NLCS Game Six: The Braves’ new world

Eddie Rosario

Eddie Rosario hits the three-run homer that proved the game/set/NLCS winner for the Braves. (TBS screen capture.)

You thought Yordan Alvarez was the force the Red Sox couldn’t stop in the American League Championship Series? Have a good, long look at Eddie Rosario, the force the Dodgers couldn’t stop in the National League Championship Series.

There should be some interesting showdowns in the forthcoming World Series. When each LCS Most Valuable Player threatens to throw every round of ammunition they have, including cruise missiles, at each other’s pitching and defenses. If Alvarez and Rosario stay as they just were, they’ll make World War II resemble a snowball fight.

Rosario’s three-run homer off Walker Buehler in the bottom of the fourth Saturday night, and the Braves bullpen—especially AJ Minter and Tyler Matzek—throwing five one-run, ten-strikeout, one-walk innings, sent the Braves to the World Series with a 4-2 win. The regular season’s least-winning division winner buried the season’s second-winningest team.

Maybe the Astros don’t resemble such overdogs after all? Maybe this year’s Braves resemble not on-paper favourites but a miracle team?

Wrestled by the Dodgers out of last year’s short-season, ghoulash-playoff National League pennant. Buried a game under .500 at this year’s All-Star break. Then spending the second half playing .611 baseball while most of the rest of the National League East—which wasn’t all that powerful in the first place—dissipated. The Astros were .604 at the break but .563 in the second half.

Now the Braves stand as National League champions with a legitimate shot at taking the Astros down. They manhandled the Dodgers when it mattered most Saturday night. They didn’t let a little thing like getting blown out 11-2 in Game Five to lose twice in three games in Dodger Stadium bother them all that much.

“We’re up 3-2, and we’re going home,” said Braves first baseman and franchise face Freddie Freeman after Game Five. “It’s a great position to be in.” The guy whose eighth-inning division series Game Four blast off Brewers relief ace Josh Hader made the NLCS possible for the Braves in the first place sounded like an incurable optimist then. After Game Six, he sounds like a prophet.

But he put any prophetic powers he had to one side in the middle of the Braves’ postgame celebration. “I think this might be the definition of pure joy,” he said. “It really is. I really don’t, it hasn’t hit me at all. I don’t really know how to feel.”

Rosario know exactly how to feel, especially after he caught hold of Buehler’s dangling cutter with Travis d’Arnaud (two-out walk) and pinch hitter Ehire Adrianza (two-out double) on second and lined it a few seats inside the right field foul pole. “It’s truly a great moment,” Rosario said amidst the celebration, “not just in my career, but in my life as well, but I want more. I want to win the World Series.”

He was one of three mid-season trades Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos delivered when the Braves resembled the walking dead. They’d lost young superman Ronald Acuna, Jr. for the year to a torn ACL. They’d lost young pitching comer Mike Soroka to an Achilles tendon blowout after nine months rehabbing its original tear. They’d lost bombardier Marcell Ozuna to domestic violence issues and administrative leave.

Only one man around or observing the Braves decided there was still something worth saving. Anthopolous brought in Rosario from the Indians plus former Dodger Joc Pederson from the Cubs, Adam Duvall from the Marlins, and Jorge Soler from the Royals.

Pederson made himself enough of a pain in the rump roast casting a string of pearls before swine against his former team with his NLCS heroics at the plate. But even Anthopolous couldn’t have predicted Rosario—traded from the Indians for faded early-season pinch-hitting wonder Pablo Sandoval; the guy who came to the Braves injured and unable to play until 28 August—would steal the show and the set in the end.

“It’s still not lost on any of us that we didn’t accomplish our goal,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts postgame. “But for me, I’m giving credit to the Braves, because they outplayed us, plain and simple.”

The Dodgers knew going in that winning Game Six Saturday night would be on wings and prayers almost regardless of the opponent. Especially after Max Scherzer’s wing still remained dead enough to keep him from starting the game. Especially having to put the ball into Buehler’s wing on three days’ rest for only the second time in his young and promising career and this postseason.

They couldn’t afford a bullpen game so close to the one that hoisted them while they blew the Braves out in Game Five. But for three innings Buehler looked more than capable of keeping the Braves at bay, other than Austin Riley’s ground rule RBI double in the bottom of the first.

“I could tell when I was warming up that it was still tired,” Scherzer said after his Game Six scratch. The concern is “arm fatigue.” Historically, “arm fatigue” or “shoulder fatigue” have proven too often that they’re euphemisms for more serious issues. Late Saturday we learned Max the Knife said he’d be good to go for starting Game Seven.

