Does Verlander down mean a coming Astro remodel?

Verlander faces Tommy John surgery. Will it begin the Astros’ reconfiguration, too?

One of the jokes going around the last couple of months is a visual of one of those make-yourself/change-yourself outdoor display signs, reading, “Going to ask Mom if that offer to slap me into next year is still good.” This year’s Houston Astros have more reason than most major league baseball teams to ask Mom for that slap.

Before the coronavirus world tour interrupted spring training, invited the hurry-up summer camps, and delivered the truncated regular season with all its foibles, follies, and folderol, the Astros figured only to wear a scarlet C. All things considered, they might settle for that right now. It might be an improvement.

They were injury-punctured almost from the words “Play ball!” when the truncated season began. If the New York Yankees’ 2020 yearbook could be The Johns Hopkins Medical Journal, the Astros’ could be The Physicians Desk Reference. The latest casualty: Justin Verlander, who’s graduating from the injured list after a single late July start to down until 2022 after he undergoes Tommy John surgery.

We should probably consider as ESPN’s David Schoenfield does, that Verlander’s right elbow ligaments were lucky to have lasted as long as they did. He’s thrown 51,931 pitches in sixteen major league seasons—48,822 in regular season play and 3,109 in postseason play. That averages out to 107 pitches per regular season start and 100 per postseason game, in a career in which he’s averaged seven innings a start.

Verlander’s Astro deal expires after next season. He’ll be 39 when he hits the open market then. Pitchers that age not named Jamie Moyer have tricky enough markets without being 39-year-old post-Tommy John pitchers. Taking every objective factor into consideration, we may have seen the last of Verlander in a major league uniform and now count the days to the beginning of his Hall of Fame watch.

We may also be watching the beginning of the end of the Astros’ tainted legacy while we’re at it.

Verlander himself isn’t part of the taint. It wasn’t the Astros’ pitchers who cooked up that illegal, off-field-based, electronic sign-stealing Astro Intelligence Agency operation that rendered their 2017 World Series title stained forever. But the opportunity is about to arrive for which the Astros’ new regime can apply and spread the Febreeze liberally.

Nine of this year’s team remain from the tainted 2017-18 team. Three—first baseman Yuli Gurriel, and outfielders Josh Reddick and George Springer—can hit the open market this winter. Three—shortstop Carlos Correa, and pitchers Chris Devenski and Lance McCullers, Jr.—are signed through the end of this season and become arbitration-eligible after next year. Two—second baseman Jose Altuve and third baseman Alex Bregman—are locked in through the end of 2024.

Schoenfield thinks that of the foregoing free agency-to-be group Springer might be the one the Astros would love most to keep. But he also thinks Springer might still hold a grudge against the organisation for their bid to try signing him long-term while he was still in the minors and for their delay in promoting him to the Show.

Astroworld may be watching the last days of Springer in Astros fatigues. From this point until the end of 2021, it’s also possible that the Astros will be remade and remodeled. Maybe a tear-down on behalf of a renewed youth movement, hopefully without compromising the team’s competitiveness, but definitely continuing the cleanup of the Jeff Luhnow fallout.

The sooner, the better. New general manager James Click’s challenge is keeping the best of that era aboard and making sure the worst doesn’t get to within ten nautical miles of the franchise ever again.

The Luhnow administration’s forward-ho analytical approaches forced other teams to re-think and re-model their own player development. That was good for the game as well as for the Astros, and the braying old farts who screamed bloody murder over the thinking person’s sport being invaded by, you know, actual thinking, were invited kindly but firmly to sit down and shut up.

But the braying old farts had one point after all, even in the breach. The price for the Astros was a win-at-all-cost mindset through which Luhnow’s leadership left the Astros as misogynistic cheaters who just might sacrifice virgins while running an extracurricular spy ring, if it meant winning that one extra game to make the difference.

Not one Astro player truly paid the price—unless you count ducking pitches to their heads or elsewhere this year, that is. (On the flip side, alas, is poor Abraham Toro. He wasn’t an Astro until last August. But he leads with having taken six for the team. Not nice, not acceptable. At least Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly targeted two who were 2017-18 Astros.)

The players were offered and took immunity in return for spilling their Astrogate beans. They didn’t pay so much as a quarter’s worth of a fine, and when called upon to stand accountable in the public eye they apologised, kind of, sort of, before spring training was stopped due to the pandemic.

Harrumph if you must about the 2018 Boston Red Sox, likewise exposed as high-tech cheaters. But there were reasons they didn’t feel half the cheat-shaming the Astros have taken. For starters, they executed manager Alex Cora—thought to have been an Astrogate mastermind—before the investigation into their own Soxgate treachery was finished.

Also, the Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring depended entirely upon what was handed them in their video rooms (at home and on the road) and upon someone sending stolen signs to their baserunners to send to the batter’s box. MLB handed the Rogue Sox the keys to the liquor cabinet and dared them not to open it and drink underage. It won’t be that shocking if we discover they weren’t the only ones drinking accordingly.

But nobody on high told or allowed the Astro Intelligence Agency to either alter an existing camera off the mandatory eight-second transmission delay or install a fresh, furtive, real-time camera, sending signs to the clubhouse monitor next to which someone banged the can slowly sending the stolen intelligence to the hitters.

By the way, the Red Sox are so far out of the postseason picture this year you could argue a case of instant karma. You could, that is, if you ignore that last offseason they were, inexplicably, more concerned about staying under the game’s luxury tax than about locking down their franchise player—who’s now locked in as a Dodger for life and helping them to what’s liable to hold up as coronaball’s best record.

Luhnow’s ramifications went beyond just soiling the Astros’ powerhouse and the team’s image.

We know now that the entire sport prayed that the net result of last year’s postseason would be anyone but the Astros winning the World Series. We know now that too much of the Show believed the major reason the Astros abandoned the AIA by 2019 was their possible fear of exposure.

