Mystique and Aura have left the building

Xander Bogaerts

Bogaerts throwing the perfect strike to the plate to bag Aaron Judge, after Yankee third base coach Phil Nevins didn’t stop Judge rounding third at the moment Bogaerts released the throw. This is the kind of thing that used to make Red Sox life living hell—in the last century.

If we must suffer the wild card system still, we hope yet that the wild card games themselves have potential for excitement, and maybe even a little transcendence. The kind that happened in the American League wild card game Tuesday night, in Fenway Park, was everything the Yankees didn’t have in mind.

Their season ended in a 6-2 loss to the Red Sox that flipped the too-long script of Yankee-Red Sox surrealities past and ancient. Because something that usually happened in the last century to the Red Sox, when they could just taste even a piece of glory, happened to the Yankees Tuesday night.

Two teams about whose seasons it could be said most politely that they threatened to implode at too many points collided. The Red Sox played like a championship team. The Yankees played like a team whose destiny was disaster. This was not the natural order of things for either side before the turn of this century.

That was the Twentieth Century: Dubious decisions with games on the line or close enough to it compounded what seemed ages of Red Sox disaster. This was Tuesday night: A dubious decision when the Yankees could have had a clean chance at possibly tying the wild card game all but guaranteed their homegoing instead.

Much as you’d like to see the sports goat business put out of business once and for all, it’s going to be hard to resist planting those horns squarely upon the head of Yankee third base coach Phil Nevin for what transpired in the top of the sixth.

Nevin only thought he could send Aaron Judge all the way home from first, when Giancarlo Stanton drove one off Red Sox reliever Ryan Brasier that looked like it was going to fly into the Green Monster seats. Until it didn’t. It banged off that notorious wall and to the ground in left center, where Red Sox left fielder Alex Verdugo overran the ball but center fielder Enrique Hernandez running right played the carom almost perfectly and threw in.

Hernandez fired a perfect strike to Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts as the cutoff man, and—as Judge rounded third barreling home on his long legs—Bogaerts whipped around to fire a perfect strike to Red Sox catcher Kevin Plawecki. Judge started his dive as Plawecki caught the throw, and Judge was a dead pigeon with his right hand about two feet from touching the plate.

Instead of first and third and one out, after finally ridding themselves of Boston’s lights-out starting pitcher Nathan Eovaldi, the Yankees settled for Stanton on second and two out. With Joey Gallo coming to the plate and popping out to Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers playing it back on the short outfield grass for the side.

And, with every cheering jaw in Fenway Park still dropped over Nevin turning Judge into a kamikaze.

Yankee manager Aaron Boone takes an excessive share of abuse for the Yankees’ in-season hiccups and postseason shortfalls—especially with his contract expiring now, but just about since he first took the Yankee bridge. Never mind that Boone managed back-to-back 100+ win seasons in his first two years on that bridge, which no Yankee manager did before him. Never mind the Yankees averaging 98 wins a year in his three full seasons on that bridge.

But even Boone’s worst critics can’t get away with hanging this one on him. Not that they’re not trying. From almost the moment Boone took the bridge in the first place, the first Yankee shortfall of any given series or season—a bad pitch, a bad plate appearance, a bad inning, a one-game losing streak—has brought demands for Boone’s perp walk and summary execution. Preferably five minutes earlier.

You’d think Yankeetown still hasn’t grasped the concept that it’s entirely possible for the other guys to play better and smarter when it means the most. Which is exactly what happened Tuesday night.

Boone once broke Red Sox Nation hearts with his pennant-winning blast in the bottom of the eleventh in Yankee Stadium in 2003. Now the poor man seemed as befuddled himself as everyone else in Fenway Park and in the ESPN television audience for making sense of Nevin’s send.

“I think . . . the ball coming in looked like it was going to be kind of an in-between hop to the infielder,” Boone said postgame about Hernandez’s throw in to Bogaerts. “Bogaerts did a good job of creating a hop, catching it clean and and obviously throwing home and getting him. And that kind of squashed the potential rally there, so I think what [Nevin] saw was what he thought was going to be kind of an in-between hop and really a tough chance.”

