aaron Nola with a 2-0 lead in the seventh. The Braves were far more ready to trust Pablo Sandoval—erstwhile Giant, one-time World Series hero, all-time poster child for Slim Slow—to pinch hit for Max Fried’s relief Tyler Matzek with a man on.

. . . and slid into second unable to tell at first whether the ball or the snow cleared the fence.

Kung Fu Panda turned out to be more than ready to hit Nola’s 0-2, slightly down and slightly in fastball into the right field seats. Girardi is many things but a crystal ball operator isn’t one of them. If he had been, he could have lifted Nola safe and sound because the Phillies’ bullpen apparently forgot to refill the gasoline cans for a change. Not even a bases-loaded jam in the eighth could keep Archie Bradley, Jose Alvarado, Hector Neris and Conner Brogdon from keeping the Braves scoreless over the final three and a third.

Does Philadelphia believe in miracles? Don’t ask too quickly, folks. Remember: this is the baseball town in which a typical wedding concludes with the minister pronouncing the newly-married couple husband and wife—then addressing the gathering with, “You may now boo the bride.” As much as I hate to drop a cliche so worn you see more holes there than in an oil field, the Phillies have 161 games left to play. Ruh-roh.

That was last year’s pan-damn-ically irregular season: Twins center fielder Byron Buxton, who sometimes evokes Willie Mays when he’s not on the injured list, walked twice all year long. This was Opening Day: Buxton should have had “Cadillac Walk” as his entrance music—he walked twice. He also blasted a two-run homer to the rear end of American Family Field in the seventh and had his arm calibrated so well that the Brewers didn’t dare to even think about running wild on him.

Buxton’s blast made it 5-3, Twins. Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, the Twins undid their own sweet selves with a badly timed error, making room for a ninth-inning, three-run, game-tying comeback that turned into a 6-5 Brewers win on—wait for it!—a chopped ground out that left just enough room for Lorenzo Cain to score the winner from third. (A transplanted Minnesotan of my acquaintance thinks, only, “That’s so Twins!”)

The Twins were saved from Opening April Fool’s Day ignominy by the Reds, alas. The Cardinals spotted Jack Flaherty a six-run lead in the first—abusing Reds starter Luis Castillo with an RBI infield hit, a bad error by Reds third baseman Eugenio Suarez playing shortstop, and Dylan Carlson ringing a three-run homer off the foul pole—before he had to throw a single competitive pitch in the game.

Flaherty didn’t quite have his A game. A C+ might be more like it. Lucky for him and the bullpen that the Cardinals felt in the mood to abuse the Reds the rest of the way: An RBI single and a run home on a wild pitch plus a two-run homer in the fifth, and it didn’t matter if the Cardinal arms let the Reds have all six of those first-inning runs back. Let the Cardinals’ song for the day be “The Eleven,” as in the 11-6 final.

The bad news for the Angels opening at home against the White Sox: the lineup struck out ten times. The good news: only four of them came in the final six innings. Meanwhile, they beat the White Sox 4-3 like pests instead of power drivers: walking here, working counts there, game-tying single here (Justin Upton), solo homer (Max Stassi) there, RBI single (Mike Trout) and RBI ground out (Albert Pujols) yonder, the bullpen keeping the White Sox quiet the final three.

Not to mention the Still Best Player in the Game ending his Opening Day with a .750 on-base percentage: that RBI single plus a pair of well-worked walks in four plate appearances. Trout could also point proudly to something not usually associated with the Angels the last couple of years: they didn’t let the game get away early, and they nailed it late with a two-run eighth and a shutdown ninth by reliever Raisel Iglesias.

Unfortunately, time will tell if a triumph like that proves an April Fool’s joke that wasn’t half as funny as Miguel Cabrera’s home run slide.

But here’s no joke: There were 222 hits on Opening Day and a mere 35 percent of them went for extra bases, including a measly thirteen percent being home runs, while fifteen percent of the day’s hits were infield hits. The games produced a .311 batting average on balls in play. There were even nineteen tries at grand theft base and 79 percent of them succeeded.

Maybe the rumours of the all-around game’s death are more than slightly exaggerated for now. When there’s a slightly higher percentage of infield hits than home runs on a day, the small ballers should take their victories where they can find them. But you wonder if Cabrera will inspire more than a few players to think it’s time to work on their home run slides.

“Wins” aren’t everything . . .

If you still think the towering Met didn’t earn his back-to-back Cy Young Awards . . .

When Jacob deGrom won back-to-back National League Cy Young Awards despite ten wins the first time and eleven the second, enough of the Old Fart Contingent (OFC from here forward) went nuclear. They’ve really lost it this time, the OFC fumed over the award voters. They still fume, occasionally.

What was Max Scherzer with his three-way-tying eighteen wins, then? What was Miles Mikolas, with the least number of losses among the three with eighteen wins? (And the best winning percentage in the league.) That’s the OFC fuming. The proper question really is, what’s this continuing nonsense about judging pitchers first by their “wins?”