Could it be our boy’d done something rash? The Dodgers still had to get there first. So much for that idea.

Scherzer’s trade deadline acquisition from the Nationals along with shortstop Trea Turner helped secure the Dodgers’ postseason arrival in the first place. Now, no matter what Buehler had starting Saturday night, the Dodgers’ streak of seven straight postseason elimination wins started Game Six close to final jeopardy.

Even allowing their injury quotient, they’d played like minor leaguers in most of the first four NLCS games. Chris Taylor almost singlehandedly yanked them back to the majors with his three-bomb Game Five.

Even if they managed to make the Braves look somewhere between silly and foolish in that game, by way of a bullpen worn down to their own winging prayers, and a jack-of-most-trades who’d hit about half his own weight down the final season stretch but who suddenly resembled what used to be his Hall of Famer-in-waiting teammate Albert Pujols.

These Dodgers couldn’t afford much of anything entering Saturday. They entered the postseason without first baseman Max Muncy thanks to his dislocated elbow and without longtime pitching ace Clayton Kershaw thanks to an elbow strain, and Dustin May to Tommy John surgery.

They’d lost reliever Joe Kelly to an injured bicep and third baseman Justin Turner to a hamstring injury during the NLCS. Both were considered gone for the rest of the postseason, however long it might last for the team that won 106 regular-season games—but still had to win the wild card game before the division series triumph that put them here at all.

Dodger fans approaching Game Six wanted to think, “They have us right where we want them,” even in Atlanta. It turned out the Dodgers had the Braves right where the Braves wanted whatever remained of Los Angeles’s Blue Man Group.

It didn’t have to be a plunge. It had only to be Minter relieving starter Ian Anderson and pitching four-strikeout, three-up/three-down ball in the fifth and the sixth. It had only—and especially—to be Matzek, walking into a second-and-third, nobody-out Dodger fire, after A.J. Pollock doubled the second and final Dodger run home . . . and striking out the side on eleven pitches. Including the Mookie Monster on three straight, ending the last serious Dodger threat of the night.

The night before, Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi bulled his way out of a bases-loaded jam in Houston by striking out the side. The difference was that Eovaldi stuck his landing while his offense remained sound asleep. Matzek stuck his landings with a two-run lead to protect and hand off.

He dispatched the Dodgers three-and-three in the eighth, handed Braves reliever Will Smith the two run lead, and watched with a packed Truist Park as Smith struck out the first two before getting Pollock to end it with a ground out to shortstop.

Once upon a time, Matzek was a Rockies washout who had to re-invent his pitching career with the independent leagues’ Texas AirHog. Now he’d blown what air was left out of the Dodgers’ tires. With his room for error about the size of a linen closet.

“My job is simple,” the beefy lefthander said after the game. “It’s go ahead, get out there and just try to strike guys out . . . I can’t let a pop up or a ground ball go through. I am looking to get those guys out and strike them out. It’s a simple job. Just go out there and throw my best stuff and I was lucky that my best stuff worked tonight.”

Just about all the Braves’ best stuff worked Saturday night. Just about none of the Dodgers’ did.

Especially against that mid-season pluck from the Indians who just nailed a 1.647 OPS for the entire NLCS, with a posteason series record-tying fourteen hits, nine runs driven in, three home runs including two in Game Four, two four-hit games, plus the base hit that walked a second straight Braves win off in Game Two.

This is a National League champion who didn’t even reach the .500 level until 6 August. They broke the record for the latest .500 reach by three days. The previous record holder was a team that went on to win the pennant and sweep the World Series. You may have heard of them: the 1914 Miracle Braves.

Sometimes things that happen to be in your franchise DNA take awhile to manifest. For the not-so-miraculous Astros awaiting the World Series showdown, that may not prove to be a good thing. It may well depend upon which half of Yordan and Eddie Tonight proves the bigger performer.

They may not have the Hall of Fame power (pitchers Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz; third baseman Chipper Jones) of the last Braves World Series team. But there shouldn’t be anyone calling this year’s Braves flukish now.

Freeman frees the Braves to await their NLCS opponent

Freddie Freeman

Jubilant Freddie Freeman approaches the plate to finish the eighth-inning bomb that held up to win the NLDS for the Braves Tuesday night.

Maybe it didn’t have quite the last-split-second hair raising quotient that the Red Sox’s final two American League division series wins had. But it wasn’t any less dramatic for Freddie Freeman and his Braves in winning their National League division series Tuesday.

