Keep José Altuve off the Astrogate hook

Jose Altuve

It’s been said before Peter Gammons revived it Friday: José Altuve wanted no part of illegally-stolen signs when he was at the plate. Stop hammering him with the “chea-ter! chea-ter!” chants once and for all.

When the World Series shifted to Philadelphia, after the Phillies and the Astros split the first two games in Houston, the Citizens Bank Park crowd wasn’t shy about letting the Astros have it over You-know-what-gate. The good news was that they saved the chea-ter! chea-ter! chants for the only three position players left on the roster from the forever-tainted 2017-18 team.

The bad news was that one of the three actually spurned taking the illegally stolen signs in the batter’s box. That was second baseman and Astros franchise face José Altuve. It didn’t matter to the chanting Phillies fans. But it should have.

When SNY’s Andy Martino published Cheated: The Inside Story of the Astros Scandal and a Colorful History of Sign Stealing in June 2021, the chapter called “The Scheme Begins” included a revelation that should have jolted anyone hammering the Astros rightfully enough over their Astro Intelligence Agency plot:

Altuve was the most reluctant of the Astros stars. When the option to have a teammate bang the trash can [to relay the signs stolen by way of an illegal off-field-based real-time camera to an illegal additional clubhouse monitor—JK] first arose, he declined.

When Altuve was batting, and there would be a bang, he would glare into the dugout.

“He doesn’t want it,” teammates would say frantically. On more than one occasion, Altuve returned to the dugout after his at-bat and yelled at the others to knock it off.

It jolted me, too. Especially since I’d actually missed the first such revelation, in February 2020, from then-Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, usually the face of the team when it came to defending the 2017 World Series title before he signed with the Twins last winter. (Correa is now a free agent again.) I missed it, and I shouldn’t have.

Commissioner Rob Manfred handed down his Astrogate verdict in January 2020—suspensions for 2017-18 general manager Jeff Luhnow, manager A.J. Hinch, and bench coach Alex Cora (subsequently a World Series-winning manager for the 2018 Red Sox . . . who had their own Rogue Sox replay room reconnaissance ring operating that season and possibly beyond); heavy fine for owner Jim Crane; key draft picks stripped.

The Astros faced the press when spring training opened the next month. Depending upon how you saw and hear, they seemed either unapologetically apologetic or apologetically unapologetic. “Yes, there’s no better way to show good old-fashioned genuine remorse than by refusing to speak the misdeed you committed,” wrote since-retired Thomas Boswell, the longtime Washington Post baseball eminence.

Crane and his team used their showcase to insist they keep their phony title and that Major League Baseball was correct not to fine or suspend any Astros players. Also, we should just trust that they stopped cheating in 2018. Why? No reason at all. Just felt like stopping, even though they, you know, won the previous World Series doing it.

. . .Maybe, with time, some Astros will be more forthcoming with authentic feelings, not practiced phrases, that will show their human dilemma—most of them not $100 million stars or future Hall of Famers, just normal ballplayers caught on a runaway train with, realistically, no emergency brake available for them to pull.

But even Boswell might have missed that Altuve didn’t want any part of the AIA. Before the original coronavirus pan-damn-ic compelled that spring training’s shutdown, Correa talked to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, one of the two reporters (with Evan Drellich) who first exposed the true depth of scheme. (Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers had finally agreed to go on the public record in November 2019, following long, futile efforts to get someone/anyone to investigate.)

They talked aboard MLB Network a couple of days after the presser that did the Astros more harm than good. Correa steamed over Dodger outfielder/first baseman Cody Bellinger’s fuming that Altuve cheated Yankee rookie star Aaron Judge out of the 2017 Most Valuable Player award he might have won if not for Altuve’s career year in Houston. “Cody,” Correa began, “you don’t know the facts.”

Nobody wants to talk about this, but I’m going to talk about this. José Altuve was the one guy that didn’t use the trash can.

The few times that the trash can was banged was without his consent, and he would go inside the clubhouse and inside the dugout to whoever was banging the trash can and he would get pissed. He would get mad. He would say, “I don’t want this. I can’t hit like this. Don’t you do that to me.” He played the game clean.

. . . When you look at Altuve’s numbers on the road, he hit .400 on the road (.381, actually, compared to .311 at home). He didn’t cheat nobody of the MVP. He earned that MVP. He’s a six-time All-Star, three-time batting champion, MVP, five-time Silver Slugger. He’s been doing this for a long time.

For [Bellinger] to go out there and defame José Altuve’s name like that, it doesn’t sit right with me. The man plays the game clean. That’s easy to find out. Mike Fiers broke the story. You can go out and ask Mike Fiers: “Did José Altuve use the trash can? Did José Altuve cheat to win the MVP?” Mike Fiers is going to tell you, straight up, he didn’t use it. He was the one player that didn’t use it. (Emphasis added.—JK.)

The foregoing arises again because another Athletic writer, Peter Gammons, the longtime Boston Globe scribe/analyst who’s a Spink Award Hall of Famer, wrote of the Astros’ post-Astrogate manager Dusty Baker and winning team cultures in a piece published Friday—and returned to that 2020 spring training opening. Including the impossible position into which Altuve was pushed.

There he was, sitting at the table, looking as though he’d rather undergo root canal work without an anesthetic. Now we should ask just what the hell Crane was thinking when, seemingly, he insisted Altuve sit at the head table for that 2020 spring presser. The owner with a reputation for rejecting direct accountability forced “the one player that didn’t use” the AIA’s espionage to take it like a man.

