Hinch didn’t blow it, the Nats won it.

2019-11-01 ZackGreinke

Zack Greinke walks off the field in Game Seven. His manager made the right move to follow. The Nats made the righter one to win.

It’s not going to make the pill any easier to swallow, but it wasn’t A.J. Hinch’s fault. He’s not the reason the Astros lost a World Series they seemed destined to win both going in and while they were just eight outs from the Promised Land.

I know Hinch didn’t even think about bringing Gerrit Cole in if he’d decided Zack Greinke had had enough. I second guessed it myself when first writing about Game Seven. And I was really wrong. Just as you are, Astroworld, to lay the loss on Hinch’s head. The Nats beat the Astros, plain and simple. Through no fault of Hinch’s.

He wasn’t even close to having lost his marble. Singular. He actually managed just right in that moment. It’s no more his fault that Howie Kendrick made him look like a fool right after he made his move than it was his fault the Astros couldn’t bury a Max Scherzer who had nothing but meatballs, snowballs, grapefruits, and cantaloupes to throw, two days after Scherzer’s neck locked up so tight it knocked him out of Game Five before the game even began.

Max the Knife wasn’t even a butter knife starting Game Seven and the best the Astros could do against him was an inning-opening solo home run by Yuli Gurriel and an RBI single by Carlos Correa. Remember, as so many love to bleat, the manager doesn’t play the game. Not since the end of the player-manager era.

And I get the psychological factor that would have been involved if Hinch brought Cole in instead of Will Harris. Likely American League Cy Young Award winner in waiting in to drop the hammer and nail down a win and a trophy. The Nats may have spanked Cole and company in Game One but Cole manhandled them in Game Five.

Even the Nats thought Cole was likely to come in if Greinke was coming out and, as their hitting coach Kevin Long said after Game Seven, they would have welcomed it after the surgery Greinke performed on them until the top of the seventh.

You had to appreciate an anyone-but-Greinke mindset among the Nats. Maybe even think within reason that that kind of thinking—never mind Anthony Rendon homering with one out in the top of the seventh— would leave them even more vulnerable once Cole went to work.

Pay attention, class. Cole pitched magnificently in 2019 and his earned run average was 2.19 with a postseason 1.72. But Harris, believe it or not, was a little bit better: his regular season ERA was 1.50 and his postseason ERA until Game Seven was (read carefully) 0.93.

Cole led the American League with a 2.64 fielding-independent pitching rate and Harris finished the season with a 3.15, but all that means is that Harris depends on the Astros’ stellar defense a little bit more than Cole does. And Harris walks into a few more dicey situations in his line of work. Plus, Cole never pitched even a third of an inning’s relief in his entire professional career, major and minor league alike.

Don’t even think about answering, “Madison Bumgarner.” Yes, Bumgarner closed out the 2014 World Series with shutout relief. And it began by going in clean starting in the bottom of the fifth. Bruce Bochy, who may or may not stay retired as I write, didn’t bring MadBum into a man on first/one-out scenario.

When Hinch said after Game Seven that he planned to use Cole to nail the game down shut if the Astros kept a lead, he was only saying he planned to use Cole where he was suited best, starting a clean inning, his natural habitat. Harris is one of his men whose profession involves walking into fires of all shapes and sizes when need be.

It was need-be time in Game Seven. Even Cole acknowledged as much in the breach, when he said postgame, “We just went over the game plan and he laid out the most advantageous times to use me. And we didn’t get to that position.”

Why lift Greinke after only eighty pitches on the night? Greinke historically is almost as tough on a lineup when he gets a third crack at it, but things really are a little bit different in the World Series. Even if Greinke did surrender a single run in four-and-two-thirds Game Three innings.

He may have performed microsurgery on the Nats through six but he’s not the long distance operator he used to be anymore, either, at 36. And he hadn’t exactly had an unblemished postseason before the Series. He’d been battered by the Rays in the division series; he’d been slapped enough by the Yankees in the ALCS.

As Hinch himself observed after Game Seven ended, “We asked him to do more today than he had done, and pitched deeper into the game more than he had done in the entire month of October. I wanted to take him out a bat or two early rather than a bat or two late.”

