A pitcher’s lament, a manager’s triumph

Dusty Baker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now they have to do the impossible

Kyle Tucker, Chas McCormick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The valiant but vanquished Mariners

Jeremy Peña

The Mariners fought the Astros off long and luminously in their ALDS Game Three, but Astros rookie Jeremy Peña brought the fight near to the end with his eighteen-inning, scoreless tie-breaking bomb that proved the end of the Mariners’ season.

Maybe nobody really expected the Mariners to get to their first postseason since the wake of the 9/11 atrocities in the first place. Maybe nobody really expected them to stay there when they up and bumped the Blue Jays to one side in a wild card series.

But they did.

Maybe nobody expected them to survive against the American League West ogres from Houston. Even if they made a reasonable enough-all-things-considered 7-12 showing against them on the regular season. Even if they’d beaten the Astros two out of three in two first-half sets.

They didn’t.

But a three-game sweep out of their division series still stings, no matter how valiant the Mariners effort was. Even if the series was as close as a closed clothespin, the Mariners compelling the Astros to win the first two games by comeback.

Mariners fans and just about everyone else couldn’t possibly have been surprised that Yordan Alvarez was the bombardier who flattened the Mariners in Games One and Two, first with that jolting three-run homer to turn a 7-5 lead into an 8-7 Game One win in the bottom of the ninth, then with a just-as-jolting two-run homer in the Game Two bottom of the sixth.

But going long distance two games’ worth in Game Three to see it end via Astro rookie Jeremy Peña’s leadoff bomb off Penn Murfee, after Luis (Rock-a-Bye) Garcia held them at bay over four relief innings with only one measurable threat against him, had to sting soul deep.

After a marathon exhibition of run prevention—the 42 combined strikeouts (20 by Astro batters, 22 by Mariners batters) set a postseason record; the Astros going 11-for-63 and the Mariners going 7-for-60 all night, it couldn’t feel otherwise.

“It’s kind of what we’re accustomed to, playing those tight games and finding a way,” said Mariners manager Scott Servais postgame Saturday night. “I mean, that is a big league game, with the pitching and defense that was fired out there. We just weren’t able to put anything together.”

“This at-bat,” Pena said, after his homer broke the foot-thick ice at last, “was not going to be possible if our pitching staff didn’t keep us in the ballgame. They dominated all game. Their pitching staff dominated all game.”

Sometimes you had to think what was wrong with these Astros—if they were going to prevail anyway against the Seattle upstarts, how the hell could they not have just done it in the regulation nine? Didn’t they want to avoid wheeling Justin Verlander to the mound in a Game Four if they could help it?

Now, of course, Verlander and Framber Valdez can have a little extra rest/rejuvenate time before opening the Astros’ unprecedented-in-the-divisional-play-era sixth consecutive American League Championship Series. They won’t know their opponent until things are settled between the Guardians and the Yankees in New York Monday night.

But how could these Astros, whose stocks in trade include becoming the biggest pains in the ass in the AL West with runners in scoring position, do worse with RISP (0-for-11) than the Mariners (0-for-8) did all night long?

How could Kyle Tucker and Jose Altuve hitting back-to-back one-out singles and pulling off a double-steal in the top of the second end with Mariners starting pitcher George Kirby striking Chas McCormick out to strand them?

How could Kirby plunk two Astros in the top of the third—Alvarez leading off, Trey Mancini to set up ducks on the pond—and escape with his life after McCormick’s deep fly to center was run down and hauled down by Julio Rodríguez?

How could the Astros plant first and second on Kirby with one out in the top of the seventh—and strand them by way of Christian Vazquez flying out to center and Altuve striking out?

How did Mariners reliever (and erstwhile Rays bullpen bull) Diego Castillo slither out of second and third and one out in the top of the ninth by striking Vazquez and Altuve out back-to-back swinging?

How did six Mariners out of the bullpen keep the Astros hitless from the tenth through the fifteenth, with their only baserunner of the span coming when Paul Sewald plunked McCormick to open the the top of the twelfth?

