It makes a fellow not so proud to be an Astro

2019-12-10 AJHinch

A.J. Hinch, looking as though at minimum he’s been sent to the principal’s office.

Once upon a time a very different generation of Astros amused themselves on team buses and planes by singing a randy song to the tune of legendary musical humourist  Tom Lehrer’s “It Makes a Fella Proud to Be a Soldier.” The late Jim Bouton, an Astro from August 1969 until his aging arm plus the hoopla over Ball Four farmed him out to stay in 1970, said every new Astro received a copy almost at once. Then, he recorded the complete lyrics including this verse:

Now our pitching staff’s composed of guys who think they’re pretty cool,
with a case of Scotch, a greenie, and an old beat-up whirlpool.
We’ll make the other hitters laugh
then calmly break their bats in half,
it makes a fellow proud to be an Astro.

Those Astros hung on the fringe of the National League West race in divisional play’s first season. Today’s Astros, long since moved to the American League (they were the team to be named later in former commissioner Bud Selig’s move of his formerly owned team, the Brewers, to the National League), are three-time American League West winners in the midst of which also came two pennants and a World Series conquest.

Now the Astros have lost a pitcher who didn’t necessarily make the other hitters laugh while he broke their bats in half: Gerrit Cole, who served them better than well for two seasons and proved off-the-charts magnificent down this year’s stretch and in the first two postseason rounds. Reaching his first career free agency, Cole couldn’t resist the Yankees’ extending him a deal for nine years at $324 million, the highest ever to be paid to any major league pitcher.

Which tells you something about what can happen when a good pitcher in sound condition finally became a great pitcher in sound condition in 2019, after joining a team with deeper knowledge of the art and its array of correctives than his former team (the Pirates) ever seemed to allow. And Cole joins the team he helped defeat in this year’s American League Championship Series, the team he would have faced in Game Seven if not for Jose Altuve’s stupefying, game-set-and-pennant winning two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth in Game Six.

Everyone including myself ponders the immediacy of the winners and losers on this winter’s market after Cole’s signing. Including the Astros themselves, whose owner Jim Crane, as CBS Sports’s Dayn Perry observes, “is pointlessly worried about staying under the Competitive Balance Tax threshold. According to multiple reports, the Astros are even shopping star shortstop Carlos Correa in the name of payroll efficiency. The Astros are one hundred percent in win-now mode, and the idea of trading Correa and not bidding vigorously to retain Cole should have fans calling Crane to account.”

For that and a few other things, of course. And some of us including myself ponder, too, whether Cole will bring the Yankees such knowledge as he might have, intimate or otherwise, as regards, you know, the other stuff buffeting the Astros now. The Astrogate probe is now said looking beyond 2017, into both the seasons during which Cole suited up and pitched for the Astros, and you’d be less than human if you didn’t contemplate whether Cole would enlighten his new teammates on the Astro Intelligence Agency as did Mike Fiers when he signed with the Tigers, and subsequently joined the Athletics, after 2017.

Hours before the Cole signing detonated the world in general and the Twitterverse in particular, Astros manager A.J. Hinch discovered his presence at this week’s winter meetings in San Diego meant the press finding it impossible to resist asking him about Astrogate. It was certain that he wouldn’t answer questions about it because the commmissioner’s is an ongoing investigation. And far be it for Hinch to break the rules in this instance, one of which enjoins against speaking up or forth while such an investigation proceeds and progresses.

The cynic would chew on the continuing strain of accepting those rules you’re comfortable accepting and breaking those you’re comfortable breaking, on the assumption that Hinch was surely well aware of the AIA, since the concurrent presumption is that a baseball manager a) is responsible for the doings or undoings by those under his command and b) unlikely under most such circumstances to have disapproved above or beyond the customary “just don’t get caught, boys” admonition.

But still . . . but still . . . “If I was in your shoes, I would be on the other side of this table,” Hinch told the gathering in response to a question. “And I would want to ask questions and find answers and get some more information on the investigation and all the allegations and things like that. I know you’re probably expecting this, but I can’t comment on it. It is an ongoing investigation.”

Associated Press reporter Jake Seiner translated thus that Hinch “is eager to tell his side of the story regarding allegations Houston used electronics to steal signs en route to a 2017 World Series championship, but he is going to let Major League Baseball talk first.” The Athletic‘s Spink Award-winning Jayson Stark (presented his award in Cooperstown this past July) tweeted at about 5:34 p.m. Pacific time Tuesday, “”AJ Hinch just finished 19 uncomfortable minutes of meeting with the media. Mostly declined comment on anything related to the cheating investigation. Said he’s talked to MLB ‘a couple of times’ and now is just ‘waiting’ for a verdict. ‘Everything is in their hands’.”

If you’ve lost the track of the AIA flow chart, it’s this: Live, real-time camera operated from somewhere behind the center field playing area transmits live, real-time signs to the opposing pitcher, which transmission is seen on a large enough, duly connected monitor in the Astro clubhouse adjacent to the steps from the clubhouse to the dugout, in front of which someone, who knows whom just yet, deciphers the signs and transmits them to an Astro hitter with one or two bangs on a large plastic or vinyl trash can, dependent upon which pitch the victimised catcher called.

“I’ve committed my time and energy to cooperate with MLB,” Hinch went on to say Tuesday evening. “I’ve talked to them a couple times, and we continue to work with them as they navigate the investigation, and now we’re waiting with everything in their hands. So I know there’s still going to be questions. I hope there’s a day where I’m able to answer more questions, but I know today’s not that day. I know it will disappoint some people.”