We also know that the Washington Nationals—who sent their postseason pitchers to the mound prepared to change up as many as five sets of signs each, just in case—spoke of it being “amazing, once we were playing the Astros [in the World Series], how many people were coming out of the woodwork to let us know what they were doing.”

In other words, the Nats winning the Series at all gave the sport the warmest fuzzy possible. Winning it entirely on the road, in Minute Maid Park, was almost gravy.

(Last year, the Nats turned a 19-31 record into the Promised Land. This morning, the 19-31 Nats battered and bruised themselves out of a postseason trip. Wait till next year.)

Luhnow even had an impact on the sale of another major league franchise. Alex Rodriguez and his partner Jennifer Lopez lost out on buying the New York Mets as much because of A-Rod’s informal contacts with the suspended Luhnow as because J-Rod didn’t have quite the billions to tap that hedge fund wheel Steve Cohen does.

The last thing the Mets and the Show alike needed was seeing the Mets sold to someone who’d take counsel from the man who made it possible for a World Series champion and three-times-dominant American League West champion to resemble an unholy union between a high-tech frat house and an underground spy network.

The next-to-last thing the sport needed was to see an Astro fan base whose profound loyalty was second to very few ground under the Astrogate heel. Those Astro fans who refused to be shaken tripped over their own circle-squarings; those Astro fans who couldn’t help but be shaken still try making sense of it.

If the Astros are indeed on the threshold of a tear-down and remodel, it’s the best thing that could happen to the franchise and their fans, and one of the best for the sport itself.

From chaos to bedlam and Game Seven

2019-10-29 AnthonyRendon

Anthony Rendon knew exactly how to shake off a dubious umpire’s call in Game Six.

The second loveliest word pair in baseball is “Game Seven.” (The first, of course, is “Play ball!”) And oh, brother, are we going to get one in this World Series.

I did say going in that this Series, between these two teams, wasn’t likely to end in either a sweep or an extremely short series. But I sure as hell didn’t expect it to get to Game Seven the way it got there.

Oh, I figured that neither wind nor heat nor gloom of potential elimination would stay a courier named Stephen Strasburg from the reasonably swift completion of his appointed Game Six rounds if he could help it. And, they didn’t.

With one cojones-heavy eight-and-a-third innings performance Strasburg pitched his way into legend and his Nationals to a seventh game that looked anything but likely after the way the Astros battered them in all three Washington games.

But I didn’t expect the next best thing to a 21st Century Don Denkinger moment, either, in the top of the seventh or otherwise. And I sure didn’t expect to see this such moment fire a team up instead of deflate them irrevocably at all, never mind with a near-immediate two-run homer once the hoo-ha stopped hoo-ha-ing.

Plate umpire Sam Holbrook decided, in essence, that a long, bad throw from Astros relief pitcher Brad Peacock fielding Nats shortstop Trea Turner’s little squeaker up from the plate, pulling first baseman Yuli Gurriel off the base, enough to let the throw hit Turner on the back of the knee the split second after his foot hit the base, equaled runner interference.

Turner inadvertently brushed Gurriel’s mitt off his hand. If the throw had reached the inside of the base instead of traveling to its front, Gurriel’s mitt wouldn’t even have been near the onrushing Turner. And Turner’s speed still would have beaten the play at first.

“What else do you do? I don’t know,” said Turner after the game. “The batter’s box is in fair territory. First base is in fair territory. I swung, I ran in a straight line, I got hit with the ball and I’m out. I don’t understand it. I can understand if I veered one way or another. I didn’t.”

It amplified this World Series’s being full of questionable, controversial calls, mostly around the strike zone. And if interference is strictly a judgment call, and umpires really are baseball’s equivalent of judges, as the game’s romantics often analogise, there might be cries for impeachment louder than any cried against particular American presidents past or present.

The Nats fumed long enough over the call—which robbed them of second and third and nobody out—that the umpires donned the headsets and called the New York review nerve center. Not for a review, since runner interference isn’t reviewable, but to send the message that the Nats wanted to play the rest of the game under protest.

And, without manager Dave Martinez, who exploded over the call as the sides changed during the seventh inning stretch and finally got ejected despite two Nats coaches managing to move him back toward his dugout, the better to keep his recently-mended heart and blood pressure from blowing like a presidential tweet storm.

The call in question got thatclose to overshadowing Strasburg’s masterpiece and the otherwise staggering 7-2 Nats win. And, the now very real prospect that this could become the first World Series in which the road team wins every game, including the Game Seven clincher.

This also may prove the most famous instance of a World Series team victimised by an umpire’s controversial call not collapsing, fainting, or imploding afterward. Talking about you, 1985 Cardinals.

That team got a Game Six jobbing in the bottom of the ninth when an inning-opening, obvious-to-the-blind infield out was called safe by first base ump Denkinger, who admitted in due course that he blew the call. Which was nothing compared to the Cardinals blowing their stacks before the Royals went on to win Game Six in that ninth or imploding completely and practically from the beginning—and it didn’t help that the ump rotation planted Denkinger behind the plate—in Game Seven.

But these Nats aren’t those Cardinals. “We’re all human,” said Anthony Rendon after the game in a field interview. “Whether we make mistakes or not, nobody’s going to feel sorry for us, so we’ve got to keep going.” Except that Rendon looked superhuman just minutes after the coolest heads finally prevailed.

Nats catcher Yan Gomes returned to first, his leadoff single having started the seventh-inning shebang in the first place. Adam Eaton popped out to third. Then Rendon himself checked in at the plate. And lodged maybe the single most explosive protest associated with Washington baseball since heartsick fans stormed RFK Stadium’s field at the end of the last Senators home game ever.

That protest caused a forfeit to the Yankees in a game the Senators were an out from winning. Rendon’s idea of a protest was to turn on Peacock’s 1-0 meatball and send it right into the Crawford Boxes above the left field wall. In 1985, Denkinger defanged the bear. On Tuesday night Holbrook poked the bear and he roared back.

