WS Game Two: Hunted, pecked, pricked, poked

Max Fried

Max Fried—getting stung repeatedly in the second hurt almost worse than if he’d been bludgeoned.

If you look purely at the line score of World Series Game Two, you’d think the Braves had their heads handed to them in the bottom of the second. But if you watched the game, you know the Astros dismantled them, almost too simply, and with some inadvertent help from the Braves themselves, to win 7-2 Wednesday night.

As a matter of fact, when the game began you could have been forgiven for thinking it might turn into a bit of a pitching duel despite the teams swapping a run each between the bottom of the first and the top of the second—one on a solo home run, one on a sacrifice fly.

Overall that’s about how the game shook out—if you didn’t include the Astros’ hunt-peck-prick-and-poke of four runs out of Braves starter Max Fried in the bottom of the second, after he fooled Carlos Correa into looking at a particularly nasty third-strike curve ball. Jose Altuve’s eighth-inning home run almost seemed a by-the-way insurance run.

“We didn’t want to go to Atlanta down by two,” Altuve said postgame. “So we left everything we had in there tonight. Obviously, very important win to tie the Series to keep going from there.”

“Obviously, I’m not happy about it.” said Fried. “Playoffs is a big momentum game. You’ve got to do everything you can to keep the crooked number off the scoreboard.”

It might actually have hurt less if he’d been bludgeoned than it did the way he was pecked in the second. And, if Astros starter Jose Urquidy hadn’t brought his A game to the mound, leaving the Braves mostly unable to hit him even if they’d swung warehouse gates.

Fooling Correa into the strikeout must have seemed aberrant even to a pitcher who struck out six in five innings’ work and walked only one batter. The second inning made Fried’s outing look far worse than it was in the long run, but a true shelling it wasn’t. It was like getting stung by angry hornets one after the other a few times before he finally slithered out of it.

It started with Kyle Tucker spanking a base hit up the middle and Yuli Gurriel punching one through the shift-opened right side for a base hit to follow up at once, sending Tucker to third. Fried jammed Jose Siri into a slow tumbling grounder to the far left side of the mound, but Tucker came home when they couldn’t get the swift Siri at first.

Then Martin Maldonado, a catcher so prized for his work behind the plate that Astro manager Dusty Baker bears with his pool noodle of a bat, punched one through the left side for a base hit. The problem now was the Braves’ usually sure-handed, sure-armed defense.

Left fielder Eddie Rosario came up with the ball and threw to third in a bid to stop Siri if they couldn’t stop Gurriel from scoring. Only third baseman Austin Riley came trotting down the line to serve as the cutoff man, and shortstop Dansby Swanson got caught unable to get to third covering in time because he was in short left. Rosario’s throw thus sailed wild and Siri sailed home with the fourth Astro run of the night. Ouch!

Maldonado went to second on that throw and took third when Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud let one escape with Altuve at the plate in an 0-2 count. Altuve flied out with Maldonado having to hold at third, but Michael Brantley pulled a base hit to right on which Maldonado could have walked home safely, making it 5-1.

Innings like that are as common to the Astros when they’re swinging right as you might think the big bombing innings would be. But they were the best in the game this year at avoiding strikeouts at the plate and hitting in most directions out to the field.

They may also have picked up on Fried tipping pitches. No, they’re not pulling another Astro Intelligence Agency trick or three. The rules since Astrogate’s explosion and aftermath include maximum replay room security. But the Astros were known without and before any Astrogate shenanigans for picking up even the tiniest tells from opposing pitchers and exploiting them mercilessly.

Fried’s habit of wiggling his glove fingers around the ball in his hand rapidly as he prepares to throw to the plate, like an amphetamine-driven lobster clawing its dinner down to manageable bites, may well have handed the Astros inadvertent but invaluable pitch  intelligence. After the second, Fried quit the glove snapping for the most part—and retired the next ten hitters he faced.

When Yordan Alvarez walked and Correa sent a base hit to left opening the bottom of the sixth, Braves manager Brian Snitker hooked Fried in favour of Dylan Lee. After Tucker forced Correa at second with Alvarez taking third, the Braves’ defense faltered into the sixth Astro run.

