“I felt like there was an angel by my side tonight”

Noah Syndergaard

The mighty Thor didn’t have to strike ’em out to get ’em out and help shut ’em out Saturday night.

About the only correct observation out of the Angels’ 2-0 shutout of the Astros Saturday night was this, about the starting duel between two returning Tommy John surgery patients, Noah Syndergaard (Angels) and Justin Verlander (Astros): it was a matchup of returning former aces. Vintage, it was not.

But it didn’t have to be. Especially so far as the Angels were concerned. “He’s just a strike thrower,” said Angels manager Joe Maddon of his new pitching toy. “The changeup is outstanding, and the slider, he’s willing to pitch inside . . . He was totally in command of everything that he’s doing out there.”

“It was fun to play behind him,” said Mike Trout, who accounted for the second Angels run with a mammoth late game home run. “He gets on the mound, throws strikes. He tries to get back in the dugout as quick as he can. You saw that tonight. He’s just out there grinding.”

Syndergaard entered the game with a lifetime 4.63 strikeout to walk ratio and 9.7 strikeout-per-nine rate. Verlander entered with a lifetime 2.33 strikeout-to-walk rate and a 12.6 strikeout-per-nine rate. Now, have a gander at their Saturday night special.

The former Met known as Thor struck nobody out, surrendered two hits and issued two walks, and lived mostly on the ground, with eleven grounders among the sixteen outs he got in five and a third innings’ work. Verlander struck seven out (including designated-hitting Shohei Ohtani thrice), walked three, and surrendered three hits while getting an even number of grounders and flies.

“It’s a long road, man,” Verlander said postgame. “Lots of nervousness and anxiousness leading up to it. Felt like my debut. Got some things to work on, but coming out of it feeling pretty good.”

One problem was Verlander feeding Angels first baseman Jared Walsh a fat enough fastball to open the bottom of the second and Walsh hitting it over the right center field fence. Another was no Astro except Kyle Tucker (in the top of the second, a single) and Chas McCormick (top of the third, single) hitting anything that didn’t find an Angel glove, though a third (Aledmys Diaz) reached on a throwing error opening the top of the seventh.

A third, for the Astros, anyway, was Trout serving notice that he’d had it with the slump that marked his first two games and the Astros demolition that accompanied it. The Astros had battered Angels pitching for eight home runs in those games. But while their contact wasn’t hard Saturday night, Trout’s was.

He smoked a fly out to the rear end of Angel Stadium in the first, a hard ground out to second in the fourth, a hard line out to center stranding two runners ending the fifth, and then—as if to prove practise makes perfect—he turned on a 1-2 fastball a little low and a little away, from Astros reliever Ryne Stanek, and yanked it off the rocks behind the left center field fence, 445 feet from the plate, in the eighth.

“Trout’s gonna get you,” observed Astros manager Dusty Baker postgame. After a 2021 ruined early enough by a torn calf muscle, and an owner-lockout-imposed short spring training this time around, one that included a short illness toward its end, Trout found a dramatic way to shake away his season-opening rust.

So did the Angels’ bullpen. Ryan Tepera entered Opening Night by surrendering prompt, back-to-back homers to Alex Bregman and Yordan Alvarez, but on Saturday night he got five straight outs in relief of reliever Aaron Loup—who’d gotten three in relief of Syndergaard but was hapless to prevent Diaz reaching aboard third baseman Anthony Rendon’s off-line throw. And designated closer Raisel Iglesias used only eight pitches to retire the Astros in order to finish it.

The bulls also struck four Astros out, three more punchouts in their 3.2 innings’ work than Syndergaard in 5.1.

Syndergaard had other things on his mind to accompany his manhandling of the Astros’ formidable lineup. Wearing the same number 34 he’d worn as a Met, the number had particularly sober significance for his new team.

No Angel had worn the number since 22-year-old pitcher Nick Adenhart, thirteen years to the day before—when Adenhart was killed by a drunk driver celebrating his successful Angels debut. The Angels didn’t retire 34 officially, but no player sought that number since, just as no Angel since the death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs almost three years ago has asked for Skaggs’s number 45.

By most accounts, Syndergaard asked the team to wear the 34 he’s worn all his life, after signing a one-year, $22 million deal with the Angels, and he was only too well aware of what Adenhart’s death meant to the franchise and its fans. “I felt like there was an angel by my side tonight,” Syndergaard said postgame. “That was really special to me.”

As athletes, I feel like our number—to the everyday person, it’s just kind of a number—but to us, it’s part of our identity. Growing up, my number was 34 because I was a huge fan of Nolan Ryan. But now it kind of means something a little bit different to me. I want to use that to lift up his name.

If Syndergaard continues lifting his team the way he did Saturday night, there could be more than a few angels on the Angels’ shoulders over the long, arduous season yet to come.

Opening Day: Cross it off the bucket list

Shohei Ohtani

Shohei Ohtani, shown on the Angel Stadium video board during his pre-game warmup as the teams lined up on the foul lines, on Opening Day. He pitched brilliantly but in a lost cause, the Angels losing 3-1.

The owners probably won’t stop by to see what I’m about to write, but their otherwise ill-advised 1 December-10 March lockout did me one solid. But only one.

After the World Series, and as soon as they went on sale, I’d bought tickets for what I thought would be the Angels’ home opener. They were scheduled originally to open the season on the road. But commissioner Rob Manfred’s cancellation of the regular season’s first series, in light of the owners’ further goalpost-moving shenanigans, turned the Angels’ home opener into Opening Day, after all.

