Heartbreak Hotel, Cleveland

James Karinchak, rocking a Ricky Vaughn haircut, but having been rocked by Gio Urshela Wednesday night.

Bad enough: Cleveland having to host the world babyweight championship bout that was Tuesday night’s allegedly presidential debate. Worse: The Indians won’t get the chance to win their first World Series since the births of Israel, NASCAR, the Polaroid Land camera, and Scrabble.


They won’t even get to play a division series after the New York Yankees swept them out of their wild card series. But to lose an almost five-hour Wednesday night grapple extended by two rain delays totaling 76 minutes and finishing in a 10-9 Yankee win, after both sides threw everything including the kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room sinks?

It’s not quite the same as losing Game Seven of the 2016 World Series after one somewhat long rain delay and an almost equally soul-wrenching back-and-forth. But it’s close enough. It isn’t quite the single most heartbreaking loss in Indians history. (Game Seven of the 1997 World Series still clings to the top. Barely)

But it’s close enough to have turned Progressive Field—in the city that also hosts the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—into Heartbreak Hotel.

The Indians unable to cash in for another tie at minimum in the bottom of the ninth—when Yankee closer Aroldis Chapman’s should-have-been game-ending strikeout turned into a wild pitch, enabling pinch hitter Orlando Mercado to take first on the house, before Chapman regrouped and struck out swinging another pinch hitter, Austin Hedges? It isn’t Edgar Renteria ruining Charles Nagy with a two-out RBI single in the bottom of the eleventh.

But it’s close enough.

The Show’s most reliable irregular season closer and one of the league’s better defenses handing the Yankees a re-tie and go-ahead in the top of the ninth? It isn’t Bryan Shaw surrendering a tie-breaking and a semi-insurance run, and the Indians able to get only one of those runs back, in the tenth inning in Game Seven, 2016 Series.

But it’s close enough.

While you’re at it, it won’t do any good to comfort the Indians by telling them the Yankees once lost a World Series Game Seven by a 10-9 score. Not even if you tell the Tribe the Yankees lost it when Hall of Famer Yogi Berra playing left field could only watch helplessly when Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski’s leadoff drive sailed over the left field wall in ancient Forbes Field.

Cleveland’s going to have a tough enough time trying to figure out which part hurt the most Wednesday night. They’ll have plenty of candidates. They’ll need plenty of salve.

“We had many different things and a lot of obstacles, but this group stayed together — by any means,” said Sandy Alomar, the Indians’ interim manager thanks to Terry Francona’s continuing health issues, who might yet get Manager of the Year votes just for getting the Indians to the postseason at all. “We had an eight-game losing streak, they came back. Today’s game reflected how much this team grinds and how much they fight.”

The candidates for the biggest hurt of the Indians’ now-finished season may only begin with Alomar deciding he needed a strikeout machine to handle Yankee third baseman Gio Urshela in the top of the fourth, with the bases loaded, nobody out, and the Tribe with a 4-1 lead they built with a pair of RBI doubles and an RBI single in the bottom of the first.

Alomar brought in James Karinchak to relieve starter Carlos Carrasco, cheated a bit by the rain delays The first pitch of the game was delayed by rain that hadn’t yet arrived. The second hit in the bottom of the first, and that time the rain lasted slightly over half an hour.

Until he entered Wednesday night, Karinchak’s young career showed 131 batters facing him and only one ever hitting anything out. It also shows him rocking the jagged-back haircut Charlie Sheen made famous as fictional flame-throwing Indians pitcher Ricky Vaughn in Major League. Now, Urshela and Karinchak wrestled to a full count.

The Wild Thing he wasn’t, but poor Karinchak’s young career now shows one postseason appearance and one disaster. With one swing and one launch into the left field bleachers, former Indian Urshela burned his old team four ways to eternity.

He also made Yankee history while he was at it. Thirteen Yankees have hit postseason grand slams, and Urshela is the first Yankee third baseman to slice such salami and the only Yankee anywhere to do it when the Yankees were behind.

Maybe it’ll comfort Indians fans to know that the Buffalonto Blue Jays got shoved out of the postseason earlier and likewise Wednesday. When the Jays’ best pitcher, former Dodger Hyun-Jin Ryu, faced Hunter Renfroe, a Ray who’d been 2-for-18 with seven strikeouts lifetime against him, in the second inning . . . and Renfroe sliced what amounted to season-ending salami for the Jays.

