The All-Star Game was Clayton’s place

Clayton Kershaw, Blake Grice

National League All-Star starter Clayton Kershaw with fan Blake Grice, who touched Kershaw by telling the future Hall of Famer he was meeting him for Grandpa’s sake.

By right, this year’s All-Star Game start for the National League should have belonged to the Marlins’ Sandy Alcantara (he leads the Show’s pitchers with 5.3 wins above replacement level and his 1.76 ERA). And if the game were played someplace other than Dodger Stadium, it might have been Alcantara’s to start.

Braves manager Brian Snitker, managing the NL All-Stars as the previous season’s World Series skipper does, had his own idea. Especially since this was the first All-Star Game in Dodger Stadium since Jimmy Carter was still in the White House, and a Dodger icon was having an All-Star worthy season himself.

So Snitker elected to hand the opening ball to Clayton Kershaw. A Hall of Fame lock, approaching the sunset of an off-the-charts career, starting the All-Star Game in his home ballpark. You could imagine Snitker thinking to himself that you couldn’t pay to pre-arrange more serendipitous circumstances. Even with his own All-Star Max Fried among his pitching options.

It was a class gesture by the defending World Series-winning manager. Only one thing could have seen and raised, and that one thing was Kershaw himself. By most reports, one of the first things the 33-year-old lefthander did when Snitker called him to say the opening ball was his was to call Alcantara himself.

“He was awesome about it. I was really thankful about that,” Kershaw said, after the American League hung in for a 3-2 win through no fault of Kershaw’s own.

He let himself take the entire atmopshere in, even foregoing his usual pre-start intensity that compels teammates, coaches, and even his manager Dave Roberts to say nothing much more than “hello” to him. (He even let Roberts share lunch with him on Tuesday.) About the only thing Kershaw did remotely work-related was study some American League scouting reports.

One he didn’t have to study was Shohei Ohtani (Angels), whom Kershaw retired thrice when pitching last Friday. Wary of opening the All-Star Game with one of his signature breaking balls, Kershaw pumped a fastball that doesn’t have its former speed and Ohtani—interviewed before the game, promising to swing on the first pitch—smacked a broken-bat floater up the pipe into short left center for a leadoff single.

Then, having Aaron Judge (Yankees) 1-2, Kershaw suddenly couldn’t think of what to throw next. Some described him as buying time when he lobbed a throw to first. He bought more than he bargained for. He’d caught Ohtani having a snooze. Ohtani had drifted away from the pad and Kershaw’s lob turned into the first All-Star pickoff in fourteen years.

The two-way Angel could only laugh. Kershaw could only grin after first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (Cardinals) tagged Ohtani out. Dodger Stadium went nuclear. Kershaw finished striking Judge out, walked Rafael Devers (Red Sox), and lured Vladimir Gurrero, Jr. (Blue Jays) into an inning-ending ground out. The man who wanted to take it all in from start to finish then ducked out of sight and to a press podium under the ballpark.

Shohei Ohtani, Clayton Kershaw

All they could do was grin and laugh after Kershaw (right) picked Othani off first while working to Yankee bombardier Aaron Judge.

While the National League took an early 2-0 lead with Mookie Betts (Dodgers) singling home Ronald Acuña, Jr. (Braves; leadoff double off AL starter Shane McLanahan [Rays]) and—after a double play grounder by Manny Machado (Padres)—Goldschmidt hammering one into the left center field bleachers, Kershaw finished his press conference with a ten year old boy raising a hand.

“What’s up, dude?” Kershaw asked pleasantly.

The boy introduced himself as Blake Grice and told Kershaw how much his late grandfather loved both him and the Dodgers’ long-enough-retired broadcast deity Vin Scully and had wanted to meet them both. (His family had passes courtesy of MLB itself.) “So this moment is important to me,” the boy continued, “because I’m meeting you for him.”

The father of four children himself, Kershaw couldn’t resist when he heard that and saw the boy’s tears of likely gratitude for getting to do something for his grandpa in the presence of a Dodger icon who’s been the closest the Dodgers have had to longtime eminence Sandy Koufax.

“Come here, dude,” Kershaw beckoned. He hugged the boy, gave him a clap on the back, and said, “Great to meet you. Thanks for telling me. That took a lot of courage to tell me that. Your grandad sounded like an awesome guy.” When Kershaw asked Blake if he had a parent with him, the boy’s father held up his cell phone. Kershaw beckoned him forward and he snapped a photo of the pitcher and the boy speaking for Grandpa.

It was more than enough to atone for the prayers thousands of fans in the ballpark and perhaps the millions watching on television must have had that, despite going down to its ninth straight All-Star loss and 21st such loss in 25 such games, the National League didn’t tie the game in the bottom of the ninth.

