A nightmare on Keystone Street

Jose Altuve, shocked to his haunches by an unexpected and unlikely throwing problem.

Now hear this. Especially you, Astroworld. And you, too, anti-Astroworld. Jose Altuve deserves your sympathy and empathy. Not your scorn.

Some of the greatest fielders in the business come up short or falter off line. Much of the time it happens not when they’re doing what they shouldn’t ought to be doing but when they’re doing it the way they’re supposed to be doing.

Baseball’s irrevocable laws include that anything can happen—and usually does. Even and especially in the negative. It doesn’t just happen to men who know better but did what they knew going in might be wrong. It happens to the best in the business, to men who enter trying to do right and end up doing too wrong without even trying.

A six-time All-Star who has at least one Gold Glove on his resume doesn’t premeditate and plot to turn a mostly right battle of the pitchers into a Monty Python’s Flying Circus-like comedy of error and surreality with his team measuring on the wrong end of the laugh-that-you-might-not-weep meter. And landing on the brink of being swept into winter vacation.

Bad enough Altuve had two throws disobey his right arm’s orders in Game Two, especially since one of them might have been tried and convicted on the right side if Astro first baseman Yuli Gurriel had gotten his mitt around instead of in front of the ball, even backhanding to try for it.

But all Altuve did in top of the sixth in Game Three was pick Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe’s bouncing grounder with vacuum cleaner hands, throw to shortstop Carlos Correa ready to start a double play . . . and watch as though witness to a murder as the ball bounced past Correa, handing the Rays first and second and nobody out.

Altuve might have preferred an on-the-spot assassination over what followed. Opposite-field two-run single. The first sacrifice bunt seen all postseason long, from a team who avoided the bunt like the coronavirus all year long. Back-to-back hit batsmen to re-load the bases and push a run home. A pinch-hit shuttlecock becoming a two-run double.

None of that’s on Altuve. He didn’t surrender those hits or hit those batters. Remember that.

A 5-1 Rays lead—turned a mere 5-2 when Michael Brantley hit a kind of excuse-me solo homer in the bottom of the sixth—wasn’t the way either Altuve or the Astros planned things after Altuve’s one-out solo bomb in the bottom of the first handed the Astros the 1-0 lead that would last exactly four more innings.

The two starting pitchers, Houston’s Jose Urquidy and Tampa Bay’s Ryan Yarbrough, fenced sharply through five full, if you didn’t count Yarbrough’s slightly shaky second (walk, plunk). Urquidy’s harder stuff against Yarbrough’s repertoire of off-speed breakers that have movement enough to avoid being dismissed as slop.

They put the history minded in mind of Casey Stengel’s ancient observation, after the Ol’ Perfesser watched his Yankee craftsman Eddie Lopat duel Brooklyn Dodgers craftsman Preacher Roe in a 1952 World Series game:

Those two fellas certainly make baseball look like a simple game, don’t they? It makes you wonder. You pay all that money to great big fellas with a lot of muscles and straight stomachs who go up there and start swinging. And [Lopat and Roe] give ’em a little of this and a little of that and swindle ’em.

Then Astros manager Dusty Baker got Urquidy the hell out of there right after Altuve’s sad betrayal. He wasn’t going to let his sharp young righthander hang around in case fumble turned into funeral. His Astros had enough problems coming into this postseason in the first place.

Didn’t they manage to survive injuries, inconsistency, sleeping bats, and their sometimes self-amplified status as the Show’s number one bandits, just to sneak into commissioner Rob Manfred’s pandemic-inspired, sixteen-team postseason at all?

Don’t they have enough trouble going what’s now 4-for-24 with runners in scoring position this ALCS and sending not one of them home? Or leaving a combined 31 men on base? Against a collection of Rays known only to themselves and each other—until they get their acrobats, aerialists, jugglers, high-wire walkers, and human cannoballs on at the merest hint of a hard-hit ball?

The last must feel especially as though rubbing it into the usually proud, suddenly hapless Altuve. You can’t blame the man. His teammates and his skipper are probably trying to figure out just how—short of kidnapping—to keep the Rays from turning any more of these games into something straight out Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

For the benefit of Mr. Kite/there will be a show tonight/on trampoline.
The Hendersons will all be there/late of Pablo Fanques Faire/what a scene!
Over men and horses/hoops and garters/lastly through a hogshead of real fire—
in this way, Mr. K will challenge the world!

“Nobody feels worse than Jose, because he takes it very serious and takes it to heart,” said Baker after the game, mindful that Altuve has a history of all but beating himself senseless whenever he hits a slump period. “He’s one of ours, and we’ve all been through this before. Not in this spotlight like this. It hurts us all to see him hurting.”

