The Yankees rock and troll

Yankee Stadium

A spent champagne bottle placed on home plate after the Yankees won a trip to the ALCS Tuesday night. The Yankees had to celebrate their win in a hurry—they open against the Astros Wednesday night.

The good news is, Year One of Comissioner Rube Golberg’s triple-wild-cards postseason experiment isn’t going to have an all also-ran World Series, after all. It still yielded a pair of division-winning teams getting to tangle in the American League Championship Series.

The bad news is, those two division winners are still the Yankees and the Astros, after the Yankees sent the AL Central-winning Guardians home for the winter with a 5-1 win Tuesday that wasn’t exactly an overwhelming smothering.

What it was, though, was the game for which the Guardians shot themselves in the proverbial foot. Specifically, two Guardians, one of whom is old enough to know better and the other of whom needs a definitive attitude adjustment.

Guardians manager Terry Francona has more World Series rings this century (two) than Yankees manager Aaron Boone (none). Francona is considered by most observers to be one of the game’s smartest managers who’s made extremely few mistakes and learned from one and all; Boone is one of those skippers about whom second-guessing is close enough to a daily sport in its own right.

But when push came to absolute shove for rain-postponed AL division series Game Five, Boone proved willing to roll the dice Francona finally wasn’t.

After Gerrit Cole held the Guards off with a magnificent Game Four performance Sunday but the rain pushed Game Five from Monday to Tuesday, Boone was more than willing to throw his original Game Five plan aside—Jameson Tallion starting and going far as he could to spell the beleaguered Yankee bullpen—and let Nestor Cortes pitch on three days’ rest for the first time in his major league life.

Francona wouldn’t even think about changing his original Game Five plan, opening with his number-four starter Aaron Civale, who hadn’t even seen any action this postseason until Tuesday, then reaching for his bullpen at the first sign of real trouble. He wasn’t willing to let his ace Shane Bieber go on three days’ rest for the first time in his major league life.

Mother Nature actually handed Francona one of the biggest breaks of his life when she pushed Game Five back a day. Either he missed the call or forgot to check his voicemail. “I’ve never done it,” said Bieber postgame Tuesday, about going on three days rest. “But could I have? Sure.”

“It’s not because he can’t pitch,” said Francona after Game Five. “It’s just he’s been through a lot. You know, he had [a shoulder injury in 2021] and he’s had a remarkable year, but it’s not been probably as easy as he’s made it look.”

It might have been a lot easier on the Guardians if Francona handed his ace the chance to try it, with reinforcements ready to ride in after maybe three, four innings. Even year-old-plus shoulder injuries deserve appropriate consideration, of course. But Bieber surrendered a mere two runs in five-and-two-thirds Game Two innings. Francona’s hesitation when handed the chance helped cost him a shot at another AL pennant.

Civale didn’t have it from the outset. He had as much control as a fish on the line jerking into death out of the water. Giancarlo Stanton slammed an exclamation point upon it when he slammed a hanging cutter the other way into the right field seats with two aboard and one out.

The Guards’ pen did surrender two more runs in the game, including Aaron Judge’s opposite field launch the next inning. But they spread those runs over eight and two-thirds innings’ relief while otherwise keeping the Yankees reasonably behaved. They gave the Guards every possible foot of room to come back and win it.

That was more than anyone could say for Josh Naylor. The Guards’ designated hitter had already raised temperatures among enough Yankees and around a little more than half of social media, when his Game Four home run off Cole resulted in him running the bases with his arms in a rock-the-baby position and motion.

Naylor intends the gesture to mean that if he hits you for a long ball he considers you his “son” in that moment. It wasn’t anything new for him or for those pitchers surrendering the 20 bombs he hit on the regular season. And Sunday’s blast was the third time Naylor has taken Cole into the seats in his major league life. He was entitled to a few bragging rights.

Cole himself thought the bit was “cute” and “a little funny.” He wasn’t half as offended as that half-plus of social media demanding Naylor’s head meet a well-placed fastball as soon as possible. Yesterday, if possible. The Yankees found the far better way to get even in Game Five than turning Naylor’s brains into tapioca pudding.

“We got our revenge,” Yankee shortstop Gleyber Torres all but crowed postgame. Torres even did a little rocking of the baby himself in the top of the ninth, after he stepped on second to secure the game-ending force out. “We’re happy to beat those guys,” he continued. “Now they can watch on TV the next series for us. It’s nothing personal. Just a little thing about revenge.”

