Freeman frees the Braves to await their NLCS opponent

Freddie Freeman

Jubilant Freddie Freeman approaches the plate to finish the eighth-inning bomb that held up to win the NLDS for the Braves Tuesday night.

Maybe it didn’t have quite the last-split-second hair raising quotient that the Red Sox’s final two American League division series wins had. But it wasn’t any less dramatic for Freddie Freeman and his Braves in winning their National League division series Tuesday.

Freeman’s eighth-inning tiebreaking home run off Brewers relief ace Josh Hader turned out the finishing blow in a set during which both teams scored as many runs in the first three games as they ended up scoring in Game Four alone.

What made the bomb so luminous, too, was that it was only the second time in the whole 145-year history of the franchise that any Brave delivered what proved a postseason series-winning hit in the eighth or later. It took one season shy of three decades for Freeman’s homer to join Francisco Cabrera’s National League Championship Series-winning base hit. (The fabled Sid Bream mad-broken-bodied-dash.)

“I’ve had a lot of cool moments in my career,” Freeman said postgame, “but so far I think that’s going to top them right there. But hopefully that’s not the last cool one.” Right now, nobody’s willing to bet too heavily against either Freeman or his Braves. Yet.

You heard all season long about this or that team being wracked by injuries and surrealities? Few had to compensate as heavily as the Braves did. Too many teams losing their number-two franchise player, one of their best young pitchers, and a reliable other power bat might have collapsed like a blimp.

The Braves lost Ronald Acuna, Jr. thanks to a torn ACL making a play in center field. They lost Mike Soroko after his Achilles tendon blew out in May—after nine months’ rehab following its initial 2020 tear. They looked as though their season had paid put to hit without once seeing .500.

They lost Marcell Ozuna when the outfielder/bombardier was arrested for domestic violence in July—charged first with felonious aggravated assault and attempted strangulation, charges reduced to misdemeanor simple assault and battery, on administrative leave through the end of the Braves’ season, after he entered a diversion program.

When Acuna went down, and the Braves more or less sputtered into and past the All-Star break, general manager Alex Anthopoulos made his first move, bringing former Dodger Joc Pederson aboard from the Cubs in exchange for a minor league prospect.

That was Pederson pinch hitting for Braves reliever Luke Jackson in the Game One eighth and hitting a solo home run off Brewers reliever Adrian Houser for the only Braves run in the only series loss. That was also Pederson in Game Three, pinch hitting for Braves starter Ian Anderson, facing Houser again, and launching the three-run homer that proved the only Game Three scoring.

Houser may start seeing Pederson in his sleep. The Braves just want to keep seeing him mash. Even if he got the Game Four start as his reward and had to settle for pushing home the first of the two runs that tied things at four with a ground out to second base.

Freeman thinks landing Pederson merely began the Braves’ reversal. “When Alex went out and got Joc,” he said, “it brought a sense of energy that it just showed us that they still believed in us, to go add at the deadline.” Which is exactly what Anthopolous did. He nailed three 30 July trades to bring Jorge Soler from the Royals, Adam Duvall from the Marlins, and Eddie Rosario from the Guardians-to-be.

The NL East wasn’t a powerful division to begin with. But the longtime-leading Mets imploded, the Nationals hit the reset button, and the Phillies proved just short of being able to hold on. In Atlanta, as proverbially and poetically as feasible, that which didn’t destroy the Braves only made them stronger.

They went 36-19 to finish the regular season, including a too-simple-seeming sweep of the Phillies opening the final week to keep them from finishing what they threatened awhile to do and overthrow the Braves. They even shook off Soler’s COVID diagnosis entering the postseason. Now they’ve dispatched a Brewers team that won seven more regular-season games to lead an only slightly stronger NL Central.

They’re waiting to see who’ll be the last men standing between the Dodgers and the Giants, after the Dodgers tied that division series in Los Angeles Tuesday night in an all-Dodgers/all-the-time 7-2 win.

The game was a still-manageable 2-0 Dodger lead, with the Giants compelled to a bullpen game against a short-rested but deadly effective Walker Buehler, when Mookie Betts checked in in the fourth against Jarlin Garcia—after Buehler himself led off by reaching on an infield error.

“It’s not something we want to do all the time,” said Buehler about going on only three days rest, “but I felt that if things didn’t go our way [in the third game], I would feel really weird not pitching a game that we could lose a series.”