And how did Murfee save Matthew Boyd’s bones midway through the top of the sixteenth, after Boyd surrendered a base hit (Alex Bregman) and a walk (Kyle Tucker) following a leadoff fly out? Murfee got Yuli Gurriel to line out to fairly deep right center and Aledmys Diaz to pop out beyond first base in foul ground.

The longer this one went, the more improbably it continued to look. And not one muscle in T-Mobile Park dared obey any Mariner fans’ thoughts of making for the exits.

The Mariners proved just as good at leaving runners for dead as the Astros until the eighteenth. They stranded Cal Raleigh on third in the second, Ty France on first in the third, J.P. Crawford on first in the fifth, Rodríguez on second (a two-out double) in the eighth, Eugenio Suarez (leadoff single) and Mitch Haniger (one-out plunk) in the ninth, France (two-out walk, then stealing second) on second in the thirteenth, Haniger on first in the fourteenth, and Carlos Santana (two-out single; to second on a wild pitch) on second in the seventeenth.

This game threatened to end as a classic case of long-term, non-constructive abandonment against both side. (For the first time in his major league life Altuve took an 0-for-8 collar, big enough to fit Secretariat.) It only began with Astros starter Lance McCullers, Jr. pitching two-hit, six-inning shutout ball, and Mariners rook Kirby plus his defense keeping the Astros at bay for seven innings despite six hits and five walks.

Raleigh, the Mariners catcher, played all eighteen innings with a thumb fracture and a torn ligament or two that he’s dealth with for over a month. Some call it toughness. Others might call it foolishness.

He had a Clete Boyer kind of regular season at the plate: 27 home runs (leading all Show catchers) plus 20 doubles but a .284 on-base percentage. He clinched the Mariners’ postseason trip in the first place with a game-winning home run; he scored what proved the game-winning run that pushed the Blue Jays out of the postseason.

The league-average Mariners backstop who handled his pitchers well enough to help them deliver a collective 3.30 ERA on the season struck out three times in six plate appearances Saturday night, batted only once with a man in scoring position, in the bottom of the ninth, and hit into a force out.

At last Raleigh will be able to visit a hand specialist and get that paw repaired. Who knows what further damage catching two games’ worth without a break might have done? The spirit may be willing but more often than not all or part of the body can be defiant. Which reminds me that Rodríguez’s late-season back injury needs to be pondered more thoroughly, too—did he feel lingering after-effects the rest of the way?

But Peña turned on Murfee’s full-count fastball almost down the central pipe and sent it over the left center field fence and turned all eyes upon him. Peña, the rookie who slotted in at shortstop for the departed Carlos Correa. And, earned no less than his manager Dusty Baker’s lasting respect.

“You could tell by his brightness in his eyes and his alertness on the field,” Baker said postgame, “that he wasn’t scared and he wasn’t fazed by this. Boy, he’s been a godsend to us, especially since we lost Carlos, because this could have been a disastrous situation had he not performed the way he has.”

It proved a disastrous situation for the Mariners in the end. They’re likely to remain competitive with a few patches to sew and gaps to fill during their off-season. But nobody can accuse them of going down without one of the grandest and longest fights in postseason history, either. Be proud, Seattle. There was honour to spare in this defeat.

Opening Day: Cross it off the bucket list

Shohei Ohtani

Shohei Ohtani, shown on the Angel Stadium video board during his pre-game warmup as the teams lined up on the foul lines, on Opening Day. He pitched brilliantly but in a lost cause, the Angels losing 3-1.

The owners probably won’t stop by to see what I’m about to write, but their otherwise ill-advised 1 December-10 March lockout did me one solid. But only one.

After the World Series, and as soon as they went on sale, I’d bought tickets for what I thought would be the Angels’ home opener. They were scheduled originally to open the season on the road. But commissioner Rob Manfred’s cancellation of the regular season’s first series, in light of the owners’ further goalpost-moving shenanigans, turned the Angels’ home opener into Opening Day, after all.

