WS Game One: Flash! Bash! Alakazam!

Jorge Soler

Soler swings into history and toward a Game One Braves win . . .

Yordan and Eddie Tonight, the Miniseries? The show went on, but they weren’t exactly the stars of the show Tuesday night.

Oh, they performed rather splendidly. But they turned out the headliners blown off the stage by the fourth-lowest opening performer and a wild animal act.

Which is just what Jorge Soler did with the third pitch of World Series Game One from Astros starter Framber Valdez. And, what the Braves bullpen did to the Astros the rest of the way in an emphatic enough 6-2 Braves win.

Fresh off his marquee performance against the Red Sox toward the Astros’ American League pennant, Valdez could only watch with everyone else in the Minute Maid Park house as Soler became the first player in major league history to open a World Series opener with a home run.

The audience could only watch, too, with a hybrid of frustration broken up only occasionally by their usual racket while four Braves relief pitchers kept the Astros to their only runs of the game. Not to mention helping guarantee the Braves a temporary home field advantage at least.

Valdez fell behind Soler 2-0 when he threw a sinker that dumped enough ballast en route the plate that it had altitude enough for Soler to send it on hefty flight into the Crawford Boxes above the left field scoreboard. A ground out (Freddie Freeman), an infield single (Ozzie Albies, beating out a grounder wide of the mound’s left side), and a quick theft of second later, Austin Riley split the left center gap with the RBI double.

The game wasn’t even half an hour old, and already fans of both teams must have asked, Yordan who? Eddie what?

That was before the Braves more or less snuck a third run home in the second—back-to-back opposite-field singles (Travis d’Arnaud to right, Joc Pederson to left), a long fly to the center field wall enabling two tag-ups and second and third, and Soler’s grounder to short getting Pederson caught in a rundown while d’Arnaud crossed the plate.

And, before Eddie Rosario pulled a leadoff base hit to right in the third and—following a come-back-on-message visit to Valdez from Astros pitching coach Brent Strom—Adam Duvall turned a hanging changeup into a cruise missile straight into the Crawfords and sent Valdez out of the game.

“It was my first World Series game, so I’m not going to tell you that I didn’t feel the pressure,” Valdez admitted postgame. “I think just being behind in the count so much is what hurt me more than anything in this game.”

In between Soler’s Series-opening history mark and Duvall’s two-run rip, Morton too a hard smash from Yuli Gurriel off his leg to open the Houston second. The ball ricocheted to Freeman at first for a simple enough out. Morton pitched on, getting the next two outs to end the second and then striking Jose Altuve out called on a particularly nasty curve ball.

“That one got me good,” Morton’s said to have told his catcher d’Arnaud of the Gurriel comebacker that ended up ending his season. “I’m sorry,” Morton told any and everyone who happened by after his exit and after the game ended.

He’d looked distinctly uncomfortable before throwing Altuve that out pitch. He looked pained but determined after it. Pained enough to come out of the game. He turned out to have pitched to three Astros on a broken fibula that means the end of his postseason and the Braves having to do what they’ve done best in an injury-dominated year—skip out of the way at the last second when disaster comes careening down the street.

A 37-year-old veteran channeling his inner Bob Gibson (1967: tried to pitch on after fellow Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente ripped one off his leg; fracture kept him out thirteen weeks)—and apologising for it postgame. “[I]f that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about Charlie Morton,” said Freeman postgame, “I’m not sure what does.

Morton’s been there, done that. His career’s first half was as much big and small injuries costing him a lot of his prime time as it was pitching like a craftsman in six postseasons with one World Series ring and a splendid-enough 3.35 lifetime postseason earned run average to show for it. The man is nothing if not a walking exercise in pain management.

“I didn’t think it was broken,” d’Arnaud said. “I just thought he took a line drive off of his leg. But to go out there and strike out the next guy with a broken leg, it blows my mind.” Actually, it turns out Morton’s first X-rays showed no break, but he probably stressed his leg into the break while working on Altuve.

This is the Braves’ lot in 2021 so far. They incurred, dodged, withstood, and found ways to sneak through disaster to get to the postseason in the first place, never mind the World Series. A leg fracture taking their elder starting pitcher out for the rest of the way? Tell them about it. It wouldn’t shock them if they woke up on Game Two day having been kidnapped for the unreachable ransom.

Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton, escorted from the field in the third.

“No kidding. I don’t want to know what’s next,” said manager Brian Snitker after Game One. “But this is what we do, right?” Right. Nothing to it. Hit them with a tidal wave. Send them another hurricane riding the oblivion express. To these Braves those are just sun showers and some autumn breezes.

