The Astros keep the extra inch

Greinke found what he needed when his skipper’s confidence found him when it was needed.

Once upon a time, stealing the pennant came to mean things like eleventh-hour surges at the end of the stretch drive. Or, off-field-based (and illegal) sign-stealing chicanery. (That means you, 1914 Philadelphia Athletics, 1940 Detroit Tigers, 1948 Cleveland Indians, 2017 Houston Astros, and 2018 Boston Red Sox.)

This time around, it may still mean the Tampa Bay Rays stealing the American League pennant by robbing the Houston Astros wide awake every time the Astros think a nicely-hit ball is about to send a run or two home.

But not quite yet.

Whatever you think about the Astros, they won’t just go gently into winter vacation. They didn’t muster up a jaw-dropping eleven-run first inning such as the Los Angeles Dodgers dropped on the Atlanta Braves earlier Wednesday. They didn’t have to. They needed just an extra home run and a managerial non-decision to live to play one more day at least.

This time, in Game Four of the American League Championship Series, the Astros didn’t give the Rays’ defensive aerialists further chances to rob them blind whenever they thought hard hits had chances to fall in. This time, they didn’t give the Rays the inches from which the Rays would push, shove, nudge, and yank miles.

This time, George Springer hit a tie-breaking two-run homer in the bottom of the fifth off Rays starter Tyler Glasnow and Astros manager Dusty Baker did an about-face rather than lift his starter Zack Greinke with first and second, one out, and white-hot Rays left fielder Randy Arozarena—whose two-run homer off Greinke in the top of the fourth tied the game in the first place—checking in at the plate in the top of the sixth.

Baker had his options just about ready to roll. He had Cristian Javier and Ryan Pressly throwing in his bullpen. And when he went to the mound, he talked to Greinke some but to catcher Martin Maldonado more, and Maldonado stood up for his pitcher just when Greinke needed it the most.

Greinke didn’t forget Game Seven of last year’s World Series. That’s when then-skipper A.J. Hinch noticed he’d run out of fuel and lifted him for Will Harris, his best relief option. To Greinke it meant lack of confidence, never mind that he’d been battered by the Rays in that division series, slapped silly by the New York Yankees in that ALCS, and taken for a home run by Washington’s Anthony Rendon before walking Juan Soto in that Game Seven seventh.

That was then: Greinke came out for Harris and Howie Kendrick ripped what looked like Harris’s unhittable cutter for a two-run homer off the Minute Maid Park foul pole with the Astros’ next-to-last Series hopes attached. This was Wednesday night: Baker turned around and returned to his dugout.

Greinke struck Arozarena out on a check swing. He got help from Astros shortstop Carlos Correa cutting off a hopper from Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi that might have left room for left fielder Manny Margot to score, if Correa didn’t reach it on the short outfield grass and knock it down.

Then Greinke struck out Michael Brosseau—whose late home run against the Yankees got the Rays to this ALCS in the first place—with a changeup that dove off a cliff just before Brosseau’s bat could give it a kiss. Kiss the Rays’ deepest threat of the night goodbye. Then turn the game over to the pen.

Arozarena’s check swing came on what would have been ball two. Brosseau struck out on what would have been ball four and an Astro lead cut to 4-3. And thus would Rays shortstop Willy Adames’s RBI double have been a tie game in the top of the ninth with the likelihood of extra innings.

“My plan,” Baker told reporters after the 4-3 Astro win, “was to take him out, but I wasn’t really convinced of my plan. Sometimes you look in the guy’s eyes, sometimes you listen to the catcher, and you do what you gotta do.”

“It was nice having someone have confidence in me,” Greinke told the reporters. “Because since I’ve been here, they haven’t seemed to have confidence in my ability. So it was nice having that happen in an important time like that.”

Especially for a seventeen-year veteran whose arm was ailing and inconsistent all postseason long, until he found the best of his late-career self when he needed it the most Wednesday night, putting his best off-speed pitches into a Mixmaster and cranking no higher than cookie-mixing speed.

He also vindicated Baker, a very veteran manager who’s not allergic to the analytic game but who’s lived as much by his gut as his brain and has often been caught with his pants down when his gut gets betrayed by circumstances far beyond his control.

