Misteroberts’ neighbourhood

Too little, too late: Dave Roberts (masked) lifts Clayton Kershaw an inning late and what the Braves made ten dollars short.

The roll of managers who got their teams into hot water by doing what they shouldn’t have done, or failing to do what they should have done, is thick enough. Dave Roberts made it thicker after National League Championship Series Game Four Thursday night.

At the worst possible moment for his Los Angeles Dodgers, the day after the Atlanta Braves nuked them in Game Three, Roberts couldn’t bring himself to do what he had to do and get Clayton Kershaw the hell out of there. Fast. Before his lefthander left room for another Braves uprising.

It married Roberts to Charlie Dressen, John McNamara, Grady Little, Mike Matheny, and Buck Showalter on the roll of skippers who overthought, overmanaged, undermanaged, or brain-vapoured their way into big trouble if not big postseason infamy.

Kershaw’s postseason calamities are only too well known. They’re the only blemishes on a certain Hall of Fame career. It won’t make him a Cooperstown outlier—Bob Feller, Willie Mays, Joe Morgan, and Tony Perez don’t have sterling overall postseason resumes, either.

But Game Four is the one into which Kershaw’s manager walked him eyes wide shut and the Braves into the real beginning of a 10-2 triumph and one game from going to the World Series.

For five innings Kershaw stood his ground against Braves starter Bryse Wilson, who had only four more major league starts than Kershaw has Cy Young Awards. Wilson actually out-pitched Kershaw, but at the end of five the game was a one-all tie thanks to Alex Rios hitting one into the right field seats in the third and Marcell Ozuna hitting one into the left field seats in the fourth.

Roberts shouldn’t think about hitting the casinos any time soon. He knew Kershaw’s back might still have been a little balky after spasms forced Kershaw to be scratched from his scheduled Game Two start. He got five solid innings out of Kershaw on Thursday and should have been more than content with that.

But no. Roberts had to send Kershaw out for the sixth. “I just thought Kershaw was throwing the baseball really well,” the skipper told reporters after the game, “and there was no reason [to lift him]. I felt really good about it.”

How good did Roberts feel when Ronald Acuna, Jr. opened the Atlanta sixth with a hopper back to the mound but over Kershaw’s head that the evening’s Dodger second baseman, Kike Hernandez, coming from shortstop in the infield shift, threw past first baseman Max Muncy to allow Acuna to second?

How good did Roberts feel after Freddie Freeman promptly shot one right past first baseman Max Muncy into right for an RBI double?

How good did he feel after Ozuna shot one into the left center field gap for an immediate RBI double?

How good did he feel after relieving Kershaw with Brasor Graterol two hitters two late, seeing Travis d’Arnaud line out to right, but then watching Ozzie Albies single, Dansby Swanson shoot one down the left field line for a two-run double, and Austin Riley cue an RBI single up the middle?

How good did he feel after lifting Graterol for Victor Gonzalez and watching him walk Hector Camargo before Cristian Pache singled Riley home? Not to mention Ozuna leading off the seventh with another solo bomb, this one off Dylan Floro? Freeman and Ozuna whacking back-to-back RBI singles off Jake McGee in the eighth?

With nothing else out of the Dodgers offense but the bases loaded and one out in the seventh and only Rios’s sacrifice fly to show for it?

“I’m not going to take Clayton out after a weak ground ball and another ground ball off the bat of Freeman,” Roberts said. “I felt really good with Clayton at that point in time.”

Once upon a time an ancient Dodger manager named Charlie Dressen felt really good about spurning his curve ball specialist Carl Erskine in favour of fastballer Ralph Branca with Bobby Thomson—still less comfortable facing curve balls—coming to the plate in the bottom of the ninth of a third pennant playoff game.

Thomson and his New York Giants felt great about the Shot Heard ‘Round the World—until the final published evidence affirmed decades later what those Dodgers suspected down the stretch: The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!

John McNamara felt good about leaving his ankle-vaporised first base warrior Bill Buckner in the field for the bottom of the tenth in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, too. He wanted his shattered soldier out there when the Red Sox finally won the World Series again. How did that work out for him?

Grady Little felt good about taking Pedro Martinez’s heart at its word and ignoring his Hall of Famer’s fuel tank crying “empty!” The Yankees listened to the fuel tank and sent Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS to extra innings—and Aaron Boone’s eventual pennant-winning date with stout Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.

