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.

WS Game Five: Winning in a walk

Martin Maldonado

Maldonado, you’re no longer the weakest link. For now.

The good news is, the Braves can win in Houston. They proved it in Game Two. The bad news is, they’ll need to win there to win the World Series now.

The Astros didn’t let a little thing like a four-run hole after a single Game Five inning on a single swing drive them into an early season’s grave Sunday night.

Not with manager Dusty Baker flipping his lineup a little bit. Not with proving there are times a bases-loaded walk and a well-timed single in the middle of a game are more powerful than a grand slam out of the gates.

Not with the Astros’ heretofore, mostly dormant longtime core finding their bats. And, not with the Braves’ heretofore impenetrable bullpen proving they’re only human, after all, while their own usually tenacious bats mostly went askew following their early slicing, slashing, and thundering.

Their early, incendiary Game Five lead turned into a 9-5 loss to the Astros—but doesn’t have them up against the wall just yet.

“When we won [Game Four], it made it easier, I guess, coming into this one — but we knew it was going to be tough,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker postgame. “That’s just a lot of innings to cover (by relievers) against a club like this that swings a bat so well. The good news is we’ll take a day off and be in good shape.”

Meaning, including and especially, a rested bullpen as well as a re-grouping lineup. But it’s the opposite now of where they stood after Game Five of the National League Championship Series, after the Dodgers flattened them 11-2 in Los Angeles and despite still holding a 3-2 lead in the set.

Then, the Braves’ longtime first baseman and leader Freddie Freeman said they were still in good shape, they still led the set, and they liked their chances going back home to Atlanta. Now, Snitker’s putting the Brave face on and saying, “I’ll take it anywhere. If we win the World Series, it doesn’t matter where it is.”

Two years ago the Nationals proved that in abundance against the Astros. The Braves won’t be winning all needed Series games on the road, but with their Series lead now they need to win only once. It sounds simple when you say it. It’ll be anything but simple when they play it starting Tuesday night.

You can’t get any more profound a reminder of how tough a World Series can be than the Braves got when they only thought they had the Astros buried alive in the bottom of the first Sunday night.

They loaded the bases on Astros starter Framber Valdez with a leadoff base hit by Jorge Soler, a two-out single by Austin Riley, and a 3-1 walk to Eddie Rosario. Then Adam Duvall couldn’t wait to drive Valdez’s first service to him into the seats above the right field wall.

Hindsight’s almost as wonderful as foresight. Snitker has both in abundance. This time, though, hindsight was his BFF. “I’d rather we scored those runs in the seventh inning when you don’t have so much time to cover,” the manager said postgame. “We knew we had a long, long way to go in that game and anything could happen.”

Anything did happen, right away.

Heretofore slumber bat Alex Bregman hit with first and second and one out in the second and lined Braves opener Tucker Davidson’s the other way, all the way to the right center field wall, scoring Yuli Gurriel (one-out, one-hop single to center). Heretofore macaroni bat Martin Maldonado sent Kyle Tucker (full-count walk) home with a sacrifice fly cutting the Braves’ lead in half.

The Astros might have gotten one more run home but for the next batter—Valdez himself. Two swinging strikes around a ball in the dirt, then looking frozen at strike three on the inside forner after a ball just low. You still don’t want the designated hitter in the National League’s parks, old farts? Imagine if the Astros didn’t have to bat Valdez there. They might only have had a one-run deficit to end the frame.

No matter. Their unraveling of the Braves began the very next inning, when Dansby Swanson at shortstop misplayed Jose Altuve’s leadoff hopper, bumping the ball from his glove, recovering too late to throw the swift Mighty Mouse out at first. The rest of the Series will prove whether or not that’ll be this postseason’s most egregious Braves mistake of all.

Davidson walked Michael Brantley on a 3-1 count and Carlos Correa—another of the formerly dormant-at-the-plate Astro core—doubled Altuve home. A fly out later, Brantley scored on Gurriel’s ground out to short. Tie game. The tie lasted long enough for Freeman to lead the bottom of the third off with a mammoth full-count, tiebreaking blast half way up the right center field seats.

The 5-4 Braves lead lasted until the bases loaded and two out in the top of the fifth. Checking in at the plate: Maldonado, the Astros catcher still vying for the title of the single most automatic Astro out, after the Braves ordered Bregman walked on the house to load the pads in the first place.