Gammons talked to assorted Astros near the end of the opening workout later in the day. “They were subdued, clearly remorseful,” Gammons wrote, “but when I told Altuve that players, coaches and a number of people in the organization had told me that he did not participate in the sign stealing, he politely declined to discuss it, and asked that I didn’t talk about it on television, or write about it. ‘It would be a betrayal of my teammates’.”

Two years later, he still did not want to be singled out. But while he and [third baseman Alex] Bregman were asked by management to speak to the scandal for all the players and he received the most obscene treatment from beered up louts in Boston and New York, he never pointed to 2017 home/road splits that showed a 200-point OPS difference in favor of the road, where there was nary a banging trash can to be heard.

“He is,” Baker said, “the ultimate teammate.” That from a man who played with Henry Aaron and Reggie Smith.

Altuve’s 2017 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) was 248 points higher on the road—where the AIA couldn’t operate—than it was at Minute Maid Park. He also hit six more home runs out of town than in Houston. With only four more plate appearances on the road than at home in ’17, his Real Batting Average (my metric: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) was .529 at home . . . but .679 on the road.

The Gammons story seems to have jolted for the Altuve “revelation.” In its email newsletter Morning Bark, offering links to stories based on its choice of a day’s top ten sports stories, Yardbarker linked to it with this teaser, which also headlined a brief news item about the piece: “Insider reveals interesting detail regarding José Altuve and Astros’ cheating scandal.”

It’s only a “revelation” if you missed either Rosenthal’s original or Martino’s book. I missed the former upon its original arrival, but I pounced on the latter when it was published. SNY, after all, stands for the Sports New York regional cable network. And the Yankees, whom Martino’s normal coverage includes, had their own skin in the sign-stealing world.

Theirs wasn’t quite as extensive as the 2017-18 Astros, of course. Neither was anything by any other teams who might have done as the Red Sox did, using their MLB-provided replay rooms for such sign-stealing reconnaissance. (MLB has since tightened up on guarding the replay rooms.) The 2017-18 Astros went far above and far beyond just boys-will-be-boys replay room roguery.

But Martino taking Astrogate book depth had no reason to want Altuve whitewashed. Especially considering Altuve—when Yankee manager Aaron Boone elected to let his faltering closer Aroldis Chapman pitch on to him, with two out in the bottom of the ninth, instead of putting him on at 2-1 with a spaghetti bat on deck—hit the monstrous two-run homer on an up-and-away slider that won the 2019 Astros the pennant.

In fact, Cheated‘s footnotes included the original Correa/Rosenthal revelation. Martino had me convinced before the footnotes section. Reading the Correa/Rosenthal revelation both recently and once again after the Gammons piece Friday, I’m convinced even more.

Saying Astrogate won’t disappear until the last member of the 2017-18 team no longer wears an Astro uniform is one thing. So is saying the 2017-18 cheaters stained baseball almost as deeply as the 1919 Black Sox. But it’s something else to keep including José Altuve among the tainted when he doesn’t deserve to be among them.

The further evidence should be even more clear by now. Altuve wanted no part of the original Astrogate scheming and bawled teammates out when they didn’t respect his wishes. He played the game straight, no chaser, then and now. He’s taken it across the chops unfairly since.

A pitcher’s lament, a manager’s triumph

Dusty Baker

Astros manager Dusty Baker (second from left) joins his players—including Game Six starting pitcher Framber Valdez and World Series MVP Jeremy Peña (second from right), the first rookie to win that prize—hoisting the Series trophy after beating the Phillies 4-1 Saturday night.

If Jose Alvarado wants to find the nearest deep cave into which to make his residence until spring training, nobody should fault him. Not everyone can perform the impossible at will.

The Phillies’ redoubtable lefthanded reliever came into the bottom of the sixth of World Series Game Six with one key mission, take care of the Astros’ lefthanded munitions expert Yordan Alvarez with runners on the corners and one out. It might have been easier for Tom Thumb to scale the Empire State Building with a crosstown bus on his back.

This could have been construed as Phillies manager Rob Thomson believing he was still living a charmed life in his first two-thirds season on the bridge. Believing that a hard-won 1-0 Phillies lead could be kept in place or possibly enlarged the rest of the way.

Believing his righthanded starter Zack Wheeler wasn’t the right matchup for Alvarez looming with two occupied bases. Believing Alvarado would avoid the disaster into which he pitched when brought in for the same matchup in Game Five and hit Alvarez on the first pitch.

All Alvarez did now with a 2-1 pitch was send it over the farthest ledge behind center field, into some seats beneath a Blue Cross/Blue Shield advertising sign. All that did was sink the Phillies and yank the Astros to what they, and their fan base, needed in the worst way possible, a no-questions-asked, untainted World Series conquest.

Alvarado didn’t get beaten doing what he knew he wasn’t supposed to do. He didn’t get beaten serving a meatball without sauce. He got beaten throwing one of his best pitches, a nasty, shivering two-seam fastball, to a bomber who can and often does turn your best pitches into nuclear warheads no matter how they swivel up to the plate.

“Nothing moving. It didn’t move,” Alvarado said postgame. “If it moved, he had no chance. When he hit the ball, the sound says, ‘OK, that’s gone’. Because the guy is a power hitter. I watched it. But, again, sometimes you win, and sometimes you tip your cap.”