Naylor was also serenaded mercilessly by the Yankee Stadium crowd chanting “Who’s your daddy?” louder with each plate appearance. Every time he returned to the Guards’ dugout fans in the seats behind the dugout trolled him with their own rock-the-baby moves. And his most immediate postgame thought Tuesday was how wonderful it was that he’d gotten that far into their heads.

Some say it was Naylor being a good sport about it. Others might think he was consumed more with getting into the crowd’s heads than he was in getting back into the Yankees’ heads. The evidence: He went 0-for-4 including once with a man in scoring position Tuesday.

Oh, well. “That was awesome,” he said postgame of the Yankee Stadium chanting. “That was so sick. That was honestly like a dream come true as a kid—playing in an environment like this where they’ve got diehard fans, it’s cool. The fact I got that going through the whole stadium, that was sick.”

Josh Naylor

Rock and troll: Yankee fans letting Josh Naylor have it on an 0-for-4 ALDS Game Five night.

Did it cross his mind once that his team being bumped home for the winter a little early was a little more sick, as in ill, as in not exactly the way they planned it? If it did, you wouldn’t have known it by the way he continued his exegesis. “If anything, it kind of motivates me,” he began.

It’s fun to kind of play under pressure. It’s fun to play when everyone’s against you and when the world’s against you. It’s extremely fun.

That’s why you play this game at the highest level or try to get to the highest level: to play against opponents like the Yankees or against the Astros or whoever the case is. They all have great fanbases and they all want their home team to win, and it’s cool to kind of play in that type of spotlight and in that pressure.

Wouldn’t it have been extremely more fun if the Guardians had won? Did Naylor clown himself out of being able to play up in that spotlight and its pressure this time? Those are questions for which Cleveland would love proper answers.

So is the question of how and why the Guards didn’t ask for a fourth-inning review that might have helped get Cortes out of their hair sooner than later, after a third inning that exemplified the Guards’ hunt-peck-pester-prod limits.

They went from first and second and one out in the top of the third—one of the hits hitting the grass when Yankee shortstop Oswaldo Cabrera collided with left fielder Aaron Hicks, resulting in a knee injury taking Hicks out of the rest of the postseason—to the bases loaded and one out after Guards shortstop Amed Rosario wrung Cortes for a four-pitch walk. They got their only run of the game when Jose Ramírez lofted a deep sacrifice fly to center.

Now, with two outs in the top of the fourth, Andres Giménez whacked a high bouncer up to Yankee first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who had to dive to the pad to make any play. The call was out, but several television replays showed Giménez safe by a couple of hairs. Perhaps too mindful of having lost three prior challenges in the set, the Guardians’ replay review crew didn’t move a pinkie. Francona seemingly didn’t urge them to do so.

Never mind that it would have extended the inning and given the Guards a chance to turn their batting order around sooner, get Cortes out of the game sooner, and get into that still-vulnerable Yankee pen sooner. Francona’s been one of the game’s most tactically adept skippers for a long enough time, but not nudging his replay people to go for this one helped further to cost him an ALCS trip.

These Yankees don’t look proverbial gift horses in the proverbial mouths. An inning later, with Torres on first with a leadoff walk and James Karinchak relieving Trevor Stephan following a Judge swinging strikeout during which Torres stole second, Rizzo lined a single to right to send Torres home. That was all the insurance the Yankees ended up needing.

Especially when these so-called Guardiac Kids, the youth movement whose penchant for small ball and for driving bullpens to drink with late rallies, forcing the other guys into fielding lapses, winning a franchise-record number of games at the last minute, had nothing to say against three Yankee relievers who kept them scoreless over a final four solid shutout innings.

Especially when they actually out-hit the Yankees 44-28 and still came up with early winter. The trouble was, the Guards also went 3-for-30 with men in scoring position over Games One, Two, Four, and Five, and had nobody landing big run-delivering blows when needed the most. Their ability to surprise expired.

Now the Yankees have a chance for revenge against the Astros who’ve met them in two previous ALCSes and beaten them both times. They had to hurry their postgame celebration up considerably—the ALCS opens Wednesday night.

The Guardians could take their sweet time going home for the winter and pondering the season that traveled so engagingly but ended so ignominiously.