That plus Rendon’s subsequent two-run double off the top of the bullpen gate in the top of the ninth sealed the Nats’ return from the land of the living dead. Turns out the interference protest didn’t exactly put Rendon in that bad a mood. “I was out here pretty happy about the delay,” he said in a postgame field interview. “I got to sit down awhile.”

But in another, later interview, Rendon became far more thoughtful.

“You can’t let any outside elements get into the game,” he told ESPN’s Jeff Passan. “No matter if it’s the crowd. You’ve got 40,000 people cheering against you. Or whether it’s the weather or if we’re in D.C. and it’s 40 degrees, whatever it might be. No one is going to feel sorry for you. They’re going to expect you to go out there and just perform as best as you can, and they’re going to expect the best out of you.

“Because I feel like people put professional athletes on a pedestal, where they say, ‘Oh, who cares, they’re making millions of dollars, they’re playing a game for a living so it’s easy. They should go out there and be successful every day’,” he continued. “We try to just keep our head down and keep playing.”

Nobody was going to feel sorry for the Astros, necessarily, after Game Six ended with catcher Robinson Chirinos, proud possessor of two Series home runs, popping out behind second base on a full count with Carlos Correa aboard on a two-out double.

Nobody was going to feel sorry for them, either, just because future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander didn’t have more than three shutout innings in him after Rendon’s first-inning RBI single. And, just because Verlander’s needle finally reached below E in the fifth, when Eaton pulled one down the right field line into the stands and, one out later, Juan Soto saw and raised with a skyrocket into the middle of the second deck past right.

“I didn’t really have great feel for the off-speed stuff,” Verlander, always a stand-up man, told interviewers after the game. “The last inning just a poorly executed slider and then really just kind of a fastball up and in.”

Nobody feels terribly sorry for a 107 regular-season winning team that raided Nationals Park like a S.W.A.T. team gone rogue in Games Three through Five after getting bastinadoed at home, then took an early 2-1 Game Six lead on George Springer’s hefty leadoff double ringing the top of the left field scoreboard, Jose Altuve’s sacrifice fly, and Alex Bregman’s solo bomb halfway up the Crawfords.

Nobody felt particularly sorry for the Nats, either, except perhaps in might-have-been terms, as the game went on and it looked again, too often, as though they’d forgotten how to hit with two strikes or otherwise, and how to see their men on base and in scoring position as wanderers to be invited home, not terminal patients allowed to die in peace.

Surely nobody would feel sorry for Strasburg, on the biggest night of his major league life, opening the game by tipping his pitches, as he subsequently admitted after pitching coach Paul Menhart pointed it out to him after the first inning ended.

He wouldn’t have let them, anyway. He pitched in and out of trouble like a sculptor resolving a particularly knotty chunk of stone midway through the game, then smoothed the knot into oblivion and nailed ten straight outs before he was lifted with one out in the bottom of the ninth.

“I saw an incredible pitcher,” said A.J. Hinch, the Astros’s equally thoughtful manager, after the game. “I mean he was really good, and as I said before the game, he has an uncanny ability to slow the game down when he is under any duress.”

Thus do we get a neck pain-relieved Max Scherzer versus Zack Greinke for Game Seven. With all hands on deck for both sides, very likely, including Gerrit Cole and Patrick Corbin and maybe even Anibal Sanchez. Ready to throw whatever kitchen sinks the Astros and the Nats can throw at each other without pulling their arms right out of their sockets.

Thus did we see Max the Knife throwing on flat ground before Game Six and a little in the bullpen during the game, as if to say the Sunday afternoon shot did what it was supposed to do, though certainly not without risk, and he was going to take the mound come hell, high water, or other pain in the neck.

Remember: this is the guy who pitched when he was black-and-blue in the face a day or so after he got hit by an errant batting practise foul bunt in June. A Sunday cortisone shot, and a little chiropractic, and Scherzer was back in the picture. The Nats thank God and His servant Bucky Harris that the game wasn’t dicey enough to compel Martinez to bring Scherzer in Tuesday night, as the skipper admitted crossed his mind while Scherzer threw just to loosen up at mound height.

As if these Nats are rookies at ducking disaster. Not a team that was 19-31 as of 23 May before doing exactly as the Astros did from that date through the end of Game Six: produce the same won-lost record since. And the Astros’ dominant season belies that they spent too much of it looking like an episode of E.R. If they win the Series you won’t know if they should get rings or medical board certification.

But all of a sudden the worst break of the Series for the Nats—Scherzer’s neck locking him up so severely Sunday morning his wife had to help him just wash and dress and he was a Game Five scratch—turned into maybe the greatest break in their history. Because Greinke has a postseason resume described best as modest. And Scherzer even in questionable health is Max the Knife.

The Nats went back to Houston with their heads squarely in Astro-fashioned nooses. On Tuesday night they threw the nooses off. “It had to be this way, right?” said Nats reliever Sean Doolittle, who shook off Correa’s ninth-inning double to finish what Strasburg and company started. “It’s the most 2019 Nats thing ever for this to go to a Game Seven.”

Some of us think just about the entire world otherwise might be surprised. But maybe Doolittle’s onto something. Why, Soto couldn’t resist getting his Bregman on in the fifth, carrying his bat to his first base coach after hitting his blast a la Bregman doing likewise after hitting his in the first.

Now for the stupid part. Bregman actually apologised after the game for his bat carry. The Sacred Unwritten Rules, you know. “I let my emotions get the best of me,” he told a reporter. “I’m sorry for doing that.”

No few grouses crawled all over him for doing it. Soto wasn’t one of them. “I just thought it was pretty cool,” he said of Bregman’s carry. “I wanted to do it.” Bregman, for his part, said he deserved Soto’s response.

Some Nats might have thought Bregman was being a little bit of an ass; Martinez said after the game, simply, “We didn’t like it.” Doolittle, who’s said in the past that he doesn’t care if those bombing him flip bats or mimick bazooka shootings, wasn’t one of those Nats.

“Knowing Soto, I don’t think there was any malice behind it,” Doolittle told a reporter. “And playing against Bregman for a long time, I don’t think there was any malice behind what he did, either. There’s just a lot of emotion in the game . . . Those are two exciting young players. I thought it was fun.”

