Clocks and Clouds

Over a week ago, Mets pitcher Max Scherzer felt as though he’d awakened one fine morning to discover he had super powers. Very well, that’s a slight exaggeration. But after he’d spent two innings against his old team, the Nationals, striking out five despite surrendering a single run, Scherzer felt the newly-mandated pitch clock gave him, well…

“Really, the power the pitcher has now—I can totally dictate pace,” he crowed then. “The rule change of the hitter having only one timeout changes the complete dynamic of the hitter-and-pitcher dynamic. I love it. It’s a cat-and-mouse game. There’s rules, and I’ll operate within whatever the rules are. I can come set even before the hitter is really in the box. I can’t pitch until eight [seconds], but as soon as his eyes are up, I can go.”

Not so fast. Come last Friday, Scherzer faced the Nats once again and learned the hard way that he might have competition in the New Tricks Up Their Sleeves Department. With a man on first, he thought he could catch Victor Robles off guard the split second home plate umpire Jeremy Riggs re-set the pitch clock, after Robles stepped out of the box with his only allowable step-out during a plate appearance before stepping back in. Scherzer started to throw at that very split second. Riggs called a balk.

“He calls time, I come set, I get the green light,” Max the Knife told reporters post-game. “I thought that was a clean pitch. He said no. We have to figure out where the limit is.”

Baseball’s government thinks it did it for him. Hours after Scherzer’s little experiment was neutralized, MLB sent a memo to all 30 teams saying forthrightly that pitchers can’t throw “before the batter is reasonably set in the batter’s box.” Come Saturday, another Mets pitcher, Justin Verlander, discovered he’ll have to do something about his long-normal routine around the mound between pitches.

“Today I got on the mound a couple times and looked up and it was like, I only had seven seconds,” the future Hall of Famer said, after pitching three innings against the Marlins, surrendering a single run, and having to adjust his mound strolling. “If me and [Mets catcher] Omar [Narvaez] weren’t on the same page, it could have been a problem.”

When this spring training’s exhibition games began, Padres third baseman Manny Machado became baseball’s first to earn a 10-year, $350 million contract extension for opening with an 0-1 count on him before he even began a plate appearance. Okay, that’s a joke. But Machado did have strike one called on him when facing Mariners pitcher (and former Cy Young Award winner) Robbie Ray and failing to be in the batter’s box when eight seconds on the clock passed.

“I’m going to have to make a big adjustment,” Machado said with a hearty laugh after that game. “I might be 0-1 down a lot this year. It’s super fast. It’s definitely an adjustment period.”

Pitchers have 15 seconds to throw a pitch after receiving the ball back with the bases empty and 20 with men on base. Batters must be set and ready after 8 seconds are gone. And the pitchers aren’t the only ones looking to circumvent some of the new rules imposed by baseball’s attention-deficit commissioner. The notorious defensive infield shifts are now against the law, too, at least to the extent that there must be an infielder each on either side of second base itself at all times. Well, now. A few teams have already tried their own end run around that.

The Red Sox, for one. They thought they could get away with moving their left fielder to the shallowest patch of the right field grass against notorious all-or-nothing slugger Joey Gallo, now with the Twins. They got away with it long enough for Gallo—who’d torn one through the right side of the infield for a base hit earlier—to hammer a 3-1 service into the right field bleachers.

I’m reasonably certain I’m not the only one who thinks commissioner Rob Manfred didn’t stop to think that there was a reason for games going well over three hours having nothing to do with the actual play and everything to do with broadcast dollars. It never seems to have occurred to him that it wasn’t pitcher or batter gamesmanship, but two-minute-plus broadcast commercials after every half inning and during mid-jam pitching changes.

It seems to have occurred to Commissioner ADD less that he and his bosses might have landed the same delicious dollars by just limiting the spots to before each full inning and adjusting the dollars accordingly. Since it’s been established long and well enough that Manfred’s true concept of the good of the game is making money for it, that should have been child’s play for anyone applying brains.

And, speaking of dollars, try not to delude yourselves that MLB’s new so-called Economic Reform Committee will be for the good of the game, either. How about the Committee to Horsewhip Owners Who Actually Spend on Their Teams and Want to Win? The Committee to Immunize the Bob Nuttings and Bob Castellinis and John Fishers From Their Economic Malfeasance?

Manfred has pleaded that oh, but of course he’s after nothing more and nothing less than “a crisp and exciting game.” He’s been bereft, apparently, of the sense that baseball’s flavors come as much from the tensions in its pauses as from the cracks of the bats, the thwumps! of the pitches into the catchers’ mitts, and the brainstormings on the field and in the stands during jams.