In some other words, Hinch may be anxious to lay it down about Astrogate but any time you need Hinch—heretofore considered one of baseball’s most sensitively intelligent managers—don’t just whistle, and he won’t blow the whistle himself until he has some sort of official dispensation or pang of conscience to do so. If the rules of his profession enjoin against commenting publicly about an ongoing investigation, his immediate answer still leaves Hinch with a dubious look, though not even close to the one left to Crane when, at last month’s owners’ meetings, he, too, dismissed Astrogate questioning.

“If you want to talk about baseball, I’ll talk about baseball,” was Crane’s dismissal, as if electronic cheating from off the field, violating baseball’s specific rule against such espionage, and the likelihood that the Astros aren’t the only team operating such spy operations, had absolutely nothing to do with the game. The painfully few Astrogate comments from within the Astros’ apparatus have included hopes that the Astros don’t become the poster children for something not restricted to themselves, and that’s very much to do with baseball.

If Hinch and Crane were employed instead in the business of the government, answers like theirs might harry reporters and investigators toward exhuming a cover-up almost as ardently as they already harried to the original crime, misdemeanour, or contra-constitutional mischief. Reporters and investigators alike on the Astrogate trail are doing just that, surely. The safest assumption is that more than a handful of Astros knew about and availed themselves of the AIA that sauntered far past the accepted bounds of on-the-field gamesmanship.

Believing Hinch knew nothing of or ignored the operation particularly when the bangs! or the bang-bangs! on the can went booming forth insults our own intelligence. What could he believe they were? Teammates rooting? Between-turns batting practise by players anxious not to be more than a few hops from stepping in as a pinch swinger and thus not repairing to the underground batting cages? Practise for banging a drum slowly during a victory parade?

Commissioner Rob Manfred and his bloodhounds may discover very well that the Astros aren’t the only major league team with a taste for espionage—if they haven’t discovered that already. (Published reporting suggests that as of this writing almost sixty witnesses and over seventy thousand e-mails have been gathered with more, much more to come.) But Hinch is in a position that can’t hold very long, and he may yet experience a pang of conscience akin to that of his former pitcher Fiers, who blew the whistle on and pulled the covers off the AIA in the first place.

Hinch heretofore earned a reputation as one of baseball’s most sensitively intelligent managers, a reputation in danger of being very badly vaporised. His face Tuesday evening showed every suggestion of the schoolboy who knows his trouble has only just begun after he’s finished in the principal’s office. Like Fiers, his conscience pang wouldn’t necessarily mean naming or implying suspects. But Hinch would be to baseball as Alexander Butterfield to the Nixon White House, exposing its sophisticated in-house taping system under Senate questioning during the early Watergate peaks.

Butterfield installed the White House system and owned up. Hinch may or may not have conceived the AIA himself. If he didn’t but he was genuinely unaware, his looks could well become those of a man whose smarts were invaded by incompetence that would strike some as cruelly comic and others as tragic. It makes a fellow not so proud to be an Astro.

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.

One for the road. And, the ages.

2019-10-31 WashingtonNationals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Washington bury-go-round

World Series - Houston Astros v Washington Nationals - Game Five

In his potentially final appearance as an Astro, Gerrit Cole pitched a Game Five masterpiece.

Hours before Game Five, the World Series weight on Nationals manager Dave Martinez’s shoulders went from that of the world to that of the universe. Scheduled starting pitcher Max Scherzer’s Saturday night neck spasms turned into a Sunday wakeup with his neck locked so tight he couldn’t lift his right arm and needed his wife’s help just to wash and dress.

Putting the Game Five fate of the Nats into the hands of Joe Ross. Who pitched a gutsy turn ruined only by a pair of two-run homers en route a 7-1 Astro win. On yet a third straight night in Washington that suggested the Nats left their offense behind in Houston after Games One and Two.

Hadn’t they manhandled Gerrit Cole in Game One? Hadn’t they out-scored the Astros 17-7 in Houston? That was then, this was Sunday night, and the Nats’ futility at the plate since the Series moved to Washington remained chronic enough to consider fitting them with GPSs to find their directions home when they did get men on in Game Five.

Now three games worth of the Astros outscoring the Nats 19-3 in Nationals Park suggests this World Series still has a chance of being only the second Series ever in which no home team wins a single game. Maybe an outside chance, but a chance nevertheless.

Ross brought the house down just walking out of the dugout for a pre-game round of stretches and limberings-up in the outfield. He sent it nuclear when he shook off George Springer’s leadoff walk to lure Jose Altuve into dialing Area Code 6-4-3 in the top of the first.

But after Yuli Gurriel bounced one high off Ross’s own glove for an infield hit leading off the second, Ross couldn’t stop Yordan Alvarez—getting his first start in the Washington leg after sitting two out due to the lack of designated hitter in the National League park—from hitting a 2-1 pitch almost into the middle of the left center field seats.

It was something Alvarez only waited for all Series long. “All my teammates were saying: ‘Today’s your day. Today’s your day’, ” he told reporters after Game Five. “And it happened.” Nobody ever accused his teammates of being dummies.

And in the fourth, with Alvarez aboard on a two-out single, home plate umpire Lance Barksdale called ball on what should have been strike three, outside corner, side retired with Carlos Correa at the plate. Two fouls and a wild pitch later, Correa hammered one into the left field seats.