The Rays’ Mr. K is manager Kevin Cash. He and his Hendersons are challenging the world, indeed. He has his Arozarenas, Kiermaiers, Margots, Renfroes, and Wendles going over men, horses, hoops, and garters.

He even had his relief pitcher John Curtiss going through the hogshead of fire in the seventh Tuesday night. Curtiss took a lunging leap to his right to spear Gurriel’s high bouncer to the third base side of the hill, and threw Gurriel out while springing up from his knees. We do this kinda stuff to ’em all through the picture!

About the only thing Mr. K didn’t have in the repertoire was his stout reliever Diego Castillo choosing the bottom of the ninth to form his own escape trap. Starting with a swinging strikeout, he walked pinch-hitter Abraham Toro plus George Springer back-to-back.<

Then, Castillo struck poor Altuve out on a check swing that may or may not have been a gift from plate umpire Jeff Nelson. The best explanation may have been Altuve leaning so far forward checking his swing that it looked as though his bat nicked across the front of the plate. At minimum, Nelson should have called for help to be absolutely sure.

Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered in the end, but still. And Castillo jammed Brantley into a fist fly to left center that Margot hustled in to grab to end it. The check swing won’t be dissected even a thirty-second as deep as will Altuve’s continuing throwing trouble.

There’s no good time to catch what sports calls the yips—the sudden inability of a ballplayer to execute what he’s been doing blindfolded all his life. And there isn’t always a good explanation for just how and why it happens. Just ask one of the most notorious cases, the only infielder in baseball who beat the yips back successfully while he still had a lot of career left.

“I can feel for Jose. There’s nothing worse in the world,” said Steve Sax, the one-time Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman whose thirty 1983 throwing errors were attributable to the yips—until, he once said, his final conversation with his dying father, when Dad told him it wasn’t a physical or mental block but unexpected lost confidence.

“It’s the most lonely place to be,” Sax continued in a telephone interview. “It’s embarrassing. It’s just awful. I hope he can grasp this as soon as possible because this thing is very simple. It’s right in front of him. So many people are going to say, ‘Oh, Jose, you have a mental block.’ He doesn’t. He has a temporary loss of confidence. It has nothing to do with his mental state. Something triggered him to start questioning his ability, that’s why he’s doing this. When he gets his confidence, this will disappear.”

The only problem is that the Astros’ postseason presence may disappear before Altuve’s problem or the Rays’ flying circus do. But he needed lots of help bringing the Astros to this brink and he got it, too. And exactly half of it wears Rays uniforms.

That goes for both enough Astro fans ready to plant the goat horns into Altuve’s forehead and enough anti-Astro fans proclaiming this, especially, is nothing but Astrogate karma. And don’t even think about killing his father to cure him.

The day of living dangerously

SHAZAM!! Manuel Margot, training for the Olympic pole-vault team in the second inning Tuesday.

If you thought like me that Game One was The Little Bang Theory, what should we call Game Two? How about, The Day of Living Dangerously? For the Tampa Bay Rays, that is. They beat the Houston Astros, 4-2, Monday afternoon, but it looked for awhile as though they decided to defy a suicide pact.

Actually, it looked as though their usually-reliable bullpen bull Nick Anderson made and then abrogated the suicide pact, at the last split second before his end of the bargain would have required him firing the bullet through his head.

He’d surrendered back-to-back-to-back singles to Yuli Gurriel, Josh Reddick, and pinch-hitter Aledmys Diaz. He gave up the run to get George Springer to whack into a step-and-throw double play to second. Then, he re-loaded the pillows with back-to-back, four-pitch walks to Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley.

For a few brief and none-too-shining moments, with the shadows crawling across San Diego’s Petco Park, you could see the Rays’ dreams of somehow, maybe chasing the Astros home for the winter a little prematurely by Astro standards going up in a cloud of dust when Alex Bregman hit Anderson’s fastball just off the middle to him.

All afternoon long, the Rays took everything the Astros dished out, which was about ten times as much as the Rays could muster, and still clung to the lead they took in the first after the nice Astros were generous to a fault with them with no score, two out, and Randy Arozarena on first with a base hit to left instead of his customary home run.

Specifically, Altuve proved the generous one. The usually sure-handed, sure-armed second baseman snapped up Ji-Man Choi’s grounder to shallow right into the shift but threw offline enough to first baseman Yuli Gurriel to set up first and second. Setting Manuel Margot up to hit Astro starter Lance McCullers, Jr.’s second pitch to him into the left field cutouts.