Holster your weapons, Fun Police. A little mad fun even in Game Six isn’t a terrible thing. Let Bregman have his when he hits one out; let Soto have his when he hits one out. Especially compared to when it was just plain mad in the seventh inning. Especially when the umpire gives the bear a nastier poke than any big bopper carrying his club to his coach after his big bop.

Especially when we get a Game Seven during which we can expect the Nats and the Astros alike to bop till they drop. The only thing we can’t expect is a Washington or Houston legend like Walter Johnson or J.R. Richard coming in to pitch the ninth, then taking it hammer and tongs through extra innings’ shutout relief, until someone finally bends, breaks, gives, or growls.

Well, nobody said you could have everything. Both the Nats and the Astros will just have to settle for a very prospective kitchen sink Game Seven, and one will just have to settle for hoisting the World Series trophy after it. The lease to the Promised Land. The first such lease for any Washington major league team since the birth of IBM; the second such lease in three years for an Astro team that would secure dynastic status with it.

Game Six proved the viability of an old baseball cliche: Anything can happen—and usually does. Game Seven promises a banquet full of you ain’t seen nothing yet. Let’s hope the promise is kept. For Nats fans, for Astros fans, and for baseball itself.

Baby sharks? Try Jaws.

BruceTheShark02Well, World Series Game Two was a pitching duel after each side hung up a two-spot in their halves of the first inning. Justin Verlander and Stephen Strasburg ground and gritted and got their Houdinis on.

And then came the top of the seventh. A six-run Nationals inning that will live in Astro infamy and Nats legend. Deal with the Astros’ home field advantage? The Nats obliterated it with a little help from their spring training complex friends.

Baby Sharks? On Wednesday night the Astros got swallowed by Jaws. And in the top of the seventh they helped feed the beast that ran them out of their home aquarium, 12-3. And lost back-to-back games at home for only the second time since July.

“Reset, then come into an environment that we know is going to be pretty crazy,” said Verlander about the coming Game Three in Nationals Park, “and be ready to play baseball like we know we can.”

But there’s suddenly the nagging fear that the Astros may be the only ones who still know they can play that kind of baseball. They didn’t play it Game Two, against a team who shares with them both baseball’s best play since 24 May and a taste for making the other guys pay for their mistakes with usurious interest.

“Where would you like me to start?” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said as a reporter at the postgame presser asked about the top of the seventh. The one that only began with Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki’s leadoff home run.

Things actually began near the end of the bottom of the sixth, when the Astros had Yuli Gurriel on second with a double, rookie Yordan Alvarez aboard on an intentional walk, a game still tied at two, and two out.

That’s when Hinch elected to pinch hit for Verlander’s season-long personal catcher Robinson Chirinos, who’d shepherded Verlander through five shutout innings just the way Suzuki shepherded Strasburg through five and two thirds, with escape acts being the order of the hour as often as not no matter how much stronger the pair got after their two-run firsts.

Hinch sent up Kyle Tucker, figuring that his being lefthanded might have a better shot against the righthanded Strasburg. But Tucker helped Strasburg squirm out of the first-and-second chains by fighting his way into a called third strike. Then, Hinch sent Martin Maldonado out to catch Verlander for the seventh and for the first time all year long. And after Verlander served Suzuki an opening ball one a little upstairs, Suzuki served the next pitch richocheting off the edge of a large Lexus sign behind the Crawford Boxes.

“We’ve had our battles,” said Suzuki in a post-game on-field interview, and he took a lifetime 14-for-42 jacket with a pair of doubles against Verlander into Game Two. “He’s gotten me sometimes, sometimes I get him. He’s a great pitcher, and you’ve got to really zone in on one spot. He doesn’t make many mistakes, and when you get a pitch to hit you can’t miss it.”

“First-pitch curveball for a ball, and then fastball that was right there for him,” said Verlander, who more or less denied that being switched to Maldonado threw him off since he’d thrown to Maldonado “a lot” in 2018. “In the regular season, you’re like, ‘OK, here it is, hit it, right down the middle.’ In the World Series, it’s a different story. You can’t really ever do that. You still got to hit your spots.”

And if you don’t, you get hit. For distance, even. By a catcher whose body lately threatens to demand donation to forensic anthropology.

Then Verlander lost Victor Robles to a full count walk and his night was over. Becoming the first in Show to nail 200 career postseason strikeouts, breaking John Smoltz’s record of 199 when he fanned Robles in the top of the second, would have meant a lot more if the Astro bullpen didn’t perform an almost-from-nowhere, note-perfect impersonation of . . . the Nats’ bullpen as it looked for most of the regular season.

Hinch reached for Ryan Pressly and Trea Turner reached on another full count walk. And then the merry-go-round started going round enough that maybe, just maybe, the Astros were caught a little off guard and a lot more off balance.

Adam Eaton dropped a near-perfect bunt in front of the mound to push the runners to second and third, but Anthony Rendon—knowing the Nats wouldn’t pitch around him to get to Juan Soto—flied out to shallow center. Up came Soto. With the Astros having issued not a single intentional walk all year long to that point.

This may or may not qualify as calling the repairman when it isn’t broken, but Hinch ordered Soto walked on the house in favour of pitching to Howie Kendrick, who’s not exactly a simple out but isn’t exactly Juan Soto, his division series-conquering grand slam notwithstanding. The Astros saw more than enough of Soto’s mayhem in Game One. Not a second time.

It turned out to be the most powerful free pass of all time. For the Nats, that is.

Kendrick bounced one toward the hole at shortstop. Astros third baseman Alex Bregman scrambled left. He knocked the ball down to stop it from shooting through, then picked it up. Then, he dropped it. All hands safe and Robles home with a fourth Nats run. Then Asdrubal Cabrera, playing second for the Nats with Kendrick the DH in Houston, lined a two-run single up the pipe.

