One for the road. And, the ages.

2019-10-31 WashingtonNationals

The road was anything but lonesome for the Nationals this World Series.

From early in the season, when the Nationals were left for dead, and their manager left for death row, gallows humour often salved. So has it done though a lot of the now-concluded World Series. Such humour didn’t exactly hurt after their stupefying Game Six win in Houston, either.

Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki, himself hoping for a Game Seven return appearance after an absence due to a hip issue, couldn’t resist, after Max Scherzer showed up alive and throwing Tuesday. “We were all kind of making fun of him,” Suzuki told an interviewer, “saying he was going to rise from the dead.”

You could say that about the Nats themselves. They’ve been rising from the dead since the regular season ended, too. They won the World Series, beating the Astros 6-2 in Game Seven, rising from the dead, too. Inspired in large part by a pitcher who looked for most of his five innings’ work as though his ghost was on the mound clanking in chains.

And, with neither team able to win at home this time around. For the first time in the history of any major team sport whose championship is chosen in a best-of-seven set. The Nats and the Astros burglarised each other’s houses and left nothing behind, not even an old, tarnished butter knife in the silverware drawer. And the Astros’ hard-earned home field advantage proved the Nats’ road to the Promised Land.

Unearth Canned Heat warbling “On the Road Again,” from the opening tamboura drone to the final harmonics and all harmonica-weeping points in between. Crank up the Doors swinging “Roadhouse Blues.” Pay particular attention to the closing couplet: The future’s uncertain/the end is always near.

For five innings Wednesday night the Nats’ future was as uncertain as the Astros’ end was as near and clear as a 2-0 lead could make it. And try to figure out just how Scherzer with less than nothing other than his sheer will kept it 2-0 while getting his . . .

No. Not Houdini, for all his Game Seven escape acts. Scherzer wasn’t even a brief impersonation of Max the Knife, but after Wednesday he ought to think about a stand in Las Vegas. He’d make Penn & Teller resemble a pair of street hustlers. David Copperfield’s a mere practical joker next to this.

“You can’t really call it a miracle,” said Nats right fielder Adam Eaton post-game, “but it will be a reality-TV movie. Come on, how many books are going to be written about this?” Let’s see . . . Bluff, The Magic Dragons? 20,000 Leagues Beneath Belief? Four Innings Before the Mast? The Nats in the Hat Come Back?

Making baseball’s best team on the year take a long walk into winter has all the simplicity of quantum physics. Doing it when you send a pitcher to the Game Seven mound with nothing but his stubborn will is only slightly less complex.

“I don’t think anybody really knew what to expect when he took the ball,” said Nats reliever Sean Doolittle after the game. “After what he went through with his neck, you don’t know how that’s going to hold up with his violent delivery. You don’t know what his stamina is going to be like. But with Max, we’ve come to expect the unexpected. It was gutsy, man . . . He willed us to stay in the game and that was awesome. I know guys fed off it.”

But on a night Astros starter Zack Greinke operated like a disciple of legendary Texas cardiovascular surgeon Michael DeBakey with the Nats practically on life support, that could have been fatal. Until Patrick Corbin, Anthony Rendon, Howie Kendrick, Juan Soto, Daniel Hudson, and—reality check, folks—the lack of Gerrit Cole made sure it wasn’t.

Scherzer pulled rabbits out of his hat and anyplace else he could find them and was almost lucky that only two of the hares treated him like Elmer Fudd. Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel sent a 2-1 slider with as much slide as a piece of sandpaper into the Crawford Boxes in the bottom of the second, and Carlos Correa whacked an RBI single off Anthony Rendon’s glove at third in the bottom of the fifth.

Nats manager Dave Martinez called for a review on that play, ostensibly to determine whether Yordan Alverez’s foot was actually off the pad after he rounded but was held at third on the play, but realistically to give Corbin a little more warmup time. Then Corbin went to work starting in the bottom of the sixth. And the Nats went to work in earnest in the top of the seventh.

With one out and Greinke still looking somewhat like a smooth operator, Rendon caught hold of a changeup reaching toward the floor of the strike zone and drove it midway up the Crawford Boxes. One walk to Soto later, Greinke was out of the game and Will Harris was in. With Cole—who’d paralysed the Nats in Game Five, and who was seen stirring in the Astro bullpen a little earlier Wednesday night—not even a topic.

For which the Astros’ usually clever, always sensitively intelligent manager A.J. Hinch is liable to be second guessed until the end of time or another Astros lease on the Promised Land, whichever comes first. If he thought Greinke at a measly eighty pitches was done, why not reach for Cole who’d hammerlocked the Nats in Game Five and probably had an inning or three in his tank?

“I wasn’t going to pitch him unless we were going to win the World Series and have a lead,” Hinch said matter-of-factly after the game. “He was going to help us win. He was available, and I felt it was a game that he was going to come in had we tied it or taken the lead. He was going to close the game in the ninth after I brought [Roberto] Osuna in had we kept the lead.”

“They got a good lineup, especially the top of the order,” Greinke himself said. “It’s tough to get through no matter one time, two times, three times. All of them are tough. Really good hitters up there.”

Except that Hinch still had a 2-1 lead when he thanked Greinke for a splendid night’s work.”He was absolutely incredible . . . he did everything we could ask for and more,” said Hinch when it was all over. “He was in complete control, he made very few mistakes, in the end the home run to walk was the only threat to him.”

You can bet that even the Nats thought Hinch would reach for Cole in that moment. It’s the Casey Stengel principle, as his biographer Robert W. Creamer once described: if you have an opening, shove with your shoulder. If you think your man is done but you still need a stopper, you reach for him like five minutes ago.