Well, maybe not. The truly proper question is: Name me one pitcher who got all 27 outs in the game all by his lonesome, with no help from the catcher calling his pitches or blocking pitches or spearing potential wild pitches; no help from the fielders behind him. (I could be a real rat and follow it with another question: Name me one pitcher who created and produced every run scored by his team during every one of his “wins.”)

While the crickets continue chirping from the OFC grounds, I’d like to show you a table of three 27-game “winners.” The only other thing this trio has in common is winning the Cy Young Award in those seasons. I’m going to show you their “won-lost” records first:

  W-L
Pitcher A 27-6
Pitcher B 27-9
Pitcher C 27-10

The OFC who looks at the “wins” and “losses” first will tell you Pitcher A was the best of the three when he had his 27-“win” season. Now, will the OFC have a look at the trio’s earned run averages, fielding-independent pitching (FIP; kind of your ERA when your fielders’ work is removed from the equation), strikeouts (screw Crash Davis, missing bats is not fascist), strikeouts per nine innings, and earned runs surrendered? (An [#] means leading the entire Show; a [*] means leading the league.)

  ERA FIP K K/9 ER
Pitcher A 2.95 4.19 127 1.7 78
Pitcher B 1.73# 2.07# 317# 8.8# 62
Pitcher C 1.97* 2.01# 310* 3.6* 76

Pitcher A’s 27-6 doesn’t look quite the leader of the pack now, does it? By the way, Pitcher A received 5.0 runs of support from his team while he was on the mound in his games that season. Pitcher B received 4.0 runs of support while he was on the mound in his 27-winning season. Pitcher C received 3.4 runs of support while he was on the mound in his 27-winning season.

The more runs a pitcher has to work with, the less stressful his day’s work will be, of course. Notice Pitcher A was a little too comfortable, surrendering the most earned runs of the trio while striking out the fewest. Pitcher C worked 26 more innings, approximately, than Pitcher B, and surrendered six more earned runs and struck out seven fewer batters. Pitchers A and C experienced fluke seasons overall; Pitcher B had just pitched his sixth straight season leading the entire Show in FIP.

Pitcher A is Bob Welch. Pitcher B is Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax. Pitcher C (perhaps appropriately) is Steve Carlton. Koufax and Carlton were the no-questions-asked best starting pitchers on their teams. Welch wasn’t. Not even close. As a matter of fact, two starters (including Dave Stewart) and two relievers (including Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley) had better FIPs than Welch in 1990, while the same quartet also had better ERAs.

So how on earth did the 1990 American League Cy Young Award voters give Welch the award? They saw the 27 “wins” and didn’t bother looking at the real indicators of a pitcher’s effectiveness. If they had looked that deep, they would have handed the 1990 American League Cy Young Award to Roger Clemens. (ERA: 1.93; FIP: 2.18; K/BB: 3.87—all of which led the entire Show.)

“In baseball,” wrote Keith Law in Smart Baseball, “team victories matter, but the idea of a single player earning full credit for a win or blame for a loss exposes a deep ignorance of how the game actually plays out on the field.”

If you’ve ever actually watched an actual game of baseball, you know that the sport doesn’t function this way: even a pitcher who throws a perfect game gets some help somewhere—from his defense, from his catcher, and of course from the offense that scored at least one run so he didn’t have to go out and pitch the tenth inning—which happened to Pedro Martinez in 1995 while he was still a Montreal Expo. Pedro threw nine perfect innings against the Padres, but the Expos couldn’t push a run across until the tenth inning; only after that did he qualify for the win despite retiring all 27 batters he’d faced to that point. As the pitcher, Martinez couldn’t have done any more to help his team win the game, but he didn’t “earn” the victory until his teammates scored. This is because the entire thought process that led us to this point, where a starting pitcher gets that credit or blame, is both out of date and very, very stupid.

Don’t you just love watching the OFC temperatures bursting the mercury tubes? Would you like to send them straight into the ionosphere? Let me give you two more pitchers, one of whom won the Cy Young Award in the season in question and the other of whom out-pitched him profoundly:

  W-L ERA FIP K K/9 ER
The Winner 21-8 3.48 3.75 157 6.3 86
The Shoulda Been 16-7 2.87 2.80# 238# 9.2* 74

The winner was Bartolo Colon, 2005. The shoulda-been 2005 winner (if you’re picking strictly starting pitchers) was Johan Santana.

The OFC will tell you those 21 “wins” which led the American League made Colon a no-brainer. (How about one more “loss” than Santana?) The Show-leading FIP and strikeouts, plus the American League-leading 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings and surrendering 12 fewer earned runs, should have told voters Santana was the best starting pitcher in the league that season.

The only American League starter that year who got close to Santana’s ERA was Kevin Millwood, whose 2.86 led the league. But Millwood’s FIP (3.73) was only two points lower than Colon’s; he didn’t miss as many bats as Santana or Colon (146 strikeouts; 6.8 K/9); and, his K/BB ratio (2.81) wasn’t even Colon (3.65), never mind Santana (5.29).

