The Boys of Pandemic Summer

The Mookie Monster, after hitting his eight-inning Game Six blast.

They don’t have to say “wait till next year!” for the eighth straight year. Crowning a season that once threatened not to hit the field at all, the Los Angeles Dodgers have reached the Promised Land—for the first time since the near-end of the Reagan Administration.

They threw several mountains off their shoulders while Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash, whose club fought the Dodgers gamely and exuberantly, assumes one that may or may not take three decades plus shake away. No, it’s not exactly the one you think it is.

But first, the credit where due. To the Dodger bullpen whole and Julio Urias especially for turning the Rays off Tuesday night, after Randy Arozarena—the rookie whose season was delayed fighting COVID-19, who arose first in September, then made this postseason his personal possession—hit the first pitch of his one-out, top-of-the-first plate appearance the other way into the right field seats.

Credit Mookie Betts—Mr. Everything, whom the Boston Red Sox decided they could ill-afford, for reasons that may make sense in worlds of flight and fancy but not necessarily on the third stone from the sun—with seizing the moment once Cash made his right-to-wrong move in the bottom of the sixth, doubling to set up second and third—for Austin Barnes to come home on a wild pitch and Betts to have third with eventual Series MVP Corey Seager at the plate.

And, with running home like a thief ahead of Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi—the guy who split and leaped his way into whatever Tampa Bay hearts still beat—throwing down the line on Seager’s hopping ground out up that line.

Credit the Mookie Monster again with leading off the bottom of the eighth by catching hold of Rays reliever Pete Fairbanks’s 0-2 slider hanging just enough under the middle of the zone and hanging it over the center field fence.

Credit Urias, the seventh pitcher on the night of the running of the Dodger bulls, with two and a third’s closing relief so spotless the young man would have a future making and advertising disinfectant if he didn’t have such a splendid one as a major league pitcher.

Now hold the Rays responsible for spending too much of this Wild Series forgetting how to hit with runners in scoring position, including and especially their 0-for-4 and leaving six men aboard total in Game Six.

And, now hold Cash to account for the bottom of the sixth.

Yes, his lefthanded starter Blake Snell was dealing big through five and a third. Including two hits, no walks, and nine strikeouts that including striking out the side in the first and the third. Yes, Snell looked none the worse for wear opening the sixth getting A.J. Pollock to pop out on the inning’s first pitch and surrendering a followup base hit to Barnes.

Remember what you were taught about looks not being everything? Snell’s entire career shows he’s less effective by a considerable distance when he faces a batting order the third time around. The first time, they other guys have hit .205 against him. The second time, they hit .234. The third? They’ve hit .247. The OPSes against him are .592 the first go-round, .711 the second, and .742 the third.

Betts may have hit only a .200./313/.218 against lefthanders in 2020, but for his career he hits .297 against them with an .888 OPS. Want to know the difference when he hits against righthanded pitching? Five points in the batting average, nine in the OPS. You may not have known those things off the bat, but Cash probably did. He probably also knew that Betts—the Dodger with the most previous experience facing Snell—hit .304 with a .370 OBP against the lefthander prior to this postseason.

With Betts scheduled next following the Barnes single, and Seager right behind Betts, Cash didn’t want Snell getting murdered on the spot at his most historically vulnerable if he could help it. No matter how good Snell looked getting to this point. Even Snell knows it through his obvious disappointment at being hooked.

“I felt good,” the lefty said postgame. “I did everything I could to prove my case to stay out there, and then for us to lose, it sucks. I want to win, and I want to win the World Series, and for us to lose, it just sucks. I am not going to question him. He’s a helluva manager, so I am not going to question him. And I can only look forward to what I am going to accomplish this offseason. But we came up short, and the only thing I can focus on is what I can be better at next year.”

The real problem wasn’t Cash hooking Snell but whom he had ready to follow. If he wanted the righthander-to-righthander match with Betts possibly feeling a little too familiar with Snell by this moment in a World Series elimination game, Nick Anderson—who’d been lights out on the irregular season but vulnerable enough this postseason (6.75 ERA, 1.88 walks/hits per inning pitched rate entering Game Six)—wasn’t his best choice.

Cash would have been better served with Ryan Thompson, who’d worked an efficient ninth in the Rays’ Game Five loss and who hadn’t surrendered a single run in three appearances and two and two thirds innings Series work entering Game Six. But Thompson didn’t seem to be a rumour, never mind a topic Tuesday night.

Sometimes you throw the book into the fireplace. Sometimes you stay with it. Sometimes you make the right move and get blown up. Sometimes you make only half the right move. Lifting Snell was the right half. Prepping and bringing Anderson in showed only too clearly how the wrong half died.