Freeman’s eighth-inning tiebreaking home run off Brewers relief ace Josh Hader turned out the finishing blow in a set during which both teams scored as many runs in the first three games as they ended up scoring in Game Four alone.

What made the bomb so luminous, too, was that it was only the second time in the whole 145-year history of the franchise that any Brave delivered what proved a postseason series-winning hit in the eighth or later. It took one season shy of three decades for Freeman’s homer to join Francisco Cabrera’s National League Championship Series-winning base hit. (The fabled Sid Bream mad-broken-bodied-dash.)

“I’ve had a lot of cool moments in my career,” Freeman said postgame, “but so far I think that’s going to top them right there. But hopefully that’s not the last cool one.” Right now, nobody’s willing to bet too heavily against either Freeman or his Braves. Yet.

You heard all season long about this or that team being wracked by injuries and surrealities? Few had to compensate as heavily as the Braves did. Too many teams losing their number-two franchise player, one of their best young pitchers, and a reliable other power bat might have collapsed like a blimp.

The Braves lost Ronald Acuna, Jr. thanks to a torn ACL making a play in center field. They lost Mike Soroko after his Achilles tendon blew out in May—after nine months’ rehab following its initial 2020 tear. They looked as though their season had paid put to hit without once seeing .500.

They lost Marcell Ozuna when the outfielder/bombardier was arrested for domestic violence in July—charged first with felonious aggravated assault and attempted strangulation, charges reduced to misdemeanor simple assault and battery, on administrative leave through the end of the Braves’ season, after he entered a diversion program.

When Acuna went down, and the Braves more or less sputtered into and past the All-Star break, general manager Alex Anthopoulos made his first move, bringing former Dodger Joc Pederson aboard from the Cubs in exchange for a minor league prospect.

That was Pederson pinch hitting for Braves reliever Luke Jackson in the Game One eighth and hitting a solo home run off Brewers reliever Adrian Houser for the only Braves run in the only series loss. That was also Pederson in Game Three, pinch hitting for Braves starter Ian Anderson, facing Houser again, and launching the three-run homer that proved the only Game Three scoring.

Houser may start seeing Pederson in his sleep. The Braves just want to keep seeing him mash. Even if he got the Game Four start as his reward and had to settle for pushing home the first of the two runs that tied things at four with a ground out to second base.

Freeman thinks landing Pederson merely began the Braves’ reversal. “When Alex went out and got Joc,” he said, “it brought a sense of energy that it just showed us that they still believed in us, to go add at the deadline.” Which is exactly what Anthopolous did. He nailed three 30 July trades to bring Jorge Soler from the Royals, Adam Duvall from the Marlins, and Eddie Rosario from the Guardians-to-be.

The NL East wasn’t a powerful division to begin with. But the longtime-leading Mets imploded, the Nationals hit the reset button, and the Phillies proved just short of being able to hold on. In Atlanta, as proverbially and poetically as feasible, that which didn’t destroy the Braves only made them stronger.

They went 36-19 to finish the regular season, including a too-simple-seeming sweep of the Phillies opening the final week to keep them from finishing what they threatened awhile to do and overthrow the Braves. They even shook off Soler’s COVID diagnosis entering the postseason. Now they’ve dispatched a Brewers team that won seven more regular-season games to lead an only slightly stronger NL Central.

They’re waiting to see who’ll be the last men standing between the Dodgers and the Giants, after the Dodgers tied that division series in Los Angeles Tuesday night in an all-Dodgers/all-the-time 7-2 win.

The game was a still-manageable 2-0 Dodger lead, with the Giants compelled to a bullpen game against a short-rested but deadly effective Walker Buehler, when Mookie Betts checked in in the fourth against Jarlin Garcia—after Buehler himself led off by reaching on an infield error.

“It’s not something we want to do all the time,” said Buehler about going on only three days rest, “but I felt that if things didn’t go our way [in the third game], I would feel really weird not pitching a game that we could lose a series.”

He didn’t have to worry. Until he surrendered a leadoff single to Evan Longoria and a one-out walk to Steven Duggar in the fifth, Buehler pitched stoutly and had to shake only one previous first-and-second spot of trouble away in the second. He even had the Giants slightly flummoxed when he went to his changeup a little more often than they were accustomed to seeing from him.

