The champion Nats and affordability

2019-12-06 AnthonyRendonStephenStrasburg

Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg share a high five in Atlanta during 2019. The Nats say they can’t afford to keep both. Depends on how you look at it? (USA Today photo.)

One of the Nationals’ postseason titans will remain a Nat for 2020 at least. Howie Kendrick’s reward for putting paid to the Dodgers’ 2019 and for bombing the Nats ahead to stay in Game Seven of the World Series is a one-year, $6.25 million deal.

That’s the good news. The bad news for Nats fans is that owner Mark Lerner says they can afford to keep only one of their two homegrowns who are now testing their first serious free agency markets.

At minimum, it seems, either Stephen Strasburg or Anthony Rendon is “affordable” even for the team whose ownership—if you include Lerner’s father, Ted, whose fortune anchors in real estate—is baseball’s second richest (net worth $5.3 billion) at this writing, with Giants owner Charles Johnson first richest (net worth $5.1 billion) pending the Mets’ transition to Steve Cohen’s ownership. (Cohen’s net worth: around $15 billion.)

But they can’t afford both.

“We really can only afford to have one of those two guys,” said Lerner about Strasburg and Rendon to NBC Sports Washington Thursday. “They’re huge numbers. We already have a really large payroll to begin with. So we’re pursuing them, we’re pursuing other free agents in case they decide to go elsewhere.”

Kendrick became a Nat in 2018, lost most of the season to a torn Achilles tendon, regrouped in 2019 for a .966 OPS, and became one of the keys to the Nats’ postseason conquest. His National League Championship Series MVP was merely the roast beef between the slices of boutique bread he surrounded it with before and after. Kendrick makes opposing managers look silly.

He took complete advantage of Dodger manager Dave Roberts almost inexplicably leaving Joe Kelly in for a second relief inning and hit a monstrous top of the tenth grand slam to finish the postseason hopes of the team for whom he played in 2015-2016 following nine better than useful seasons as an Angel.

Then Astros manager A.J. Hinch confounded fans and no few analysts alike by reaching for Will Harris instead of Gerrit Cole, as Game Seven starter Zack Greinke’s tank ran past E following a homer to Rendon and a followup walk to Juan Soto. And Kendrick made what Harris himself called “a championship play for a championship team.” It was the right move (Cole never pitched in relief in his life) made wrong.

Harris threw Kendrick a nasty cutter traveling low and away, and Kendrick sent it on a high line the other way until it went bonk! off the right field foul pole. Kendrick’s shot gave the Nats the Game Seven lead they didn’t relinquish and himself the likelihood that he’ll never have to buy his own drinks in Washington again. And it got him his reward for 2020, where he’ll have all season to accept thanks and, just maybe, deliver enough timely swings to send the Nats toward a successful renewal of their lease to the Promised Land.

But what of Strasburg, their World Series MVP, their postseason lancer whose lifetime 1.46 postseason ERA and 2019 1.37 postseason ERA overall hoists as a big-game pitcher the still young man who was their highest-hyped pitching prospect ever? Who survived second-year Tommy John surgery and assorted injuries to come to become first a good, then an above average, and finally a genuinely great pitcher who thrives the best when the moment’s the biggest?

And what of Rendon, their third-place National League MVP finisher in 2019, whose 1.059 postseason OPS and 25 runs postseason runs produced on the way to the Nats’ World Series triumph was at least as valuable to that conquest? Not to mention a third baseman who’s improved in leaps each season at the plate and at the hot corner?

(Rendon’s OPS from 2017-2019: .952; his real batting average [total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifices + hit by pitches divided by total plate appearances] over the span: .630. His lifetime RBA so far: .562. Out of eight Hall of Fame third basemen whose careers happened in the post-World War II/post-integration/night ball era, only four are higher than Rendon, in ascending order: George Brett, Eddie Mathews, Chipper Jones, and Mike Schmidt.)

Kendrick threatened to become the face of the postseason early and often, but Strasburg, Rendon, Max Scherzer, Juan Soto, and Ryan Zimmerman are the arguable none-too-small faces of the Nats. They personify the agenda Thomas Boswell says should be the Nats’ pursuit: “preserving the team’s culture.”

Maybe since-departed (for Japan, where he’ll get to play more than part time) Gerardo Parra brought the Nats the Baby Shark and opened their can of fearless fun factor in 2019. Parra may be crossing the Pacific but nobody wants to dispense with the Baby Shark just yet. Maybe not ever.

Boswell says the Nats must weigh such value as Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman, and “the versatile” Asdrubal Cabrera, Brian Dozier, Matt Adams, “and the modest but must-re-sign [Daniel] Hudson.” Sensibly enough.

But how about weighing the values of Strasburg and Rendon? And how about marrying those and the aforesaid values to an overall Nats culture of winning and having a blast doing it? No team in baseball was more plain fun to watch in 2019 than the Nats. Even the near-stoic Strasburg learned how to loosen up and shake a tail feather in the dugout.