What came next may yet prove one of the ten most powerful walks of all time. Maldonado looked at ball four inside from Braves relief star AJ Minter, sending Correa (leadoff one-hop base hit to center) strolling home with the re-tying run. Martin, you’re no longer the weakest link. For now.

Not only did Maldonado get daring enough to stand right on top of the plate during the entire plate appearance, the better to get an edge against Minter’s cutter, he even showed bunt as ball four sailed in. He didn’t do it for a laugh, either.

“He came back to the dugout yelling at me, ‘You like my Little League bunt?'” said Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron postgame. “He was prepared before he stepped up to the plate. He was ready for that at-bat. That made the difference.”

“I thought of it in the moment,” said a grinning Maldonado. “I wasn’t going to swing until 3-2. Maybe it would throw him off.”

Then Baker sent Marwin Gonzalez—returned to the Astros after a detour through Minnesota and Boston when the Red Sox released him in August—out to pinch hit for Jose Urquidy, whose shutout fourth set him up to get the Game Five “win.” Gonzalez dumped a floating quail into left center that hit the grass with room enough to send Gurriel and Bregman home with a 7-5 Astro lead.

Maldonado lined Tucker home with a base hit off another Braves pen man, Drew Smyly, in the seventh, and Correa—perhaps sensing Smyly was really taking one for the team now—singled Altuve home with the ninth and last run in the eighth.

Baker made a few pre-game moves to shake his lineup a bit, particularly moving the previously slumping Bregman down to bat seventh. The third baseman’s struggles at the plate this postseason became that alarming—to the manager and to Bregman himself.

“I’ve got a really weak top hand right now,” he said. “I’m releasing the bat behind me, which is causing a ton of problems.” He spent pre-game batting practise all but forcing himself into a two-handed swing finish. It helped when he knocked that second-inning RBI double. It damn near helped him hit one out his next time up.

“The second at-bat, I just missed what would have been a three-run homer, just barely missed under it,” Bregman said. “I’ve got to fix a weak top hand. Normally I hold (the bat) tight and squeeze it, kind of. I’m not able to do that right now.” Missing more than two months of the regular season didn’t exactly do him many favours, either.

For Minter’s part, he credited the Astros with finding their swings when they looked pinned otherwise. “I felt my stuff was just as sharp tonight as it was in other outings,” the lefthander said postgame, denying any fatigue factor from his previous prominent presence. “I felt like I was 1-2, 0-2 on every hitter. Those guys made quality swings on two strikes.

“I guess I could have made some better pitches with two strikes,” he continued, “but with Correa, I got him 0-2, left a cutter up, base hit. Got a good strikeout against Alvarez. And then Gurriel — cutter, backdoor cutter. He stuck his bat out there and had a good hit as well.”

Minter and the Braves now have down time enough to regroup and refresh. They still have the Series lead, even if the Astros and their fans might prefer to think the Braves have the Astros right where the Astros want the Braves.

The better news is, at least we’re rid of that infernal, obnoxious, demeaning Tomahawk Chop for the rest of the calendar year and—barring unforeseen wisdom from baseball’s governors—at least until next spring’s exhibition games begin.

Now, if only we could get rid of the Big Ben tolling, bonging chime that rings in both Truist Park and Minute Maid Park for the rest of this Series. Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls too early, too often, and it’s enough to drive a bat in the belfry bats.

Both parks’ public address people have a habit of sounding Big Ben before the home team has the win secured. It’s pretentious and presumptuous. Almost worse than the Truist Park organist’s too-insulting walk-up serenades to some Astro hitters. Good for perverse laughs among the home audience, good for Astro incentive at the plate. Brilliant.

Wise up, Braves and Astros. The Phillies’ people in Citzen’s Bank Park use Big Ben, too. But at least they have the brains to wait until the Phillies can take a win to the bank.

WS Game Four: Here’s the catch . . .

Eddie Rosario

Eddie Rosario made the catch of the Series, stealing a likely Jose Altuve triple Saturday night in the eighth . . . (Fox Sports screen capture)

It’s not that the odds improved for the Braves after a 3-2 World Series Game Four win that turned imaginations inside out and back again. Against an opponent as formidable as the Astros, even a three games to one Series lead isn’t safe until they nail the final Game Five out for dead last certain.