Mike Matheny felt great refusing to close The Book in Game Five of the 2014 NLCS and bring his closer Trevor Rosenthal into the bottom of the ninth—because it wasn’t even a St. Louis Cardinals lead, never mind a save situation. Travis Ishikawa felt even better turning on rusty Michael Wacha’s weak fastball and sending it to the top of Levi’s Landing. (This time, the Giants didn’t steal the pennant! The Giants didn’t steal the pennant!)

Buck Showalter felt comfy refusing to reach for his closer Zack Britton—with Britton’s 0.54 ERA/1.94 fielding-independent pitching/0.84 walks/hits per inning pitched—because the bottom of the ninth in the 2016 American League wild card game wasn’t a “save situation,” either. It left Edwin Encarnacion comfy enough to hit the three-run homer that sent Rogers Centre batshit nuts and the Toronto Blue Jays to the division series.

Boone himself felt cozy enough not to put Jose Altuve aboard with a free pass—with two out, George Springer on first, a gassed Aroldis Chapman somehow ahead of Altuve 2-0, and a spaghetti bat named Jake Marisnick on deck.  Altuve felt even cozier, blasting a two-run homer with the pennant attached off the back wall of Minute Maid Park.

Casey Stengel failing to set his 1960 World Series rotation so his Hall of Famer Whitey Ford could pitch three and not just two games? Gene Mauch panicking the Phillies out of the 1964 pennant? Darrell Johnson lifting Jim Willoughby in the 1975 World Series? Don Zimmer doghousing Bill Lee down the 1978 stretch?

Roberts may be paying for all of their sins.

It didn’t begin with Thursday night, unfortunately. He brought badly spent Brandon Morrow into a 2017 World Series game and watched Morrow surrender four runs on six pitches. He brought a previously shellacked Ryan Madson into a third 2018 World Series turn with the Dodgers leading Game Four 4-0—and watched Mitch Moreland hit a three-run homer to start the Red Sox’s comeback win.

And, he forgot 2019’s Joe Kelly was too vulnerable when pitching past a single inning, left Kelly in for a second inning in Game Five of last year’s division series, and watched him  load the pads for Howie Kendrick to slice salami and cut the Dodgers’ season off at the blast.

There was no defense for Dressen’s Dodgers, Little’s Red Sox, Matheny’s Cardinals, or Boone’s Yankees against a pennant winner; or for Showalter’s Orioles against a wild card game winner. The Dodgers haven’t lost the pennant yet, but Misteroberts’ neighbourhood is a nebulous one over which to guide neighbourhood watch.

Maybe we wouldn’t talk this way if Roberts’ Dodgers and those other teams found ways to win despite the mental lapses. Maybe we’ll stop talking this way for awhile if his Dodgers iron up and manage to win this NLCS. Maybe.

Maybe if the Dodgers remember how to hit when it matters in Game Five, we’ll stop talking about Roberts as a compromised bridge commander and the Dodgers as something of a deception. They’re lucre rich, farm-system sound, and as front-office brainy as it gets, but their continuing postseason futilities despite owning the National League West for eight seasons straight makes them resemble paper tigers.

They’ll have to make things happen in Game Five. If these Braves let them, that is. These Braves may seem like nice fellows, but they’re not inclined to be that generous.

Protest by postponement

When Mookie Betts (far left) elected not to play in protest over Jacob Blake’s shooting by police, his Dodgers mates—including manager Dave Roberts (second from left) and pitchers Clayton Kershaw (second from right) and Kenley Jansen (far right)—had his back and joined him postponing against the Giants.

This is now: The Show’s government stood by teams postponing games Thursday in a show of respect to Jacob Blake, a young African-American man shot by rogue police, and quiet outrage over the manner in which Blake was shot. (Seven bullets in the back, with his children in sight in their car.)

But that was then: A Cincinnati Reds pitcher was hustled the hell out of Dodge for standing on behalf of not playing baseball during Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral. What a difference 52 years makes.

“Given the pain in the communities of Wisconsin and beyond following the shooting of Jacob Blake,” MLB’s official statement said Thursday, “we respect the decisions of a number of players not to play tonight. Major League Baseball remains united for change in our society and we will be allies in the fight to end racism and injustice.”

It could also have said plausibly that baseball stood athwart the grotesquery of Kyle Rittenhouse—a white teenager (seventeen), making his way from Antioch, Illinois to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where violence and destruction reigned courtesy of those who seize upon genuine grief, rage, and sorrow as a beard to destroy—now accused of shooting two to death after his arrival.

Once the National Basketball Association’s Milwaukee Bucks stepped up front as the first professional sports team to decline play Thursday in protest over Blake’s shooting, and theirs was a playoff game, baseball teams who had yet to play on the day—several games had finished already or were well enough in progress—began to step up front as well.