So far. It’s not that the Braves push their luck by design or premeditation. But you can’t help wondering just how many times they can still just wave their magic bats, gloves, or arms, and—flash! bash! alakazam!—make the other guys disappear.

Snitker had to reach for one of those arms a lot sooner than he might have expected going in. He brought AJ Minter in to take over for Morton. Minter pitched two and two thirds that would have been shutout ball if shortstop Dansby Swanson, usually one of the most sure-handed, sure-footed of the breed, hadn’t inadvertently kicked Astro center fielder Chas McCormick’s hard one-out, first-and-third grounder aside, enabling Kyle Tucker (one-out double) to score the first Astro run.

Luke Jackson followed Minter with one and two-thirds scoreless pitching before handing off to Tyler Matzek with lefthanded swinger Michael Brantley coming up with two outs in the seventh. He shook Brantley’s base hit off to strike Alex Bregman out looking for the side. But he couldn’t do a thing about Alvarez’s leadoff triple to the rear of right center opening the bottom of the eighth.

Alverz came home almost predictably when the next Astro batter, Carlos Correa, grounded out to second. After Matzek struck Tucker out on a somewhat violent swing, Gurriel ripped a drive off the left center field wall whose carom Rosario played perfectly, before throwing in perfectly to nail Gurriel at second trying to stretch the hit.

Or was it? At first glance it looked as though Gurriel’s drive hit on or above the yellow line atop the wall, which would have meant home run. Several television replays confirmed what the umpires on review ruled for certain—the ball struck the wall clearly if just barely below the line. Hocus pocus!

Not that it would have mattered in the end. The Braves landed an extra insurance run in the top of the inning, when Swanson wrung himself into a one-out walk and Soler on a check swing squibbed one into no man’s land beyond the mound that Astros reliever Ryne Stanek couldn’t get on a dive. Enabling Swanson to take third, before Freeman popped out to short right with Swanson on the run home and sliding in safely around Astro catcher Martin Maldonado’s backswinging tag attempt. Shazam!

So the Braves’ M&M Bulls didn’t do it with quite the howitzer heft by which they pinned the Dodgers to the wall winning National League Championship Series Game Six. But they did just what they had to do and kept the Astros from even thinking about a Game One overthrow regardless.

Will Smith shook a leadoff walk to pinch-hitter Aledmys Diaz off in the bottom of the ninth to get three straight ground outs—two force outs at second base, and a ground out to second—and that ended the game.

Abracadabra!

“Our team doesn’t worry,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker postgame, “and our team’s very confident. We have the knack of bouncing back after losses, after tough losses because they don’t quit, they don’t give up, they don’t get down. That’s the secret of sports.”

Beware, Mr. Baker. Your very confident Astros are up against a team that’s had to bounce back from tougher losses than Game One.

These Braves had to bounce back from losing their junior franchise face to a season-ending injury, after losing key young pitcher to a re-injured Achilles tendon and a key bomber to domestic violence protocols. Not to mention losing their leadoff hitting right fielder to COVID for the entire division series and most of the NLCS.

So the Braves will have to find a few more creative ways to survive losing their elder starter and clubhouse sage for the rest of the Series, too? Big whoop. Bad as losing Morton is, this, too, comes right into this year’s wheel house. They’d surely rather not, but where other teams crumple under the weight of forced creativity, these Braves thrive on it. So far.

ALCS Game One: The world didn’t implode

Jose Altuve

Jose Altuve’s two-run homer tied Game One and turned the game’s momentum to the Astros . . . (Fox Sports screen capture.)

Before the American League Championship Series began, it was easy to remember but so hard to forget. The elephant still lingered in the room.

The American League West-winning Astros. The American League wild card-winning Red Sox. Electronic sign-stealing cheaters versus electronic sign-stealing cheaters. Right?

Not quite that simple. Not even if Red Sox fans and others still cringe over the 2017-18 Astro Intelligence Agency. Not even if Astro fans and others still think the 2018 Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring proved the Astros weren’t alone in high-tech cheating.

Those Red Sox got nailed using their replay room as a sign-stealing helpmate. But they didn’t install the video apparatus in there, MLB did—for them and all thirty teams, behind all home and visitors’ dugouts in all thirty ballparks. Their way, and they probably weren’t the only team doing it, depended on having men on base to relay stolen signs to their batters.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it one more time: With the best intentions, MLB in essence were Mom and Dad leaving the keys to the liquor cabinet behind expecting the kids were mature enough not to open up and party while they were out of town for the weekend. The 2018 Rogue Sox opened up and partied. The 2017-18 Astros built their own distillery.