But nobody seems all that willing to suggest it’s impossible now. Every time you think the Braves have shot themselves in the foot this Series, it turns out that all they did was shoot their feet with water pistols.

Every time you think these Braves might have stumbled their way into leaving the Astros room for mischief, these Astros continue to seize the opportunities to miss opportunities.

Everytime you think these Astros are about to puncture, stab, or shoot the Braves’ swelling, surreal fortune, these Braves find the appropriate armour or the freshly secured bullet-proof vest.

Forced to a bullpen game and sending a rookie who’s never started or opened one in his major league life out to get one out but leave with the bases loaded in the top of the first? Leave it to these Braves to call in fast relief and get it with a run-scoring ground out and a big swinging strikeout.

Let the Astros take a 2-0 lead when Jose Altuve, their little big man, sends his 23rd career postseason home run over the center field fence in the top of the fourth? Just let Austin Riley line a two-out RBI single to left in the bottom of the sixth, and wait for pinch-hitting Jorge Soler and incumbent shortstop Dansby Swanson to hit back-to-back solo bombs in the bottom of the seventh.

Then let Eddie Rosario, heretofore known for a live bat and a modest defensive jacket, make the play of the game and maybe the entire Series in the top of the eighth.

Let Rosario go from freezing with Swanson as they converged on a Game Three pop to shallow left, the better to avoid plowing each other after a missed call for the ball, to running down and then stealing with a backhand catch an otherwise certain triple by Altuve that might have pumped fresh adrenaline into the otherwise aimless Astro offense.

Even Rosario seemed a little more than just shocked that he’d stolen the drive. “I feel right now I am Super Rosario,” he said postgame. “I don’t see the ball. I throw the glove and catch the ball. Everybody’s happy. I’m happy. It’s unbelievable what I did tonight. Wow, what a catch.”

This was little Al Gionfriddo running down and stealing an extra-base hit from Joe DiMaggio in Game Six, 1947 Series. (You’ve probably heard broadcast legend Red Barber hollering, Back goes Gionfriddo, back, back, back, back, back, back, he—makes a one-handed catch against the bullpen!)

This was Willie Mays running down and stealing Vic Wertz’s long drive to dead center 460something feet from the plate, over the shoulders, in the ancient Polo Grounds in the 1954 Series. This was Sandy Amoros running Yogi Berra’s opposite field drive down for the one-handed extended basket catch in Game Seven of the 1955 Series.

This was Mickey Mantle running down and backhanding Gil Hodges’ drive to save Don Larsen’s perfect game in Game Five, 1956 Series. This was Tommie Agee and Ron Swoboda coming from Nowhere Lands to dive and catch Paul Blair’s bases-loaded liner to bail Nolan Ryan out (Game Three) and to dive and catch Brooks Robinson’s liner to right (Game Four) in the 1969 Series.

This was Dwight Evans one-handing Joe Morgan’s should-have-been home run over the right field fence in Fenway Park in Game Six, 1975 Series. This was Kirby Puckett stealing an extra-base hit from Ron Gant up against the Plexiglass in Game Six, 1991 Series.

This was Devon White crashing the center field fence to steal an extra-base hit from David Justice, Game Three, 1992 Series. (And damn near start a triple play.) This was Gary Sheffield stopping Jim Thome from an extra-base hit with a running leap against the right field fence, Game Three, 1997 Series.

Dansby Swanson

. . . after Dansby Swanson went long in the seventh . . . (Fox Sports screen capture)

At least Rosario didn’t steal the triple from Altuve with men on base. From Game Two through the end of Game Four the Astros have been 0-for-17 with men in scoring position and left eleven men on Saturday night. Including the three left stranded on the pond when Kyle Wright—relieving extremely shaky opener Dylan Lee—struck Kyle Tucker out to end the top of the first.

“We usually pick those runners up,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker postgame. “We left quite a few runners on base.”

“They’re not giving us a lot of pitches to hit,” said Altuve. “We’re trying hard as hitters. We’ve got a good lineup, we know, but sometimes you have to give credit to the other team as well.”