It wasn’t enough to turn my thinking toward the owners’ side one iota, but it did enable me to cross something off my bucket list. Despite a lifetime of loving the game and watching countless games in the stands and on television, I’d never actually had the chance to be at the ballpark on Opening Day. Until Thursday evening.

The best part of the evening was that I got to do it with my now 28-year-old son, Bryan. The second-best part was being able to cross another item off the baseball bucket list within half an hour of us getting our pre-game food and drink, after putting replica 1972-1990 Angels hats onto our heads.

The Ball

The foul ball, now crossed off my bucket list, sitting atop my notebook, before I handed it to my son.

While the visiting Astros took batting practise, a line drive sailed into our section down the right field line. Adjacent fans made it impossible for me to see just which Astro hit the ball, but the ball bounced around off seats in front of us, then under them, and riocheted off a fan two seats to our right, before rolling on the floor under us to where I could grab the ball before another fan reaching under the seat in front of me did.

I held the ball up to see for myself that I wasn’t seeing or imagining things, then handed it to my son. He’d only been asking to try to catch a ball at Angel Stadium since, oh, the first time I got to take him there—in 2000, when the Angels beat the visiting Yankees one fine evening by prying the winning run out of The Mariano himself. We’d gone to plenty of games since. Thursday night, it was pay dirt at long enough last.

Of course, there was now a game to play, and the Angels lost, 3-1. These are my ten takeaways:

1) Shoh-time! The good news for the Angels was Shohei Ohtani starting on the mound. I’m convinced that what looked to be a lockout-dejected, ho-hum crowd in advance, shot into a near-sellout once Ohtani was announced as the Opening Day pitcher. Lockout after-effect, I suspected: I’d checked the ticketing for the game just prior to the announcement and there were several thousand seats remaining for the taking.

Well, now. The day before I set out for southern California from my home in Las Vegas, I checked the ticketing again. The tickets seemed to have flown off the board once Angel fans knew it would be Shoh-time. And Ohtani didn’t disappoint, much. He pitched four and two-thirds innings of one-run, nine-strikeout, four-hit, one-walk baseball.

The best the Astros could do against him was the third inning, after he caught Martin Maldonado looking at strike three and blew Jose Altuve away with a swinging third strike: Michael Brantley banged a double off the right center field fence and Alex Bregman sent him home promptly with a base hit to left center.

As a matter of fact, when Ohtani wasn’t becoming the first player in Show history to throw his team’s first pitch of the season and make his team’s first plate appearance of the season (the Angels like to bat him leadoff), he manhandled Altuve for three strikeouts on the night, including the nasty slider that shot over Altuve’s hard swing for the third such strikeout in the top of the fiftyh.

2) The bad news: Astros starter Framber Valdez was just as effective in six and two-thirds innings. (The Angels planned to keep their starting pitchers on an 80-pitch limit for the time being, after the lockout-imposed too-short spring training.) He struck six out, walked one, and surrendered two of the Angels’ four hits on the night.

3) The worse news, for the Angels: They came to within inches of taking a 2-1 lead in the seventh. Mike Trout led off by beating out a throw from shortstop that should have been ruled an infield hit but was ruled an error. Then Anthony Rendon hit a high liner that sailed into the left field seats . . . but missed the foul pole on the wrong side by a hair.

“When I saw the ball flying in the air,” Valdez said post-game of his narrow escape, “I got mad with myself that I didn’t make my best pitch. I just took a deep breath and threw my best pitch.” That would be the hard sinkerball on which Rendon promptely dialed Area Code 4-6-3.

Matt Duffy promptly beat out an infield hit to third, which promptly moved Astros manager Dusty Baker to end Valdez’s night and bring Phil Maton in to strike Jo Adell out swinging for the side.

4) Cruising speed: Maton seemed on a bit of a cruise in relief until he hit Brandon Marsh with a pitch with two out in the bottom of the eighth and David Fletcher shot a 1-2 pitch through to the back of left center and gunned it for an RBI triple. That was the Angels’ first and last run of the game, alas.

5) The worse news, for baseball as a whole: That ridiculous three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. Under normal circumstances, if your reliever comes into the game and gets murdered right away—as Angels reliever Ryan Tepera was in the top of the eighth—you’d know he didn’t have it that night, right?

Father and son

Father (right) crossed Opening Day off his bucket list at last—and had the pleasure of doing it with his 28-year-old son.

Oops. Tepera’s first pitch to Alex Bregman sailed into the left field seats. The next Astros batter, Yordan Alvarez, hit a hanging slider on 1-1 over the center field fence. The Angels were lucky to escape with their lives after two prompt deep fly outs (Yuli Gurriel, Kyle Tucker) followed by a sinking liner up the middle (Jeremy Peña) that Trout caught on the dead run in from somewhat deep center to retire the side. (Trout also drew a loud ovation after he turned around and, from half-shallow center, winged the ball to fans halfway up the right center field bleachers.)

6) But there was good news on the relief front. Neither manager burned his relievers in the bullpens. If either Baker or Joe Maddon warmed a pitcher up, he either came into the game as soon as needed or he was handed what amounted to the rest of the night off. No Angels or Astros reliever was called upon to warm up more than once.