Let’s look in another direction. In 1965, Sandy Koufax pitched a perfect game. Koufax struck fourteen batters out, including striking out the side in the ninth. The remaining thirteen outs came through the courtesy of three ground outs and ten fly outs. It’s absolutely fair to say Koufax himself took care of one more out than his fielders did. It’s absolutely fair to say that Koufax did more to win the game than the rest of the team did.

A year before Koufax’s jewel, Hall of Famer Jim Bunning pitched the National League’s first perfect game of the World Series era. (1903-present.) Bunning struck ten batters out. The remaining seventeen outs came by way of eleven fly outs and nine ground outs. Bunning needed more help than Koufax needed to consummate the game. So did a lot of other perfect game pitchers.

There are 21 perfect games in the World Series era, including one that was pitched in a World Series. Nineteen have available game logs, beginning with Charlie Robertson’s perfecto of 30 April 1922. We’ll see their strikeouts, ground outs, and fly outs. I’ll assign each pitcher a win factor (WF) based on his strikeouts (which he got by himself) divided by the sum of ground and fly outs (for which he needed more than a little help from his friends). I’m also including their fielding-independent pitching rates for those seasons.

Pitcher Score K GB FB WF FIP (Yr.)
Charlie Robertson (1922) 2-0 6 7 14 .286 3.85
Don Larsen (1956)* 2-0 7 6 14 .350 4.27
Jim Bunning (1964) 6-0 10 6 11 .588 2.75
Sandy Koufax (1965) 1-0 14 3 10 1.077 1.93
Catfish Hunter (1968) 4-0 11 7 9 .688 3.46
Len Barker (1981) 3-0 11 9 7 .688 2.46
Mike Witt (1984) 1-0 10 13 4 .588 3.16
Tom Browning (1988) 1-0 7 10 10 .350 4.50
Dennis Martinez (1991) 2-0 5 17 5 .227 3.17
Kenny Rogers (1994) 4-0 8 7 12 .421 4.55
David Wells (1998) 4-0 11 6 10 .688 3.80
David Cone (1999) 6-0 10 4 13 .588 4.28
Randy Johnson (2004) 2-0 13 7 7 .929 2.30
Mark Buehrle (2009) 5-0 6 11 10 .286 4.46
Dallas Braden (2010) 4-0 6 7 14 .286 3.80
Roy Halladay (2010) 1-0 11 8 8 .688 3.01
Philip Humber (2012) 4-0 9 5 13 .500 5.77
Matt Cain (2012) 10-0 14 6 7 1.077 3.40
Felix Hernandez (2012) 1-0 9 8 7 .800 2.84

Notice that only two of those perfect games have a pitcher win factor one or higher. They just so happen to be tied for the most strikeouts in a perfect game while we’re at it. On the other hand, Koufax got ten outs in the air and three on the ground. Still, Koufax and Cain were equal keeping the ball in the yard for a little help from their friends.

“How about we just de-emphasise the win?” —Clayton Kershaw.

So why shouldn’t Cain be regarded as Koufax’s equal? Aside from the obvious (Koufax is a no-questions-asked peak value Hall of Famer; Cain is maybe the 282nd best starting pitcher of all time), Koufax’s game kind of proved that practise makes perfect: he’d thrown one no-hitter in each of the three previous seasons. Cain’s perfecto was the only no-hitter of his career, and he had the most runs to work with of any of these perfect game pitchers.

Koufax also had a lot less to work with. He also pitched with the anomaly of his mound opponent, Bob Hendley of the Cubs, coming thatclose to pitching a no-hitter on the backside of the game. The lone run of the game scored on a walk, a sacrifice, a steal, and a throwing error on the steal; the only hit of the game was a double after which the batter was stranded without another baserunner.

The closest to the Left Arm of God was the Big Unit: Hall of Famer Randy Johnson had only two runs to work with while striking thirteen out. Johnson and fellow Hall of Famer Roy Halladay are also the only ones of the perfecto pitchers to divide the work among their teammates evenly between the infield and the outfield.

Don Larsen’s opponent in Game Five of the 1956 World Series was Dodger nemesis-turned-teammate Sal Maglie, who’d thrown a no-hitter of his own during the regular season while helping make the final Brooklyn pennant possible. Decades later, Maglie told Peter Golenbock (for Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers), “I wish we had played in Ebbets Field the game that Larsen beat me, ’cause we hit some mighty long balls that were caught. In our ballpark, I don’t believe they would have beat me.”

Sour grapes? Among the above perfecto pitchers, Larsen tied with Charlie Robertson and Dallas Braden for the most fly outs. These are the flies from which Larsen benefited:

Duke Snider—liner to right field. (1st.)
Jackie Robinson—liner to third. (2nd.)
Sandy Amoros—pop fly around second base. (2nd.)
Carl Furillo—right field. (3rd.)
Sal Maglie—liner to center. (3rd.)
Jackie Robinson—deep right field. (5th.)
Gil Hodges—deep left center field. (5th.)
Carl Furillo—pop fly around second base. (6th.)
Roy Campanella—short center field. (6th.)
Pee Wee Reese—deep left center field. (7th.)
Duke Snider—fly to left field. (7th.)
Gil Hodges—liner to third. (8th.)
Sandy Amoros—deep left center field. (8th.)
Carl Furillo—right field. (9th.)