But Alvarado was wrong. The pitch moved enough. He got beaten by a hitter who moved his bat more than enough into it. Don’t condemn him. Don’t demand his post-haste measuring for a guillotine brace.

“[Y]ou’ve got Alvarado throwing 99 mph left-on-left sinkers,” Kyle Schwarber said. “And [Alvarez] ran into it and hit it out. Tip your cap. That’s a good hitter over there. I would take [Alvarado] on him any day of the week.”

Embrace Alvarado for having the guts to stare into the belly of the best a second straight World Series game and not run home to Mami at the very thought of it. A man with a regular-season 1.92 fielding-independent pitching rate earns more than a little respect.

Thomson may have some real explaining to do, though, as to why he kept Nick Castellanos—whose bat was as feeble as his glove had become a half-out-of-nowhere defensive weapon during the Series—batting behind Bryce Harper and, essentially, affording Harper as much protection as a tot with a pop gun offers a Brinks truck.

Just don’t be stupid enough to blame Alvarado for the Phillies’ inability to make Schwarber’s leadoff homer in the top of the sixth stick long enough to buy some insurance. Be better than that, this time, Phillie fan.

These upstart, self-resurrecting Phillies finally couldn’t hit what these Astro pitchers served them. They lunged at too many breakers instead of forcing them to come to their wheelhouses, they let too many fastballs elude them, and when they still had three innings left to overthrow the 4-1 Astro lead that stuck, they couldn’t and didn’t summon up enough.

Then give these Astros their due. Give them the credit they deserve for finally overcoming one World Series loss in which they won nothing at home, a second when they ran into a chain saw made in Atlanta, and the single worst cheating scandal in 21st century baseball, if not all baseball history.

Give these Astros the credit for playing untainted, un-sneaky, un-shifty (except on one or the other side of the infield here and there), unapologetically excellent baseball to beat these Phillies in six usually thrilling games.

Give them credit for making hash out of Commissioner Rube Goldberg’s more-cookies-for-everyone, three-wild-cards postseason array, not to mention defying the early-round upsets over the biggest-winning regular season teams, and living up to their 106 game-winning season where the 111 game-winning Dodgers couldn’t.

Give splended Astros rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña his props for earning both the Most Valuable Player Award of the American League Championship Series and the World Series (the first rook ever to win a Series MVP and a Gold Glove for his defense) and for damn near making Houston forget it ever had a fellow named Carlos Correa holding shortstop down.

Give center fielder Chas McCormick his props for running down what would have been J.T. Realmuto’s at-minimum eighth-inning double in Game Five and leaping to catch it before hitting the Citizens Bank Park scoreboard wall and landing in a heap on his back while leaving his imprint on the warning track and holding onto the ball like a life preserver.

Give Game Six starter Framber Valdez and the Astro bullpen their props for keeping the formerly vaunted Phillies offense—capable of turning games around in single swings until running into a no-hit wall in Game Four—from getting any ideas above and beyond The Schwarbinator’s liner into the right field seats.

And then give Astros manager Dusty Baker the biggest hug you’ve got to give for a man who’s been in this game fifty-four years as a player and manager, won a World Series ring as a player, had several postseason heartbreaks including World Series losses as a manager, and finally reached the Promised Land.

Baker really had to do this one the hard way. He took on the uphill job of managing a team riddled by the disgrace of Astrogate and their inability to speak entirely forthrightly about their 2017-18 cheating including about it being part of their 2017 Series triumph. It was comparable to Gerald Ford trying to clean up after the Nixon Administration’s Watergate mess.

But Ford lost the only presidential election for which he stood after that. Baker withstood the Astrogate heat, kept his head as the self-battered organisation turned itself and its Show roster over and away from the Astrogate stench, and brought his Israelites across the Jordan at last.

“Game Six has been my nightmare,” Baker told his team in the clubhouse after this Game Six. “I ain’t lying. I was like, damn that, man. We’re going to win today. I got Game Six off our ass, off my ass. We’ve got (Justin Verlander’s first credited World Series) win off his ass. And I’m telling you, you guys played your asses off. I didn’t have to do [poop].”

Baker and Game Sixes formerly meant disaster. 2002 World Series: he lifted starter Russ Ortiz with his Giants up 5-0 and ostentatiously handed Ortiz the “game ball.” The Angels thrashed back with three runs each in the next two innings, then ran away with Game Seven.

2003 National League Championship Series: Baker’s Cubs were five outs from going to the World Series when a double-play grounder bounded off his shortstop instead of turning two, opening the dam for a five-run Marlins rally and a Game Seven loss.

Game Six, last year’s World Series: Baker’s Astros didn’t incur anything close to those two disasters. The Braves made sure of that by shutting them out 7-0 to win the Series.

Now he couldn’t forget what his father told him after the 2002 deflation: “Man, after the way you lost that one, I don’t know if you’ll ever win another one.” Now, the son could be sanguine about the father’s fatalism.

“I was, like, I didn’t really want to get to Game Six again, but I was like, well, maybe this is how it’s supposed to be,” the son said Saturday night. “My dad didn’t mean anything negative . . . back in the old school, there was such thing as negative motivation. In the new school, negative motivation doesn’t work.”