All night long, the Indians had answers for the Yankees. Let Giancarlo Stanton put the Yankees up 6-4 with a sacrifice fly in the top of the fifth, three innings after Stanton accounted for the first Yankee run with a home run? Why, they’ll just let Jose Ramirez whack a two-run double down the right field line to re-tie in the bottom of the fifth.

Let Gary Sanchez—the embattled Yankee catcher benched for Game One after he made Mario Mendoza resemble Mickey Mantle on the irregular season, and batted ninth for Game Two—smack a two-run homer in the top of the sixth to break the six-all tie? Why, the Indians will just send Jason Luplow to the plate, pinch hitting for Josh Naylor—their return from San Diego, after unloading pitcher Mike Clevinger a fortnight after he violated  COVID protocol violations.

That was some cojones on Alomar pinch hitting for Naylor, who’d set a Show precedent with five hits in his first five postseason plate appearances. Good thing the Indians let Luplow smack a two-run double to the back of center field to re-tie the game at eight.

For good measure, they’ll even let Cesar Hernandez fight Chapman off to dump a floater of an RBI single into short center field to make it 9-8, Indians. Then, they’ll shake off Urshela’s likely game-saving double play start to end that eighth and bring in Brad Hand, who led the Show with sixteen saves and didn’t blow a single save opportunity all irregular season long while he was at it.

Hand picked the wrong night to open a save opportunity by walking Stanton. Urshela then singled Stanton’s pinch runner Mike Tauchman to second. Gleyber Torres beat out an infield dribbler to load the pillows, and Brett Gardner struck out, but Sanchez lofted a re-tying sacrifice fly to center field.

Up stepped American League batting champion D.J. LeMahieu. He called slider in the center pocket and cued it right up the middle and right through the Indians’ middle infield. And, alas, right under center fielder Delino DeShields’s down-stretched glove, enabling Urshela to score the tenth Yankee run.

The Indians ran out of answers in the bottom of the ninth.

One night after they punished American League Cy Young Award favourite Shane Bieber, the Yankees had to survive the elements and Indians tenacity to get themselves a division series date with the Rays, who beat them out of the American League East title and who lack both the Yankees’ star power and the meaning of the word “quit.”

“You don’t have to pour champagne on each other,” said Yankee manager Aaron Boone, whose winners stuck to the COVID protocols and exchanged mere fist bumps to celebrate, “to appreciate what an epic game that was and the fact that we’re moving on.”

Forgive Cleveland if the epic side of the game escapes for a good while. Embrace these Indians who fought the good fight against a Yankee team they never saw on the irregular season but had to get past excess familiarity with the medical profession for a second straight season.

So far as the Indians are concerned, these Yankees picked the wrong time to remember how to win on the road. And, the Tribe with the irregular season’s best pitching overall picked the wrong time to post an 11.00 ERA in two games against the Empire Emeritus with eleven walks in eighteen innings and seven home runs surrendered.

So far as these Yankees are concerned, they survived the best the Indians could throw at them to make it four times in the past four seasons they’ve sent either the Indians or the Minnesota Twins home for the winter early. But the Indians and their fans—already rubbing their eyes over Francisco Lindor, Franmil Reyes, and Carlos Santana going 1-for-23 at the plate this set—are going to wonder how their number one strength, their pitching, became their number-one vulnerability.

Don’t remind Cleveland that the same thing happened in the 1954 World Series, when another stellar Indians pitching staff—including Hall of Famers Bob Lemon and Early Wynn, Mike (The Big Bear) Garcia, and what still remained of Hall of Famer Bob Feller—led an 111-game winning team into a Series sweep by the New York Giants. It won’t make this one sting any more gently.

“That game is literally the definition of a rollercoaster ride right there,” said Indians relief pitcher Nick Wittgren after it ended Wednesday night. “It was amazing to see our guys fight back . . . We were fighting, battling the entire game. That was fun to watch. It would have been a little more fun to be playing tomorrow.”

Usque ad proximum annum expectare.

Take your pick: a .400 hitter, or a .700 batter

Much talk now hooks around Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon hitting (as of Friday morning) .424, and whether the short season means he’ll finish the season hitting .400 or over. I have a better piece of conversation for you.

Suppose I tell you Blackmon was really batting .648 when he woke up Friday morning?

While you reel your tongues back into your mouths from the floor and retrieve the eyes that blasted out of their sockets, I’ll begin the splainin’ I have to do by saying you might notice where I said “hitting” and where I said “batting.” Because when you say Charlie Blackmon’s hitting .424, it’s not the true, full picture of him at the plate.