Gurriel grounded sharply to Swanson at shortstop. He threw to second baseman Ozzie Albies hoping to start an inning-ending double play. Albies lost the ball as he turned to throw on to first. Tucker was ruled safe until a review was called—did Albies have control of the ball to get the out while losing it as he drew the ball out of his glove to throw on?

Several television replays showed Albies lost control of the ball after all, but not by as much as first surmised. The safe call held, and Alvarez scored, but Albies’s throw wasn’t in time to get Gurriel at first. Lee shook off a rather daring double steal to set up second and third by striking Siri out. Snitker brought in Jesse Chavez, and Chavez got Maldonado to fly out for the side.

The Braves got their second run in the top of the fifth when Freddie Freeman singled d’Arnaud home. Other than that, both bullpens kept each side behaving itself except for Altuve sending Drew Smyly’s first pitch of the bottom of the seventh into the Crawford Boxes, before the veteran reliever fell into and squirmed out of his own bases-loaded jam with no further damage.

Maybe the true shock of the evening was the Braves handing the ball to Kyle Wright for the bottom of the eighth. Wright’s a 26-year-old pitcher with a 6.56 fielding-independent pitching rate in four seasons. He had a 9.64 FIP and a 9.95 ERA in two brief starts on the regular season while up and down from the minors.

Throwing that against the Astros was something like offering to assure Hall of Famer Henry Aaron would face nothing but batting practise pitchers by decree, right? Wrong. Wright shocked the entire ballpark by striking the side out in order—including Maldonado and Altuve looking at third strikes after Siri opened with a three-pitch swinging strikeout.

“It was so encouraging to see Kyle tonight,” said Snitker postgame, even if he was thrown up as a sacrificial lamb in a lost game. “Just getting in there for that one inning and getting him out there and experiencing this atmosphere because he could play a huge part going forward. I thought he threw the ball extremely well.”

Wright lived on effective curve balls and sinkers Wednesday night. Snitker was inspired enough to ponder possibilities for Wright to spot start or even open a bullpen game during the Atlanta leg. With Charlie Morton gone thanks to that fibula fracture, Snitker needs to get even more creative with his pitching arrays now. Wright’s surprise may lift some of that burden a hair or two.

“He was locating,” said catcher d’Arnaud postgame. “His sinker was moving a lot. His curveball was moving a lot. He did a tremendous job. When I caught him in a rehab game for me, he looked exactly the same as he did that day. It was fun working with him, and it was great seeing him have the success today, especially in the World Series.”

With the tied Series moving to Atlanta for three possible games, thus switching the Braves to a home field advantage, it’s comforting to know that near the end of a night the Braves were pecked to death they might have found the Wright stuff, for however long.

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?

Santa serves early Christmas salami

2019-10-27 AlexBregman

Santa showed up early for Alex Bregman and the Astros Saturday night.

Did we say World Series Game Four was going to be a bullpen game? Didn’t quite turn out that way. Did we say the Astro pen wasn’t guaranteed to equal bona fide Nationals fourth starter Patrick Corbin? Boy did we get that one wrong.

Not only did the Astros’ rookie designated opener Jose Urquidy pitch the quality start of his young baseball life, he out-pitched both Corbin and his own team’s still formidable but lately vulnerable Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole.

And he did it on a night the regular season version of the Astros finally, once and for all, turned up. Big. 8-1 big. They finished what they started in Game Three and obliterated any chance of the short series nobody with a brain really thought was likely to happen in the first place.

Michael Brantley with two hits thus far on the night, plus Alex Bregman still trying to shake away an overall postseason hitting funk despite one launch earlier in the set, remembered especially what Nationals manager Dave Martinez forgot in the seventh inning.

He forgot that these Astros are the greediest little suckers in the American League when handed gifts. They don’t stop at “Thank you.” They demand more, help themselves, and make you look like a battered fool before they’re done. Turning the seventh inning stretch into a visit to the urgent care clinic.

Bad enough rookie Nats reliever Tanner Rainey handed the Astros the gifts of back-to-back inning-opening walks before closing the giveaway with Jose Altuve flying out to right. Martinez put on his Santa suit and gave the Astros an extra early merry Christmas.