And what’s become of Yordan and Eddie Tonight? The show of shows that was supposed to put on a two-way exhibition of rips and bombs all Series long? Only half the main attraction has shown up so far. The only reason Alvarez has a .412 Series on-base percentage is five walks over his seventeen plate appearances married to his 1-for-11/.091 Series batting average. Rosario hasn’t hit one out yet, but he’s got a .313/.353/.438 slash line going 5-for-16 in the set.

The former League Championship Series threshing machines are liable to be remembered as one Series bust and another Series presence who turned up showing the most surreal leather of the set Saturday night. But Rosario’s NLCS demolition just might have been one-upped by Soler and Swanson in the eighth.

They called Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle the M&M Boys in 1961? Meet the Braves’ S&S Boys. They showed up against Cristian Javier, the Astros reliever who’d faced 37 previous men this postseason without surrendering a single run.

But with one out in the seventh, he fed Swanson a fat fastball on 0-2 and watched it fly over the right field wall to tie the game. Then, with Soler pinch hitting for Braves reliever Tyler Matzek, Javier fed Soler a 2-1 slider with just as much fat on it, and Soler lined it over the left field fence.

Swanson’s bomb was the Braves’ first go-ahead World Series launch in the seventh or later since Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews in the 1957 Series. Swanson and Soler were the first batters in the numbers eight and nine lineup slots at the moment to hit back-to-back homers in World Series history.

Jorge Soler

. . . and pinch-swinger Jorge Soler went long immediately after. (Fox Sports screen capture.)

Soler became not just the first Brave ever to hit one out as a World Series pinch hitter that late in the game, he became only third player anywhere to do it—after Dusty Rhodes (1954 Series), Kirk Gibson (1988 Series), and Ed Sprague (1992 Series). The S&S Boys are also just the third tandem to leave the yard back-to-back to tie and lead in a World Series since (wait for it) Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig (1928), and Pedro Guerrero and Steve Yeager (1981).

“Baseball’s been around a long time,” Swanson said postgame. Thank you, Captain Obvious. “And for this to be the third time is pretty special. I feel like, when you’re in that moment, and you’re in between the lines, your only thought is on winning. So it’s kind of hard to wrap your mind around what just happened. Maybe if you would ask me in spring training next year, I might be able to give you a little bit of a better answer.”

Among the sad parts for the Astros Saturday night was starting pitcher Zack Greinke, who spent much of the regular season battling nagging neck issues. The good news was, Greinke—whom age and injury has turned from a power pitcher to a mind-over-matter pitcher—pitching four shutout innings, scattering four hits. The bad news was Greinke at the plate in the National League park without the designated hitter just yet.

Oh, sure, he lined a neat single into center field with one out in the top of the second. But fate decreed Greinke to bat with the bases loaded and two out in the top of the third. Mr. Boswell, call your retirement office yet again: The bases got loaded in the first place by walking Yuli Gurriel on the house so Wright could pitch to Greinke.

Greinke didn’t strike out. Of course, Baker was in no mood to pinch hit for Greinke that early in the game, never mind that it was a World Series entry and never mind that the Astros have found runs harder to find than the Hope Diamond since Game Two. But Greinke did ground out to Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies to strand the Astro ducks on the pond.

“Greinke swung the bat well,” said Baker postgame. “He got the pitch that he was looking for, and we really needed to stretch Greinke out some because we’ve been going to that bullpen like super early every day. You can second-guess all you want to . . . that was my decision. We had left some runners out there prior to that.”

And, after that. They had two on in the fifth including Tucker on third following a throwing error as he stole second . . . and Marwin Gonzalez pinch hitting for Greinke flied out to left. They had Michael Brantley aboard with a two-out single in the sixth . . . and Alex Bregman forced him out at second. They had Tucker aboard with a two-out single in the seventh . . . and Gurriel flied out to left.

Not quite as egregious as stranding the bases loaded in the first and the third, but close enough when they happened with the Astros ahead by a run and in dire need of insurance. Now they’re in a place they’ve seen before. Last year, they were down 3-0 to the Rays in the ALCS but forced the set to seven before succumbing. They may or may not have one more similar push in them now.

“You lean on that, and you lean on the other series that they’ve come back on,” said Baker, who’s still trying to land his first World Series ring in 24 years worth of major league managing. “You really don’t have any choice but that.”