Baker was one game from yet another tsunami of second-guessing when Greinke justified his gut Wednesday night. The skipper isn’t all the way through the turbulence just yet. But for once in his life Baker read his players and tea leaves right. He may yet have a few sharp readings left in him before this set’s over. May.

If baseball’s the game of inches, Greinke and the Houston pen made sure the Rays didn’t get the inches that would have mattered. Not that the Rays bullpen was caught sleeping. They matched shutout innings with the Astros’ bulls until Adames’s double off Pressly, brought in to close things out after Javier walked Choi to open the ninth. And the Rays used two bulls who weren’t exactly considered among their A-list stoppers.

The Astros’ own core five of Springer, Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Yuli Gurriel played their 54th postseason game together, passing a once-fabled Yankee core (Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Scott Brosius, Tino Martinez, and Paul O’Neill) by a game.

Winning it 4-3 made it that much more precious to the Astro core who may yet play their last games together in this set. One Astro win doth not a Rays collapse make, and the Astros are smart enough to know they’re in for a continuing fight, but don’t fault them for savouring Game Four a little extra.

Especially on a night Altuve’s first-inning launch over the left field fence and Springer’s fifth-inning flog meant the eighteenth lifetime postseason bombs for each man. Matching them to Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson and putting them one behind Hall of Famer-to-be Albert Pujols in the divisional play-era postseason rolls.

Not to mention a night on which Altuve’s apparent and frightening case of the yips at second base took its first steps toward potential dissipation, Altuve handling a pair of none-too-tough chances and throwing without the ball deciding on its own to go to the enemy side.

“Those are things that happen in baseball,” Altuve said, facing the press for the first time all series long. “I left that in the past and showed up today ready to play some baseball and help my team.” The question then becomes whether Altuve can leave those game-changing mishaps in the past. He sure thinks so. Springer’s pretty sure he knows so.

“He prides himself in every aspect of the game,” the center fielder said. “When he believes that he failed or let the guys down, he takes it to heart. But one of the most impressive things about Jose is how he can clear his head and contribute in all aspects of his game. I know the head he has on his shoulders. He’s our leader and always has been.”

That comes from the guy who watched Altuve start Wednesday night’s scoring with a second first-inning solo bomb in as many days and his third in the series, swat an RBI double in the fourth, and tell himself, “You’re not taking care of all the scoring, bro,” before driving a 2-1 service down the left field line and into the third patio up the Western Metal Supply Co. building.

The Astros still had to wrestle for their win. Even if the Rays didn’t have to get their acrobats on, they still turned four double plays on the evening and rapped out seven hits to the Astros’ nine. They’re still out-pitching the Astros by a few hairs, finishing Game Four with a team 2.31 ERA to the Astros’ 2.65.

The bad news for the Astros: Come Game Five, the Rays can go to their bullpen A-listers at will. The Astro pen otherwise has looked remarkable for the most part, but the Rays live and die by their bullpen as much as they live and die by their high-wire defense.

Most likely, the Astros send Framber Valdez out to start Game Five, likely against the Rays’ Blake Snell. No announcements were made at this writing, and Rays skipper Kevin Cash would have no compunction at all against going to a bullpen game the Astros aren’t positioned or built to deliver just yet.

But, as the Beatles also sang once upon a time, a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

A nightmare on Keystone Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The little bang theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Escape

Liam Hendriks, who just might be able
to bust his way out of a double-chain-
locked footlocker if asked to do it.

Postseason baseball is littered enough with mishaps, mistakes, and acts of God (we think, often as not) that turn certain triumph into disaster in less than the proverbial New York minute. The Oakland Athletics got thatclose to seeing for themselves in the bottom of the eighth Wednesday afternoon.

When A’s catcher Sean Murphy’s glove was hit by the bat of Houston Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker with Carlos Correa aboard and nobody out, the catcher’s interference call stood an excellent chance of standing as the arguable worst postseason moment in A’s history.

That’s because it happened immediately after the A’s sacrificed their way back to a two-run lead in the top of the inning, with a pair of sac flies, one inning after Chad Pinder yanked them back from the dead and into a fresh tie with a long distance call.

The interference suddenly turned Oakland closer Liam Hendriks’s day’s work from somewhat routine with a three-up, three-down seventh into an eight-inning wrestling match. That was not what the A’s needed with a tenuous late, re-claimed lead, in a game they had to win to stay alive in the division series the Astros threatened to sweep.