And in one or two corners of the Nats dugout the thought of Cole coming in was actually welcome. “When we saw Cole warming up,” coach Kevin Long told reporters after the game, “we were almost like, ‘Please bring him in.’ Because that’s how good Zack Greinke was.”

But Harris it was. He was one of the Astros’ most reliable bullpen bulls on the season, and he’d been mostly likewise through this postseason. But after swinging and missing on a curvaceous enough curve ball, Kendrick found the screws on a cutter off the middle and sent it the other way, down the right field line, and ringing off the foul pole with a bonk! that no one sitting in Minute Maid Park is liable to forget for ages yet to come.

“I made a pretty good pitch,” Harris said after the game. “He made a championship play for a championship team.”

“The pitch he made to Howie—I just don’t understand how he hit that out,” said Carlos Correa, the only Astro somehow to have a base hit with a runner on second or better Wednesday night. “It doesn’t add up. The way he throws his cutter, it’s one of the nastiest cutters in the game. Down and away, on the black, and he hits it off the foul pole. It was meant to be, I guess, for them. I thought we played great, but they played better. It was their year.”

Osuna relieved Harris and settled the Nats after surrendering an almost immediate base hit to Nats second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, but he wouldn’t be that fortunate in the eighth. He walked Eaton with one out, but Eaton stole second with Rendon at the plate and, after Rendon flied out, Soto pulled a line single to right to send Eaton home.

Ryan Pressly ended the inning by getting a line drive out from Cabrera, but another Astro reliever, Joe Smith, wouldn’t be that fortunate in the ninth. Ryan Zimmerman led off with a single up the pipe; Yan Gomes bounced one back to the box enabling Smith to get Zimmerman but not the double play; Victor Robles stroked a soft-punch line single into center; and, Trea Turner fought his way to a walk and ducks on the pond.

Hinch reached for Jose Urquidy, his Game Four opener and five-inning virtuoso back in Washington. But Eaton reached for and lined a hit into shallow enough center with Gomes scoring in a flash and Robles coming in behind him, freed up when Astro center fielder Jake Marisnick, usually one of the surest defensive hands they have, lost the handle on the ball and gave Robles room to move.

And, giving Hudson all the room he needed to pop George Springer out at second and to strike Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley out swinging to pop the corks and blow the lid off 95 years worth of Washington baseball frustration. Which looked impossible in late May, looked improbable just last weekend, but looks just as impossible the morning after.

Believing that Rendon could become only the fifth man to homer in Games Six and Seven of the same Series (behind Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Roberto Clemente, plus Allen Craig and—a mere two years ago—Springer himself) was more plausible. Believing Harris could become the first pitcher hung with a blown save in a Game Seven at home since Boston’s Roger Moret in 1975 wasn’t, necessarily.

But believing no World Series combatant would win even a single game at home in a seven game set defies everything. The Nats outscored the Astros 30-11 in Minute Maid Park; the Astros out-scored the Nats 19-3 in Nationals Park. The Astros played their heads, hearts, and tails off all year long to get the postseason’s home field advantage, and the Nats swooped in to rob them blind.

All game long the world seemed to think Martinez had lost his marble—singular—letting Scherzer stay on the mound despite have nothing to challenge the Astros with except meatballs, snowballs, and grapefruits. The skipper who eluded execution after 23 May now looked as though they’d pull the guillotine with his name on it back out of storage. Then the final three innings made him look like Alfred Hitchcock.

That 19-31 start to the Nats’ season? The worst for any team that went on to win that year’s World Series. From twelve under .500 to the Promised Land? You have company, now, 1914 Miracle Braves. An 8-1 postseason road record including eight straight road wins en route the trophy? Good morning, 1996 Yankees.

The first number one draft overall to end his season as the World Series MVP? Welcome to the party, Stephen Strasburg. The sixth man to hit a go-ahead homer in the seventh or later in a World Series? Roger Peckinpaugh, Hal Smith, Bill Mazeroski, Ray Knight, and Alfonso Soriano, meet Howie Kendrick, who’s now the only man in postseason history with more than one go-ahead homer in the seventh or later in elimination games.

The youngest man to hit the most homers in a single postseason and three in a single World Series? Today you are a man, Juan Soto.

All that courtesy of MLB.com and ESPN’s Stats and Info department. They give you the numbers. But they can’t really account for that old Nats magic. Nobody can, try though they might. The Nats just hope this isn’t the end of it. Which might be tricky if the Nats can’t convince Anthony Rendon to stay rather than play the free agency market or Strasburg not to exercise his contract’s opt-out option.

Cole is also a pending free agent. And he plopped a postgame cap on his head bearing the logo of his agent Scott Boras’s operation. When an Astro spokesman asked him to talk to reporters after the game, he was heard saying, “I’m not an employee of the team.” Then, he said he’d talk “as a representative of myself, I guess.”

Liable to be this year’s American League Cy Young Award winner, and facing maybe the fattest payday ever handed to a prime pitcher, Cole wouldn’t say if the Astros losing the World Series prompted him to declare his free agency that swiftly, that emphatically. He wouldn’t say whether he was mad that Hinch didn’t bring him in.

“We just went over the game plan and he laid out the most advantageous times to use me,” Cole told reporters. “And we didn’t get to that position.”

For Altuve, arguably the heart and soul of the Astros on the field and in the clubhouse alike, the heartbreak was impossible to hide. “I don’t think I can handle this,” he said candidly. “It’s really hard to lose Game Seven of the World Series. What I can tell you is we did everything we could . . . We did everything to make it happen. We couldn’t, but that’s baseball.”

Sometimes it’s even harder to win Game Seven. That’s baseball, too. The Nats stand in the Promised Land as living, breathing, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in Show” proof.