That’s because the latest to emerge from baseball’s apparent laboratory of mad science would have had the game decided in favour of the Home Run Derby winner’s league if nine full innings ended in a dead heat. (On Tuesday it would have been the National League, thanks to Juan Soto [Nationals] winning the Derby.) Thank God and His servants Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson that that didn’t come to pass.

The AL overthrew the NL lead with one out in the fourth when Giancarlo Stanton (Yankees) batted with Jose Ramírez [Guardians] aboard (leadoff single) and took Tony Gonsolin (Dodgers) far into the left center field bleachers. Byron Buxton (Twins) following at once found himself ahead in the count 2-1 when he caught hold of a Gonsolin fastball up and drilled it into the left field bleachers. Just like that, Gonsolin had surrendered 882 feet worth of home run travel.

Buxton admired game MVP Stanton’s blast from the on-deck circle and thought to himself, “I ain’t matching that.” Until he damn near did. “I don’t even know if you can put it in words how hard [Stanton] hit the baseball,” Buxton said after the game.

It made all the difference when the game otherwise became a pitching duel of sorts between eleven American League pitchers (including Framber Valdez [Astros] getting credit for the “win” despite striking nobody out in his inning’s work) and nine National League pitchers including the hapless Gonsolin tagged for the loss and, officially, a blown save.

For just the sixth time in four decades an All-Star pitcher got to start the game in his home ballpark. And for a few shining moments on the mound, Kershaw gave his home park’s audience a thrill topped only by the one he gave a ten-year-old boy looking to do his grandpa in the Elysian Fields a favour that couldn’t be done while the older man still lived on earth.

None of the highest highs or the comparatively few lows he’s endured in fifteen major league seasons have let Kershaw forget that baseball at core is about rooting, caring, loving. He had the parallel chance to remind a Dodger Stadium audience about it and to affirm it for a ten-year-old boy. He didn’t flinch at either opportunity.

Max the Knife vs. the Lindor Rock

Max Scherzer

Max the Knife went from immaculate to 3,000 in the same Sunday afternoon game . . .

Who says baseball isn’t good for a little hair raising anymore? If you weren’t paying attention Sunday, you missed some real hair raising in Los Angeles and New York. As a matter of fact, you could feel sorry for Dodger Stadium’s  being upstaged by Citi Field’s.

Even if both hit the history books running.

Max Scherzer took a perfect game into the eighth inning. Along the way he pitched an immaculate inning—the third man ever to do it three times, joining Chris Sale and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax—and bagged his 3,000th career strikeout. Right there it should have been the biggest story in the game.

Immaculate inning? Three thousand strikeouts? Could that someone be Max the Knife?

Those Big Apple pains in the ass had to horn in on Scherzer’s glory. They had to go from a brothers-in-arms 9/11 twentieth-anniversary hair-raiser to a Sunday night soiree full of chirping, whistling, snarking, bombing, and oh, yes, Francisco Lindor doing what nobody else in the 139-year history of the Subway Series had done before.

It wasn’t enough that Scherzer should have struck San Diego’s Eric Hosmer out swinging on down and in and a full count in the fifth to record the milestone strikeout. It wasn’t enough that Hosmer was sandwiched by Fernando Tatis, Jr. and Tommy Pham in the middle of that immaculate second.

It wasn’t even enough that Hosmer should have been the one to bust Scherzer’s perfect bid with a double deep to right field, a little quiet revenge for having been on the wrong side of Max the Knife’s further burrowing into the history books.

No. Those spoilsport Mets and Yankees had to go out and enable Lindor—the off-season signing splash whose first year as a Met has been a battle at the plate while remaining a study at shortstop (where he’s worth five defensive runs saved about the National League average)—to do the damage that mattered in a 7-6 Met win.

Never in the entire history of New York’s major league teams tangling against each other—we’re talking serious World Series tonnage, plus all those decades when the Dodgers and the Giants turned baseball into total warfare against each other, not to mention the Yankees and the Mets in regular-season interleague play—had any single player hit three home runs in a single contest between them until Sunday night.

In other words, Lindor accomplished what not even a small truckload of Hall of Famers ever did in Big Apple uniforms against each other. Not Home Run Baker or Babe Ruth. Not Lou Gehrig or Mel Ott. Not Joe DiMaggio or Jackie Robinson. Not Yogi Berra or Johnny Mize. Not Mike Piazza or Derek Jeter. Not even Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.

All around the Lindor clock, hey, let’s do the Lindor Rock!

Bottom of the second. Lindor batting lefthanded, squaring off on 1-1 against Clark Schmidt, a Yankee excavated from the farm system to make the start in the first place, and hitting a hanging breaking ball for a three-run homer into the bullpens behind right center field, pulling the Mets from a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 lead.