From there it went thus: McCullers, way out-pitching his former Astros rotation mate Charlie Morton . . . and leaving after seven innings, in the seventh of which Rays catcher Mike Zunino—with two out and nobody aboard—hit a 1-1 sinker that didn’t sink enough over the center field fence.

The Astros, Dr. Peppering the Rays at the plate, outhitting them 10-2-4 . . . and still unable to paint the scoreboard more than Carlos Correa hitting otherwise effective Rays reliever Pete Fairbanks’s 1-0 fastball a lot further over the center field fence than Zunino’s would travel.

Every Astro hitter except Bregman having at least one hit on the day . . . and still going a measly 1-for-4 with runners in scoring position.

Diver down . . .

The problem was the Rays playing like they thought they were the 1969 Mets. Acrobats, jugglers, and precision shooters in the field. Maybe the only thing the Rays didn’t have going for them on defense was the 82nd Airborne. And maybe they think, who the hell needs those guys after Margot’s shazam! in the top of the second.

Gurriel (one-out single) on third, Martin Maldonado (two-out ground-rule double) on second, two out, and Springer swinging on 1-1. The ball sailing up and toward the right field line. Margot chasing across the sun field, glove shielding his eyes enough to keep the ball in sight. The high sidewall coming into quicker sight as the ball angled to foul ground. Margot taking a flying leap.

Olympic pole vaulters don’t clear their bars like that. Do they?

He speared the ball one-handed a split second before his torso hit the wall’s top fence brace and he bent over that brace and fell into a straight-down dive on the far side, bending just in time not to land flat on his head. Then he sprang up almost as swiftly, somehow, thrusting his glove hand up in a perfect Lady Liberty impression.

Shazam!

The Petco Park audience would have heaved a sigh of relief enough to blow a typhoon from the shores of California to the rock-bound coasts of Maine—if there’s been a real crowd in the park, that is.

When he sprang up almost as swiftly to show he held onto the ball, the Petco Park audience would have heaved a sigh of relief enough to blow a hurricane from the shores of California to the rock-bound coasts of Maine—if there’d been a real crowd in the park, that is.

After all the foregoing plus that near brain-scrambling pole vault of a catch, wouldn’t you think that even an Anderson who might still have been a little gassed or hung over from his Friday night’s labour would think twice before compelling a high-wire act with no guarantee of a trampoline to break his and the Rays’ fall.

Bregman’s high liner sent center fielder Kevin Kiermaier back. And back. To the track. At the wall. Caught. Game over. Crash carts taken off white-hot alert. Oxygen ventilators shut down for the night.

Every other Rays heart still threatening to break through their owners’ rib cages and skins. Every Astro probably wondering to themselves whether it would take nuclear weapons and exterminators to rid themselves of these death-defying pests. Maybe they’ll call the 82nd Airborne. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is out of business, you know.

 

Joe Morgan, RIP: The Machine’s main man

A portrait of the artist as a young Astro.

In terms of watching and following and loving baseball, I went back a very long way with Joe Morgan. In the early years of the Houston franchise, from the Colt .45s to the Astros, Morgan was one of the three Astros I knew immediately, the others being his middle infield partner Denis Menke and pitcher/eventual manager Larry Dierker.

At the plate Morgan was already something of an on-base machine whose smarts with a bat, not to mention unusual power for middle infielders in the 1960s, got challenged only too often by the cavernous-enough Astrodome. Around second base Morgan and Menke were as sleek and coordinated a double play team as you ever saw.

The Hall of Famer who’s widely considered the greatest all-around second baseman ever to play the game died Sunday at 77 in his Danville, California home after a long battle with leukemia developed from myelodysplastic syndrome and with a form of polyneuropathy.

We don’t know yet whether Morgan died watching his one-time, long-time Astros opening the American League Championship Series with a loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, as Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford died at home watching his Yankees tangle with the Rays last Thursday.

But one thing we do know is that the Astros handed the Cincinnati Reds the keys to the kingdom, not to mention two leases in the Promised Land, when they included Morgan—the final but most important gear in the Big Red Machine—in an eight-player swap with the Reds after the 1971 season.

The question is, why. The answer is, most likely, Harry Walker, the last Astros manager for whom Morgan played.

Aside from Walker tending to treat his non-white players like children with the brains of turnips, Harry the Hat had a habit from hell. He fancied himself a great hitting guru (he wasn’t) who’d had one unlikely success that he couldn’t live without trying to lather, rinse, repeat, repeatedly, in the years to come of his managing career.