Yes, I regret the decision because it didn’t work out. I thought the thought process was right,” Cash said postgame, knowing he’ll be second-guessed for it for the rest of his life and then some. “I totally respect and understand the questions that come with it. Blake gave us every opportunity to win. He was outstanding. They’re not easy decisions . . . Didn’t want Mookie or Seager seeing Blake a third time. There was no set plan. As much as people think, there’s no set plan.”

It was only half right.

And it wasn’t even close to the worst managing decision any postseason ever saw. It wasn’t Charlie Dressen picking fastballing Ralph Branca over curve balling Carl Erskine with fastball-hitting Bobby Thomson checking in at the plate and the 1951 pennant playoff on the line. It wasn’t Tommy Lasorda deciding it was safe to pitch to Jack Clark with first base open and the Dodgers one out from forcing the 1985 National League Championship Series to a seventh game.

What was all right was the Dodgers in their triumph exorcising eight previous seasons in which their regular-season, National League West-owning dominance got cut off at the postseason pass every time, including back-to-back World Series losses that began to make even those among themselves and their fans who don’t believe in extraterrestrial trickeries begin wondering if they were . . . you know . . .

No. Let’s not go there. Not now. Let’s stay with the current program. With Hall of Famer to be Clayton Kershaw pitching like a Hall of Famer this postseason, his manager making bloody well sure he couldn’t be left in a position to get blown up after stout effort, and savouring that brief postgame spell of heavy, hard breathing relief before joining the party.

With the entire team’s pick-up/dust-off/start-over approach to Game Five after that Three Stooges-meet-Hitchcock Game Four loss at the eleventh-last second in the eleventh hour. With the exuberant Betts and Seager leading the Dodger packs at the plate and stolid Justin Turner keeping them glued, focused, and ready to rumble.

With Betts, period, hell bent to cross the Jordan after the Dodgers dealt for him and David Price in February. “I was traded for to help get us over the hump,” Betts told reporters, “so I used that as my fuel.” He put whatever was left of the Rays’ fire out with gasoline, is all. Seager may have won the Series MVP award. Betts probably made himself the Series MVP in hearts and minds.

Now let’s hold Turner to account for a phenomenal mistake when the Dodgers finally crossed the Jordan.

He had to be lifted from the game in the eighth inning when the Dodgers got word he’d tested COVID-19 positive Tuesday, after a prior test on Monday’s off day proved inconclusive. Assorted officials league and team asked him to isolate himself for prudence and safety sake. Turner wasn’t going to let a little thing like a COVID-19 positive keep him from the party.

Not brilliant. Hadn’t baseball put itself through enough contortions from the sublime to the ridiculous to get anything resembling a season in at all? How brilliant did it look for one of the Dodgers’ signature leaders to come out that irresponsibly and possibly put an entire band of world champions and their families at risk?

How brilliant, too, would it have been if the Rays somehow found one more dose of eleventh-hour unreality and forced a Game Seven—would Turner’s action have delayed that for who knows how long until the rest of the Dodgers plus the Rays tested clean? Remember the irregular season, when even single positive COVID-19 tests meant for postponements.

Remember, too, as The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and other commentators do, that enough with the Dodgers are higher risk. Manager Dave Roberts has survived cancer; relief pitcher Kenley Jansen—who fought and beat COVID-19 in July—has a heart condition; at least one Dodger player has a pregnant wife.

Dear Lord, wasn’t it hard enough for the Boys of Pandemic Summer even in a pandemically-truncated irregular season to get back to the Promised Land at long enough last without that? Nobody forgets Turner the longest-tenured Dodger who isn’t Kershaw or Jansen, Turner who played on six previously-frustrating NL West champions. But tenure usually carries responsibility with status.

The Dodgers’ ancestors of 1955, winning at last what proved the only World Series triumph Brooklyn would ever know, had nothing on this. This may be the first time in the long, glory-to-surreality-and-back history of the World Series, in which the winners needed as many prayers after they returned to the Promised Land at last as they did in the three decades plus it took them to get there.

A 2-1 Dodger advantage feels more like 3-1

At any angle, from any view, Walker Buehler overpowered the Rays Friday night.

“They’re more of a manufacturing team than a pure slugging team like Atlanta might be,” said Walker Buehler, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Game Three starting pitcher, before he actually went out and pitched against the Tampa Bay Rays. “You never know what lineup you get. We’re trying to figure out what they may do against you and work off that.”

Buehler then went out and hung a “Closed for Repairs” sign outside the manufacturers’ plant. The Rays don’t exactly have all the time in the world to put the repair crews to work.

