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.

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.