And Greinke himself believed the Nats were a lot more tough than their evening full of pre-seventh inning soft contacts at the plate indicated. “They got a good lineup, especially the top of the order,” he told reporters after the game. “It’s tough to get through no matter one time, two times, three times. All of them are tough. Really good hitters up there.”

He got the proof of that when Rendon hammered his 1-0 service halfway up the Crawford Boxes and Juan Soto focused for a walk on 3-1. When it’s winner-take-all you don’t want even a Greinke in a position to fail or for the Nats to be just a little bit better after all.

Hinch wasn’t going to walk his effective but lately erratic closer Roberto Osuna into this moment despite Osuna’s 2.63 ERA, 0.88 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, and league-leading 38 saves on the regular season. Osuna’s postseason ERA was up over 3.50 and his WHIP was reaching 2.00.

So Hinch, one of the most thoughtful and sensitively intelligent managers in the game today, really did reach for his absolute best option in the moment. He was right, I was wrong, and the only thing wrong with Hinch’s move wore a Nationals uniform.

The best teams in baseball get beaten now and then. The best pitchers in the game get beaten. The smartest managers in the game get beaten even when they make the right move. The only more inviolable baseball law than Berra’s Law is the law that says somebody has to lose. And now and then someone’s going to beat the best you have in the moment.

This was not Joe McCarthy starting Denny Galehouse over Mel Parnell with the 1948 pennant on the line.

This was not Casey Stengel failing to align his World Series rotation so Hall of Famer Whitey Ford (whose two shutouts are evidence for the prosecution) could start more than two 1960 World Series games.

This was not Gene Mauch panicking after a rookie stole home on his best pickoff pitcher and thinking he could use Hall of Famer Jim Bunning and Chris Short on two days’ rest in the last days of 1964.

This was not Don Zimmer doghousing Bill Lee, his best lefthander against the Yankees, and choosing Bobby (Ice Water In His Veins) Sprowl over Luis Tiant to stop what became the Boston Massacre in 1978.

This was not John McNamara with a weak bullpen and a heart overruling his head to send ankle-compromised Bill Buckner out to play one more inning at first base in the bottom of the tenth, Game Six, 1986.

This was not Dusty Baker sending an already season long-overworked Mark Prior back out for the top of the eighth with the Cubs six outs from going to the 2003 World Series.

This was not Grady Little measuring Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez’s heart but forgetting to check his petrol tank in Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series.

This was not Mike Matheny refusing to even think about his best reliever, Trevor Rosenthal, simply because it wasn’t yet a “proper” save situation with two on, a rusty Michael Wacha on the mound, and Travis Ishikawa checking in at the plate in the bottom of the ninth in Game Five of the 2014 National League Championship Series.

This was not Buck Showalter getting his Matheny on with the best relief pitcher in baseball (Zach Britton) not even throwing in the pen, never mind ready to go, with two on and Edwin Encarnacion checking in—in a two-all tie in the bottom of the eleventh—against a mere Ubaldo Jimenez at the 2016 American League wild card game plate. Because that, too, just wasn’t, you know, a “proper” save situation.

Hinch did exactly he should have done in the moment if he was going to lift Greinke. He reached for the right tool for the job. So did Mauch, in the 1986 ALCS, with the Angels on the threshold of the 1986 World Series, if he was going to lift Mike Witt but not trust Gary Lucas after the latter plunked Rich Gedman, turning it over to Donnie Moore.

It wasn’t Mauch’s or Moore’s fault that he threw Dave Henderson the perfect nasty knee-high, outer-edge forkball, the exact match to the one Henderson had just foul tipped away, and Henderson had to reach hard and wide again to send it over the left field fence.

It wasn’t Hinch’s fault that Harris threw Kendrick the best he had to throw, too, a cutter off the middle and at the low outside corner, and watched it bonk off the right field foul pole. Just ask Harris himself, as a reporter did after Game Seven: “It’s every reliever’s worst nightmare. [Kendrick] made a championship play for a championship team.”

Better yet, ask Correa, the only Astro somehow to have a base hit with a runner on second or better Wednesday night. “The pitch he made to Howie—I just don’t understand how he hit that out,” he said. “It doesn’t add up. The way he throws his cutter, it’s one of the nastiest cutters in the game. Down and away, on the black, and he hits it off the foul pole.”