It also could have made A’s manager Bob Melvin go from looking like a genius for bringing Hendriks in so soon in the first place to looking like a nut for . . . bringing him in so soon. But it turns out that Hendriks doesn’t like leaving his manager looking like a straitjacket candidate.

The husky righthander also isn’t averse to a hard wrestling match. Not even against these Astros whose 29-31 irregular season record belied their postseason batting revival thus far.

Not when Hendriks could get Yuli Gurriel to pop out to first, Aleidmys Diaz to ground out to second, and Josh Reddick to strike out so violently on a pitch that barely missed the middle of the plate that Reddick—pinch hitting for Astros catcher Martin Maldonado—fumed and broke the bat over his knee angrily as he left the plate area.

A’s fans might have a difficult time deciding the day’s biggest hero. Was it Pinder nailing Astros reliever Josh James’s first pitch after seventh inning-opening back-to-back singles for that game re-tying three-run homer into the right field corner cutouts? Was it Hendriks making Harry Houdini resemble a clumsy Watergate burglar in that 19th-nervous-breakdown eighth?

In a Game Three that featured seven home runs, a 4-2 Oakland lead turned into a 7-4 Houston lead with a five-run fifth, and five lead changes before Pinder launched—who would have wagered that the day’s heaviest drama would be an eighth inning like that? Even on a day George Springer, who treats Dodger Stadium like his personal batting cage, struck out three times and didn’t hit a lick?

Finish the Astros off in the ninth? Child’s play. Strike out Springer, lure Jose Altuve into popping out to first, and get Michael Brantley to fly out to left? Simpler than shaving in the morning, right? There’s a clearance sale on bathing suits at the North Pole waiting for you.

The Atlanta Braves throwing their third shutout in four postseason tries at the Miami Marlins earlier in the day? Ho-hum. Pending whatever came between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays in another ALDS, plus the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres in another NLDS, the A’s and the Astros claimed Thursday’s Alfred Hitchcock Prize for High Drama.

To think that it looked like just another routine long distance exchange before the bottom of the eighth arrived.

Tommy LaStella, who had to leave the game in the eighth after he was hit on the arm by an Andre Scrubb pitch (and when will they change the name of the bone away from “humerus,” since LaStella thought it was as funny as a vampire managing the blood bank) opened the barrage with a first-inning, one-out launch over the center field fence.

Altuve faced Oakland starter Jesus Luzardo in the bottom of the first with one out. He caught hold of a changeup hanging a little off the middle of the zone and hung it to the same real estate but about 25 feet farther out. Brantley coming home on an infield ground out later in the inning merely made for a 2-1 Astro lead. Big deal.

A’s left fielder Mark Canha said “not so fast” leading off the top of the second and sent Astros starter Jose Urquidy’s 1-2 dangling slider dangling over and into LaStella’s and Altuve’s real estate—but landing at a mere 394 feet.

A’s first baseman Matt Olson decided the three half innings preceding him leading off the top of the fourth were a little too quiet. He hit Urquidy’s first pitch into the right field bleachers for a 3-2 A’s lead. Shortstop Marcus Semien decided the A’s punished Urquidy enough for one day, chasing him with one out in the top of the fifth with yet another launch over the center field fence.

Houston reliever Blake Taylor then put first claim on the day’s Houdini award, when he worked his way out of the subterranean chains slapped around him by LaStella’s walk and Pinder’s single by getting Khris Davis to fly out to center and—after walking Olson to load the pillows—getting Canha to fly out to center for the side.

Then it was the Astros’ turn to make up for lost time. They chased Luzardo in the bottom of the fifth when Diaz made him pay for walking Yuli Gurriel to lead off by hitting one into the left field bleachers. Luzardo rid himself of Maldonado when the Houston catcher bunted a line out to third before coming out.

But A’s reliever Yusmeiro Petit hit Springer with a first-pitch fastball, allowed Altuve to beat out an infield hit up the third base side, and served Brantley a pitch good enough to drive Springer home with a base hit. The good news for the A’s: Altuve got thrown out at third trying an extra advance. The bad news: Alex Bregman whacked an RBI double to the back of left center field.

Melvin let Petit put Correa aboard before lifting him for Jake Diekman. Tucker swatted an RBI single to short center before Diekman got Gurriel to ground out to third with the 7-4 Astros lead looking only too ominous for A’s fans’ comfort.