I paid as much attention to the relievers in the pen as I could, considering I was seated far opposite the pens behind the left field fence. The Angels used five relievers and the Astros, three. None of those eight pitchers threw any more than maybe 20-25 pitches before they were brought into the game. None of them could be called gassed going in.

Tepera simply didn’t have it Thursday night; Maton got vulnerable after ending one inning and getting two outs to open the next. The rest of the two teams’ bullpen corps (Hector Neris and Ryan Pressly for the Astros; Aaron Loup, Austin Warren, Jose Quijada, and Archie Bradley for the Angels) pitched clean-as-a-hound’s-tooth relief. Would that all major league managers were that judicious handling their pen men.

7) Memo to: Angel fans. Subject: The Wave. The 1980s called. They want their obnoxious, obstructive Wave back. One fan adjacent to our section kept calling for fans to do the Wave. I kept shaking my head, but I did notice that each of about ten attempts at it starting in our part of the park died before flowing to a fourth section of the field-level seats. Maybe there’s hope in such deaths, after all.

8) You were saying? The back-to-back Astro bombs to one side, this game wasn’t exactly the kind to send the old farts screaming to the whiskey shots. The game’s twelve total hits included three Astros doubles, Fletcher’s triple, and six singles. Altuve even stole second in the ninth, for whatever that was worth, since he ended up stranded.

9) Wasted Out Department: Altuve, the Astros’ pint-sized, gallon-hitting second baseman, also dropped a sacrifice bunt to third with one out in the seventh against righthanded reliever Warren, after Chas McCormick opened the inning with a double. Remember: A man on second with one out, and you have less chance of scoring a run after that bunt than you did before the bunt, even if you do exactly what Altuve did pushing McCormick to third.

Just what a man with a lifetime .512 Real Batting Average (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances), and a .297 lifetime hitting average with a man on second and one out, is doing thinking sacrifice escapes. With his team leading a mere 1-0 at the time, the Angels brought Quijada in to pitch to Brantley, and Brantley flied out shy of the track in right center for the side.

That’s what a wasted out did. The righthanded-hitting Altuve might have been futile against Ohtani on the night, but he has a lifetime .301 hitting average against righthanded pitchers. The Astros would have had a better chance scoring McCormick if Altuve hit away.

10) When Bregman checked in at the plate in the top of the eighth, the Angel Stadium video boards flashed a graphic with Bregman’s head shot plus this: [He] donated over 200 iPads  w/protective cases and iTunes gift cards to several Houston-area elementary schools that have autistic classrooms. He does that through his Bregman Cares charity, with a particular focus upon autistic children.

It was almost as admirable for the Angels to show Bregman such respectful acknowledgement as it was for Bregman and his wife, Reagan, to take such an interest in lending hands to autistic children. Even if Bregman’s idea of saying thank you for such respect was to smash a leadoff homer in reply.

WS Game Six: Bang!! Zoom!!!

Jorge Soler

Jorge Soler’s detonation in the bottom of the third. (Fox Sports screen capture.)

Blowhard bus driver Ralph Kramden only threatened to bang-zoom his acid but loving wife Alice to the moon in the days of old. (She might have clobbered him if he’d really hauled off.) The Braves may not have threatened to do it to the Astros, exactly, but that’s what they did to win the World Series Tuesday night.

The way Braves starting pitcher Max Fried and relief aces Tyler Matzek and Will Smith worked the Astros over, the Braves needed only one bang-zoom, after all. Getting three and a half was beyond gravy. It was a six course meal crowned with a baked Alaska dessert.

Shutting out the team that led the entire Show with 5.3 regular season runs per game averaged, and the postseason with 6.7 runs per game averaged, also does that for you. However brilliant Fried, Matzek, and Smith were on the mound, though, it goes for naught if you can’t bring anyone home.

But when Jorge Soler hit that monstrous three-run homer in the bottom of the third, it let the air out of Minute Maid Park almost as fast as it took away what wind remained to the Astros. Now . . . everybody, breathe again.

The sun didn’t fall. The heavens didn’t go to hell. The great oceans didn’t dry up and blow away. The stars didn’t go out. When Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel grounded out to Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, throwing right on the button to longtime Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, for game, set, and Series, Armageddon didn’t begin.

But a few things that helped sour the Series for people who don’t live in either Atlanta or Houston ended, too. For now, anyway.

No more race-demeaning Tomahawk Chopping in the Truist Park stands or by traveling Braves fans present in Minute Maid Park. No more of the more stubbornly obnoxious among Astro fans acting and carping (falsely, on both counts) that their heroes were “scapegoated” when Astrogate exploded almost two full years ago.

But, also, there’ll be no more treating the entire Astros roster as barely-repentant cheaters because of the remaining presence of four Astrogaters. (Pitcher Lance McCullers, Jr. missed the entire postseason with an arm injury.) Even the Truist Park crowds for Games Three through Five isolated the point: they saved the “Cheater! Cheater!” chants purely for any of the four.

So now we can review and re-enjoy Fried surviving a near-disastrous near-ankle injury on a play at first base in the first inning to pitch six shutout innings. We can review and re-wonder about Luis (Rock-a-Bye Salsa) Garcia starting on short rest for the Astros, a move risky enough for manager Dusty Baker. He got away with it for two innings. In the third, disaster.