The fixings will probably begin with otherwise stout Rays starter Charlie Morton. The same guy who flattend his old buddies from Houston to help the Rays win the pennant in the first place. The Dodgers slashed five runs on seven hits out of Morton in four and a third innings while Buehler refused to let the Rays catch hold of his full-zone fastballs or force him to work off-speed. Making it feel as though the eventual 6-2 final was a lot worse than a four-run deficit usually is.

Buehler does that when he’s on. He even takes a no-hitter into the fifth when need be. With one slightly off-the-charts outing the righthander suddenly turned the World Series from anyone’s to win to the Rays’s to lose. The Dodgers’ 2-1 Series advantage felt more like 3-1 when it finally ended.

“That might be the best I’ve ever seen his stuff,” said his catcher Austin Barnes after the game.

Buehler didn’t just expose the Rays’ continuing postseason flaw of striking out when they can’t and don’t make contact. The Rays have now done what no postseason team in history has accomplished, striking out 180 times.

They also have 113 hits, making them the only postseason team in history to hit 67 fewer times than they’ve struck out. In the middle of that, they went ten straight games—Game Four of their division series through Game Two of this World Series—with more strikeouts than hits.

Buehler’s thirteen punchouts also left the Rays striking out nine times or more in ten straight postseason games and a twelfth postseason game this time in which they struck out ten times or more. And, with thirteen hitters getting K’ed three times or more in single games.

“It’s like . . . people always say, ‘Why don’t they just hit the ball the other way when they shift?’” said Rays manager Kevin Cash Friday postgame. He laughed like Figaro, that he might not weep. “It’s hard enough just to hit the ball.” Against Buehler, whose three hits surrendered seemed like momentary lapses into generosity, it was impossible enough.

Against Morton, alas, with his fastballs not finding their intended destinations and his breaking balls left a little too readily over the plate, for a change, he might have been fortunate that seven hits were all the Dodgers could get. Begging the question as to why Cash, who normally thinks nothing of such moves when he smells trouble, left him in as long as he did this time around.

Sure Cash thought nothing of hooking Morton in Game Seven of the American League Championship Series at the first sign of trouble in the top of the sixth. And the world went bonkers over that. Since when does a manager that fearless not get his bullpen working and his man the hell out of there when he’s in the hole 3-0 with two out but two on in the third—the first of whom got there as a hit batsman off the foot?

All three of the Dodgers’ hits have come with two strikes,” tweeted ESPN’s Jeff Passan after the third. “And all three have been on pitches Charlie Morton left over the plate. Dodgers lead, 3-0, and they’re doing it against a pitcher whose opponents hit .170/.207/.284 vs. him with two strikes this year.

The Dodgers now have 87 runs this postseason. Fifty of them have come with two outs. “There’s two outs, but you can still build an inning, not giving away at-bats,” says the Mookie Monster, one of four Dodgers to knock in at least a run with two outs Friday night. “That’s the recipe. That’s how you win a World Series.”

I’m always fascinated by Kevin Cash’s pitching decisions,” tweeted The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark after the fourth inning. “Last Saturday, Charlie Morton had 66 pitches and a 2-hit shutout in the 6th – and Cash took him out. Tonight, he was down 5-0 with 78 pitches through the 4th – and got left in. Much quicker hook when Cash has a lead.”

Much harder for Cash to get away with bass-ackwards thinking, too. Not a single Rays bull poked his nose out of his stall before and after Max Muncy lined a two-run single to center. It took until the fifth—after Dodger catcher Austin Barnes dropped his safety-squeeze RBI bunt and Mookie Betts’s full-count, followup RBI single made it 5-0 in the fourth—before the Rays bullpen gate finally swung open.

Did you guess what happened from there right? If not, here it is: Four Rays relievers kept the Dodgers to a single run and three hits in their four and two-thirds innings work. They walked only two and struck out four. In other words, the Rays’ bullpen did what the Rays’ bullpen normally does. They just started four and a third innings too late Friday night.

It doesn’t discredit the Dodgers’ hitters to suggest Cash might have let them break into the house—only beginning with Justin Turner’s one-out, high line home run in the top of the first—and steal all the jewels and cash they could carry. The only thing the Dodgers swiped once Cash finally reached for the armed guards was Barnes catching hold of a John Curtiss slider that didn’t slide as far under the middle as it was supposed to slide and sending it over the center field fence in the top of the sixth.

Get the feeling the Dodgers are turning brand-new Globe Life Field into Dodger Stadium II? They’re not just pitching as though it’s their own vacation home, but they’ve hit one more home run in sixteen postseason games there than the Texas Rangers hit in thirty irregular season games in their brand new house.