“If Francisco Lindor’s first year as a Met could include a signature moment,” called ESPN broadcaster Matt Vasgersian as Lindor came down the third base line and crossed the plate, “we just watched it.” If only his crystal ball had undergone a tuneup.

Bottom of the sixth. One out, Yankee reliever Wandy Peralta throwing his first pitch to Lindor batting righthanded. The changeup arriving down and on the lower outside corner got driven high and into the left center field seats. Fattening a 5-4 Met lead by a run.

Francisco Lindor

“I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I bomb by night . . .”

On the way home down the third base line, Lindor made a gesture simulating a kid sticking two fingers into his mouth to whistle a huge blast—a zap back at the Yankees over suspicions that Saturday night’s Mets starting pitcher, Taijuan Walker, was caught tipping his pitches with the Yankees whistling the tips to their batters during their five-run second.

Maybe the Yankees did it, maybe they didn’t. It’s not as though the Yankees have been immune to suspicions of on-field chicanery in the recent past, even if they’re not yet suspected or affirmed to have been quite as deep-cover as the 2017-18 Astros were shown to be for espionage aforethought.

But Lindor tripped a Yankee trigger when Giancarlo Stanton smashed a game-tying two-out, two-run homer in the top of the seventh. Stanton and Lindor jawed back and forth while Stanton was still running the homer out, though the Yankees and the Mets were both kind enough to let Stanton cross the plate before the benches and bullpens emptied completely for a little, shall we say, conversation over the matter.

“The last couple nights, we’ve just been loud over there,” said Yankee manager Aaron Boone. “Not doing anything.”

“I’m not accusing them,” Lindor said post-game Sunday night. “I’m not saying they’re doing it 100 percent because I don’t know 100 percent, but it definitely felt that way. And I took that personal. I took that personal and I wanted to put runs on the board to help my team win.”

For his part, Stanton postgame thought Lindor was actually ticked off at Peralta for whistling—not to steal signs but to try putting a little more life into what Stanton suggested had been a sluggish Yankee bench during a sluggish Yankee spell. That, Stanton said, is what he was trying to convey to the Mets’ shortstop en route the plate.

“If you’ve got a problem to Wandy, give it to Wandy,” the left fielder said. “Don’t be talking to multiple people, bringing everybody into it. Running around the bases, that was my thought process. Obviously, I didn’t get all that out running around.”

If anyone had a real complaint about Peralta’s whistling, it was probably Yankee right fielder Joey Gallo. “It’s definitely not for pitch-tipping or anything like that,” Gallo insisted, before complaining  good naturedly. “It’s been hurting my ear, honestly. It’s unbelievable how loud he can whistle.”

Bottom of the eighth, one out, Lindor back batting lefthanded against another Yankee reliever, Chad Green. This time, he hit a 2-0 meatball practically down the chute even higher over the right field fence than his first flog of the night traveled.

It wasn’t as spiritually delicious as Hall of Famer Piazza’s eighth-inning blast in old Shea Stadium, during the Mets’ first home game after the original 9/11 atrocities’ baseball hiatus, but the Citi Field racket as it traveled out of reach was equal in volume to that twenty-year-old cathartic hysteria.

There’s nothing like a three-thump night to make a high-priced shortstop—who’s spent most of his first such high-priced season struggling at the plate if not with the leather—suddenly feel lovable. “It probably helped them believe in me a little bit more,” Lindor said post-game.

Poor Scherzer. The tenacious righthander hit the history books with a flying fist. So he had to be one-upped by those New York yo-yos. Not even Mookie Betts speaking postgame could neutralise things. “He was destined for it,” the Mookie Monster told reporters. “All the work he puts in, everything he does. It kind of sounds weird, but I expect nothing less from him.”

Echoes of Hall of Famer Don Drysdale once saying of his rotation mate and buddy Koufax, “I expect Sandy to pitch a no-hitter every time he takes the mound.”

The bad news in New York was that Met fans have come to expect a discomfiting balance between virtuosity and disaster from reliever Edwin Diaz. And Diaz delivered just what they expected in the ninth Sunday night.

He wasn’t the only bullpen culprit in the hair raising, not after Jeurys Familia threw Gleyber Torres a two-run homer in the sixth, and not after Brad Hand handed Stanton that jaw-inspiring two-run shot in the seventh. But Diaz was the bull most over the edge, almost.

A leadoff strikeout followed by a base hit. A followup walk followed by a swinging strikeout. Then, he had a little help from catcher James McCann, letting a 1-1 pitch to Stanton escape, enabling pinch-runner Tyler Wade and Yankee first baseman Anthony Rizzo to third and second.

Lucky for Diaz and the Mets that Stanton got under the 2-2 fastball and popped it up. To the left side. Where, of all people, Lindor awaited to haul down the game’s final out. Some dared call that one poetic justice.

