“Give us better balls”

J.T. Realmuto, Aaron Nola

J.T. Realmuto with Aaron Nola. The catcher says building a better baseball would be the logical thing. Logical? In the Age of Manfred?

If there’s anyone in baseball who should know pitchers and pitching better than the pitchers and their pitching coaches, it’s the catchers. Fellows like the Phillies’ J.T. Realmuto.

The number one job a catcher has is handling his pitching staff. The pitchers who’ve thrown to Realmuto in eight years major league time have a 4.50 ERA with him behind the plate. That’s 4.16 above the league average over those seasons.

But that was also Realmuto behind the dish Friday night, when Aaron Nola struck ten straight Mets out from the first through the fourth, beginning and ending with Mets outfielder Michael Conforto . . . and tying the record set by the Mets’ late Hall of Famer Tom Seaver.

(How Phillies was this—their man breaks a record like that and they still lose the game? That Philadelphia wedding changed from “You may now boo the bride” to the couple reciting their wedding vows—and the minister handing them their divorce decree.)

So presume that Realmuto might be a little better and smarter than his pitchers’ overall ERA indicates. Could also depend on the pitchers, too. Nola’s an established ace, even if he’s not in the deGrom/Scherzer/Kershaw society.

Thus you might listen when Realmuto—who was rather outspoken before baseball’s government decided to enforce a foreign substances law it hadn’t enforced in a couple of generations—admits he can’t figure out what commissioner Rob Manfred was or wasn’t thinking when he decided it was time to stop, frisk, and dock almost midway through the working season.

“The biggest deal was to get guys to stop using the stuff that increased their spin rate the most,” Realmuto told The Athletic‘s Matt Gelb. “Guys have been using sunscreen and rosin forever. Now they’re not letting you do anything. So I really think the best thing they could possibly do, which obviously can’t happen during the season, is to get a better ball. Find a better ball. That’s the logical thing. It would make everybody happy.”

“He’s kidding, right?” said Sticky Fingers McSpidertack when he rang me too early this morning. I hadn’t even finished my first big mug of coffee, and Sticky was already trying to pick my reawakening brain. Remind me to get even some way.

“I don’t think he was kidding, Stick,” I replied. “Bear in mind that I’m still a little groggy. Dogs awakening you prematurely can do that to you.”

“Yeah, I know,” Stick said. “But when he says the best thing to do is to find a better ball, that scares me a little bit.”

“Why?” I asked. “It makes perfect sense, even to my still half-cloudy brain. I’ve said it myself before. Commissioner Nero needs to quit fiddling with the balls the way it’s been done the last few years and get a ball the pitchers can work with and the hitters can still hit.”

“You really need me to tell you?” Stick said. “Look at the past few American generations overall, never mind in baseball. Once upon a time, you built a better mouse trap and got rid of a better class of mice. That was then, this is now. Now, you build a better mouse trap and the cats gang up on you.”

“This is Commissioner Nero we’re talking about,” I said. “When he played the Mouse Trap Game as a kid, the mouse usually escaped.”

“I hear that. Even if you still sound like you’re talking underwater.”

“I still need my second mug of coffee, Stick.”

After I retrieved mug number two, I turned back to Realmuto’s commentary. He knows there were a few guys on the mound using their naughty sauce not to get a grip but to relieve the hitters of their grip—with a spin cycle that could get clothes completely dry as opposed to just damp dry if their pitches were the tumblers inside a front-loading washing machine.

But he also knows that most pitchers, plying their trade like the honest artisans they strive to be, weren’t using that new-fashioned medicated goo just to divide and conquer, either. “[T]hey can’t just not work with pitchers. You can’t throw them out there with these slick balls,” he insisted to Gelb.

It has to be somewhere in between where they can make a ball that has enough grip where guys don’t have to do that to be able to control it, but also a ball that’s not so sticky that it’s increasing spin rate. Which they should be able to do. It’s been different every season for the last four or five years. So it’s like, they can change the ball if they want. They just need to find the ball that works for everyone.

“Sounds so simple a child of five could do it. Now, somebody send the Phillies a child of five,” Stick said, channeling his inner Groucho Marx.

Gelb said, practically, that asking the Phillies themselves about the balls proved to be something like asking Jacques Cousteau about space exploration.

“Hey, I’m sure they’re trying, right? I guess for whatever reason they haven’t been able to find a ball that’s acceptable to everybody, but I know they’re working on it,” said Phillies president of baseball ops Dave Dombrowski. “I’ve been in GM meetings years ago where they passed around the ball with more tack on it, like they use in Japan, and say they were trying to develop something like that. But for whatever reason, we haven’t been able to find it. I hope they do. It would solve a lot.”