The Milwaukee Brewers and the Reds postponed, particularly after Brewers relief star Josh Hader spoke publicly about the team considering it. Those who chose to condemn Hader a few years ago, after immaturely racist tweets in his school days surfaced, should ponder once again (if it occurred to them in the first place, when Hader apologised publicly) that, yes, mis-oriented youth can and often does mature into thoughtful adulthood.

The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants postponed their Thursday night game after Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts, informing his teammates earlier in the day he had no intention of playing as a show of protest, discovered to his happy surprise (he’d encouraged the Dodgers to play anyway) that one and all his teammates had his back on that.

The Dodgers’ long-enough-time franchise face Clayton Kershaw took the lead on backing him. “Mookie was saying, ‘If you guys want to play, I support that’,” Kershaw said when asked. “But we made a collective, group decision to not play tonight and let our voices be heard for standing up for what is right.”

The Seattle Mariners elected as a team not to play Thursday night, and their scheduled opponents, the San Diego Padres, agreed no questions asked. “For me, and for many of my teammates,” tweeted Mariners infielder Dee Gordon, “the injustices, violence, death and systemic racism is deeply personal. This is impacting not only my community, but very directly my family and friends. Our team voted unanimously not to play tonight.”

Elsewhere around the Show individual players declined to play even if their teams went ahead and played, and none of those players looks to face retribution or team discipline for their decisions while their teammates mostly (not unanimously, alas) likewise supported their stance.

Paralyzed waist down by his wounds, Jacob Blake isn’t exactly a model citizen, alas. He had a knife on his car’s floorboard though not in his hands, and police were dispatched to the location after a woman’s call that her boyfriend (Blake) was present when enjoined formally against being there. He also had an arrest warrant upon him. Neither gave Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey the right to pump seven bullets into his back.

Wherever he is in the Elysian Fields, Miltiades Stergios Papastergios must be thinking to himself, “Slowly comes the dawn.” You know him if at all by his Americanised name, Milton Steven Pappas. In 1968, he took a stand similar to that taken by the aforementioned teams and players and refused to budge when circumstances altered the original plan. The Reds traded him post haste afterward, and nobody knew for certain whether that stance provoked it.

Milt Pappas became a Red, of course, in the infamous trade that sent Hall of Famer Frank Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles, where Pappas was once part of the Orioles’ heralded but ruined “Baby Birds” starting rotation full of fresh youth. He pitched serviceably if not spectacularly for the Reds but, with Robinson winning a Triple Crown in his first Baltimore season and continuing to play like his Hall of Famer self, it wouldn’t have mattered if Pappas was the second coming of Robin Roberts.

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in early April 1968, baseball’s Opening Day coincided with the day of King’s funeral. Baseball would have played fully if the Pittsburgh Pirates—with such non-white stars as Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell, plus former Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills—hadn’t refused to play. The Pirates triggered similar actions by other teams.

Baseball’s then-commissioner, William D. Eckert, was denounced for “calling up the club owners, not to tell them what to do, but to ask them” over the King funeral, wrote New York Daily News columnist Dick Young. But two months later former U.S. attorney general turned senator from New York, Robert F. Kennedy, freshly triumphant after winning California’s Democratic Party primary, was murdered after he left the stage at Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel on 6 June 1968.

With the Kennedy assassination, Eckert decreed no games should be played during Kennedy’s funeral. The man nicknamed Spike but derided previously as “the unknown soldier” (he was a retired Air Force general with no known previous baseball tie) proved he learned fast, even if he had to learn the hard way.

The Reds were scheduled to play the St. Louis Cardinals with a starting time well after the Kennedy funeral might have ended originally. Then, the funeral was delayed, after Washington’s notorious enough traffic issues delayed the funeral train’s procession. It looked as though the Reds and the Cardinals would play during the funeral after all.  Not so fast, Pappas insisted. He felt then and to the day he died four years ago that the game shouldn’t be played out of respect to Kennedy.

Reds manager Dave Bristol and general manager Bob Howsam felt the opposite. Howsam even visited the Reds clubhouse to pronounce that RFK himself would have wanted the game played. Pappas argued against playing right then and there. “Who is this guy, anyway,” Pappas told a reporter later on, “to tell us what Bobby Kennedy would have wanted us to do?”