No team had quite the negative motivation these otherwise filthy-dominant Astros have had since their 2017-18 cheating, which went above and beyond anything else devised and executed by teams past, exposing and staining them in the wake of their 2019 World Series loss.

It’s the black mark on a franchise that’s gone to six straight American League Championship Series and won four of them. A franchise that’s won two World Series titles over six years with a .622 winning percentage over those six regular seasons, something  almost never done, according to Hall of Fame writer Jayson Stark, by the greatest teams.

Not the Oakland Mustache Gang of the early 1970s. Not the Big Red Machine. Not the 1996-2002 Yankees. Not the Aughts’ Red Sox. Not the 2010s Giants. You’d have to go back to the 1953-58 Yankees—those of Hall of Famers Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, and manager Casey Stengel—to find one from the post-World War II era.

But guess what, ladies and gentlemen? Only three position players remained from the Astrogate teams. And they had almost nothing to do with the biggest of the big Series moments for these Astros and this manager. Air Yordan? Flying Jeremy? Tucker the Man and His Dream? Framber Valdez (is Coming)? Cristian (Soldier) Javier and his no-hit-opening oratorio? Every member of the bullpen that just rolled a Series ERA of 0.83? They didn’t show up until the Astrogate aftermath.

What the Astros needed most, said broadcast legend Bob Costas, himself a Frick Award winner thus enshrined in the Hall of Fame, was “to win outside the shadow of 2017 . . . ”

There will always be skeptics because of ’17. But they have now been a truly excellent team for a sustained period of time. I think fair-minded people already have put this in its proper context and proper proportion. So by winning again, especially with Dusty Baker as one of the faces of it, and five years removed from 2017, I think most people will have a fair sense of it.

Guess what else we can do now? We can put to bed forever all the talk over all the years about the long-suffering Baker’s “entitlement” to win a World Series at last.

It was both annoying as the day was long and absolutely unworthy of the man himself, the man who loved and encouraged all his players, from the last man on the roster to the cock of the walk, to exercise their abilities as they are, rather than as anyone else demanded, and was loved back by anyone who dealt with him over all those seasons.

Baker felt less “entitled” to anything than those who admire him and even criticise him when need be felt for him. Now he can put all that in a trunk, flashing one of his signature toothpick-punctuated grins, and lock it tight.

“After a while,” he said thoughtfully after Game Six, “I quit listening to folks telling me what I can’t do. All that does is motivate me more to do it because I know there’s a bunch of people in this country that are told the same thing, and it’s broken a lot of people. But my faith in God and my mom and dad always talking to me made me persevere even more.”

The 73-year-old man who once took too much blame for a few extraterrestrial calamities now didn’t give himself quite enough credit. There’s only so much Mom, Dad, and even God can do for a man, with a World Series or anything else.

“We’re going to play to the end”

Kyle Schwarber

Kyle Schwarber hitting his first-inning bomb off Justin Verlander in Game Five. “We’re going to play all the outs. We’re going to see where it takes us,” he says approaching Game Six. The “where,” of course, is up to Zack Wheeler and the Phillies against Framber Valdez again.

Approaching World Series Game Six, the Phillies could lean on the experience of one member who’d been there, done that, down 3-2 in a Series, then took the final two and the world championship. That was seven years ago, when he was a Cub, his season began (thanks to injury) in the World Series, and the Cubs finally did what seven-eighths of the earth thought wouldn’t happen in its lifetime.

“We’ve overcome a lot of things throughout the course of this year to be in this position,” said Phillies left fielder/bombardier/periodic base thief Kyle Schwarber as the Phillies traveled to Houston Friday. “I think when we get there, you’re going to see a really resilient club and we’re going to play until the very end and we’re going to see where it takes us.”

Funny, but that’s just about what every 2016 Cub said, too, when the then-Indians had them on the ropes with the Series returning to Cleveland for Games Six and Seven.

That was then: the Cubs pushed, shoved, pitched, and pounded their way through two arduous games. This is now: The Phillies, whose World Series drought is barely an eleventh of those Cubs’, will have to do all that plus rip, snarl, tear, slice, dice, and air fry. Just as when he was a 2016 Cub, the Schwarbinator won’t surrender, to these Astros or anyone else.

“It’s going to take everything,” said Schwarber, who did what he could to keep the Phillies from losing Game Five when he opened with a nasty home run off future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander in what proved a to-the-max 3-2 Phillies loss. “It’s going to take everyone. We’re excited. Trust me. Sure, it’s frustrating, but we’re also very excited.”

The Phillies are in a strange position this postseason. They enter Game Six with their first series deficit since they wrestled their way to the final National League wild card in the first place. Beyond that, they have reason not to fear. They’ve come back several times to get here in the first place.

Game One of the wild card set against the Cardinals? Down 2-0 in the top of the ninth. Then: bases-loaded hit batsman, two-run single, run-scoring infielder’s choice, RBI single, and a sacrifice fly, and two Cardinal runs in the bottom of the inning weren’t enough to deny the first win of a Phillie sweep.

Game Four, National League Championship Series? A four-run Padres first didn’t exactly bury them alive. Bottom of the first: Two-run homer (Rhys Hoskins), RBI double (Bryce Harper). Deficit cut to one. Bottom of the fourth: Tying RBI single. Bottom of the fifth, after Juan Soto put the Padres back up with a homer? Two-run homer (Hoskins, again), RBI double (Harper, again), RBI single, two-run Phillie lead. Bottom of the sixth: Solo bomb (Schwarber), three-run lead. Bottom of the seventh: Solo bomb (J.T. Realmuto), four-run lead, ultimately four-run win.