Maglie was probably right about Hodges in the fifth, Reese in the seventh, and Amoros in the eighth. Balls hit in Yankee Stadium’s impossible deep left center field just might have meant extra-base hits or home runs in Ebbets Field’s shorter dimensions. Robinson’s fifth-inning fly might have hit Ebbets Field’s higher, beveled right field wall. Hodges, Reese, or Amoros, maybe even all three, just might have had home runs if Game Five was played in Ebbets.

Dodger Stadium in 1965 was no hitter’s paradise, either, but Koufax surrendered only one deep fly out—Byron Browne’s high liner toward the back of right center field in the top of the second—that might have been extra bases or a possible home run if the game was played in Wrigley Field.

So what’s the point of all that? Maybe the point is that, even if you pitch a perfect game, you didn’t win it all by your lonesome unless you struck out every one of the 27 men you faced to get there without your catcher having to hold onto a foul tip or throw the batter out at first after bobbling or losing the ball on strike three.

Among the perfecto pitchers, Koufax and Cain got the closest. But if you also measure by each perfecto pitcher’s FIP in the season he turned his trick, Koufax was the most likely to pitch a perfect game the year he did it among any of the nineteen listed who did it—and Philip Humber was the least likely to do it.

(If only we had the game log for Cy Young’s 1904 perfecto! Pitching in the dead ball era, when pitchers were still encouraged to let the batters make contact as best they could, Young’s 1.83 FIP made him look like a candidate to pitch a perfect game, but with a 4.7 K/9 ratio you’d also think he needed a lot more help from his friends than Koufax [10.2 K/9 ration in 1965] did to nail one.)

The five pitchers who struck 20 or more batters out in a single nine-inning game did more to win those games than even the perfecto pitchers did.

Pitcher Score K GB FB WF FIP
Roger Clemens (1986) 3-1 20 3 4 2.86 2.81
Roger Clemens (1996) 4-0 20 8 4 1.67 3.43
Kerry Wood (1998) 2-0 20 5 3 2.50 3.16
Randy Johnson (2001) 4-3 20 3 6 2.22 2.13
Max Scherzer (2016) 3-2 20 3 10 1.54 3.24

Five starters in major league history struck out 20 in a nine-inning game and only two of them (Clemens, Wood) threw shutouts. Wood usually gets the big enough edge because a) he had half the runs to work with that Clemens had; and, b) only three balls hit off him traveled skyward. But Clemens needed one fewer out overall. That’s while pondering that, based on FIP, Johnson may have been the most likely of the quartet to punch out twenty in a nine-inning game.

If by now you’re beginning to think that maybe pitching wins aren’t everything for a pitcher, perhaps you’d like to have a look at a game illustrating that maybe pitching losses aren’t exactly everything for a pitcher, either:

Pitcher Score K GB FB WF FIP
The Hardest-Luck Loser? 1-0 8 14 16 .267 3.40

That was Harvey Haddix’s thirteen-inning heartbreaker in 1959. When he pitched twelve “perfect” innings only to have it broken up in the thirteenth for the loss. (The game is said to have inspired Lew Burdette—the Braves pitcher who went the distance to get credit for the win—when he talked contract before the following season: That guy pitched the greatest game of all time and he still couldn’t beat me—so I must be the greatest pitcher who ever lived. The prankish Burdette got his laugh . . . and his raise, so the story goes.)

There’s no question Haddix worked his tail off to get the game as far as he got it, but a combine of thirty ground and fly outs means he got a lot of help from his friends. Pitchers always do, when all is said and done.

The only friends from whom Haddix got no help were in the Pirates lineup, unable to push runs across the plate despite twelve hits including first and third in the top of the ninth. (They went 0-for-2 with men in scoring position and hit into three double plays while they were at it, too.)

Back to Jacob deGrom. We’ll have a look at his work during his two Cy Young Award seasons, the ones the OFC still believes shouldn’t have gotten him the awards because he didn’t “win” enough. Using the same win factor formula as I used to review the perfecto pitchers, this is the towering Met in 2018-2019:

Pitcher K GB FB WF FIP
Jacob deGrom (2018-2019) 524 360 331 .758 2.33

DeGrom’s win factor shows he pitched more than well enough to earn more “wins” than he actually earned over those two years and to avoid more “losses” than he was charged with in the same period. But enough of the OFC will insist deGrom’s 22 “wins” in 2018-19 mean he wasn’t even a winner, never mind Cy Young Award worthy.

There’s an active three-time Cy Young Award winner who could have been charged with heresy by the OFC for a remark he made during an interview with MLB Network at the 2012 All-Star Game. He actually said, more or less, that pitching “wins” aren’t everything.

