It wasn’t over until it was over

Chris Taylor

Chris Taylor, about to demolish Alex Reyes’s hanging slider and the Cardinals’ season in the bottom of the ninth . . .

If the postseason means anything, it means the biggest men on the field can come up as short as the least among them can come up Bunyanesque. You can watch the big men go hammer and tongs at it only to find the last or next-to-last man swung the wrecking ball that counted.

But if you thought a utility man who’d gone seven-for-September (well, seven hits in 71 plate appearances) would send the Dodgers to a National League division series after spending most of the NL wild card game riding the proverbial pine, you should be buying stocks, futures, and lottery tickets.

Infielder-outfielder Chris Taylor was sent into the game to open the seventh in left field, in a managerial double switch, and bat ninth in the order. And in the bottom of the ninth Wednesday night, with two outs, Cody Bellinger on second, and Alex Reyes on the mound for the Cardinals, Taylor with one swing reinforced two inviolable laws.

One was the Biblical admonition about the last being first. The other was Berra’s Law. The truest valedictory for this National League wild card game is that it most assuredly wasn’t over until it was over. It took a man who’d gone from All-Star in the season’s first half to also-ran in the second half, when a neck nerve issue contributed to making him almost literally half the player he’d been from April through July.

The number nine batter sent the Dodgers toward a division series showdown with their lifelong blood rivals, the Giants, with one swing, one two-run homer, and one moment in which the Elysian Fields angels decided the Red Sox deflating the Yankees in the American League wild card game just wasn’t quite enough.

Taylor turned on Reyes’s slider hanging a sliver under the belt and sent the ball about ten rows into the left field bleachers. He also sent Dodger Stadium into a racket that could have been heard practically across the state line separating California from Nevada.

Remember Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck’s ancient holler after broken-bodied Kirk Gibson ended Game One of the 1988 World Series with a home run? Even home plate umpire Joe West—on the threshold of retirement at last—looked as though he wanted for once to come out from behind his cloak of professionalism, and beyond his reputation for inserting himself too much into games, to holler it.

I don’t believe—what I just saw!

Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer believed it. Those who were there swear Scherzer turned to Dodger reliever Joe Kelly in the dugout as Bellinger checked in at the plate, telling Kelly, “I think Belli is going to get on here, and CT is gonna hit a homer.” If that’s true, maybe Scherzer should be buying stocks, futures, and lottery tickets himself.

Bellinger—whose regular season was laid waste by incomplete recovery from shoulder surgery last off-season and more than a few injuries nagging and otherwise including a broken bone or two—wrung himself into a full-count walk. Then, he stole second when Yadier Molina, the Cardinals’ grand old man behind the plate, couldn’t find a handle to throw against Bellinger’s big jump off first.

With the next pitch, Taylor made Scherzer into a prophet. Ending a game in which neither side could pry more than a single run out of either Scherzer or the Cardinals’ co-grand old man Adam Wainwright despite neither righthander having anything much resembling their truly vintage repertoires, other than a few tastes of Scherzer’s better sliders and Wainwright’s better curve balls.

“We’re going to need him,” Dodger manager Dave Roberts said about Taylor before the game. “I can’t predict what spot, whether it’s to get a bunt down, take an at-bat, play defense, start a game. I can’t predict that. I do know that he’s one of my favorite players. I trust him as a ballplayer, as a person. We’re going to need him this postseason.”

Need, meet net result. And, the newest member of a distinguished fraternity of modest men who step up immodestly in the postseason when it matters the most.

With the Dodgers’ season on the line—and TBS broadcasters Brian Anderson and Ron Darling having predicted two innings earlier that the game was liable to be won in the final at-bat—Taylor joined the like of Travis Ishikawa, Chris Burke, Aaron Boone, Todd Pratt, and Bucky Dent on the roll of the unlikeliest postseason bombers making the difference in win-or-be-gone games.

“[I]t’s been a grind for me,” Taylor said postgame. “I haven’t been playing my best. So to come through in the ninth, it felt really really good.”

Somehow, some way, Wainwright ground through five and a third innings with only Justin Turner’s leadoff launch to the rear of the Dodger bullpen in the fourth against him. Scherzer didn’t quite last that long. Despite his game-long wrestling matches with the Cardinal lineup, he was none too thrilled to get the hook in the fifth. He wouldn’t even give Roberts the ball as he left the mound.

Post-game, of course, Max the Knife was in his glory, interviewing shirtless and slightly inebriated from the party champagne. And, celebrating with his erstwhile Nationals teammate Juan Soto, who’d been in the field boxes—wearing Dodger shortstop Trea Turner’s Nats jersey, sitting next to Nats hitting coach Kevin Long in Scherzer’s Nats jersey.

“You gotta get rid of this echo,” Scherzer said on camera. “Can’t talk. I’m drunk, whatever.”