“Winning the division was the first part,” Hedges said postgame. “Wild-card round. Put ourselves in position to beat the Yankees. And we wanted to win the World Series, but that’s a good Yankees team. The cool thing is, now we have a bunch of dudes with a ton of playoff experience in the most hostile environment you can imagine.”

The Guards were bloody fun to watch for most of it. Then Cole, Stanton and Judge rang their bells in Games Four and Five, and they had nothing much to say in return. The Guardiac Kids were the babies who got rocked. There was nothing much fun about that.

The Guards win an Óscar

Óscar González

Óscar Gonzáles about to send the Guardians to an AL division series . . . but did it have to be against a former Cleveland pitcher who’d served them long and well?

A Guardian kid leading off the longest scoreless game in the bottom of the fifteenth. Facing a former Guardian pitcher. The second pitch of the plate appearance disappearing and taking the Rays’ season with it.

One of seventeen to make major league debuts with the Guards this season, Óscar González hit eleven home runs on the way here. Now, he hit the most important one of his 24-year-old life Saturday afternoon to finish the Guardians’ shove of the Rays to one side in a two-game American League wild card sweep of opposites.

The whippersnappers upended their elders (the Rays’ average starting lineup age : 27; the Guards: 24) without caring how long it might take. If they could do it in a comparative Game One blink, sure. If they needed fifteen innings and shy of five hours to do it, neither they nor the sellout Progressive Field home crowd cared, either.

They made very short work (as in two hours and change) of the Rays in Game One. Then, they and the Rays threw the pitching kitchen sink at each other, just about, before Game Two reached the bottom of the fifteenth and Corey Kluber, former Guardian when they were still the Indians, went to work for a second inning’s relief.

It was his first relief gig in nine years. It turned out to be his last, thus far. And it wouldn’t be unfair to ponder whether Kluber might be beginning to think that someone, somewhere, placed a postseason hex upon his 36-year-old head. This was his fourth postseason tour that ended with him on the wrong side in elimination games in which he either started or appeared at all.

The last time Kluber turned up in the postseason, he wore Cleveland fatigues in 2018 and was bushwhacked by the Astros in the first of a three-game Houston division series sweep then, thanks to a fourth-inning leadoff bomb (Alex Bregman) and an RBI single, then back-to-back fifth inning-opening bombs (George Springer, Jose Altuve).

A year before that, Kluber faced the Yankees to decide another AL division series. The Yankees made shorter work of him then, with a third-inning two-run homer (Didi Gregorius) and four straight singles the final two of which plated a run each with one out in the fifth, en route the Yankees taking it in five.

A year before that, Kluber’s and the Indians’ World Series ended dramatically in that 8-7, late-rain disrupted Cubs win after a back and forth that might have tempted God Himself to proclaim a tie for the two then-longest World Series title droughts in the Show. And yet again Kluber started but was stripped of four runs that only began with Dexter Fowler sending the first-ever Game Seven-opening home run over the center field fence.

The two-time American League Cy Young Award winner has since struggled through injury-disrupted seasons in stops with the Rangers and the Yankees before spending 2022 working his way back to respectability with a respectable-enough 3.57 fielding-independent pitching rate.

But with one swing on a slightly-hanging cutter on 1-0, González sent Kluber’s newfound respectability and the end of the Rays’ fourth annual postseason trip in a row into the left field seats. He also sent Progressive Field nuclear while sending his young Guards to a division series date with the Yankees.

All season long the Guards’ rookie guard lifted heaviest carrying them to the American League Central title. The only question entering the wild card set was whether it’d be one of the kids or one of the few elders who’d get the big job done for them. Not that manager Terry Francona cared less, of courseI don’t think by that point we cared,” manager Terry Francona said.

“It could have been one of the old guys,” Francona said postgame after González’s blast. “We didn’t care. We’re not biased. I was happy that he hit it.”

“I flipped on the Guardians and game,” tweeted MLB Network researche Jessica Brand, “and first pitch Óscar González goes deep. I’m not sure I want that kind of power. Was kind of secretly relishing the goose egg farm.”

Well, somebody had to scramble those eggs sooner or later. For the longest time it looked as though neither side was necessarily that anxious to do anything other than pin the opposing lineups’ ears behind their heads and become human Electroluxes in the field.