He didn’t have to worry. Until he surrendered a leadoff single to Evan Longoria and a one-out walk to Steven Duggar in the fifth, Buehler pitched stoutly and had to shake only one previous first-and-second spot of trouble away in the second. He even had the Giants slightly flummoxed when he went to his changeup a little more often than they were accustomed to seeing from him.

When the Mookie Monster parked an 0-1 pitch into the right center field bleachers, it suddenly seemed a question not of whether but by how big the Dodgers would take the game. An inning later, Betts sent Cody Bellinger home with a sacrifice fly deep to left center field. But Dodger catcher Will Smith—just call him the Fresh Prince of Dodger Stadium—squared off against Giants reliever Jake McGee with Corey Seager aboard (leadoff line single) and hit the first pitch over the left center field fence.

The Giants looked so overmatched in Game Four that their only two runs scored on ground outs, one with the bases loaded. That was Evan Longoria scoring on Darin Ruf’s grounder to second. The other was Brandon Crawford coming home in the eighth when Kris Bryant grounded one to the hole at third.

Buehler’s short-rest deliverance plus the Dodgers’ bats ensured Julio Urias on regular rest starting Game Five against Logan Webb in San Francisco Thursday. For the Braves, that’s going to be very must-see television. Which is what it already was on the left coast and elsewhere.

For the Brewers, it’s a too-early winter vacation after their pitching virtuosity proved futile against the disappearance of their bats. Christian Yelich’s back injury-abetted struggles continued in the division series, and while the Braves didn’t exactly bring the walls crumbling down the Brewers hit a measly .192 in the set—32 points below the Braves.

They did get beaten in the end when the Braves’ best batter launched against their best pitcher in the Game Four eighth. Starting Eric Lauer for Game Four because ace Corbin Burnes said he wasn’t feeling one hundred percent proved a mistake, and so did manager Craig Counsell not bringing Brandon Woodruff in earlier in higher-leverage.

But then here’s where the Brewers’ best bats fell too short. Avisail Garcia? Eight strikeouts, only two hard-hit balls, and two singles in fifteen at-bats. Kolten Wong? Five strikeouts, likewise only two hard-hit balls, and one single in fifteen at-bats. Willy Adames? Five hits in seventeen at-bats—four singles and a double, plus nine strikeouts and only three balls hit hard.

That’s why the Brewers pitched the division series like Hall of Famers—their three starters Burnes, Woodruff, and Luis Peralta showed a collective 1.56 ERA and 0.92 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, not to mention nineteen strikeouts in 17.1 innings pitched—but the Braves still took them out sweeping three after a Game One Brewers win.

“The vibe is the best that we ever had in this series,” Adames said before Game Four. “Today, the guys, I guess they woke up in a great mood. They came with energy. And I feel today we had the best vibe that we’ve had so far this series so far.”

The trouble was that the Brewers went in with the best vibes but the Braves played them as if they were jazz vibes legend Milt Jackson hammering out another virtuoso chorus of “Bags’ Groove.” Now the Braves wait to see who gets bagged in San Francisco Thursday night.

This Derby doesn’t quite fit that well

2019-07-09 PeteAlonsoHomeRunDerby

One of the 2019 Mets’ few bright lights, Pete Alonso proudly hoists his Home Run Derby winning trophy Monday night.

The remade/remodeled rules of the thing enabled Pete Alonso to win Monday night’s Home Run Derby in Cleveland’s Progressive Field. And Alonso, who’s one of the extremely few bright lights on a Mets team described charitably as a basket case, would have been the star of the show all around if it wasn’t for the kid named Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.

Gone is the longtime ten-outs window through which the Home Run Derby’s participants had to perform in the past. In is the three-minute, no-outs window through which they get to mash to their hearts’ content and their swings’ contact. Through that window did the chunky Blue Jay mash his way into becoming half of the only father-and-son tandem ever to win the Derby.

And, into the hearts of both the packed Progressive Field (commentators invariably noted the full house stayed full from late afternoon until the Derby finished) and the television audience. Hitting 91 home runs on the evening can do that for you, especially if you’re as effervescent as this son of a Hall of Famer showed himself to be.

It was great entertainment.

But it wasn’t baseball.

And there was the chance going in that this year’s Derby could be won by a guy who wasn’t even an All-Star in the first place.