The traditional batting average still has isolated value, but it’s also an incomplete statistic. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: there’s something intrinsically wrong with a stat that makes two grave mistakes. Mistake number one—it treats every hit equally. Mistake number two—it addresses official at-bats alone.

I’ve said this before, too: Should you really trust a statistic that treats all hits equally when all hits are not equal? Do you really think a single is as valuable as a double, a triple, or a home run? If you answer “yes” to both questions, you’re really cheating yourself—or you might really be Frank Lane returned to earth and living in someone else’s body.* If you answer “no,” pull up a chair and a cold drink.

Let me present to you once again, with one modification to my original concept, the formula I believe gives the most complete possible look at what a batter does at the plate:

TB + BB + IBB + SF + HBP

In plain English, that’s total bases plus walks plus intentional walks plus sacrifice flies plus hit by pitches, divided by plate appearances. What the formula determines is a player’s real batting average (RBA), everything he does at the plate.

And when you add Charlie Blackmon’s 2020 total bases (60 entering today), walks (8), intentional walks (1), sacrifice flies (0), and times he was hit by a pitch (1), then divide the sum (61) by his plate appearances (108), you have his real batting average. Tell me now that a .648 batter isn’t as impressive as a .424 hitter. Still have questions? OK, here goes.

Total Bases—It counts a player’s hits the way they ought to be counted—unequally. A single is worth one base. A double, two; a triple, three; a home run, four. If all you see is a player with 42 hits (Blackmon led the entire Show entering Friday morning) you think that’s a lot of hits in 25 games—and it is, of course—but you’re not seeing the real value of those hits or everything he’s doing to help his team create runs.

The last I looked, the name of the game in baseball is putting more runs on the scoreboard than the other guys. A man who’s batting .648 is doing a magnificent job of creating and/or producing runs above and beyond scoring them or driving them in. To do both of the latter, it depends entirely on his teammates knocking him home or reaching base in the first place.

(Why discount runs scored and runs batted in to any degree? Easy: Find me the rule that says you can drive yourself in. Find me the player who steals three bases in one unmolested turn on the bases every time he reaches base. Find me the player who can steal home at will every time he reaches third base. Not even Rickey Henderson, the Man of Steal himself, could do that.)

Charlie Blackmon’s hits as of Friday morning were: 31 singles, seven doubles, one triple, and three home runs. That’s 31 + 14 + 3 + 12 bases each. That’s 60 total bases. We’re not talking about a fellow who’s coming up very big in the extra-base hit department (26 percent of his hits are extra-base hits so far), but we are talking about a productive fellow regardless.

Walks—You’d think the walks would be covered within the total bases, but they’re actually not. But I think a player who’s sharp enough at the plate to read the zone and the pitches in flight and take them appropriately should get particular credit for that. The walk doesn’t count as an official at-bat, of course, but unless I have been very deceived by my own eyes all these years, the last I looked the man was at bat, in the batter’s box, when he worked out the walk, and he wasn’t there without his bat.

Intentional Walks—It may seem superfluous since they’re also counted in the total walks, but there’s a damn good reason a player should get additional credit for intentional walks. Why would you not credit him for a batting situation in which the other guys would rather he take his base than their heads off? Whether it’s him taking their heads off or the guy batting behind him posing the better shot at a defensive out, that batter should get credit for being presence enough that they don’t want him swinging the bat.

Sacrifice Flies—The one change I made to my original RBA concept is removing sacrifice bunts from the equation. Not just because the bunt in general is in disfavour now but because of the basic reason it fell that way in the first place—you don’t give the other guys a free out to use against you.

So you moved the runner over? Good for you. But you also gave your team one less out to work with trying to get that man home, and your chances of getting him home just fell by 33.33 percent. Don’t get me started on the fools who think bunting a runner over with two outs is sound baseball. (And, as the invaluable Keith Law has put it, show me any crowd at the ballpark under normal circumstances who paid their way in to see all those sac bunts dropped, or flipped on the TV set to watch them.)

So why keep sacrifice flies but not sacrifice bunts in the RBA formula? Easy: sacrifice flies aren’t intentional outs and, by their very design and the rule book, they put runs on the scoreboard.

There isn’t a batter on the planet who goes up to the plate thinking, “Let me take one for the team. I’ll just hit this fly ball right to Bernie Boxorocks in left field so I can get Frankie Feetsies home from third on the cheap.” That batter kinda sorta wants to reach base himself, unless he gets to step on each base en route home plate after hitting one into the nearest cardboard cutout or stuffed animal in the seats.