Barksdale has a reputation as one of the better plate umpires in the business, but on Sunday night he called enough balls strikes and enough strikes balls against both the Nats and the Astros that calls began ringing out of the park and aboard Twitter for everything short of a federal investigation.

Postgame, the calls began ringing forth all over the Web to get the robots perfected, calibrated, and into service as soon as feasible. Who knows whether the Astros will get jobbed on critical calls in Houston? Who wants to take that chance too much longer?

“Just because the game itself is full of errors shouldn’t give leeway to its arbiters to be judged by that standard,” writes ESPN’s Jeff Passan. “Baseball is an extraordinarily fast game—so fast that umpires should have assistance. Technology has made their jobs even more difficult, exposing them when they miss a call and airing their conversations about those missed calls. Automated balls and strikes are their savior, not their enemy.”

With Donald Trump himself in the ballpark watching the game, it was tough to miss the irony when fans began chanting, “Lock him up! Lock him up!” in the bottom of the seventh. Not at President Tweety but at Barksdale.

Juan Soto, the Nats’ young star who’d found the home leg of the Series as trying as he’d found Game One a personal party in Houston, caught hold of enough of a 2-2 Cole service with one out to launch it just past a leaping Jake Marisnick’s reach and over the center field fence in the bottom of the seventh. A ground out later, Ryan Zimmerman worked a walk on a ball four that looked like it should have been an inning-ending strike.

Up stepped Victor Robles, heretofore one of the Nats most prominently seen in Washington with an invisible bat. In a Series full of full counts as it was, Cole and Robles wrestled to yet another full count with Anthony Rendon on deck. Then Cole threw Robles a nasty looking slider. The ball clearly crossed out of the zone off the low outside corner. Barksdale decided ball four was strike three, side retired.

If you were watching the game on television you could hear an extremely audible, “Come on, Lance! It’s the World Series! Wake up!” That was a miked Martinez. Even Astro fans in the stands—and there were many, including one wearing a Nolan Ryan jersey from his tour with the 1980s Astros, when their jerseys looked like striped orange-shaded pajama tops more than baseball uniforms—joined the calls to lock him up.

There wasn’t a Nat in the house who’d accuse Barksdale of costing them Game Five; Cole especially, but with just a little help from his friends Joe Smith and Ryan Pressley in the final two innings, did a splendid enough job of that. The third highest-scoring team in the Show on the regular season looked so lost at the plate in Game Five, with or without men on, that the GPS couldn’t help.

“Lance didn’t lose us the game tonight,” Zimmerman said. “Gerrit Cole beat us.”

The Nats’ bullpen did a splendid job of holding the fort after Martinez decided Ross had had it for the night. In a slightly surprising move, after Tanner Rainey all but zipped through the sixth with three fly outs, Martinez reached for Sean Doolittle, one of his only two reliable back-of-the-game men, for the seventh. And Doolittle coaxed Correa into dialing Area Code 5-4-3 after a leadoff single before shaking off a walk to get the side without damage.

Then Martinez decided Daniel Hudson was good to go for a second inning’s work after Springer’s leadoff double led to taking third on a ground out, an intentional walk to Michael Brantley, and Gurriel punching him home with a single through the right side of the infield. Despite having Wander Suero warm and ready.

A four-run deficit is still manageable after seven and a half. Except that the Nats once again couldn’t do anything with a man on base, this time Yan Gomes leading the bottom of the eighth off with a single. But it’s still manageable in the ninth. Until Martinez sent Hudson back out for the top of that inning.

And after a one-out single and a swinging strikeout, Hudson threw Springer a fastball with plenty of speed but no movement down the middle of the plate. Springer practically had no choice but to send it into the left field seats. Leaving even gimpy-kneed Astro reliever Ryan Pressly to put the Nats out of their miseries in order in the bottom of the ninth.

Forget the home run for a moment. The Nats would surely need Hudson in Games Six and (if the Series gets there) Seven. Suero took over after Springer’s launch and coaxed Altuve into an inning-ending lineout on a measly two pitches. They’d better hope they find their bats in Houston and make Hudson unneeded too soon in Game Six even with Monday’s travel day.

For Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who’s one of the more thoughtful men in his job today, it was simply a question of keeping his and his players’ wits about them no matter how badly they’d been bopped until they dropped in Houston last week.

“We feel like we’re in every game,” Hinch said. “We’ve had games where we’ve come from behind. We’ve had games where we’ve stretched the lead. We’ve had games like today where we just methodically kept going with big swings and we look up and we have a comfortable win.

“We took a pretty heavy punch in the gut when it came to the first two games,” he continued. “The Nats came out hot . . . And when you take a step back, and you’re like, ‘We’re still in the World Series and it’s still a race to four wins.’ You win that first win.” And the second. And the third.

It’s even easier when you have an Altuve hitting .360 in the Series and still threatening to break Darin Erstad’s record for hits in a single postseason. And, when you have Brantley hitting .400. And, when you have super-rook Alvarez and cagey veteran Springer re-discovering their previously missing batting strokes.

And, when you have a Cole—in what was his final performance as an Astro, potentially—who tightens up his case for the largest free-agency contract for a pitcher in the game’s history yet with a masterpiece of a Sunday night soiree.

But it still ain’t that easy, Clyde. “When we won in 2017, and then didn’t win last year, you remember how it feels,” Springer told The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark. “You remember the goodness that comes. The fun. The honor. To celebrate with your teammates and your friends and all that stuff. Once you get a taste of that, you never want it to go away.”