The unlikely success was Matty Alou. He let Walker—newly installed to manage the Pittsburgh Pirates for 1966—convince him to marry a heavier bat to choking up and slap-and-tickling his way on base. Just the way Walker himself did in his own playing career. Then Alou made a huge mistake. He won the 1966 National League batting title with one of the emptiest .342 hitting averages you ever saw. He’d finish his career as one of the emptiest .300 hitters you ever saw.

Alou also finished his career with practically the same average run production per 162 games lifetime as Walker did: 120 for Harry the Hat, 117 for Alou.

When Walker took the Astro bridge, he went to work at once. He saw a pack of smart, solid hitters with decent power and able to reach base reasonably enough and failed to see them. Because what he really wanted to see was a lineup full of Matty Alous. He wanted to repeat his striking success with Alou (his batting average in ’66 was 82 points higher than his lifetime average going into that season) in the worst way possible.

And the worst way possible is exactly what Harry the Hat got for his trouble.

He tried to convince Morgan to channel the inner Matty Alou he didn’t have. He tried turning Bob Watson into the all-fields hitter he wasn’t and, while he was at it, turning Watson from a first baseman (which he was, more than capably) into a catcher (which he wasn’t, less than capably). He also tried to convince Jimmy Wynn to barrel up less and worry about his batting average more, never mind Wynn being one of the National League’s most consistent power hitters.

The fact that Wynn was an on-base machine himself by way of his smarts working out walks when need be didn’t turn up on Walker’s limited radar. Walker seemed to believe being smart enough to take the base on balls when the pitches didn’t look too hittable equaled laziness, lack of hustle.

Morgan was self-assured enough to stand athwart Walker regardless. Wynn couldn’t convince Harry the Hat that his strikeouts were an awful lot better than hitting into double plays. And neither Little Joe nor the Toy Cannon were exactly shy about letting the skipper know just that.

They tangled with Walker. (Jim Bouton, whose Ball Four covered his short stint with the 1969 Astros, remembered Wynn holding an empty rifle to Walker’s hotel room door just to blow off steam.) They lost.”The pruning of ‘troublemakers’ is a yearly project with the Astros,” snarked The Sporting News in 1971, “particularly so since Walker has been manager.”

More important, when Reds general manager Bob Howsam offered Lee May, Tommy Helms, and Jimmy Stewart to the Astros for Morgan, Menke, Ed Armbrister, Jack Billingham, and Cesar Geronimo, Astros GM Spec Richardson pounced. Richardson couldn’t yet admit that his malcontents had good reason for their malcontent and that his manager’s inveterate search for a lineup of Matty Alous did the Astros exactly one favour: none.

It did the Reds the biggest favour in their history. For the first five seasons of Morgan’s life as a Machinist, the Reds won four National League Wests, back-to-back pennants, and back-to-back World Series. The back-to-back Promised Land leases were accompanied by Morgan’s back-to-back National League Most Valuable Player awards. For the first five seasons of Morgan’s all-around, elbow-flapping, nail-driving tenure as a Machinist, he was the absolute best player on the team.

He was worth 47.8 wins above a replacement level player in just those five years. No other Red was close. Not Johnny Bench (32.4), not Pete Rose (31.4), not Tony Perez (18.3). The pain in the neck opponents saw at the plate or playing second base wasn’t just in their eyes. The objective and deeper measurements say the Big Red Machine would not have been at peak efficiency and would not have won without him.

Morgan even got to make a return engagement with the Astros after the Reds began dismantling the Machine rather than accommodate to the new free agency era. The Astros brought Morgan home on a free agency signing and he got to be part of the Astros’ surprise but engaging run to the 1980 National League Championship Series.

He even got to help the 1983 Philadelphia Wheeze Kids into the postseason. Not to mention joining the Giants and hitting the season-killing blow for the Dodgers, a two-out, three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh putting the game out of reach and assuring the Dodgers of a second-place NL West finish.

In later life Morgan became a popular and respected baseball announcer, providing insight astride Jon Miller’s play-by-play for years of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. He also became a member of the Hall of Fame’s board of directors. He was friendly and open, talking to anyone with a brain and discouraging people from calling him anything more formal than Joe, especially fellow former players.

His aplomb could be disarming, such as when he and Miller were at the mikes when the Loma Prieta earthquake rudely interrupted the 1989 World Series. “Well, I grew up in the Bay Area,” he said dryly, “so I’ve been in earthquakes before.” He wasn’t exactly bragging about it.

He was engagingly candid and realistic about his on-air presence and style. “I don’t see myself as a Larry King or somebody,” he once said. “When you do interviews, sometimes it turns to interrogations. I’m more of a conversationalist, not throwing hardball questions.”