Game Five, NLCS? Call it the Mud and Guts Game if you must. Bottom of the third: Phillies take a 2-0 lead with another Hoskins two-run thump. Top of the fourth: Soto cuts the San Diego deficit in half with another solo smash. Top of the seventh, with the Citizens Bank Park rain turning the field into a swamp and pitching grips and strides into mush and mire? The Padres take a 3-2 lead with an RBI single and two wild pitches enabling a run. Bottom of the eighth? Harper fights and fouls his way to a dramatic opposite-field two-run homer. Two Phillies relievers make it stick for the pennant.

Game One, World Series? Kyle Tucker’s two bombs help the Astros bushwhack Aaron Nola in the first three innings. So the Phillies return the favour by ripping five out of Verlander—RBI single and immediate two-run double in the top of the fourth; two-run double in the top of the fifth. The score stays tied at five until Realmuto breaks it for keeps with a leadoff bomb in the top of the tenth, and David Robertson survives a double, a walk, a wild pitch for second and third, and gets the game and win-ending ground out.

All the Phillies need to do now is continue overcoming that nasty 0-for-20 with runners in scoring position until Jean Segura slapped an RBI single in the eighth in Game Five. They need Zack Wheeler to be his best self on the Game Six mound. They need to continue overthrowing their earlier reputation for defensive mishaps and cut the Astros off with more of the glovework and derring-do they began flashing during the Philadelphia leg of the Series.

They need, in other words, to be better than the best of their selves that pulled them into the Series and into the 2-1 Series lead the Astros wrested away from them on their own soil. Astros Game Six starter Framber Valdez, who manhandled them in Game Two, also in Houston, intends to let them do nothing of the sort.

“I think I’m just going to try to continue doing what I’ve been doing all season,” Valdez said through an interpreter after Game Five. “Just try and attack hitters early, try to breathe, try to stay calm, try to meditate. It’s something that’s really exciting. I think it’s something that really adds a lot to your career, and I’m really excited for this opportunity.”

It’ll add something to the Astros’ resume, too: their first untainted World Series rings. Not to mention handing their manager Dusty Baker—the man who steadied the Astro starship after it was strafed by the in-house phasers of Astrogate, keeping his gradually turning-over team playing through the aftermath, three seasons following its exposure, despite the organisation’s turmoil and grotesqueries—the first World Series triumph of his long and mostly distinguished managerial career.

The Astros know the Phillies won’t be simple pickings despite shutting them out back-to-back in Philadelphia, once with a combined no-hitter. It’s the Phillies’ job not to make things simple for the Astros.

“What a better storybook ending,” asked Castellanos, whose limp bat is almost forgotten when you’ve seen his defense turning into must-see television all of a sudden, “than if we can go there and win this in Game Seven?”

First things first, Schwarber would remind one and all.

“We’ve got a pretty good pitcher going for us in Game Six,” the Schwarbinator says. “We’ve got to be able to bounce back offensively. I don’t think anyone believes more in this group than we do. That’s going to be a big thing for us. We’ve just got to be able to play all the outs. We’re going to see where it takes us.”

First, it needs to take them past the Astros in Game Six. Then the Phillies can worry about who writes their storybook ending—the team of Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry (who wrote the screenplay for The Natural); or, any given Astro, plus Jack Benny and Fred Allen, climaxing their long-running mock on-air feud while satirising the notorious weeper quiz show Queen for a Day:

Allen: An expert operating the Hoffman Pressing Machine will press your trousers
Benny: Now wait a minute! (Studio audience laughter and noise.) Now wait a minute, Allen!
Allen: Keep your shirt on, King!
Benny: You bet I’ll keep my shirt on!
Allen: All right, folks, tune in again next—
Benny: Come on, Allen, give me my pants!
Allen: Quiet, King!
Benny: Where are my pants?
Allen: Benny, for fifteen years I’ve been waiting to catch you like this.
Benny: Allen, you haven’t seen the end of me!
Allen: It won’t be long now!

Now they have to do the impossible

Kyle Tucker, Chas McCormick

With Kyle Tucker backing him, Chas McCormick—who grew up a Phillies fan 35 miles away from Citizens Bank Park—made the possible catch of the Series off J.T. Realmuto’s eighth-inning drive to the right center field scoreboard wall in World Series Game Five Thursday night. 

This year’s Phillies, meet the 2019 Nationals. Sort of. Those Nats won every World Series game against that edition of Astros on the road including four in Houston. These Phillies split in Houston, then could win only once in their own cozy, stop-sign-shaped, noisy playpen. Now they have to do the kind of impossible those Nats did. If they can.

They have to win Game Six Saturday and then Game Seven Sunday. And if Game Five is evidence, they won’t get it without putting up a terrific battle. Better than the battle between the two that ended in a squeaker of a 3-2 Astros win Thursday night. Better than they were built to be.

Better than just half a collection of sluggers and a bullpen that can hang with any bullpen in the business. And enough to keep the Astros from saving themselves—until a forgotten Astro at first base and an Astro outfielder who grew up a Phillies fan saved the Astros’ lives in the bottom of the Game Five eighth and ninth, respectively.