The future’s coming in by helicopter

2019-10-27 DaveMartinez

Nationals manager Dave Martinez faces the press and the music after Game Four.

“This ain’t football. We do this every day.” So said the late Earl Weaver. Unfortunately, every day doesn’t last forever. And even with the World Series tied at two games each, it feels a little as though the Nationals are running out of every day.

The truest cliche ever attached to Billy Martin is that he managed a season as though the future didn’t exist. In the regular season that meant pitchers left in ruin before their times. In a short series, though, especially when “World” precedes “Series,” it means the future is now.

Nats manager Dave Martinez’s let’s-go-1-and-0 today philosophy got the Nats to the World Series in the first place. It also got him two devastating wins, outscoring the Astros 17-7, in the Astros’ playpen. But when he needed it the most in Games Three and Four, it didn’t show up.

His batting grinders suddenly forgot how to hit with men on second or better and also with two outs while they were at it. And Martinez forgot the urgency when he needed a stopper like five minutes ago.

Granted Martinez doesn’t have the greatest overall bullpen, but when he needed a stopper drastically in Game Four he was more concerned about having two available for Game Five with Max Scherzer due to start than in stopping the bleeding with a mere three-run deficit on Saturday night.

And Astros manager A.J. Hinch, down 2-0 in the Series, wasn’t afraid to play and think in the absolute moment. Zack Greinke headed for Game Three trouble? Get him out of there before he gets humiliated. The Nats looking ornery at the plate? Wheel in Will Harris, Hinch’s absolute best relief pitcher, and wipe the ornery off their faces before it means disaster. Can’t afford to hold him just for the late hold.

So rookie Tanner Rainey, with the live fastball and the deadly slider but still-lingering command issues, opened the Game Four seventh with back-to-back walks before getting Jose Altuve to fly out? Where was Daniel Hudson? Where was Sean Doolittle? Not like they were overworked; they didn’t even get to poke their noses out of their holes in Game Three.

Where, even, was Wander Suero, who shook away his arson tendencies enough this postseason and who’d gotten rid of Michael Brantley coming up in the only time he’d ever faced the Astro left fielder?

This time, Martinez had to be Santa Claus and send Fernando Rodney out to deal with Brantley, who’d hit .468 lifetime off the old man prior to Game Four. And after Brantley lined a single into short center to load the ducks on the pond, Martinez stuck with the old man anyway. Experience counts, right?

This is Rodney’s lifetime World Series experience: 6.00 ERA. This was Rodney’s 2019 Series experience before Game Four: one clean shutout inning in Game Two; two thirds shutout inning in Game Three, except that it was about as clean as a corpse attacked by rats: entering with a man on, then stolen base and a throwing error, walk, stolen base, rundown force at the plate, intentional walk, inning-ending force out.

That‘s what Martinez sent to the Game Four mound in the top of the seventh with Brantley checking in and first and third. With the game a still-manageable three-run difference. With neither Hudson nor Doolittle anywhere to be seen.

Then Brantley behaved just the way you’d expect as a .468 hitter against that pitcher and lined a bases-loading single up the pipe. And Alex Bregman, going in knowing Rodney still has stuff and it’s best approached prudently, drew a bead on the fastball that didn’t sink the way the MVP candidate usually expects it to sink.

With one swing Bregman sank the Nats into a two-all Series tie and Nationals Park into the Tomb of the Saturday Soldiers Who Wish They Were Unknown.

A Nats fan would love to go back to the end of the sixth and whisper in Martinez’s ear, “Think ahead, Dave. You need a stopper right now. Hudson and Doolittle haven’t had to work since Game One. They ain’t H-D-H of the 2014-15 Royals but they’re as close as you’ve got. And Hudson’s just as much hell on lefties as righties this year if you got Tucker leading off to pinch hit.”

Then, when he or she had Martinez’s ear locked in tight, continue: “You bring in Hudson and you might be out of the inning with nothing more than maybe an excuse-us base hit along the way. Then you bring the old man in since he’s better in a clean inning but when he joins up with men on it’s disaster. And if your bats remember how not to just make traffic but get it home without a pileup, especially with two outs like during that magnificent run from May forward, you still got Doolittle.”

And then, when Martinez really perked up, drive it home straight, no chaser: “You can still go to either one in Game Five if Max the Knife needs help or gets through six or even seven without the sky falling in on him. And you got a travel day back to Houston for Game Six. They won’t be wrung like mops. They’ll be there for the asking and you know you’d better ask if needed. Remember all that and live.”

An Astros fan, of course, would prefer Martinez let himself get out-generaled by Hinch a couple of more times. Preferably in Game Five if the Astros find their way past Max the Knife and send the Series back to Houston needing just one more win to return to the  Promised Land.

Except that Martinez just lost his Knife. On Sunday afternoon the word broke that Scherzer suffered neck spasms late Saturday night and the discomfort was too much worse Sunday to send him to the mound. “For Max to miss a game, especially a significant game like this, he’s got to be really hurting,” Martinez said Sunday.

Indeed it does. And it looks like the Nats now have to try the unthinkable: a bullpen game to open, with righthander Joe Ross. Unless Martinez wants to roll some real dice and hand the ball to Stephen Strasburg in the pinch, since Strasburg would be on regular rest Sunday night.

The time for Martinez to get himself and his Nats back to that go 1-0 today philosophy is now. The future isn’t waiting for Dupont Circle traffic to lighten up. It’s coming in by helicopter.

Santa serves early Christmas salami

2019-10-27 AlexBregman

Santa showed up early for Alex Bregman and the Astros Saturday night.

Did we say World Series Game Four was going to be a bullpen game? Didn’t quite turn out that way. Did we say the Astro pen wasn’t guaranteed to equal bona fide Nationals fourth starter Patrick Corbin? Boy did we get that one wrong.