Their front office used an in-house-designed computer algorithm devised for sign stealing during games, despite the designer’s warning that doing it in-game was illegal. They used a high-speed, real-time camera to abrogate the mandatory eight-second transmission delay and send opposing signs to clubhouse monitors, next to which someone sent the hitters the dope via the infamous trash can bangs.

Both teams cheated then. Both teams seemed like deer frozen in the proverbial headlights when asked to show public accountability and contrition. The Astros were far, far worse. They went far, far above and beyond both the traditional on-the-field, in-the-dugout gamesmanship and the sort of boys-will-be-boys thing the Rogue Sox and others did with the MLB-gifted replay rooms.

Commissioner Rob Manfred may have erred in granting players from those teams immunity in return for the details, but his investigation did at least turn up and discipline the key overseers.

He suspended then-Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch before owner Jim Crane fired the pair. He suspended then-Astros bench coach Alex Cora over Astrogate, but determined the 2018 Rogue Sox’s prime culprit was video room operator J.T. Watkins while manager Cora, his coaches, the front office, and maybe half the Red Sox’s players weren’t in on the replay room reconnaissance ring.

Nobody can redeem those Astros or Red Sox, even if the Red Sox did re-hire a contrite-enough Cora to manage them this year. But we can remind ourselves that, today, only five Astrogate players remain with the team. We should remind ourselves that at least one such suspect, second baseman Jose Altuve, actually demurred from accepting stolen signs and even told his teammates and others to knock off the trash can banging while he was at the plate.

Only nine Rogue Sox members remain in uniform today, too. And, the rules against electronic sign-stealing were tightened in Astrogate’s aftermath. Video room security is now three people deep. Video feed delays are now fifteen seconds over the previous eight. Players caught stealing signs electronically can be suspended without pay or credited major league service time.

This year’s Astros and this year’s Red Sox got to this year’s ALCS regardless. Remove their former taints, and you have two opponents who entered the set with suspect pitching (particularly the Astros, losing Lance McCullers, Jr. to a forearm issue) but very strong offenses. Then, you watched Game One Friday night, even if in spite of yourselves.

You watched Red Sox center fielder Kike Hernandez strike long twice but Altuve strike once to change the game’s momentum toward the eventual 5-4 Astros win.

You watched Astros starting pitcher Framber Valdez and Red Sox starter Chris Sale unable to get out of the third inning alive. You watched the ordinarily suspect Astros bullpen hold the Red Sox to four hits, one walk, and one measly run, when Hernandez—who tied the game leading off the top of the third by hitting a Valdez curve ball far over the left center field seats—caught hold of a Ryan Pressly slider and send it deep into the Crawfords in the top of the ninth.

You watched the Red Sox take a 3-1 lead in that third a ground out, a walk, and a base hit up the pipe later, when designated hitter J.D. Martinez’s hopping grounder bumped off Altuve’s glove to send shortstop Xander Bogaerts (the walk) home, before right fielder Hunter Renfroe ripped an RBI double past Astros third baseman Alex Bregman and down the left field line to score Bregman’s Red Sox counterpart Rafael Devers (the base hit).

You watched Altuve ruin that lead in the bottom of the sixth, with Astros center fielder Chas McCormick aboard on a one-out single, when he hit the first pitch he saw from Red Sox reliever Tanner Houck into the Crawfords.

You watched another Red Sox reliever, Hansel Robles, fire sub-100 mph bullets in the bottom of the seventh to get rid of Bregman on a grounder to short and left fielder Yordan Alvarez on a hard-swinging strikeout, before offering Astros shortstop Carlos Correa a changeup that hung up enough for him to yank into the Crawfords to break the three-all tie.

You watched a Red Sox reliever who hadn’t pitched in almost two weeks, Hirokazu Sawamura, surrender a leadoff walk to Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel before McCormick bounced a base hit in front of Red Sox left-field insertion Danny Santana (a top-of-the-eighth pinch hitter). You saw Martin Maldonado take a pitch off his right wrist to load the pads with nobody out.

And you saw Altuve hit a sacrifice fly to center to send Gurriel home with the fifth Houston run, though a slightly more on-line throw might have gotten Gurriel at the plate to keep things within a single run for Hernandez’s second launch of the night.

Kike Hernandez

Hernandez’s dive-and-roll catch of Michael Brantley’s second-inning-ending, bases-loaded sinking liner wasn’t enough to stop the Astros Friday night. Neither were his two long home runs. (Fox Sports screenshot.)