Hit By Pitches—As Groucho Marx once said, this is so simple a child of five knows it, now let’s find a child of five.

It doesn’t matter whether he was just trying to push you back off the plate. It doesn’t matter if he drilled you because you took him over the International Date Line your last time up. It doesn’t matter if he did it because he’s P.O.ed that the guy just ahead of you took him there. It doesn’t even matter if he drilled you for wearing a cheating team’s uniform even though you weren’t on the team to join in the cheating.

If that pitcher wants to hand you first base on the house the hard way, let it be on his head and the plus side of your ledger.

As of this morning the Show had one other .400 hitter—D.J. LeMahieu, about whom the bad news is that he’s another hapless New York Yankee on the injured list. (Yes, children, if The New England Journal of Medicine could have been last year’s Yankee yearbook, this year’s may yet become The Journal of the American Medical Association.) RBA says LeMahieu’s really batting .556.

How about Bryce Harper, about whom everyone harped on his modest traditional batting averages in recent seasons without looking his true depth at the plate? This year, he’s hitting a traditional .338. RBA says Harper’s batting .744. Mike Trout, who plays for a team that’s still not a team its best player can be proud of? He’s hitting a traditional .338 so far. RBA says he’s batting .707.

How about Fernando Tatis, Jr., who inspired this week’s major kerfuffle when he swung on 3-0 with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of a San Diego Padres blowout-in-the-making, ground salami, and infuriated the boring old unwritten rule farts including his own momentarily brain-vapourised manager? Let’s see. Tatis woke up this morning leading the Show in total bases. (77.) RBA says he’s batting .738.

Forget the race to see whether Blackmon can finish hitting .400+ in this season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents Quiet, Please! Lawrence Fechtenberger Escapes the Intergalactic Nemesis Beyond Tomorrow’s Stroke of Fate. Wouldn’t it be more fun seeing whether Blackmon, Harper, Tatis, or Trout can finish batting .700+?

If you answered “no,” tune in tonight to Chocolate Cookies with White Stuff in the Middle Presents The Wilderness Family Theater.


* When Frank Lane made the notorious Rocky Colavito-for-Harvey Kuenn trade as spring training finished in 1960, among his explanations for the deal Cleveland still can’t forget was, “We’ve given up forty homers for forty doubles. We’ve added fifty singles and taken away fifty strikeouts . . . Those singles and doubles win just as many games as home runs.”

(Harvey Kuenn was better at avoiding the strikeout, but Rocky Colavito was better at it than you might remember: he never struck out more than 89 times in any season and he only ever reached that number once, in 1958.)

In 1959, Colavito led the American League with 42 home runs and 301 total bases. Kuenn in 1959 led the American League with a .353 traditional batting average and by hitting as many doubles as Colavito hit home runs. But he wasn’t even close to Colavito with 281 total bases. Colavito also produced 201 runs (scored/driven in) to Kuenn’s 170. And, 44  percent of Colavito’s hits were for extra bases against 29 percent of Kuenn’s.

RBA says Colavito batted .580 in 1959 and Kuenn, .543. I’d submit that those singles and doubles didn’t necessarily win as many games as the home runs. So did the 1959 American League standings, with the Indians finishing five games out of first place and the Detroit Tigers—who dealt Kuenn for Colavito—finishing eighteen games out.

It wasn’t Rocky Colavito’s fault the ’59 Indians finished five behind the pennant-winning White Sox, of course, and neither was it Harvey Kuenn’s fault the Tigers finished thirteen behind the Tribe. But Lane also described the trade as “hamburger for steak.” He was too thick—and, in fairness, baseball men of the time not named Branch Rickey wouldn’t have dug deep enough—to know he’d acquired hamburger for steak.

From bull run to big swing

2019-10-19 JoseAltuve

Jose Altuve ended Game Six’s running of the bulls with one American League pennant-flying swing.

Brad Peacock took the mound to open American League Championship Series Game Six for the Astros on Saturday night. The moment he did, the righthander did something undone since the year Native Americans were finally awarded American citizenship, J. Edgar Hoover was named to run the FBI, and Macy’s held its first Thanksgiving Day parade.

He became the first pitcher to finish one postseason game and start the very next one, the very next day, since Washington Senators righthander Firpo Marberry nailed the final out of Game Three before starting Game Four, the following day, in the 1924 World Series.