Delayed security is not the best idea when you’re up against a Buehler who’s hell bent on making sure nobody got into the Dodgers’ house except Manuel Margot with a one-out double and Willy Adames with a two-out RBI double in the bottom of the fifth.

“Being a big-game pitcher and really succeeding on this stage, there’s only a few guys currently and throughout history,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts postgame. “He’s in some really elite company, and I’m just happy he’s wearing a Dodger uniform.”

With Friday night’s flush and the prospect of facing Buehler in Game Seven if the Series goes that far, the Rays would prefer he wear a police, fire, or military uniform right now. Those they can handle. Buehler they couldn’t. When he finished the fifth his lifetime postseason ERA stood at 2.34 and his 2020 postseason ERA alone stood at 1.88. And his streak of nine straight postseason gigs with a minimum six strikeouts and two runs allowed or less became the longest in Show history while he was at it.

“I think the more you do these things the calmer you get,” said Buehler postgame. Not about any records but just about pitching up when you’re striking for the Promised Land. “I don’t want to keep harping on it, but I enjoy doing this. And I feel good in these spots.”

As for World Series games pitched with ten or more punchouts, no walks, and no bombs surrendered, Buehler became only the eighth pitcher to have one. The previous Magnificent Seven: Sandy Koufax (1965), Bob Gibson (1968), Tom Seaver (1973), Randy Johnson (2001), Roger Clemens (2001), Cliff Lee (2009), and Adam Wainwright (2013).

Tampa Bay left fielder Randy Arozarena hit an excuse-us solo homer off Dodger closer Kenley Jansen with two out in the ninth. He’s now hit as many home runs in this postseason (eight) as he did when he was finally past his COVID-19 bout and saddled up for what was left of the irregular season. He also set postseason records with what’s now 52 total bases and 23 postseason hits as a rookie.

Turner had to settle merely for his first postseason bomb since 2017 and for tying Hall of Famer Duke Snider on the Dodgers’ postseason homer list with his eleventh. Barnes also slipped into the record books. Only one man previously had ever homered and squeezed a run home in the same Series game, and that was more than half a century ago.

We take you back to Hector (What a Pair of Hands) Lopez, New York Yankees outfielder, off Cincinnati Reds pitcher Bob Purkey in the deciding 1961 Series Game Five. Barnes is thus the only catcher ever to turn the single Series game bomb-squeeze trick. Roll over Bill Dickey, and tell Yogi Berra the news.

If only Arozarena’s bombings had better timers. Only four of his eight postseason bombs so far have either tied a game or given the Rays a lead. The rook whose 1.340 OPS in the first three rounds widened as many eyes as his home runs has a mere .885 OPS in the Series thus far.

The Rays overall are only hitting a .206/.250/.381 Series slash. They’ve actually struck out at the plate six fewer times than the Dodgers, but they’ve been out-hit by five, out-homered by three, and out-scored by seven. With Morton’s ghastly 10.38 Game Three ERA and Game One starter Tyler Glasnow’s grotesque 12.46, you have to remove them to find the Rays otherwise with a 2.10 Series ERA. Remove Dylan Floro and Dustin May from the Game Two equation, and the Dodgers otherwise have a 2.20 Series ERA thus far.

Timing is everything in this Series. The Rays’ inability to find theirs at the plate against Buehler and Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ finding and finer tuning theirs against Morton and Glasnow, and Cash’s timing off twice on charging his bulls, are three major reasons why the Dodgers holding a 2-1 Series lead feels more like a 3-1 lead going into Saturday night.

This is what the Dodgers saved Julio Urias for. You may have heard a little chirping after he didn’t appear even in a bullpen stir during Game Two, when the Dodgers couldn’t beat the Rays at their own bullpen game. They’d better hope he isn’t too well rested; he hasn’t pitched since he closed out NLCS Game Seven with three shutdown innings last Saturday. And he’s going up against a by-necessity Rays bullpen game with Ryan Yarbrough possibly opening and possibly going three.

That’s the game the Rays usually master. Now it’s the mastery they need desperately enough.

Go easy, Braves Republic

Dansby Swanson, unable to elude Superman in a single step. Swanson tried to correct a mistake on the spot and got tagged and bagged for his trouble.

No sport’s history is as thick and hydra-headed as baseball’s, and that includes its chapters on heart-crashing loss. Few sports fans are as addicted as baseball fans to the idea that the other guys can’t win so much as the teams to which they plight their troths can only choke.

It’s one thing to marry your rooting passion to teams that seem forever mired in mediocrity. It’s one thing to marry that passion to teams that struggled to make the journey, finally got their periodic pass to the October ball, and found the queen of the ball laughing in their faces when they asked her to dance.