“Hey, Dad? Want to pitch me a walk-off?”

Tim Anderson

Tim Anderson, finishing the hype-busting Field of Dreams Game with a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth Thursday night.

The game finished by crossing its original protagonist, Field of Dreams, with The Natural. The most poetically inclined screenwriting/directing team in film couldn’t imagine climax that surreal.

A pair of two-run homers in the top of the ninth to yank the Yankees back into the lead at 8-7. A two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to win it for the White Sox, 9-8. This wasn’t the way they won ballgames during the 1910s evoked by the special uniforms the two teams wore for the occasion.

Hey, Dad? Want to pitch me a walk-off?

It was as jolting a climax as ever provided by David Freese, Aaron Boone, Joe Carter, Kirk Gibson, Chris Chambliss, Bill Mazeroski, or Bobby Thomson. Even if it didn’t win a World Series, push a Series to a seventh game,  send a team to a Series, or put them in the postseason at all in the first place.

It defied the game’s subtexts. The ones not spoken often if at all in the hype. The ones involving Field of Dreams‘s unlikely turning of baseball’s worst gambling scandal into a fantasy of reconciliation; and, The Natural‘s study of a live young prospect shot Eddie Waitkus-like, into long, long wandering, into a haunted elder returning to prove neither he nor his old dream died, for however long it still had to live.

No volume of pre-game hype—this game’s tribute to artifices of fantasy was as hyped as any sports event could be—could have promised and delivered that kind of a ninth inning. Even Field of Dreams star Kevin Costner, escorting both teams onto the field from the corn beyond the wall, asking the crowd, “Is this heaven?” with the crowd hollering back, “No, this is Iowa,” wouldn’t have dared demand that in a script.

But there was Liam Hendricks, the engaging White Sox relief pitcher, looking made for wraparound sunglasses thanks to being endowed with wraparound eyes, working the top of the ninth, shaking a leadoff single off to strike Yankee veterans D.J. LeMahieu and Brett Gardner out swinging on four pitches each.

Then there was Hendricks at 2-1 to Aaron Judge. He threw Judge a high fastball and watched it sail far enough into the right field corn. Following which Hendricks wrestled Joey Gallo—the former Ranger whose stock in trade is either home run feast or strikeout famine, but who has the odd discipline of working walks (he averages 94 per 162 games lifetime)—into a walk after starting him 1-1 without throwing another strike.

Up to the plate stepped Giancarlo Stanton, a former National League Most Valuable Player and one of the game’s more formidable bombardiers until injuries began to grind away at him in earnest. Stanton hit Hendricks’s first service into the left field corn.

Even the somewhat partisan, small audience—savouring a game on the field built adjacent to the famous Field of Dreams farmhouse field, many paying through the nose secondarily for tickets with face values of $375 or $425, Iowa fans and White Sox season ticket-holders, the latter by special lottery—roared when that fabled Yankee power detonated in the top of the ninth.

It was nothing compared to what happened in the bottom, when Yankee reliever Zack Britton, himself having been in the top tier of his particular profession before injuries began shaving him down, too, took the role normally assigned to the injured Aroldis Chapman. He opened by luring White Sox pinch hitter Danny Mendick into a ground out to first but walking White Sox catcher Seby Zavala—who’d hit one into the corn himself in the bottom of the fourth.

Up stepped Tim Anderson, the lively White Sox shortstop. Britton pumped and pitched, a fastball right down the pipe. It was too fat a pitch to resist. If the White Sox have a classic kangaroo court in their clubhouse, Anderson would have been fined for malfeasance.

It didn’t win a pennant. It was more out of The Natural than Field of Dreams, whose co-protagonist by default Shoeless Joe Jackson had only one known walk-off hit in his entire career. (For the White Sox, against the Yankees, in July 1919.) But when Anderson hit it out, it won a ball game keeping the Yankees from gaining on the second place Red Sox in the American League East and fattening the White Sox’s AL Central lead to eleven and a half. Slamming an exclamation point down for baseball itself.

What began with Field of Dreams star Kevin Costner escorting the Yankees and the White Sox through the corn and down across the field ended with an African-American man from Alabama, who wouldn’t have been admitted to the 1910-1919 Show because of his race, channeling his inner Roy Hobbs, The Natural‘s psychically-buffeted protagonist.

Hobbs in the film version was down 0-2 and struggling mightily with an ancient bullet lodged in his insides, causing him to bleed through his lower stomach, when he hit the pennant-winning bomb that also shot the ballpark lights out. Anderson had no such encumbrance when he sent Britton’s canteloupe into the left field corn.

Until that ninth inning viewers at home and the fans who’d paid into the field saw a very reasonably played game. They saw White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu hit the first major league home run ever hit in Iowa in the bottom of the first. They saw Judge become the first Yankee to go long in Iowa when he hit a three-run homer in the top of the third.