The Series into which the Senators entered after finally making it, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in the American League.” In which the Old Nats won Game Seven against the New York Giants in twelve innings. With (oh, the horror!) a bullpen game. Climaxed by a starter-as-reliever finishing it. Instigated by a kid shortstop made player-manager who outsmarted a Hall of Fame manager.

It may not be nice to fool Mother Nature, the old bat, but Bucky Harris knew it was more than nice to fool John McGraw. He started a righthander named Curly Ogden to deke McGraw into loading his lineup with lefthanded hitters. What McGraw didn’t know or suspect was Harris and Ogden knowing going in that Ogden would face two batters maximum.

Then Harris reached for his Game Four starter, lefthander George Mogridge. And with the game tied three all going to the ninth, Harris married sentiment to baseball and brought in his Hall of Fame righthander Walter Johnson for the ninth. And, yes, the Griffith Stadium crowd went nuts. Johnson pitched four scoreless, the Senators pushed the winning run home in the bottom of the twelfth, and Bucky Harris looked like a genius.

For the Senators, of course, their Game Seven bullpen game was do or be dead. For the Astros Saturday night, Game Six was do or face a Game Seven showdown with the Yankees. For the Yankees, Game Six was, of course, do or be dead. This promised to be a very brisk and bristling running of the bulls.

Until it turned into a pennant-winning two-run homer. And the relief of the Astros not having to burn Gerrit Cole in a Game Seven so they can send him out to tangle with Max Scherzer when they open the World Series at home against the Nationals.

Peacock’s manager A.J. Hinch didn’t have to outsmart a Hall of Fame manager Saturday night. All he needed was Jose Altuve in the bottom of the ninth to prove what one of Washington’s favourite and most fabled sons made law: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

And unlike the 1924 Senators, the Astros didn’t have to send a future Hall of Famer out to the mound for the finish. Though it probably would have made as many people weep for joy if Justin Verlander went out for the ninth as wept for joy in the stands in Washington 95 years ago.

Altuve decided to win the American League pennant a little more dramatically than Earl McNeely hitting the ball that hopped over Freddie Lindstrom’s head at third to send Muddy Ruel home with the 1924 Series-winning run. And Altuve had a tougher challenger in Aroldis Chapman.

Chapman shot through the Astros in the Game Five ninth, using only nine pitches to finish one-two-three. In Game Six, Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez called for so many sliders–one of which struck out Martin Maldonado swinging to open—it was as if he were trying to tell Chapman his fastball, which still had giddyup to spare, crossed over to the enemy side.

“I wanted to be on time for the fastball but looking up in the zone,” said the ALCS Most Valuable Player, half out of breath, after the game. “Something I can drive.”

On 2-1 he was on time enough for a Chapman slider landing just off the middle that he drove a two-run homer off the left center field pavilion. Finishing a 6-4 Astros win that knocked on the door of extra innings after a hard day’s night on both sides. “There’s nobody I want up in that situation other than José Altuve,” said Cole after the game. “He’s just got a gift from God.”

God apparently loves nothing more than a hair-raising finish to a mostly hair-raising game. Because with one on and one swing in the top of the ninth Yankee first baseman D.J. LeMahieu silenced the Minute Maid Park audience. And with one swing in the bottom of the ninth, Altuve ignited exponential pandemonium.

It was the most appropriate thing for which an Astro fan could have asked, even if it was the most extraterrestrial thing for which the Astros themselves could have seen. “I can’t believe that just happened,” said George Springer, whose two-out walk set Altuve’s table in the first place, and who had the hardest view in the house in the top of the ninth after moving to right field in a late defensive switch.

Springer wasn’t sure he could believe LeMahieu in the top of the inning, wrestling Astros closer Roberto Osuna to a tenth pitch, after four straight foul offs on 2-2 and ball three up and away, then driving a slightly hanging cutter over Springer’s leaping reach and into the right field seats to tie things up at four.

“He’s been a thorn in our side all series,” said Verlander, theoretically the World Series Game Two starter against Nats righthander Stephen Strasburg, of LeMahieu. One of the few thorns in the Astro sides all week.

For a few brief, shining moments, the Yankees—the St. Elsewhere Yankees, who’d survived and persevered in an injury-battered season as admirable as that of the Grey’s Anatomy Astros who’d survived and persevered likewise—had a hope of forcing the seventh game of a set in which they looked lost too often lost at the plate and too often like Candid Camera victims in the field.