The Reds’ players promptly took a team vote, some after having been strong-armed by Bristol, Howsam, or both. The vote was 13-12 in favour of playing. Pappas quit on the spot as the Reds’ player representative. Six games ended up postponed anyway despite the funeral delay. Three days later, in a deal Howsam swore was in the works before Kennedy’s assassination, he traded Pappas to the Atlanta Braves in a five-man swap making Reds out of fellow pitchers Tony Cloninger and Clay Carroll.

Baseball’s government, much like America’s, often has to learn the hard way about doing the right things as opposed to doing the expedient or the partisan things. There’s little to the appropriate causes monetarily as many do, other than symbolic acts that speak louder than rioters enough because their familiarity and popular appeal is powerful weight to throw above and beyond a game.

Those who think Thursday night’s players and team were out of line might care to ask what they’d prefer as a protest against rogue police and citizens alike—postponing baseball games and denouncing racism; or, breaking entire cities.

Alfred Hitchcock presents Opening Night

AlfredHitchcockAt long enough last came Opening Day. Well, Opening Night. On which New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge nailed the COVID-19 delayed season’s first hit and his teammate Giancarlo Stanton nailed its first home run two batters later.

On which the Washington Nationals opened without a key element, outfielder Juan Soto, whose positive COVID-19 test result came back well enough before game time to make him a scratch.

Before that rain-shortened game even got started, the word came from the opposite coast that Clayton Kershaw was scratched from his Opening Night start thanks to a back problem sending him onto the injured list.

In Washington, the Nats’ co-ace Max Scherzer would have loved if Judge and Stanton were Thursday night scratches. They accounted for all Yankee runs in the 4-1 final shortened in the top of the sixth when the rains smashed in with the Yankees having first and third and one out.

In San Francisco, Los Angeles Dodgers rookie Dustin May pitched five innings to San Francisco Giants veteran Johnny Cueto’s four, both men leaving with a one-all tie, and the Dodgers’ new $396 million man Mookie Betts broke the tie scoring on an infield ground out in the top of the seventh.

Scherzer’s good news Thursday night: eleven strikeouts. His bad news: four walks and an inability to solve Judge and Stanton. Judge also doubled home Tyler Wade in the third and Stanton singled home Gio Urshela in the fifth. Remove Judge and Stanton from the Yankee lineup and the Nats’ Adam Eaton’s hefty solo home run in the bottom of the first would have been the game’s only score.

Betts singled with one out in the top of the seventh and called for the ball. Published reports indicate that ball plus the evening’s official lineup card now repose in his home. “It’s just a new chapter in life,” he told reporters after the 8-1 Dodgers win.

After he came home when Justin Turner grounded into a force out, Corey Seager’s grounder got Cody Bellinger caught in a rundown at the plate, but Enrique Hernandez singled home Turner and Seager (who’d taken second during the rundown), Joc Pederson and A.J. Pollock walked back-to-back to load the pads, Austin Barnes sent Hernandez home with an infield hit, and Max Muncy walked Pederson home.

And, on both coasts, all four teams figured out a solution to the issue of whether or not to take a knee for “The Star Spangled Banner” that might actually help more than hurt the too-easily outraged.

Abetted by a suggestion from Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen, the Yankees and the Nats lined up on the base lines holding a long, long, long black ribbon, standing apart enough for social distance, then took their knees before “The Star Spangled Banner” was played.

On the same suggestion, the Dodgers and the Giants held a similar long, black ribbon and took their knees before the anthem’s playing. In Washington, both the Yankees and the Nats rose from their knees while the anthem was played. In San Francisco, ten Giants including manager Gabe Kapler plus Betts on the Dodgers’ side stayed on their knees during the anthem, with Bellinger and Muncy putting hands on Betts’s shoulder as a gesture of support.

I went back on record Thursday saying that there are far worse ways than kneeling before a national anthem to protest something you think is dead wrong. Kneeling, as two Scientific American writers I cited remind us, is anything except disrespect.

“While we can’t know for sure, kneeling probably derives from a core principle in mammalian nonverbal behavior: make the body smaller and look up to show respect, esteem, and deference,” wrote psychologists Jeremy Adam Smith and Dacher Keltner in 2017.  “. . . Kneeling can also be a posture of mourning and sadness. It makes the one who kneels more vulnerable. In some situations, kneeling can be seen as a request for protection.”

I’ll ask again: Would you rather those outraged by rogue police doing murder against black or any people raise clenched fists, burn a flag on the field, or start a riot with or without looting and plundering in the bargain? Neither would I. But if only now-former football quarterback Colin Kaepernick had thought in the first place to take his original knee before the anthem played, would that have worked very differently for himself and the outraged?