Chicago White Sox, New York Yankees

Wearing 1910s style uniforms, the White Sox and the Yankees entered the Field of Dreams Game through the corn Thursday evening.

They saw White Sox starter Lance Lynn nail the first major league strikeout in Iowa when he froze Gardner on a high called strike, on a night when plate umpire Pat Hoberg was as generous with the strike zone ceiling as he was skinflint about proper strikes on the sidewalls of the zone.

They saw the early 3-1 Yankee lead disappear in a four-run White Sox third, when Anderson doubled center fielder Adam Engel home with one out, and recently-restored-from the-injured-list designated hitter Eloy Jimenez cracked a three-run homer into the right field corn.

They saw Gardner put a number on Lynn’s pitching evening when he hit the second pitch of the top of the sixth not too far from where Jimenez’s bomb landed. They saw Yankee infielder Tyler Wade, one of a host of spare parts coming into regular service thanks to the Yankees’ ongoing shuttle back and forth from the injured list, drop one of the only bunts that should be allowed in a game.

With one out, nobody on, and the non-shifting White Sox infield playing deep enough to prompt calls for sending a search party out to find them, the lefthanded Wade saw enough delicious open real estate to push a bunt to the left side, just enough to the middle to keep third baseman Yoan Moncada from doing anything more than grabbing the ball on the run in.

No wasted out. Nothing but a versatile enough utility infielder, who inclines toward hitting line drives (he has four doubles out of 24 hits this season), not feeling he was going to get something to hit on a line, seeing a free gift and pouncing on it before the supply expired.

Then, Wade stole second while LeMahieu occupied himself with working his way into a walk. Then, a ground out pushing second and third and Judge accepting a walk from White Sox speed reliever Michael Kopech after opening with strike one but seeing four straight balls, including a ball four which should have been called strike two.

No matter, far as the White Sox were concerned. Up stepped Gallo, flashing his usual all-or-nothing style at the plate, swinging mightily enough but whacking a pitch a little up out to shortstop to force Judge for the side.

From the moment Lynn started the game with ball one to LeMahieu and LeMahieu nailed the first major league base hit in Iowa baseball history, to the moment Anderson sent everyone home with his corn ball, the game told the hype to take a shower. Even if the live Fox Sports telecast referenced Field of Dreams to a fare-thee-well.

“I knew it wasn’t over,” Anderson said post-game. “The game’s never over. And once Britton walked (Zavala), I knew there was a chance to start something real dope.” So he finished something real dope with something as dope as it gets. In the immortal words of Hall of Fame baseball writer Jayson Stark, “Because . . . baseball!

California bombs, California rough stuff

The pandemic-mandated empty house aside, 5 October might as well be Alex Bregman Day . . .

Mr. October Fifth? What’s up with that?

It’s not Alex Bregman’s birthday. (For the record, that’s 30 March.) It’s not his engagement date. (He popped the question to a Colorado lady named Reagan Howard in January.) It’s not his future wedding date. There seems nothing significant elsewhere for him about that date.

Except when he plays postseason baseball. For a fourth consecutive 5 October Bregman found a pitch meaty enough to send long distance. Mark your 2021 calendar accordingly if you must.

He led off the top of the fourth against Oakland starter Chris Bassitt Monday afternoon, starting an American League division series, and sent a 1-2 service into the pandemically-required unoccupied left field bleachers.

It put his Houston Astros on the board after the Athletics helped themselves to a 3-0 lead on long balls themselves. It gave his infield teammate Carlos Correa thoughts about not wanting to be left out of the action after Kyle Tucker followed with a single through the left side of the infield, Correa hitting a 2-0 pitch over the center field fence.

And—with no small assistance from Oakland’s normally vacuum-handed shortstop Marcus Semien’s boot on Josh Reddick’s two-out grounder in the top of the sixth—the Astros seized the chance at new life, not letting something like a subsequent 5-3 deficit spoil the day, and finished with a 10-5 Game One win.

It almost figured.

There are far worse talismans to attach to a team than 10-5. Especially to a team who got into this convoluted postseason with a losing record and who spent 2018 and 2019 doing not even once what they did Monday—come back from a pair of multi-run deficits.

Especially when several signature Astro bats returned to life at last. Let’s see. George Springer going 4-for-5 after an irregular season in which he had no four-hit games. Correa dialing nine twice and sending four runs home, after an irregular season in which he didn’t send four home or homer twice. The quartet of Bregman, Correa, Springer, and Jose Altuve each driving in at least one run in the same game after not having done that together even once on the irregular season.

And, thanks to the bubble concept putting postseason teams from the division series forward into neutral parks, the Astros’ three postseason wins have now happened in ballparks not their own.