The Yankees didn’t look that bad in the Game Six field. But the Astros in the field looked like they were playing Can You Top This, from Josh Reddick’s face-planting dive to catch Brett Gardner’s sinking liner to right with two on in the sixth, saving a potential two-run double, to Michael Brantley’s seventh-inning dive to catch Aaron Hicks’s shallow left popup before springing to his feet and throwing strong to double off Aaron Judge half way to second.

Not to mention at the plate in the bottom of the first, when Altuve drilled a one-out double up the alley in left center, Alex Bregman wrung Yankee opener Chad Green for a walk, and Yuli Gurriel hit the first pitch into the Crawford Boxes. LeMahieu got close in the top of the ninth but Altuve copped first prize in the bottom.

Brad Peacock performing his Firpo Marberry impression had a simple time getting three swift outs to open the game. Green, who’d opened fifteen Yankee games on the regular season with the Yankees winning eleven of them, probably had a hard time believing what just happened to him after one full inning in the book.

Seven Yankee pitchers surrendered six hits, struck out six, and walked six. If Jose Altuve’s a gift from God, the Yankees must think the devil is plaguing them. Seven Astro pitchers turned up deuces wild: two runs, two hits, two strikeouts. They didn’t have to do anything much more than that.

The Yankees’s series-long futility hitting with men in scoring position made it almost as easy for Peacock, Josh James, Ryan Pressly, Jose Urquidy, Will Harris, Joe Smith, and—until LeMahieu teed off in the ninth—Osuna to keep the Yankees from too much mischief.

They pushed a run home in the second on Didi Gregorius’s one-out double off the right field fence and Sanchez’s almost immediate single up the middle. They yanked one home in the fourth when Gio Urshela with one out hit Urquidy’s first pitch to him into the right center field seats. And that was all until the top of the ninth.

Again the Yankees flashed a series-long allergy to cashing in scoring opportunities, especially with the bases loaded. Aaron Judge worked a one-out, full-count walk off James in the third, Gleyber Torres fought back on 2-2 to send a soft liner into left center, and Edwin Encarnacion—back in the DH slot after Giancarlo Stanton didn’t deliver in the slot in Game Five—wrung James for a four-pitch walk to load the pillows.

That’s when Pressly came in. He threw one pitch to Gregorius. He got Gregorius to bounce back to the first base side of the mound, fielded it himself, tagged Gregorius for the side, and promptly left the game with a knee strain that scared the Astros a spell, since if he had to go off the roster injured he wouldn’t be eligible to return for the Series. He’s being listed day to day for now.

But after Urshela’s rip Urquidy held fort for two and two thirds and probably saved Hinch from reducing his Tums supply by a third at least. With the Yankees left to ponder whether Reddick’s or Brantley’s dives finished the coffin into which Altuve eventually hammered the nails.

“You can’t script it,” said Verlander. “I’m just trying to take it all in, see the crowd, feel the atmosphere.” That’s what two World Series trips in three seasons does for you.

You can say Yankee general manager Brian Cashman punted at the new single mid-season trade deadline by failing to land one more serviceable starting pitcher. That fail ended up biting the Yankees severely when Domingo German landed on the suspended list in late September over a domestic violence incident involving the mother of his two children—on the same day the Yankees honoured retiring CC Sabathia at a Hudson Yards party.

And you can point to a tiny handful of tactical moves manager Aaron Boone made that backfired, after he’d spent so much of the season essentially preparing his bullpen for the postseason, knowing his starting dearth and losing one of his bulls, Dellin Betances, to an Achilles tendon tear, tied one hand behind his back going in.

Boone’s heartaches now will include that he’s just become the only man in major league history to hit a pennant-winning walk-off homer as a player and surrender a pennant-losing home run as a manager. In the same uniform, yet.

And this loss is on the Yankee players as much as the Astros’ triumph is on their players. From a remarkable .294/.372/.518 collective regular-season slash line with runners on second or better, and 11-for-34 in that situation against the Twins in the division series, the Yankees in the ALCS seemed to approach men on second or better as though they thought someone would shoot them dead if they even thought about cashing in.

They went 6-for-35 in that situation all ALCS long and 1-for-6 in Game Six. Their threats amounted to the none-too-strong parent who admonishes his overindulged child, “If you do that again, so help me God I’m going to . . . be very, very angry at you!” Against these Astros, who don’t know the meaning of the word mercy when they spot weakness, that was tantamount to a death wish.