It wasn’t enough to turn my thinking toward the owners’ side one iota, but it did enable me to cross something off my bucket list. Despite a lifetime of loving the game and watching countless games in the stands and on television, I’d never actually had the chance to be at the ballpark on Opening Day. Until Thursday evening.

The best part of the evening was that I got to do it with my now 28-year-old son, Bryan. The second-best part was being able to cross another item off the baseball bucket list within half an hour of us getting our pre-game food and drink, after putting replica 1972-1990 Angels hats onto our heads.

The Ball

The foul ball, now crossed off my bucket list, sitting atop my notebook, before I handed it to my son.

While the visiting Astros took batting practise, a line drive sailed into our section down the right field line. Adjacent fans made it impossible for me to see just which Astro hit the ball, but the ball bounced around off seats in front of us, then under them, and riocheted off a fan two seats to our right, before rolling on the floor under us to where I could grab the ball before another fan reaching under the seat in front of me did.

I held the ball up to see for myself that I wasn’t seeing or imagining things, then handed it to my son. He’d only been asking to try to catch a ball at Angel Stadium since, oh, the first time I got to take him there—in 2000, when the Angels beat the visiting Yankees one fine evening by prying the winning run out of The Mariano himself. We’d gone to plenty of games since. Thursday night, it was pay dirt at long enough last.

Of course, there was now a game to play, and the Angels lost, 3-1. These are my ten takeaways:

1) Shoh-time! The good news for the Angels was Shohei Ohtani starting on the mound. I’m convinced that what looked to be a lockout-dejected, ho-hum crowd in advance, shot into a near-sellout once Ohtani was announced as the Opening Day pitcher. Lockout after-effect, I suspected: I’d checked the ticketing for the game just prior to the announcement and there were several thousand seats remaining for the taking.

Well, now. The day before I set out for southern California from my home in Las Vegas, I checked the ticketing again. The tickets seemed to have flown off the board once Angel fans knew it would be Shoh-time. And Ohtani didn’t disappoint, much. He pitched four and two-thirds innings of one-run, nine-strikeout, four-hit, one-walk baseball.

The best the Astros could do against him was the third inning, after he caught Martin Maldonado looking at strike three and blew Jose Altuve away with a swinging third strike: Michael Brantley banged a double off the right center field fence and Alex Bregman sent him home promptly with a base hit to left center.

As a matter of fact, when Ohtani wasn’t becoming the first player in Show history to throw his team’s first pitch of the season and make his team’s first plate appearance of the season (the Angels like to bat him leadoff), he manhandled Altuve for three strikeouts on the night, including the nasty slider that shot over Altuve’s hard swing for the third such strikeout in the top of the fiftyh.

2) The bad news: Astros starter Framber Valdez was just as effective in six and two-thirds innings. (The Angels planned to keep their starting pitchers on an 80-pitch limit for the time being, after the lockout-imposed too-short spring training.) He struck six out, walked one, and surrendered two of the Angels’ four hits on the night.

3) The worse news, for the Angels: They came to within inches of taking a 2-1 lead in the seventh. Mike Trout led off by beating out a throw from shortstop that should have been ruled an infield hit but was ruled an error. Then Anthony Rendon hit a high liner that sailed into the left field seats . . . but missed the foul pole on the wrong side by a hair.

“When I saw the ball flying in the air,” Valdez said post-game of his narrow escape, “I got mad with myself that I didn’t make my best pitch. I just took a deep breath and threw my best pitch.” That would be the hard sinkerball on which Rendon promptely dialed Area Code 4-6-3.

Matt Duffy promptly beat out an infield hit to third, which promptly moved Astros manager Dusty Baker to end Valdez’s night and bring Phil Maton in to strike Jo Adell out swinging for the side.

4) Cruising speed: Maton seemed on a bit of a cruise in relief until he hit Brandon Marsh with a pitch with two out in the bottom of the eighth and David Fletcher shot a 1-2 pitch through to the back of left center and gunned it for an RBI triple. That was the Angels’ first and last run of the game, alas.