Yet even he could never entirely avoid the mistreatment to which black people remain subject. He was once detained roughly in 1988, at Los Angeles International Airport, by undercover police assuming him a drug courier.

“Over the next hours, the nightmare deepened, and it was all because I was just another black man,” he wrote in his memoir. “No longer a celebrity, as anonymous as any other black man, I was exposed to whatever fury was going to be meted out.” He proved his identity at police headquarters and was also exposed to a $796,000 settlement in his favour by the Los Angeles City Council.

Morgan’s most wounding flaw as an analyst was his war against sabermetric analysis. This engaging man, with one of the finest minds his sport has ever known, dismissed the very idea of deep analysis of his sport, of which statistics are the very life blood, in the kind of shrillery and incoherence you’d sooner expect of an office seeker rejecting what was plain to see in front of him as an illusion, if not fake news.

Even when sabermetrics rated Morgan the greatest second baseman ever to play the game, ahead of Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby. To Morgan, Hornsby’s .358 lifetime batting average reigned supreme. Hornsby’s lackings as an all-around second baseman, and his compiling outrageous batting stats in a heavily hitter-friendly, all-daytime, non-integrated game, didn’t even register.

This was the same man whose gracious Hall of Fame acceptance speech included, “I take my vote as a salute to the little guy, the one who doesn’t hit 500 home runs. I was one of the guys that did all they could to win. I’m proud of my stats, but I don’t think I ever got on for [those].”

So let us remember Morgan the strong-willed little big man, flapping his left arm in the batter’s box before ripping a screaming line drive or a high-lining home run, turning basepaths into guerrilla warfare turf like his hero Jackie Robinson, making second base a place for the death of an enemy rally, the field lieutenant absolutely sure he’ll clear out the thickets for himself and his troops to neutralise all opposing weapons.

Let’s also remember Morgan the family man, raising two daughters who became college athletes, divorced when he and his first wife drifted apart but remarrying happily and having twin daughters with his second wife. Morgan makes the sixth Hall of Famer we’ve lost to the Elysian Fields this surrealistic season, but their loss can only be deeper.

The little bang theory

Diego Castillo, after closing the Rays’ ALCS Game One win Sunday night.

How bizarre was Game One of the American League Championship Series? Aside from being played in a National League ballpark, that is? Aside from the Tampa Bay Rays having a barely quenchable thirst for doing things the hard way and making the other guys do things likewise?

They beat the Houston Astros 2-1 Sunday night. Just as they beat the New York Yankees 2-1 to get here in the first place. Except that’s where the similarities end, no matter how good the Rays are at minimalism.

They’re to the low score what the Astros are to the big bang. They’ve played three postseason games thus far scoring two runs or less—and won two. Everyone else this postseason scoring two or less? Three wins, nineteen losses.

They struck out thirteen times against Framber Valdez and three Houston relief pitchers—and won. Just the way they did against the Yankees to get to the ALCS, and just the way nobody else this postseason has.

The Rays are about as intimidated by striking out as David was by Goliath. All year long including this postseason, you can look it up, they struck out thirteen times or more in twelve games—and won eight. Anyone else? Not even close. They’d rather strike out than hit into double plays.

They endured Sunday night without going to most of their A-list bullpen bulls. Nick Andersen and Peter Fairbanks didn’t even poke their noses out of their holes. Remember: there’ll be no days off during the ALCS, either. He who tends his bullpen best is liable to be he who survives with the least damage.

The lone Rays A-lister available Sunday after last Friday’s Yankee wrestling match was Diego Castillo. Largely because the chunky righthander himself told his boss he had at least an inning in him despite throwing 29 pitches over two innings to end the ALDS.

“Man,” said manager Kevin Cash after Sunday’s game, “he’s a stud. He was the one that was available between Nick, Pete and himself. We felt he could give us an inning.” So Cash brought him in to squelch a bases-loaded mess into which C-list reliever Aaron Loup managed to hand the Astros in the top of the eighth. No pressure.

Castillo threw one pitch to Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel. It was an intended sinkerball that hung up around Gurriel’s hands. Gurriel whacked it on the ground up the middle and right to the oncoming Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe. Lowe executed the step-and-throw inning-ending, disaster-ducking double play.

“We needed the ball on the ground,” said Rays catcher Mike Zunino after the game. “That’s the first thing. When Cashie left the mound, I told [third baseman Mike] Brosseau that he was going to get the ground ball.” So Lowe got it instead. Nobody’s perfect.

Sunday night wasn’t a Night of the Pitchers with a dramatic eighth-inning home run making the final difference between the two top teams in the American League East. This was the Amazing Randi versus David Copperfield with one hand behind their backs and one eye obstructed behind a patch.