Let me repeat, too, that you don’t have to subscribe to every last clause or every last impulse of the social justice warriors to agree that rogue police doing murder is not what the land of the free and the home of the brave was supposed to mean. Neither must you subscribe to the formal Black Lives Matter movement itself to agree that black lives and all lives don’t deserve to end when those entrusted to uphold the law break it instead.

Let me repeat further that it’d be far better for baseball to limit playing “The Star Spangled Banner” to before games on Opening Days, games played on significant national holidays, the All-Star Game, and Games One and (if it goes that far) Seven of the World Series. Not so much to cut back on the kneeling protests but to re-emphasise that patriotism compulsory is patriotism illusory.

Back on the field, Soto’s COVID-19 positive test approaching Opening Night shook the game up just enough to provoke serious questions as to how MLB is going to navigate even this truncated season without further medical issues. And, whether the most stringent health and safety protocols will keep more Sotos from turning up positive.

Other surrealities include the empty stands, other than cardboard cutouts of fans in the seats, and the canned crowd sounds at the ballparks. The coronavirus world tour already turned baseball into something between The Twilight Zone and the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Now that the season is underway at last, should we throw Alfred Hitchcock Presents into the mix?

At least neither Opening Night game went to extra innings, so we didn’t have to deal right off the bat with the free cookie on second base awarded each team to start its extra half-inning. The mischief that’ll inspire will just have to wait.

Funny thing, though, about that equally nefarious three-batter minimum for pitchers. Two Giants relievers faced the minimum in that five-run Dodger seventh before surrendering any runs. If bullpen preservation was part of it even if those two got pried, I can see already that this dumb rule isn’t going to end well for Kapler and other managers.

And, let’s be real, the PA people in charge of the piped-in sounds are only human, after all. Who’s going to be the first poor sap having to live down the accident of cranking up the wild cheering when the home team’s batter gets hit by a pitch?

On the other hand, it was easy enough to feel normal again once the Yankees and the Nats got underway . . . when home plate umpire Angel Hernandez began blowing pitch calls. Calling a few strikes balls and a few balls strikes? That’s about par for the course for him. So when’s that umpire accountability coming at last?

Before the game, Dr. Anthony Fauci—otherwise doing his best to battle a pandemic involving both a stubborn virus and a political (lack of) class that surely makes him wonder if he was really there when all this happened—threw out a ceremonial first pitch. Later, he was seen in the stands with his Nats-themed face mask off his face a spell. What’s up with that, Doc?

You’d love to say Fauci threw a perfect strike to Nats relief pitcher Sean Doolittle behind the plate, but you’d be lying like an office holder. Fauci’s delivery is described politely as resembling a man trying to compensate for a fractured upper arm. The ball sailed almost to the on-deck circle. Rumour has it that Hernandez called it a strike on the outside corner.

Clayton Kershaw’s darkest hour

2019-10-10 ClaytonKershaw

Clayton Kershaw.

Stories emerged that, after the Nationals sent the Dodgers home for the winter Wednesday night, Dodger fans between rage and sorrow ran over Clayton Kershaw jerseys outside Dodger Stadium. Maybe someone should ask them if they could have done it better in front of 55,000 in the park and a few million in front of television sets.

You and me know the answer damn well. Joe and Jane Fan wouldn’t have had one thirty-second of the guts to go out there and taken the risk Kershaw took when manager Dave Roberts pushed both men’s luck and sent Kershaw out to start the top of the eighth.

By all right of logic Roberts should have given Kershaw a pat on the fanny, a big hearty thank you for striking Adam Eaton out to get the Dodgers out of a seventh-inning jam, and the rest of the night off, and then sent Kenta Maeda out for the eighth to do what Roberts in his original mind thought he should do, have Maeda dealing with Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto.

Kershaw’s professional enough to go out and try to do his job when called upon. If you think he went back out for the top of the eighth knowing he’d serve back-to-back pitches to be hit for back-to-back home runs, just mosey on back to the Flat Earth Society.

“We win as a team, we lose as a team,” mourned reliever Kenley Jansen, who’d made two division series appearances and struck out two in an inning and two-thirds’ work without so much as an accidental bump but whom, for whatever reason, Roberts didn’t want to trust while the Dodgers still had a 3-1 Game Five lead.

Tell it to Kershaw, as his teammates generally did after the Nats buried the Dodgers, 7-3, thanks to Howie Kendrick. He may or may not believe you. Even though he probably knows his overall body of work has a space for his plaque in the Hall of Fame in due course, Kershaw has a hard time forgiving himself for the too-well-chronicled hellhound on his postseason trail.