Beware, Lerners. And general manager Mike Rizzo. You may think the Yankees have eyes for Strasburg, you may think the Phillies have likewise (remember what happened when you tried to get cute with Bryce Harper after 2018), but now the Angels may be laying in the weeds for him.

And that would be awfully tempting for Strasburg. Not just because there’d be a challenge for him in yanking their still-in-need-of-remodeling pitching staff into real competitiveness, but because they play an hour’s drive (assuming the traffic is decent, which is never a safe assumption in southern California) from Strasburg’s roots. Often as not in baseball you can go home again.

He’s not the only one with a California team pondering his presence. Rendon may be getting more than glances from the Dodgers he helped destroy in October. In fact, Strasburg and Rendon are both said to be on the Dodger radar, with incumbent Justin Turner willing to move to first base if Rendon becomes his new teammate. Beware, Nats. If you can’t or won’t keep them, the Dodgers might be only too happy to take them.

This would be called joining them if you can’t beat them. It was Strasburg who held down the fort in division series Game Five and didn’t let an early 3-0 Dodger lead knock him out of his zone. And it was Rendon who opened the game-tying top of the eighth, when Roberts gambled on Clayton Kershaw opening the inning, with a yank into the left field bleachers followed immediately by Soto’s yank into the opposite bleachers.

There’s only one thing that might hold the Dodgers back: luxury tax implications. That and that they’ve rarely handed out contracts for more than five years. And Strasburg and Rendon can leverage their southern California overtures when bargaining with other interested teams. (For Rendon, one is thought the Rangers, a homecoming for him as the Angels or Dodgers would be for Strasburg.)

Something to ponder, too, if the Nats let Strasburg and Rendon walk. Cole has suitors to burn, the Yankees in particular, reportedly, but then Scherzer did, too, a few years ago—and the Nats made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

It’s not unrealistic to think that losing Strasburg and Rendon alike equals gaining Cole on the mound and, maybe, Josh Donaldson for third base. Donaldson’s still better than serviceable at age 33 and he’s a lot less expensive than Rendon, and Boswell notes that Donaldson’s would be a personality fit in the Nats’ clubhouse.

But losing either Strasburg or Rendon, never mind both, would lose a particular degree of Nats gravitas.

“What cannot and need not be lost is the culture that this Finish the Fight team brought to life,” Boswell concludes. “Rosters change. Lucky and luckless seasons both arrive. But once a team sees what values it wants to embody—and what kind of players and people make that possible—then that’s the lodestar to follow.”

Strasburg and Rendon are two of those players and two of those people. The Lerners may want to keep that very much in mind before they decide once and for all that saving a few bucks is just a little more pressing than keeping what’s already proven aboard.

Maybe Cole, Donaldson, and a couple of other imports would fit the Nat culture. Maybe they really won’t. It’s the crapshoot every great team joins every year, similar to reading the size label on the shirt you bought and discovering the label lied in one or another direction. But a good gambler knows the moment when pushing his or her luck means disaster.

It just might be worth every extra dollar for the Lerners not to push their luck this time. Especially with two franchise faces who just so happen to be far more than just a couple of franchise faces, and have been since the days they were baseball born in Nats jumpers. (Not to mention a third, Zimmerman, who’s been a Nat since the day they were re-born in Washington, and would settle for one more year at a reasonable rate for a part-timer who just can’t hang it up quite yet.)

Contrary to what the giddoff-mah-lawn baseball romantics like to think, loyalty was never a prime baseball commodity. Not before the free agency era, not since, and not exclusively on the players’ sides. (Yes, Mr. Thurber, we can look it up.) This time, the Lerners have a splendid chance to show some to two of the guys who stayed the course and finally helped them reach the Promised Land.

Hinch didn’t blow it, the Nats won it.

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Zack Greinke walks off the field in Game Seven. His manager made the right move to follow. The Nats made the righter one to win.

It’s not going to make the pill any easier to swallow, but it wasn’t A.J. Hinch’s fault. He’s not the reason the Astros lost a World Series they seemed destined to win both going in and while they were just eight outs from the Promised Land.

I know Hinch didn’t even think about bringing Gerrit Cole in if he’d decided Zack Greinke had had enough. I second guessed it myself when first writing about Game Seven. And I was really wrong. Just as you are, Astroworld, to lay the loss on Hinch’s head. The Nats beat the Astros, plain and simple. Through no fault of Hinch’s.

He wasn’t even close to having lost his marble. Singular. He actually managed just right in that moment. It’s no more his fault that Howie Kendrick made him look like a fool right after he made his move than it was his fault the Astros couldn’t bury a Max Scherzer who had nothing but meatballs, snowballs, grapefruits, and cantaloupes to throw, two days after Scherzer’s neck locked up so tight it knocked him out of Game Five before the game even began.

Max the Knife wasn’t even a butter knife starting Game Seven and the best the Astros could do against him was an inning-opening solo home run by Yuli Gurriel and an RBI single by Carlos Correa. Remember, as so many love to bleat, the manager doesn’t play the game. Not since the end of the player-manager era.