For all that the Cardinals made Scherzer wiggle into and out of jams as if it were par for the course, the only run they pried out of him was his own doing, when he wild-pitched Tommy Edman home on 0-2 to Nolen Arenado in the top of the first.

This was a game dominated by full counts, batters unable to cash gloriously positioned baserunners in, even with Scherzer and Wainwright looking like the elders they are on the mound. The Cardinals had the worst of that, going 0-for-11 with men in scoring position against Scherzer and four Dodger relievers—particularly resurgent closer Kenley Jansen, striking out the side in the ninth around Edman’s one-out single and theft of second.

Taylor also ended a too-brief battle between two men who’d gone from first-half boom to second-half bust. Like Taylor, Reyes was an All-Star for his first half. But he’d pitched his way out of the Cardinals’ closing job in the second. Just as Dodger manager Dave Roberts never once lost faith in his veteran Taylor, Cardinals manager Mike Schildt never really lost true faith in his still-young reliever.

Schildt isn’t the only one having Reyes’ back after Taylor broke his and the Cardinals’ backs Wednesday night.

“I just gave him gave him a huge hug,” said Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals’ other grand old man and wild card game starter. “Told him we love him, told him I loved him and gave him another big hug and just told him how special he was as a player and as a teammate, as a person.

“You know, it’s all you can say in a moment like that,” Wainwright continued. “He doesn’t probably want to hear any of it, but it’s all true. He’s a great teammate, is a great player. He’s a great pitcher. He’s a great friend, and I hate seeing anyone go through that, but he’s got an incredible future ahead of him.”

He’ll only have to shake off having thrown the pitch that ended a season in which the Cardinals lost a little too much—including their pitching ace-in-the-continuing-making Jack Flaherty—to the injured list and to deflated expectations for much of the season.

A season in which the Cardinals ironed up when it mattered most and rode a staggering seventeen-game winning streak, not to mention a fine young outfield, a mostly stingy defense overall, mostly solid hitting, and their elder anchorage of Wainwright and Molina,  toward the second National League wild card.

The Dodgers might have been humiliated more if they came up short. A 106 game-winning defending World Series winner, settling for the first National League wild card, after they couldn’t quite get that one game past the NL West-winning Giants? There wouldn’t be enough available space to hold all the variations on the implosion theme.

There may not be enough space to hold all the variations of Taylor-made sure to come forth now.

Opening Day: Snow fooling

There was nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. The snow took control of the transmission when Miguel Cabrera hit this Opening Day home run . . .

Just because the expected Opening Day marquee battle between Jacob deGrom (Mets) and Max Scherzer (Nationals) had to be postponed (COVID-positive Nats players and a team staffer to quarantine), that didn’t mean Wednesday was going to lack for the good, the bad, and the bizarre. This is baseball. Where anything can happen—and usually does.

Especially if Opening Day is also April Fool’s Day. The part that wasn’t a gag—fans in the stands again, at long enough last. The sound was glorious, even if reduced from most normal capacities thanks to the continuing if only slightly receding pan-damn-ic.

Comerica Park should have been playing “Winter Wonderland” Wednesday. The Tigers’ aging star Miguel Cabrera shouldn’t be blamed if he was singing “Let it Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.” Especially when he more than a little hard on the Bieber, turning on the Indian ace’s rising snowball, hitting a two-run homer, and . . . sliding into second base, unable to tell through the snow that the ball flew out.

I don’t know if the Coors Field public address people had it cued up, but they could and should have sounded “Don’t Pass Me By” after Dodger first baseman Cody Bellinger hit an RBI single . . . off Rockies left fielder Raimel Tapia’s glove and over the left field fence. The problem: Justin (Who Was That Unmasked Man) Turner not seeing the ball reach the seats and retreating to first, compelling Bellinger to pass him on the basepath.

Oops. On a day the Rockies thumped Clayton Kershaw and managed to squeeze a win out after doing what Rockies usually do in the off-season—in this case, unloading their franchise player and all but reveling in front office dissembly and mission abandonment—Turner was the gift that . . . added insult to injury for the defending World Series winners.

The sleeper star in waiting in Blue Jays silks might have thought about singing an ancient  T. Rex number called “The Slider.” Gerrit Cole’s was just too juicy for Teoscar Hernandez to resist in the sixth. He sent it into earth orbit or 437 feet and into the left field bleachers at Yankee Stadium—whichever came first. Who needed Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.?

Just one thing was wrong. Hernandez needs to work on his bat flips. He didn’t have one. A blast like that was just begging for him to go Willson Contreras. Hernandez just ambled up the base line carrying his bat, then kind of nudged it away to the grass. He’s young, with plenty of time to learn, though. And his blast tied the game the Jays went on to win, 3-2.