Up stepped Ryan Zimmerman, the Nats’ first base elder. Ball one hit the dirt and shot past Maldonado behind the plate allowing the runners to move back to second and third. Then Zimmerman on 2-2 bounced one weakly up the third base side and Bregman hustled in, barehanded the ball, but threw wildly down the line allowing Kendrick and Cabrera to come home and Zimmerman to take second.

Minute Maid Park turned into a graveside service. These were the Astros who entered the World Series as the heaviest favourites in history? The 107-game winners who took no prisoners and laid all in front of them to waste? And if the crowd couldn’t believe what they’d just seen, the Astros couldn’t believe it even more.

“They came into our building and played two really good games,” said Hinch at the presser. “We’re going to have to sleep off the latter one-third of the game. I don’t want to lump this into a horrible game. It was a horrible three innings. It wasn’t a horrible game.”

Well, it didn’t start that way, even if Rendon slashed a two-run double off Verlander and the left field wall with one out in the top of the first and Bregman hit a two-run homer off the back wall of the Crawfords in the bottom of the first.

If the Nats couldn’t cash in their few chances against Verlander over the following five innings, the Astros weren’t exactly doing much more to Strasburg other than periodically pinning him to the wall those same five innings only to discover he had more than a few escape routes to travel.

“You know it’s going to be a storm out there,” said Strasburg during one post-game interview, the man whose younger self might have fumed the rest of the game over Bregman’s first-inning bomb but whose mature self just shakes it off. “You’re going to weather it.”

And to think that the whole seventh-inning disaster was launched by a catcher who’d been 2-for-25 this postseason and 5-for-his-last-39 overall. The Nats generally don’t care who gets it started as long as it gets started, but Los Viejos, as Max Scherzer calls their veterans, have as much fun as the young’uns at it.

“Just trying to go out there and play for the guy next to you,” Strasburg eventually told MLB Network’s MLB Tonight after the game. “It was a hard-fought battle there. And they made me work every single inning.”

Maybe so, but the Astros are hitting .176 (3-for-17) with men on second or better so far in the Series, while the Nats are hitting .333 (7-for-21) with them. The Nats have out-scored the Astros 16-7 and hit a collective .307/.366/.547 slash line to the Astros’ .257/.321/.432 slash.

Both sides’ pitching is missing bats—eighteen strikeouts for the Nats, twenty for the Astros so far—but the Astros’ biggest two starters, Verlander and Gerrit Cole, pack a 6.22 Series ERA so far to the Nats’ big two’s (Scherzer, Strasburg) 3.30 Series ERA. It was June when the Astros last lost back-to-back Verlander and Cole starts, and those two pitchers hadn’t been saddled with losses on their ledgers back-to-back since August . . . 2018.

And thanks to STATS, LLC, we know that Verlander and Cole have done something no pair of same-season, same-team 20-game winners has done in 55 years: lost the first two games in a World Series. The last to do that: Hall of Famers Don Drysdale (Game One) and Sandy Koufax (Game Two) in 1965.

Since those Dodgers went on to win in seven, with Koufax throwing a pair of shutouts, you don’t need me to tell you the Astros would like to do likewise and the Nats would prefer they not. Right now, the odds of the Astros doing it have fallen to the basement and the Nats’ odds of stopping them have hit the observation deck.

Some might have thought the Nats blew the Astros the loudest raspberry in the southwest, when they sent Fernando Rodney out to pitch the bottom of the seventh Wednesday night, and he navigated a leadoff walk into a force at second, a pop out behind the infield, and a ground out to first. Rodney, after all, is the only active player in the Show who may have been an eyewitness to the Red Sea crossing.

Nah. Even with their by-now-too-famous dugout dancings after home runs big and small, the Nats aren’t that crass. But you could forgive Astroworld if it believes the Dancing Nats—whose theme song by now ought to be the Archie Bell & the Drells soul classic, “I Can’t Stop Dancing”—have a merciless streak of their own when their sharks smell blood in or on the Astro waters.

With reliever Josh James held over to open the top of the eighth, Maldonado couldn’t hold onto strike three to Robles leading off. A strikeout to Turner later, Eaton couldn’t hold off sending James’s first-pitch fastball right down the middle right onto a high line ending in the right field seats.

And after making his way through the Nats’ now-customary dugout dance, he plopped onto the bench next to Kendrick, where the pair of them began thrusting their arms out and barking like seals beating their flippers after being thrown particularly succulent fish.

Then Michael A. Taylor, inserted into center field in the bottom of the eighth, stood in to hit against Astros reliever Chris Devenski with one out in the top of the ninth. One pitch. One Game Two at-bat. One launch into the Crawford Boxes. One 12-2 Nats lead that became 12-3 when Maldonado sent spare Nats reliever Javy Guerra’s one-out, 1-0 fastball into a balcony past the Crawfords. It’s ok if you want to believe Guerra wanted to show just a little mercy.

But only a little. Rendon fielded but threw George Springer’s grounder to third just off enough that Zimmerman couldn’t dig it out. Then Jose Altuve lined a base hit up the pipe, ninth-inning center field insertion Jake Marisnick grounded one to third that Rendon threw cleanly to first, and the game finally ended.

And the Astros were clean where they didn’t expect to be. Home field advantage swallowed alive. Facing a trip to Washington where they’d prefer to nuke the Nats in kind, or at least get past them for once. Their theme song after Game Two could be Alice Cooper’s chestnut, “Welcome to My Nightmare.”

The last thing the Astros want to know is that only three teams in baseball history have gone on to win the World Series after losing the first two games at home: the 1985 Royals, the 1986 Mets, and the 1996 Yankees. Or, that among the last eighteen teams who won the first two Series games only one didn’t go on to win the rings—the 1996 Braves.

Don’t tell the Nats, either. They haven’t surrendered their May-forward mentality of hoping to go 1-0 each day. “The truth is, winning these games here does nothing for us on Friday,” Zimmerman said thoughtfully after Game Two. “Zack Greinke’s pitching. And Zack Greinke is pretty good, too. So believe me, we know there’s no let-up with that team over there. So we’ve just got to keep going and keep playing like we’ve been playing.”