Thus far, the games are shorter—by a measly 22 minutes. But the potential for such unintended consequences as, at extreme, a World Series-ending strikeout on a pitch clock violation is almost as vast as Manfred couldn’t stand single games having become. Those supporting the new arbitrary havoc like to say Manfred merely scoped what “the fans” wanted. It’s not inappropriate to ask, “which fans?”

Think about this: Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal was fabled for an array of about sixteen different windups and ten different leg kicks, including the Rockettes-high kick that was his most familiar visual hallmark. The new pitch clock may actually come to erode the presence of pitchers who are that much fun to watch (I’m talking about you, Luis [Rock-a-Bye Samba] Garcia, among others) even if they’re not a barrel of laughs against whom to bat.

It might also erode the presence of batters who are as much fun before they swing as while they swing. What’s next—a base-running clock, mandating batters have x number of seconds before they’d better start hauling it around the bases on home runs? Oops. I’d better not go there. We don’t want to give Commissioner ADD any more brilliant ideas.

Note: This essay was published first by Sports-Central.

Three-ball blues

The Ball

This is the baseball I landed during batting practise before Opening Day at Angel Stadium this year. (I gave it to my son who attended with me.) Who knew if it was juiced or drained?

Signing with the Mets for two years and $86 million was good with and for Justin Verlander. But it may not be the most important thing he did outside pitching the decisive World Series Game Six. The most important thing the future Hall of Famer did this year was buttonhole a baseball official before a game against the Yankees in June and demand, “When are you going to fix the [fornicatin’] baseballs?”

It’s not the first time he complained. In 2017, Verlander was just one of several who noticed and complained that balls used that postseason were a little too smooth for comfort. And it got worse instead of better. By 2021, Major League Baseball had two kinds of baseballs, one slightly heavier than the other, and thus containing a little more life than the other.

With a lot of help from Meredith Wills, an astrophysicist and baseball fan whose passion is examining the makeup of baseballs and who’s discovered the Show can’t get it straight or consistent, Insider exposed 2021’s two-ball tango. The Insider reporter who delivered Dr. Wills’s discoveries and alarms, Bradford William Davis, has now seen and raised: in 2022, baseball played its own version of “Three Ball Blues.”

That vintage blues song discussed pawn shops, the traditional sign for which is three golden balls. The lyrics include the old joke inside the pawn business: “It’s two to one, buddy, you don’t get your things out at all.” Baseball’s three-ball blues may mean it’s two to one on getting its integrity back after engaging its own kind of cheating—still inconsistent and often juiced balls.

Not necessarily in the final game scores. Davis and Wills suggest powerfully that baseball’s government wanted a little more oomph on behalf of a lot more hype, with certain events such as the Home Run Derby, the postseason, and maybe even Aaron Judge’s chasing and passing Roger Maris as the American League’s new single-season home run king.

Verlander was far from the only player to complain. Davis says Giants outfielder Austin Slater fell upon that 2021 Insider story, sought to collect balls to send Wills for analysis, and was ordered by “a top executive in the commissioner’s office” to back off.

“The warning,” Davis says, “sent in the form of text messages that Insider reviewed, came via a [Major League Baseball Players Association] official who was relaying the league executive’s displeasure.” Displeasure over what? Being caught red-handed delivering inconsistently-made baseballs about which the game’s own commissioner seems distinctly under-alarmed?

Rob Manfred told reporters before the All-Star Game that, yup, we had two balls in 2021, but it was the fault of a pandemic-times issue in Rawlings’s Costa Rica manufacturing plant: closues and supply chain issues, as Davis translates, meant MLB’s plan to stay with a new, lighter, deader ball was compromised when it had to “dip into a reserve stock of the older, heavier, livelier balls for some 2021 games.”

MLB claimed random distribution between the two 2021 balls. Davis’s 2021 reporting via Dr. Wills brought forth suspicions that MLB wasn’t just doing it randomly, that at times they were sending balls to certain places for certain series depending on what they thought might be the gate: say, a game between a pair of also-rans might get the deader ball but a game between a pair of big rivals or contenders might get the livelier ball.

Now Manfred told that July conference think nothing of it, we’ve got it knocked, we’re sticking to the deader ball, and every ball made for 2022 will be consistent. Not so fast, Dr. Wills discovered, according to Davis: “Major League Baseball did not settle into using a single, more consistent ball last season, Wills’ research suggests: the league used three.”