And I get the psychological factor that would have been involved if Hinch brought Cole in instead of Will Harris. Likely American League Cy Young Award winner in waiting in to drop the hammer and nail down a win and a trophy. The Nats may have spanked Cole and company in Game One but Cole manhandled them in Game Five.

Even the Nats thought Cole was likely to come in if Greinke was coming out and, as their hitting coach Kevin Long said after Game Seven, they would have welcomed it after the surgery Greinke performed on them until the top of the seventh.

You had to appreciate an anyone-but-Greinke mindset among the Nats. Maybe even think within reason that that kind of thinking—never mind Anthony Rendon homering with one out in the top of the seventh— would leave them even more vulnerable once Cole went to work.

Pay attention, class. Cole pitched magnificently in 2019 and his earned run average was 2.19 with a postseason 1.72. But Harris, believe it or not, was a little bit better: his regular season ERA was 1.50 and his postseason ERA until Game Seven was (read carefully) 0.93.

Cole led the American League with a 2.64 fielding-independent pitching rate and Harris finished the season with a 3.15, but all that means is that Harris depends on the Astros’ stellar defense a little bit more than Cole does. And Harris walks into a few more dicey situations in his line of work. Plus, Cole never pitched even a third of an inning’s relief in his entire professional career, major and minor league alike.

Don’t even think about answering, “Madison Bumgarner.” Yes, Bumgarner closed out the 2014 World Series with shutout relief. And it began by going in clean starting in the bottom of the fifth. Bruce Bochy, who may or may not stay retired as I write, didn’t bring MadBum into a man on first/one-out scenario.

When Hinch said after Game Seven that he planned to use Cole to nail the game down shut if the Astros kept a lead, he was only saying he planned to use Cole where he was suited best, starting a clean inning, his natural habitat. Harris is one of his men whose profession involves walking into fires of all shapes and sizes when need be.

It was need-be time in Game Seven. Even Cole acknowledged as much in the breach, when he said postgame, “We just went over the game plan and he laid out the most advantageous times to use me. And we didn’t get to that position.”

Why lift Greinke after only eighty pitches on the night? Greinke historically is almost as tough on a lineup when he gets a third crack at it, but things really are a little bit different in the World Series. Even if Greinke did surrender a single run in four-and-two-thirds Game Three innings.

He may have performed microsurgery on the Nats through six but he’s not the long distance operator he used to be anymore, either, at 36. And he hadn’t exactly had an unblemished postseason before the Series. He’d been battered by the Rays in the division series; he’d been slapped enough by the Yankees in the ALCS.

As Hinch himself observed after Game Seven ended, “We asked him to do more today than he had done, and pitched deeper into the game more than he had done in the entire month of October. I wanted to take him out a bat or two early rather than a bat or two late.”

And Greinke himself believed the Nats were a lot more tough than their evening full of pre-seventh inning soft contacts at the plate indicated. “They got a good lineup, especially the top of the order,” he told reporters after the game. “It’s tough to get through no matter one time, two times, three times. All of them are tough. Really good hitters up there.”

He got the proof of that when Rendon hammered his 1-0 service halfway up the Crawford Boxes and Juan Soto focused for a walk on 3-1. When it’s winner-take-all you don’t want even a Greinke in a position to fail or for the Nats to be just a little bit better after all.

Hinch wasn’t going to walk his effective but lately erratic closer Roberto Osuna into this moment despite Osuna’s 2.63 ERA, 0.88 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, and league-leading 38 saves on the regular season. Osuna’s postseason ERA was up over 3.50 and his WHIP was reaching 2.00.

So Hinch, one of the most thoughtful and sensitively intelligent managers in the game today, really did reach for his absolute best option in the moment. He was right, I was wrong, and the only thing wrong with Hinch’s move wore a Nationals uniform.

The best teams in baseball get beaten now and then. The best pitchers in the game get beaten. The smartest managers in the game get beaten even when they make the right move. The only more inviolable baseball law than Berra’s Law is the law that says somebody has to lose. And now and then someone’s going to beat the best you have in the moment.

This was not Joe McCarthy starting Denny Galehouse over Mel Parnell with the 1948 pennant on the line.

This was not Casey Stengel failing to align his World Series rotation so Hall of Famer Whitey Ford (whose two shutouts are evidence for the prosecution) could start more than two 1960 World Series games.

This was not Gene Mauch panicking after a rookie stole home on his best pickoff pitcher and thinking he could use Hall of Famer Jim Bunning and Chris Short on two days’ rest in the last days of 1964.

This was not Don Zimmer doghousing Bill Lee, his best lefthander against the Yankees, and choosing Bobby (Ice Water In His Veins) Sprowl over Luis Tiant to stop what became the Boston Massacre in 1978.

This was not John McNamara with a weak bullpen and a heart overruling his head to send ankle-compromised Bill Buckner out to play one more inning at first base in the bottom of the tenth, Game Six, 1986.