He reached for ancient Fernando Rodney. Against whom Brantley took a lifetime .462 batting average and 1.038 OPS to the plate. Instead of Wander Suero, who’s almost young enough to be Rodney’s son, and against whom Brantley before Game Four only ever batted once and had nothing to show for it but a measly out.

Respecting your elders goes only so far with a World Series game on the line and the other guys in one of the highest leverages of the night. Brantley’s respect went only far enough to line a base hit up the pipe into short center field that wasn’t quite deep enough for leadoff pinch hitter Kyle Tucker to score.

So the Astros settled for ducks on the pond. And Martinez, who’d managed mostly to turn his infamously shaky bullpen into something resembling a respectable postseason crew, re-learned the hard way about generosity’s limits. Bregman delivered that hard re-education and duck dinner when he sent an 0-1 pitch on a high parabola into the left field seats.

That one re-ignited Bregman’s fire and put the game so far out of reach the Nats couldn’t bring it back with a search party and a band of bloodhounds.

Not on a night when they sent less traffic to the bases than they’d wasted in Game Three and got their only run of the night in the sixth with the bases loaded, one out, and Juan Soto—who doesn’t quite looking so superhuman anymore—grounding out in almost slow motion to Astro first baseman Yuli Gurriel, enough to score Gerardo Parra, before Astro reliever Will Harris struck Howie Kendrick out swinging for the side.

The Nats picked the wrong time to get their shark off. And they may have picked the wrong time to even think about walking Brantley to get to Bregman’s then still-cold postseason bat in Game Three. That proves to have been poking the barracuda.

“In Game Three, we stopped the bleeding,” Bregman told reporters after Game Four. “Then we played well tonight. We want to keep rolling. We’re fired up. It’s really exciting. It’s a great atmosphere here. The fans are into the game, [and] it’s good to know we’re going home.”

Now  Cole and Max Scherzer have a rematch in Game Five to look forward to. And Max the Knife won’t be pitching just to beat the Astros, he’ll be pitching to help save the Nats’ very skins and fins.

Ordinarily, you might be tempted to stop right there and pull out your history book. It would tell you that the 1986 World Series began with the first four games being won in the road ballpark, too. The Red Sox won Games One and Two in Shea Stadium, the Mets won Games Three and Four in Fenway Park.

But those Red Sox won Game Five in the Fens before returning to Shea Stadium, losing Game Six in the second most heartbreaking way in Red Sox history before getting bopped until they dropped by the Mets in Game Seven.

Then in 1996, the Braves won the first pair in Yankee Stadium and the Yankees won the next three in Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. The set moved back to the Bronx and the Yankees won Game Six. Nope, that’s not a reference to encourage the Nats, either. But it sure should have the Astros feeling like early Christmas.

Corbin picked the wrong night to spot the Astros a pair of first inning runs. And, to spot them another pair when Astro catcher Robinson Chirinos, who’d rung the left field foul pole net in Game Three, hit a no-doubt two-run homer halfway up the seats in the top of the fourth.

And Urqiudy picked the right night to take advantage of the Nats’ sudden inability to do what they’d done most of the postseason to date, adjust on the fly to pitchers dialing up the Mixmasters.

“When you go in with a game plan of kind of working off his scouting report and he goes the complete opposite with it,” said Nats right fielder Adam Eaton, whom Urquidy kept to a pair of measly popup outs, “by the time you kind of make the adjustment, it’s too late.”

The husky righthander also picked the perfect night to display a changeup that may yet qualify for designation as a weapon of mass destruction. It’s not that his fastball or his slider were necessarily weakfish, but that changeup was the perfect setup pitch for him on a night the Nats couldn’t and didn’t adjust, kind-of or otherwise.

When he deigned to throw it at all, that is. If the Nats did their homework on Urquidy, knowing he was changeup reliant, Urquidy had them figured almost the way Nimitz had the Japanese navy figured during the Pacific branch of World War II. He was the Astros’ one-man can of shark repellant Saturday night.