When the Mookie Monster parked an 0-1 pitch into the right center field bleachers, it suddenly seemed a question not of whether but by how big the Dodgers would take the game. An inning later, Betts sent Cody Bellinger home with a sacrifice fly deep to left center field. But Dodger catcher Will Smith—just call him the Fresh Prince of Dodger Stadium—squared off against Giants reliever Jake McGee with Corey Seager aboard (leadoff line single) and hit the first pitch over the left center field fence.

The Giants looked so overmatched in Game Four that their only two runs scored on ground outs, one with the bases loaded. That was Evan Longoria scoring on Darin Ruf’s grounder to second. The other was Brandon Crawford coming home in the eighth when Kris Bryant grounded one to the hole at third.

Buehler’s short-rest deliverance plus the Dodgers’ bats ensured Julio Urias on regular rest starting Game Five against Logan Webb in San Francisco Thursday. For the Braves, that’s going to be very must-see television. Which is what it already was on the left coast and elsewhere.

For the Brewers, it’s a too-early winter vacation after their pitching virtuosity proved futile against the disappearance of their bats. Christian Yelich’s back injury-abetted struggles continued in the division series, and while the Braves didn’t exactly bring the walls crumbling down the Brewers hit a measly .192 in the set—32 points below the Braves.

They did get beaten in the end when the Braves’ best batter launched against their best pitcher in the Game Four eighth. Starting Eric Lauer for Game Four because ace Corbin Burnes said he wasn’t feeling one hundred percent proved a mistake, and so did manager Craig Counsell not bringing Brandon Woodruff in earlier in higher-leverage.

But then here’s where the Brewers’ best bats fell too short. Avisail Garcia? Eight strikeouts, only two hard-hit balls, and two singles in fifteen at-bats. Kolten Wong? Five strikeouts, likewise only two hard-hit balls, and one single in fifteen at-bats. Willy Adames? Five hits in seventeen at-bats—four singles and a double, plus nine strikeouts and only three balls hit hard.

That’s why the Brewers pitched the division series like Hall of Famers—their three starters Burnes, Woodruff, and Luis Peralta showed a collective 1.56 ERA and 0.92 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, not to mention nineteen strikeouts in 17.1 innings pitched—but the Braves still took them out sweeping three after a Game One Brewers win.

“The vibe is the best that we ever had in this series,” Adames said before Game Four. “Today, the guys, I guess they woke up in a great mood. They came with energy. And I feel today we had the best vibe that we’ve had so far this series so far.”

The trouble was that the Brewers went in with the best vibes but the Braves played them as if they were jazz vibes legend Milt Jackson hammering out another virtuoso chorus of “Bags’ Groove.” Now the Braves wait to see who gets bagged in San Francisco Thursday night.

NLCS Game Two: The mighty are falling

For the second NLCS game in a row, Freddie Freeman hits one out to start the Braves’ scoring.

Another entry from our Tales of the Unexpected Dept. The Atlanta Braves have a clean shot at shoving the Los Angeles Dodgers into early winter vacation without seeing Clayton Kershaw poke his nose out of his hole even once.

They were supposed to deal with Kershaw in Game Two of their National League Championship Series, until Kershaw’s back decided not so fast, bub. So there he was confined to leaning on the Dodger dugout rail and watching his mates under the thunder of the Braves’ stellar pitching. Again.

The spasms that scratched him from his scheduled Game Two start were the talk of Tuesday—at least until the Tampa Bay Rays in Game Three of the American League Championship Series pushed the Houston Astros to the elimination brink.

The Dodgers were counting on the resurgent Kershaw, the future Hall of Famer who became their best pitcher again this season and who’d been his future Hall of Fame self in two previous postseason gigs this time around. They needed him take the sting out of their Game One bullpen meltdown.

They needed him to find some way, any way of telling the Braves’ opportunistic and unsinkable hitters it was time to get sunk. When his back spasms told him and the Dodgers not to even think about it, the Braves must have thought Christmas came early and Santa’s sleigh was overloaded.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts decided Game Two was the perfect time to hand young Tony Gonsolin his first-ever postseason start in Globe Life Park, Arlington, the Texas Rangers’ brand new playpen, the hangar that was supposed to be a hot tub for pitchers.

The Braves decided Game Two was the perfect time to hand young Gonsolin and every Dodger pitcher to follow their heads on plates, while pitching the Dodgers’ ears off the way they’ve been doing to every challenger all postseason long thus far.

Yet again, what the Braves have been doing pretty much all postseason long. Pitching the opposition’s ears off. Hitting the opposition’s pitchers as if discovering new and heretofore untapped human resources for batting practise. And, beating the Dodgers 5-1 in Game One and 8-7 in Game Two.