This was not Dusty Baker sending an already season long-overworked Mark Prior back out for the top of the eighth with the Cubs six outs from going to the 2003 World Series.

This was not Grady Little measuring Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez’s heart but forgetting to check his petrol tank in Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series.

This was not Mike Matheny refusing to even think about his best reliever, Trevor Rosenthal, simply because it wasn’t yet a “proper” save situation with two on, a rusty Michael Wacha on the mound, and Travis Ishikawa checking in at the plate in the bottom of the ninth in Game Five of the 2014 National League Championship Series.

This was not Buck Showalter getting his Matheny on with the best relief pitcher in baseball (Zach Britton) not even throwing in the pen, never mind ready to go, with two on and Edwin Encarnacion checking in—in a two-all tie in the bottom of the eleventh—against a mere Ubaldo Jimenez at the 2016 American League wild card game plate. Because that, too, just wasn’t, you know, a “proper” save situation.

Hinch did exactly he should have done in the moment if he was going to lift Greinke. He reached for the right tool for the job. So did Mauch, in the 1986 ALCS, with the Angels on the threshold of the 1986 World Series, if he was going to lift Mike Witt but not trust Gary Lucas after the latter plunked Rich Gedman, turning it over to Donnie Moore.

It wasn’t Mauch’s or Moore’s fault that he threw Dave Henderson the perfect nasty knee-high, outer-edge forkball, the exact match to the one Henderson had just foul tipped away, and Henderson had to reach hard and wide again to send it over the left field fence.

It wasn’t Hinch’s fault that Harris threw Kendrick the best he had to throw, too, a cutter off the middle and at the low outside corner, and watched it bonk off the right field foul pole. Just ask Harris himself, as a reporter did after Game Seven: “It’s every reliever’s worst nightmare. [Kendrick] made a championship play for a championship team.”

Better yet, ask Correa, the only Astro somehow to have a base hit with a runner on second or better Wednesday night. “The pitch he made to Howie—I just don’t understand how he hit that out,” he said. “It doesn’t add up. The way he throws his cutter, it’s one of the nastiest cutters in the game. Down and away, on the black, and he hits it off the foul pole.”

Now and then even the best teams in the game get beaten. Now and then even the best pitchers in the game get beaten. Sometimes more than now and then. Nobody was better in their absolute primes this century than Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander. Yet Kershaw has a postseason resume described most politely as dubious and Verlander’s lifetime World Series ERA is 5.68.

And even the smartest skippers in the game lose. Hall of Famer John McGraw got outsmarted by a kid player-manager named Bucky Harris in Game Seven of the 1924 World Series, though even Harris needed four shutout relief innings from aging Hall of Famer Walter Johnson and a bad hop over Giants third baseman Freddie Lindstrom to secure what was previously Washington’s only known major league World Series conquest.

McCarthy and Stengel were at or near the end of Hall of Fame managing careers (Stengel was really more of a caretaker as the 1962-65 Mets sent out the clowns while their front office built an organisation) when they made their most fatal mis-judgments.

And yet another Hall of Famer, Tony La Russa, suffered a fatal brain freeze. His failure to even think about his Hall of Fame relief ace Dennis Eckersley earlier than the ninth-inning save situations cost him twice and would have kept the Reds from a 1990 Series sweep, if not from winning the Series itself.

The Astros had seven men bat with men in scoring position in Game Seven and only Correa nailed a base hit. The Nats went 2-for-9 in the same position. And, for a change, left three fewer men on than the Astros did.

The Astros couldn’t hit a gimp with a hangar door. The Nats punctured an Astro who dealt trump for six innings and made two fateful mistakes in the seventh that the Nats took complete advantage of. Then their best relief option in the moment got thumped with his absolute best pitch.

Because baseball isn’t immune to the law of unintended consequences, either. It never was. It never will be. The Astros were the better team until the World Series. The Nats ended up the better team in the World Series. And that isn’t exactly unheard of, either.

Few teams in baseball have been better than the 1906 Cubs, the 1914 Philadelphia Athletics, the 1954 Indians, the 1960 Yankees, the 1969 Orioles, the 1987 Cardinals, the 1988 and 1990 A’s, the 2003 Yankees, and the 2006 Tigers. They all lost World Series in those years. And two of them (’60 Yankees; ’87 Cardinals) went the distance before losing.

Yet the Nats scored the greatest upset in the history of the Series, and not just because they’re the first to reach the Promised Land entirely on the road. The Astros were Series favourites by the largest margin ever going in. And only the 1914 Braves were down lower during their regular season than the Nats were in late May this year.

But that year’s A’s, the first of two Connie Mack dynasties, weren’t favoured as heavily to win as this year’s Astros.

The Dodgers were overwhelming National League favourites to get to this World Series—until Kendrick’s monstrous tenth-inning grand slam. Then the Cardinals were favoured enough to make it—until they ran into a Washington vacuum cleaner that beat, swept, and cleaned them four straight.