Trey Mancini was a trade deadline acquisition from the Orioles but an 0-for-18 afterthought this postseason. Chas McCormick grew up 35 miles from Citizens Bank Park and never forgot the bloody nose then-Phillies outfielder Aaron Rowand incurred making a similar catch against the center field fence.

Mancini now found himself at first base after Astros veteran Yuli Gurriel had to come out a half inning after a collision resulting in a rundown out as he got trapped between third and the plate also resulted in a woozy head. With two out and Astros closer Ryan Pressly asked for an almost unheard-of-for-him five-out save, Kyle Schwarber loomed at the plate.

Schwarber electrified the ballpark in the bottom of the first when, with the Astros up 1-0 already, he drilled an 0-1 pitch from starter Justin Verlander into the right field seats to tie it. Now, with two out, first and third, and the Phillies back to within a run in the bottom of the eighth, Schwarber drilled one up the first base line on a single hop. The shot had extra bases down the line and the tying run home at least stamped on it.

Until it didn’t. Playing practically on the line as it was, Mancini hit his knees like a supplicant in prayer and the ball shot right into his mitt. While he was there, Mancini stepped on the pad. Side retired. In one flash Mancini went from self-made afterthought to the Astros’ man of the hour.

It’d take something even more stupefying to rob Mancini of that status. “That ball gets by him,” Pressly said postgame, “we’re looking at a different game.”

Something even more stupefying came along in the bottom of the ninth. When Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto sent Pressly’s 1-1 slider high and far toward the right center field scoreboard wall, with at least a double and likely more the likely result, the wall notorious for creating odd rebounds.

Until it wasn’t. Until McCormick ran to his left, took a flying leap, and snapped the ball into his glove a second before he hit the wall and landed on the track, the ball still securely in his glove, and by his own postgame admission stared up at whatever he could see of the Bank crowd he’d just snapped silent.

“I wanted to lay there longer,” he admitted postgame. “If it were the last out, I would have laid there all night.”

Pressly’s jaw fell as he saw McCormick nail the catch. As he remembered after the game, the only thing he could think as his hands clutched his head in wonder was, “Holy [you-know-what].”

Until that moment, the Astros and the Phillies wrestled and tussled like alley cats all Game Five long. The bad news was that the Phillies, the Show’s best on the season with runners in scoring position, extended to a third-longest World Series string of 0-for-20 with men in such position.

“[S]ometimes you go through times when you don’t hit with runners in scoring position,” said Phillies manager Rob Thomson postgame. “Then, three days later, everybody’s getting hits. So we just got to keep battling, that’s all.”

The Phillies can’t wait three days for hits. They have two days before it might be curtains. Three days maximum, after squandering what half the world thought would be the remarkable and ear-splitting home field advantage they’d stolen with a Series-opening split in Houston.

The worse news Thursday began when Astros’ rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña started the scoring when he singled up the pipe to send Jose Altuve (leadoff double, taking third on Phillies center fielder Brandon Marsh’s carom bobble) home in the top of the first.

After Schwarber’s ballpark-jolting bomb leading off the bottom, both sides wrestled each other’s starting pitchers, Verlander and Noah Syndergaard, into and out of a few more dicey jams—especially the Phillies loading the bases on Verlander with two out in the second before the future Hall of Fame righthander struck Rhys Hoskins out swinging rather violently.

Syndergaard settled admirably after the first inning run and until Syndergaard—who’d settled admirably after the first run and retired nine straight from that score forward. Verlander escaped another jam in the third, which might have been another bases-loaded escape but for Peña leaping to steal a base hit off Nick Castellanos’s hard liner, but after Alec Bohm spanked a single past shortstop to follow, Verlander got Phillies shortstop Bryson Stott to pop out to right for the side.

But Syndergaard—no longer the bullet-throwing Thor of old thanks to injuries, illnesses, and finally Tommy John surgery—ran out of luck in the top of the fourth, when Peña sent a 1-2 service into the left field seats. Connor Brogdon relieved him and shook off Alex Bregman’s one-out double while striking out the side.

Verlander pitched as clean a fourth as you could ask of a 39-year-old righthander with or without his particular career resume, then had to perform another escape act in the fifth after striking two out to open. Bryce Harper lined one to deep right that Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker bobbled toward the corner, ensuring Harper’s double. Castellanos wrestled Verlander to a full count before popping out to left center for the side.

From there, the bullpens wrestled each other. Then, top of the seventh, came Gurriel’s leadoff double. One out and a wild pitch later came McCormick with Gurriel on third. McCormick bounced one to third, with the infield in, and beginning with Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm they had Gurriel trapped like the top man on the FBI’s old ten most wanted list.

Bohm threw to Realmuto. Realmuto threw to Stott. Stott threw to first baseman Hoskins joining the party just in case, and Hoskins reached to tag Gurriel while tumbling over the veteran Astro. Gurriel landed awkwardly on his right knee as it was, but Hoskins’s knee on the tumble also jolted Gurriel’s head.

The elder first baseman—whose string of 48 straight postseason plate appearances without striking out ended at Brogdon’s hands in the fourth—managed to play his position in the top of the eighth but that was all he had left after the collision. “A little pain,” the sleepy-eyed first baseman tweeted postgame, A little pain but the win made my knee feel better fast . . . I will get some treatment to get ready for Saturday, thank you for the well wishes.”