“Create” the hop? Bogaerts was simply standing on the short center field grass waiting for the throw and the hop created itself, right into Bogaerts’s glove held out to his left. He turned at the split second the ball hit his glove and threw home perfectly.

Bogaerts talking postgame said that play and his part in it meant even more than the two-run homer he drilled into the center field bleachers off Yankee starter Gerrit Cole in the top of the first. Small wonder. The Red Sox were the American League’s most defensively challenged team of the regular season. On Tuesday night they found it in them to play far above their own defensive heads when it mattered the most.

“That [play] was better than a homer for me, personally,” he said. “I mean, if that run scores, it’s 3-2. Stanton is at second base, the whole momentum is on their side. The dugout is getting pumped up. As Judge was out at home, I saw Stanton was pretty mad. He probably wanted a homer there, but also an RBI, and he didn’t get that, and he probably felt like he didn’t do much because that run didn’t score. But that changed the game.”

The Monster factor was made only too vivid in the bottom of the sixth, when Alex Verdugo sent a high liner to deep right off Yankee pitcher Luis Severino working in relief. The ball bounced off the lower part of the fence, a clean enough double, well enough to enable Bogaerts (aboard with a one-out walk) to score the fourth Red Sox run of the night.

Three times Tuesday night Stanton hit what looked like certain home runs. Aside from the sixth-inning rip that indeed turned out to change the game irrevocably, he ripped one so high toward the Monster that even the Red Sox thought it was going to disappear. Until it didn’t. Stanton was so certain that he settled into his home run trot and was held to a measly single.

In the top of the ninth, against Red Sox relief pitcher (and former Yankee product) Garrett Whitlock, Stanton sent a parabolic launch the other way into the right field seats just past the Pesky Pole himself. By then it was an excuse-me! shot for only the second Yankee run. Whittaker ended the game by getting Yankee second baseman Gleyber Torres to pop out to right.

Kyle Schwarber

The Schwarbinator became the first of two former Cubs batting leadoff Tuesday night to strike big . . .

Legends real and alleged used to include longtime Chicago newspaper star Mike Royko’s postulate that the team with the most ex-Cubs lost. The Red Sox and the Yankees may have really tempted real or imagined ancient fates with their chosen leadoff men Tuesday night: World Series-winning ex-Cub teammates Kyle Schwarber (designated hitter, Red Sox, by way of the Nationals) and Anthony Rizzo (first baseman, Yankees, at this year’s trade deadline).

Those moves came of dire necessity, actually. The Red Sox lacked designated hitter J.D. Martinez after he rolled his ankle in the Red Sox season finale, and the Yankees lacked second base regular D.J. LeMahieu thanks to a sports hernia. So, naturally, the Elysian Fields gods decided to have a little mad fun. Right?

Schwarber struck first. With Cole already having a miserable evening in the hole 2-0, the Schwarbinator led off the bottom of the third by driving a 1-2 service no doubt and about twelve rows into the right field seats. Rizzo struck back with one out in the top of the sixth, hitting Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi’s first service on a high line inside that Pesky Pole for the first Yankee run. Then Judge promptly beat out a tough bouncer to shortstop.

The good news for the Yankees is that that finally got Eovaldi out of the game, after he’d manhandled them brilliantly through five and a third including eight strikeouts and no walks. The bad news was Judge on the threshold of disaster on the Stanton home run that wasn’t and the Nevin send that shouldn’t have been.

No Yankee reached base on walks all night. Seven Red Sox reached on walks from Cole and three Yankee relievers. Only Clay Holmes out of the Yankee pen, facing five batters, didn’t walk a single Red Sox batter while surrendering one hit and striking one out. The walks really burned the Yankees in the bottom of the seventh, when Verdugo sent the insurance runs home with two out, slashing a two-run single against Yankee reliever Chad Green to score Hernandez and Schwarber—both of whom had reached on walks.

That Yankee sixth is what used to happen to the Red Sox when they could just taste even a piece of glory in their mouths. Something surreal. Something from The Twilight Zone. Something else from The Outer Limits. Something more from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Leaving the Red Sox yet again fallen to the rocks below when they’d gotten to within one mile or a few innings of the mountaintop.