The Astros didn’t have it that easy getting to this Series. The ornery upstart Rays made them win a pair of elimination games first. Then it took Yankee skipper Aaron Boone’s dice roll in the bottom of the ALCS Game Six ninth—refusing to walk Jose Altuve with George Springer aboard and comparative spaghetti-bat Jake Marisnick on deck—to enable Altuve’s mammoth two-run homer off a faltering Aroldis Chapman with the pennant attached.

Hinch made the right move in the circumstance and the moment and the Nats made the righter play. The championship play, as Correa put it. The play for the Promised Land. Soto’s eighth-inning RBI single and Eaton’s ninth-inning two-run single were just insurance policies.

When Hinch says that not bringing in Cole was a mistake he’d have to live with, he shouldered a blame that wasn’t his to shoulder. Even if his happen to be the strongest in Astroworld.

One for the road. And, the ages.

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The road was anything but lonesome for the Nationals this World Series.

From early in the season, when the Nationals were left for dead, and their manager left for death row, gallows humour often salved. So has it done though a lot of the now-concluded World Series. Such humour didn’t exactly hurt after their stupefying Game Six win in Houston, either.

Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki, himself hoping for a Game Seven return appearance after an absence due to a hip issue, couldn’t resist, after Max Scherzer showed up alive and throwing Tuesday. “We were all kind of making fun of him,” Suzuki told an interviewer, “saying he was going to rise from the dead.”

You could say that about the Nats themselves. They’ve been rising from the dead since the regular season ended, too. They won the World Series, beating the Astros 6-2 in Game Seven, rising from the dead, too. Inspired in large part by a pitcher who looked for most of his five innings’ work as though his ghost was on the mound clanking in chains.

And, with neither team able to win at home this time around. For the first time in the history of any major team sport whose championship is chosen in a best-of-seven set. The Nats and the Astros burglarised each other’s houses and left nothing behind, not even an old, tarnished butter knife in the silverware drawer. And the Astros’ hard-earned home field advantage proved the Nats’ road to the Promised Land.

Unearth Canned Heat warbling “On the Road Again,” from the opening tamboura drone to the final harmonics and all harmonica-weeping points in between. Crank up the Doors swinging “Roadhouse Blues.” Pay particular attention to the closing couplet: The future’s uncertain/the end is always near.

For five innings Wednesday night the Nats’ future was as uncertain as the Astros’ end was as near and clear as a 2-0 lead could make it. And try to figure out just how Scherzer with less than nothing other than his sheer will kept it 2-0 while getting his . . .

No. Not Houdini, for all his Game Seven escape acts. Scherzer wasn’t even a brief impersonation of Max the Knife, but after Wednesday he ought to think about a stand in Las Vegas. He’d make Penn & Teller resemble a pair of street hustlers. David Copperfield’s a mere practical joker next to this.

“You can’t really call it a miracle,” said Nats right fielder Adam Eaton post-game, “but it will be a reality-TV movie. Come on, how many books are going to be written about this?” Let’s see . . . Bluff, The Magic Dragons? 20,000 Leagues Beneath Belief? Four Innings Before the Mast? The Nats in the Hat Come Back?

Making baseball’s best team on the year take a long walk into winter has all the simplicity of quantum physics. Doing it when you send a pitcher to the Game Seven mound with nothing but his stubborn will is only slightly less complex.

“I don’t think anybody really knew what to expect when he took the ball,” said Nats reliever Sean Doolittle after the game. “After what he went through with his neck, you don’t know how that’s going to hold up with his violent delivery. You don’t know what his stamina is going to be like. But with Max, we’ve come to expect the unexpected. It was gutsy, man . . . He willed us to stay in the game and that was awesome. I know guys fed off it.”

But on a night Astros starter Zack Greinke operated like a disciple of legendary Texas cardiovascular surgeon Michael DeBakey with the Nats practically on life support, that could have been fatal. Until Patrick Corbin, Anthony Rendon, Howie Kendrick, Juan Soto, Daniel Hudson, and—reality check, folks—the lack of Gerrit Cole made sure it wasn’t.

Scherzer pulled rabbits out of his hat and anyplace else he could find them and was almost lucky that only two of the hares treated him like Elmer Fudd. Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel sent a 2-1 slider with as much slide as a piece of sandpaper into the Crawford Boxes in the bottom of the second, and Carlos Correa whacked an RBI single off Anthony Rendon’s glove at third in the bottom of the fifth.

Nats manager Dave Martinez called for a review on that play, ostensibly to determine whether Yordan Alverez’s foot was actually off the pad after he rounded but was held at third on the play, but realistically to give Corbin a little more warmup time. Then Corbin went to work starting in the bottom of the sixth. And the Nats went to work in earnest in the top of the seventh.

With one out and Greinke still looking somewhat like a smooth operator, Rendon caught hold of a changeup reaching toward the floor of the strike zone and drove it midway up the Crawford Boxes. One walk to Soto later, Greinke was out of the game and Will Harris was in. With Cole—who’d paralysed the Nats in Game Five, and who was seen stirring in the Astro bullpen a little earlier Wednesday night—not even a topic.