The Astros yanked themselves back to within a game of their second such taste in three years on Sunday night. And there went Martinez’s likely pre-Game Five hope that Ross and/or someone else could or would prove as surprise a World Series hero as had such previous until-then obscurities as Howard Ehmke (1929), Johnny Podres (1955), Don Larsen (1956), and Moe Drabowsky (1966).

No Series record-setting strikeout performance for Ross, as the end-of-the-line Ehmke did in Game One of the 1929 Series for the Philadelphia Athletics. No shutout heroics, as Podres, the number four man in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ rotation, did in Game Seven of the 1955 Series. Don’t even think about a perfect game such as Larsen delivered for the Yankees in Game Five, 1956.

And don’t even think about a Nat reliever, any Nat reliever, delivering what Drabowsky—until that point a veteran relief rat and superior prankster—delivered for the Orioles in relief of Dave McNally: eleven strikeouts, including striking out the side back-to-back in the fourth and fifth innings, in Game One, 1966.

Martinez wasn’t destined to be that fortunate. But now a World Series that went into Game Five at Defcon Three, before Scherzer’s literal pain in the neck bumped it up to Defcon Two-Five, goes to Houston with the Nats at straight Defcon Two. Even with Strasburg, taking a lifetime 1.34 postseason ERA into Game Six, starting the first of two potential elimination games.

As always, history doesn’t always favour one or the other going to Game Six. Ten teams have lost the first two World Series games before winning the next three, and three—the Cardinals (1987), the Braves (1991), and the Yankees (2001)—lost those Series, anyway. The Cardinals’ loss remains unique in World Series lore: every game won by the home team.

But so far so does this Series: it’s only the third time the road team has won the first five games. It last happened in the 1996 Series that the Yankees eventually won in Game Six, when the set moved back to New York. Now, for the fun part, or at least the part the Nats hope to make fun: they’d like to be the first to win a World Series entirely on the road.

The real road. The 1906 Series between the 116 game-winning Cubs and the “Hitless Wonders” White Sox was not only one of the greatest Series upsets of all time, the White Sox winning in six, but almost every game in that Series was won by the visiting team. (The White Sox won Game Six at home.) But let’s be real: it’s not as though the White Sox had to jump anything traveling farther than a crosstown trolley car to get from one ballpark to the other.

So if the Nats find a way to pillage and plunder the Astros in Games Six and Seven the way they did in Games One and Two, they’ll become the first team ever to win a World Series entirely on the bona fide road, with miles and miles between Nationals Park and Minute Maid Field. It ain’t just a trolley hop, kiddies.

But if Strasburg proves too human and the Nats don’t find the bats they left behind on Tuesday night, forget the trolley hop. They’ll go home for the winter in hearses.

WS Game One: Why dream it? Drive it.

2019-10-23 WashingtonNationalsWSGM01

Juan Soto (22) stole the World Series-opening show Monday night; Ryan Zimmerman (11) opened it by hitting the Nats’ first Series homer ever and the first by any Washington team since . . . 1933.

This was supposed to be a duel of the lancers on the mound to open the World Series. Right? It was going to be ace vs.ace, right? Gerrit Cole, baseball’s almost-Invincible Man, vs. Max Scherzer, going tooth, fang, claw, and anything else they could think of against each other, right?

That’ll teach me to forget the modified Lennon’s Law: Baseball is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. Especially when an initially jittery Juan Soto learns a lesson from Cole in the first inning but takes the A train his next time up.

And, when enough other Nationals prove even this year’s model Cole is only human, after all, at least on a single night. And, when Scherzer for five grinding innings out-pitches Cole for seven despite not having his best night. And, when the Nats bullpen bends but doesn’t break.

And, when the Astros’ vaunted enough home field advantage proves no less intimidating to the Nats than it proved to the Yankees in the opener of their American League Championship Series. We know how that worked out for the Yankees in the end. The Nats know bloody well they still have a none-too-simple road to follow even winning World Series Game One, 5-4, Monday night.

“Why dream it? Drive it,” said a 1941 advertisement for the DeSoto car. “This baby can flick its tail at anything on the road,” said a 1957 DeSoto ad. The Soto in a Nats uniform and still two days from the legal drinking age must have dreamed it entering. Then, he drove it twice.

A mammoth solo home run in the fourth, a long two-run double in the fifth. This baby can flick his tail at anything coming down from the mound. So it sure seemed to the Astros after Game One. “I feel like, in the last twenty-four hours, I’ve seen Soto more than my wife,” cracked Astros catcher Martin Maldonado after the game. “You have to prepared, you have to do scouting reports on it. That guy’s good. He’s very good.”

On Monday night that was like saying the Washington Monument was very tall.

The sharks bit and the Astros bit back. Even if Scherzer vs. Cole transpired the way pitching’s closest observers might have expected things to go until the bullpens were opened, nobody—not the Astros and certainly not the Nats—thought either team would win the easy way.

The Astros came into Game One on a 26-0 winning streak in games during which they scored two or more runs in the first inning, and 2-0 in such postseason games. And Cole came into Game One not having been hung with a loss since 22 May or thrown even one pitch when his team was trailing in a game since 2 September.

According to STATS, LLC., he’d also struck out 258 batters between 22 May and Game One. Not to mention pitching 175 innings from his previous three-run inning until the top of the fifth Monday night. STATS also notes that during the previous 22 starts of his winning string Cole threw 150.2 innings and was behind in only four.