The third, of course, happened in . . . Dodger Stadium. The home of a team with whom they have, ahem, some recent history. The division series home for Games One, Two, and (if necessary) Five of an A’s team that includes the former Astro who blew the whistle on Astrogate at last, last November, after those too well aware of their illegal, off-field-base, altered or extra camera transmitting sign stealing schemes couldn’t convince anyone else to expose it.

“As the game got deeper, the at-bats got better,” said Springer of the Astros’ Monday breakout. “They played the later innings better than we did. We just didn’t have the at-bats we typically do at the end of the game,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin.

How much of a pitcher’s park is Dodger Stadium still, even if it’s not quite the equal of its first two decades? In 91 previous postseason games played there, not once were six home runs hit there. Bregman’s one and Correa’s two were joined by Oakland’s Khris Davis, Sean Murphy, and Matt Olson.

“I’ve never seen the ball carry like that here,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker, who played eight seasons for the Dodgers from the 1970s to the 1980s.

Bregman’s 5 October long-distance mastery has also broken the three-straight-same-date postseason strings of Hall of Famer-to-be Albert Pujols (17 October 2004-05-06) and Francisco Lindor (6 October 2016-17-18). But he’ll have to wait ’till next year for a shot at equaling the five-streaks of Pujols (five straight 30 Mays) and Ryan Braun (five straight 24 Julys) among still-active players.

What’s the regular-season record? Seven. Who holds it? Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig (8 June 1932-38) and former Astros mainstay Lance Berkman. (21 September 2001-07.)

Then the doings down the freeway in San Diego, in Petco Park, had to go steal the show. The Padres had nothing to do with it. The New York Yankees did. Their winning score against the AL East champion Tampa Bay Rays was a measly 9-3, but oh what a show the Yankees made of it.

Somehow, some way, the Yankees find ways to make history just when you think there isn’t a single piece of history left for that franchise to make. It only began with this: Not since 1956 (when Moose Skowron and Hall of Famer Yogi Berra did it in that World Series) had the Yankees hit two grand slams in a postseason at all—but Monday night they sliced salami for a second straight postseason game. No other American League team has ever done that.

Score nine or more runs in three straight postseason-opening games? Nobody did that before the Yankees did it this year. Score 31 runs in its first three postseason games? Nobody did that, either, until this year’s Yankees delivered.

So who the hell needed Gerritt Cole pitching six, striking out eight, and not letting a measly three runs shake him out of his skin before turning things over to Chad Green, Zack Britton, and Luis Cessa?

. . . but John Curtiss knocking down Gio Urshela (29) and Gleyber Torres after his salami was sliced was an uncalled-for and terrible look.

Luis who?

Simple: with a 9-3 lead, Yankee skipper Aaron Boone—with the spectre of no division series days off looming—wasn’t going to burn Aroldis Chapman unless the Rays got ornery in the ninth, which they didn’t. And Cessa got rid of the Rays with no interruption but a mere two-out walk.

Monday’s delicatessen slicer was Giancarlo Stanton in the top of the ninth against Rays reliever John Curtiss. It wasn’t as if Stanton was unfamiliar with Petco Park—he won the Home Run Derby there four years ago. Batting now on 2-2, Stanton caught hold of Curtiss’s slider just off the middle of the plate, and drove it just beyond Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier’s glove-extended leap and over the center field fence.

Then Curtiss just had to make the Rays look even worse, didn’t he? The next batter was Yankee, third baseman Gio Urshela—whose second-inning defense would have made ancient Yankees Clete Boyer and Graig Nettles plus Hall of Fame Oriole Brooks Robinson proud, with his leaping stab to pick Manuel Margot’s high hopper and throw him out, then his rolling seat-of-the-pants throw to nail Joey Wendle off a hard smash into the hole.

Curtiss sent Urshela sprawling on an up and in 0-1 pitch, with Urshela finally wrestling his way to popping out to the infield. Then Yankee shortstop Gleyber Torres checked in at the plate. Curtiss waited until 2-2 before playing Torres a little chin music. No wonder Torres couldn’t resist stealing second while Brett Gardner batted next.

Oops. Apparently, an awful lot of people called Torres out for the ninth-inning theft. “I don’t like seeing disrespectful things in the game,” crowed Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez on a TBS postgame show. Forget that the Yankees went 2-8 against the Rays on the irregular season and might be thinking that, no matter the score or the inning, every run counts.

Martinez might be the wrong man to ask, of course, but if you don’t like Torres stealing second with his team up by six in the ninth, did you like Curtiss making the usually likeable Rays—those unknown soldiers, who can normally beat you with the same aplomb as the big boys with the big names and the bigger paychecks—resemble unsportsmanlike sore losers?