Which is the score by which the Phillies beat the Braves in ten innings—after Bryce Harper began the inning as the free cookie on second base, took third on J.T. (Nothing Is) Realmuto’s ground out, waited patiently as Didi Gregorius was handed first on the house, then came home with the winner when Jean Segura sliced a single to left.

The game got to the tenth in the first place because Phillies manager Joe Girardi decided he wasn’t quite ready to trust the National League’s leading arsonists with taking over from certified innings-eater Aaron Nola with a 2-0 lead in the seventh. The Braves were far more ready to trust Pablo Sandoval—erstwhile Giant, one-time World Series hero, all-time poster child for Slim Slow—to pinch hit for Max Fried’s relief Tyler Matzek with a man on.

. . . and slid into second unable to tell at first whether the ball or the snow cleared the fence.

Kung Fu Panda turned out to be more than ready to hit Nola’s 0-2, slightly down and slightly in fastball into the right field seats. Girardi is many things but a crystal ball operator isn’t one of them. If he had been, he could have lifted Nola safe and sound because the Phillies’ bullpen apparently forgot to refill the gasoline cans for a change. Not even a bases-loaded jam in the eighth could keep Archie Bradley, Jose Alvarado, Hector Neris and Conner Brogdon from keeping the Braves scoreless over the final three and a third.

Does Philadelphia believe in miracles? Don’t ask too quickly, folks. Remember: this is the baseball town in which a typical wedding concludes with the minister pronouncing the newly-married couple husband and wife—then addressing the gathering with, “You may now boo the bride.” As much as I hate to drop a cliche so worn you see more holes there than in an oil field, the Phillies have 161 games left to play. Ruh-roh.

That was last year’s pan-damn-ically irregular season: Twins center fielder Byron Buxton, who sometimes evokes Willie Mays when he’s not on the injured list, walked twice all year long. This was Opening Day: Buxton should have had “Cadillac Walk” as his entrance music—he walked twice. He also blasted a two-run homer to the rear end of American Family Field in the seventh and had his arm calibrated so well that the Brewers didn’t dare to even think about running wild on him.

Buxton’s blast made it 5-3, Twins. Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, the Twins undid their own sweet selves with a badly timed error, making room for a ninth-inning, three-run, game-tying comeback that turned into a 6-5 Brewers win on—wait for it!—a chopped ground out that left just enough room for Lorenzo Cain to score the winner from third. (A transplanted Minnesotan of my acquaintance thinks, only, “That’s so Twins!”)

The Twins were saved from Opening April Fool’s Day ignominy by the Reds, alas. The Cardinals spotted Jack Flaherty a six-run lead in the first—abusing Reds starter Luis Castillo with an RBI infield hit, a bad error by Reds third baseman Eugenio Suarez playing shortstop, and Dylan Carlson ringing a three-run homer off the foul pole—before he had to throw a single competitive pitch in the game.

Flaherty didn’t quite have his A game. A C+ might be more like it. Lucky for him and the bullpen that the Cardinals felt in the mood to abuse the Reds the rest of the way: An RBI single and a run home on a wild pitch plus a two-run homer in the fifth, and it didn’t matter if the Cardinal arms let the Reds have all six of those first-inning runs back. Let the Cardinals’ song for the day be “The Eleven,” as in the 11-6 final.

The bad news for the Angels opening at home against the White Sox: the lineup struck out ten times. The good news: only four of them came in the final six innings. Meanwhile, they beat the White Sox 4-3 like pests instead of power drivers: walking here, working counts there, game-tying single here (Justin Upton), solo homer (Max Stassi) there, RBI single (Mike Trout) and RBI ground out (Albert Pujols) yonder, the bullpen keeping the White Sox quiet the final three.

Not to mention the Still Best Player in the Game ending his Opening Day with a .750 on-base percentage: that RBI single plus a pair of well-worked walks in four plate appearances. Trout could also point proudly to something not usually associated with the Angels the last couple of years: they didn’t let the game get away early, and they nailed it late with a two-run eighth and a shutdown ninth by reliever Raisel Iglesias.

Unfortunately, time will tell if a triumph like that proves an April Fool’s joke that wasn’t half as funny as Miguel Cabrera’s home run slide.

But here’s no joke: There were 222 hits on Opening Day and a mere 35 percent of them went for extra bases, including a measly thirteen percent being home runs, while fifteen percent of the day’s hits were infield hits. The games produced a .311 batting average on balls in play. There were even nineteen tries at grand theft base and 79 percent of them succeeded.

Maybe the rumours of the all-around game’s death are more than slightly exaggerated for now. When there’s a slightly higher percentage of infield hits than home runs on a day, the small ballers should take their victories where they can find them. But you wonder if Cabrera will inspire more than a few players to think it’s time to work on their home run slides.

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?