“I think the message is, don’t hang your head,” Verlander said just as thoughtfully. “We didn’t play our best baseball, things didn’t go our way, we have an off day tomorrow but we don’t have time to feel bad about ourselves.”

The Nats probably have no interest in giving them that time, either. The Baby Sharks are halfway to swimming in the Promised Land. The second half won’t necessarily be easy. But they’ve beaten the best Astro arms, gotten the Astros to help beat themselves, and discovered the Astros aren’t exactly Moby Dick.

From nuts to soup

2019-10-18 AaronHicks

Among other things, Aaron Hicks went where only two Yankee center fielders went before the bottom of the first Friday night . . .

The Astros had no worries entering American League Championship Series Game Five. Other than winning. And maybe the prospect of yet another tiny but noisy pack of Yankee Stadium creatures discovering that maybe Justin Verlander did something naughty before he became one of his generation’s greatest pitchers.

If the Yankees’ least civilised fans could hammer Game Four starter Zack Greinke over his too-real anxiety and clinical depression issues, never mind Greinke saying no, he didn’t hear it, God and His servant Lou Gehrig only knew what they’d try if they discovered Verlander turned up with so much as an unpaid parking ticket in his past.

Playing the Yankees with a trip to the World Series on the line is one thing. To a man the Astros consider that a high honour. “We don’t want to take anything for granted,” said second baseman Jose Altuve after they helped themselves to a heaping Yankee implosion in Game Four. “We want to make sure we win tomorrow. We’re playing against a great team.”

A great team that entered Game Five after a night on which they looked like they couldn’t decide between being the 1962 Mets and the Washington Generals. Not even during the lowest days of their 1965-75 low or the most insane days of George Steinbrenner’s King of Hearts act of the 1980s did the Yankees look that inept.

The Astros are too kind to say the Game Four Yankees looked like they had Abbott catching Costello, the four Marx Brothers in the infield, the Three Stooges in the outfield, Charlie Chaplin coaching first base, Buster Keaton coaching third, and the cast of legendary radio dumb fest It Pays to Be Ignorant in the bullpen. With Allen Funt (Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!) managing them.

Whom would the Yankees resemble in Game Five? Would it be sock-it-to-me time in the south Bronx with the Yankees throwing their own buckets of water over each other? Maybe they’d pratfall to the mound, the bases, the outfield, hollering “Live from New York—it’s Friday night!!”

It’s not that the Astros were entirely without concerns of their own. Verlander may be a Hall of Famer in waiting but even he’s only human. The Rays proved that when Verlander started Game Four of their division series on a mere three days’ rest for the first such short-rest start of his life. And, was had.

Normally, Verlander only human is still better than many if not most. With a trip to the World Series on the line, the last thing the Astros needed for Friday Night Live was a merely human Verlander.

They needed a reasonable facsimile of the Hall of Famer in waiting who entered Game Five with a lifetime 2.89 ERA when he faces the same team twice in a postseason contest. They needed a reasonable facsimile of the Verlander who had a lifetime 1.05 ERA in three previous lifetime shots at closing out a postseason series.

The Astros got that reasonable facsimile Friday night. The trouble was that they had to wait until after the first inning to get it. And that was after the top of the first looked as though it was going to be another round of Yankee slapstick handing the Astros their World Series trip.

When George Springer shot a leadoff grounder under Yankee starter James Paxton’s glove that second baseman Gleyber Torres couldn’t barehand, and Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez allowed him to second on a passed ball, the fun looked like it was beginning for the Astros again. And, like it would continue after Springer reached third on a Jose Altuve ground out and scored on a wild pitch off Sanchez’s knee.

You’d have forgiven the Yankee Stadium public address people for sounding opening bars of “Dance of the Cuckoos,” right?

Even allowing the chilly Yankee Stadium night nobody, maybe even the Yankees, expected D.J. LeMahieu to lead off the bottom of the first by sending an 0-1 Verlander fastball into the right center field seats. Or, Aaron Judge to send a base hit into left and Torres to dump a quail down the left field line for first and third. Or, Aaron Hicks wringing a full count before ripping one off the right field foul pole.

And that’s the way the scoring remained in Game Five, the Yankees winning 4-1.

That pole ringer was only the third time any Yankee center fielder hit an elimination-game bomb to put the Yankees ahead. Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle did it to break a two-all tie off National League Rookie of the Year Joe Black in Game Seven of the 1952 World Series. And Roger Maris—usually a right fielder but playing center this time out—nailed one off the Cardinals’ Curt Simmons to bust a one-all tie in Game Six of the 1964 Series.

And never before in their long history of postseason presence and triumph had the Yankees ever hit a pair of first-inning bombs. That, folks, covers (count ’em) 404 baseball games. And all it took was an all-fields-hitting first baseman and a center fielder who missed over two months with an injured right elbow before he came back for the ALCS.

“We wanted to get ahead early,” Hicks told ESPN’s Buster Olney in a postgame field interview. “To take the first punch.”

Verlander never surrendered two first-inning home runs in any postseason game in his life until Friday night. And it was just the second time in 29 postseason starts that he surrendered four runs or more. “It was a combination of things,” he said after the game in front of his locker. “Fastball command wasn’t very good, and the slider was just hanging. I just wasn’t able to execute really anything.”

But from there he and Paxton, plus three Yankee relievers and Brad Peacock in his first postseason gig out of the Astro pen, hung nothing but zeroes up while putting on a pitching clinic so profound you were tempted to wonder whether pitching in the cold was their real secret weapon after that testy enough first.

Each pitcher kept each batter from much more than soft contact the rest of the way, each pushed periodic threats to one side, thank you, if you didn’t count Tommy Kahnle surrendering a base hit and a four-pitch walk following a seventh inning-opening out.