Why, even B.F. Dent himself—hitter of the home run that broke an earlier generation of New England hearts in the 1978 American League East playoff game—was in the Fenway stands and chatting for one minute with ESPN analyst Buster Olney. (He admitted he’s still asked about that three-run homer into the ancient Monster net—about two or three times a day.)

Except that the ESPN audience probably noticed Dent a lot more than the crowd around him in the stands did. They were too well and appropriately occupied with the Yankees incurring the kind of outrageous malfortune that once seemed the birthright of Red Sox baseball.

Before the game Dent predicted to Boston Globe columnist (and author of The Curse of the Bambino) Dan Shaughnessy, “I think Gerrit Cole will pitch a great game, and I think the Yankees will beat ’em.” That’d teach him. Cole pitched two full innings in the hole 2-0 and got nobody out while facing two more batters after Schwarber’s leadoff launch in the third.

This time, it was the Yankees crushed by trans-dimensional furies and a fatal miscalculation. It’s starting to become as much a Yankee thing this century as a Red Sox thing last. From Dave Roberts stealing second to launch that surreal 2004 Red Sox self-resurrection to Jose Altuve’s pennant-winning two-run homer, it looks as though Mystique and Aura really have left the building.

The ladies didn’t have to take Phil Nevin’s baseball brain with them, though.

Wherever the Red Sox go from here, and they know it won’t be easy tangling with the AL East champion Rays in a division series, nothing can change the extraterrestrial triumph over the Empire Emeritus that gives them that chance in the first place.

The boundless world of Rays imagination

A TBS screen capture (including strike zone) as Michael Brosseau demolished Aroldis Chapman’s tenth-pitch fastball Friday night.

“The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless,” wrote the French philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Baseball is so often like that. His near-namesake Tampa Bay Rays utility man re-proved that Friday night.

You’ve heard of the Year of the Pitcher, right? Until Michael Brosseau squared off against recent near-executioner Aroldis Chapman in the bottom of the eighth, Friday was the Night of the Pitchers.

Neither the Yankees nor the Rays wanted to hear any nonsense about re-juiced postseason baseballs. They made Game Five of their American League division series into an arms race. With only three rude interruptions and Brousseau delivering the one that mattered most.

Brosseau. The guy Chapman nearly beheaded with a 101 mph fastball late in the regular season. The guy facing now facing Chapman after entering the game as a sixth-inning pinch hitter. The guy Thomas Boswell says was “undrafted, bypassed 1,216 times–is a ‘utility man’ who played every position except SS & C this year (including pitcher).”

The guy who wrestled Chapman to a ten-pitch plate appearance, after beginning with an 0-2 count, and hit that tenth pitch over the left field fence. Meaning, ultimately, game, set, and a Rays date with the Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series to come.

“I was just trying to get a runner on and get the next guy up,” Brosseau said after the game. “We knew the hits were coming not very often tonight . . . Obviously, going up there, trying to find a barrel, thankfully it happened.”

Brosseau may not have to buy his own steak in Tampa Bay for a very long time to come.

These Rays and these Yankees threw the kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room sinks at each other from the mound and got through seven and a half innings tied at one, with both runs on home runs and twenty strikeouts between them. And the Rays managed practically to sneak a 2-1 win.

That’s the number 28 payroll in all the Show taking down the number one payroll, if you’re scoring at home. (The Yankees actually hadn’t been the number-one payroll since 2011.) The barely no-name Rays, full of excrutiatingly average major league baseball players, taking down the Empire Emeritus and its usual pack of high-priced, high-profile spreaders.

The Rays, who survived Gerrit Cole’s first short-rest outing in his major league life, who got no-hit by Cole until Austin Meadows found the screws on a 1-1 fastball and sent it over the right field corner fence in the bottom of the fifth.

The Rays, whose first reliever on the night, Nick Andersen, didn’t let Aaron Judge’s fourth-inning leadoff launch to about the same region over the same fence knock him into praying to find the nearest available mouse hole into which to crawl in anguish. He shook it off and worked two full innings’ shutout relief from there. Nothing to it, folks.

The Rays, who withstood everything Zack Britton threw at them, pried one base hit and reached on one abnormal error by Yankee third baseman Gio Urshela but cashed neither of them in, until Brosseau won that showdown with Chapman.

