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.