Altuve thinks the Astros’ best survival chance is the old, reliable one-at-a-time stance. “If we win [Game Five], then try to win Game Six and see what happens,” said Mighty Mouse. “But we’ve got to focus on one game, and that game is [Sunday night].”

The Braves entered the Series as decisive underdogs. They’re on the threshold of overthrowing the overdogs. At home. Where they remain undefeated this entire postseason.

All they have to do is find a few more pocketfuls of miracles while keeping Astro lumber in its slumber during another by-necessity bullpen game. Maybe one more extra base hit-defying catch? Maybe another pair of late home runs from unlikely tandems?

In baseball, anything can happen—and usually does. These Braves would love to remain evidence for that truth Sunday night. With World Series rings the verdict.

ALCS Game Three: Rock and troll

Carlos Correa, Eduardo Rodriguez

Rodriguez (right) couldn’t resist trolling Carlos (It’s My Time!) Correa as the top of the sixth ended . . .

Carlos Correa grounded out to end the Astros’s sixth Tuesday night. Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez couldn’t resist pointing to his wrist, trolling Correa’s becoming-more-familiar “It’s my time!” gesture whenever nailing a key Astros hit. There was a birthday boy in the house who wasn’t necessarily amused.

“No, no,” Alex Cora hollered, as Rodriguez returned to the dugout during the sides changing. “Don’t do that!” The last thing the manager wanted on his 46th birthday was any of his Red Sox poking the Houston bear they were taking down, before the bear could even think about stealing their picnic baskets.

Not even the pitcher who’d just pitched six solid innings the only blemish of which was a three-run homer two innings earlier. Not even while the Red Sox still held a six-run lead that finished in a 12-3 demolition giving the Red Sox a 2-1 American League Championship Series advantage and the Astros a monumental migraine.

An inning and a half worth of three-up, three-down baseball that looked to shape into a pitching duel between Rodriguez and Astros starter Jose Urquidy got ripped into a Red Sox demolition in the bottom of the second after starting as a mere tear. Two walks sandwiching a J.D. Martinez one-out double merely loaded the bases for Christian Vazquez’s line single the other way to right field and kept them there.

Oops. Christian Arroyo ripped one off the mound and off Astros second baseman Jose Altuve to send Martinez home with a second Red Sox run. Falling into an early 2-0 hole with ducks still on the pond against these Astros still seemed surmountable. Until Kyle Schwarber told them otherwise.

After taking ball one inside, ball two downstairs, and ball three just inside, Schwarber took Urquidy’s fastball around the middle halfway up the right field seats. It was the third salami slice for the Red Sox in three ALCS games. As if slicing two in Game Two wasn’t precedent enough, the Schwarbinator’s blast made the Red Sox the first ever to slice three in any postseason series.

Kiké Hernández followed Schwarber at once with a base hit pulled up the left field line, and Xander Bogaerts ripped a single up the pipe one out later, and finally Astros manager Dusty Baker got Urquidy out of there before the Red Sox could cover his grave. Yimi Garcia shook off a second-and-third-making wild pitch to dispatch Alex Verdugo for the side at last, but aftershocks were still to come.

They started an inning later, when Hunter Renfroe drew a one-out walk, stole second, then took third when Astros catcher Martin Maldonado’s throw to second bounced away from Altuve, before coming home on Vazquez’s floating base hit into short center. Then Arroyo drove Garcia’s slightly hanging slide into the rear row of the Green Monster seats.

The Astros may have punctured the impenetrable when Astros center fielder Kyle Tucker parked one into the right field seats with Michael Brantley (leadoff single) and Yordan Alvarez (one-out single banged off the Monster but played perfectly by left fielder Verdugo to hold him) aboard in the top of the fourth.

Two innings and three Astro pitchers later, Rafael Devers took a leadoff walk and the Astros got two outs quick enough to follow, especially center field insertion Jose Siri’s sliding catch running in long to take Verdugo’s floater into shallow center. Phil Maton then relieved Brooks Raley for the Astros, and he arrived just in time to feed Martinez something to hit into the Monster seats about as deep as Arroyo’s blast traveled.

Kyle Schwarber

The Schwarbinator slicing salami in the second to start the Red Sox romp in earnest . . .

Before this ALCS ends, the Red Sox may need to put new tires on the laundry cart into which they dump their home run hitters to celebrate the blasts in each moment. They’re already down to the last millimeter of tread as it is.