Curtiss also made the Yankees look the way the beasts of the Bronx rarely look—sympathetic. And that’s over a month after Chapman nearly decapitated Michael Brousseau with a 101 mph fastball. But that was then, and Chapman’s been a little wild most of his career, anyway. He doesn’t have quite the control required to plan an execution. Not even with the Rays pitching inside tight to a few too many Yankees on the season before that head scratcher.

You’re embarrassed when a guy slices salami on your dollar? You man up, tip your hat, shake it off, and get the next guy out. You don’t knock that next guy and the guy following him down, off, back, or through just because your ego was sent into half orbit, with or without the bases loaded. (It would also help if you don’t surrender a leadoff single, a walk, a one-out RBI single, and a bases-loading walk to set it up, too.)

Things were notoriously tense enough between the Yankees and the Rays on the irregular season. Then, both sides tried to indicate going in that they were going to do their level best to play nice and no rough stuff. Then Curtiss had to deliver a little un-called for rough stuff anyway. No more Mr. Nice Guys?

Don’t be terribly shocked if Monday’s proceedings make Yankee rooters out of even those to whom rooting for the Yankees otherwise flouts family tradition. For this postseason, anyway, depending on whether the Rays behave reasonably from here on out.

Heartbreak Hotel, Cleveland

James Karinchak, rocking a Ricky Vaughn haircut, but having been rocked by Gio Urshela Wednesday night.

Bad enough: Cleveland having to host the world babyweight championship bout that was Tuesday night’s allegedly presidential debate. Worse: The Indians won’t get the chance to win their first World Series since the births of Israel, NASCAR, the Polaroid Land camera, and Scrabble.

Again.

They won’t even get to play a division series after the New York Yankees swept them out of their wild card series. But to lose an almost five-hour Wednesday night grapple extended by two rain delays totaling 76 minutes and finishing in a 10-9 Yankee win, after both sides threw everything including the kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room sinks?

It’s not quite the same as losing Game Seven of the 2016 World Series after one somewhat long rain delay and an almost equally soul-wrenching back-and-forth. But it’s close enough. It isn’t quite the single most heartbreaking loss in Indians history. (Game Seven of the 1997 World Series still clings to the top. Barely)

But it’s close enough to have turned Progressive Field—in the city that also hosts the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—into Heartbreak Hotel.

The Indians unable to cash in for another tie at minimum in the bottom of the ninth—when Yankee closer Aroldis Chapman’s should-have-been game-ending strikeout turned into a wild pitch, enabling pinch hitter Orlando Mercado to take first on the house, before Chapman regrouped and struck out swinging another pinch hitter, Austin Hedges? It isn’t Edgar Renteria ruining Charles Nagy with a two-out RBI single in the bottom of the eleventh.

But it’s close enough.

The Show’s most reliable irregular season closer and one of the league’s better defenses handing the Yankees a re-tie and go-ahead in the top of the ninth? It isn’t Bryan Shaw surrendering a tie-breaking and a semi-insurance run, and the Indians able to get only one of those runs back, in the tenth inning in Game Seven, 2016 Series.

But it’s close enough.

While you’re at it, it won’t do any good to comfort the Indians by telling them the Yankees once lost a World Series Game Seven by a 10-9 score. Not even if you tell the Tribe the Yankees lost it when Hall of Famer Yogi Berra playing left field could only watch helplessly when Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski’s leadoff drive sailed over the left field wall in ancient Forbes Field.

Cleveland’s going to have a tough enough time trying to figure out which part hurt the most Wednesday night. They’ll have plenty of candidates. They’ll need plenty of salve.

“We had many different things and a lot of obstacles, but this group stayed together — by any means,” said Sandy Alomar, the Indians’ interim manager thanks to Terry Francona’s continuing health issues, who might yet get Manager of the Year votes just for getting the Indians to the postseason at all. “We had an eight-game losing streak, they came back. Today’s game reflected how much this team grinds and how much they fight.”

The candidates for the biggest hurt of the Indians’ now-finished season may only begin with Alomar deciding he needed a strikeout machine to handle Yankee third baseman Gio Urshela in the top of the fourth, with the bases loaded, nobody out, and the Tribe with a 4-1 lead they built with a pair of RBI doubles and an RBI single in the bottom of the first.

Alomar brought in James Karinchak to relieve starter Carlos Carrasco, cheated a bit by the rain delays The first pitch of the game was delayed by rain that hadn’t yet arrived. The second hit in the bottom of the first, and that time the rain lasted slightly over half an hour.

Until he entered Wednesday night, Karinchak’s young career showed 131 batters facing him and only one ever hitting anything out. It also shows him rocking the jagged-back haircut Charlie Sheen made famous as fictional flame-throwing Indians pitcher Ricky Vaughn in Major League. Now, Urshela and Karinchak wrestled to a full count.