It was the night the Astros’ young lefthanded lancer Framber Valdez came pretty much as advertised out of the chute. And, the night the Rays’ lefthanded, former Cy Young Award winning veteran Blake Snell came to prove he could get away with sticking his head into the lion’s mouth and yanking it out the split half second before the lion could snap its jaws around his neck.

It was the night the designated home team Rays went 1-for-8 with men in scoring position and left nine men on base, versus the designated visiting Astros went 2-for-8 with men in scoring position and left ten men on, with both teams having what looked like scores in the making snuffed by swift and slick pitching to some swift and slick infield defense.

It was also the night Jose Altuve hit a Snell meatball into the left field seats on 2-1 in the top of the first, Randy Arozarena found a Valdez sinker that didn’t sink under the middle of the zone to sink behind the center field fence in the bottom of the fourth, and a leadoff walk followed by a pair of grounders back to the mound and a clean base hit plating Rays shortstop Willy Adames in the bottom of the fifth.

From there it was a contest to see whose bullpen depth mattered more and whose offense might turn possibles into plotzes worse. When it finally finished, the Rays stood at 33-0 when when leading after the seventh this year and holding a Show-leading 73-game winning streak when leading in the eighth.

They also stood proud Sunday night with a now 16-5 record in one-run 2020 games, the .762 winning percentage the best in major league history. The little engine that could? The Rays are the little engine that do.

“The one thing you learn about our club over 60 or 162,” Cash told reporters, “we’re in a lot of tight ballgames. And tight ballgames, you’ve got to teach yourself how to win those. That’s mistake-free, playing clean. There’s no margin for error and I think our guys take that approach every single night when they take the field.”

Tight ballgames? If Game One got any tighter there would have been crash carts in the cutout-filled seats and oxygen ventilators in the on-deck circles.

“They do some things that are unusual,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker before the game. If understatement is an irrevocable requirement for Manager of the Year, Baker might have this year’s award nailed down tight shut.

But Cash solidified his own airtight case, taking baseball’s version of of the 99 Cent Store (O Woolworth, where is thy sting?) to the top of the American League East irregular season heap and to the postseason’s number-one seed. He’s the director of the Rays starring in The Little Bang Theory.

They shoved the Toronto Blue Jays out of the wild card series in half a blink, wrangled the Empire Emeritus out of the division series, and neutralised the postseason-resurgent Astros’ big bats into cardboard tubes to open this week’s showdown.

They did it despite Snell seeming bent on setting new major league records for getting himself into more full counts than the law allows and escaping when it looked like the coppers had the cuffs around his wrists ready to click shut.

They did it despite Valdez striking out eight in six mostly splendid innings and the youthful enough Astros bullpen looking as though they’d been studying the Rays for what to do, how to do it, and when to do it.

No, the Rays had to suck the Astros into joining them for an act that made the Flying Wallendas resemble cartoon amateurs. They even had to find their own kind of exclamation point, with Castillo striking out Altuve, the pint size power plant who’d started the evening with the long ball, on a nice, nasty, diving-away slider to close it out at last.

Last fall, the Rays lost a division series to the Astros in five games but proved they could play up to and with the big beasts when given the chance. This fall they’re proving that the great white whales don’t stand that much of a chance against a pack of hell-bent-for-blubber anchovies. So far.

The Astros in the ALCS? Relax.

Manager Dusty Baker gets a hug from catcher Martin Maldonado as the Astros celebrate bumping the Athletics off in their ALDS Thursday.

We just got one step closer to the possibility of at least one losing irregular season team turning up in the World Series, anyway. Maybe it’ll still be enough to make commissioner Rob Manfred’s hopes of too-far-expanded postseasons future, which may or many not involve as many as sixteen teams, disappear. Maybe.

The best way to make that disappearance happen would have been a Houston Astros-Milwaukee Brewers World Series, of course. Unfortunately, the Brewers didn’t keep their side of the bargain. The National League West champion Los Angeles Dodgers wouldn’t let them. If anything, the chance of an Astros-Dodgers World Series re-match got a lot bigger after Thursday’s doings.

On Thursday night, the Dodgers destroyed the plucky, exuberant, fun-fun-fun San Diego Padres 12-3, to finish a National League division series sweep in which only one game turned out close thanks to a near-imploding Dodger bullpen. At least they know who they’ll face in the National League Championship Series, thanks to the NL East champion Atlanta Braves wiping the suddenly-upstart Miami Marlins out 7-0 in a dissimilar sweep.