“That’s the hardest part every year,” lamented the lefthander whose beard doesn’t quite negate a still-boyish face that just had the friendly grin wiped off by the neighbourhood bully. “When you don’t win the last game of the season and you’re to blame, it’s not fun . . . Everything people say is true right now about the postseason. I understand that. Nothing I can do about it right now. It’s a terrible feeling, it really is.”

Kershaw is too polite and too self-critical to allow himself the thought that maybe, just maybe, his immediate supervisor set him up to fail.

When he relieved Game Five starter Walker Buehler in the seventh, after Buehler’s magnificent performance was punctured by a frightening drill of Kurt Suzuki leading to first and second and one out, Kershaw looked like the man of the moment striking Eaton out on three pitches to retire the side unscathed. And the Dodgers were a mere six outs from going to the National League Championship Series.

But in the eighth Kershaw threw Rendon a 1-0 fastball that looked like it would nick the floor of the strike zone and Rendon managed to send it over the left field fence. The next pitch Kershaw threw was a slider that hung to Soto, and Soto hung it into the right field bleachers. Then Roberts reached for Maeda. And Maeda struck out the side.

You can blame Kershaw for allowing the game to be tied up at three if you must. But he wasn’t anywhere near the mound when Kendrick turned on a down-and-in fastball with the bases loaded and nobody out in the top of the tenth and sent it up and over the center field fence.

Kershaw wasn’t but Joe Kelly was. Kelly, who’d suffered through a shoulder-troubled season about which “modest” may be an understatement. Kelly, who’d gone through the Nats in order in the ninth and provoked Roberts to push their luck again.

Kelly, whom Roberts trusted over Jansen and trade deadline pickup Adam Kolarek’s 0.77 ERA since becoming a Dodger and spotless division series work to date. Kelly, who surrendered maybe the single most humiliating hit against the Dodgers since Bobby Thomson’s was-it-or-wasn’t-it-tainted pennant winning Shot Heard ‘Round the World.

Not even the destruction wreaked by Red Sox spare part Steve Pearce in Game Five of last year’s World Series hit that far below the Dodger belt.

The worst part isn’t just that Kershaw’s getting the blame yet again for his manager setting him up for failure. It’s that he doesn’t quite understand and may never really know why he can be pitching’s version of Masterpiece Theater during the regular season but pitching’s version of My Mother, the Car in the postseason.

Don’t dismiss it as the pressure getting to him once and for all time. A man who lets pressure get to him is a man who wouldn’t pick himself up and try again over and over and over again. Say whatever else you want about Kershaw but you won’t get a conviction if you charge him with lacking fortitude.

Kershaw has had his moments of postseason triumph, few though they’ve been. The failures have outweighed them so profoundly they’re all but forgotten. And he’s not the pitcher he used to be anymore. The bullet fastball and shark-bite slider are gone. He spent this season remaking himself into a pitcher who survives by thought and guile. His 3.03 regular-season ERA is the highest he’s posted since his 2009 breakout, but a lot of pitchers would drink hemlock if they thought it would get their ERAs down to that number.

It’s bad enough that the sports goat business is still doing boffo business with Joe and Jane Fan. It’s worse when you see a man go out under the most ferocious pressure in games, with no thought in his mind other than doing his job with as little thought of failure as possible, no matter how often he’s been beaten under that pressure in the past, and get beaten on the spot.

Joe and Jane Fan can never admit to themselves that the other guys can be just a little bit better. It can only be their guys stinking up the joint as usual. If Rendon and Soto had missed by even less than a hair, they’d be calling for Kershaw’s statue outside Dodger Stadium.

They can’t admit Rendon and Soto were just better in those two fateful moments. No other explanation is acceptable. So they run over Kershaw’s jerseys in the Dodger Stadium parking lot with the minds of four year olds who’ve just been told no milk and cookies today.

Because he’s a Hall of Famer in waiting otherwise who’s been turned into a postseason pinata for too long. Well, I get that. But I also get that you could fill a room with the Hall of Famers who were bested with championships on the line. I won’t even begin to think now of the Hall of Famers who never got a chance to play for a championship at all.

Or the genuinely great teams who got shoved to one side in the World Series or before the postseason ended. The 1952-53 Boys of Summer, anyone? The 1954 Indians? The 1969 Orioles? The 2001 Mariners? Almost every Brave in creation between 1991 and 2005?

And guess what happened the morning after?