Guardians pitching kept the Rays to six hits and Rays pitching kept the Guards to five. The Rays and the Guards used eight pitchers each, and the Guards blew a shot at smashing the scoreless tie a full game’s worth before González finally struck.

Myles Straw (who promptly stole second) and Rookie of the Year candidate Steven Kwan were handed back-to-back walks by Rays reliever Pete Fairbanks—relieving starter Tyler Glasnow—to open the bottom of the sixth. Somewhat tough on the Guards this year, Fairbanks unintentionally handed them a break when he called Rays manager Kevin Cash and a team trainer out to the mound.

“I can’t feel my hand,” Fairbanks is said to have told Cash. The team subsequently said the righthander’s index finger went numb for unknown reasons in the moment. Exit Fairbanks, enter Jason Adam, and ducks on the pond at once when Adam plunked last year’s Atlanta postseason hero Eddie Rosario on the first pitch.

Enter José Ramírez, the Guards’ All-Star third baseman. Exit Ramírez on strikes almost at once. And exit the Guards for the side when Josh Naylor grounded into a step-and-throw double play.

Ramirez more than made up for it in the twelfth, when he backhanded Manuel Margot’s hard hopper behind the pad, the momentum pulling him into foul territory, then whipped a long, low throw for which Naylor at first had to stretch to scoop, and he kept just enough of his foot on the pad to secure the out. The Rays challenged the play but lost.

Heavy sigh of relief from one end of Progressive to the other.

González might have had the most privately embarrassing moment of the night when his belt broke while sliding in the seventh. Lucky for him that first base coach Sandy Alomar, Jr. had a belt to spare. And lucky for the Guardians that González had a belt to spare opening the fifteenth inning.

But did it have to be against a Kluber who’d pitched long enough and well enough for Cleveland and its long-enough-deprived fans? A Kluber who’d given them everything he’d had, came up short, then came up injured enough to put paid to his Lake Erie days?

This is the guy who missed all 2019 after an arm fracture plus an abdomninal injury, had his 2020 option exercised by the then-Indians on Halloween 2019, then was traded to the Rangers a month and a half later in a delayed but somewhat shameful trick-or-treat. Then, Kluber returned in July 2020 as the pan-damn-ically delayed season began and lasted on inning before shoulder tightness proved a torn teres major muscle.

That sent him to the injured list and, in due course, to free agency, where he signed for a year with the Yankees for 2021, started a return to respectability including a no-hitter against the Rangers themselves, then lost another two months with another shoulder injury.

Kluber became a free agent again, signed with the Rays this year, and all seemed as right in his 36-year-old pitching world as he and anyone had a right to expect. He’s hardly the first to return to a postseason against one of his former teams, but he may be close to the top three for heartbreaks in such returns.

Those two Cy Young awards can’t help heal this one. And Cleveland cynics might amuse themselves thinking Kluber sent their team forward in their first year under a new name.

To such cynics, say only, “Don’t go there.” A franchise riddled with its own actual or alleged curses doesn’t need a Kluber Curse to throttle their exuberant and talented kid corps now. It would only destroy the magnitude of what González did Saturday afternoon, whether he did it against Corey Kluber or Clark Kent.

On Plesac’s agents dumping him

Zach Plesac

Zach Plesac, earning his D.A.* of the Month award 26 August.

I promise, I have more important things to ponder. Things such as whether next year’s rule changes really will do anything substantial. (If what I saw watching the Las Vegas Aviators host the Tacoma Rainers Wednesday night says anything, don’t hold your breath. Even with the pitch clock and strict obedience thereto, the 8-7 Aviators loss still took about three hours and ten minutes to play. Thank 37:19 minutes worth of between-innings time for the real culprit: broadcast commercials )

Things such as whether Aaron Judge will reach not 60+ home runs but maybe 70, at the rate he’s going. (He parked 56 and 57 in Fenway Park Tuesday night while his Yankees beat the Red Sox 7-6 in ten innings. He left himself four short of Roger Maris, the Yankee single-season record-holder, in game 143 of the season, if you still really care about such arbitrary things.)

Things such as whether the coming expanded postseason will prove a convoluted mess on top of its going in as a true competition dilution. (Why is Commissioner Rube Goldberg more interested in arbitrary time-of-game tinkering than he is in adjusting divisions, eliminating regular-season interleague play, and restoring real pennant races? He still doesn’t get it: 2:15 minutes worth of commercials after each half inning elongate games more than pitchers or hitters adjusting after every pitch, in-inning pitching changes, or mound conferences ever did.)