Now and then even the best teams in the game get beaten. Now and then even the best pitchers in the game get beaten. Sometimes more than now and then. Nobody was better in their absolute primes this century than Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander. Yet Kershaw has a postseason resume described most politely as dubious and Verlander’s lifetime World Series ERA is 5.68.

And even the smartest skippers in the game lose. Hall of Famer John McGraw got outsmarted by a kid player-manager named Bucky Harris in Game Seven of the 1924 World Series, though even Harris needed four shutout relief innings from aging Hall of Famer Walter Johnson and a bad hop over Giants third baseman Freddie Lindstrom to secure what was previously Washington’s only known major league World Series conquest.

McCarthy and Stengel were at or near the end of Hall of Fame managing careers (Stengel was really more of a caretaker as the 1962-65 Mets sent out the clowns while their front office built an organisation) when they made their most fatal mis-judgments.

And yet another Hall of Famer, Tony La Russa, suffered a fatal brain freeze. His failure to even think about his Hall of Fame relief ace Dennis Eckersley earlier than the ninth-inning save situations cost him twice and would have kept the Reds from a 1990 Series sweep, if not from winning the Series itself.

The Astros had seven men bat with men in scoring position in Game Seven and only Correa nailed a base hit. The Nats went 2-for-9 in the same position. And, for a change, left three fewer men on than the Astros did.

The Astros couldn’t hit a gimp with a hangar door. The Nats punctured an Astro who dealt trump for six innings and made two fateful mistakes in the seventh that the Nats took complete advantage of. Then their best relief option in the moment got thumped with his absolute best pitch.

Because baseball isn’t immune to the law of unintended consequences, either. It never was. It never will be. The Astros were the better team until the World Series. The Nats ended up the better team in the World Series. And that isn’t exactly unheard of, either.

Few teams in baseball have been better than the 1906 Cubs, the 1914 Philadelphia Athletics, the 1954 Indians, the 1960 Yankees, the 1969 Orioles, the 1987 Cardinals, the 1988 and 1990 A’s, the 2003 Yankees, and the 2006 Tigers. They all lost World Series in those years. And two of them (’60 Yankees; ’87 Cardinals) went the distance before losing.

Yet the Nats scored the greatest upset in the history of the Series, and not just because they’re the first to reach the Promised Land entirely on the road. The Astros were Series favourites by the largest margin ever going in. And only the 1914 Braves were down lower during their regular season than the Nats were in late May this year.

But that year’s A’s, the first of two Connie Mack dynasties, weren’t favoured as heavily to win as this year’s Astros.

The Dodgers were overwhelming National League favourites to get to this World Series—until Kendrick’s monstrous tenth-inning grand slam. Then the Cardinals were favoured enough to make it—until they ran into a Washington vacuum cleaner that beat, swept, and cleaned them four straight.

The Astros didn’t have it that easy getting to this Series. The ornery upstart Rays made them win a pair of elimination games first. Then it took Yankee skipper Aaron Boone’s dice roll in the bottom of the ALCS Game Six ninth—refusing to walk Jose Altuve with George Springer aboard and comparative spaghetti-bat Jake Marisnick on deck—to enable Altuve’s mammoth two-run homer off a faltering Aroldis Chapman with the pennant attached.

Hinch made the right move in the circumstance and the moment and the Nats made the righter play. The championship play, as Correa put it. The play for the Promised Land. Soto’s eighth-inning RBI single and Eaton’s ninth-inning two-run single were just insurance policies.

When Hinch says that not bringing in Cole was a mistake he’d have to live with, he shouldered a blame that wasn’t his to shoulder. Even if his happen to be the strongest in Astroworld.

Seven up

2019-10-30 MinuteMaidParkWS

Can Game Seven possibly top Game Six for extraterrestriality?

The number seven means lots of things. Days in the week. Colours in the rainbow. Circles in the Seed of Life signifying six days of creation. A former model of open-top two-seat Lotus car. The best-selling model of vintage Sunbeam Mixmaster. And, jackpot with three in a row on old-school slot machines, in Las Vegas and elsewhere.