There went those streaks. And, for Game One at least, the mystique of invincibility Cole constructed since the White Sox pried six runs out of him that 22 May in Minute Maid Park. Not to mention the second straight start in which he didn’t roll double-digit strikeouts after an eleven-game such streak to end the season and carry into his first two postseason starts.

But the Nats don’t kid themselves. They know Cole’s liable to get another crack at them before this Series is done. They also know Justin Verlander awaits in Game Two and, while he, too, has shown his vulnerability of late, he’s still Justin Verlander, he’s still a future Hall of Famer, and he still has miles to go yet before his limousine, not to mention his right arm, sleeps.

Just ask Patrick Corbin, who got pressed into relief service in the Game One sixth and dealt with nothing more severe than Astro rookie Yordan Alvarez’s one-out single. “It’s a huge win for us no matter who we were facing,” Corbin said after the game. “But [Cole] has been one of their guys all year and they have a great pitcher going tomorrow. All these games seem like they are going to be like this. It’s two good teams fighting.”

Scherzer fought his way through five innings with seven strikeouts, a first-inning two-run double from Yuli Gurriel, and stranding second and third in the top of the third. He got onto the winning side of the pitching ledger thanks to Adam Eaton singling Kurt Suzuki home with a broken bat and Soto swatting his deep two-run double in the top of the fifth. And, thanks to the Nats’ pen shaking away some testy moments until the ninth.

“Tonight,” Max the Knife admitted after the game, “was a grind. Take my hat off to the Astros offense. I was never able to get in the rhythm tonight. I was having to make all my pitches out of the stretch tonight, it felt like.”

But oh did it feel sweet for the Nats when Ryan Zimmerman, Mr. Nat, the true Original Nat, their first draft in 2005, the year they landed in Washington in the first place, got to hit the first World Series home run in Nationals history.

World Series Nationals Astros Baseball

Soto catching the train in the fourth . . .

Zimmerman caught hold of every inch of a Cole fastball traveling 97 miles and hour and arriving right down the chute and drove it high over the center field fence to cut the early 2-0 Astro lead in half in the top of the second. “I’ll be honest with you,” said Nats manager Dave Martinez to former Nats beat writer Chelsea Janes. “I got a little teary eyed for him. “He waited a long time to be in this position.”

“You’re kind of almost floating around the bases,” said Zimmerman, who’s bent on enjoying every last World Series moment now that he and his Nats are here, after a season rudely interrupted by plantar fasciitis in his right foot, and with the knowledge his current deal expires after the Series and his future isn’t exactly written.

And as sweet and sentimental as Zimmerman’s blast was for the Nats even that was nothing compared to Soto leading off the top of the fourth.

Disciplined beyond his years at the plate, as announcers have purred all postseason long and almost to a fare-thee-well, Soto looked at first at a Cole slider that hung up over the top of the zone and inside. Then Soto remembered what he’d learned when Cole struck him out swinging in the first: “He likes the fastball, so I go to the next at-bat ready to hit it.”

Sure enough, here came the fastball considered Cole’s favourite, climbing to the top of the zone. And there went the fastball, the lefthanded Soto driving it high and far enough to land in front of the Minute Maid Park train’s locomotive and bounce between the track rails, tying the game at two. “[He] again used the whole field and he stayed back and stayed within himself,” Cole told reporters after the game. “So you know, good hitters do that.”

Cole knew only two things Monday night. He knew on contact that Soto lit a rocket charge in that 1-0 fastball, and he knew he wasn’t having the sharpest night of a year in which his regular season left him the American League’s Cy Young Award favourite.

“I thought the fastball was leaking a little off the corner a couple times,” he said. “I struggled with the curveball command, kind of buried us in some bad counts and then just a poor pitch to Soto and not being able to finish that inning off without a crooked number.”

For the deep history minded, Zimmerman’s was the first World Series home run by any Washington player since Senators center fielder Fred Schulte smashed a sixth-inning three-run homer in Game Five of the 1933 Series. Providing the only three runs the Ancien Nats got that 5 October. Hall of Famers Heinie Manush and Joe Cronin were on board when he launched.

“Just to get us on the board,” Zimmerman told Sports Illustrated writer/Fox Sports reporter Tom Verducci. “For them to come out and Max grinding it out tonight. He had a lot of guys on base, he made pitches when he needed to, they did a good job not swinging at balls and got his pitch count up. Against a guy like Gerrit it’s not an easy task. So I was just trying to get the ball in the strike zone and, luckily, he made a mistake.

It’s not that any Astros were allergic to making any history themselves. George Springer became first in Show to hit one out in five straight World Series games. Until he sent a 2-1 service from Nats reliever Tanner Rainey over the center field fence to lead off the bottom of the seventh, he’d been tied at four with Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson and Lou Gehrig.

Springer appreciated the feat only to a small extent. “I’d rather win,” he said earnestly after the game. “I mean, cool. Great. It’s an honor . . . But no doubt about it. I’d rather win.”

He did his part to try to make that happen, too, when he doubled in the eighth with Kyle Tucker on second and Daniel Hudson—who’d managed to strand the bases loaded ending the seventh—on the mound for the Nats. And if it hadn’t been for Nats center fielder Victor Robles misreading Tucker at first following his pinch single leading off, and throwing in to first off Aledmys Diaz’s fly out when he might have had a play on Tucker at second, Springer might not have driven in the fourth Astro run of the night.