Now, we can re-enjoy Ozzie Albies poking his first base hit since Game Two. We can re-enjoy Fox Sports cameras captured a couple in the stands wearing makeshift World Series trophies for headdresses while Eddie Rosario waited out a five-pitch walk. We can re-enjoy Soler—the American League’s home run king in 2019, but somewhat lost this season, until two weeks before the Royals traded him to the Braves at this year’s deadline—hitting back-to-back, full-count liners foul out of play, before Garcia decided to sneak a cutter past him.

Dansby Swanson

Swanson reaching the Crawford Boxes in the fifth. (Fox Sports screen capture.)

And, we can re-enjoy Soler swinging as though trying to bring a great oak down but settling for bringing Garcia down instead, with the Minute Maid retractable roof open, and the ball flying over the left field seats, over the train tracks, out of the building, and rolling to the street off an awning outside.

Bang!! Zoom!!!

“I got to [full count],” Soler said postgame, “and I didn’t want the same thing to happen as the first inning at-bat, where I struck out on the off-speed pitch. So I was just kind of getting prepared for that.” That was like the Navy saying it didn’t want a Pearl Harbour rerun and was just kind of getting prepared for the Battle of Midway.

“He’s been swinging the bat so good,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker. “This whole World Series. Even just the walks he was taking were really big.”

Fried looked at last as though he had under complete control his familiar, nervous-looking glove-snapping around his hand on the ball when he takes his sign before delivering. He’d shaken off that first-inning play covering at first and getting thatclose to turning his right ankle, his landing ankle, to crumbs when Michael Brantley stepped on it crossing the pad on a ground ball.

A television replay closeup showed that not only had Fried’s foot missed touching the pad, Brantley never touched it either, even as Fried got the gloved ball on it as he fell backward. The Braves chose not to challenge the safe call. Fried picked himself up, dusted himself off, walked back to the mound, and sandwiched Jose Altuve’s runner-advancing ground out between two toasted strikeouts.

After swapping two scoreless innings to Astro reliever Cristian Javier’s one—they both  ended with slick double plays including the one he launched himself to end the bottom of the third—Fried had a breather and Javier went out for a second inning’s work. His first was three-and-three in the top of the fourth. He wouldn’t be that fortunate in the top of the fifth.

Not with Albies leading off with a walk, then taking second on a wild pitch. Not with a strikeout on Travis d’Arnaud proving the mere setup for Dansby Swanson smashing a down-the-pipe fastball into the Crawford Boxes. And, not with Freeman following a two-out walk to Soler by sending him all the way home with a double off the absolute rearmost center field wall.

Bang!! Zoom!!!

Two innings and three Astros relievers later, Freeman decided the Braves needed a little extra insurance, with the Astros down by a mere six. How to get it with two outs was the question. The answer proved simple enough. He caught hold of Ryne Stanek’s slightly dangling slider and drove it over the center field wall a little left of the Phillips 66 sign.

Bang!! Zoom!!!

“He’s been through good times. He’s been through the worst of times and now through the best of times,” said Swanson postgame of Freeman, the longtime Braves franchise face, who’s made no secret of his desire to stay with the team despite his free agency to come this winter. “Nobody deserves it on our team more than him. He stuck it out and really believed in the vision and mission that this place had. I’m just thankful for him to be on our team.”

Fried, Matzek (the seventh and eighth), and Smith (the ninth), kept the Astros so far in check there may have been suspicions that they’d been kidnapped and replaced with android replicas whose designers forgot to include batting eyes and arm strength.

As favoured sentimentally as his post-Astrogate Astros were disfavoured almost universally, Baker still doesn’t have that elusive World Series ring. Snitker, a Braves lifer who’s a mere six years Baker’s junior, has his first in five full seasons manning the Braves’ bridge.

Two old-school baseball men—who’ve learned and worked by the precept that analytics gives you what you need to know going in, but the moment in front of you and slightly ahead of you tells you what you should or shouldn’t do with that information—matched wits all Series long.

Freddie Freeman

Freeman, still the franchise face, going over the center field wall in the seventh. (Fox Sports screen capture.)

It took stout pitching and a little new old-fashioned long-range bombing to put the Braves over the top and to bury a collection of Astros with too little left in the tank,finally, to repel the invaders.

“First off, you’ve got to give a ton of credit to [the Braves],” said still-struggling Astros third baseman Alex Bregman postgame. “They were unbelievable. They pitched really well. They swung the bats, played good defense. We normally do hit a little bit more for power, and we didn’t. But you learn and move on. You use it as fuel during the off-season to get better and learn from it.”

What the Braves learned this season and taught or re-taught everyone else is that it’s possible to ride the arguable bumpiest road to the postseason and still come away from the ride hoisting the World Series trophy. “We hit every pothole, every bump you could possibly hit this year,” said the otherwise jubilant Freeman postgame, “and somehow the car still made it onto the other side.”

Potholes? Bumps? The Braves came out of a few nasty pileups. They lost franchise face heir apparent Ronald Acuna, Jr. to a season-ending knee injury in the outfield in early July. They entered the season without pitcher Mike Soroka, thanks to his re-injuring the Achilles tendon he’d barely finished rehabbing in the first place. They lost bombardier Marcell Ozuna to domestic violence charges and administrative leave.

The eventual rulers of the none-too-powerful National League East didn’t even have a winning record overall until 6 August. They broke the record for the latest season arrival above .500 they themselves held . . . since their 1914 “Miracle” ancestors arrived only on 3 August that year.