Things such as the Rays making history by putting the Show’s first all-Latino team on the field to commemorate Roberto Clemente Day, and clobbering the Blue Jays 11-0 while they were at it. The leading lashers: Randy Arozarena (3-for-5 including a double, a run scored, and a run driven home), Yandy Díaz (a three-run homer in the second), and Manuel Margot (a three-run double in a six-run ninth).

But no. I have to ponder a very rare instance of a player being dumped by his agents instead of the other way around. And this is because Zach Plesac, Guardians pitcher, did something dumb once too often for their taste.

On 26 August, Plesac surrendered two long balls already when he had Seattle’s Jake Lamb 1-2 in the bottom of the seventh. Then he fed Lamb a meal fit to pad a Mariners lead into 3-1 after Lamb fed it over the right center field fence. Plesac spun around on contact, bent over a bit as he watched the ball fly, then punched the mound in abject frustration.

Uh-oh. Even as the Guardians struck back to bust the tie and hang in to win off a three-run eighth, that punch took Plesac out for the rest of the season thanks to the fractured hand that resulted. This was the last thing the American League Central-leading, postseason-bound Guards needed.

It also proved the last thing Creative Artists Agency needed, too. About two weeks after the Guards put Plesac on the injured list, CAA dropped him as a client. “Three strikes appeared to be enough for CAA to say ‘you’re out,’” writes the New York Post‘s Jeremy Layton. “Plesac, despite a 3-11 record in 2022, has pitched decently for Cleveland (4.39 ERA), and is eligible for a big arbitration payday in the offseason. Still, the agency clearly decided the juice was not worth the squeeze.”

This is the pitcher who co-violated the team’s COVID protocols in 2020, having a night out  in Chicago including dinner in a restaurant and a card game at a buddy’s place, without getting team clearance first. The Guards ordered Plesac and co-partyer Mike Clevinger to issue statements. Then he went on Instagram and said the incident being reported in the press made it the media’s fault.**

This is also the pitcher who incurred a thumb fracture in May 2021. Was he hit by a comebacker? Was he hit by a pitch while batting in an interleague game in a National League ballpark? Nope. He suffered the injury . . . while ripping his jersey off and apart after he was battered for five runs (only three earned) during a Guards loss to the Twins. It cost him a month and the Guards another team migraine.

Not many players self-destruct as publicly, spectacularly, or ridiculously as Plesac. He’s  probably cost himself a considerable enough piece of the arbitration payday he might have expected otherwise this offseason. Maybe that will finish sending the message CAA began.

If Plesac’s agents can dump him merely for being a repeat jerk, why don’t other baseball agents—and teams, for that matter, whether trading, releasing, or letting them just walk into free agency—drop those guilty of far more grave behaviours? They’ve done it before, in various ways, and they can and should do it again.

Especially regarding such behaviours as domestic violence. A player being a repeat jerk is just that. Domestic abusers are many things more serious. Calling them mere jerks would be an unwarranted compliment.

* —Dumb Ass.

** —When you like us, we’re the press. When you hate us, we’re the media.—William Safire.

Smarts in Houston, suicide in Cleveland

Shohei Ohtani

Ohtani took perfection into the sixth, where a bunt couldn’t do what a subsequent base hit did . . .

Shohei Ohtani didn’t just flirt with perfection Wednesday, he almost seduced it. A twelve-punchout performance on the mound; a two-run double to finish the first-inning carnage against Astros starter Jake Odorizzi; a perfect game broken with one out in the seventh. And his Angels in sole possession of the American League West’s penthouse. For now.

But right before Astros catcher Jason Castro fisted a base hit over second base into short center with one out in the Houston sixth, their own second baseman Niko Goodrum tried to break the would-be perfecto in a manner that usually brings the wrath of the Sacred Unwritten Rules chauvinists down upon the miscreant. On 0-1 leading the inning off, Goodrum tried to bunt an Ohtani slider up the third base line.

This time, the chauvinists didn’t rain acid down upon Goodrum. For one thing, the Angels put an overshift on against the lefthanded-hitting Goodrum. Just why the Angels thought a .133/.133/.200 slash line on the season to date required an overshift escapes for the moment.