But when it was all over and the A’s lived to play a Game Four, the first thought would be how Melvin might have to shuffle his bullpen after Hendriks worked three innings Thursday, making him most likely unavailable until a Game Five if the set gets that far.

The second thought was who the Astros might send out to start if ailing Zack Greinke’s arm still isn’t ready to take a chance. Not to mention the sudden realisation that the Astros’ bullpen—which shut the A’s out in the first two games—may not be as invincible as Games One and Two made them look.

The third thought? Easy enough. If the A’s hang in there to overthrow the Astros, they’ll have a hard time deciding which Game Three moment was the one that lit the turnaround’s powder keg, Pinder’s seventh-inning solar plexus punch, or Hendriks’s eighth-inning escape.

They may debate that even longer than they would have debated where the interference call rated for postseason calamity.

D.C. traffic jams don’t jam the Astros

2019-10-26 GeorgeSpringerCarlosCorrea.jpg

George Springer and Carlos Correa celebrate the Astros’ Game Three win Friday night.

The Washington Post‘s nonpareil baseball essayist, Thomas Boswell, couldn’t contain his joy. World Series Game Three loomed in Nationals Park, and Boswell—who never kept quiet about wanting to see baseball back in Washington in all the years it was absent—was almost beside himself.

With every post-season game,” he tweeted, “the Nats crowd arrives earlier & earlier. I just looked up and realized the place is full—FULL—and it’s 30 minutes before first pitch. And I don’t even know how long it’s been that way. Metro stop & Half Street jammed, all red, hours before game.

And well enough before Nats Park jammed full, the word came forth that Donald Trump wouldn’t be invited to throw out a ceremonial first pitch, even though President Tweety planned to attend Game Five if a Game Five proved necessary. The usual suspects on one side hemmed, the usual suspects on the other side hawed, but just because a man is a screwball doesn’t necessarily mean he can throw one.

Finally, both sides came out of their dugouts to line up on the foul lines. The Nats played the gracious hosts and laid the red carpets out from both dugouts for the Astros and the Nats to trod on their way out to the lines. The appropriately named church singer D.C. Washington sang “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Then Astros leadoff hitter George Springer gave Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki a good-luck pat on the chest protector as he checked in at the plate. The two exchanged friendly glances. And from that moment until the final out, we learned that the Astros are less unnerved by Washington traffic jams than Washingtonians are about Dupont Circle rush hours.

It proved easier for the clunkiest SUV to pass through the eye of a pileup than it did for the Nats to cash in all but one of the men they planted on the pillows en route the Astros’ 4-1 Game Three win Friday night. All the adoring home racket in the ballpark couldn’t coax the Nats into cashing in nobody from second base or better all night long, any more than all the adoring racket in Minute Paid Park stopped them from bushwhacking the Astros in Games One and Two.

This time, the Astros’ bats produced a strong enough version of the ones that delivered the American League’s third-most runs in the regular season, even if they weren’t yet total destroyers again. The Astros in the field made it look as though Game Two was just a one-in-a-thousand nightmare. And the Astro bullpen, pressed into service after four and a third innings, actually out-pitched starter Zack Greinke.

In other words, the Astros made this World Series look good, close, and tight all over again, even if the road team is doing the winning so far. And they guaranteed themselves at least a Game Five with Gerrit Cole on the mound. But the better news for the Astros was rediscovering their better selves just in time.

Overcoming 2-0 and now 2-1 posteseason deficits is a lot simpler than being in the hole 3-0. And the Astros have been 2-1 before. They won a World Series two years ago after falling into such a hole. They can afford to get their Alfred E. Neuman on now. What—us worry?

Which is exactly how they came into Game Three after a players’ meeting following the Game Two disaster. But don’t kid yourselves. They didn’t win Game Three because of any sort of rah-rah or black magic, even if they might have been tempted to rock around the cauldron in the clubhouse beforehand. They won Game Three because they’re still one helluva baseball team.

“The key was that we stayed confident,” said Jose Altuve, who wears the sash as the Astros’ true heart and soul, and who continued his own solid hitting pace, told reporters after the game. “We didn’t panic. Yes, the first two games, we didn’t do some things, but we keep believing in us. And guess what? Tonight we went out there and we make it happen.”