General manager Alex Anthopolous—who had to miss the Game Six and championship fun after being hit by COVID-19—swung four trade-deadline deals to land Soler, Rosario, Adam Duvall, and Joc Pederson. They went 36-14 in their final 55 regular season games. They still looked like postseason underdogs. Until.

They overthrew the NL Central-champion Brewers three straight after losing Game One of their division series. After getting blown out in National League Championship Series Game Five, they overthrew the wild card-winning Dodgers—owners of baseball’s second-best regular-season record with 106 wins—with their lights-out bullpen tandem Matzek and AJ Minter to win the pennant.

Then they lost starting pitcher Charlie Morton to a line drive off his leg in World Series Game One. And defied everyone who said losing the likeable, respected veteran for the rest of the set meant temporal and spiritual disaster for the upstarts.

When they finally reached the Promised Land, the Braves also defied several other factors. They became the first team ever to show a League Championship Series MVP and a World Series MVP who weren’t even with the team in the regular season’s first half. Their four outfield imports hit more postseason home runs together (twelve) than the rest of the team combined (eleven).

Bang!! Zoom!!!

Max Fried

Fried shook off a potentially shattering ankle injury in the first to shatter the Astros’ formidable offense.

When Sock-a-Bye Soler took Rock-a-Bye Samba downtown Tuesday night, only five men before him had ever hit three go-ahead home runs in a single World Series: Babe Ruth (1926), Lou Gehrig (1928), Gene Tenace (1972), Curtis Granderson (2015), and George Springer (2017). Soler joins Gehrig, Tenace, and Springer for doing it for World Series winners.

Only one other man ever got close to where Soler’s blast ended up. That was before the Astros became the team to be named later in the league swap that made a National League team out of the Brewers and sent the Astros to the American League.

The only thing keeping then-Cardinals superman Albert Pujols’s ninth-inning three-run homer from landing in Soler territory in 2005 NLCS Game Five was the closed roof. If the Minute Maid roof was open then, Pujols’s rip off then-Astros closer Brad Lidge might have bounded off the same awning—if not flown right to the street.

Somewhere in their Elysian Fields stomping grounds, the Braves’ late Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Phil Niekro, and Warren Spahn smiled down upon these rascally Braves while applauding madly.

The Astros went from steamrolling the White Sox and the Red Sox out of the postseason into spending most of this World Series being about as offensive as an ice cream sandwich. Except for stinging the possibly pitch-tipping Fried in Game Two, and overthrowing a first-inning battering in Game Five, the Astro offense either slept or turned up when it didn’t or couldn’t do them many favours.

“We just kind of ran out of gas pitching-wise,” Baker said postgame. “Our guys, nobody complained, nobody alibied. And I’m not going to alibi. We got outplayed. What can you do, except go home, take a shower, figure out how you’re going to come back and win it next year. Look, last year we got one game short of the World Series, and this year we were two games short of the championship.”

Baker was right about their spent pitching. Missing future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery recuperation hurt. Being without their best 2021 starter, Lance McCullers, Jr., hurt. Baker bringing his should-have-been Game Six starter Jose Urquidy in for an inning of Game Five relief probably hurt. Veteran Zack Greinke starting to show his age at last hurt.

If you ask Minter, he’ll tell you the Braves transformed themselves from a small legion of also-rans into the guys who put the big boys into their places by hook, crook, and anything else they could think of so long as failure was no longer a dismaying, disgusting option.

“We are a bunch of misfits this year,” Minter said postgame. “I mean, we’re a group of failures. And that’s what makes this team special, because we know what it feels like to fail. We know what it feels like to lose, and we weren’t willing to accept failure this year. So we pulled it together somehow—and now we’re World Series champions. It’s cool, man.”

The Astros, of course, see themselves as anything but misfits. They were very gracious in World Series defeat. (“They deserve what they have,” said Altuve postgame.) But they see themselves now the way the Yankees did in the ancient, mid-20th Century. Shortstop Carlos Correa—one of their team leaders, one of the remaining Astrogate Five, and a possible departure in free agency this winter—said it right out postgame:

“Second place is not good enough for us. I know it’s not good enough for you guys. But it speaks volumes of how good our organization is, how talented our clubhouse is. Five ALCS in a row. Three World Series in five years. I don’t know what else you want to ask from a great ball club.”

Some might want to ask that they win a World Series without the taint of something like Astrogate.

They may yet win one, even next year, since the pitching remains deep even with Greinke and Verlander likely out of the picture and their youth includes a pair of solid stars in Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez. Even if Alvarez was a one-man wrecking crew in the ALCS brought low in the World Series. Even if Altuve (32), Gurriel (37), and Michael Brantley (34) can’t keep Father Time from coming too much longer.

“People expect greatness when you talk about the Houston Astros,” said Correa, who still seems at once embarrassed by Astrogate yet unable to resist playing the rogue. “They expect us to make the playoffs every year. They expect us to be in the World Series every year.”

But now the guys nobody really expected at mid-season to be in the World Series have won it. With a pitcher defying those critics who thought he wasn’t really ready for center stage just yet. With three big swings having nothing to do with illegally stolen signs sent to the batter’s box by trash can transmission.

Bang!! Zoom!!!

Baker Agonistes

Dusty Baker

Even people who still despise the Astros can’t bring themselves to wish ill upon post-Astrogate manager Dusty Baker.