But Goodrum did exactly the right thing receiving so much free, delicious real estate upon which to hit. His team down six, and knowing he wouldn’t be wasting an out with a bunt, Goodrum did absolutely nothing wrong sizing the scenario up and dropping a bunt toward that free territory—except the ball bounding over the chalk into foul territory halfway up the third base line.

Which was the spot to where Angels third baseman Anthony Rendon ran from his positioning adjacent to second base and grabbed the ball just in case, with Ohtani also bounding over from the mound. Back on the mound, Ohtani and Goodrum wrestled to a 2-2 count before Goodrum swung and missed at a nasty curve ball hitting the outer edge of the zone.

Maybe if Goodrum had pushed a successful bunt up the line and landed on first base practically on the house, the SUR chauvinists would have gone nuclear. Maybe. It’s become a little more acceptable according to the SURs to drop a bunt if the other guys are silly enough to think an overshift is a good way to keep a batter below the proverbial Mendoza Line from breaking it up the old fashioned way.

Come to think of it, Ohtani himself put on a demonstration of one of the only other times it’s wise to bunt—if you think you can get a base hit out of it without a full shift against you. With one out and nobody on in the Angels’ sixth, against Astros reliever Cristian Javier, the lefthanded-hitting Ohtani faced a slight overshift, slight enough to move Astros third baseman Alex Bregman to a more standard shortstop positioning but still leaving him room to move if he wanted to drop one.

On 1-2 Ohtani chopped a beauty toward the third base side of the mound and blasted out of the box. Javier pounced as best he could but he threw a rising sailer over and past the upstretched mitt of leaping Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel. It was an exercise in futility, considering Ohtani would have beaten a cleaner throw by about a step on the play, and considering the Angels stranded him on first for the inning.

Goodrum and Javier have a teammate who understands, ahem, perfectly about perfecto-breaking bunts. Justin Verlander had it happen to him, while still pitching for the Tigers on 21 June 2017. He took a perfect game bid against the Mariners into the sixth, with the Tigers up 4-0 to that point.

With one out, Seattle’s swift center fielder Jarrod Dyson squared, bunted one between the mound and first base, and ran himself into a base hit. Unlike Goodrum’s attempt Wednesday, Dyson’s successful bunt that day kicked off a three-run Mariners inning that pushed Verlander out of the game. It also preceded a four-run Mariners seventh at the expenses of Tigers relievers Shane Greene and Alex Wilson.

That was the part that roiled Verlander far more than any perfecto-breaking bunt ever could. “It was a perfect bunt,” Verlander said of Dyson. “That’s part of his game. I don’t think it was quite too late in the game given the situation to bunt, especially being how it’s a major part of what he does. So I didn’t really have any issues with it. It wasn’t like I got upset about it.”

Goodrum played smart baseball, even if his bunt bid bounded foul before he finally struck out swinging. Even if the Angels finished what they started, a 6-0 shutout to take two of three from the Astros in Houston after losing three of four at Angel Stadium to open the season. At least neither manager, Dusty Baker (Astros) nor Joe Maddon (Angels), fell asleep at the proverbial switch Wednesday.

Dallas Keuchel

. . . but Keuchel looks to be praying for mercy amidst an unconscionable nine-run second/ten-run total beating before he was lifted too little/too late.

That dishonour belonged to White Sox manager Tony La Russa in Cleveland earlier in the day, in the first game of a doubleheader. Despite a well-enough rested bullpen thanks to a week-opening pair of rainouts, a pen that hadn’t exactly been overworked in a preceding set against the Rays, either, La Russa inexplicably left his veteran starter Dallas Keuchel in to take an early ten-run beating on a day Keuchel’s stuff didn’t exist from the outset.

Keuchel had enough trouble trying to shake off a first inning during which a pair of White Sox defensive miscues helped cost him a run before he surrendered a hit. He never got out of the second alive: a leadoff throwing error; four straight singles two of which pushed runs home with the bases loaded; a grand slam; three straight singles more, a wild pitch advancing the first of those Guardians to second and the third sending another run home; a run-scoring ground ball turned into another White Sox error; and yet another RBI single.

Finally, La Russa got Keuchel out of there and brought in Tanner Banks. He got a prompt step-and-throw double play at first and a ground out right back to the box for the side.