Hernandez’s mayhem—the two homers on a 4-for-5 night (the first such leadoff hitter in the Show to do it), bringing him to fourteen hits in 28 postseaon at-bats this time around, his MLB-record third lifetime postseason game of ten total bases—may not have been quite enough for the Red Sox to take Game One. But it was more than enough to impress Astros manager Dusty Baker.

“I haven’t seen a hitter this hot in the last week than Kike Hernandez,” the skipper said post-game, after Hernandez’s first launch came during Baker’s brief turn talking to Fox Sports broadcasters Joe Buck and Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz. “Boy, when I saw that ball go up, I was like, oh man, that was a blast. Then he blasted another one. It’s not a good feeling when you know you’re live on air and you see that ball leaving the ballpark.”

Hernandez wasn’t the only one dancing with the record books. Altuve and Correa became the first teammates to homer in the same postseason game for a fourth time. “He is just so dangerous,” said Correa of Altuve post-game. “His track record in the playoffs is insane, and he just inspires me. He inspires me without saying much.”

That track record includes tying Hall of Famer Derek Jeter for number three on the all-time postseason bomb roll with his 20th such launch Friday night. But you should have heard Altuve speak of Correa, too. “He is amazing,” the compact second baseman said of his keystone partner at shortstop. “He likes this kind of game. He wants to go out there and hit big homers. It seems like he expects to go out there and do it, so if you’re expecting something, eventually you’re going to make it happen, and that’s him.”

Hernandez also impressed the Astros and maybe even some of their home crowd Friday night with a few defensive gems, particularly his dive-and-roll catch of designated hitter Michael Brantley’s bases-loaded, sinking line drive to end the bottom of the second. But he’d have swapped all that for a Red Sox win.

“I think overall we played a good game,” he said postgame. “Once again, we didn’t do a good job of adding on to the lead, and at the end of the day, that’s why we lost. We weren’t able to add any more runs.” That was in large part because the usually suspect Astro bullpen managed to keep them to a measly four hits and a walk in the unexpected bullpen game.

With Nathan Eovaldi starting Game Two, and the still-fresh memory of being shut out by the Rays to start a division series in which they won the next three straight, the Red Sox don’t exactly have reasons to cringe just yet. Even Sale admitted Eovaldi was their best foot forward to launch Saturday.

“We’ve got the right guy on the right mound, and that’s all we can say,” he said. “Our lineup is going to bang with the best of them. There’s no doubt about that. We’ve got to do the little things right, and with Nate taking the ball, that’s everything we could ask for.”

So guess what didn’t happen when the two teams still recovering from their own Astrogate and Rogue Sox scandals—yes, listed in the order of true gravity—tangled in Game One? Knowing that no one will be comfortable with either one wholly, but the Astros especially, until the last Astrogater or the last of the Rogue Sox no longer wears either uniform?

The world didn’t implode. The flora didn’t wilt. The fauna didn’t commit mass suicide. The moon didn’t fall into the river. The sun didn’t awaken before its appointed time. The nations didn’t fall from the earth. The earth didn’t go flat.

Unless there comes fresh contravening evidence, the Astros and the Red Sox played it straight, no chaser, in a game that would have classified as a bit of a thriller had it not been for that still-lingering elephant. The one aboard which the Astros, like it or not, still look far, far worse than the Red Sox or their fellow unverified-but-certain replay room rogues do.

The little bang theory

Diego Castillo, after closing the Rays’ ALCS Game One win Sunday night.

How bizarre was Game One of the American League Championship Series? Aside from being played in a National League ballpark, that is? Aside from the Tampa Bay Rays having a barely quenchable thirst for doing things the hard way and making the other guys do things likewise?

They beat the Houston Astros 2-1 Sunday night. Just as they beat the New York Yankees 2-1 to get here in the first place. Except that’s where the similarities end, no matter how good the Rays are at minimalism.

They’re to the low score what the Astros are to the big bang. They’ve played three postseason games thus far scoring two runs or less—and won two. Everyone else this postseason scoring two or less? Three wins, nineteen losses.

They struck out thirteen times against Framber Valdez and three Houston relief pitchers—and won. Just the way they did against the Yankees to get to the ALCS, and just the way nobody else this postseason has.

The Rays are about as intimidated by striking out as David was by Goliath. All year long including this postseason, you can look it up, they struck out thirteen times or more in twelve games—and won eight. Anyone else? Not even close. They’d rather strike out than hit into double plays.

They endured Sunday night without going to most of their A-list bullpen bulls. Nick Andersen and Peter Fairbanks didn’t even poke their noses out of their holes. Remember: there’ll be no days off during the ALCS, either. He who tends his bullpen best is liable to be he who survives with the least damage.