Tuesday night won’t be virgin territory for the Astros. Two years ago, they came home to play out a World Series in the hole 3-2, too. That was then: They lost twice to the Nationals, who’d beaten them in Games One and Two in Houston as well.

This is now: Having the home field advantage hasn’t exactly helped the Astros yet. They split Games One and Two in Minute Maid Park. Then, they lost two of three to the Braves in Atlanta. They may have put a sanguine public face on approaching Game Six, but second baseman Jose Altuve isn’t exactly ready to pull the champagne corks just yet.

“I don’t feel like going home is any guarantee,” he told ESPN’s Jeff Passan. “We’ve got to go out there and fight. It’s not like, OK, we go home, we got them. No. We’re playing a really, really good team. Those guys take really good at-bats, they know how to pitch, they can do everything. And we got to go out there and fight.”

The Astros lost that 2019 Series a fortnight before the Astrogate whistle was blown at last. They’ve played since with the justly-earned reputation for having been baseball’s most egregious and extreme electronic cheaters, and they haven’t always helped their own cause trying to move past it since.

One minute, they’ve embraced the villain role. The next, they’ve seemed as close to contrite as you’d expect of any team who first thought their well-exposed competitive amorality wasn’t as big a deal as everyone else made it.

Altuve’s sober realism about returning the Series home to one side, Passan has it right when he observes that embracing the bad-guys role goes only so far: “[W]hile some may see the Astros’ use of others’ loathing as backward—the reaction to your misdeed becoming a source of fuel is rather twisted—what’s the alternative?”

One alternative would be winning a World Series to climax a postseason in which the Astros really have played it straight, no chaser. So far. Disdain and contempt will remain attached to them until the last Astrogate team member no longer wears an Astros uniform. That a genuinely great team went rogue above and beyond is nobody’s fault but theirs.

The Truist Park crowds in Atlanta serenaded Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Correa with singsong chants of “Cheater! Cheater!” every time those three checked in at the plate. (It’s to wonder why the fourth member of the remaining Astrogate infield, first baseman Yuli Gurriel, escaped the serenades.) Those crowds didn’t hammer the entire team over the transgressions of the few remaining. To their eternal credit.

Nobody’s suspected or come up with any evidence that the Astros have been up to no good this fall. They blew the White Sox out of a division series after getting blown out in Game Three. They overthrew the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series after a 13-3 blowout put the Red Sox up 2-1 in the set. They answered Braves center fielder Adam Duvall’s nuke of a first-inning grand slam to beat the Braves 9-5 in Game Five Sunday night and force the World Series back to Minute Maid Park. Straight, no chaser.

But they enter Game Six with a couple of red flags flying regardless. Just what was manager Dusty Baker thinking when he sent Jose Urquidy out to pitch the Game Five fourth, when he had enough capable and available bullpen arms and really needed Urquidy to start Game Six?

Did Baker thus force himself to roll the wrong dice starting Luis Garcia on short rest against a fully-rested Max Fried, whom the Astros pecked apart early but without quite nuking him in Game Two?

Did Baker—who steadied the Astrogate-broiled clubhouse when coming aboard in its immediate wake; whose long and winning resume, historic shortfalls, and personal respect made him the sentimental favourite to win it all at last—really sacrifice a season to send set back to Houston?

Was Baker being canny in Game Five? Too clever by half? Does he know something about Rock-a-Bye-Samba Garcia that nobody else knows yet? Or, will Game Six end up another entry in Baker’s too long, too sad, often rotten-luck roll of postseason fate?

His critics often say he should have known better. His admirers say he’s been as much a victim of surrealistic dumb luck as anything else. Baker is either a big-hearted overthinker or the one-man resurrection of every hard luck team that ever reached the mountaintop and tripped to the rocks on the Jordan’s banks.

The man who’s managed more winning games than any skipper who’s never won a World Series is either Gene Mauch redux; or, he’s a one-man 1908 Giants, 1960 Yankees, 1969 Cubs, 1978 and 1986 Red Sox, 1987 Blue Jays, 2006-07 Mets, and almost every St. Louis Brown or Washington Senator, ever.

2002 World Series, Game Six: Baker lifted his Giants starter Russ Ortiz after the Anaheim Angels (as they were known then) swatted a pair of singles to open the bottom of the seventh with the Giants leading 5-0. With all good intention and heart, Baker handed Ortiz the “game ball” before turning it over to Felix Rodriguez. The Angels weren’t exactly indifferent to that.

Bing! Scott Spiezio hit a prompt three-run homer. The Angels finished handing the Giants’ pen their heads on plates to win at the eleventh hour, then won Game Seven decisively.

2003 National League Championship Series Game Six: Baker’s Cubs stood five outs from the World Series in the top of the eighth. He left a gassed starter Mark Prior in to take it on the chin and off a shortstop’s double play error, opening up what proved an eight-run Marlins eighth.

Then, in Game Seven, Baker inexplicably let Kerry Wood live long enough to surrender seven runs as the Marlins went to the World Series they’d win in six.

Baker’s often been accused of managing certain postseason games as though he’s just taking regular-season target practise against his league’s also-rans. But it wasn’t exactly his fault that his 2017 Nationals lost NLDS Game Five after swapping wins the first four games with the Cubs, either.