The sun still rose. The flora still bloomed. The fauna still played. The government continued its mischief. The nation still went to work, went to school, went about its everyday business. The world didn’t come spinning to a dead halt. Not even in southern California, not even for Dodger fans who’ve seen their team win a seventh straight National League West and come up short two stops short of the Promised Land.

And nobody figured out a way to overthrow the single most unimpeachable law of games, the law that says somebody’s going to be better than somebody in that sliver of space separating triumph from disaster.

“Spring training’s going to come,” Kershaw finally said. “I’m going to have to be ready to pitch and do the job the best we can.” He probably has lots of baseball miles to go, yet, before he sleeps. It won’t be his job to reconstruct the Dodger bullpen or augment a starting rotation that’s showing its age.

He doesn’t deserve to be harried to the rack of his regrets because his immediate supervisor pushed both their luck Wednesday night or because two Nats hitters were better than his best in the worst possible moment. Or, because the Dodgers had no answer other than a stranded hit batsman in the eighth, a stranded one-out baserunner on a single in the ninth, and the side gone in order in the tenth.

But Joe and Jane Dodger Fan don’t want to hear that now. They may not want to hear it until spring training, if that soon. It was so much more fun to just run over Kershaw jerseys. The only shock is that they didn’t burn Kershaw in effigy. Oops. Better not give them any more bright ideas.

Slam, dunk, don’t stop the dance

2019-10-09 HowieKendrick

Howie Kendrick swinging for a lifetime’s worth of filet mignon on the Washington house.

Dave Roberts learned the hard way Wednesday night that it takes the same number of moves to get destroyed as it takes to start unfathomable destruction. One.

And a one-time Dodger and Angel alike named Howie Kendrick got reminded all over again just how quickly you can go from a prospective bust—including three fielding errors all division series long—to a game-busting hero with one swing that looked so effortless it looked concurrently as if you could have done under sedation.

Fifteen years ago, with his Red Sox three outs from being swept out of an American League Championship Series, Roberts stole second on Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera to start the unlikeliest comeback of maybe all time. The 2004 Red Sox didn’t lose another game on their way to breaking their actual or alleged curse.

But this is 2019. Roberts is now a reasonably respected major league manager with a fourth straight first place finish and fourth straight postseason trip on his resume. And the way this trip ended Wednesday night sends lesser men past the nearest tavern and right to the distillery to drown themselves in the vats.

And Kendrick, 0-for-4 as he checked in at the plate with the bases loaded and nobody out in the top of the tenth, delivered one swing that’ll save him a small fortune in Beltway filet mignon dinners for the rest of his life.

It nailed the Dancing Nats’ trip to the National League Championship Series with a 7-3 division series Game Five triumph. Their motto now might be the name of a vintage song by rock legend Bryan Ferry: “Don’t Stop the Dance.” And they danced the 106 game-winning Dodgers home for maybe the most bitter winter of their existence since maybe their Brooklyn generations.

For the rest of his life Roberts is liable to face demands to know why he didn’t quit while he was ahead, 3-1 to be exact, accept Clayton Kershaw’s inning-and-threat-ending strikeout of Adam Eaton in the top of the seventh, pat Kershaw on his Hall of Fame-in-waiting fanny with a hearty “Thank you Kersh!” and go to his real bullpen post haste.

But Kershaw didn’t get his pat on the fanny. He got to open the eighth. He got battered back to back on back-to-back pitches by Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto. The first flew just over the left field fence, the second flew into the first couple of rows of the right field bleachers. Vaporising young stud starter Walker Buehler’s magnificent evening’s work and bringing the Nats back from the living dead.

Then Roberts reached for Kenta Maeda. And Maeda promptly struck out the side. Forget the second guessing. This was time for the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth guesses.

Roberts got what he’d asked for out of Kershaw to end the seventh. Why on earth push his own and Kershaw’s luck, knowing only too well that Kershaw’s Hall of Fame resume already has the long-enough sidebar of postseason humiliation as an attachment?

Because, he acknowledged after the defeat, he liked Kershaw against Rendon and Soto just a little bit more.

“[T]he success that Clayton’s had against Soto with the two-run lead, I’ll take Clayton any day in that situation,” Roberts said after the game. “I just think it’s one of those where it was easy for me to get Clayton, with the low pitches to get Rendon and to go out there and get Soto. And to have Kenta behind him. That was my thought, and not have Kenta go through Soto.”

Ancient history teaches that a Cardinals manager named Johnny Keane refused to even think about hooking Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in a threatening World Series Game Seven because he had a commitment to Gibson’s heart. Roberts has the same commitment to Kershaw’s. Keane and Gibson got a World Series win. Roberts and Kershaw got humiliated.