Put their pitching to one side and the Astros were smarter on the bases, they were stingier than Jack Benny (the radio and television character, not the man himself) in the field, and they weren’t ignorant at the plate when they saw Yankee relief arms more often than they might have expected going in.

“That’s a helluva team over there,” said Springer after the game, still catching breaths after the surrealistic finish. “That was a fight. I have a lot of respect for them.”

Some among the least forgiving Yankee fans—and that’s saying too much considering no fans in baseball are less forgiving, and few are more obnoxious, than Yankee fans denied World Series trips they still believe to be their annual birthright—would tell Springer that Game Six’s running of the bulls merely exposed the Yankees as full of it.

The only heartaches awaiting the Astros now will be whichever ones the just-as-hungering Nats might have in store for them. They’re not exactly worried. Yet. “We are a team that’s working together and pulling in the right direction,” Altuve said after the game. And that’s no bull.

From nuts to soup

2019-10-18 AaronHicks

Among other things, Aaron Hicks went where only two Yankee center fielders went before the bottom of the first Friday night . . .

The Astros had no worries entering American League Championship Series Game Five. Other than winning. And maybe the prospect of yet another tiny but noisy pack of Yankee Stadium creatures discovering that maybe Justin Verlander did something naughty before he became one of his generation’s greatest pitchers.

If the Yankees’ least civilised fans could hammer Game Four starter Zack Greinke over his too-real anxiety and clinical depression issues, never mind Greinke saying no, he didn’t hear it, God and His servant Lou Gehrig only knew what they’d try if they discovered Verlander turned up with so much as an unpaid parking ticket in his past.

Playing the Yankees with a trip to the World Series on the line is one thing. To a man the Astros consider that a high honour. “We don’t want to take anything for granted,” said second baseman Jose Altuve after they helped themselves to a heaping Yankee implosion in Game Four. “We want to make sure we win tomorrow. We’re playing against a great team.”

A great team that entered Game Five after a night on which they looked like they couldn’t decide between being the 1962 Mets and the Washington Generals. Not even during the lowest days of their 1965-75 low or the most insane days of George Steinbrenner’s King of Hearts act of the 1980s did the Yankees look that inept.

The Astros are too kind to say the Game Four Yankees looked like they had Abbott catching Costello, the four Marx Brothers in the infield, the Three Stooges in the outfield, Charlie Chaplin coaching first base, Buster Keaton coaching third, and the cast of legendary radio dumb fest It Pays to Be Ignorant in the bullpen. With Allen Funt (Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!) managing them.

Whom would the Yankees resemble in Game Five? Would it be sock-it-to-me time in the south Bronx with the Yankees throwing their own buckets of water over each other? Maybe they’d pratfall to the mound, the bases, the outfield, hollering “Live from New York—it’s Friday night!!”

It’s not that the Astros were entirely without concerns of their own. Verlander may be a Hall of Famer in waiting but even he’s only human. The Rays proved that when Verlander started Game Four of their division series on a mere three days’ rest for the first such short-rest start of his life. And, was had.

Normally, Verlander only human is still better than many if not most. With a trip to the World Series on the line, the last thing the Astros needed for Friday Night Live was a merely human Verlander.

They needed a reasonable facsimile of the Hall of Famer in waiting who entered Game Five with a lifetime 2.89 ERA when he faces the same team twice in a postseason contest. They needed a reasonable facsimile of the Verlander who had a lifetime 1.05 ERA in three previous lifetime shots at closing out a postseason series.

The Astros got that reasonable facsimile Friday night. The trouble was that they had to wait until after the first inning to get it. And that was after the top of the first looked as though it was going to be another round of Yankee slapstick handing the Astros their World Series trip.

When George Springer shot a leadoff grounder under Yankee starter James Paxton’s glove that second baseman Gleyber Torres couldn’t barehand, and Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez allowed him to second on a passed ball, the fun looked like it was beginning for the Astros again. And, like it would continue after Springer reached third on a Jose Altuve ground out and scored on a wild pitch off Sanchez’s knee.

You’d have forgiven the Yankee Stadium public address people for sounding opening bars of “Dance of the Cuckoos,” right?

Even allowing the chilly Yankee Stadium night nobody, maybe even the Yankees, expected D.J. LeMahieu to lead off the bottom of the first by sending an 0-1 Verlander fastball into the right center field seats. Or, Aaron Judge to send a base hit into left and Torres to dump a quail down the left field line for first and third. Or, Aaron Hicks wringing a full count before ripping one off the right field foul pole.