Springer lingered at first thinking his drive had a shot at going out. Tucker waited to tag thinking the ball might be caught. Then, postgame, Springer fielded questions about why he didn’t end up on third with Tucker scoring. “I can’t go to third right there,” he told reporters. “Because the guy on second had gone back to tag. If I had gone to third, I’m out.”

If not for that, Jose Altuve’s followup high liner to right might have tied the game. But it gave the Nats just enough of a re-awakening for Martinez to reach for Sean Doolittle and ask him for a four-out save. Ask and you shall receive. First, Doolittle ended the eighth by getting Michael Brantley to fly out. Then, he struck Alex Bregman out, got Gurriel to fly out to not-too-deep center, and got Carlos Correa to line the first pitch out to left where Soto snapped it into his glove to end it.

“Welcome to the World Series, baby,” Doolittle replied when asked what he thought about coming in with a man on second. “One-run game, facing Brantley, such a good hitter, such a professional hitter. In the World Series? You know, that’s what you live for, coming into those big moments, in these big games. I’ve tried to change the way that I think about them and embrace them and try to enjoy it.”

Soto surely won’t complain about making a little history of his own. As in, the youngest player to homer and steal a base in the same postseason series, nudging Derek Jeter (Game one, 1996 ALCS) to one side. And, the third youngest to hit cleanup in a World Series game, behind Ty Cobb (1907) and Miguel Cabrera (2003).

Never mind that he’s made an impressions the Astros won’t be able to forget too readily.

“He was the key guy we couldn’t control tonight,” acknowledged Astros manager A.J. Hinch. “His bat-speed is electric . . . He’s calm in the moment. Clearly, this is not too big a stage for him. He was the difference in the game. He’s got that ‘it’ factor. He’s got fast hands. He’s got no fear.”

Springer couldn’t get over Soto’s homer. “I’ve never seen a left-handed hitter hit a ball there against [Cole],” he said of the track job. “Just an incredible swing.”

“He’s a special player,” Zimmerman said. “Really since the day he came up. You can tell the special ones when they come up because they can slow the game down.”

About the only thing the Nats don’t like regarding Soto slowing them down is that, as of Wednesday morning, they’re still two days away from being able to celebrate with Soto in the adult fashion. Come Friday, Soto can have a stiff drink legally.

“That’s why we need to win this,’’ said Nats second baseman Brian Dozier to USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale. “We’ve done all of this celebrating with him, and it sucks, because he’s not old enough to drink. We need to win this so we can do this thing right. This guy is 20 winning a World Series game for us.”

Why dream it? Drive it.

Some Yankee fans travel first crass

2019-10-15 GerritCole

Gerrit Cole was less than his best in Game Three but he let them beat themselves. And enough Yankee fans were worse.

There are reasons why people who don’t live in New York can’t let themselves root for or at least like the Yankees. Even in a season during which the Yankees gave major lessons in survival despite attrition and, like the Astros and maybe more so, won over 100 regular season games despite almost as many Yankees in the infirmary as on the field or at the plate.

A lot of those reasons have to do with a few too many of their fans, unfortunately.

When not behaving as though the Yankees are entitled, mind you to be in the World Series every season on earth, a few too many Yankee fans behave like spoiled brats when things don’t go the Yankees’ way in a game. The look is bad enough if it happens in the regular season. In the postseason it goes from bad enough to downright disgrace.

And there are also times when they do it when one of the other guys suffers a misfortune not of his own making, too.

Edwin Encarnacion looked to have it beaten at first base when his eighth-inning slow grounder was picked by Astros third baseman Alex Bregman but thrown a little off, enough for first baseman Yuli Gurriel to have to reach and bring a sweep tag around Encarnacion’s shoulder area.

Every known video replay showed Gurriel nailed that awkward sweep tag. The Astros called for a review and the original safe call was overturned. The Yankee Stadium faithful in the right field area began throwing debris on the field, though none of it got anywhere near Astros right fielder Josh Reddick.

And they went from bad to worse in the top of the ninth, when Yankee reliever Luis Cessa, turning in a solid turn of work in a lost cause, threw a fastball that ran in on and hit Bregman. There was very audible cheering over that one, too.

That’s the way to travel first crass.

“Stuff like that doesn’t belong in baseball,” Reddick said after the Astros banked the 4-1 Game Three win that put them ahead 2-1 in the American League Championship Series Tuesday afternoon.

Reddick, whose second inning launch into the right field seats provided the second Astro run, spoke specifially about trashing the right field area but he could have been talking about the cheers when Bregman got plunked, too.

Listen up, you creatures in the Yankee Stadium right field area. You want to get indignant? I’ll give you several reasons having nothing to do with an overturned call at first base or an unintentional hit by a pitch.

How about your heroes being unable to lay a glove on Gerrit Cole on a day Cole pitched like anything but the virtuoso of earlier in the postseason? When he could have been had but it turned out to be the Yankees who were had?

How about your heroes loading the pillows on Cole with two out in the bottom of the first, after Jose Altuve hit Luis Severino’s first one-out pitch to him into the left field seats in the top of the inning, and Didi Gregorius grounding out weakly enough to second base?

How about three more first-and-second situations for the Yankees ending with a swinging strikeout (Aaron Judge), a fly out to center field (D.J. LaMahieu), and a fly out to right? (Gregorius.)

How about Adam Ottavino leading Zach Britton with first and third, the Yankees getting rid of George Springer in a rundown down the third base line leaving second and third, and then Britton puking the bed with a run-allowing wild pitch and a sacrifice fly to put the final two Astro runs on the board in the seventh?