Not only did the Astros’ rookie designated opener Jose Urquidy pitch the quality start of his young baseball life, he out-pitched both Corbin and his own team’s still formidable but lately vulnerable Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole.

And he did it on a night the regular season version of the Astros finally, once and for all, turned up. Big. 8-1 big. They finished what they started in Game Three and obliterated any chance of the short series nobody with a brain really thought was likely to happen in the first place.

Michael Brantley with two hits thus far on the night, plus Alex Bregman still trying to shake away an overall postseason hitting funk despite one launch earlier in the set, remembered especially what Nationals manager Dave Martinez forgot in the seventh inning.

He forgot that these Astros are the greediest little suckers in the American League when handed gifts. They don’t stop at “Thank you.” They demand more, help themselves, and make you look like a battered fool before they’re done. Turning the seventh inning stretch into a visit to the urgent care clinic.

Bad enough rookie Nats reliever Tanner Rainey handed the Astros the gifts of back-to-back inning-opening walks before closing the giveaway with Jose Altuve flying out to right. Martinez put on his Santa suit and gave the Astros an extra early merry Christmas.

He reached for ancient Fernando Rodney. Against whom Brantley took a lifetime .462 batting average and 1.038 OPS to the plate. Instead of Wander Suero, who’s almost young enough to be Rodney’s son, and against whom Brantley before Game Four only ever batted once and had nothing to show for it but a measly out.

Respecting your elders goes only so far with a World Series game on the line and the other guys in one of the highest leverages of the night. Brantley’s respect went only far enough to line a base hit up the pipe into short center field that wasn’t quite deep enough for leadoff pinch hitter Kyle Tucker to score.

So the Astros settled for ducks on the pond. And Martinez, who’d managed mostly to turn his infamously shaky bullpen into something resembling a respectable postseason crew, re-learned the hard way about generosity’s limits. Bregman delivered that hard re-education and duck dinner when he sent an 0-1 pitch on a high parabola into the left field seats.

That one re-ignited Bregman’s fire and put the game so far out of reach the Nats couldn’t bring it back with a search party and a band of bloodhounds.

Not on a night when they sent less traffic to the bases than they’d wasted in Game Three and got their only run of the night in the sixth with the bases loaded, one out, and Juan Soto—who doesn’t quite looking so superhuman anymore—grounding out in almost slow motion to Astro first baseman Yuli Gurriel, enough to score Gerardo Parra, before Astro reliever Will Harris struck Howie Kendrick out swinging for the side.

The Nats picked the wrong time to get their shark off. And they may have picked the wrong time to even think about walking Brantley to get to Bregman’s then still-cold postseason bat in Game Three. That proves to have been poking the barracuda.

“In Game Three, we stopped the bleeding,” Bregman told reporters after Game Four. “Then we played well tonight. We want to keep rolling. We’re fired up. It’s really exciting. It’s a great atmosphere here. The fans are into the game, [and] it’s good to know we’re going home.”

Now  Cole and Max Scherzer have a rematch in Game Five to look forward to. And Max the Knife won’t be pitching just to beat the Astros, he’ll be pitching to help save the Nats’ very skins and fins.

Ordinarily, you might be tempted to stop right there and pull out your history book. It would tell you that the 1986 World Series began with the first four games being won in the road ballpark, too. The Red Sox won Games One and Two in Shea Stadium, the Mets won Games Three and Four in Fenway Park.

But those Red Sox won Game Five in the Fens before returning to Shea Stadium, losing Game Six in the second most heartbreaking way in Red Sox history before getting bopped until they dropped by the Mets in Game Seven.

Then in 1996, the Braves won the first pair in Yankee Stadium and the Yankees won the next three in Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. The set moved back to the Bronx and the Yankees won Game Six. Nope, that’s not a reference to encourage the Nats, either. But it sure should have the Astros feeling like early Christmas.

Corbin picked the wrong night to spot the Astros a pair of first inning runs. And, to spot them another pair when Astro catcher Robinson Chirinos, who’d rung the left field foul pole net in Game Three, hit a no-doubt two-run homer halfway up the seats in the top of the fourth.

And Urqiudy picked the right night to take advantage of the Nats’ sudden inability to do what they’d done most of the postseason to date, adjust on the fly to pitchers dialing up the Mixmasters.

“When you go in with a game plan of kind of working off his scouting report and he goes the complete opposite with it,” said Nats right fielder Adam Eaton, whom Urquidy kept to a pair of measly popup outs, “by the time you kind of make the adjustment, it’s too late.”

The husky righthander also picked the perfect night to display a changeup that may yet qualify for designation as a weapon of mass destruction. It’s not that his fastball or his slider were necessarily weakfish, but that changeup was the perfect setup pitch for him on a night the Nats couldn’t and didn’t adjust, kind-of or otherwise.

When he deigned to throw it at all, that is. If the Nats did their homework on Urquidy, knowing he was changeup reliant, Urquidy had them figured almost the way Nimitz had the Japanese navy figured during the Pacific branch of World War II. He was the Astros’ one-man can of shark repellant Saturday night.

If you thought the Nats coming home to bathe in the Washington love became too great a weight to bear in Games Three and Four, a possibility not exactly out of bounds, Urquidy—who’d gone from nothing special up and down the minors before getting his callup to never better as a bona-fide Astro late in the season and now Saturday night—only let the magnitude hit him once.

“Yes, a couple moments, a couple moments I was thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I’m in the World Series pitching’.” the 24-year-old who’s only the third Mexican (behind Jaime Garcia and Fernando Valenzuela) to start a World Series game said after Game Four. “It was awesome.” “It” was nothing compared to him.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch went in hoping Urquidy could give him two, maybe three, please-please-please four innings. He got a performance Verlander and Cole themselves just might have envied. And if Game Four was To Tell the Truth, Hinch’s Bud Collyer got the best surprise of his life when he asked, “Will the real Alex Bregman please stand up?”