But Altuve and Peña partnered on building the third Astro run in the top of the eighth, Altuve with a leadoff walk off Phillies reliever Seranthony Dominguez, and Peña shooting a base hit through the infield the other way to right, Altuve running on the pitch and helping himself to third easily. David Robertson relieved Dominguez but could only watch helplessly as Hoskins knocked Alvarez’s grounder up the line down and tag the Astro left fielder out while Altuve scampered home.

The best Robertston could do in the inning was keep the damage to a single run. He couldn’t stop the Astros’ defensive acrobatics in the bottom of the eighth and ninth. Nobody could. And even after McCormick’s robbery of Realmuto in the bottom of the ninth, the Phillies weren’t dead yet.

Pressly hit Harper in the foot on a 2-1 pitch. Up stepped Castellanos, who’d spent much of the game keeping his free-swinging in check and timing himself to a few hard hit outs and, then, the eighth-inning walk that turned into him scoring the second Phillies run on Jean Segura’s opposite-field base hit.

Now he wrestled Pressly to a full count with the Bank crowd as loud as conceivable. Then he bounced one to shortstop. Peña picked it clean, threw to first even more clean, and the Astros had it in the Bank. And Verlander—whom the Phillies abused in Game One—got credit for his first World Series win. Ever.

He’d sported an 0-6 won-lost record in the Series lifetime until Thursday night. And he  admitted postgame that Schwarber’s leadoff launch—the first such homer ever by a Phillie in postseason play—woke him up post haste.

“[A]s a starting pitcher, been there, done that,” Verlander told reporters after shaking off a particularly profound rookie-style celebratory shower in the clubhouse and savouring every moment of it. “It just sucks because of the moment and obviously all the questions and weight.

“You have to rely on the hundreds of starts and thousands of pitches I’ve thrown before and just kind of say, OK, I’ve given up leadoff home runs before,” the righthander continued. “It’s not going to be indicative of what’s going to happen the rest of this game, by any means. Let’s see what happens.”

What happened from there handed Verlander a win as moral as it was baseball and the Astros a Series return ticket home. And the Phillies—who’d gotten thatclose to fully avenging their having been no-hit in Game Four—another challenge to meet and conquer. If they can.

“What’s a better storybook ending than if we can go there and win this in Game Seven?” Castellanos asked postgame, well aware that the Phillies need to win Game Six first. So did the 2019 Nationals, in a Series in which neither team won at home but the Nats had to win the four they won in the Astros’ noisy-enough cape.

“We’re here, I think, because we trusted ourselves this far,” said Hoskins thoughtfully enough. “I don’t see why there is any reason to change that.”

They’re going to need that if they want just to come out of Game Six alive enough to play one more day. These Astros won’t exactly let them have it without making them work shields up, phasers on stun, for every degree of it.

Straight, No-hit Chaser

Rafael Montero, Bryan Abreu, Cristian Javier, Christian Vásquez, Ryan Pressly

The Cristian Javier Quintet—Javier (center) flanked (from left) by Rafael Montero, Bryan Abreu, Christian Vázquez, and Ryan Pressly—played music Philadelphia didn’t want to hear (never mind see) in World Series Game Four.

This year’s Phillies weren’t exactly strangers to being no-hit collectively. Five Mets—Tylor Megill, Drew Smith, Joely Rodriguez, Seth Lugo, and Edwin Díaz—did just that to them on April’s next-to-last day. Nine of the Phillies in that day’s lineup, including their starting pitcher Aaron Nola, just so happened to be on the receiving end of that quintet’s performance.

But the night after the Phillies bludgeoned the Astros to take a 2-1 World Series lead, the Cristian Javier Quintet—starter Cristian Javier; relievers Bryan Abreu, Rafael Montero, and Ryan Pressly, with Christian Vázquez drumming for them behind the plate—played “Straight, No-Hit Chaser” in Citizens Bank Park.

This was baseball’s version of a classic Miles Davis Quintet. With Javier blowing transcendently through the first six innings, a pitching Miles delivering deceptively simple things that had more to say across bars than more exhibitionistic soloists say compressed into half a bar.

Then it was Abreu, Montero, and Pressly taking the final solos knowing full well they might keep the Phillies pinned to their seats without reaching quite for Javier’s heights.

The 5-0 Astro win provided only the second World Series no-hitter since Don Larsen’s perfect Game Five in 1956, tied the Series at two each, and guaranteed a return trip to Houston for one Series game at least.

“God willing,” Javier’s parents reportedly told him before Game Four began, knowing the Astros were handed their heads on plates in Game Three, and knowing what a thrill it was for their son to have them in Citizens Bank Park for the occasion, “you’ll throw a no-hitter.” Those folks should be buying lottery tickets before they return home.

The 25-year-old Dominican threw six no-hit innings before turning it over to his bullpen. Javier threw fastballs that didn’t carry heat so much as they carried movement and deceptive facial appearances away from Phillie bat arcs, occasional sliders that slid around those bats, and looked as though he was amusing himself making the Game Three thumpers resemble paper tigers.

“I remember being on the other end of that,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker, who’d managed the Reds team no-hit by the late Roy Halladay in the 2010 National League division series. “It was the seventh inning and it seemed like it was the second inning, and I looked up on the board and it’s the seventh inning already. Then you’re trying not to be no-hit and then you’re trying to win the ballgame and—yeah, that’s pretty remarkable.”

“Remarkable” would be a polite way to put Wednesday night.