As likeable as he is, as promising as his future still appears to be despite his awkward career opening after he’d turned the minors into his personal target practise, Guerrero isn’t even a member of the American League’s All-Star team. And Joc Pederson, whom Guerrero beat to set up the final showdown with Alonso, isn’t a member of the National League’s All-Stars this time. The Derby operates by a slightly different set of criteria than the All-Star Game, which has problems enough every year.

But Alonso is an All-Star. So is Alex Bregman, the Astros’ deft third baseman who often seems to be six parts Little Rascal and half a dozen parts high on laughing gas, and you’re never quite sure which side dominates at any given time. Bregman was eliminated in the Derby’s first round after a mere fourteen blasts. He may not necessarily have been complaining.

Watching the showdown between Guerrero and Pederson, who put on a big show of their own (including two swing-offs) before Guerrero yanked his way to the final showdown with Alonso, Bregman got off the arguable second best line of the night: I couldn’t imagine three rounds of that. I was gassed after two minutes of it. The arguable best line of the night? It showed up on Twitter: Joc Pederson’s going after that $1 million like he’s behind in his rent.

And, on television, Dodger pitcher and All-Star Clayton Kershaw inadvertently provided the most charming moment—his two young children, Cali and Charley, accompanied Daddy to the ballpark for the Derby. There was Cali Kershaw, pretty in pink, pumping her hands and hollering, “Let’s go, Joc! Let’s go, Joc!” The little lady’s a natural scene-stealer, just as she was during last year’s National League division series.

This year’s Derby winner added $1 million to his bankroll for his effort. In Alonso’s case, earning $1 million for one evening’s glorified batting practise all but doubles what he’s earning all season long as a Met. And, entering the Derby and the All-Star break, Alonso out-performed the guy down the freeway in Philadelphia who signed a thirteen-year, $330 million contract by the time spring training was about two-thirds finished.

Alonso also made good on his very public promise to divide ten percent of the Derby prize money equally, if he won, between the Wounded Warriors project (which aids post-9/11 military wounded) and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, named for the firefighter who lost his life on 9/11 trying to save lives in the World Trade Center.

“There’s a lot I was hitting for tonight,” the exhausted Met said after he was handed the winning medal and trophy. “I’m just happy that I can donate some money to the causes that I wanted . . . I mean, I have the utmost respect for the people that put their lives on the line every single day. And I just want to show my gratitude, because a bad day for me is a lot different than a bad day for the service men and women that serve this country.”

Whom among the Derby participants is also an All-Star? Ronald Acuna, Jr. (Braves), Josh Bell (Pirates), Matt Chapman (Athletics), and Carlos Santana (Indians). Ridiculously, one of the Derby semi-finals was between two guys who aren’t even All-Stars this year. Alonso beat his fellow All-Star Acuna to set up the showdown with Vlad the Impaler, Jr.

Even an observer who isn’t irrevocably wedded to the more stubborn of baseball’s traditions is justified in saying that the Home Run Derby is more entertainment than baseball, since it is tied explicitly to the All-Star festivities, if it invites those who didn’t make either All-Star team as well as those who did.

And one is reminded even briefly that Yankee star Aaron Judge pre-empted any participation in this year’s Derby during spring training, when the Leaning Tower of the South Bronx said he was more concerned with helping his team win games after the All-Star break than with joining and winning a Derby. Judge won the Derby in 2017. His second-half performance wasn’t quite the same as his first half, and he won the American League’s Rookie of the Year award anyway. (He also may have exacerbated a shoulder issue while swinging for his Derby win.)

I analysed Derby winners’ seasons at the time Judge declined and discovered at least half of them had lesser than equal or better second halves of the regular seasons in which they won their Derbies. Last year’s champion, Bryce Harper (now a Phillie), had a better second than first half, to name one; Guerrero’s Hall of Fame father (then an Angel) had a lesser second than first half when he won the Derby, to name one more.

It’s great entertainment.

But it isn’t baseball.

And, contrary to the naysayers, nannies, and nattering nabobs of negativism (thank you, William Safire, of blessed memory), baseball games are better entertainment than million-dollar batting practise. Even million-dollar batting practise that turned out to contribute to two extremely worthy causes.

If there’s a 50-50 chance that a Derby winner will have a lesser than better second half after winning the prize, with or without Alonso’s admirable charity intentions, it’s a little more alarming for baseball than it is engaging for Joe and Jane Fan.

And guess who’s going to be the first to complain, of course, if and when their heroes in the Derby become less at the plate and in the field, especially if and when their teams hit the stretch drive running.