As if making sure the sealant on the first puncture held fast, Devers turned on Astro relieve Ryan Stanek’s first one-out pitch in the bottom of the eighth and sent that into the Monster seats, too. Renfroe’s diving catch on Correa’s two-out, opposite-field drive in the top of the ninth must have felt like the first mercy shown the Astros all night long.

Astros pitching coach Brent Strom wondered aloud whether his charges might be tipping pitches. Not willing to commit to that quite all the way, he acknowledged that—between the Red Sox’s postseason plate discipline and all-fields approaches and Astro pitchers falling behind in counts so often now—he’s more than a little concerned.

“This is a very good hitting team,” Strom said of the Red Sox, “and they’re very adept at picking up little things, much more so than most teams,” Strom said. “We need to be very cognizant of the little things, tipping-type things, things like that, that they’re very astute at. We’ve just gotten behind hitters.”

Cora said the Red Sox approach began changing when Schwarber came aboard in a July trade with the Nationals. “We were expanding,” Cora said, meaning the strike zone. “We didn’t walk too much, and when he got here and when he started playing, it was different. It’s a different at-bat, and other guys have followed his lead, and right now, like I said, this is the best I’ve seen this team this season offensively.”

Correa thinks the Red Sox aren’t picking up Astro pitch tips so much as they’re just doing their jobs at the plate when the Astros’ pitchers aren’t doing theirs on the mound. As an Astro, it’s murder for Correa. But as a baseball fan, pardon the expression, it’s a blast.

“It’s fun to watch as a fan of the sport, see how everybody in the lineup has the same approach,” the shortstop said. “They’re not chasing. They’re staying in the zone. They’re not swinging at borderline pitches. It’s beautiful what they’re doing. We’ve got to find a way to throw more strikes and keep the ball in the ballpark.”

But as much talk came about Rodriguez giving Correa a taste of his own celebratory medicine as about the Red Sox’s thorough dismantling of the Astros’ balky pitching staff and shaky offense—particularly their big three of Altuve, Brantley, and Alex Bregman now standing a combined 5-for-36 in the set so far—after the game finally ended.

Cora didn’t exactly hold it against Rodriguez, making a point of embracing his pitcher when Rodriguez returned to the dugout. But he still didn’t want Rodriguez or any of his players re-awakening the suddenly sleeping Astro giants.

“We don’t act that way,” he said postgame. “We just show up, we play, and we move on, and he knows. I let him know. We don’t have to do that. If we’re looking for motivation outside of what we’re trying to accomplish, we’re in the wrong business. The only motivation we have is to win four games against them and move on to the next round.”

Correa didn’t exactly mind. The way he spoke postgame, you’d have thought the Astros forgot about such concepts as bulletin-board fodder. “He did my celebration,” said the shortstop liable to command a nice free agency deal this winter, no matter his Astrogate past.

“I thought it was kind of cool,” continued Correa, who’d done his “It’s my time” wrist-tap in Game One after breaking a three-all tie with an eighth-inning bomb. “It’s just the way baseball should trend. I loved it personally . . . I keep it real all the time and say how it is.”

Rodriguez admitted he was caught up in the moment after getting Correa to end the sixth. Cora was stern but not exactly harsh with his pitcher back in the dugout. His embrace fit perfectly with Rodriguez’s previous insistence that Cora was like a father or older brother to his players as well as a manager.

“He understands that we’re not that way.” said Cora, whose Red Sox almost got humbled out of the races in the second half between injuries, COVID sufferings, and a bullpen remake. “We talk about humble approach and humble players, and that’s who we are. We like to grind, and we like to play, but we don’t do that.”

Well, good Lord, a team hammering and blasting its way to a rout can’t be faulted for being just a little less than humble in the moment here and there. Can they?

ALCS Game One: The world didn’t implode

Jose Altuve

Jose Altuve’s two-run homer tied Game One and turned the game’s momentum to the Astros . . . (Fox Sports screen capture.)

Before the American League Championship Series began, it was easy to remember but so hard to forget. The elephant still lingered in the room.

The American League West-winning Astros. The American League wild card-winning Red Sox. Electronic sign-stealing cheaters versus electronic sign-stealing cheaters. Right?