He didn’t ask Max Scherzer in relief to surrender a two-run double before Matt Wieters turned a passed ball into a ghastly run-scoring throwing error up the first base line. He didn’t ask Max the Knife to hit a batter with the bases loaded to finish that four-run Cubs seventh, leading to the 9-8 Cubs win.

That doesn’t exactly keep the second guessers in line, of course. I’ve second-guessed Baker often enough in the past, and I know it wasn’t his fault that that inning swallowed him alive—and cost him his job. He’s taken five different teams to postseasons; he’s been fired after 90+ win teams he managed ended postseasons in agony.

There are reasons teams have turned to him over the years, especially the one that wandered into scandal all by itself and needed an untainted human to take their game bridge, while they remade/remodeled the front office almost completely, and figure out how to steer them past it without being buried by it.

It hasn’t been perfect by any means. Baker didn’t look great at this season’s beginning, when road fans now allowed back to the ballparks after the 2020 pan-damn-ic absences trolled his Astros to make up for lost outrage time, and Baker played the whatabout card in return. He was better than that, he knew better than that, and we knew better than that.

The Astros needed heart, dignity, class, and soul to lead them out of their self-inflicted disgrace. That’s why they turned to Baker last year. But one of his 2003 Cubs, Doug Glanville, outfielder turned instructive and respected ESPN writer, has isolated perhaps the best reason Baker now has one more chance to land that ever-elusive claim to the Promised Land.

“Dusty always had time to talk to players to bring them together,” Glanville began, in a piece he published the day before World Series Game Five.

It was a priority that he not only get the biographical notes of your life, but he wanted to put himself in your shoes. Listen to your music, read about your perspective and embrace your culture. Not just as a company-wide initiative but as an evolution of life. He lets you change him, openly trying to grow. And he pushes you to do the same.

These were life lessons, not just baseball lessons. He wanted to take the gift of a lifetime of playing baseball and share it to make us all better. It went way beyond learning how to hit a curve ball or figuring out when Greg Maddux was going to throw his back-up slider. This was real life, and teammates were family. Every day was a celebration, a chance to get together over something joyous. And he was the Godfather, inheriting sons with the humility to know he can learn from them just as much as he can impart his own wisdom.

Does this make a manager better at running a bullpen or using his bench? I can’t say. But 18 years after I played for him, I still apply the lessons I learned from him as a father and a husband.

The Astros could force this World Series to a seventh game. They’d still have to win that. And Altuve is right when he suggests these Braves are no pushovers, no matter how Game Five shook out.

You may think still that an Astro loss would be nothing less than extraterrestrial justice. But you may think as well what a shame it would be that Baker has to be on the bridge incurring it if it happens. And you’d be right.

WS Game Five: Winning in a walk

Martin Maldonado

Maldonado, you’re no longer the weakest link. For now.

The good news is, the Braves can win in Houston. They proved it in Game Two. The bad news is, they’ll need to win there to win the World Series now.

The Astros didn’t let a little thing like a four-run hole after a single Game Five inning on a single swing drive them into an early season’s grave Sunday night.

Not with manager Dusty Baker flipping his lineup a little bit. Not with proving there are times a bases-loaded walk and a well-timed single in the middle of a game are more powerful than a grand slam out of the gates.

Not with the Astros’ heretofore, mostly dormant longtime core finding their bats. And, not with the Braves’ heretofore impenetrable bullpen proving they’re only human, after all, while their own usually tenacious bats mostly went askew following their early slicing, slashing, and thundering.

Their early, incendiary Game Five lead turned into a 9-5 loss to the Astros—but doesn’t have them up against the wall just yet.

“When we won [Game Four], it made it easier, I guess, coming into this one — but we knew it was going to be tough,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker postgame. “That’s just a lot of innings to cover (by relievers) against a club like this that swings a bat so well. The good news is we’ll take a day off and be in good shape.”

Meaning, including and especially, a rested bullpen as well as a re-grouping lineup. But it’s the opposite now of where they stood after Game Five of the National League Championship Series, after the Dodgers flattened them 11-2 in Los Angeles and despite still holding a 3-2 lead in the set.

Then, the Braves’ longtime first baseman and leader Freddie Freeman said they were still in good shape, they still led the set, and they liked their chances going back home to Atlanta. Now, Snitker’s putting the Brave face on and saying, “I’ll take it anywhere. If we win the World Series, it doesn’t matter where it is.”

Two years ago the Nationals proved that in abundance against the Astros. The Braves won’t be winning all needed Series games on the road, but with their Series lead now they need to win only once. It sounds simple when you say it. It’ll be anything but simple when they play it starting Tuesday night.

You can’t get any more profound a reminder of how tough a World Series can be than the Braves got when they only thought they had the Astros buried alive in the bottom of the first Sunday night.

They loaded the bases on Astros starter Framber Valdez with a leadoff base hit by Jorge Soler, a two-out single by Austin Riley, and a 3-1 walk to Eddie Rosario. Then Adam Duvall couldn’t wait to drive Valdez’s first service to him into the seats above the right field wall.

Hindsight’s almost as wonderful as foresight. Snitker has both in abundance. This time, though, hindsight was his BFF. “I’d rather we scored those runs in the seventh inning when you don’t have so much time to cover,” the manager said postgame. “We knew we had a long, long way to go in that game and anything could happen.”

Anything did happen, right away.