Well, he was asked if the pitching win ought to be sent the way of the 78 rpm record. (Well, not quite in those words.) According to Ahead of the Curve author Brian Kenny, one of the three interviewers, this pitcher “said he thought there were many more important categories and thought the W-L was frequently misleading. [Harold Reynolds and Dan Plesac] groaned, lamenting a missed opportunity to crush me.”

I seized on it, asking, “Can we then count on you for the Kill the Win program?” [This pitcher] answered diplomatically, “How about we just de-emphasise the win?”

I’ll take it, Clayton.

That’s Clayton as in Kershaw, he with a pair of 21-game “winning” seasons and the lifetime 175-76 “won-lost” record. The pitcher who nailed back-to-back Cy Young Awards with a 1.91 FIP, a 1.96 ERA, and a mere 16 “wins” in the second of the two seasons. (The first: 21 “wins.”) The fellow who struck out 530 batters over those two seasons, against 418 ground outs and 235 fly outs—for an .812 win factor.

When a man winning back-to-back Cy Young Awards with a win factor higher than those seasons’ “winning percentage” talks, it might be wise to listen.

If it’s any comfort to either himself in the Elysian Fields, or to the OFC any old place you choose to place them, Harvey Haddix’s 1959 FIP says he was more likely to pitch and consummate a perfect game than eight pitchers who actually did pitch and consummate them. Including the million-to-one shot who did it in a World Series.

On roasting Manfred and redeeming Kershaw

How sweet it is for Clayton Kershaw at last.

Above and beyond the obvious, two sights and sounds in Globe Life Field tended to out-shine the rest after the Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series. In order, they were commissioner Rob Manfred being booed while he spoke during postgame ceremonies, and Clayton Kershaw hoisting the World Series trophy with the biggest grin this side of Teeth Malloy.

Getting a season in at all in the time of coronavirus was somewhat miraculous, even if Manfred and his overlords did just about everything in their power to make it difficult, impossible, and don’t-even-think-about-it. Would it have been better to live without the Show at all this year? We’ll never know now.

Then Manfred and his masters decided to impose the sixty-game irregular season. And they couldn’t resist tinkering like the nutty professor going a hundred miles backward to go one mile forward. Manfred may be seen as just the owners’ messenger boy, but his office also allows him liberal latitude to act on behalf of the good of the game.

The good of the game does not include a free runner on second to start the extra innings. The good of the game does not include a three-batter minimum for relief pitchers except when they were brought in during disaster and got out of it. The good of the game does not include a postseason array that actually made room for two losing teams to even think about playing for a championship.

One out of four ain’t bad. The universal DH needs to stay. Period dot period. That one Manfred gets right. It only took 129 years for the National League to be made to catch up to the NL owner who thought of it in the first place because the pitchers in his day couldn’t hit, either.

God help us if Manfred decides the 29-31 Houston Astros getting to within one game of winning the pennant says, “See? We told you! Letting the losers in didn’t stop the cream from rising!” Even allowing the irregular, truncated regular season, there was only one reason to pray the Astros got to the World Series: if the likewise 29-31 Milwaukee Brewers somehow got there, too.

It would have made Manfred and his masters look like the fools they would have been if American baseball’s annual crowning achievement had been decided between (ir)regular season losers. Not that they needed that to look foolish, of course.

Pray that even one among the owners to whom the common good of the game is, was, and always will be making money for it otherwise hits Manfred with the wake-up-your-brain two-by-four. And, that 2021 will see a return to some semblance of normalcy. Just some will do. Would Steve Cohen, the brand-new owner of the New York Mets, like to be that stand-up guy? He’d make Branch Rickey the proudest man in the Elysian Fields.

Enough of that for now. Manfred getting booed is only a transient pleasure. Kershaw hoisting that piece of metal is transcendent. Especially after he pitched like the Hall of Famer-to-be that he is all postseason long. Especially after his manager finally figured out how to keep him from situations in which even the Greatest Pitcher of His Generation could get bushwhacked, bastinadoed, broiled, and basted.

The narrative of Kershaw looking like Sandy Koufax in his regular season career but Crazy Schmit in the postseason was always a little on the ridiculous side. It finally got exhausting to remind people that you could probably win a pennant fielding a team full of the Hall of Famers whose regular seasons put them in Cooperstown but whose World Series gigs compared to Blooperstown, often through no fault of their own.

Juan Marichal only got to appear in one Series at all and barely had the chance to strut his real stuff. Willie Mays had The Catch in 1954 but nothing much else to show for three Series. Ted Simmons reached one Series near the end of his career and showed the beginning of his decline phase. Ted Williams reached one Series, was throttled by an elbow injury, and never got another chance. Robin Roberts lost a tough game in his only World Series and never got another chance to try. Joe Morgan had the occasional moment but a modest overall Series jacket.

To them add these Hall of Famers: Luke Appling, Ernie Banks, Jim Bunning, Rod Carew, Andre Dawson, Ferguson Jenkins, George Kell, Ralph Kiner, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Ryne Sandberg, Ron Santo, and Billy Willams never got even a single taste of Series play.