The Wild Thing he wasn’t, but poor Karinchak’s young career now shows one postseason appearance and one disaster. With one swing and one launch into the left field bleachers, former Indian Urshela burned his old team four ways to eternity.

He also made Yankee history while he was at it. Thirteen Yankees have hit postseason grand slams, and Urshela is the first Yankee third baseman to slice such salami and the only Yankee anywhere to do it when the Yankees were behind.

Maybe it’ll comfort Indians fans to know that the Buffalonto Blue Jays got shoved out of the postseason earlier and likewise Wednesday. When the Jays’ best pitcher, former Dodger Hyun-Jin Ryu, faced Hunter Renfroe, a Ray who’d been 2-for-18 with seven strikeouts lifetime against him, in the second inning . . . and Renfroe sliced what amounted to season-ending salami for the Jays.

All night long, the Indians had answers for the Yankees. Let Giancarlo Stanton put the Yankees up 6-4 with a sacrifice fly in the top of the fifth, three innings after Stanton accounted for the first Yankee run with a home run? Why, they’ll just let Jose Ramirez whack a two-run double down the right field line to re-tie in the bottom of the fifth.

Let Gary Sanchez—the embattled Yankee catcher benched for Game One after he made Mario Mendoza resemble Mickey Mantle on the irregular season, and batted ninth for Game Two—smack a two-run homer in the top of the sixth to break the six-all tie? Why, the Indians will just send Jason Luplow to the plate, pinch hitting for Josh Naylor—their return from San Diego, after unloading pitcher Mike Clevinger a fortnight after he violated  COVID protocol violations.

That was some cojones on Alomar pinch hitting for Naylor, who’d set a Show precedent with five hits in his first five postseason plate appearances. Good thing the Indians let Luplow smack a two-run double to the back of center field to re-tie the game at eight.

For good measure, they’ll even let Cesar Hernandez fight Chapman off to dump a floater of an RBI single into short center field to make it 9-8, Indians. Then, they’ll shake off Urshela’s likely game-saving double play start to end that eighth and bring in Brad Hand, who led the Show with sixteen saves and didn’t blow a single save opportunity all irregular season long while he was at it.

Hand picked the wrong night to open a save opportunity by walking Stanton. Urshela then singled Stanton’s pinch runner Mike Tauchman to second. Gleyber Torres beat out an infield dribbler to load the pillows, and Brett Gardner struck out, but Sanchez lofted a re-tying sacrifice fly to center field.

Up stepped American League batting champion D.J. LeMahieu. He called slider in the center pocket and cued it right up the middle and right through the Indians’ middle infield. And, alas, right under center fielder Delino DeShields’s down-stretched glove, enabling Urshela to score the tenth Yankee run.

The Indians ran out of answers in the bottom of the ninth.

One night after they punished American League Cy Young Award favourite Shane Bieber, the Yankees had to survive the elements and Indians tenacity to get themselves a division series date with the Rays, who beat them out of the American League East title and who lack both the Yankees’ star power and the meaning of the word “quit.”

“You don’t have to pour champagne on each other,” said Yankee manager Aaron Boone, whose winners stuck to the COVID protocols and exchanged mere fist bumps to celebrate, “to appreciate what an epic game that was and the fact that we’re moving on.”

Forgive Cleveland if the epic side of the game escapes for a good while. Embrace these Indians who fought the good fight against a Yankee team they never saw on the irregular season but had to get past excess familiarity with the medical profession for a second straight season.

So far as the Indians are concerned, these Yankees picked the wrong time to remember how to win on the road. And, the Tribe with the irregular season’s best pitching overall picked the wrong time to post an 11.00 ERA in two games against the Empire Emeritus with eleven walks in eighteen innings and seven home runs surrendered.

So far as these Yankees are concerned, they survived the best the Indians could throw at them to make it four times in the past four seasons they’ve sent either the Indians or the Minnesota Twins home for the winter early. But the Indians and their fans—already rubbing their eyes over Francisco Lindor, Franmil Reyes, and Carlos Santana going 1-for-23 at the plate this set—are going to wonder how their number one strength, their pitching, became their number-one vulnerability.

Don’t remind Cleveland that the same thing happened in the 1954 World Series, when another stellar Indians pitching staff—including Hall of Famers Bob Lemon and Early Wynn, Mike (The Big Bear) Garcia, and what still remained of Hall of Famer Bob Feller—led an 111-game winning team into a Series sweep by the New York Giants. It won’t make this one sting any more gently.

“That game is literally the definition of a rollercoaster ride right there,” said Indians relief pitcher Nick Wittgren after it ended Wednesday night. “It was amazing to see our guys fight back . . . We were fighting, battling the entire game. That was fun to watch. It would have been a little more fun to be playing tomorrow.”

Usque ad proximum annum expectare.