Oh, brother, did Bregman stand up. Only nineteen previous players ever hit grand salamis in World Series games. Only three of them were hit by Hall of Famers: Tony Lazzeri (Game Two, 1936), Mickey Mantle (Game Five, 1953), and Yogi Berra (Game Two, 1956). And only two were ever hit in a Game Four: Chuck Hiller (1962) and Ken Boyer (1964).

Boyer hit his two games before talented but troubled young Yankee first baseman Joe Pepitone nailed a salami in the ’64 Series. The Astros actually got gifted a shot at only the second salami in the same inning, when Grandpa Rodney was left in after Bregman launched and re-loaded the bases on a trio of walks interrupted only by a ground ball force out.

Then Martinez reached for Suero, with Tucker coming up for a encore. And Suero struck Tucker out swinging to end the nightmare at last. The rest of the game seemed like a mere formality.

Even when the Nats put first and second aboard in the bottom of the eighth, abetted by a throwing error when Altuve fielded Rendon’s hopper on the far side of second but threw off line. Soto worked out a walk immediately following, but Astro reliever Brad Peacock struck Kendrick out and got Ryan Zimmerman to pop out to George Springer playing right field for the night.

Bregman was rather gracious after the game about his confrontation with Rodney. “He’s really tough to face,” the third baseman told reporters. “He’s got an incredible change-up. His fastball is dirty, has a lot of sink to it. He has another fastball he throws, a four-seamer, that has some jump to it. He’s not an easy at-bat all.”

“He got him 0-1 and the ball just didn’t sink where he wanted it to be,” said Martinez after the game. “But he’s come in two innings and done really well for us.” That he had. “I like Rodney in that spot,” Martinez added. Unfortunately, Bregman liked Rodney in that spot even more.

Indeed, Rodney started Bregman with a changeup that dove right into the low inside corner. Even Bregman wouldn’t have been able to hit it with a five-iron. The next pitch was the four-seamer and it forgot to jump. Bregman didn’t. He jumped it for maybe the single most world-shattering hit of his life.

Did it shatter the world of the Nats who’d gone from the living dead in late May to the live-and-very-well the rest of the season and all the way through Game Two? Who hadn’t lost back-to-back games since 13-14 September? Who had to be taught the hard way all over again how unwise it is to stake the Astros to an early Christmas?

“We’re tied after four games,” shortstop Trea Turner told reporters. “It’s all about perspective and how you perceive it.”

“At this point in time, you literally just live and breathe each and every day,” said Scherzer, into whose hands the Nats place the live-and-breathe ball Sunday night.

“I’ll take it,” said Eaton. “We don’t mind where we’re at—a best-of-three with Scherzer and Stras going the next two days.” Not to mention the Nats’ absolute two best relief options, Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle, untroubled in Game Four and well enough rested if needed in Five and Six. If.

On paper that looks like advantage, Nats. Psychologically, this is exactly what Nats fans signed up for. Max the Knife and Not-So-Stoic-Stephen. Just plunge the blade in before it goes back to Houston, Max the Knife. If you do, two nights in hell will be worth it.

There’s just one problem. Namely, an Astro team that knows the differences between paper and performance but marries them effectively until death do they part. And for these Astros, the wedding night is never enough. Maybe even in spite of Scherzer and Stras. Maybe.

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.

With the sixth you get steamrolled

2019-10-06 PatrickCorbin

Patrick Corbin, the third man in the Nats’ starters-as-relievers plan, was the first and worst to be torched.

There is one bright side to the Nationals being bludgeoned 10-4 by the Dodgers Sunday night. It means they still have a shot in their National League division series. Because they’ll send Max Scherzer to the mound for Game Four. And all they need is Scherzer to be as close to Scherzer as possible.

If he is, the Nats have a fighting chance. And, Stephen Strasburg on regular rest for Game Five in Dodger Stadium. If he isn’t, they’ll look even more like baseball’s version of a Harold Stassen presidential campaign.

For the time being, though, they might want to can the starter-as-reliever strategy no matter how testy most of their bullpen is. They need Scherzer to pitch them as deep as possible without getting drowned. While praying manager Dave Martinez shakes Sunday off enough not to push anything resembling a panic button.

Certainly not the one he pushed Sunday afternoon, when he lifted his mostly cruising starter Anibal Sanchez after only 87 pitches, five innings, nine strikeouts (mostly on changeups, power worshippers), and a 2-1 lead, the last courtesy of Juan Soto’s monstrous two-run homer past the center field fence in the bottom of the first.

All of which followed Sanchez wriggling unscathed out of a ducks-on-the-pond first inning jam. If the only thing spoiling Sanchez’s gig was Max Muncy’s two-strike launch into the right center field bleachers with two out in the top of the fifth, surely Martinez could have kept Sanchez aboard for one more inning.

Well, maybe not. Whenever Sanchez gets a third crack at a lineup the other guys nail a .923 OPS against him. Maybe Martinez really didn’t have that much of a choice if he wanted to protect a 2-1 lead. Especially knowing his bullpen not named Daniel Hudson or Sean Doolittle were the second most self-immolating group in Washington aside from the federal government.

So Martinez reached for Corbin, the third man in his starter-as-reliever series plan. Maybe it was the right move, but there’s no maybe about how wrong the result ended up. Martinez surely thought the third verse would be the same as the first two.

Then he discovered an impostor in Corbin’s uniform.