“Baseball executives like to talk about how variance dictates the postseason,” Andy McCullough writes in The Athletic. Kershaw has pitched long enough in October to live that truism. It would be disingenuous to say his bad numbers stem from bad luck. Yet it would be foolish to ignore the breaks.”

Once upon a time, Kershaw’s handiwork got wrecked through little enough fault of his own. This time, whenever Kershaw needed the breaks the most he got them. Breaks like Cody Bellinger’s stupefying, back-to-the-wall, rising theft of a go-ahead bomb by Fernando Tatis, Jr. Like the Braves’ Austin Riley tripping into a key out. Like Victor Gonzalez in relief ending a troublesome inning by palming Mike Zunino’s speeding bullet.

Kershaw is a man whose teammates describe him as playful and a little goofy on the days he doesn’t pitch. He’s so unapologetically footloose when playing with his young children at the ballpark and elsewhere on his days off that it’s easy to ask who’s more fortunate, Kershaw for having such agreeably charming children or the children for having such an agreeable father.

He also prizes control of his work and his personal environment on the days he does pitch. Especially the past two seasons, when he’s had to remake his approach in part because of persistent back issues and in part because of the onset of baseball age. But he appreciates when he gets those little extras in a game that so often prove the equivalent of the World War II fighter pilot having nothing but a turning propeller between himself and disaster.

This time around, Kershaw didn’t have to be the most powerful engine on the Dodger aircraft. He just had to do what he could do with whatever he had. The Dodgers entered Game Four believing they’d finish one game from crossing the Jordan and ended up on the wrong end of maybe the single most berserk loss in World Series history.

All that meant was Kershaw pitching Game Five not to get to the Promised Land but to get to the Jordan’s banks after such a surreal throwback. Kershaw’s Game Five mastery got  them back to the banks. This time, Mookie Betts, Corey Seager, Austin Barnes, and the Dodger bullpen rowed them across in Game Six.

“Who knows how many times I’m going to get to go to the World Series?” Kershaw has been quoted as saying. “I know more than anybody how hard it is to get there.” He also knows a lot more than a lot of people forget how hard it really is to get across from the banks to the Promised Land.

Attempted burglary

Manuel Margot is arrested in the bottom of the fourth by Patrolman Barnes Sunday night.

Manuel Margot missed home invasion by a hair in the bottom of the fourth. Or at least a hand.

Baseball’s first shot at stealing home in a World Series since the Anaheim Angels’s Brad Fullmer in the 2002 Series got thatclose to turning Game Five around in the Tampa Bay Rays’ favour Sunday night. And it wasn’t on the front end of a double steal attempt.

Catching Los Angeles Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw in a lefthander’s naturally disadvantageous vantage point, and with the left side of the infield unoccupied in a defensive shift, Margot thought burglary’s risk minimal with the reward promising to be great.

“t was 100 percent my decision,” the Rays left fielder said after the 4-2 Rays loss. “I thought it was a good idea at the time. I had a pretty good chance of being safe.”

Center fielder Kevin Kiermaier at the plate. Margot, who’d been taking leads as big as the law allows whenever he reached third all postseason long, jumped right after Kershaw heeded his first baseman Max Muncy and stepped off the pitching rubber.

Kershaw threw home, a little off line. Margot dove to the plate and almost made it. Dodger catcher Austin Barnes got a tag on his slightly raised sliding hand a split second before it touched the plate.

“I thought I was really close,” Margot said. “I really didn’t know where they touched me. [The Rays] didn’t challenge.” A challenge might have proven futile. What Margot did, though, was a kind of triumph despite his arrest for first degree burglary.

Kiermaier certainly thought so. “It was a gutsy move and it didn’t work out that time,” he said postgame. “Manny is a great baserunner. He’s not afraid to take risks. I didn’t have a problem with it . . . It takes a lot of guts to sit here and try that in the World Series. It just didn’t work out.”

Rays manager Kevin Cash wouldn’t object, either. “I think Manny felt he could just time him up . . . I think we try to do things and make decisions and allow players to be athletic,” he said postgame. “If Manny felt he had a read on it, for whatever reason, it’s tough for me to say yes or no, just because he’s a talented baserunner. He might be seeing something I’m not or can’t appreciate in the moment right there.”

Stealing home on a double-steal attempt is rare enough in the postseason. Stealing home straight, no chaser in the Series makes the double-steal as common as breakfast coffee. Maybe the most fabled attempt was Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson in Game One of the 1955 Series. The Hall of Fame catcher on the play eventually got to autograph a photo of it for President Barack Obama:

Yogi habitually autographed photos of that play with “He was out!” for the rest of his life. Robinson’s was only the fifth successful straight-no-chaser home theft in Series history. The other four?