The problem is that Kershaw, one of the nicest men and beloved teammates in the game, goes into a postseason with a hellhound on his trail. And he knows it, sadly enough. After reinventing himself this season as a pitcher who can and does survive on guile to go with the smarts he’s had since his peak seasons, Kershaw couldn’t outsmart Rendon and Soto when he needed to most of all. More acutely, Kershaw can no longer deny what people have said of his postseason work for too long.

“Everything people say is true right now about the postseason,” he said after Game Five, soberly but sadly. “I’ve had to do it so much. I don’t know. It might linger for a while. I might not get over it. I don’t know.”

Roberts went with Kershaw’s heart. He should have gone with his own head. He let sentiment and heart overrule baseball. Oh, he got Maeda not going through Soto all right. He just had to watch Soto drive a second stake into the Dodgers’ heart to get it. Then, he sent Joe Kelly out to work a spotless ninth but pushed his luck yet again.

With further viable bullpen options to spare, a luxury Nationals manager Dave Martinez didn’t have, Roberts sent Kelly almost inexplicably out to work the tenth. Where Kelly walked Eaton on six pitches, surrendered a double to Rendon that was ruled ground-rule when it stuck in the fence, and handed Soto the intentional walk.

And, after Kendrick fouled off a nasty enough breaking ball, where Kelly served him a fastball toward the low inside corner. Not low enough. Kendrick drove it right over the center field fence. You thought the Nats were baseball’s greatest dancers before? Kendrick sent them into dugout moves even Soul Train never busted.

It isn’t just Kershaw for whom Roberts has to answer. Where was Kenley Jansen? Where was young lefty Adam Kolarek? Dodger fans will ask those two questions for the rest of the century. When not asking why Roberts still trusted Kelly despite his shoulder issues and season’s disasters. “Trust Kelly more than your closer Kenley Jansen,” said manager turned MLB Network analyst Kevin Kennedy. “I don’t have an answer for that. Does  Dave?”

The answer may or may not determine Roberts’s future in Los Angeles.

But what a moment it must have been for Martinez, when Kendrick exploded and Nats center fielder Michael A. Taylor hustled in and took a dive to snag Justin Turner’s game and series ending sinking liner. Game Five was the Nats’ entire season in microcosm: early and often faltering; later and often flying. The guillotine built for Martinez in May has been put into storage.

The only bad news for the Nats on the night might have been Stephen Strasburg. He was left almost an afterthought after the Nats’ late game destruction. He merely shook off Max Muncy’s two-run homer in the first and Enrique Hernandez’s leadoff solo bomb in the second to keep the Nats in the game almost as deftly as Buehler seemed to own them.

He’s gone from the world’s most feted draft pick to a pitcher who’s fought injuries to become good, often excellent, and periodically great. He’s comfortable with himself. He’s unflappable to the point that some people mistake him for emotionless. And he knows what he’s doing on the mound even when he’s punctured early.

“The first couple innings, I didn’t hit my spot, and they made me pay for it,” said the 31-year-old righthander who still looks like he’s at freshman orientation despite the beard that’s all grown up from having been born a mere goatee. “As a starter, you just kind of learn how you’ve got to trust your stuff, trust that it’s going to come to you. And it did.”

Tanner Rainey dispatched the Dodgers in order in the seventh. And Patrick Corbin—who’d been so badly humiliated in Game Three—got his chance for redemption in the eighth. Other than plunking Turner Corbin got it, zipping through the inning, including back-to-back strikeouts on Cody Bellinger and pinch-hitter David Freese.

Then it was Daniel Hudson shaking off a one-out single in the ninth. Then it was Kendrick obliterating Kelly and the Dodgers in the tenth. Then it was Sean Doolittle, who had his moments of doubt and disaster on the season before finishing up at reasonable strength, getting three including Taylor’s game-ending swan dive.

There wasn’t a Hunter Strickland or Wander Suero to be found. For all anyone knows, they were under strict orders not to move even their pinkies in the bullpen—under penalty of death, if need be.

“Today’s the biggest game of the year,” Martinez likes to say, to his players and to anyone else who cares to listen, “and we want to go 1-0 today.” He got what he asked for and more. It got the Nats to the second National League Championship Series in franchise history. (Their first? In 1981—as the Montreal Expos.)

For a very long time the article of faith, though not always accurate, was “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” These Dancing Nats have a better than even shot at making it, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in the National League.”

It’d beat the living hell out of everything else attached to Washington these and most days.