Whoever was in Nats number 46 Sunday night, the Dodgers battered him for six runs in the top of the sixth and tied a postseason record with seven two-out runs total in the inning, keeping the Nats to only a two-runs-worth reply the rest of the way.

“Anibal was at 87 pitches. He gave us all he had,” said Martinez after the Nats were put out of their misery at last. “We were at a good spot in the lineup, where we thought Corbin could get through it. And his stuff was good . . . But he had every hitter 0-2. He just couldn’t finish.”

If the stuff was good, the command was hit by a mutiny. And then the Dodgers added insult to immolation when Russell Martin, who started the sixth-inning mischief with a two-run double bounding off the left center field fence, batted on 2-1 with David Freese on first in the top of the ninth and Hunter Strickland on the mound—and sent it into the seats above the left field bullpen.

The Nats must be wondering just what they ever did to Martin to make him treat them so disrespectfully. “You try to feast on mistakes,” Martin said after the game. “And he made a few mistakes.”

After actual or alleged Corbin knocked out two strikeouts following Cody Bellinger’s leadoff single, David Freese singled to right for first and third. And Martin on 2-2 sent a nice, low enough slider to the back of left center, leaving room to spare for Bellinger and Freese to come home. Corbin promptly walked pinch hitter Chris Taylor and the Dodgers knew this was an impostor. Enough for another pinch hitter, Enrique Hernandez, to lash a two-run double deep to left.

Feast on mistakes? To these Dodgers this Sunday night Corbin, or whoever snuck into his uniform, looked like a luau.

“That was one of those things,” Muncy said, “where once one guy started doing it, the next cat picked up on it and it just kind of rolled throughout the inning.” Steamrolled, that is.

Corbin didn’t flinch when a swarm of reporters crowded his locker after the game. “It just stinks,” he said in a voice so low, from so much pain, that you might have missed it unless you were in the front row of the swarm. “I feel like I let these guys down.”

The Nats put Muncy aboard on the house, a wise move considering he’d accounted for the first Dodger run in Sanchez’s final inning with a shot into the right center field bleachers. The wisdom lasted only long enough for Martinez to get the impostor out of there, get Wander Suero in, and and get another jolt when Justin Turner hit one into the left center field seats.

Of course, having nobody in the bullpen more reliable than Hudson and Doolittle complicates things. In a four-run hole the Nats weren’t about to burn either of those two. But bringing Strickland in to deal with the Dodgers in the ninth was almost like hiring Ma Barker to command the FBI. Martin’s launch off him was the ninth bomb Strickland’s surrendered in twelve lifetime postseason innings.

“[R]emember the crick that remains in your neck from watching the delicious meatballs Hunter Strickland has been serving up for weeks,” wrote the Washington Post‘s Barry Svrluga. “He is now a symbol of this battered bullpen and is slipping into ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’ territory.”

“We just have to keep plugging away,” Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki told reporters after the game. “You definitely feel confident. You have the lead. You still have to finish it. That is a good lineup over there. They did their job tonight.”

Suzuki and his Nats need Scherzer to do as close to his normal job as possible Monday. And if they find a ransom demand for the real Patrick Corbin, pay it.

Martinez surprises with Max the Knife

2019-10-05 MaxScherzer

Could that someone out of the pen be Max the Knife?

Bet on it: it doesn’t happen if Matt Williams was still the Nationals’ manager. Bet a little on it: it might not even happen if Dusty Baker was still the manager. Davey Johnson, maybe. But it happened through the courtesy of incumbent Dave Martinez.

And it got him a return to Nationals Park with their National League division series against the Dodgers tied at one apiece. The Nats ain’t ready for the last dance just yet. And if they keep this up, they just might get one in the World Series in due course. Might.

Williams was too wedded to The Book, whatever he thought it was, to have even thought about bringing Max Scherzer in from the bullpen in National League division series Game Two. Compared to Williams, Baker was John Coltrane, but I’m not sure even Baker might have gone there, either.

Johnson’s the man who once inserted one relief pitcher into right field and the other on the mound (Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco, or was it Jesse Orosco and Roger McDowell), then rotated them between the positions until his Mets won the damn game. Johnson just might have reached for Scherzer Friday night.

But Martinez did, in the eighth inning. “We weren’t expecting that,” lamented Dodgers manager Dave Roberts after the Nats finished the 4-2 win they’d started. The Dodgers and just about everyone else in the solar system.

After a long season that only began with the distinct appearance of Martinez awaiting his call to the guillotine as its victim, not its operator, who the hell did he think he was Friday night, Casey Stengel?

The good news was Scherzer striking out the side in the eighth. The bad news was, the Nats still have an honest to God bullpen, and they’re still one of the shakiest bunches this side of the old Soul Train dancers. Daniel Hudson got the ninth inning gig and got himself the bases loaded—partly because Martinez took the gamble of putting the winning run aboard with two out to set up a possible force—before swishing Corey Seager out to end it.

And before Max the Knife came in for the eighth, Sean Doolittle, usually the Nats’ closer, relieved Stephen Strasburg for the seventh and, after striking out MVP candidate Cody Bellinger to open, threw Max Muncy a dead center meatball that Muncy drove dead over the right field fence to close the Nats’ lead to a single run.

Good thing Doolittle’s pinch hitter Asdrubal Cabrera smacked Dodger reliever Dustin May’s first service into right center field with second and third for the fourth Nats’ run. Better thing that Martinez was only too willing to say screw the protocols and reach for Scherzer for the eighth. Best thing that Scherzer got Gavin Lux, pinch hitter Chris Taylor, and Joc Pederson on three straight Duke Ellingtons: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

It’s one thing to go all-hands-on-deck in a win-or-be-gone play-in like a wild card game. It’s something else, seemingly, to load your bullpen with your grand starting pitchers in a division series. If you still want Scherzer to start Game Three for you in Washington, it’s entirely doable after Scherzer worked only the one inning without even thinking about asking what the hell he was doing strolling in from among the arson squad.