Freddie Freeman, the Braves’ first baseman who may well be this irregular season’s National League Most Valuable Player in all but the formal announcement and plaque presentation, decided it was too good to resist doing in Game Two what he did in Game One.

Monday—Freeman provided the first Atlanta hit and score when he took Dodger starter Walker Buehler into the right field seats with one out in the top of the first. Tuesday—Freeman provided the first Braves hit and score again, this time with Ronald Acuna, Jr. on board with a leadoff walk ahead of him, ending Gonsolin’s three-inning, three-and-three cruising, with a full-count blast about halfway up the right field seats . . . in the top of the fourth.

The Show’s government decided to let fans into the Globe Life stands on a limited and socially distanced basis for this NLCS. After a half summer of seeing nothing but cutouts in the seats, it was jolting to realise Freeman’s Game One launch was the year’s first live baseball souvenir.

Gonsolin lasted into the top of the fifth Tuesday night. He was lifted after Cristian Pache’s one-out RBI double and a followup walk to Acuna. In came Pedro Baez, the Dodger reliever who often threatens to hijack long-ago Cleveland first baseman Mike Hargrove’s nickname, the Human Rain Delay.

Up came Freeman again. He singled Pache home and set up first and third while he was at it. Baez then walked Marcell Ozuna to load the pads for Travis d’Arnaud, who walked right behind him to push Acuna home. Ozzie Albies then whacked a sacrifice fly to left to push Freeman home.

On a night Braves rookie Ian Anderson did what Max Fried and most company did well enough in Game One, the Braves didn’t have to play long ball to paint the scoreboard. About the longest ball other than Freeman’s fourth-inning flog from there looked to be Dansby Swanson bouncing d’Arnaud home with a ground-rule double in the seventh.

Then the Dodgers finally started making things extremely interesting in the bottom of the seventh. When they set up first and second right out of the tunnel against Braves reliever Darren O’Day and, after O’Day managed somehow to get a swinging strikeout out of Mookie Betts, Corey Seager hit one into the Braves’ bullpen behind the center field fence.

Suddenly the Braves advantage was cut to four runs. No wonder Ozzie Albies decided like State Farm to be the good neighbour in the top of the ninth, sending Adam Kolarek’s 2-1 service into the same bullpen.

Where Braves reliever Mark Melancon made a running catch of the ball, a little fancier than just standing there in Game One when Albies hit a two-run homer for which Melancon had only to raise his glove for the catch. In Game Two, the gags started pouring forth that the Braves could stick Melancon in for late-game defense when he wasn’t going to be a bullpen factor.

As it was, Melancon’s thoughts of a Game Two night off vaporised in the bottom of the ninth. He had an unexpected (we think) Dodger uprising to thank for that, when Seager slashed reliever Josh Tomlin for an RBI double and Max Muncy smashed Tomlin for a two-run homer. Unfortunately, Melancon’s ruined off-night opened in near-ruin in its own right.

An infield error allowed Will Smith aboard before Cody Bellinger sent one to the back of right field to triple him home. Leaving Melancon to deal with A.J. Pollock and lure him into grounding one to the hole at shortstop that Swanson picked off to throw him out and finish it with the Braves escaping to within an inch of their lives.

Melancon was less than thrilled when a Braves beat reporter named David O’Brien faced the righthander as though the team blew a lead. “We didn’t blow the lead,” Melancon said, slightly in shock, knowing the Braves won the game by a single run. “I don’t really understand your question.”

He didn’t really approve of it, either. And you couldn’t blame him.

“Can you still take something positive out of this?” O’Brien promptly asked. When a team survives an eleventh-hour uprising to take a 2-0 NLCS lead, do you expect them to take something negative about it? If I’d asked a question like that in my own newspaper and radio reporting days, I’d have been broiled, basted, and braised—and then my subject and my editors would have gotten mad.

O’Brien’s silliness spoiled Melancon’s jovial mood from talking about his bullpen home run catches, when another reporter reminded him he’d just caught more homers than he’d surrendered all year. “That’s more home runs than I’ve caught in my entire life, never mind  one season,” he said through a mischievous grin.

Don’t go thinking that late uprising means that vaunted Dodger firepower’s about to make mincemeat out of these exuberant, relentless Braves just yet. Four-game LCS winning streaks aren’t exactly easy to deliver against teams that don’t know the meaning of the word “quit.”