But marrying your passion to teams who get to the top of Mount Nebo as regularly as the Atlanta Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers and get kicked to the rocks below when they thought they’d cross to the Promised Land at last, just as regularly?

The Braves haven’t won the World Series since NASA lost contact with Pioneer 11. The Dodgers haven’t won it since the birth of Donald Trump’s fourth White House communications director (Hope Hicks). For a little perspective, the Milwaukee Brewers, the San Diego Padres, the Seattle Mariners, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Texas Rangers, and the Colorado Rockies have never yet reached the Promised Land.

The Braves have eighteen division titles since 1991, including that staggering (if you disallow the season disruption of the 1994 strike) fourteen straight, with five pennants and that one World Series win. The Dodgers have thirteen division titles since 1988, including the incumbent eight straight, with two pennants (back-to-back) and no World Series wins.

The demigods of the Elysian Fields being who they are, naturally the Braves and the Dodgers played for the pennant in this pandemically arrayed season almost straight out of Bizarro World.

Commissioner Rob Manfred’s pandemic-inspired short irregular season inspired his too-far-expanded postseason experiment that actually allowed two teams with irregular season losing records (the since-vanquished Brewers and the Houston Astros with identical 29-31 records) to enter in the first place. Perhaps with exemplary and extraterrestrial justice, the World Series will feature nobody whose butts weren’t parked in first place at irregular season’s end.

But I digress. Too many teams lose because someone does what he knows is wrong and nobody else has the presence or the authority to stop him. Too many more teams lose because someone doing the right thing has it blow up in his face courtesy of the unexpected countermove or glitch.

Too many fans, too, cling tighter if their teams’ histories feature too deep a canon of falling short when it was time to stand the tallest. It’s never the other guys who were just that much better, it’s their guys who can only and always dissemble. Even if they didn’t dissemble. Even if the parallel to the law that somebody has to lose is that everybody gets to play again tomorrow or next year.

Braves fans are starting the choke memes already, if they didn’t start them right after Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley ran them out of a possible game-out-of-reach rally in the top of the fourth inning in National League Championship Series Game Seven.

Well, maybe they waited until Mookie Betts fleeced Freddie Freeman with a staggering, solo home run-stealing catch that would have fattened a Braves lead back to two runs in the top of the fifth Sunday night. Maybe they waited until pinch hitter Enrique Hernandez tied the game at three with a leadoff solo home run in the bottom of the sixth.

Maybe they waited until Cody Bellinger broke the tie with a solo bomb in the bottom of the seventh and Julio Urias finished what he started, three innings’ shutout relief.

Maybe.

Swanson didn’t cut his Braves off at their own pass by going rogue, exactly. He tried turning a mistake into a virtue and learned the hard way that the other guys administer justice but not mercy.

When Nick Markakis grounded one sharply to Justin Turner right of the third base line, Swanson probably should have stood fast forcing Turner to take the sure out at first keeping two runners in scoring position. But he ran on contact.

Swanson tried for the textbook play when Turner threw home right on the button, getting himself into the rundown starting maybe fifteen feet from the plate, the better to leave Austin Riley—whose RBI single busted the tie to set up first and second, which became second and third on a wild pitch—room to take third and keep at least one insurance run ninety feet from the plate with two on and one out for on-deck batter Cristian Pache.

What Swanson didn’t expect was Riley at second hesitating before breaking for third. Maybe Riley saw no chance to advance at first no matter how well Swanson handled things on the rundown track. When Riley broke for third at last, Turner tagged Swanson with a Superman-like dive and threw from his knees to shortstop (and eventual NLCS MVP) Corey Seager hustling to cover third just before the dive.

Riley dropped into his slide the split second Turner threw. He was D.O.A. It turned out that so were the Braves from there, but they still had five innings to atone. They didn’t bargain on the Dodgers’ relief pitching keeping them to one measly walk the rest of the night.

Neither did they bargain on the Dodgers’ Game Six starter Walker Buehler flicking away the bases loaded and nobody out in the second inning by striking out the next two batters before inducing an inning-ending ground out. Never mind Betts robbing Marcell Ozuna with that likewise back-to-the-wall-scaling, extra base hit-stealing catch in the fifth.

Neither did they bargain on their pitching staff that became a shutout machine in the earlier postseason rounds suddenly proving human, after all. Or, on the Dodgers shaking off manager Dave Roberts’ day-late/dollar-short lift of Clayton Kershaw with Game Four tied at one to win three straight elimination games for the pennant.