How about the Yankees going 0-for-6 with runners on second or better and leaving nine men on base all game long?

How about having Cole vulnerable for a change with more walks than strikeouts at one point but the Yankees still unable to touch him if they’d borrowed one of Cardinal pitching coach Mike Maddux’s drivers to swing?

How about the Yankees having nothing to say to the Astro bullpen other than Gleyber Torres hitting a too-little/too-late solo shot into the right field seats in the bottom of the eighth? Oh, yes. You were still a little too busy throwing debris into right field when Torres nailed a Joe Smith sinker that didn’t quite sink enough.

About the only time you really behaved yourselves was when plate umpire Jeff Nelson had to leave the game, after all, an inning after he took a foul off his mask in the and ended up suffering a concussion, prompting Kerwin Danley to move from second base to the plate and no ump in left field the rest of the game.

All you did for yourselves otherwise, you yahoos in the right field region, was make yourselves look ridiculous while the Yankees let even a not-so-sharp Cole still make them look ridiculous. And you made the Astros, who have class to burn as it is, look that much classier while you were at it.

Listen up. I was born in the Bronx. By right I should have been a Yankee fan. But even then Yankee fan entitlement was a stomach turner, no matter how admirable a lot of Yankees happened to be. Even in those imperial years, even to a six year old kid who decided to plight his troth to an infant troupe known as the Mets, in what was left of the Polo Grounds, and who seemed more human than the larger-than-life Bombers.

I cringed during the 1973 National League Championship Series when Pete Rose and Bud Harrelson tangled after a nasty play at second base, the benches and bullpens emptied, and the Shea Stadium crowd let their worst come forward, throwing garbage on the field, until several Mets and the Shea Stadium scoreboard operator begged them to knock it off.

I watched on television when heartsick Senators fans, knowing their team was about to be absconded to Texas, couldn’t let the Second Nats finish the home season-ending win, highlighted when big Frank Howard himself hit one out midway through, and couldn’t let Joe Grzenda pitch to Yankee second baseman Horace Clarke to finish saving it for Paul Lindblad, bursting the dam rioting on the field, forcing a forfeit to the Yankees as the final act of Washington baseball for three decades plus.

I still remember Indians fans bombed out of their trees on Ten Cent Beer Night turning old Muncipal Stadium into a lunatic asylum on the field, which gave sick new meaning to the old park’s nickname as the Mistake on the Lake.

I still remember White Sox fans going from silly to surrealistically stupid practically blowing up old Comiskey Park on Disco Demolition Night. At least Second Nats fans had a legitimate reason to be heartsick on the last home date in 1971.

And yes, I know you’re not exactly the only fans on the planet who’ve turned into wild animals in the stands when things don’t go your way. (Hello, Phillies fans. Hello, Red Sox fans. Among others.) But nobody else’s fans have done that this postseason. Even those few miscreants running over Clayton Kershaw’s jerseys in the Dodger Stadium parking lot waited until after Game Five of the division series to get their spoiled brats on.

Go ahead and boo when the other guys knock your guys’ blocks off from the plate. Go ahead and boo when they pitch your guys’ ears off or just leave them looking foolish at the plate when the opportunities knock multiple times. Go ahead and boo when the close calls don’t go your guys’ ways, go ahead and boo when your number one rival turns you aside when you least expect it.

But knock it the hell off with the trash tossing and with cheering when the other guy gets hit by a pitch when your pitcher had no intention of even trying to brush him back.

Listen up one more time, you right field area creatures. You’ve got a gorgeous successor park to the old classic Yankee Stadium, and you’ve got a team that actually showed tremendous grace under unconscionable medical pressure this year. But you jerks need either a good fanning—or an animal trainer.

The little engine that couldn’t, quite

2019-10-10 GerritCole

“We had to get hit in the face twice and then we answered the bell.”—Gerrit Cole.

The Rays got to within one game of being the American League’s Little Engine That Could at the expense of the well-honed Astros. The Astros sent the Rays home for the year as the Little Engine That Couldn’t,  Quite Thursday night.

But the Astros know it didn’t come as easily as their four-run first, their two-bomb eighth, and Gerrit Cole’s eight-inning, ten-strikeout performance will look on paper. If you don’t believe that, just ask Cole himself as one reporter did after the 6-1 Astros win.

“It was a really hard fought series. A lot of credit to the Rays. They had an incredible season,” Cole said, after he was all but shoved out from the middle of the celebrating Astros to give Minute Maid Park fans a curtain call. “It was a dogfight for five games. We had to get hit in the face twice and then we answered the bell.”

Hit in the face twice? The Rays destroyed Zack Greinke on the way to a Game Three blowout and manhandled a short-rested Justin Verlander in Game Four to get to the Thursday night fight in the first place.

Despite saying he was only going to treat Game Five like the next game and nothing more, Cole knew better than anyone that the Astros needed not just to answer the bell but to ring their own. Early and often if need be.

They answered with four straight base hits—single, single, single, two-run double—and a 3-0 lead before Rays starter Tyler Glasnow could calibrate his guns properly in the first inning. Assuming he calibrated at all. In fact, the Astros may have known everything that was coming—several former players now working as game analysts swore Glasnow was tipping his pitches Thursday night if not for longer.

“No doubt in my mind,” said Preston Wilson, son of Mets icon Mookie Wilson and a former outfielder himself.

“Glasnow never changed in between starts! Tips every pitch!” tweeted Kevin Fransden, a former utility infielder who now works as a Phillies radio analyst.