They made it happen and the Nats didn’t. The Nats became the first World Series team to go 0-for-10 with men on second or better in a Fall Classic game since the 2008 Phillies and the seventeenth in Series history overall. The good news for the Nats is that those Phillies went on to win the Series, anyway.

They’ve been in worse places this year and lived to tell about them. But they also have to remind themselves that the Astros weren’t going to look like a lost tribe forever. The Astros didn’t put up three straight 100+ win seasons or get to shoot for a second World Series trophy in three years by cowering after any pair of back-to-back losses.

They also loved getting to play what their future Hall of Fame pitcher Justin Verlander called old-time baseball. “Tension, traffic, strategy, decisions,” Verlander told reporters Friday night. “People were standing up most of the time. These are the two best teams in baseball at putting the ball into play. It should be like this.”

Give the Astros gifts, though, and they will say, “Thank you, sir,” before either doing what Astros usually do or making sure the other guys don’t. And Nats manager Dave Martinez gave them a carnation wrapped in a big red bow almost halfway through the game.

The Nats’ Game Three starter Anibal Sanchez gritted and ground his way through four innings, three runs, and no small volume of Astro peskiness, then got a small reward when Ryan Zimmerman led off the bottom of the fourth with a full-count walk and, a strikeout later, Victor Robles shot one fair past third baseman Alex Bregman and down the left field line for an RBI triple.

But Sanchez was due up next with the absence of a designated hitter in the National League park. Perhaps even the Astros couldn’t believe Martinez elected to let Sanchez hit rather than pinch hit for him despite having five serviceable-at-minimum bats on the Game Three bench, namely Matt Adams, Brian Dozier, Yan Gomes, Howie Kendrick, and Mr. Baby Shark himself, Gerardo Parra.

And, despite the fact that, unlike Greinke, who handles a bat very well, Sanchez with a bat is tantamount to having Lucky Luciano heading a task force to battle organised crime. And for all Sanchez’s heroics to open the National League Championship Series, he looked only too human Friday night with the Astros hitting his pitches firmly enough and knowing opponents hit .288 against him the third time around the order all year.

Yet with rookie Tanner Rainey warming in the pen all inning, Martinez let Sanchez hit. Then, he bunted foul for a strikeout and Trea Turner couldn’t push Robles home. And then Sanchez went out to work the top of the fifth, surrendering a run. Then, he went out for the sixth.

With one out Astros catcher Robinson Chirinos swung for the history books with a high liner off the left field foul pole net for what proved the Astros’ insurance run. It made number three in the first World Series ever to feature three catchers hitting bombs while in games as catchers. Suzuki and the Astros’ Martin Maldonado also did it, both in Game Two, and Maldonado after he replaced Chirinos behind the dish late in the game.

For just about the first time in the Series it left Martinez looking foolish. He had a chance to let bigger men do the clutch hitting in the bottom of the fourth, but he may have let his edginess about most of his bullpen not named Fernando Rodney, Daniel Hudson, or Sean Doolittle overcome his need in the moment.

When Grandpa Rodney, forgotten man Joe Ross, and apparent former arsonist Wander Suero pitched three and two thirds’ shutout ball following Sanchez’s evening-ending walk to pinch hitter Kyle Tucker (right after Chirinos’s net shot), it only amplified Martinez’s temporary brain vapor.

Now it almost seemed like a too-distant memory that Robles stole a first-inning run from the Astros when, after Springer opened the game beating out a nubber toward the mound, Altuve sent him to the rear end of the field where he reached up and back and made a twist-and-shout one-handed catch on the track just in front of the fence.

And it wasn’t as though the Astros battered the Nats into submission, Chirinos’s blast to one side. With Carlos Correa aboard on a one-out double down the left field line in the top of the second, Josh Reddick dumped a quail into shallow left that neither Turner out from shortstop nor Juan Soto coming in from left could reach as Correa alertly got his Road Runner on. It didn’t hurt him that Soto’s throw home took off like an airplane and sailed above both his catcher and his pitcher backing the play.

Altuve tore a double down the left field line leading off the top of the third that gave Soto trouble and an error when the ball rolled under the pads on the walls and Soto couldn’t find the handle soon enough to stop Altuve from making third. Then Brantley whacked a grounder that took a classic ricochet off the mound, upside Sanchez’s right side, and let Altuve practically cruise home.