5) The worse news, for baseball as a whole: That ridiculous three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. Under normal circumstances, if your reliever comes into the game and gets murdered right away—as Angels reliever Ryan Tepera was in the top of the eighth—you’d know he didn’t have it that night, right?

Father and son

Father (right) crossed Opening Day off his bucket list at last—and had the pleasure of doing it with his 28-year-old son.

Oops. Tepera’s first pitch to Alex Bregman sailed into the left field seats. The next Astros batter, Yordan Alvarez, hit a hanging slider on 1-1 over the center field fence. The Angels were lucky to escape with their lives after two prompt deep fly outs (Yuli Gurriel, Kyle Tucker) followed by a sinking liner up the middle (Jeremy Peña) that Trout caught on the dead run in from somewhat deep center to retire the side. (Trout also drew a loud ovation after he turned around and, from half-shallow center, winged the ball to fans halfway up the right center field bleachers.)

6) But there was good news on the relief front. Neither manager burned his relievers in the bullpens. If either Baker or Joe Maddon warmed a pitcher up, he either came into the game as soon as needed or he was handed what amounted to the rest of the night off. No Angels or Astros reliever was called upon to warm up more than once.

I paid as much attention to the relievers in the pen as I could, considering I was seated far opposite the pens behind the left field fence. The Angels used five relievers and the Astros, three. None of those eight pitchers threw any more than maybe 20-25 pitches before they were brought into the game. None of them could be called gassed going in.

Tepera simply didn’t have it Thursday night; Maton got vulnerable after ending one inning and getting two outs to open the next. The rest of the two teams’ bullpen corps (Hector Neris and Ryan Pressly for the Astros; Aaron Loup, Austin Warren, Jose Quijada, and Archie Bradley for the Angels) pitched clean-as-a-hound’s-tooth relief. Would that all major league managers were that judicious handling their pen men.

7) Memo to: Angel fans. Subject: The Wave. The 1980s called. They want their obnoxious, obstructive Wave back. One fan adjacent to our section kept calling for fans to do the Wave. I kept shaking my head, but I did notice that each of about ten attempts at it starting in our part of the park died before flowing to a fourth section of the field-level seats. Maybe there’s hope in such deaths, after all.

8) You were saying? The back-to-back Astro bombs to one side, this game wasn’t exactly the kind to send the old farts screaming to the whiskey shots. The game’s twelve total hits included three Astros doubles, Fletcher’s triple, and six singles. Altuve even stole second in the ninth, for whatever that was worth, since he ended up stranded.

9) Wasted Out Department: Altuve, the Astros’ pint-sized, gallon-hitting second baseman, also dropped a sacrifice bunt to third with one out in the seventh against righthanded reliever Warren, after Chas McCormick opened the inning with a double. Remember: A man on second with one out, and you have less chance of scoring a run after that bunt than you did before the bunt, even if you do exactly what Altuve did pushing McCormick to third.

Just what a man with a lifetime .512 Real Batting Average (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances), and a .297 lifetime hitting average with a man on second and one out, is doing thinking sacrifice escapes. With his team leading a mere 1-0 at the time, the Angels brought Quijada in to pitch to Brantley, and Brantley flied out shy of the track in right center for the side.

That’s what a wasted out did. The righthanded-hitting Altuve might have been futile against Ohtani on the night, but he has a lifetime .301 hitting average against righthanded pitchers. The Astros would have had a better chance scoring McCormick if Altuve hit away.

10) When Bregman checked in at the plate in the top of the eighth, the Angel Stadium video boards flashed a graphic with Bregman’s head shot plus this: [He] donated over 200 iPads  w/protective cases and iTunes gift cards to several Houston-area elementary schools that have autistic classrooms. He does that through his Bregman Cares charity, with a particular focus upon autistic children.

It was almost as admirable for the Angels to show Bregman such respectful acknowledgement as it was for Bregman and his wife, Reagan, to take such an interest in lending hands to autistic children. Even if Bregman’s idea of saying thank you for such respect was to smash a leadoff homer in reply.