Heretofore slumber bat Alex Bregman hit with first and second and one out in the second and lined Braves opener Tucker Davidson’s the other way, all the way to the right center field wall, scoring Yuli Gurriel (one-out, one-hop single to center). Heretofore macaroni bat Martin Maldonado sent Kyle Tucker (full-count walk) home with a sacrifice fly cutting the Braves’ lead in half.

The Astros might have gotten one more run home but for the next batter—Valdez himself. Two swinging strikes around a ball in the dirt, then looking frozen at strike three on the inside forner after a ball just low. You still don’t want the designated hitter in the National League’s parks, old farts? Imagine if the Astros didn’t have to bat Valdez there. They might only have had a one-run deficit to end the frame.

No matter. Their unraveling of the Braves began the very next inning, when Dansby Swanson at shortstop misplayed Jose Altuve’s leadoff hopper, bumping the ball from his glove, recovering too late to throw the swift Mighty Mouse out at first. The rest of the Series will prove whether or not that’ll be this postseason’s most egregious Braves mistake of all.

Davidson walked Michael Brantley on a 3-1 count and Carlos Correa—another of the formerly dormant-at-the-plate Astro core—doubled Altuve home. A fly out later, Brantley scored on Gurriel’s ground out to short. Tie game. The tie lasted long enough for Freeman to lead the bottom of the third off with a mammoth full-count, tiebreaking blast half way up the right center field seats.

The 5-4 Braves lead lasted until the bases loaded and two out in the top of the fifth. Checking in at the plate: Maldonado, the Astros catcher still vying for the title of the single most automatic Astro out, after the Braves ordered Bregman walked on the house to load the pads in the first place.

What came next may yet prove one of the ten most powerful walks of all time. Maldonado looked at ball four inside from Braves relief star AJ Minter, sending Correa (leadoff one-hop base hit to center) strolling home with the re-tying run. Martin, you’re no longer the weakest link. For now.

Not only did Maldonado get daring enough to stand right on top of the plate during the entire plate appearance, the better to get an edge against Minter’s cutter, he even showed bunt as ball four sailed in. He didn’t do it for a laugh, either.

“He came back to the dugout yelling at me, ‘You like my Little League bunt?'” said Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron postgame. “He was prepared before he stepped up to the plate. He was ready for that at-bat. That made the difference.”

“I thought of it in the moment,” said a grinning Maldonado. “I wasn’t going to swing until 3-2. Maybe it would throw him off.”

Then Baker sent Marwin Gonzalez—returned to the Astros after a detour through Minnesota and Boston when the Red Sox released him in August—out to pinch hit for Jose Urquidy, whose shutout fourth set him up to get the Game Five “win.” Gonzalez dumped a floating quail into left center that hit the grass with room enough to send Gurriel and Bregman home with a 7-5 Astro lead.

Maldonado lined Tucker home with a base hit off another Braves pen man, Drew Smyly, in the seventh, and Correa—perhaps sensing Smyly was really taking one for the team now—singled Altuve home with the ninth and last run in the eighth.

Baker made a few pre-game moves to shake his lineup a bit, particularly moving the previously slumping Bregman down to bat seventh. The third baseman’s struggles at the plate this postseason became that alarming—to the manager and to Bregman himself.

“I’ve got a really weak top hand right now,” he said. “I’m releasing the bat behind me, which is causing a ton of problems.” He spent pre-game batting practise all but forcing himself into a two-handed swing finish. It helped when he knocked that second-inning RBI double. It damn near helped him hit one out his next time up.

“The second at-bat, I just missed what would have been a three-run homer, just barely missed under it,” Bregman said. “I’ve got to fix a weak top hand. Normally I hold (the bat) tight and squeeze it, kind of. I’m not able to do that right now.” Missing more than two months of the regular season didn’t exactly do him many favours, either.

For Minter’s part, he credited the Astros with finding their swings when they looked pinned otherwise. “I felt my stuff was just as sharp tonight as it was in other outings,” the lefthander said postgame, denying any fatigue factor from his previous prominent presence. “I felt like I was 1-2, 0-2 on every hitter. Those guys made quality swings on two strikes.

“I guess I could have made some better pitches with two strikes,” he continued, “but with Correa, I got him 0-2, left a cutter up, base hit. Got a good strikeout against Alvarez. And then Gurriel — cutter, backdoor cutter. He stuck his bat out there and had a good hit as well.”

Minter and the Braves now have down time enough to regroup and refresh. They still have the Series lead, even if the Astros and their fans might prefer to think the Braves have the Astros right where the Astros want the Braves.

The better news is, at least we’re rid of that infernal, obnoxious, demeaning Tomahawk Chop for the rest of the calendar year and—barring unforeseen wisdom from baseball’s governors—at least until next spring’s exhibition games begin.

Now, if only we could get rid of the Big Ben tolling, bonging chime that rings in both Truist Park and Minute Maid Park for the rest of this Series. Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls too early, too often, and it’s enough to drive a bat in the belfry bats.

Both parks’ public address people have a habit of sounding Big Ben before the home team has the win secured. It’s pretentious and presumptuous. Almost worse than the Truist Park organist’s too-insulting walk-up serenades to some Astro hitters. Good for perverse laughs among the home audience, good for Astro incentive at the plate. Brilliant.

Wise up, Braves and Astros. The Phillies’ people in Citzen’s Bank Park use Big Ben, too. But at least they have the brains to wait until the Phillies can take a win to the bank.