The lone Rays A-lister available Sunday after last Friday’s Yankee wrestling match was Diego Castillo. Largely because the chunky righthander himself told his boss he had at least an inning in him despite throwing 29 pitches over two innings to end the ALDS.

“Man,” said manager Kevin Cash after Sunday’s game, “he’s a stud. He was the one that was available between Nick, Pete and himself. We felt he could give us an inning.” So Cash brought him in to squelch a bases-loaded mess into which C-list reliever Aaron Loup managed to hand the Astros in the top of the eighth. No pressure.

Castillo threw one pitch to Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel. It was an intended sinkerball that hung up around Gurriel’s hands. Gurriel whacked it on the ground up the middle and right to the oncoming Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe. Lowe executed the step-and-throw inning-ending, disaster-ducking double play.

“We needed the ball on the ground,” said Rays catcher Mike Zunino after the game. “That’s the first thing. When Cashie left the mound, I told [third baseman Mike] Brosseau that he was going to get the ground ball.” So Lowe got it instead. Nobody’s perfect.

Sunday night wasn’t a Night of the Pitchers with a dramatic eighth-inning home run making the final difference between the two top teams in the American League East. This was the Amazing Randi versus David Copperfield with one hand behind their backs and one eye obstructed behind a patch.

It was the night the Astros’ young lefthanded lancer Framber Valdez came pretty much as advertised out of the chute. And, the night the Rays’ lefthanded, former Cy Young Award winning veteran Blake Snell came to prove he could get away with sticking his head into the lion’s mouth and yanking it out the split half second before the lion could snap its jaws around his neck.

It was the night the designated home team Rays went 1-for-8 with men in scoring position and left nine men on base, versus the designated visiting Astros went 2-for-8 with men in scoring position and left ten men on, with both teams having what looked like scores in the making snuffed by swift and slick pitching to some swift and slick infield defense.

It was also the night Jose Altuve hit a Snell meatball into the left field seats on 2-1 in the top of the first, Randy Arozarena found a Valdez sinker that didn’t sink under the middle of the zone to sink behind the center field fence in the bottom of the fourth, and a leadoff walk followed by a pair of grounders back to the mound and a clean base hit plating Rays shortstop Willy Adames in the bottom of the fifth.

From there it was a contest to see whose bullpen depth mattered more and whose offense might turn possibles into plotzes worse. When it finally finished, the Rays stood at 33-0 when when leading after the seventh this year and holding a Show-leading 73-game winning streak when leading in the eighth.

They also stood proud Sunday night with a now 16-5 record in one-run 2020 games, the .762 winning percentage the best in major league history. The little engine that could? The Rays are the little engine that do.

“The one thing you learn about our club over 60 or 162,” Cash told reporters, “we’re in a lot of tight ballgames. And tight ballgames, you’ve got to teach yourself how to win those. That’s mistake-free, playing clean. There’s no margin for error and I think our guys take that approach every single night when they take the field.”

Tight ballgames? If Game One got any tighter there would have been crash carts in the cutout-filled seats and oxygen ventilators in the on-deck circles.

“They do some things that are unusual,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker before the game. If understatement is an irrevocable requirement for Manager of the Year, Baker might have this year’s award nailed down tight shut.

But Cash solidified his own airtight case, taking baseball’s version of of the 99 Cent Store (O Woolworth, where is thy sting?) to the top of the American League East irregular season heap and to the postseason’s number-one seed. He’s the director of the Rays starring in The Little Bang Theory.

They shoved the Toronto Blue Jays out of the wild card series in half a blink, wrangled the Empire Emeritus out of the division series, and neutralised the postseason-resurgent Astros’ big bats into cardboard tubes to open this week’s showdown.

They did it despite Snell seeming bent on setting new major league records for getting himself into more full counts than the law allows and escaping when it looked like the coppers had the cuffs around his wrists ready to click shut.

They did it despite Valdez striking out eight in six mostly splendid innings and the youthful enough Astros bullpen looking as though they’d been studying the Rays for what to do, how to do it, and when to do it.

No, the Rays had to suck the Astros into joining them for an act that made the Flying Wallendas resemble cartoon amateurs. They even had to find their own kind of exclamation point, with Castillo striking out Altuve, the pint size power plant who’d started the evening with the long ball, on a nice, nasty, diving-away slider to close it out at last.

Last fall, the Rays lost a division series to the Astros in five games but proved they could play up to and with the big beasts when given the chance. This fall they’re proving that the great white whales don’t stand that much of a chance against a pack of hell-bent-for-blubber anchovies. So far.