And that’s the way the scoring remained in Game Five, the Yankees winning 4-1.

That pole ringer was only the third time any Yankee center fielder hit an elimination-game bomb to put the Yankees ahead. Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle did it to break a two-all tie off National League Rookie of the Year Joe Black in Game Seven of the 1952 World Series. And Roger Maris—usually a right fielder but playing center this time out—nailed one off the Cardinals’ Curt Simmons to bust a one-all tie in Game Six of the 1964 Series.

And never before in their long history of postseason presence and triumph had the Yankees ever hit a pair of first-inning bombs. That, folks, covers (count ’em) 404 baseball games. And all it took was an all-fields-hitting first baseman and a center fielder who missed over two months with an injured right elbow before he came back for the ALCS.

“We wanted to get ahead early,” Hicks told ESPN’s Buster Olney in a postgame field interview. “To take the first punch.”

Verlander never surrendered two first-inning home runs in any postseason game in his life until Friday night. And it was just the second time in 29 postseason starts that he surrendered four runs or more. “It was a combination of things,” he said after the game in front of his locker. “Fastball command wasn’t very good, and the slider was just hanging. I just wasn’t able to execute really anything.”

But from there he and Paxton, plus three Yankee relievers and Brad Peacock in his first postseason gig out of the Astro pen, hung nothing but zeroes up while putting on a pitching clinic so profound you were tempted to wonder whether pitching in the cold was their real secret weapon after that testy enough first.

Each pitcher kept each batter from much more than soft contact the rest of the way, each pushed periodic threats to one side, thank you, if you didn’t count Tommy Kahnle surrendering a base hit and a four-pitch walk following a seventh inning-opening out.

Verlander after the first resembled as close to his Hall of Fame self as he could on such a frigid night, and Paxton resembled the guy who pitched up big enough down the stretch as opposed to the guy who couldn’t get out of the third inning in Game Two. And Paxton looked like a reasonable facsimile striking out nine in six to Verlander’s nine in seven.

And there wasn’t a pratfall, tumble, stumble, rumble, trip, bad hand, or butter finger to be found from the first inning forward until Yankee closer Aroldis Chapman shot through the top of the ninth with strikeout, fly out to left, and ground out to third faster than you could say see you back in Houston.

“Getting those runs were big,” Paxton said in an on-field interview. “I was grinding the whole time, that’s a great team over there, they really battle, so I had to grind all the time. Making one pitch at a time.”

Never before, too, in 1,608 previous postseason games, too, had any pair of contestants scored in the first inning together without scoring a single run further the rest of the way.

Both sides turned in some defensive acrobatics, from LeMahieu tumbling to the foul track and falling toward the sidewall to catch Yuli Gurriel’s third-inning pop foul to late Astros right field insertion Josh Reddick running Gio Urshela’s long fly to right down deep in the corner and making a basket catch before he might have hit the wall to end the Yankee seventh.

The Yankees hope they don’t hit the wall in Game Six; the Astros would love nothing better than to make them hit it hard enough to send the ‘Stros back to the World Series. And considering the likelihood that it may be a bullpen game for both sides, with neither manager seeming to want to short-rest their Game Three starters Gerrit Cole and Luis Severino, Game Six should be a very intriguing running of the bulls.

At this writing the arms that begin Game Six may be anyone’s guess. Nobody’s said anything yet out of either team’s camp, but speculations runs that it could be Jose Urquidy for the Astros to open and, maybe, Chad Greene or J.A. Happ (who has starting experience) for the Yankees.

Not that either team’s necessarily worried. “If we find out in the morning,” said Yankee right fielder Aaron Judge, “we’ll do our homework and get ready.”

“Everybody’s ready,” said Astros third baseman Alex Bregman.

Not everybody. One Twitter twit lamented, “Such a sad day for baseball.” Please. You’re trying to win, you need to not send a pair of prime starters out on short rest because it’s liable to mean disaster, for them and for your team. You do what you must to win. The game won’t be any worse and probably be a little more of a good old fashioned hair raiser.

Such a sad day for baseball is actually an idea as old as the year Rhapsody in Blue and Mercedes-Benz were born, Woodrow Wilson died, and Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson perfected the starter-as-reliever technique that this year’s National League pennant winner applied mostly successfully.

And on Saturday evening, 7:08 Central standard time, the best two teams in the American League this year will play to win in Minute Maid Park. One of them will win the pennant or host a Game Seven. One will force a Game Seven or lose the pennant.  Let’s play ball!