Not quite that simple. Not even if Red Sox fans and others still cringe over the 2017-18 Astro Intelligence Agency. Not even if Astro fans and others still think the 2018 Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring proved the Astros weren’t alone in high-tech cheating.

Those Red Sox got nailed using their replay room as a sign-stealing helpmate. But they didn’t install the video apparatus in there, MLB did—for them and all thirty teams, behind all home and visitors’ dugouts in all thirty ballparks. Their way, and they probably weren’t the only team doing it, depended on having men on base to relay stolen signs to their batters.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it one more time: With the best intentions, MLB in essence were Mom and Dad leaving the keys to the liquor cabinet behind expecting the kids were mature enough not to open up and party while they were out of town for the weekend. The 2018 Rogue Sox opened up and partied. The 2017-18 Astros built their own distillery.

Their front office used an in-house-designed computer algorithm devised for sign stealing during games, despite the designer’s warning that doing it in-game was illegal. They used a high-speed, real-time camera to abrogate the mandatory eight-second transmission delay and send opposing signs to clubhouse monitors, next to which someone sent the hitters the dope via the infamous trash can bangs.

Both teams cheated then. Both teams seemed like deer frozen in the proverbial headlights when asked to show public accountability and contrition. The Astros were far, far worse. They went far, far above and beyond both the traditional on-the-field, in-the-dugout gamesmanship and the sort of boys-will-be-boys thing the Rogue Sox and others did with the MLB-gifted replay rooms.

Commissioner Rob Manfred may have erred in granting players from those teams immunity in return for the details, but his investigation did at least turn up and discipline the key overseers.

He suspended then-Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch before owner Jim Crane fired the pair. He suspended then-Astros bench coach Alex Cora over Astrogate, but determined the 2018 Rogue Sox’s prime culprit was video room operator J.T. Watkins while manager Cora, his coaches, the front office, and maybe half the Red Sox’s players weren’t in on the replay room reconnaissance ring.

Nobody can redeem those Astros or Red Sox, even if the Red Sox did re-hire a contrite-enough Cora to manage them this year. But we can remind ourselves that, today, only five Astrogate players remain with the team. We should remind ourselves that at least one such suspect, second baseman Jose Altuve, actually demurred from accepting stolen signs and even told his teammates and others to knock off the trash can banging while he was at the plate.

Only nine Rogue Sox members remain in uniform today, too. And, the rules against electronic sign-stealing were tightened in Astrogate’s aftermath. Video room security is now three people deep. Video feed delays are now fifteen seconds over the previous eight. Players caught stealing signs electronically can be suspended without pay or credited major league service time.

This year’s Astros and this year’s Red Sox got to this year’s ALCS regardless. Remove their former taints, and you have two opponents who entered the set with suspect pitching (particularly the Astros, losing Lance McCullers, Jr. to a forearm issue) but very strong offenses. Then, you watched Game One Friday night, even if in spite of yourselves.

You watched Red Sox center fielder Kike Hernandez strike long twice but Altuve strike once to change the game’s momentum toward the eventual 5-4 Astros win.

You watched Astros starting pitcher Framber Valdez and Red Sox starter Chris Sale unable to get out of the third inning alive. You watched the ordinarily suspect Astros bullpen hold the Red Sox to four hits, one walk, and one measly run, when Hernandez—who tied the game leading off the top of the third by hitting a Valdez curve ball far over the left center field seats—caught hold of a Ryan Pressly slider and send it deep into the Crawfords in the top of the ninth.

You watched the Red Sox take a 3-1 lead in that third a ground out, a walk, and a base hit up the pipe later, when designated hitter J.D. Martinez’s hopping grounder bumped off Altuve’s glove to send shortstop Xander Bogaerts (the walk) home, before right fielder Hunter Renfroe ripped an RBI double past Astros third baseman Alex Bregman and down the left field line to score Bregman’s Red Sox counterpart Rafael Devers (the base hit).

You watched Altuve ruin that lead in the bottom of the sixth, with Astros center fielder Chas McCormick aboard on a one-out single, when he hit the first pitch he saw from Red Sox reliever Tanner Houck into the Crawfords.

You watched another Red Sox reliever, Hansel Robles, fire sub-100 mph bullets in the bottom of the seventh to get rid of Bregman on a grounder to short and left fielder Yordan Alvarez on a hard-swinging strikeout, before offering Astros shortstop Carlos Correa a changeup that hung up enough for him to yank into the Crawfords to break the three-all tie.