By the time Manfred made that statement in July, Wills had already found evidence that at least a handful of those older, livelier, “juiced” balls — the ones that the “new manufacturing process” purportedly replaced — were still in circulation. Though these juiced balls are from 2021 or earlier, according to manufacturing markings, they were in use in 2022; Insider obtained two of them from a June 5 Yankees match against the Tigers.

Over the next few months, Wills and Insider—with whom Wills exclusively shared her research—worked together to collect game balls for her to painstakingly deconstruct, weigh, and analyze. What she found was striking: In addition to that small number of older juiced balls and the newer dead balls, Wills found evidence that a third ball was being used at stadiums across the majors.

Davis says Wills’s data indicates production on the third ball began six months before Manfred promised 2022 as a single-ball season. “This new third ball’s weight,” Davis writes,

centers somewhere between the juiced ball the league phased out last season and the newly announced dead ball: It is, on average, about one-and-a-half grams lighter than the juiced ball and one gram heavier than the dead ball. According to the league’s own research, a heavier ball tends to have more pop off the bat, meaning the third ball would likely travel farther than a dead ball hit with equal force.

Aaron Judge

Aaron Judge had no clue whether he’d be pitched a dead, lead, or Super Ball while chasing Roger Maris this year.

Wills calls it “the Goldilocks ball: not too heavy, not too light—but just right.” But this isn’t the Three Bears we’re talking about here. This is about the possibility that hitters didn’t know going in when one hefty swing would send a ball over the fence but another such hefty swing with the same square, powerful contact might result in a sinking line drive, a dying quail, or a long out.

In other words, Judge—who’s just signed a nine-year/$360 million deal to remain a Yankee, after betting big on himself during his contract walk year—had no clue just what he was going to hit, and I don’t mean fastball, curve ball, slider, cutter, or sinker. Nobody knows for certain whether or how many such Goldilocks balls Judge sent into the Delta Quadrant. And that’s allowing for him being strong enough to hit a clump of seaweed into the second deck.

“But we do know,” Davis writes, “that the league keeps track of information that would permit it—if it wanted—to know which balls get used in each game. According to two sources familiar with MLB’s ball shipment process, the league not only directs where its balls are sent, it also knows which boxes its game compliance monitors–league employees tasked with ensuring each team adheres to league rules–approve and use before each game starts.”

Baseball government people were handed the net results of Dr. Wills’s reseach and all but waved it away with an all but run-along-girlie-you-bother-me statement:

The 2022 MLB season exclusively used a single ball utilizing the manufacturing process change announced prior to the 2021 season, and all baseballs were well within MLB’s specifications. Multiple independent scientific experts have found no evidence of different ball designs. To the contrary, the data show the expected normal manufacturing variation of a handmade natural product.

Rawlings itself, co-owned by MLB since 2018, issued a similar statement:

This research has no basis in fact. There was no ‘3rd ball’ manufactured and the ball manufactured prior to the 2021 process change was fully phased out following the 2021 season. All balls produced for the 2022 season utilized the previously announced process change.

While storage conditions during research can easily impact ball weight measurements, a one-gram difference in ball weight would be within normal process variation. We continue to produce the most consistent baseball in the world despite the variables associated with a handmade product of natural materials.

Davis demurs. “While lighter and less bouncy than the balls used before Rawlings switched up its manufacturing in 2021,” he writes, “the Goldilocks balls have a weight profile that makes them livelier and more batter-friendly than the dead balls that the league says it now uses exclusively.”

To which Manfred says, essentially, Integrity of the game? Shut up and get back to shortening the times of games without even thinking about cutting down the broadcast commercials. Any time Manfred comes up with something reasonable—the universal designated hitter, slightly larger bases, the advent of Robby the Umpbot—he comes up with or allows about five or more unreasonable things to counteract.

Differing baseballs aren’t just “unreasonable.” They strike at the very core (pun intended) of competition at least as profoundly as something like Astrogate did, on both sides of the ball. Pitchers who don’t know whether they’ll be given a grippable ball to pitch have just as much skin in this game as hitters who don’t know whether they’ll square up a dead, lead, or Super Ball.

The men who play the game, the fans who pay to see them play, the team builders  tasked with putting the teams on the field, and the managers who have to run the games and make the moves that mean distinction or disaster, deserve as level a field as possible.

The era of actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances was considered criminal for undermining the level playing field. Tanking teams are considered criminally negligent for providing something less than truly competitive product. Likewise, when it comes to honest competition, inconsistently-made baseballs should be considered weapons of mash  destruction.

Now they have to do the impossible

Kyle Tucker, Chas McCormick

With Kyle Tucker backing him, Chas McCormick—who grew up a Phillies fan 35 miles away from Citizens Bank Park—made the possible catch of the Series off J.T. Realmuto’s eighth-inning drive to the right center field scoreboard wall in World Series Game Five Thursday night. 