Especially when you don’t know for sure whether Kershaw will recover in time for Game Four. And, when you may suspect in your heart of hearts that that late-Game Two uprising came a little too little, a little too late, against the weaker side of a bullpen that’s normally anything but generous with runs.

The Dodgers hit .220 when the Washington Nationals blasted them out of the postseason last year. They hit .180 in the 2018 World Series, .205 in the 2017 Series, and .210 in the 2016 NLCS. They’re hitting .206 in this LCS after hitting .287 to knock San Diego out in the division series.

This has been their burden during their National League West ownership. When the bigger of the big stages invite them, the Dodgers don’t look so fierce at the plate. Good pitching staffs can take them. These Braves, National League East owners, have a terrific pitching staff, and their own hitters don’t wilt on the larger stage. Yet.

It’s deja vu all over again for the Mets

2020-07-24 YoenisCespedes

Cespedes went into the seats in his return but deGrom added just more evidence for a non-support case Friday.

Pandemic delay or no pandemic delay, the 2020 season finds the New York Mets picking up just about where they left off last year. Not that beating the Atlanta Braves 1-0 on Friday was a terrible thing for them, of course. And not that Yoenis Cespedes, too long among the Mets’ living dead on the injured list, going long his first day back was terrible, either.

But their neglect of theirs and the National League’s best pitcher two seasons running, pending Jack Flaherty’s continuing maturation, continues yet. He’s too much a team player to say it, but surely Jacob deGrom thinks of games like Friday’s and thinks to himself, “It’s been lovely, but I have to scream now.”

Defending back-to-back Cy Young Awards, pitching like a future Hall of Famer, eight strikeouts in five innings, one walk, and one measly hit. (The innings limit was the Mets taking no chances after deGrom’s back tightness last week.) And nothing to show for it other than an ERA opening at zero.

Last year, deGrom had twelve such quality starts, averaging seven innings per, and came out with nothing to show for those. If his team played the way he pitched, he’d have been a 23-game winner and the Mets might have ended up in the postseason. Him definitely; them, might. As a former Mets manager once said, it was deja vu all over again Friday afternoon in Citi Field.

The Braves’ starting pitcher, Mike Soroka, got a grand taste himself of how deGrom must feel at times. He pitched six innings and, while he wasn’t deGrom’s kind of strikeout pitcher Friday afternoon, he did punch out three, scatter four hits, and come away with nothing to show for it but handshakes from the boss and whatever equals a pat on the back in the social-distancing season.

His relief, Chris Martin, wasn’t so fortunate. After ridding himself of Michael Conforto to open the bottom of the seventh on a fly out to deep enough center field, Martin got Cespedes to look at a first-strike slider just above the middle of the plate. Then he threw Cespedes a fastball just off it, and Cespedes drove it parabolically into the empty left field seats.

The piped-in crowd noise at Citi Field drowned out the thunk! when the ball landed in no man, woman, or child’s land. It was the game’s only scoring, but the Mets’ bullpen had a surprise of their own in store once deGrom’s afternoon was done.

They left the matches, blow torches, gasoline cans, and incendiary devices behind. They performed no known impression of an arson squad. They cleaned up any mess they might have made swiftly enough.

Seth Lugo, maybe the Mets’ least incendiary reliever last year, shook off a double to left by newly minted Brave Marcell Ozuna, and his advance to third on a passed ball, to get Matt Adams—signed but let loose by the Mets and scooped up by the Braves—to ground out to third and Austin Riley to look at strike three. Crowning two innings relief in which Lugo also made strikeout work of Alex Jackson and Ronald Acuna, Jr.

Justin Wilson, taking over for the eighth and looking like he was finding the right slots last year, shook off Dansby Swanson’s leadoff single to strike Adam Duvall out looking, before luring pinch hitter Johan Comargo into grounding out to second and striking Acuna out for the side.

Then Edwin Diaz, the high-priced closer who vaporised last year, opened by getting Ozzie Albies to ground out, shook off a walk to Freddie Freeman, and struck Ozuna out looking and Adams out swinging for the game.

Already freshly minted Mets manager Luis Rojas looks like a genius, or at least unlike a lost explorer. And Cespedes—about whom it was reasonable to wonder if he’d ever play major league baseball again—made sure any complaints about this season’s universal DH were silenced for this game at least.

“The funny thing is I joked with him before the game,” deGrom told reporters postgame. “I said ‘why are you hitting for me?’ He went out and hit a home run for us which was big. I was inside doing some shoulder stuff, my normal after pitching routine and yeah I was really happy for him.”