The Padres at least scored in each of the three games. The Marlins scored five in Game One but got shut out in Games Two and Three. By a Braves pitching staff that’s now pitched shutouts in four of their five postseason games. Maybe the chance of an Astros-Dodgers World Series re-match isn’t quite as powerful as you might think?

The Astros wrecked any Oakland Athletics comeback hopes by turning an early 3-0 deficit into an 11-6 Game Four demolition so profound that the A’s ninth-inning pushback resembled unanswerable cries for help from the bottom of the ocean after falling off the Bay Bridge just when they’d finally decided life was too precious to jump.

Admit it: When the A’s jumped Zack Greinke for three in the second it looked for awhile as though they’d force a Game Five. About a blink of awhile when all was said and done.

Matt Olson snuck a base hit through an Astro infield shift, Mark Canha hit one for which Astro shortstop Carlos Correa dove and barely missed for his first lifetime hit off Greinke, Ramon Laureano hit a full-count slider into the left field bleachers, and it looked like the Astros gamble with Greinke—sending him to start with his sore arm possibly not fully recovered—would fail.

Then the A’s starter Frankie Montas’s fortune ran cold in the fourth. How cold? Try Antarctic cold. Michael Brantley hit a two-run homer and Correa hit a three-run bomb, then Montas two more or less excuse-me outs while leaving first and second when manager Bob Melvin lifted him to go to his usually reliable bullpen.

This time, that bullpen didn’t have it. The Astros tore six runs out of that pen before they were finished. Between them, the Astros and the A’s finished setting a new division series record by hitting 24 into the seats all set long. Each team hit twelve. Including Brantley, Correa, and Laureano twice in Game Four. Altuve joined the Thursday bomb squad when he hit one out off Jake Diekman with Martin Maldonado aboard to complete the Astros’ scoring.

But there’s unfinished Friday business to come. The Astros don’t know yet whether they’ll meet the American League East champion Tampa Bay Rays or the AL East runner-up New York Yankees. The Yankees held the Rays off 5-1 on Thursday, somehow, some way, and they’ll open Friday with a distinct advantage named Gerrit Cole. Sort of.

The sort-of is that Cole has never pitched on short rest in his entire major league career. Ever. He’s pitched 106 games on four days’ rest, 67 on five days’ rest, and 31 on six or more days’ rest. It may be the first time in Cole’s sterling career when the phrase “roll of the dice” applies to him.

Can they get a miracle from Cole Friday? He faces Tyler Glasnow, credited with the Game Two win despite surrendering four Yankee runs. Glasnow hasn’t done it since he pitched nine games in relief for the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates. They were the only nine relief gigs of his career to date. And the Rays will likely turn it over to their bullpen if Glasnow gets into trouble early enough.

Either way, Friday’s Yankees-Rays show will be must-see TV for baseball lovers in general but the Astros in particular. What a way to have to spend one of their only two days off before the ALCS begins—in San Diego’s Petco Park, under the pandemic-inspired semi-bubble/neutral-site plan.

As if the Astros didn’t have enough migraines this year. They lost Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery and Cole to free agency. Greinke pitched better than his 4.03 irregular season ERA tells you before his arm soreness kicked over. (His 2020 fielding-independent pitching [FIP]: 2.80.) If their set with the A’s went to a fifth game, they’d have gone most likely to Framber Valdez to open and turned it over to their bullpen at the first sign of trouble.

Now they get to open the ALCS with Valdez—who beat the A’s with seven two-run innings in division series Game Two. Setting them up to work Greinke on his regular rest including a Game Seven if need be. Jose Urquidy will look to prove his ALDS Game Three outing—slapped silly for four home runs in four and a third innings—was an aberration, but beware: his irregular season 2.73 ERA was deceptive looking considering his 4.71 FIP.

They also get to show a little more that their 29-31 irregular season record just might have projected to an acquitting winning record, maybe even another AL West title, if the season had been full and normal. Might.

One key reason for that 29-31 record was being hit with an injury bug enough to rival the battered Yankees of the past two years. But, deeper reality check: this year’s Astros aren’t really as good as last year’s. Even if manager Dusty Baker finally overcame his lifelong prejudice and learned how to have as much faith in his youth as in his elder players.

They lost their best player of the future, 2019 Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez, to a season-ending injury. Altuve struggled early, found his stroke later in August, then hit the injured list with a knee sprain. They’ve lost key pitchers Chris Devenski, Brad Peacock, and Roberto Osuna to season-ending injuries. This postseason Astro staff could be called, plausibly, Greinke, Urquidy, and the Newer Kids on the Block.