For which the Astros’ usually clever, always sensitively intelligent manager A.J. Hinch is liable to be second guessed until the end of time or another Astros lease on the Promised Land, whichever comes first. If he thought Greinke at a measly eighty pitches was done, why not reach for Cole who’d hammerlocked the Nats in Game Five and probably had an inning or three in his tank?

“I wasn’t going to pitch him unless we were going to win the World Series and have a lead,” Hinch said matter-of-factly after the game. “He was going to help us win. He was available, and I felt it was a game that he was going to come in had we tied it or taken the lead. He was going to close the game in the ninth after I brought [Roberto] Osuna in had we kept the lead.”

“They got a good lineup, especially the top of the order,” Greinke himself said. “It’s tough to get through no matter one time, two times, three times. All of them are tough. Really good hitters up there.”

Except that Hinch still had a 2-1 lead when he thanked Greinke for a splendid night’s work.”He was absolutely incredible . . . he did everything we could ask for and more,” said Hinch when it was all over. “He was in complete control, he made very few mistakes, in the end the home run to walk was the only threat to him.”

You can bet that even the Nats thought Hinch would reach for Cole in that moment. It’s the Casey Stengel principle, as his biographer Robert W. Creamer once described: if you have an opening, shove with your shoulder. If you think your man is done but you still need a stopper, you reach for him like five minutes ago.

And in one or two corners of the Nats dugout the thought of Cole coming in was actually welcome. “When we saw Cole warming up,” coach Kevin Long told reporters after the game, “we were almost like, ‘Please bring him in.’ Because that’s how good Zack Greinke was.”

But Harris it was. He was one of the Astros’ most reliable bullpen bulls on the season, and he’d been mostly likewise through this postseason. But after swinging and missing on a curvaceous enough curve ball, Kendrick found the screws on a cutter off the middle and sent it the other way, down the right field line, and ringing off the foul pole with a bonk! that no one sitting in Minute Maid Park is liable to forget for ages yet to come.

“I made a pretty good pitch,” Harris said after the game. “He made a championship play for a championship team.”

“The pitch he made to Howie—I just don’t understand how he hit that out,” said Carlos Correa, the only Astro somehow to have a base hit with a runner on second or better Wednesday night. “It doesn’t add up. The way he throws his cutter, it’s one of the nastiest cutters in the game. Down and away, on the black, and he hits it off the foul pole. It was meant to be, I guess, for them. I thought we played great, but they played better. It was their year.”

Osuna relieved Harris and settled the Nats after surrendering an almost immediate base hit to Nats second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, but he wouldn’t be that fortunate in the eighth. He walked Eaton with one out, but Eaton stole second with Rendon at the plate and, after Rendon flied out, Soto pulled a line single to right to send Eaton home.

Ryan Pressly ended the inning by getting a line drive out from Cabrera, but another Astro reliever, Joe Smith, wouldn’t be that fortunate in the ninth. Ryan Zimmerman led off with a single up the pipe; Yan Gomes bounced one back to the box enabling Smith to get Zimmerman but not the double play; Victor Robles stroked a soft-punch line single into center; and, Trea Turner fought his way to a walk and ducks on the pond.

Hinch reached for Jose Urquidy, his Game Four opener and five-inning virtuoso back in Washington. But Eaton reached for and lined a hit into shallow enough center with Gomes scoring in a flash and Robles coming in behind him, freed up when Astro center fielder Jake Marisnick, usually one of the surest defensive hands they have, lost the handle on the ball and gave Robles room to move.

And, giving Hudson all the room he needed to pop George Springer out at second and to strike Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley out swinging to pop the corks and blow the lid off 95 years worth of Washington baseball frustration. Which looked impossible in late May, looked improbable just last weekend, but looks just as impossible the morning after.

Believing that Rendon could become only the fifth man to homer in Games Six and Seven of the same Series (behind Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Roberto Clemente, plus Allen Craig and—a mere two years ago—Springer himself) was more plausible. Believing Harris could become the first pitcher hung with a blown save in a Game Seven at home since Boston’s Roger Moret in 1975 wasn’t, necessarily.

But believing no World Series combatant would win even a single game at home in a seven game set defies everything. The Nats outscored the Astros 30-11 in Minute Maid Park; the Astros out-scored the Nats 19-3 in Nationals Park. The Astros played their heads, hearts, and tails off all year long to get the postseason’s home field advantage, and the Nats swooped in to rob them blind.

All game long the world seemed to think Martinez had lost his marble—singular—letting Scherzer stay on the mound despite have nothing to challenge the Astros with except meatballs, snowballs, and grapefruits. The skipper who eluded execution after 23 May now looked as though they’d pull the guillotine with his name on it back out of storage. Then the final three innings made him look like Alfred Hitchcock.

That 19-31 start to the Nats’ season? The worst for any team that went on to win that year’s World Series. From twelve under .500 to the Promised Land? You have company, now, 1914 Miracle Braves. An 8-1 postseason road record including eight straight road wins en route the trophy? Good morning, 1996 Yankees.