It’s also going to mean a lease to the Promised Land for either the Astros or the Nationals in Houston Wednesday night.

The Astros would like to join the ranks of the dynastic in winning their second World Series in three years. The Nats would like to finish the precedent they’ve broken already and win the Series with every one of their wins happening on the road. Even if they had to return from the land of the living dead in Game Six to have a shot at it in the first place.

Broken precedent? The Washington Post‘s Scott Allen points out that no best-of-seven series ever, in any major team sport whose championships are decided that way, featured the road team winning the first six games. And that, Allen says, covers 1,420 baseball, basketball, and hockey games. That’s a lot of trophy hunting, ladies and gentlemen.

There’s big enough game at stake Wednesday night. The Astros had their best home record yet in 2019 . . . and lost Games One, Two, and Six by a combined 24-9. The Nats who laid that one on them lost Games Three through Five by a combined 19-3. The 1987 World Series’s theme song could have been Jr. Walker & the All Stars’s soul classic, “Home Cookin’.” This one threatens to make as its theme a Canned Heat blues classic—“On the Road Again.” 

With the Nats’ surrealistic Game Six win, there’s the promise that this Game Seven may well contribute to a long baseball tradition of Game Sevens that prove the truth in the ancient cliche, anything can happen—and usually does. What I’ve pointed out before, that one John Lennon lyric can apply to baseball (Baseball is what happens when you’re busy making other plans), is liable to apply to Minute Maid Park Wednesday night.

Much will be expected of the Nats and the Astros when you review some of the history of seventh World Series games. Including but certainly not limited to:

* Hall of Famer Ty Cobb’s final World Series appearance, in 1909, on the day Babe Adams chose to throw a six-hit shutout for the Pirates on one day’s rest. (Don’t go there: that was the dead ball era, in which pitchers didn’t have to try throwing like howitzers to get their outs and arms and shoulders weren’t half as likely to be destroyed in the doing.)

* Hall of Famer Walter Johnson going out to pitch the ninth in relief, working four shutout innings, and making it possible for the Senators to win the 1924 Series on a run-scoring bad hop over Hall of Famer Freddie Lindstrom’s head at third base—and, with a bullpen game in the first place.

* Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1926, wheeling in from the pen to strike Yankee Hall of Famer Tony Lazzeri out with the bases loaded to end the seventh and going the rest of the way—right up to the moment Hall of Famer Babe Ruth ended the game in the Cardinals’ favour when he tried and failed (by two country miles) to steal second . . . with Bob Meusel at the plate and a fourth Hall of Famer, Lou Gehrig, on deck.

* Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean defying the laws of orthopedics by throwing a six-hit shutout on one day’s rest in a 1934 Game Seven remembered too much more for the fight between Hall of Fame outfielder Joe Medwick and Tigers third baseman Marv Owen’s brawl over a hard slide at third, prompting fans to shower them with all the love glass bottles and fruit pouring onto the field can show.

* Enos Slaughter’s mad dash home in 1946, abetted by Red Sox center fielder Leon Culberson’s high throw in to cutoff shortstop Johnny Pesky.

* This year was Next Year as Johnny Podres—the number four man in the 1955 Dodgers’ rotation—shut the Yankees out . . . with a lot of help from Sandy Amoros’s running catch off Hall of Famer Yogi Berra and doubling up Gil McDougald at first base by way of Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese.

* Lew Burdette. Seven-hit shutout. Third 1957 Series win for the former Yankee prospect.

* “I was kneeling in the on-deck circle, thinking I was going to be the hero. And all of a sudden, I was out on the field jumping around.”—Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart, about Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski’s Game Seven-winning home run leading off the bottom of the ninth.

* Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax throwing a shutout on two day’s rest following his first shutout of the 1965 Series. The one he began by refusing to pitch Game One because it fell on Yom Kippur.

* Gibby and the Fat Man: A year after pitching and winning a Game Seven, Hall of Famer Bob Gibson picked the wrong Game Seven to suffer a fly lost in the sun turning into a game-changing triple and room for Mickey Lolich to win his third 1968 Series start . . . and the Series.