It would have been mad fun to see the Braves tangle with the Rays in the World Series. The Scrum of the Southeast. But there wouldn’t necessarily have been a guarantee for the Braves. Not against a team that got out-hit by both the Empire Emeritus and the Houston hulks and still found ways to beat them both. Not against a team that hit .171 with men in scoring position all postseason long—and still won the American League pennant.

But I have a personal message for Braves Republic. Go easy on the choke label. The cumulative differences between the Braves and the Dodgers are half a pencil thin. The Dodgers only out-hit the Braves by nine points and only out-pitched the Braves by 1.26 in the ERA column. Makes perfect sense when you remind yourselves as the broadcasters did too often: including the NLCS, the Dodgers scored exactly one more run than the Braves all year.

Timing often has the bigger hand, unfortunately. That and, as good as you are, the other guys proving to be just that little bit better. It’s not as though the Braves were taken down by a fluke team. They didn’t fall to the 1944 St. Louis Browns, the 1945 and 2006 Detroit Tigers, the 1959 Chicago White Sox, or even the 2002 Anaheim Angels. It’s also not as though the Dodgers had to beat a bunch of pushovers to win the National League pennant.

Think about this, too, Braves Republic. What you have now is a team with at least one potential future Hall of Famer on the assumption that a 30-year-old Freeman isn’t on the threshold of his decline phase, and a lot of good-to-great-looking youth on the mound, at the plate, in the field. You have a steady manager and a smart enough front office.

What those fourteen-straight Braves division winners had was as many as four Hall of Famers at once—three top-of-the-line pitchers (Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz) and the arguable number five third baseman of all time (Chipper Jones)—and still had only one World Series ring to show for it.

Even as this year’s Braves go home from this season that will be remembered as Alfred Hitchcock Presents The Inner Sanctum of the Outer Limits of the Twilight Zone, well, Lucy, who got more splainin’ to do?

All Betts were on

Betts in the happy dance after his fifth-inning aerobatics.

Max Fried watched Justin Turner’s first-inning launch leave the yard Saturday. He looked for all the world like a man who’d come home to find his house cleaned out by burglars. With no idea how the hell they got past the gates, vault doors, barred windows, and armed guards. Or where they found the stones to return to the scene of the crime laughing.

Turner launched exactly three pitches after Corey Seager hit a 1-0 service over the right field corner fence. On a Saturday afternoon during which Los Angeles Dodgers starter Walker Buehler found his best side when the Dodgers needed it in the worst way possible, all that was the next-to-last thing Fried and his Atlanta Braves needed when they were one win from the World Series.

The last thing they needed, of course, was the Dodgers winning National League Championship Series Game Six, 3-1, and with maybe the key Dodger aid being That Catch in the top of the fifth.

If you thought Fried looked shocked in the first, don’t ask how he looked after Mookie Betts—who’d just cut Freddie Freeman’s two-liner to right center off to stop it from becoming extra bases—ran back on Marcell Ozuna’s deep drive, leaped with his back turning against the high Globe Life Park fence, and one-handed it before it might have struck either the yellow line or a hair’s width beneath it.

There wasn’t a soul on earth who blamed Betts for the berserk happy dance into which he broke from the split second his feet returned to the ground. He saved a certain run and probably signed the Braves’ Game Six death warrant while he was at it. Not to mention provoking a hyperbolic outcry from a longtime stalwart of Red Sox Nation.

Hey LA!” tweeted self-described Boston Globe sports columnist emeritus Bob Ryan. “See that catch? You’d better damn well treasure Mookie. Worst mistake we made since selling The Babe to the Yankees.” Referring, of course, to the platinum-rich Red Sox refusing to even think about handing Betts what the Dodgers eventually did after they landed him in last winter’s blockbuster trade.

The catch will cling tighter to the memory if the Dodgers manage to win Game Seven on Sunday. At that, they’ll call it the one that turned the whole NLCS around and not just the one that signed, sealed, and delivered the Braves’ Game Six fate. They’re certainly calling it the one that makes Betts’s Game Five catch—the running shoestringer off Ozuna that turned into an inning-ending double play off Ozuna’s early-tag baserunning mistake—resemble a measly warmup.

In a pandemically-rearranged postseason loaded with fielding shows, including but not limited to the American League champion Tampa Bay Rays’ acrobatic aerialists, Betts blew all of those into near-oblivion. Even Manuel Margot’s pole-vaulting catch in Game Two of the ALCS.  “That’s an unbelievable play by an unbelievable player in a big moment,” Seager said post-Game Six.

“A tick behind last night’s play, but it just shows the athleticism,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “Right there, Walker was kind of stressing a little bit. And so to make that play to get out of it . . . was huge. [Betts] just impacts the game in so many ways.”