Joe and Jane Fan can bleat all they want, as one or two I saw aboard social media did, that sometimes you just have to take one for the team, sometimes you just have to try to  “save” your bullpen even if it means getting murdered, and it’s just one April loss against a long season to come, and the goal is to win two of three, innit?

“I’m 100% certain LaRussa knew Keuchel didn’t have it,” said one such fan, in fact. “Sometimes the decision to leave guys in or take them out is more about 162 games than 1 game. As is the case here. He was hoping Keuchel could survive that inning and make it thru an inning or two more.”

A Hall of Fame manager, even coming out of retirement for one more turn, knows he should be thinking of every game until or unless his team is eliminated mathematically from a pennant race. He should know well enough when his starter doesn’t have it. Knowing that, and knowing he had a reasonably rested bullpen, just how does a conscientious manager not get that poor starter the hell out of there before the game goes from a small leak to a flood?

Keuchel came into the game throwing little more than meatballs and matzo balls as it was, before Jose Ramirez—the Guardians third baseman flush with a yummy new contract extension—stood in in that second inning with the bases loaded, three Guard runs in, nobody out yet, and sent a hanging 1-1 cutter over the left field fence.

If La Russa “knew” Keuchel didn’t have it before that, it shouldn’t have been allowed to go there in the first place. Especially if he was going to go to Banks to clean up the mess. Banks hadn’t pitched since the previous Sunday. He also hadn’t surrendered an earned run in his three previous relief gigs. And what did he do when La Russa brought him in?

After getting that step-and-throw double play to end the second inning before the Guards could have made the case against their human rights violations any worse, Banks threw three more hitless, shutout innings, before Matt Foster and Anderson Severino finished with only one further Guards run to come—when Steven Kwan singled Myles Straw home off Severino in the ninth.

There was a time when La Russa would never have let a game get that far out of hand that soon if his starter didn’t have it going in. That’s part of how La Russa became a Hall of Fame manager with three World Series rings in the first place. “The manager didn’t get them ready to play,” La Russa said of his team after that blowout loss, and before the White Sox lost the nightcap, 2-1. “I take the heat for that.”

Lucky for him and them that there is still a long season to play yet.

The swath of Kwan

Steven Kwan

Against easy pickings, Kwan owned the season’s first weekend. The competition to come isn’t liable to be that agreeable.

The baseball team formerly known as the Indians launched their season against the Royals in Kansas City. Though the launch began with a pair of low-scoring losses (3-1, 1-0), it concluded with a 17-3 blowout win and a 10-7 three-run win. Meaning that the Guardians out-scored the Royals 30-9 for their trouble.

Meaning, too, that they, like every American League Central team not named the White Sox, opened 2-2. But the Guardians opening was important for things that didn’t happen almost as much as things that did, including:

The Hope Memorial Bridge, whose Guardians of Traffic sculptures inspired the team’s new name, didn’t collapse. No known tidal wave arose from Lake Erie to flood or drown the city. No crash of thunder, lightning, and rain poured onto the city. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame didn’t induct Lawrence Welk, as an early influence or otherwise.

But a Guardians prodigy made nineteen trips to the plate during the four-game season-opening series without striking out even once, without missing the chance to send runners home in three such plate appearances, and with extra base hits in 15.8 of those season-opening plate appearances.

The only mistake center fielder Steven Kwan made during those first four games of his life, and of his team’s life as the Guardians, happened in the bottom of the seventh Monday, when Kwan saw himself throwing Royals outfielder Andrew Benintendi out at the plate on a bases-loaded liner by Royals third baseman Hunter Dozier.

Kwan’s foresight forgot to inform him the ball actually needed to be in his glove before he could make the throw he saw in advance. Rookies make such mistakes all the time. The ball hit the heel of the glove instead, allowing Benintendi to score before Kwan’s outfield partner Myles Straw threw Royals first baseman Carlos Santana out on a tight play at second base.

The Guardians escaped further damage by inducing an inning-ending double play, then loaded the bases on the Royals in the top of the eighth on a leadoff double and a pair of walks alternating with two air outs. Like any rookie, Kwan was more than anxious to atone for his seventh-inning slip, particularly because it allowed the Royals back to within a run. Unlike many rookies, Kwan performed the perfect atonement.