And in the fifth, after Springer opened first pitch, first out on a smash to shortstop, Altuve hit a liner that bounced into left near the line for another double, and Brantley settled for old-fashioned through-the-infield hitting instead of playing Ricochet Rabbit, shooting a clean single through the right side to score the third Astro run.

Sanchez’s grit didn’t stop him from looking nothing like the same junkyard dog who somehow got thatclose to no-hitting the Cardinals in the NLCS. Greinke’s outing wasn’t a lot prettier despite him limiting the Nats to one run, and times enough he looked to be running on wings and prayers.

So let’s count the ways the Nats made a guy who wasn’t having the easiest night of his life, plus the Astro bullpen, feel as though they were just taking leisurely strolls through an overcrowded Union Station:

* Anthony Rendon fought to a seventh pitch and banged a two-out double to left in the bottom of the first, but birthday boy Juan Soto grounded out for the side.

* Asdrubal Cabrera and Zimmerman opened the bottom of the second with back-to-back singles . . . but Suzuki looked at an eighth-pitch third strike after three fouls on 2-2, and Robles dialed Area Code 5-4-3.

* Turner and Adam Eaton with one out in the bottom of the third walked and nailed a base hit to left, respectively, and one out later Soto worked out a walk for ducks on the pond. Then Cabrera struck out on maybe the single filthiest breaking ball Greinke’s thrown all year long.

* Eaton led off the bottom of the fifth with a single and, two outs later, Cabrera lined a double toward the right field corner. That’s when Greinke’s night ended and Astro reliever Josh James’s would begin and end by putting Zimmerman into the 0-2 hole—not to mention spinning hard into a face plant when a fastball up and in got a little too far in, a pitch that wasn’t even close to intentional—letting Zimmerman escape to a full count, then striking him out swinging.

“Sometimes you just have to tip your cap,” Zimmerman said after the game. “3-2 changeup. That’s a pretty good pitch right there.” When Chirinos asked Zimmerman if he was all right after the unexpected spinout, Zimmerman still on the ground simply replied, “Man, that was a close one.”

* Parra pinch hit for Suzuki in the bottom of the sixth—to a rousing chorus of “Baby Shark” and the stands doing the shark clap ravenously—and struck out so furiously he walked back to the dugout fuming. But Astro reliever Brad Peacock walked Robles, and then Martinez sent Adams, a power hitter, up to hit . . . for Rodney. Adams walked, pushing Peacock out and Will Harris into the game. And Harris dispatched Turner—who fouled one off the family jewels and spent a few moments on the ground in less than a fine mood—with a swinging strikeout, before Eaton grounded out for the side.

* And Kendrick finally appeared in the bottom of the eighth to pinch hit . . . for Ross. He shot a one-out single into right center. But Astro reliever Joe Smith caught Robles looking at strike three and got Yan Gomes, who’d taken over for Suzuki in the seventh, to ground out to Bregman on the dead run.

That’s what the Astros call navigating Washington traffic jams. It’s what the Nats ought to call jaywalking. Not the way to see an eight-game postseason winning streak end. Not the most advisable way of transit when the Astros finally get something even mildly resembling their normal Astros on.

The only real Game Three nuisance other than the Nats’ inability to cash in their chips was plate umpire Gary Cederstrom. This was one issue on which both the Astros and the Nats could agree. Cederstrom called too many balls strikes and too many strikes balls against both sides, enough to make them wonder whether the strike zone would finally shrink to the size of a guitar pick before the game ended.

Astro manager A.J. Hinch looked like a genius for setting his table in order that the Nats’ best bats wouldn’t see much more than Greinke and the two best Astro relievers, Harris and closer Roberto Osuna. He’s going to have to look like Casey Stengel in Game Four.

Lacking the viable fourth starter the Nats happen to have in their Game Four starter Patrick Corbin, Hinch is going bullpen Saturday night with Jose Urquidy, a promising rookie, to open. And as solid as the pen was, the Nats did make most of them work a little harder even if they couldn’t get anyone home with a Secret Service escort Friday night.

But yes, folks, we have an honest-to-God World Series again. Anxious enough to prove falling short of the Series last year was a mere aberration, the Astros made sure of it.

They didn’t have to play like their regular-season juggernaut to do it. All they had to do was what anyone who’s ever lived in Washington for any length of time (I have) can tell you has all the simplicity of a spider web—navigate a traffic jam.