It didn’t work out quite that well for the Braves, with Adams going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts on the afternoon. Neither side mustered an especially pestiferous or throw-weight offense other than Cespedes’s blast.

But you half expected a low-score, low-hit game out of both deGrom and Soroka considering the disrupted spring training, the oddity of “summer camp,” and perhaps just a little lingering unease over just how to keep playing baseball like living, breathing humans while keeping a solid eye and ear on social distancings and safety protocols.

In a sixty-game season it all counts even more acutely than it would have on a normal Opening Day. The Mets and the Braves were each expected to contend this season before the coronavirus world tour yanked MLB’s plans over-under-sideways-down. They’re not taking their eyes off that just yet.

Before the game began, the Mets and the Braves—like the New York Yankees and Washington Nationals in D.C., like the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants by the Bay Thursday night—lined up on the baselines and held a long, long, long black ribbon. This time, with nobody kneeling before “The Star Spangled Banner” was played.

Maybe athletes can remind people that it’s dead wrong for rogue police to do murder against black and all people without running into the buzz saws of explicit national anthem protests and fury over the protests, after all.

The Braves have other alarms, though. Freeman, of course, is recently recovered from COVID-19 but two of their three catchers—Tyler Flowers and former Met Travis d’Arnaud—showed COVID-19 symptoms and went to the injured list. The good news: both catchers tested negative for the virus.

But lefthanded pitcher Cole Hamels hit the IL with triceps tendinitis. Not good. Every live arm counts in a short season, especially for legitimate contenders. Just ask the Mets, who’ll be missing Marcus Stroman with a calf muscle tear, even if Stroman historically heals quickly.

You hope both teams recover swiftly enough. You also hope the Mets find a way to make deGrom’s won-lost record look as good as he pitches and fast. Those non-support filing papers don’t take that long to draw up.

 

A virus, a prayer, a return for Freeman

2020-07-19 FreddieFreeman

“I said, ‘Please don’t take me,’ because I wasn’t ready.”—Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, describing the worst night of his COVID-19 battle.

These days it’s fair to suggest first baseman Freddie Freeman is the face of the Atlanta Braves. He’s had a solid career thus far and— assuming baseball and American life re-discover normalcy if and when the coronavirus world tour finally dissipates—it’s safe to assume he’ll continue that way when healthy.

He’s had a few seasons interrupted by injuries and one truncated season-to-be interrupted rudely by COVID-19 itself. It was enough to make him thankful for his recovered health and the small things, considering the shake he incurred while suffering with the illness.

When baseball began its “summer camp” version of delayed spring training, Freeman was one of four Braves to test positive for the coronavirus. Pitcher Touki Toussaint showed no symptoms, though, and returned to the Braves on Friday. The other two—lefthanded relief pitcher Will Smith and utility infielder Pete Kozma—haven’t returned yet.

And, there came one point where Freeman feared he’d go from incumbent Brave to dead duck. That was the day his fever spiked to 104.5, usually the level at which you’d also suffer pneumonia. (Fair disclosure: your servant has fought and beaten pneumonia twice in his adult life.) It also spiked him into prayer.

“I said a little prayer that night,” he told a Saturday conference call. “I’ve never been that hot before. My body was really, really hot . . . I said ‘Please don’t take me,’ because I wasn’t ready.”

Freeman’s coronavirus adventure began when—after he “tested negative on the intake” and felt “great” on 30 June—he awoke two days later in the wee small hours feeling a swarm of body aches. “I didn’t know,” he said. “It didn’t cross my mind that it was coronavirus when I woke up that morning.”

It’d cross his mind soon enough, alas.

“I went to bed late and didn’t get enough sleep,” Freeman continued. “So I took some Tylenol, some ZzzQuil and finally got back to bed. Then I woke up around 11:30 and I immediately grabbed my phone and texted my wife and said, ‘Something is wrong. I need you to bring a thermometer.’ They gunned my forehead and it said 102 fever. I looked at it and said, ‘I think I need to call George (Poulis, the Braves’ trainer). I think something is different’.”

It was. The Braves got him a medical appointment, on 3 July, and the test came back positive.

“The crazy thing is, [that] Friday morning, I woke up in a pool of sweat, gunned my forehead and it said 98.2, so I had no fever that morning,” Freeman said. “That was 7:30 in the morning. So I went to the field because I was waiting for the test, I hit, I threw, I worked out and I ran at my house and felt completely fine. By 2 p.m., it hit me like a ton of bricks. I came back and I was like ‘Wow. I’m not feeling very good.’ It just snowballed after that.”