If you thought the Nats coming home to bathe in the Washington love became too great a weight to bear in Games Three and Four, a possibility not exactly out of bounds, Urquidy—who’d gone from nothing special up and down the minors before getting his callup to never better as a bona-fide Astro late in the season and now Saturday night—only let the magnitude hit him once.

“Yes, a couple moments, a couple moments I was thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I’m in the World Series pitching’.” the 24-year-old who’s only the third Mexican (behind Jaime Garcia and Fernando Valenzuela) to start a World Series game said after Game Four. “It was awesome.” “It” was nothing compared to him.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch went in hoping Urquidy could give him two, maybe three, please-please-please four innings. He got a performance Verlander and Cole themselves just might have envied. And if Game Four was To Tell the Truth, Hinch’s Bud Collyer got the best surprise of his life when he asked, “Will the real Alex Bregman please stand up?”

Oh, brother, did Bregman stand up. Only nineteen previous players ever hit grand salamis in World Series games. Only three of them were hit by Hall of Famers: Tony Lazzeri (Game Two, 1936), Mickey Mantle (Game Five, 1953), and Yogi Berra (Game Two, 1956). And only two were ever hit in a Game Four: Chuck Hiller (1962) and Ken Boyer (1964).

Boyer hit his two games before talented but troubled young Yankee first baseman Joe Pepitone nailed a salami in the ’64 Series. The Astros actually got gifted a shot at only the second salami in the same inning, when Grandpa Rodney was left in after Bregman launched and re-loaded the bases on a trio of walks interrupted only by a ground ball force out.

Then Martinez reached for Suero, with Tucker coming up for a encore. And Suero struck Tucker out swinging to end the nightmare at last. The rest of the game seemed like a mere formality.

Even when the Nats put first and second aboard in the bottom of the eighth, abetted by a throwing error when Altuve fielded Rendon’s hopper on the far side of second but threw off line. Soto worked out a walk immediately following, but Astro reliever Brad Peacock struck Kendrick out and got Ryan Zimmerman to pop out to George Springer playing right field for the night.

Bregman was rather gracious after the game about his confrontation with Rodney. “He’s really tough to face,” the third baseman told reporters. “He’s got an incredible change-up. His fastball is dirty, has a lot of sink to it. He has another fastball he throws, a four-seamer, that has some jump to it. He’s not an easy at-bat all.”

“He got him 0-1 and the ball just didn’t sink where he wanted it to be,” said Martinez after the game. “But he’s come in two innings and done really well for us.” That he had. “I like Rodney in that spot,” Martinez added. Unfortunately, Bregman liked Rodney in that spot even more.

Indeed, Rodney started Bregman with a changeup that dove right into the low inside corner. Even Bregman wouldn’t have been able to hit it with a five-iron. The next pitch was the four-seamer and it forgot to jump. Bregman didn’t. He jumped it for maybe the single most world-shattering hit of his life.

Did it shatter the world of the Nats who’d gone from the living dead in late May to the live-and-very-well the rest of the season and all the way through Game Two? Who hadn’t lost back-to-back games since 13-14 September? Who had to be taught the hard way all over again how unwise it is to stake the Astros to an early Christmas?

“We’re tied after four games,” shortstop Trea Turner told reporters. “It’s all about perspective and how you perceive it.”

“At this point in time, you literally just live and breathe each and every day,” said Scherzer, into whose hands the Nats place the live-and-breathe ball Sunday night.

“I’ll take it,” said Eaton. “We don’t mind where we’re at—a best-of-three with Scherzer and Stras going the next two days.” Not to mention the Nats’ absolute two best relief options, Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle, untroubled in Game Four and well enough rested if needed in Five and Six. If.

On paper that looks like advantage, Nats. Psychologically, this is exactly what Nats fans signed up for. Max the Knife and Not-So-Stoic-Stephen. Just plunge the blade in before it goes back to Houston, Max the Knife. If you do, two nights in hell will be worth it.

There’s just one problem. Namely, an Astro team that knows the differences between paper and performance but marries them effectively until death do they part. And for these Astros, the wedding night is never enough. Maybe even in spite of Scherzer and Stras. Maybe.