Second understatement of the day about the play. Since becoming a full-time right fielder in 2016, Betts had 104 defensive runs saved at that position. That’s only ten times any other right fielder in the entire game.

“I didn’t know he’d got it that good,” Betts told MLB Network’s in a field interview. “I just kind of kept going and, you know, I got to the wall, I could have got to the point of no return, I got to jump and go for a catch and come down with it. ”

Buehler wasn’t the only Dodger finding and delivering his best side in National League Championship Series Game Six. Oft-maligned manager Roberts didn’t suffer a single brain vapour. His oft-maligned bullpen—which seems to trigger “Danger, Will Robinson” warnings the minute Roberts reaches for it this postseason—didn’t waver, never mind melt.

Even embattled closer Kenley Jansen, whose issues really are bound more to his physical changes than his mind or his repertoire, got two outs on two pitches to open the ninth before needing four pitches to put pinch-hitter Pablo Sandoval and the 3-1 Dodger win into the safe deposit box. It was as though the Braves made the once-powerful Sandoval a sacrificial lamb just to be done to play one more day.

You’re going to face the best hitters in the world and you can’t lose confidence,” said Jansen, who ended the game at the expense of a Kung Fu Panda who’s not even close to the younger teddy bear who homered three times in the first game of the 2012 World Series. “If you’re going to lose confidence then just quit.”

Saturday’s play began with the distinct possibility of both pennants being taken on the same day. It ended with the Dodgers living to play a Game Seven, the Braves frustrated that they’d have to play a Game Seven, and the Rays finally finishing what they started and sending the Houston Astros home for the winter.

NLCS Game Six also left the Dodgers 32-8 for the year in games where they scored first and the Braves 11-20 when the other guys score first. It also left Buehler—who stood with his right arm extended up and his hand in a fist saluting Betts’s hair-raising catch—the proud owner of a lifetime 18-0 won-lost record in games where he’s staked to a 3-0 lead.

The only reason Roberts lifted Buehler after six was the righthander beginning to tire after scattering seven hits and striking out six without walking a single Brave. After Betts saved the bacon of Buehler, the Dodgers, and every Dodger fan in creation, Blake Treinen coming in for the seventh saved his own hide after a leadoff triple (Nick Markakis) and a one-out RBI double (Ronald Acuna, Jr.) by striking Freeman out swinging and convincing Ozuna to fly out to Betts a little less dramatically.

Fried at least kept the Braves in the game until the bottom of the seventh. He’d outlasted the Dodger starter who’d outpitched him, but his mates couldn’t find other ways to pry open a Dodger bullpen that’s known as much for keeping the crash carts on white-hot alert as for driving the opposition into the ground with its speedy sinkers and hard breakers.

Loading the bases with nobody out in the top of the second? Two strikeouts and a ground out left the ducks on the pond. Going 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position all day? Not the way to overcome that early Dodger attack, that ironed-up Dodger pitching, and that Betts taking a flying leap to end the fifth.

“When you throw a letter-high curveball to Seager, he’s going to do what he did to it,” said a humbled Fried post-game. “A fastball right down the middle to Turner, he did the same. I felt like I was searching for it, instead of going after guys and hitting spots.”

Braves manager Brian Snitker finally decided Fried did all he could with his 109 pitches and brought Darren O’Day in with two out and one on. O’Day needed shortstop Dansby Swanson to keep Will Smith’s nasty one-hopper from turning into a nastier base hit, Swanson backhanding it on the run and throwing over to second to force Turner for the side.

Fried did at least spare the Braves from dipping too deep into their own rising bullpen. They may well need it if the Dodgers find ways to puncture Game Seven starter Ian Anderson Sunday night. “We’re in a good spot,” said Snitker to reporters. “I like the guy that we’re going to pitch. The bullpen, everybody can pitch. Everybody’s available tomorrow. We’ll see what we do.”

They may have to think about having Betts kidnapped just to be on the safe side.

With the sixth you get steamrolled

2019-10-06 PatrickCorbin

Patrick Corbin, the third man in the Nats’ starters-as-relievers plan, was the first and worst to be torched.

There is one bright side to the Nationals being bludgeoned 10-4 by the Dodgers Sunday night. It means they still have a shot in their National League division series. Because they’ll send Max Scherzer to the mound for Game Four. And all they need is Scherzer to be as close to Scherzer as possible.

If he is, the Nats have a fighting chance. And, Stephen Strasburg on regular rest for Game Five in Dodger Stadium. If he isn’t, they’ll look even more like baseball’s version of a Harold Stassen presidential campaign.