Even with those compromises, this year’s Astro Core Five (Altuve, Correa, Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel, and George Springer) had a lower weighted on-base percentage than last year’s edition. It looked better for the Astros that they bombed twelve homers and averaged 8.3 runs a game against the A’s better-than-they-look pitching staff. Of course, the chatter about slightly deadened balls on the irregular season and slightly amplified balls for the postseason is entirely coincidental.

It bodes well for the Astros whether they get the Rays or the Yankees in the ALCS, and they know neither of those teams are pushovers. Scoring 33 runs against a crew of A’s that scored 22, knowing that often as not 22 runs are good enough to win a short set, gives the Astros a little extra comfort to take in.

It even bodes well for them that somehow, some way, they’ve managed to get this far even under the still-hovering clouds of Astrogate. They hit the irregular season running with only nine men left on the roster from the 2017-18 cheaters. They’re closer than you might think or accept to turning what’s left of that roster over and finally putting the Astrogate stain behind them.

Turning what’s left of that roster over? Well, Gurriel has re-upped for another season. But Springer and Reddick face free agency this winter. New general manager James Click has said he’d like to keep Springer on board even with young Kyle Tucker’s emergence, but whether the Astros have the dollars to do it (they’d like to avoid luxury tax penalisation if possible) is another question yet to be answered.

The pandemic did the Astros a huge favour in keeping them from normal ballpark crowds who surely would have let them have it long and loud, over both the scandal of their illegal electronic sign-stealing cheating and their more sad than sickening, mealymouthed non-apologies at that disaster of a February presser.

(Don’t even think about it. Once more with feeling: there’s a Grand Canyon-size difference between a team like the Boston Rogue Sox using what MLB itself provided already in video rooms to steal signs and send them to baserunners to send hitters—you know, Mom and Dad give the kiddies the liquor cabinet keys daring them not to drink unlawfully—and the Astros who a) took an existing outfield camera off mandatory transmission delay, or b) installed a second, illegal real-time camera to send enemy signs to extra clubhouse monitors.)

Now, let’s be absolutely fair about this. Continuing to bop this year’s Astros on the nose over Astrogate when they have only eight men left playing from that tainted 2017 edition is unfair. Unfair but unstoppable, unfortunately, human nature being what it is.

Human nature includes being aghast that genuinely great teams  who would have demolished the league regardless felt compelled to operating the 2017 Astro Intelligence Agency or the 2018 Red Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring.

To too many people, cheaters once, cheaters always. Right? But nobody claimed the San Francisco Giants remained tainted for how their 1951 edition in New York cheated telescopically to pull off that dazzling pennant-race comeback and playoff force. Nobody really thinks the real curse upon the Cleveland Indians has to do with their 1948 telescopic cheating. (It doesn’t really have that much to do with trading Rocky Colavito at the end of spring training 1960, either.)

By all means hold the 2017-18 Astros to account in public opinion if Commissioner Nero didn’t, beyond a fine, a couple of stripped draft picks, and suspending their since-fired general manager, manager, bench coach (the Red Sox squeezed Alex Cora out as manager), and designated hitter. (The Mets squeezed Carlos Beltran out as manager before he even got to manage a spring training game for them.)

But don’t keep hammering this year’s Astros for it, until or unless someone discovers and produces proof of this year’s edition crossing to the dark side. (The Red Sox didn’t need anyone hammering them for their 2018 taint and similarly mealymouthed non-apologies. They plotzed this year all by themselves.)

You don’t have to root for or even like the Astros to give them whatever fair shake they deserve now. They’re a lot easier to like when you just watch them play baseball the way they normally play than they are when you have to listen to them talking to reporters. Which is what people have said about teams like the Yankees, the Dodgers, and even the St. Louis Cardinals for several generations, too, no?

Yet new manager Dusty Baker took their bridge and kept his and their marble (singular) through this season’s pandemic weirdness and Astrogate aftermath to sneak into the postseason at all. That has Baker in the Manager of the Year conversation and the Astros  on the brink of a possible third pennant in four seasons. The last team to go to three World Series in four seasons? Ladies and gentlemen, your 1998-2001 New York Yankees.

Consider this, too: With fans still kept out of the stands so far this postseason, it became too simple to hear every sound, noise, and utterance coming from the dugouts. Nobody heard anything this week that’s comparable to the Astrogaters banging the can slowly in 2017.

About the most suspicious sound coming out of Dodger Stadium during the Astros-A’s ALDS was the PA system DJ playing Booker T. & the MGs’ “Green Onions” at every opportunity. (That song was a huge hit—the year Dodger Stadium was born.) Some might wonder since when do today’s ballpark sound people have that kind of historic music sense. Speaking personally, it was music to my rhythm and blues ears.