“All the chips are on the table,” Scherzer said after the game.

Except that Martinez hinted powerfully enough that it’d be Anibal Sanchez likely to start Game Three—with Patrick Corbin available in the bullpen. Nobody around the Nats thinks it’s such a beyond-sane idea. Certainly not Scherzer.

“I’ve been in these situations before where you’re pitching on two days’ rest in all-star games and different times in the postseason,” he told reporters after Game Two. “I know that on two days’ rest, you’ve got one inning in you. So, I said whatever the situation is, I’m ready to pitch.”

Remember: that’s the man who refused to let something so trivial as a black eye and a swollen face stop him from taking his next turn and throwing a ten punchout, four-hit gem in a doubleheader nightcap in late June. A man who’ll pitch when, never mind until he’s black and blue in the face isn’t going to flinch over coming out of a postseason bullpen for a quick round.

Oh, goody (not), the Dodgers must be thinking. Remember last year. They were undone in a World Series when the Red Sox started David Price twice and closed with him once, started Chris Sale once and closed with him once (the Series winner, as it happens), and started Eduardo Rodriguez once and drew him in from the pen twice. Hello, Yogi, wherever you are around the Elysian Fields, it’s threatening to get late early out there again.

Strasburg didn’t seem to mind that Max the Knife stole some of his thunder on a night when he needed to be a little beyond his best himself. You can afford to be sanguine when your mates pry three runs out of a Clayton Kershaw who still can’t seem to find and sustain the best of his best in postseason play, while you’re busy punching out ten in six innings, surrendering three measly hits, and one measly earned run.

And it helps even more when you now have a postseason career 0.64 ERA while allowing but one run so far this October. This keeps up, we’re going to be saying Strasburg’s name in the same postseason sentences as those of Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Mickey Lolich, Orel Hershiser, Curt Schilling, Madison Bumgarner, and Justin Verlander.

You may also be saying other names to refer to the Nats before long. Ringling Brothers and Scherzer and Strasburg Circus. Brother Martinez’s Traveling Salvation Show. The Mothers of Inversion. The Dodgers could be describing them with the last of those with “of Inversion” replaced by a twelve-letter compound euphemism for “maternal fornicator” before long.

 

Limits to crisis addiction

2019-08-11 SeanDoolittle

This time, Sean Doolittle wasn’t at the mercy of his 2019 nemeses, the Mets.

Seek the clinical definition of “crisis junkie,” and you shouldn’t be surprised to find that the definition includes, “New York Mets.” As white hot as they’ve been since the All-Star break, the Mets have not been in complete recovery from crisis addiction.

Every crisis junkie believes it’ll take just one turn of luck, the cards, or both to escape his or her latest crisis. On Sunday afternoon, down three going to the bottom of the ninth, the Mets had more than enough reason to believe theirs was coming in from the Nats bullpen. Sean Doolittle.

Doolittle—whom they’d battered for four runs to win at the last minute Friday night and bullied otherwise all season long. With the top of the order due up for the Mets and the Citi Field crowd giving Doolittle a standing ovation as he arrived on the mound.

Doolittle—who got Jeff McNeil to line out hard to right, struck out Amed Rosario swinging, and got Michael Conforto to ground out into a right-side shift. Crowning a scoreless two-and-a-thirds relief job by Doolittle plus Daniel Hudson and Wander Suero before him.

If it was a monkey off Doolittle’s back after his season-long futility against the Mets, the Nats could still be forgiven if they felt that even this 7-4 win, snapping the Mets’ eight-game winning streak, didn’t necessarily feel like a win.

Even if the Mets spotted the Nats three unearned runs in the top of the first, on a throwing error to first and a dropped ball at the plate that would have kept Juan Soto from scoring that third run: Mets catcher Wilson Ramos had him cold by several feet before the ball fell from his mitt.

Because the Mets broke their weekend habit of fourth-inning ties by tying it at three in the bottom of the second—on a pair of one-out singles, a two-out RBI single, a sneak-attack, bases-loading, two-out bunt by Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom, and a two-run double. By then the Nats must asked, if they hadn’t the previous two nights, “What the hell do we have to do to put these pests away?”

They may not be the only team in the league tempted to keep cases of Raid in the dugout or pest control crews on call when they face the Mets.

For their part, the Mets may not quite be ready to send themselves to a twelve-step program for crisis addiction. Because if that’s what’s keeping them white hot and helping them prove they can hang with the big boys—even those addled otherwise by the injured list and by self-immolating bullpens, just as the Mets were earlier in the season—they’ll work with it.

The twelve steps could wait until the season was over or the Mets fell out back out of the races. Whichever came first. Couldn’t they?

“It’s magic!” crows a Met fan of my acquaintance. He’s probably echoed by a few million Met fans who prefer seeking extraterrestrial causes for both the heights of success and the depths of failure. You’d think they couldn’t bear to admit that playing heads-up baseball when the Mets needed to play it the most had anything to do with their post-All Star break success.

Let the Nats pull back ahead 5-3 in the seventh on a two-out, two-run double by Asdrubal Cabrera that followed a little shakiness out of the Mets’ bullpen? The Mets weren’t going to let that stand without an answer if they could help it. Conforto’s seventh-inning sacrifice fly off Nats reliever Hunter Strickland said as much.

But for a brief moment it looked as though the Nats were going to pay the price for their manager’s unconscionable brain freeze right after that. How could Dave Martinez not have challenged Pete Alonso being ruled hit by a pitch when the pitch hit the batter, not the ball, with every television replay available showing as much?