You watched a Red Sox reliever who hadn’t pitched in almost two weeks, Hirokazu Sawamura, surrender a leadoff walk to Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel before McCormick bounced a base hit in front of Red Sox left-field insertion Danny Santana (a top-of-the-eighth pinch hitter). You saw Martin Maldonado take a pitch off his right wrist to load the pads with nobody out.

And you saw Altuve hit a sacrifice fly to center to send Gurriel home with the fifth Houston run, though a slightly more on-line throw might have gotten Gurriel at the plate to keep things within a single run for Hernandez’s second launch of the night.

Kike Hernandez

Hernandez’s dive-and-roll catch of Michael Brantley’s second-inning-ending, bases-loaded sinking liner wasn’t enough to stop the Astros Friday night. Neither were his two long home runs. (Fox Sports screenshot.)

Hernandez’s mayhem—the two homers on a 4-for-5 night (the first such leadoff hitter in the Show to do it), bringing him to fourteen hits in 28 postseaon at-bats this time around, his MLB-record third lifetime postseason game of ten total bases—may not have been quite enough for the Red Sox to take Game One. But it was more than enough to impress Astros manager Dusty Baker.

“I haven’t seen a hitter this hot in the last week than Kike Hernandez,” the skipper said post-game, after Hernandez’s first launch came during Baker’s brief turn talking to Fox Sports broadcasters Joe Buck and Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz. “Boy, when I saw that ball go up, I was like, oh man, that was a blast. Then he blasted another one. It’s not a good feeling when you know you’re live on air and you see that ball leaving the ballpark.”

Hernandez wasn’t the only one dancing with the record books. Altuve and Correa became the first teammates to homer in the same postseason game for a fourth time. “He is just so dangerous,” said Correa of Altuve post-game. “His track record in the playoffs is insane, and he just inspires me. He inspires me without saying much.”

That track record includes tying Hall of Famer Derek Jeter for number three on the all-time postseason bomb roll with his 20th such launch Friday night. But you should have heard Altuve speak of Correa, too. “He is amazing,” the compact second baseman said of his keystone partner at shortstop. “He likes this kind of game. He wants to go out there and hit big homers. It seems like he expects to go out there and do it, so if you’re expecting something, eventually you’re going to make it happen, and that’s him.”

Hernandez also impressed the Astros and maybe even some of their home crowd Friday night with a few defensive gems, particularly his dive-and-roll catch of designated hitter Michael Brantley’s bases-loaded, sinking line drive to end the bottom of the second. But he’d have swapped all that for a Red Sox win.

“I think overall we played a good game,” he said postgame. “Once again, we didn’t do a good job of adding on to the lead, and at the end of the day, that’s why we lost. We weren’t able to add any more runs.” That was in large part because the usually suspect Astro bullpen managed to keep them to a measly four hits and a walk in the unexpected bullpen game.

With Nathan Eovaldi starting Game Two, and the still-fresh memory of being shut out by the Rays to start a division series in which they won the next three straight, the Red Sox don’t exactly have reasons to cringe just yet. Even Sale admitted Eovaldi was their best foot forward to launch Saturday.

“We’ve got the right guy on the right mound, and that’s all we can say,” he said. “Our lineup is going to bang with the best of them. There’s no doubt about that. We’ve got to do the little things right, and with Nate taking the ball, that’s everything we could ask for.”

So guess what didn’t happen when the two teams still recovering from their own Astrogate and Rogue Sox scandals—yes, listed in the order of true gravity—tangled in Game One? Knowing that no one will be comfortable with either one wholly, but the Astros especially, until the last Astrogater or the last of the Rogue Sox no longer wears either uniform?

The world didn’t implode. The flora didn’t wilt. The fauna didn’t commit mass suicide. The moon didn’t fall into the river. The sun didn’t awaken before its appointed time. The nations didn’t fall from the earth. The earth didn’t go flat.

Unless there comes fresh contravening evidence, the Astros and the Red Sox played it straight, no chaser, in a game that would have classified as a bit of a thriller had it not been for that still-lingering elephant. The one aboard which the Astros, like it or not, still look far, far worse than the Red Sox or their fellow unverified-but-certain replay room rogues do.