The dear boy.

News flash: MLB owns Rawlings, the sporting goods giant charged with making the Show’s balls. And, as Gelb writes, “it has pleaded ignorance to the constant changes in how the ball feels and behaves.”

“That’s the problem,” Stick said. “Commissioner Nero and his minions don’t have to plead ignorance. Their ignorance is the worst kept secret in baseball.”

“It is the single most important element to everything about the sport right now,” Gelb went on. “A consistent baseball. The lower seams and tighter-wound balls, combined with a lax attitude toward how doctoring the ball was policed, compelled pitchers to use sunscreen and stickier substances to better grip it.”

“That’s the other problem,” Stick said. “You don’t need me to tell you that, if you show me twenty pitchers finding solutions to working with these baby-ass-smooth balls, I’ll show you one or two pitchers figuring out they can squat inside hitters’ heads without even signing a lease.”

“I thought your own best pitch was what you called the Irish Spring Slider.”

“It was, until I switched to Ivory. Then every side was the dry side getting clobbered on me.”

Realmuto admitted he’s glad the Nero Regime did “something,” but he also admits he doesn’t know that they did the right thing. “But something had to change.” Something still has to change. If only Realmuto knew something about the art and science of making a baseball. He’d be better running Rawlings than the Nero Regime seems to be.

Since the Nero Regime are that ignorant about how to make baseballs, and that insouciant in their ignorance, how about coming up with a ball gripper both the Show’s government and, you know, the ones who actually go out there and play the game, can live with, without operating the Ball Police or the Stickum Security Service?

“I lost my Internet,” Stick said. “What does Gelb say about that?”

I read the quote back to him: “A mud machine and a rosin swab would be great. Science is amazing, and so is modern technology. Anything is possible — except a more consistent baseball with a transparent process about how it is manufactured.”

Stick pondered that a moment. Then, he said, “How come the country that came up with baseball in the first place can’t build a better baseball?”

“Because,” I said, “the moment someone comes up with that better mouse trap, the cats are liable to gang up on him.”

Opening Day: Snow fooling

There was nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. The snow took control of the transmission when Miguel Cabrera hit this Opening Day home run . . .

Just because the expected Opening Day marquee battle between Jacob deGrom (Mets) and Max Scherzer (Nationals) had to be postponed (COVID-positive Nats players and a team staffer to quarantine), that didn’t mean Wednesday was going to lack for the good, the bad, and the bizarre. This is baseball. Where anything can happen—and usually does.

Especially if Opening Day is also April Fool’s Day. The part that wasn’t a gag—fans in the stands again, at long enough last. The sound was glorious, even if reduced from most normal capacities thanks to the continuing if only slightly receding pan-damn-ic.

Comerica Park should have been playing “Winter Wonderland” Wednesday. The Tigers’ aging star Miguel Cabrera shouldn’t be blamed if he was singing “Let it Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.” Especially when he more than a little hard on the Bieber, turning on the Indian ace’s rising snowball, hitting a two-run homer, and . . . sliding into second base, unable to tell through the snow that the ball flew out.

I don’t know if the Coors Field public address people had it cued up, but they could and should have sounded “Don’t Pass Me By” after Dodger first baseman Cody Bellinger hit an RBI single . . . off Rockies left fielder Raimel Tapia’s glove and over the left field fence. The problem: Justin (Who Was That Unmasked Man) Turner not seeing the ball reach the seats and retreating to first, compelling Bellinger to pass him on the basepath.

Oops. On a day the Rockies thumped Clayton Kershaw and managed to squeeze a win out after doing what Rockies usually do in the off-season—in this case, unloading their franchise player and all but reveling in front office dissembly and mission abandonment—Turner was the gift that . . . added insult to injury for the defending World Series winners.

The sleeper star in waiting in Blue Jays silks might have thought about singing an ancient  T. Rex number called “The Slider.” Gerrit Cole’s was just too juicy for Teoscar Hernandez to resist in the sixth. He sent it into earth orbit or 437 feet and into the left field bleachers at Yankee Stadium—whichever came first. Who needed Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.?

Just one thing was wrong. Hernandez needs to work on his bat flips. He didn’t have one. A blast like that was just begging for him to go Willson Contreras. Hernandez just ambled up the base line carrying his bat, then kind of nudged it away to the grass. He’s young, with plenty of time to learn, though. And his blast tied the game the Jays went on to win, 3-2.