The first number one draft overall to end his season as the World Series MVP? Welcome to the party, Stephen Strasburg. The sixth man to hit a go-ahead homer in the seventh or later in a World Series? Roger Peckinpaugh, Hal Smith, Bill Mazeroski, Ray Knight, and Alfonso Soriano, meet Howie Kendrick, who’s now the only man in postseason history with more than one go-ahead homer in the seventh or later in elimination games.

The youngest man to hit the most homers in a single postseason and three in a single World Series? Today you are a man, Juan Soto.

All that courtesy of MLB.com and ESPN’s Stats and Info department. They give you the numbers. But they can’t really account for that old Nats magic. Nobody can, try though they might. The Nats just hope this isn’t the end of it. Which might be tricky if the Nats can’t convince Anthony Rendon to stay rather than play the free agency market or Strasburg not to exercise his contract’s opt-out option.

Cole is also a pending free agent. And he plopped a postgame cap on his head bearing the logo of his agent Scott Boras’s operation. When an Astro spokesman asked him to talk to reporters after the game, he was heard saying, “I’m not an employee of the team.” Then, he said he’d talk “as a representative of myself, I guess.”

Liable to be this year’s American League Cy Young Award winner, and facing maybe the fattest payday ever handed to a prime pitcher, Cole wouldn’t say if the Astros losing the World Series prompted him to declare his free agency that swiftly, that emphatically. He wouldn’t say whether he was mad that Hinch didn’t bring him in.

“We just went over the game plan and he laid out the most advantageous times to use me,” Cole told reporters. “And we didn’t get to that position.”

For Altuve, arguably the heart and soul of the Astros on the field and in the clubhouse alike, the heartbreak was impossible to hide. “I don’t think I can handle this,” he said candidly. “It’s really hard to lose Game Seven of the World Series. What I can tell you is we did everything we could . . . We did everything to make it happen. We couldn’t, but that’s baseball.”

Sometimes it’s even harder to win Game Seven. That’s baseball, too. The Nats stand in the Promised Land as living, breathing, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in Show” proof.

Slam, dunk, don’t stop the dance

2019-10-09 HowieKendrick

Howie Kendrick swinging for a lifetime’s worth of filet mignon on the Washington house.

Dave Roberts learned the hard way Wednesday night that it takes the same number of moves to get destroyed as it takes to start unfathomable destruction. One.

And a one-time Dodger and Angel alike named Howie Kendrick got reminded all over again just how quickly you can go from a prospective bust—including three fielding errors all division series long—to a game-busting hero with one swing that looked so effortless it looked concurrently as if you could have done under sedation.

Fifteen years ago, with his Red Sox three outs from being swept out of an American League Championship Series, Roberts stole second on Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera to start the unlikeliest comeback of maybe all time. The 2004 Red Sox didn’t lose another game on their way to breaking their actual or alleged curse.

But this is 2019. Roberts is now a reasonably respected major league manager with a fourth straight first place finish and fourth straight postseason trip on his resume. And the way this trip ended Wednesday night sends lesser men past the nearest tavern and right to the distillery to drown themselves in the vats.

And Kendrick, 0-for-4 as he checked in at the plate with the bases loaded and nobody out in the top of the tenth, delivered one swing that’ll save him a small fortune in Beltway filet mignon dinners for the rest of his life.

It nailed the Dancing Nats’ trip to the National League Championship Series with a 7-3 division series Game Five triumph. Their motto now might be the name of a vintage song by rock legend Bryan Ferry: “Don’t Stop the Dance.” And they danced the 106 game-winning Dodgers home for maybe the most bitter winter of their existence since maybe their Brooklyn generations.

For the rest of his life Roberts is liable to face demands to know why he didn’t quit while he was ahead, 3-1 to be exact, accept Clayton Kershaw’s inning-and-threat-ending strikeout of Adam Eaton in the top of the seventh, pat Kershaw on his Hall of Fame-in-waiting fanny with a hearty “Thank you Kersh!” and go to his real bullpen post haste.

But Kershaw didn’t get his pat on the fanny. He got to open the eighth. He got battered back to back on back-to-back pitches by Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto. The first flew just over the left field fence, the second flew into the first couple of rows of the right field bleachers. Vaporising young stud starter Walker Buehler’s magnificent evening’s work and bringing the Nats back from the living dead.

Then Roberts reached for Kenta Maeda. And Maeda promptly struck out the side. Forget the second guessing. This was time for the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth guesses.

Roberts got what he’d asked for out of Kershaw to end the seventh. Why on earth push his own and Kershaw’s luck, knowing only too well that Kershaw’s Hall of Fame resume already has the long-enough sidebar of postseason humiliation as an attachment?

Because, he acknowledged after the defeat, he liked Kershaw against Rendon and Soto just a little bit more.