He spiked that shivery 104.5 that night. “Thankfully, George wasn’t awake when I texted him because I probably would’ve gone to the hospital,” he said. “Ten minutes after that, I gunned my forehead again and I was 103.8, then 103.2, then 103.6. So I was like, ‘If I go above 104 again, I’ll probably have to start ringing the phone and try to figure this out.”

That’s about when Freeman began to pray. Awakening the following morning with a mere 101.5 temperature, he figured that much he could take and feel relief. That Friday night, he said, was the worst of it, if you didn’t count that it interfered with fatherhood over the week that followed.

“I’d stand up, get dizzy and I’d have to sit back down. Trying to tell my 3-year-old not to come around me was difficult,” he said. “I wore masks, gloves, I was playing cars with them. Ten minutes after playing cars with them I’d have to sit down. I was a little fatigued and tired. Then, every three hours it felt like I had to take a nap.”

A week after those first symptoms, Freeman still didn’t feel great until he had yet another nap. When he awoke, though, he felt great enough to hail his wife, Chelsea, and ask for copious carbohydrates. She obliged with some Italian food. Come Saturday morning he’d gone nine days with no further symptoms, and a lot of gratitude.

So far, no more body aches, contradictory chills, and short losses of his senses of smell and taste. While his wife and an aunt continue recovering after they, too, tested positive, Freeman returned to Truist Park after a second consecutive negative test. He said his family did everything right to avoid the virus but “it still somehow got to me.”

The Braves would love to get to him as many plate appearances as possible before the truncated regular season begins, but Freeman isn’t entirely sure just how ready he’ll be. His manager, Brian Snitker, isn’t exactly worried. “I don’t think I have to look for anything,” Snitker told reporters. “If he’s out there he’s going to be ready.”

Despite sore legs the day after a Friday workout, Freeman bopped a run-scoring triple over the head of the Braves’ face-in-training, Ronald Acuna, Jr., in Saturday’s intrasquad game. He also made an over-the-shoulder running catch of a foul pop. You’d have been hard pressed to find any Brave happier to have their first base anchorman back than Freeman himself.

“I feel like I’m a kid in a candy store again,” he told that conference. “You forget sometimes how much you love this game. I did truly miss it. I was so excited when I got to the yard.”

It didn’t come without a few painful disruptions. When outfield mainstay Nick Markakis decided to opt out of playing in 2020, Freeman in the thick of COVID-19 was a huge factor after speaking to the first baseman by telephone. “Unfortunately,” Freeman said, “that was my worst day He just wasn’t into it, and I totally, totally get it.” The followup call between the two a couple of days later totally, totally affirmed Markakis’s decision. Freeman still gets it.

Surely he also gets that his return to the Braves was a badly-needed adrenaline shot. With Markakis out of this year’s picture, the Braves took a flyer on free agent outfielder Yasiel Puig—until Puig himself tested coronavirus positive. There went that idea. And, likely, there went Puig’s 2020, until he clears the medical protocols with two consecutive negative tests.

“I am sad that this has happened,” Puig tweeted, “but I believe that everything is in God’s timing and that my return to MLB will happen in His perfect timing.” He’ll need that kind of faith now, especially, unless God has a direct advance line on which teams might turn up needing experienced outfield help after Puig recovers and stays negative.

The cliche about waking up to smell the coffee has a certain resonance with Freeman now. “It didn’t dawn on me that I lost my taste and smell until my aunt went and got me a coffee and I couldn’t taste the coffee,” he said. “So we went and grabbed barbeque sauce and I put it up to my nose and couldn’t smell anything. I tried to taste it, couldn’t taste anything. So that lasted four days. Other than that, it was just bad the first three days for me.”

Freeman will be happier when his family is back to normal and he can be ready to go come Opening Day, when the Braves open against the New York Mets in Citi Field.

“We’re going to try. That’s the whole goal, for me to be ready Opening Day,” he said. “Thankfully, it’s not like a normal spring training. We can control the games. So the whole plan, talking to (Snitker), I’m going to be getting five or six at-bats for the next five days . . . I’m trying to get potentially thirty at-bats over the next five days. I did a full workout yesterday. We’re going to take it day by day.”

Day by day. MLB’s season watchword. With no guarantee for the time being that it will proceed without further nasty surprises. At least, whether just awakening or in the mood for a cup later in the day, Freeman can smell the coffee now. In more than one way.