Which is the score by which the Phillies beat the Braves in ten innings—after Bryce Harper began the inning as the free cookie on second base, took third on J.T. (Nothing Is) Realmuto’s ground out, waited patiently as Didi Gregorius was handed first on the house, then came home with the winner when Jean Segura sliced a single to left.

The game got to the tenth in the first place because Phillies manager Joe Girardi decided he wasn’t quite ready to trust the National League’s leading arsonists with taking over from certified innings-eater Aaron Nola with a 2-0 lead in the seventh. The Braves were far more ready to trust Pablo Sandoval—erstwhile Giant, one-time World Series hero, all-time poster child for Slim Slow—to pinch hit for Max Fried’s relief Tyler Matzek with a man on.

. . . and slid into second unable to tell at first whether the ball or the snow cleared the fence.

Kung Fu Panda turned out to be more than ready to hit Nola’s 0-2, slightly down and slightly in fastball into the right field seats. Girardi is many things but a crystal ball operator isn’t one of them. If he had been, he could have lifted Nola safe and sound because the Phillies’ bullpen apparently forgot to refill the gasoline cans for a change. Not even a bases-loaded jam in the eighth could keep Archie Bradley, Jose Alvarado, Hector Neris and Conner Brogdon from keeping the Braves scoreless over the final three and a third.

Does Philadelphia believe in miracles? Don’t ask too quickly, folks. Remember: this is the baseball town in which a typical wedding concludes with the minister pronouncing the newly-married couple husband and wife—then addressing the gathering with, “You may now boo the bride.” As much as I hate to drop a cliche so worn you see more holes there than in an oil field, the Phillies have 161 games left to play. Ruh-roh.

That was last year’s pan-damn-ically irregular season: Twins center fielder Byron Buxton, who sometimes evokes Willie Mays when he’s not on the injured list, walked twice all year long. This was Opening Day: Buxton should have had “Cadillac Walk” as his entrance music—he walked twice. He also blasted a two-run homer to the rear end of American Family Field in the seventh and had his arm calibrated so well that the Brewers didn’t dare to even think about running wild on him.

Buxton’s blast made it 5-3, Twins. Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, the Twins undid their own sweet selves with a badly timed error, making room for a ninth-inning, three-run, game-tying comeback that turned into a 6-5 Brewers win on—wait for it!—a chopped ground out that left just enough room for Lorenzo Cain to score the winner from third. (A transplanted Minnesotan of my acquaintance thinks, only, “That’s so Twins!”)

The Twins were saved from Opening April Fool’s Day ignominy by the Reds, alas. The Cardinals spotted Jack Flaherty a six-run lead in the first—abusing Reds starter Luis Castillo with an RBI infield hit, a bad error by Reds third baseman Eugenio Suarez playing shortstop, and Dylan Carlson ringing a three-run homer off the foul pole—before he had to throw a single competitive pitch in the game.

Flaherty didn’t quite have his A game. A C+ might be more like it. Lucky for him and the bullpen that the Cardinals felt in the mood to abuse the Reds the rest of the way: An RBI single and a run home on a wild pitch plus a two-run homer in the fifth, and it didn’t matter if the Cardinal arms let the Reds have all six of those first-inning runs back. Let the Cardinals’ song for the day be “The Eleven,” as in the 11-6 final.

The bad news for the Angels opening at home against the White Sox: the lineup struck out ten times. The good news: only four of them came in the final six innings. Meanwhile, they beat the White Sox 4-3 like pests instead of power drivers: walking here, working counts there, game-tying single here (Justin Upton), solo homer (Max Stassi) there, RBI single (Mike Trout) and RBI ground out (Albert Pujols) yonder, the bullpen keeping the White Sox quiet the final three.

Not to mention the Still Best Player in the Game ending his Opening Day with a .750 on-base percentage: that RBI single plus a pair of well-worked walks in four plate appearances. Trout could also point proudly to something not usually associated with the Angels the last couple of years: they didn’t let the game get away early, and they nailed it late with a two-run eighth and a shutdown ninth by reliever Raisel Iglesias.

Unfortunately, time will tell if a triumph like that proves an April Fool’s joke that wasn’t half as funny as Miguel Cabrera’s home run slide.

But here’s no joke: There were 222 hits on Opening Day and a mere 35 percent of them went for extra bases, including a measly thirteen percent being home runs, while fifteen percent of the day’s hits were infield hits. The games produced a .311 batting average on balls in play. There were even nineteen tries at grand theft base and 79 percent of them succeeded.