“He’s got good extension, good ride, things like that,” said Phillies left fielder Kyle Schwarber, who went 0-for-3 with Javier in the game but worked Pressly for a proven-futile one-out walk in the bottom of the ninth. “When it says ’92’ up on the board, it’s playing a little bit harder than that.”

Javier was far from alone, of course. The Astros lineup pushed, shoved, bumped, and prodded through the first four against Nola, but had nothing on the scoreboard to show for it. They’d already played fifteen straight Series innings without scoring and must have begun wondering how they could buy a run or two on the black market if it came to that.

Then they loaded the pads on Nola to open the top of the fifth. Center fielder Chas McCormick opened with a grounder into the left-side hole that Phillies shortstop Bryson Stott backhanded breathlessly but couldn’t throw in time to stop McCormick. Jose Altuve lined one over Stott’s stretch for a quick base hit.

As Jose Alvarado got up and throwing in the Phillies bullpen, rookie Astro shortstop Jeremy Peña lined one so hard through short for a hit that there was no way McCormick could score.

Yet.

Even more so than earlier in the Series, Peña continued making the Astros feeling less regret about losing shortstop mainstay Carlos Correa to free agency last winter. And while he batted against Nola, Phillies manager Rob Thomson took no chances and got Jose Alvarado up and throwing in the bullpen. As soon as Peña stopped at first, Thomson reached for Alvarado, the stout lefthander, with lefthanded Astros bomber Yordan Alvarez due to hit.

Alvarado wanted to tie Alvarez up on the first pitch, going inside. The pitch sailed all the way into Alvarado’s ribs to send McCormick strolling home with the first Astros run. Some dare call it poking the bears.

Almost immediately, Astros third baseman Alex Bregman lined one the other way to deep right for a two-run double and Kyle Tucker sent Alvarez home on a sacrifice fly. Then Yuli Gurriel, the ancient Astros first baseman who’s still a tough strikeout, grounded an 0-2 service through shortstop to score Bregman.

“I was focused on the target,” Alvarado said postgame. “The same Alvarado as always. The last thing I want to do there is hit him.”

From there the two bullpens kept each other quiet enough, with only Phillies reliever Brad Hand surrendering a ninth-inning hit to Peña before stranding him on a pair of fly outs. But the Astros pen finishing what Javier started so brilliantly finished the real Game Four story.

“This,” Javier said postgame, “is the best gift I could have ever given my family, my parents. To me, it’s even more special knowing that they were able to see that in person.” It wasn’t exactly the worst gift he could have given his teammates, either.

“Just going into today’s game, we had so much confidence in him,” said McCormick. “Even coaches, I had a feeling—Javier’s going to shove today. And he’s been shoving.”

That’s a polite way to put it. Almost completely hidden all year long, at least until Wednesday night, according to the invaluable Jayson Stark, was Javier keeping opposing batters to a .170 average against him foe the season. For his last six starts including Game Four, Javier surrendered as many hits as Nola surrendered in Game Four alone. Batters across the six hit .067 against him.

Not even Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, or Randy Johnson ever had a six-start, five-plus-innings, seven-hit string of starts like that, Stark exhumed. No pitcher ever did something like that until Javier.

So the righthander with the throwing-upstairs look in his delivery wasn’t exactly coming into Game Four unarmed. Now he manhandled a Phillies team that averaged seven runs a game this postseason coming in. And his bullpen finished what he started with near-similar manhandling.

“You get slapped in the face [in Game Three] and go back today and make a statement,” Pressly said. “You try to have the mind of the goldfish in this game. You try not to think about anything. You just want to go out there and try to produce and put a ‘W’ in the column.”

Never mind that Larsen, the Yankee righthander who kept the Dodgers hitless, runless, and runnerless in 1956, remains in his own postseason no-hit class for doing it all by his lonesome. This game takes its own place of singularity. Eighteen combined no-hitters have been thrown in Show history, but this was the first to happen in a World Series.

Astros catcher Martín Maldonado, who yielded in favour of Vásquez for Game Four, didn’t mind that Javier wouldn’t get the chance to go the distance with it.

“It’s about winning the game. That’s all. As long as we win the game, the result doesn’t matter. It’s about winning. The World Series is about winning. It’s not about a player or an achievement, or about player recognition or anything like that. The World Series is about winning. It’s about, ‘Give me as many innings as you can. Give us a chance to win’.”

And if a little history is made doing so, Maldonado won’t really complain. Especially since it guaranteed the Series getting back to Houston at all. They wouldn’t mind going there with a 3-2 Series lead and the upstart Phillies knocking on death’s door.

But the Phillies abused Justin Verlander in Game One and get another crack at the future Hall of Famer in Game Five. It’s not impossible that being no-hit the night after they flew the bombers down the Astros’ throats might give these Phillies—planning a bullpen game to be opened by Noah Syndergaard—the same kind of incentive the Astros took into Game Four.

Prick these Phillies and they’ll pounce back. Slap them, and they’ll shove back. “Confident as ever,” said third baseman Alec Bohm about the team mood after shaking off the no-hitter. “I don’t think anybody’s worried. Tonight stays here. Tomorrow’s a new day.”

“It’s just a loss,” said Schwarber. “Now it’s a race to two. See what happens.”

Now we’ll find out what these Phillies will or won’t do the day after their bats were tied behind their backs. But we’ll also find out whether the Astros can win a game, if not a World Series, of “Can You Top This?”