He slashed a 1-2 hanging curve ball into the right field corner for a bases-cleaning triple  and put the Guardians up 9-5, a lead they’d pad by a run with a ninth-inning run-scoring ground out. Good thing, too, because Benintendi thanked Kwan for the seventh-inning miscue enabling his run when he batted in the bottom of the ninth and, with touted-enough Royals rook Bobby Witt, Jr. aboard with a leadoff walk, planted one over the right center field fence.

Guardians relief pitcher Emmanuel Clase retired the next three Royals in order to secure the 10-7 win. But who needed him? Kwan finished the game and awoke the next morning as the talk of about 98 percent of baseball and its watchers, many of whom were only too well prepared to name him this season’s American League Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, and Silver Slugger awards, and to the Hall of Fame, post haste.

Not so fast.

Yes, Kwan reached base fifteen times during the four-game set. No player ever did that in his first four major league games. Yes, Kwan is also the first major league player since the Great Depression to have a five-hit game in only his third major league game. Yes, too, he faced 82 pitches in his first four games and never once swung on and missed a single one of them.

And, yes, especially, Kwan seems as grounded as the day is long, the product of agreeably down-to-earth parentage, a young man unlikely to let something like smashing precedents go to his head and find room aplenty to bounce around.

But, as Akron Beacon-Journal columnist Ryan Lewis warns, there’s more likelihood that the grounded Kwan returns to earth than there is for him making Ted Williams resemble Ted Cruz. “Kwan is obviously not going to continue to hit .692 forever,” Lewis writes.

But until his fortunes reverse just as severely as what he’s shown so far, he has his place in the No. 2 spot in the lineup. It means that for the time being, the Guardians have Myles Straw locked into center field and Kwan in one of the corner outfield spots. That leaves the other spot to Oscar Mercado, Amed Rosario and Josh Naylor, once he’s able to return from an injury—though Naylor could also time at first base with Bobby Bradley struggling to get going. All of a sudden, at least in the short run, the Guardians’ outfield has some answers.

USA Today writer, Steve Gardner, is even more cautious, handing Kwan an award . . . a “Tuffy Award,” named facetiously in honour of a 1994 Cub, Tuffy Rhodes, a modest journeyman who opened that season immodestly, becoming the first in Show to smash three home runs in his first three season’s plate appearances, and off a former child prodigy named Dwight Gooden.

From there, Rhodes hit only five more bombs the rest of that season. He finished his Show career with thirteen home runs and 45 extra-base hits total over 675 lifetime Show plate appearances. Then he went to play in the Japan Pacific League—and hit 464 home runs in thirteen seasons (including tying Sahaharu Oh’s single-season JPPL-record 55 in 2001) before retiring after the 2009 season.

“[W]hat’s not to like about someone with an .800/.857/1.000 slash line?” asks Gardner, the slash line combining Kwan’s short-spring training performance to his regular season premiere? Then, Gardner answers:

Playing time certainly doesn’t seem to be an issue for Kwan in the near future. And with that kind of on-base percentage, he should remain near the top of the lineup. The question is how much else he will be able to provide over the long haul.

Kwan hit twelve homers and stole just six bases last year in the minors. And at 5-9, 175 pounds, there’s still doubt about how much power he’ll ever have. It’s not impossible, of course, but it’s more likely that he’s a closer comp to Nick Madrigal than Jose Altuve.

Beating up on Royals pitching to start the season is the tide that lifts all boats along the shores of Lake Erie. At the risk of incurring the wrath of Kwan (and the rest of the Guardians), the journey is about to become much more difficult.

The Guardians get to slap Cincinnati pitching silly for their next two games, the Reds having said—after the owners’ lockout and the eventual new collective bargaining agreement was supposed to have started putting a big dent in tanking—“That’s what you think,” dumping key parts of their pitching staff, outfield, and infield alike.

But then the Guardians get to tangle with the defending National League West champion Giants, the defending American League Central champion White Sox, and the tied-for-second-in-the-AL-East-finishing Yankees. One after the other. No team or its most immediate rookie star gets to face the pushovers all the time.

In The Godfather (the novel, not the film), Don Vito Corleone mused how true it was that great misfortune sometimes led to unforeseen reward. There’s always the chance, for Kwan and his Guardians, that great immediate reward leads to too-often-foreseen misfortune, if not disaster. But his opening act was incomparable, invaluable fun.