To which Trevor Plouffe, another utility infielder the Phillies released in spring training, tweeted back, “I had his pitches this Spring Training. Every one of em and it only took an inning.”

The Astros had Glasnow’s pitches right out of the first inning chute. And it probably wouldn’t have mattered if Glasnow was or wasn’t tipping. If he was, he should be reminded of the elementary tip minimum. The Astros just love generosity. They gorge on it unapologetically. Just ask Yu Darvish, who learned the hard way in Game Seven of the 2017 World Series.

George Springer, who’d had a horror of a division series for the most part until Game Five, started the Thursday night machine gunning. Michael Brantley and Jose Altuve shot theirs to follow. Then Alex Bregman unloaded his bazooka into the right center field gap.

Then, after super-rook Yordan Alvarez grounded one that Rays shortstop Willy Adames had to charge to grab and throw, Yuli Gurriel, the Astros’ sleepy-eyed first baseman who only looks as though he’s having a snooze, cued one through a drawn-in infield to make it 4-0, Astros, before Glasnow struck Carlos Correa and Josh Reddick out swinging to keep it there.

No Cardinals-like opening riot for the Astros. And, thank God and His servant Stengel, no expletives-undeleted postgame rant from Astros manager A.J. Hinch. Hinch has so much class he’d sooner call a fellow manager who’s just been vanquished to offer consolation, encouragement, and maybe a good stiff drink, than stand on the vanquished’s grave giving a [fornicating] that’s-[fornicating]-how-we-[fornicating]-roll speech.

But, alas, no Nationals-like late explosions for the Rays. Not even a couple of firecrackers. They hit plenty of balls hard enough and sharp enough and just about everything the Rays hit found Astro defenders ready, willing, and only too able—by any means necessary—to turn them into outs.

Making Rays second baseman Eric Sogard—who hadn’t played in almost a month thanks to issues with his right foot, other than a pinch hit RBI single in Game One—the excuse-me hitter of the night, yanking Cole’s first pitch of the top of the second into the right field seats.

“You’ve got Gerrit, who is probably the highest-strikeout pitcher in baseball,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “We value Eric Sogard as a very high-contact-oriented hitter.” The problem was, they got Gerrit. And, the Astros’ leather. And, only two hits all night long. Tenacious the Rays are, but they couldn’t solve Cole or the defense Thursday night if they had Albert Einstein as their bench coach.

Sometimes the Astros’ leathermen had to do it the hard way. Such as Gurriel having to scoop Bregman’s throw off a slow Adames chopper opening the third like he was helping himself to a heap of ice cream. Such as Altuve having to throw fast and hard to just nip the swift Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier in the top of the fifth.

Such as Springer having to leap and reach just enough to spear Austin Meadows’ high leadoff liner in the top of the sixth and Correa having to backhand one in the hole at shortstop and throwing long to nail Tommy Pham right after that.

And, such as Bregman, Altuve, and Gurriel collaborating like grounded acrobats to make sure Avisail Garcia’s bounder to third dialed Area Code 5-4-3 to strand Travis d’Arnaud (leadoff walk) in the top of the seventh.

But as tenacious as Cole proved on the mound and as sharp as the Astros’ defenders were, they still needed to drop something big enough for aboslute insurance against these just as tenacious, just as hell-bent Rays who didn’t know the meaning of the word quit until Astros closer Roberto Osuna struck Choi out swinging to end it.

They got what they needed in the bottom of the eighth. When Michael Brantley looked at ball one low under the corner before hitting the next pitch into the right field seats. And, when Altuve worked the count to 3-1 before hitting one over the right center field fence. Making the Astros’ little big man the all-time postseason bombardier among second basemen with eleven such explosives.

No wonder Altuve’s pretty little daughter went running up the third base line postgame to jump into Daddy’s arms the way Daddy so often runs and jumps to turn high hoppers and bullet liners into outs. She even upstaged Cole being the rare starting pitcher who reaches his closer for a bear hug before the catcher does to start the celebration.

At long enough last the Rays’ bullpenning—which no-hit the Astros from right after Gurriel’s RBI single in the first until Reddick dumped a single into center in the bottom of the seventh, with five arms out of the pen getting that done no matter what the Astros threw their way—ran out of petrol. And luck.

In plain language, and with apologies to Cash, the Rays got Coled. And boy did the Astros need that to happen, after the Rays abused Greinke and Verlander in Tampa Bay. Cole may not have been quite the no-question virtuoso he’d been with his fifteen-strikeout Game Two concerto, but what he gave the Astros in Game Five was suite enough.

“Cole was really, really tough tonight,’’ said Adames, who took a series 1.815 OPS with five hits in ten at-bats including two home runs into Game Five and also impressed with his own deft shortstop work. “I don’t know if anyone can get better than that.”

Earning the Astros an ALCS date with the Yankees. Two teams who spent too much of the season wondering when, not if their next player would find his way to the nearest medical clinic. St. Elsewhere vs. E.R. M*A*S*H vs. Gray’s Anatomy. The sportswriters will have to share press box space with the New England Journal of Medicine.

But oh what fun it would have been to see the Rays figure out a way to get to the next round. The Little Engine That Could against the Super Chief. Thomas the Tank Engine vs. the S-1. It’s not that the Astros won’t be a trainload of fun, but they’re well entrenched among the American League’s well established 4-8-4s now. And they’re not about to bust their own piston rods just yet.