Maybe the rumours of the all-around game’s death are more than slightly exaggerated for now. When there’s a slightly higher percentage of infield hits than home runs on a day, the small ballers should take their victories where they can find them. But you wonder if Cabrera will inspire more than a few players to think it’s time to work on their home run slides.

Wounded cops and battered Cubs

2019-08-17 BryceHarperRhysHoskins

Bryce Harper gives Rhys Hoskins props after Harper’s first-inning bomb started a Wednesday night Phillies blowout . . . unaware, likely, that six Philly cops were wounded in gunfire with a barricaded suspect.

A self-barricaded narcotics suspect in a home on the north side of Philadelphia. A standoff with police involving over an hour’s worth of gunfire exchanges, maybe more, and six  officers wounded.

The standoff began shortly before the Phillies faced the Cubs at Citizens Bank Park Wednesday night. It was still ongoing after the Phillies delivered a far less fatal kind of gunfire at the Cubs good for ten runs before the third full inning expired. It was still ongoing after Bryce Harper hit his second home run of the night.

And it was still ongoing, apparently, after the Phillies finished what they started, an 11-1 blowout of the National League Central leaders.

None of the six wounded cops was injured gravely, thankfully, though the city’s police commissioner Richard Ross said several of the cops who responded to the barricader and got into the house had to escape by jumping through windows. At one point the standoff that began late in the Philadelphia afternoon had nearby Temple University’s Health Sciences Center on lockdown.

Cole Hamels made his third start since returning from the injured list and his first in Philadelphia since leaving the Phillies in a then non-waiver trade deadline deal with the Rangers four years earlier. The audience cheered him appreciatively when he batted in the top of the third, but it was hard to tell whether it was thanks for the memories past or thanks for the clobbering the Phillies were giving him this night.

While police continued trying to resolve the standoff without any further injury or damage, and word emerged that there was a second narcotics suspect in the house aside from the shooter, the Phillies came to bat after starting pitcher Aaron Nola rid himself of the Cubs in the top of the first with a ground out sandwiching a pair of swinging strikeouts.

They didn’t give Hamels a chance to settle into any groove remotely similar in the bottom of the first. Rhys Hoskins singled with one out and an old nemesis named Bryce Harper stepped up to the plate. It’s not that Harper has that impressive a set of past performance papers against Hamels, it’s that Hamels knocked Harper down notoriously during Harper’s rookie season in Washington.

But this time Harper delivered the knock. After looking at a changeup on the low inside corner for an opening strike, he drove a fastball away into middle of the left center field seats. Just like that the Phillies had a 2-0 advantage. Hamels had no way of knowing what was to follow from there. By the time he learned, he must have been shaking his head in the clubhouse muttering, Wha’happened?

Wha’happened was the opening result of Charlie Manuel, returning to the dugout as the Phillies’ hitting coach for the rest of the season, taking the Phillies by the horns and all but ordering them to lighten up, inhale at the plate. Sort of.

They had all the data they could possibly need to help them. But unless they could relax while measuring the situations and the pitches, they weren’t going to hit anything but the pine after returning to the dugout.

“We have to get back to enjoy playing the game and enjoy situational hitting, do things correct, move the runners, have a lot of fun,” said Manuel, taking over for John Mallee, a hitting coach who knew and delivered the data but couldn’t seem to marry it to the hitters properly.

“I think the environment can be different as far as talking to the guys and letting them talk to me,” Manuel continued. “We need to get better. We have a talented team.”

They’d beaten the Cubs 4-2 on Tuesday night to begin Manuel’s sort of homecoming. But what they did to continue the celebration Wednesday night defied practically everything else attached to the Phillies this year. Logic was only the first victim of that defiance.

Hoskins and Harper wasted no time proving Manuel right in the first. More Phillies saw and raised in the bottom of the second. When Roman Quinn led off taking a full-count walk and Cesar Hernandez hit Hamels’s first service for a double to the back of center field. When Nola himself, following a swinging strikeout, shot an arrow through the left side of the infield to send Quinn home. When Hoskins sent home Hernandez with a sacrifice fly and J.T. Realmuto doubled Nola to third.

The bad news was Harper working out a walk to load the bases but the Phillies stranding the ducks on the pond when Jean Segura struck out. The good news was the Phillies wasting no time atoning for that in the bottom of the third.

Three straight pitches from Hamels—who got a nice ovation from his former home fans when he batted in the third—and it was a double off the left center field padding by Scott Kingery, Quinn dropping a clumsy looking bunt but still beating it out for a base hit, and Hernandez dumping the proverbial quail into center to score Kingery.