Verlander after the first resembled as close to his Hall of Fame self as he could on such a frigid night, and Paxton resembled the guy who pitched up big enough down the stretch as opposed to the guy who couldn’t get out of the third inning in Game Two. And Paxton looked like a reasonable facsimile striking out nine in six to Verlander’s nine in seven.

And there wasn’t a pratfall, tumble, stumble, rumble, trip, bad hand, or butter finger to be found from the first inning forward until Yankee closer Aroldis Chapman shot through the top of the ninth with strikeout, fly out to left, and ground out to third faster than you could say see you back in Houston.

“Getting those runs were big,” Paxton said in an on-field interview. “I was grinding the whole time, that’s a great team over there, they really battle, so I had to grind all the time. Making one pitch at a time.”

Never before, too, in 1,608 previous postseason games, too, had any pair of contestants scored in the first inning together without scoring a single run further the rest of the way.

Both sides turned in some defensive acrobatics, from LeMahieu tumbling to the foul track and falling toward the sidewall to catch Yuli Gurriel’s third-inning pop foul to late Astros right field insertion Josh Reddick running Gio Urshela’s long fly to right down deep in the corner and making a basket catch before he might have hit the wall to end the Yankee seventh.

The Yankees hope they don’t hit the wall in Game Six; the Astros would love nothing better than to make them hit it hard enough to send the ‘Stros back to the World Series. And considering the likelihood that it may be a bullpen game for both sides, with neither manager seeming to want to short-rest their Game Three starters Gerrit Cole and Luis Severino, Game Six should be a very intriguing running of the bulls.

At this writing the arms that begin Game Six may be anyone’s guess. Nobody’s said anything yet out of either team’s camp, but speculations runs that it could be Jose Urquidy for the Astros to open and, maybe, Chad Greene or J.A. Happ (who has starting experience) for the Yankees.

Not that either team’s necessarily worried. “If we find out in the morning,” said Yankee right fielder Aaron Judge, “we’ll do our homework and get ready.”

“Everybody’s ready,” said Astros third baseman Alex Bregman.

Not everybody. One Twitter twit lamented, “Such a sad day for baseball.” Please. You’re trying to win, you need to not send a pair of prime starters out on short rest because it’s liable to mean disaster, for them and for your team. You do what you must to win. The game won’t be any worse and probably be a little more of a good old fashioned hair raiser.

Such a sad day for baseball is actually an idea as old as the year Rhapsody in Blue and Mercedes-Benz were born, Woodrow Wilson died, and Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson perfected the starter-as-reliever technique that this year’s National League pennant winner applied mostly successfully.

And on Saturday evening, 7:08 Central standard time, the best two teams in the American League this year will play to win in Minute Maid Park. One of them will win the pennant or host a Game Seven. One will force a Game Seven or lose the pennant.  Let’s play ball!

David and Goliath face elimination

2019-10-08 TravisDArnaudJoseAltuve

“They played beautiful defense, especially in that play right there.”—Jose Altuve, about the relay that nailed him at the plate above.

Sometimes you can’t afford to respect your elders. As in, when they’re on the mound on short rest, their less-than-well-rested arms and bodies refuse their lawful orders, and it’s still now or never until your American League division series is over.

There probably isn’t a Rays player or fan alive who doesn’t have a world of respect for Justin Verlander. There isn’t any baseball person alive lacking in such respect. Even at 36, the man has skills, the man has brains to burn, the man has no fear, the man has class, and the man has heart.

And when he says he wants the ball no matter how much rest it wouldn’t be on, nobody says no to Verlander. Not his manager. Not his front office. And sure as hell not Astroworld. Saying no to Justin Verlander with his cred is like it once was telling Evel Knievel the Snake River Canyon wasn’t going to be his new best friend.

But when even a Hall of Famer elects to take the mound in a bid to kick his team into the League Championship Series no matter how fully rested he isn’t, no matter how obedient his slider isn’t, there isn’t a Ray or anyone else alive either who’d spot him with his command gone AWOL and refuse to get the drop on him before he finds a reserve tank.

These Rays seem like nice guys. So do these Astros. But do you think the Astros would stay nice guys if they faced even a Hall of Famer with his tank down to its final fume? If you do, I have a freshly purchased Taj Mahal I’d like to sell you at cost.

Powerful teams are fun to watch when they dominate as these Astros have done all year long, and the Astros are fun to watch even on their very occasional off days. But there’s nothing like a band of upstarts that nobody else wanted pushing them to the equivalent brink of elimination as the Rays did Tuesday night.

Their 4-1 win over the Astros was as good as blowing almost anyone else out by three times that margin. That’s how tough the Astros are. And that’s how stubborn the Rays are proving to be.

Even if Gerrit Cole takes the mound Thursday back in Houston, delivers just half of what he threw at the Rays in Game Two, and sends the Astros to an American League Championship Series with the Yankees—you want to talk about E.R. vs. St. Elsewhere?—there isn’t a soul to be found who’d say the Rays didn’t prove they could hang with the big boys after it looked at first as though they’d get hanged.

So the Rays got cute sending Diego Castillo out to open, and Castillo got cute striking out the side in the first. And impressing the hell out of Astros manager A.J. Hinch. “Castillo, thank God he was an opener and not a regular starter,” he said after the game. “Having him out there for four, five, six innings would be devastating for anybody.”

The Rays got even more cute after Verlander opened the bottom of the first with a three-pitch strikeout of Austin Meadows. Tommy Pham was cute enough to work Verlander to a 2-2 count including one swing at a pitch missing the low and away corner, then send a slightly hanging changeup into the left center field seats.

A walk (to Ji-Hin Choi) and a single (to Avisail Garcia) later Travis d’Arnaud, whom the Mets thought expendable very early in the regular season, expended a base hit into left center field to send Choi home, and Joey Wendle expended a double down the right field line to send Garcia home. Verlander got rid of Kevin Kiermaier with a swinging strikeout to prevent further disaster but the Astros were in a 3-0 hole.