* Bill (Spaceman) Lee threw Hall of Famer Tony Perez a Game Seven eephus pitch in 1975 . . . and Perez drilled the insult onto Landowne Street behind the Green Monster in the top of the sixth, starting the Big Red Machine’s comeback win.

* The 1985 Cardinals merely blew their stacks over Don Denkinger’s game-changing, errant safe call in the ninth in Game Six. When the ump rotation moved Denkinger behind the plate for Game Seven, the Cardinals imploded completely and the Royals battered them 11-0.

* As if Game Six couldn’t have ended extraterrestrially enough, the 1986 Mets got extra insurance in the Game Seven bottom of the eighth (their first insurance: Darryl Strawberry’s leadoff Mars-shot home run, giving them a two-run lead) thanks to a sneak attack: relief pitcher Jesse Orosco deked the Red Sox infield into the rotation play by showing bunt . . . and swung away for a six-hop RBI single up the abandoned pipe.

* Hall of Famer Jack Morris pitched a ten-inning shutout as the 1991 Series-winning run for the Twins came home on Gene Larkin’s pinch hit RBI single.

* Edgar Renteria. Game and 1997 Series-winning RBI single for the Marlins in the chill of the night and the bottom of the eleventh. Not necessarily in that order.

* Facing Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera in 2001, the Diamondbacks’s Luis Gonzalez dumped an RBI quail and the Yankees in the bottom of the ninth.

* Madison Bumgarner, who’d already started and won a pair of 2014 Series games for the Giants, channeled his inner Joe Page, threw five shutout relief innings, and nailed the longest save in World Series history while he was at it—all protecting a measly one-run lead.

* After losing two 2016 Game Seven leads plus the Indians’ Rajai Davis’s game-tying two run homer in the eighth, then came the rain delay, there came Cub right fielder Jason Heyward’s clubhouse speech, and then came Cub utilityman Ben Zobrist’s tiebreaking double in the top of the tenth. Goodbye actual or alleged billy goat.

The Astros themselves won a charmer of a Game Seven two years ago. They caught then-Dodger starter Yu Darvish tipping his pitches where the Dodgers didn’t (unlike Paul Menhart warning Stephen Strasburg after the bottom of the first Tuesday night), slapped him and them silly, and cranked out a 5-1 win in Dodger Stadium.

Their slogan this year has been, “Take it Back!” The Nats, whose slogan now is “Finish the Fight,” prefer to make it, “Not so fast!”

Based on Game Six, which may or may not prove anti-climactic, there’s nothing stopping either or both teams from a little transdimensional theater, comedy, or both before Game Seven puts the Series into the history books.

It’s in the books before the first pitch, as it is. Game Seven will be the first World Series game to match former Cy Young Award winners (Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke) as starting pitchers. Scherzer will be the second since the Cardinals’ Joe Magrane (in 1987) to start Games One and Seven in a Series in which those were his only gigs.

And, it’ll be the first time since the 1970s that a decade has had five World Series Game Sevens. Not to mention the first World Series Game Seven ever to be played in Houston. Which reminds me that seven of the last eight teams to force a Game Seven on the road lost those games. (The only winner? The 2016 Cubs.)

“If you told me that in the beginning of the year we only had to win one game to be champions,” said Astros shortstop Carlos Correa after Game Six, “I’ll take the chances. Tomorrow we have to go out there and play our best game.”

“It’s going to be fun,” said Nats right fielder Juan Soto, who crunched one into the second deck above right field Tuesday night. “It’s going to be loud. We’re going to be good.”

That’s what happened in the seventh book of the Bible. The book during which Samson brought the temple of the Philistines down upon them and himself. Some think the Nats are this year’s Samsons out to slay the Houston Philistines. Some think it’s the other way around.

But neither side’s fans are coarse or vile about it. As these things go, Nats and Astros fans alike display this year’s greatest example in sports of ear-splitting enthusiasm unsoiled by grotesquery in the ballpark.

This is probably not the best time to mention that number seven also has meaning within the Tower of London: seven people have been beheaded inside the Tower’s walls, privately, on Tower Green. Because one or another World Series team will be beheaded Wednesday night, publicly, across the finely rolled green field of Minute Maid Park.