With Adam Haseley at the plate the Phillies got a little more daring, executing a flawless double steal to set up second and third. And Haseley thanked his mates for their derring-do by beating out a grounder to first allowing Quinn to score and Hernandez to third.

Hamels’s Philadelphia homecoming ended almost before it began, and Alec Mills came in for the Cubs with Nola himself coming to the plate.

And despite showing bunt briefly Nola walked on four pitches to load up the pads once again. Hoskins slashed a hard enough grounder that Cubs shortstop Baez could throw home to force Hernandez at the plate for the first out. But there was no defense for Realmuto fouling himself into an 0-2 count before launching a cruise missile into the left field seats, just past the foul pole.

Almost out of nowhere, the Phillies jumped all over the Cubs for ten runs before three full innings were in the books. The Citizens Bank Park crowd began chanting Manuel’s first name gleefully.

If you can’t have fun while you’re dropping ten on the other guys, you’ve got problems even Manuel can’t fix. The Phillies broadcast team was having even more fun after that than they already had stationed behind the Phillies’ dugout for the evening. They even let the Phillie Phanatic plop Village People-like headgear onto their domes as the sides changed for the eighth as “Y.M.C.A.” pounded around the ballpark.

After two comparatively quiet innings during which Nola stayed in cruise control and Mills gamely held fort for the Cubs since Realmuto’s salami, Harper—who’d singled near the end of the third, before being wasted by a followup Area Code 6-4-3—looked at two high and outside pitches before sending a middle low fastball into the second deck behind right field to lead off the bottom of the sixth.

For the most part Nola cruised his way through the first six innings. He blended his breaking balls and his fastball into a cocktail all but guaranteed to send the Cubs into a stupor at the plate. About the only thing close to a real battle came to open the top of the seventh, when Kris Bryant wrestled him to a full count, including three straight foul offs, before sending a slightly hanging breaker to the near rear of the lower left field seats.

Nola could afford to be generous by then if that was his mood. That was only the third Cub hit off him all night long. The first one, a leadoff single by Anthony Rizzo in the top of the second, turned into Javier Baez forcing Rizzo at second and deciding rather futilely that it was worth challenging Realmuto’s throwing arm, Realmuto springing out of his crouch faster than a jack-in-the-box to throw a dead-on tracer, nailing Baez with the reply, “Ain’t worth it, bro.”

You felt sorry for Mills. Mop-up relief? Mills had to clean up a chemical spill, comfortable perhaps only in the thought that it wasn’t his bright idea to have ducks on the pond when Realmuto drilled him in the third. He was a one-man hazmat team for the Cubs otherwise, if you didn’t count Harper’s sixth inning-opening smash, and it went for so little there must have been moments when he felt like the last man standing on the planet.

It was both the tenth time the Phillies scored in double figures on the year and only the second time Hamels didn’t get past three innings on the year. But somehow, some way, it seemed to mean a lot more to both the Phillies and the home audience this time.

Before Juan Nicasio came on to pitch the top of the ninth as rain began hitting the ballpark and the field, the news came that the final two Philadelphia police still inside the north side house were now out of the house alive and reasonably well, considering, extracted by S.W.A.T. team members “with stealth,” Ross told reporters near the scene.

The rain came down a little more firmly as the Cubs’ trade deadline acquisition Nick Castellanos rapped a one-out base hit to right center. But Nicasio struck Bryant out while Castellanos took second on defensive indifference. Castellanos then took third on further defensive indifference as Rizzo looked at ball two. But then Rizzo flied out to the left field corner to put the blowout firmly in the bank.

The six wounded cops, meanwhile, were reported treated and released from a hospital about half an hour after the game ended.

On the assumption that very few if anyone in the ballpark knew what was happening on the north side of town, both the Phillies and their fans were going to walk from a house of pleasure through a not so gentle, not so good gray night, into news about which the most positive thing to say was thank God it wasn’t far worse. So far.


UPDATE: The suspect who stood off and exchanged gunfire with Philadelphia police, identified as Maurice Hill, was finally apprehended around midnight Eastern time. Philadelphia police commissioner Richard Ross himself took the unusual step of joining Hill’s attorney in trying to negotiate Hill out of the house in which he barricaded himself.

News reports indicated the standoff began at 4:30 Eastern time, when police attempted to serve Hill with an arrest warrant on narcotics related charges. The Phillies and the Cubs were preparing to play Wednesday night’s game at the time.