For the time being, though, they might want to can the starter-as-reliever strategy no matter how testy most of their bullpen is. They need Scherzer to pitch them as deep as possible without getting drowned. While praying manager Dave Martinez shakes Sunday off enough not to push anything resembling a panic button.

Certainly not the one he pushed Sunday afternoon, when he lifted his mostly cruising starter Anibal Sanchez after only 87 pitches, five innings, nine strikeouts (mostly on changeups, power worshippers), and a 2-1 lead, the last courtesy of Juan Soto’s monstrous two-run homer past the center field fence in the bottom of the first.

All of which followed Sanchez wriggling unscathed out of a ducks-on-the-pond first inning jam. If the only thing spoiling Sanchez’s gig was Max Muncy’s two-strike launch into the right center field bleachers with two out in the top of the fifth, surely Martinez could have kept Sanchez aboard for one more inning.

Well, maybe not. Whenever Sanchez gets a third crack at a lineup the other guys nail a .923 OPS against him. Maybe Martinez really didn’t have that much of a choice if he wanted to protect a 2-1 lead. Especially knowing his bullpen not named Daniel Hudson or Sean Doolittle were the second most self-immolating group in Washington aside from the federal government.

So Martinez reached for Corbin, the third man in his starter-as-reliever series plan. Maybe it was the right move, but there’s no maybe about how wrong the result ended up. Martinez surely thought the third verse would be the same as the first two.

Then he discovered an impostor in Corbin’s uniform.

Whoever was in Nats number 46 Sunday night, the Dodgers battered him for six runs in the top of the sixth and tied a postseason record with seven two-out runs total in the inning, keeping the Nats to only a two-runs-worth reply the rest of the way.

“Anibal was at 87 pitches. He gave us all he had,” said Martinez after the Nats were put out of their misery at last. “We were at a good spot in the lineup, where we thought Corbin could get through it. And his stuff was good . . . But he had every hitter 0-2. He just couldn’t finish.”

If the stuff was good, the command was hit by a mutiny. And then the Dodgers added insult to immolation when Russell Martin, who started the sixth-inning mischief with a two-run double bounding off the left center field fence, batted on 2-1 with David Freese on first in the top of the ninth and Hunter Strickland on the mound—and sent it into the seats above the left field bullpen.

The Nats must be wondering just what they ever did to Martin to make him treat them so disrespectfully. “You try to feast on mistakes,” Martin said after the game. “And he made a few mistakes.”

After actual or alleged Corbin knocked out two strikeouts following Cody Bellinger’s leadoff single, David Freese singled to right for first and third. And Martin on 2-2 sent a nice, low enough slider to the back of left center, leaving room to spare for Bellinger and Freese to come home. Corbin promptly walked pinch hitter Chris Taylor and the Dodgers knew this was an impostor. Enough for another pinch hitter, Enrique Hernandez, to lash a two-run double deep to left.

Feast on mistakes? To these Dodgers this Sunday night Corbin, or whoever snuck into his uniform, looked like a luau.

“That was one of those things,” Muncy said, “where once one guy started doing it, the next cat picked up on it and it just kind of rolled throughout the inning.” Steamrolled, that is.

Corbin didn’t flinch when a swarm of reporters crowded his locker after the game. “It just stinks,” he said in a voice so low, from so much pain, that you might have missed it unless you were in the front row of the swarm. “I feel like I let these guys down.”

The Nats put Muncy aboard on the house, a wise move considering he’d accounted for the first Dodger run in Sanchez’s final inning with a shot into the right center field bleachers. The wisdom lasted only long enough for Martinez to get the impostor out of there, get Wander Suero in, and and get another jolt when Justin Turner hit one into the left center field seats.

Of course, having nobody in the bullpen more reliable than Hudson and Doolittle complicates things. In a four-run hole the Nats weren’t about to burn either of those two. But bringing Strickland in to deal with the Dodgers in the ninth was almost like hiring Ma Barker to command the FBI. Martin’s launch off him was the ninth bomb Strickland’s surrendered in twelve lifetime postseason innings.

“[R]emember the crick that remains in your neck from watching the delicious meatballs Hunter Strickland has been serving up for weeks,” wrote the Washington Post‘s Barry Svrluga. “He is now a symbol of this battered bullpen and is slipping into ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’ territory.”

“We just have to keep plugging away,” Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki told reporters after the game. “You definitely feel confident. You have the lead. You still have to finish it. That is a good lineup over there. They did their job tonight.”

Suzuki and his Nats need Scherzer to do as close to his normal job as possible Monday. And if they find a ransom demand for the real Patrick Corbin, pay it.