“[T]he success that Clayton’s had against Soto with the two-run lead, I’ll take Clayton any day in that situation,” Roberts said after the game. “I just think it’s one of those where it was easy for me to get Clayton, with the low pitches to get Rendon and to go out there and get Soto. And to have Kenta behind him. That was my thought, and not have Kenta go through Soto.”

Ancient history teaches that a Cardinals manager named Johnny Keane refused to even think about hooking Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in a threatening World Series Game Seven because he had a commitment to Gibson’s heart. Roberts has the same commitment to Kershaw’s. Keane and Gibson got a World Series win. Roberts and Kershaw got humiliated.

The problem is that Kershaw, one of the nicest men and beloved teammates in the game, goes into a postseason with a hellhound on his trail. And he knows it, sadly enough. After reinventing himself this season as a pitcher who can and does survive on guile to go with the smarts he’s had since his peak seasons, Kershaw couldn’t outsmart Rendon and Soto when he needed to most of all. More acutely, Kershaw can no longer deny what people have said of his postseason work for too long.

“Everything people say is true right now about the postseason,” he said after Game Five, soberly but sadly. “I’ve had to do it so much. I don’t know. It might linger for a while. I might not get over it. I don’t know.”

Roberts went with Kershaw’s heart. He should have gone with his own head. He let sentiment and heart overrule baseball. Oh, he got Maeda not going through Soto all right. He just had to watch Soto drive a second stake into the Dodgers’ heart to get it. Then, he sent Joe Kelly out to work a spotless ninth but pushed his luck yet again.

With further viable bullpen options to spare, a luxury Nationals manager Dave Martinez didn’t have, Roberts sent Kelly almost inexplicably out to work the tenth. Where Kelly walked Eaton on six pitches, surrendered a double to Rendon that was ruled ground-rule when it stuck in the fence, and handed Soto the intentional walk.

And, after Kendrick fouled off a nasty enough breaking ball, where Kelly served him a fastball toward the low inside corner. Not low enough. Kendrick drove it right over the center field fence. You thought the Nats were baseball’s greatest dancers before? Kendrick sent them into dugout moves even Soul Train never busted.

It isn’t just Kershaw for whom Roberts has to answer. Where was Kenley Jansen? Where was young lefty Adam Kolarek? Dodger fans will ask those two questions for the rest of the century. When not asking why Roberts still trusted Kelly despite his shoulder issues and season’s disasters. “Trust Kelly more than your closer Kenley Jansen,” said manager turned MLB Network analyst Kevin Kennedy. “I don’t have an answer for that. Does  Dave?”

The answer may or may not determine Roberts’s future in Los Angeles.

But what a moment it must have been for Martinez, when Kendrick exploded and Nats center fielder Michael A. Taylor hustled in and took a dive to snag Justin Turner’s game and series ending sinking liner. Game Five was the Nats’ entire season in microcosm: early and often faltering; later and often flying. The guillotine built for Martinez in May has been put into storage.

The only bad news for the Nats on the night might have been Stephen Strasburg. He was left almost an afterthought after the Nats’ late game destruction. He merely shook off Max Muncy’s two-run homer in the first and Enrique Hernandez’s leadoff solo bomb in the second to keep the Nats in the game almost as deftly as Buehler seemed to own them.

He’s gone from the world’s most feted draft pick to a pitcher who’s fought injuries to become good, often excellent, and periodically great. He’s comfortable with himself. He’s unflappable to the point that some people mistake him for emotionless. And he knows what he’s doing on the mound even when he’s punctured early.

“The first couple innings, I didn’t hit my spot, and they made me pay for it,” said the 31-year-old righthander who still looks like he’s at freshman orientation despite the beard that’s all grown up from having been born a mere goatee. “As a starter, you just kind of learn how you’ve got to trust your stuff, trust that it’s going to come to you. And it did.”

Tanner Rainey dispatched the Dodgers in order in the seventh. And Patrick Corbin—who’d been so badly humiliated in Game Three—got his chance for redemption in the eighth. Other than plunking Turner Corbin got it, zipping through the inning, including back-to-back strikeouts on Cody Bellinger and pinch-hitter David Freese.

Then it was Daniel Hudson shaking off a one-out single in the ninth. Then it was Kendrick obliterating Kelly and the Dodgers in the tenth. Then it was Sean Doolittle, who had his moments of doubt and disaster on the season before finishing up at reasonable strength, getting three including Taylor’s game-ending swan dive.

There wasn’t a Hunter Strickland or Wander Suero to be found. For all anyone knows, they were under strict orders not to move even their pinkies in the bullpen—under penalty of death, if need be.

“Today’s the biggest game of the year,” Martinez likes to say, to his players and to anyone else who cares to listen, “and we want to go 1-0 today.” He got what he asked for and more. It got the Nats to the second National League Championship Series in franchise history. (Their first? In 1981—as the Montreal Expos.)

For a very long time the article of faith, though not always accurate, was “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” These Dancing Nats have a better than even shot at making it, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in the National League.”

It’d beat the living hell out of everything else attached to Washington these and most days.