Game Two, 1909—The Series billed heavily as a showdown between two of the Hall of Fame’s Inaugural Five: Detroit’s Ty Cobb and Pittsburgh’s Honus Wagner. The Dutchman generally out-played the Peach in the Series, but Cobb caught Pirates reliever Vic Willis so fixed on Tigers batter George Moriarty that the baby and his candy had a better chance against a thief than the Pirates did when Cobb stole home.

Game One, 1921—Yankees middle infielder Mike McNally doubled in the fifth, took third on a bunt, and helped himself to home on the house. He made it look almost so simple a man with a fractured leg could have gotten away with it. Sort of.

Game Two, 1921—Yankee legend Bob Meusel decided to return the favour. He had a little help from Giants catcher Earl Smith—when Smith dropped Al Nehf’s pitch around the plate–but, of course, you never look a gift Giant in the mouth.

Game One, 1951—Hall of Famer Monte Irvin led off in the top of the first with a two-out base hit and took third when Whitey Lockman whacked a ground-rule double. Giants manager Leo Durocher, who knew a few things about thievery (such as the telescopic sign-stealing scheme that enabled the Giants’ pennant race comeback and playoff force in the first place), decided Irvin should take the chance with Bobby Thomson at the plate. Yankee pitcher Allie Reynolds helped with his habit of looking down as he took the sign from Berra. Irvin stole home so readily it’s a wonder he didn’t take up bank robbery after his playing days ended.

There but for the grace of maybe four inches would Margot have pilfered his way into the books. Not only would he have had the mere sixth straight home invasion in Series history, his would have been the first such successful heist in any Series game later than Game Two.

The truly bad news for the Rays after Margot was cuffed and stuffed was Dodgers first baseman Max Muncy checking in at the plate in the top of the fifth, with two out and the Dodgers leading 3-2, and wrestling Rays starter Tyler Glasnow to a full count before blasting a fastball down Broadway almost halfway up the right field seats.

Kershaw, who passed fellow future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander to take the top seat on the all-time postseason strikeout list Sunday night, didn’t catch on to Margot’s burglary attempt until just about the last split second.

“That has happened to me before,” Kershaw said, filing his postgame police report. “I wasn’t really anticipating it, but I have talked to first basemen in the past. Muncy, I have talked to him about it as well like, ‘Hey, I look at him but when I come set I don’t really see the runner, so you got to yell at me if they start going.’ And he was yelling at me, step off step off step off. So instinctually I just did it. It was a big out for us right there.”

Beats a burglar alarm.

The Rays off script, the Dodgers on top

Clayton Kershaw opened the 2020 World Series with more than a flourish.

Somehow, no matter what the pandemic threw down in baseball’s way, we managed to arrive at the World Series. Somehow, the game’s 99 Cent Store from Tampa Bay bumped, pole vaulted, and sky dove to a Series against the game’s Amazon from Los Angeles.

In Globe Life Field, the brand-new playpen of the Texas Rangers. Where the turf is artificial, the roof makes it resemble the hangar for a Boeing 747, and you can just can all the hoo-ha about the wonders of a neutral-site World Series.

The Dodgers entered with a sort-of home field advantage.They’ve been playing at Globe Life from their National League division series forward. With the pandemic-inspired divisional geography schedule on the irregular season, the Rays never got to play the Rangers even once.

They’ve been been playing there from their division series forward. With the pandemic-inspired divisional geography schedule this irregular season, the Rays never got to play the Rangers even once. And the Dodgers sure took advantage of that inadvertent home-field advantage of a sort Tuesday night.

They waited out a hard labouring Rays starter Tyler Glasnow, aided and abetted by Rays manager Kevin Cash forgetting his well-tested plot, then flipped their merry-go-round to cruising speed from the fourth through the sixth innings, and beat the Rays in Game One, 8-3.

Clayton Kershaw did more than his share starting for the Dodgers. With the continuing questions about his overall postseason life of bad fortune, Kershaw brought the best of his new self to bear, his sliders out-numbering his fastballs, striking out eight through six and getting nineteen misses on 38 swings against him for the highest single-game whiff rate of his entire major league life.

“Kershaw was dealing,” Cash said postgame. “You see why he’s going to the Hall of Fame one day.”

What nobody could see clearly was why Cash pushed his luck with Glasnow labouring to survive, his eight strikeouts negated by six walks—including the leadoff pass to Max Muncy opening the bottom of the fourth to start the Dodgers’ fun—and with only a 2-1 deficit against him when he came out of it.

Will Smith grounded Muncy to second almost right then and there. But Cody Bellinger—the man who rang the Atlanta Braves bell so resoundingly in the seventh National League Championship Series game—hit the first pitch into the Dodger bullpen in right center field. After walking Chris Taylor to follow and wild-pitching Taylor to second, Glasnow was lucky to escape with his and the Rays’ lives on a pair of back-to-back strikeouts.

That’s where Cash moved against his own successfully established grain. The Rays live and prosper on not letting the other guys get third cracks at their pitchers and thus keeping their pitchers from falling into position to fail or get failed. They play that game better than most and rolled the American League’s best irregular season record for their trouble.