“I knew it felt good,” Brosseau said about the immediate contact with that triple-digit-speed fastball. “I haven’t had much playing time [in Petco Park], so it’s kind of hard to read the dimensions, to see from daytime to nighttime, but it felt good off the bat.”

Just don’t ask him about payback. Everyone else noted poetic justice and karma turning superbitch. Not Brosseau. “No revenge,” he said. “We put that in the past. We came here to try and win a series. We came here to move on, do what we do best, and that’s play our game.”

Re-juiced postseason baseballs took about more than a third of postseason talk with all the home runs interfering in bunches with airline flight patterns until Friday night. The Yankees and the Rays must have drained them before getting started. Three hits all night long, and all three were home runs that almost barely cleared the top of the fences.

On normal rest Cole has a 2.74 earned run average. On five or more days rest, it’s 3.73. On short rest, it could have gone either way Friday night. Especially with the Rays having won the ten straight previous games in which Tyler Glasnow was their starting pitcher, or opener if you prefer. Not to mention the Rays’ key bullpenners entering the game rested slightly better than the key Yankee bulls.

It didn’t start brilliantly for Cole. He walked Brandon Lowe after striking Meadows out impressively, then drilled Randy Arozarena on the first pitch—days after Arozarena took Cole over the fence—which he didn’t likely mean to do, but good luck convincing the Rays, who’ve been waging bad-blood war against the Yankees all year as it is.

The punchout of Meadows made Cole the fastest pitcher to reach a hundred postseason strikeouts, in 79 innings. He nudged the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw to one side with it. But he walked the bases loaded around a ground out before catching Joey Wendle looking at strike three for the side.

Cole struck out the side swinging in the second, with fastballs hitting just a hair’s breadth short of 100 mph and a generous helping of late movement, and off-speed breakers maybe two hairs’ breadth short of 90 but diving like paratroopers. And then, he struck out two out of three in a 1-2-3 third.

Why, he even made early mincemeat of a hitter who usually does likewise to him. He got rid of Ji-Man Choi twice on ground outs, after the husky Rays first baseman came into the game hitting .526 off Cole including four home runs.

Himself starting on two days’ rest, Glasnow could have ended up with two on and no outs to open the game if Choi hadn’t made a pair of acrobatic plays to turn a pair of bad throws into tight outs. Glasnow himself threw D.J. LeMahieu’s leadoff grounder back to the box offline, and shortstop Willy Adames did likewise with Judge’s followup hopper, before Aaron Hicks lined out to deep center for the side.

Pete Fairbanks and Diego Castillo finished what Glasnow and Andersen started. Castillo finished in reasonable style, striking Giancarlo Stanton and Luke Voit out before Urshela’s nasty liner up the third base line got snapped by third baseman Wendle as if having to catch a baby shot out of a cannon to save the little one’s dear life.

This wasn’t exactly the way the Yankees wanted to honour the memory of their Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford, who died Thursday night at home while watching the Yankees and the Rays tangle in Game Four. (Both teams honoured a moment of silence in Ford’s memory before the game began.)

It was almost a year since Chapman surrendered Jose Altuve’s ALCS-winning two-run homer. When not burning up social media calling for manager Aaron Boone’s head post-game, Yankee fans wasted little time calling for Chapman’s. Determining whom to rage against more was tough enough.

What wasn’t tough was to remind yourself that to err is human but to forgive is not fan policy. The good news is that, even with social-distancing considerations, no groups of Yankee fans have opened street parties at which they can run over Boone, Chapman, or other shortfalling Yankees’ jerseys. Yet.

The Yankees probably wish Ford and his Hall of Fame battery mate Yogi Berra had brewed a little mad chemistry from their Elysian Fields positions Friday night. The Rays only hope that, whatever mad science of their own got them through the Empire Emeritus will be enough for them to turn the Astros aside in the coming week.

“They’ve been the team to beat the last few years,” said Brosseau of the team the Rays got thatclose to knocking out in another tight full-five division series last year. “They knocked us out last year so it will be fun to face them again.”

Don’t bet against these Rays just yet. If they could get rid of the Yankees and their bomb squad, they won’t exactly let the thought of the Astros’ suddenly revived long distance callers shake their gill slits.

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.