He’d survive first and second in the second and a man on third in the third, but he couldn’t stop Willy Adames (it almost rhymes with “Adonis”) from hitting the third pitch of the fourth over the center field fence. A strikeout, a line out, and a walk later, Hinch had to admit Verlander’d been had on a night when his spirit was willing but his arm and body demanded the rest of the night off.

For a second night running, the Astros got Rayed.

“A good approach for those guys in the first, and then honestly, I need those infield singles to be caught,” said Verlander after the game, referring to balls the Rays hit just past the Astros’ infielders. “When you don’t have it, you need the balls that are put in play to go your way, and they didn’t. Obviously, not the way you would script it. You know, it sucks.”

Thus the Astros joining up to the Rays bullpenning, which began with two out in the second and Rays manager Kevin Cash lifting Castillo for Ryan Yarborough. Whom he’d lift for Nick Anderson with Jose Altuve on second after maybe the single most important play of the game. Maybe even of the Rays’s season.

Yordan Alvarez, the Astros’ uber-rookie, sent a double to the rear of the yard. Kiermaier picked it off the wall hop and fired a perfect strike in to Adames out from short on the grass behind second, and Adames fired just as perfect a strike home to d’Arnaud at the plate spinning to tag the road-running Altuve about a split second before the Astros’ second baseman’s hand touched the plate.

And pop went the Astros’ best rally while the Rays were at it.

“That,” said Kiermaier of Adames’s strike home, “was probably the most incredible relay throw from an infielder I’ve ever seen. That was such a huge moment for us, huge momentum shift, and it just doesn’t get any better than that.”

Not even Choi turning Michael Brantley’s line drive into a single-handed double play in the sixth, bagging George Springer returning to the pillow while he was at it. That was child’s play compared to The Kiermaier-Adames Show.

And Kiermaier gets no argument from Altuve himself. “We’ve been playing aggressive all year long. I don’t see why we shouldn’t do it right now. But sometimes you have to give credit to the other team,” the Astros’ impish second baseman said after the game. “They played beautiful defense, especially in that play right there.”

“You have to tip your cap to those guys,” said Astros catcher Robinson Chirinos, whose just-passing-by solo home run off Chris Poche in the top of the eighth provided the lone Astros scoring. “The relay was perfect. It was textbook. They needed a perfect relay and they did it to throw Jose out at home plate. That was a big difference in the game tonight.”

When Jose Altuve himself gives you a five-star review, you’re being more than—what’s that overcooked word deployed about the Rays?—resilient.

Face it. On one postseason day when the Rays and the Astros had the nation’s baseball stage to themselves, the un-glamorous, un-beautiful, un-sexy, un-bankable Rays stole the show all for themselves. The Beatles themselves couldn’t have upstaged these No-Rays Tuesday night.

They were supposed to be about as deadly as babies in strollers at the plate. They were supposed to be a pitching staff full of anonymous relief pitchers with the occasional token starter and even Cy Young Award winner who couldn’t possibly keep getting away with all that bullpenning jazz.

Never mind that said Cy Young winner, Blake Snell, had Altuve on third and MVP candidate Alex Bregman on first with one out in the ninth when he went in from the pen Tuesday night, then struck Alvarez out swinging before coaxing Yuli Gurriel into the game-ending ground out right up the pipe, where Wendle just happened to be waiting to throw him out.

They have a manager named Cash for a team whose overseers seem allergic to spending any. They play their home games in a toxic waste dump that looks like a warped pressure cooker on the outside and an abandoned landfill on the inside, playing baseball on the last of the sliding-boxed zippered-billiards table surfaces.

And they are resilient, these No-Rays, even if the word “resilient” may turn into something less than a compliment before too long. “We’re good. Everybody uses the word resilient and that’s great but we’re also very good,” Cash told a reporter. “You can use that word resilient over and over and in a way it’s kind of knocking us. The truth is this is a very good team.”

The truth is also that the Astros are finding that out profoundly. The Rays may have finished with the American League’s fifth-best regular season record and the Show’s seventh best, but somehow, some way, the Rays have out-scored the Astros 17-13 in the division series so far. Somehow, some way, they’ve out-homered the Astros six to four. Somehow, some way, they have a better on-base percentage, a better slugging percentage, an OPS slightly over a hundred points higher, and more walks.

The Rays may not survive Game Five, after all, but they won’t leave the Astros thinking it wasn’t a battle royal even if Cole does go second-verse-same-as-the-first. Even if Cole will pitch on regular rest as opposed to Verlander asking to go on three days for the first time in his life and Zack Greinke getting nuked on eleven days’ rest.

“We have a great pitching staff, we play great defence and our bats are starting to come together,” said Pham, with all due modesty.

“People before this series started talking about David and Goliath,” Kiermaier. “I understand they are really good on paper and we might be the team that is not as appealing, but don’t ever count us out. We got guys feeling really good about themselves and we are clicking as a team all year. That is a dangerous recipe for success.”

Sounds a lot like what they once said about the Astros, doesn’t it?

After shoving the similar but slightly less obscure Athletics to one side in the wild card game to get their chance with the Astros—who have all the reputation and intimidation you could ask for in pushing 107 regular season winning chips to the middle of the division series table—the No-Rays and the Astros are equals for standing on the brink of elimination in Game Five.

Even with the Astros holding what they hope is the home field advantage trump. Not that the Astros are worried, necessarily, even if almost to a man they can’t wait to escape the Trop. (The Rays may not necessarily love the joint, either, but their 2019 season record shows ambivalence at best: they were the same on the road as they were at home, 48-33.)

The Astros opened the regular season against the Rays in the Trop and beat them once before losing three straight more. Aside from Games One and Two, they tangled in Minute Maid Park for three in late August. The Astros won the first two of that set; the Rays won the third. It’s not unheard of for the Rays to win in Minute Maid.

“We have done it years ago, when we have the home field. We win at home, then we lost on the road, then we come back home and make it happen,” Altuve said after the game. “So we’ve been here before. There’s no pressure right now.”

Altuve, one of the most intelligent as well as talented players the Astros have ever yielded up, also needs nobody to remind him there was no pressure on the original David, either.