Cash withstood the alarms blasted after he lifted Charlie Morton in American League Championship Series Game Seven after five and two-thirds efficient innings when trouble brewed with the Rays up 3-0. The move aligned perfectly to the Rays’ usual M.O. and it paid off with a pennant.

On Tuesday night, though, he left Glasnow in for the fifth despite 107 pitches to that point. With Ryan Yarbrough throwing in the Rays bullpen, Glasnow walked Mookie Betts on four straight balls following an opening strike. Over the past three seasons including a 34-start span, Glasnow had only thrown 100 pitches or more in a game three times, and Tuesday night wasn’t exactly one of his prime outings.

Cash still didn’t make a move after the walk to Betts. Room enough for the Dodgers to boot the merry-go-round. Glasnow walked Corey Seager after Betts stole second without a throw on a low pitch. He struck Justin Turner out, somehow—except that Betts and Seager delivered a near-textbook double steal.

Then Max Muncy bounced one right to Rays first baseman Yandy Diaz. Diaz threw home. This was supposed to be one of those plays the Rays’ usually larger-than-life defense executes with an arm missing and half asleep. Except that Diaz’s throw arrived up the third base line and Betts slid into the plate while Seager took third and Muncy stood safe at first.

“The at-bat with Muncy right there,” Cash said post-game, “just was hoping it felt like [Glasnow] was the best guy to get a strikeout.” Not on a night when only 58 of Glasnow’s 117 total pitches were strikes. Glasnow himself acknowledged trying to rush things a little too much in the beginning, but once he adjusted that he thought his mechanics were off.

“I have to execute pitches better and hold runners better,” he said, admitting the latter is probably his weakest attribute. “Later in the game, I wasn’t really able to throw anything for a strike except the heater. I think the changeup, I probably should have thrown that a little bit more . . . That curve ball, later on, I really didn’t have much feel for it.”

Smith knocked Seager home and Muncy to third with a jam-shot single to center. Finally Cash brought in Yarbrough, a good relief pitcher but a young man whose career to date includes that he’s vulnerable pitching with one out and rare (for him) inherited runners but better when he starts an inning clean.

The lefthander got rid of the lefthanded Bellinger on a pop up to third, but righthanded Chris Taylor lined Muncy home with a clean single to left and pinch-hitter Enrique Hernandez sent Smith home by shooting a base hit between short and third.

Yarbrough escaped with no further damage. Cash sent Josh Fleming out for the sixth. The Mookie Monster sent his first pitch into the right field seats. An infield pop out later, Turner and Muncy doubled back-to-back. Fleming didn’t surrender another run through his next two innings worth of work but that came under the too-familiar heading of taking one for the team.

Not that the Rays left things uninteresting on their end. They chased Kershaw’s relief Dylan Floro with one out in the seventh. Manuel Margot singled right through the middle infielders and Joey Wendle drove on to left center that Bellinger gave a great chase until the ball hit off the heel of his glove, setting the Rays up with second and third.

Then Cash sent Ji-Man Choi to bat for Willy Adames. Dodger manager Dave Roberts brought in lefthander Victor Gonzalez to face the lefthanded Choi. Cash pulled Choi for division series hero Mike Brosseau. And Brosseau lined Margot home with a single to right with Wendle stopping at third. He didn’t stay long. Kevin Kiermaier—whose fifth-inning solo home run was his first hit since being hit by a pitch in ALCS Game Three—lined a single to right to send Wendle home.

It was the final Rays homecoming of the night, but it almost wasn’t. Rays catcher Mike Zunino lined a missile right through the box that Gonzalez snatched just sticking his glove to his right, the ball’s force spinning him right into position to throw and double up Brosseau scrambling back to second. A hair off line or the glove missing by a hair and that missile might have been an RBI single with the Rays still swinging. Might.

The Rays tried to flip their own merry-go-round switch and the Dodgers succeeded in throwing a stick into the motor belt, with Pedro Baez and Joe Kelly finishing up throwing the spotless final two innings.

It was also a night to make history. Kershaw nailed his 201st lifetime postseason strikeout, moving him into second place behind his fellow likely Hall of Famer-to-be Justin Verlander. Betts became the first player in World Series history to homer, steal, and score twice in the same Series game. Cash became the first Little League World Series player to manage in the World Series when he grew up.

“It’s great to get the Series going with a win,” said Kershaw to reporters after the game. “That’s the biggest thing, for us, is to get going. Get that first game—it’s always important to get that first game of a series. Just for me, personally, it’s awesome, you get to pitch well and get a win in a World Series. Like I said, I’m just thankful for another opportunity.”

Bellinger going deep looked like a man who shook off the shoulder dislocation his NLCS bombing brought when it happened during the dugout celebration. He took no chances this time.”I said it before the game,” he told reporters post-game. “If I hit one today, I’m not touching anyone’s arm. I’m going straight foot.”

Since he hit the first Dodger bomb of the Series, Bellinger got to lead the first such dance. Appropriately. And you thought last year’s World Series champion Dancing Nationals knew how to bust moves and cut rugs.