A called strikeout later, ex-Nat Wilson Ramos drilled a frozen rope right into Gerardo Parra’s glove in left to strand two Met runners and make Martinez look like a genius for a few moments. Better not to let Alonso have another swing with two aboard. Except J.D. Davis loomed and could crunch one. Strickland nailed Davis with a called strikeout before the Ramos line out. That’s called dodging the atomic bomb.

Unfortunately for the Mets, the net result is also called wasting yet another stellar deGrom start. He shook off the three unearned in the first to all but have his way with the Nats, but that first inning drained him enough that he wasn’t likely to pitch more than five innings. All odds favoured even the Mets’ shaky bullpen against the Nats’ shakier pen.

Until Jeurys Familia—once the Mets’ closer, this year a prodigal son having a horror of a season—found his old self at just the right hour to strike out the side in the top of the eighth. And Wander Suero sandwiched a grounder back to the box between two strikeouts in the bottom of the eighth.

Then Doolittle was up and throwing in the Nats bullpen and the Mets could just taste the gift coming. In a way, that was part of their problem Sunday. They looked as though they were trying to hit six-run homers in about half their plate appearances. They looked as if they wanted to get to the win without navigating the traffic on the way all day long.

Didn’t quite work out that way. Now, before they got another crack at Doolittle they had to get past the Nats in the top of the ninth. And they trusted Edwin Diaz, command struggles and all and with almost a full week’s rest in the bargain, to perform that assignment. With the dangerous top of the Nats order to greet him.

Diaz shook off a one-out walk to Adam Eaton and didn’t let Eaton stealing second stop him from catching Anthony Rendon, having a four-hit day to that point, looking at strike three. But up stepped Victor Robles, a late-game insertion to center field, after Parra was moved to left following Juan Soto’s ankle turn on a seventh-inning baserunning out, after ex-Met Asdrubal Cabrera doubled home a pair to break the three-all tie in the first place.

On 2-1 Diaz hung a slider to Robles. And Robles hung it over the left field fence. And after Matt Adams grounded out to second for the side, Diaz walked into the dugout looking as though he’d been told his favourite pet was kidnapped and left for dead. Pitching coach Phil Regan spoke gently to him and hugged him, like a father comforting a heartbroken son.

And this time Doolittle stood up well enough to his season-long bullies.

Yet considering their Friday and Saturday night surrealistics, Sunday afternoon’s loss probably didn’t feel like a loss to the whole of the Mets, either.

With apologies to Vin Scully, in a second half that has been so improbable, the impossible happened. Friday night the Nats put a boot on the Mets’ throat in the top of the ninth, and the Mets yanked it away in the bottom of the ninth. Also known as the last minute. On Saturday night, the Mets had to settle for the Nats putting the edge of a shoe against their neck and bumping it to one side in the eighth. Also known as the next-to-last minute.

Friday night the Mets overthrew two three-run deficits and Strasburg becoming the Nats’ all-time franchise strikeout leader to win. Saturday night they overthrew a two-run deficit in the fourth and a one-run deficit in the eighth to win. They’d tied against Strasburg and Patrick Corbin alike. When it came time for the running of the bullpens, the Mets ended up looking a little less like bull.

And on both nights Citi Field rocked and rolled as if this was a postseason series. It didn’t escape the Nats’ eyes and ears, either. Strasburg’s in particular.

“They pull for their team,” the righthander said, calmly but firmly, after Friday night’s shock. “And I don’t know if they come play us again, but I hope all the fans are watching the game cause it gets into crunch time and those things really carry teams and get us to the next level.”

Actually, the Mets are scheduled for one more trip to Washington, down the stretch, a 2-4 September set to end the season series between the two teams. If this weekend doesn’t make or break either the Mets’ or the Nats’ seasons, by the time that Monday-Wednesday meeting comes to pass either team could be looking closer at a wild card slot or an early winter vacation.

Theoretically, both teams could also be nipping at the heels of the National League East-leading Braves by then, too. If not sooner. The Braves are a .500 team for August so far, and after winning four straight after the All-Star break they’re 12-13 since. They’re no longer a necessarily impossible target.

But the Mets since the All-Star break restored reasons for the throngs to rock their ballpark. The Nats had a 5-6 homestand before their current road trip, but if Strasburg was calling out Nats Nation to give the team a little more in the way of the Mets’ current kind of crowd incentive, since they’re not quite dead and in the coffin just yet, Nats Nation would be wise to heed.

Even taking two of three from the Nats stands the Mets well with a trip to Atlanta looming. A Mets win Sunday would probably have made them feel invincible no matter where they traveled afterward. Ending the day at 21-7 since the All-Star break still leaves them baseball’s hottest team since that break.

A Nats loss Sunday—compounded by Max Scherzer’s continuing absence, the continuing rehabs of both Ryan Zimmerman and Howie Kendrick, and the likelihood that pending free agent Rendon may be playing his last weeks in Nats fatigues—might have made them feel as though the string to be played out was closer to resembling the clothesline from which they’d hang to dry.

The Nats have a slightly more balanced schedule the rest of the season. Starting with a weekday set against the Reds at home, they get to mix sets against the flotsam and jetsam with sets against the big boys. The Mets should be so lucky. Theirs isn’t that well balanced a schedule the rest of the season. They might have felt charmed Friday and Saturday, but Sunday should have re-grounded them enough.

Enough to remind them that crisis addiction isn’t always the way to stay in a wild card race after you’ve returned from the living dead to get back into one. Especially with bigger enough fish than the Nats swimming into the waters in which they’re about to bathe the rest of the season.

Walk through the door of your friendly neighbourhood Crisis Anonymous. Say it loud and humble. “Hi, we’re the Mets. And we’re crisis junkies.” Step one. Take it ASAP.