This year’s Phillies, meet the 2019 Nationals. Sort of. Those Nats won every World Series game against that edition of Astros on the road including four in Houston. These Phillies split in Houston, then could win only once in their own cozy, stop-sign-shaped, noisy playpen. Now they have to do the kind of impossible those Nats did. If they can.

They have to win Game Six Saturday and then Game Seven Sunday. And if Game Five is evidence, they won’t get it without putting up a terrific battle. Better than the battle between the two that ended in a squeaker of a 3-2 Astros win Thursday night. Better than they were built to be.

Better than just half a collection of sluggers and a bullpen that can hang with any bullpen in the business. And enough to keep the Astros from saving themselves—until a forgotten Astro at first base and an Astro outfielder who grew up a Phillies fan saved the Astros’ lives in the bottom of the Game Five eighth and ninth, respectively.

Trey Mancini was a trade deadline acquisition from the Orioles but an 0-for-18 afterthought this postseason. Chas McCormick grew up 35 miles from Citizens Bank Park and never forgot the bloody nose then-Phillies outfielder Aaron Rowand incurred making a similar catch against the center field fence.

Mancini now found himself at first base after Astros veteran Yuli Gurriel had to come out a half inning after a collision resulting in a rundown out as he got trapped between third and the plate also resulted in a woozy head. With two out and Astros closer Ryan Pressly asked for an almost unheard-of-for-him five-out save, Kyle Schwarber loomed at the plate.

Schwarber electrified the ballpark in the bottom of the first when, with the Astros up 1-0 already, he drilled an 0-1 pitch from starter Justin Verlander into the right field seats to tie it. Now, with two out, first and third, and the Phillies back to within a run in the bottom of the eighth, Schwarber drilled one up the first base line on a single hop. The shot had extra bases down the line and the tying run home at least stamped on it.

Until it didn’t. Playing practically on the line as it was, Mancini hit his knees like a supplicant in prayer and the ball shot right into his mitt. While he was there, Mancini stepped on the pad. Side retired. In one flash Mancini went from self-made afterthought to the Astros’ man of the hour.

It’d take something even more stupefying to rob Mancini of that status. “That ball gets by him,” Pressly said postgame, “we’re looking at a different game.”

Something even more stupefying came along in the bottom of the ninth. When Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto sent Pressly’s 1-1 slider high and far toward the right center field scoreboard wall, with at least a double and likely more the likely result, the wall notorious for creating odd rebounds.

Until it wasn’t. Until McCormick ran to his left, took a flying leap, and snapped the ball into his glove a second before he hit the wall and landed on the track, the ball still securely in his glove, and by his own postgame admission stared up at whatever he could see of the Bank crowd he’d just snapped silent.

“I wanted to lay there longer,” he admitted postgame. “If it were the last out, I would have laid there all night.”

Pressly’s jaw fell as he saw McCormick nail the catch. As he remembered after the game, the only thing he could think as his hands clutched his head in wonder was, “Holy [you-know-what].”

Until that moment, the Astros and the Phillies wrestled and tussled like alley cats all Game Five long. The bad news was that the Phillies, the Show’s best on the season with runners in scoring position, extended to a third-longest World Series string of 0-for-20 with men in such position.

“[S]ometimes you go through times when you don’t hit with runners in scoring position,” said Phillies manager Rob Thomson postgame. “Then, three days later, everybody’s getting hits. So we just got to keep battling, that’s all.”

The Phillies can’t wait three days for hits. They have two days before it might be curtains. Three days maximum, after squandering what half the world thought would be the remarkable and ear-splitting home field advantage they’d stolen with a Series-opening split in Houston.

The worse news Thursday began when Astros’ rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña started the scoring when he singled up the pipe to send Jose Altuve (leadoff double, taking third on Phillies center fielder Brandon Marsh’s carom bobble) home in the top of the first.

After Schwarber’s ballpark-jolting bomb leading off the bottom, both sides wrestled each other’s starting pitchers, Verlander and Noah Syndergaard, into and out of a few more dicey jams—especially the Phillies loading the bases on Verlander with two out in the second before the future Hall of Fame righthander struck Rhys Hoskins out swinging rather violently.

Syndergaard settled admirably after the first inning run and retired nine straight from that score forward. Verlander escaped another jam in the third, which might have been another bases-loaded escape but for Peña leaping to steal a base hit off Nick Castellanos’s hard liner, but after Alec Bohm spanked a single past shortstop to follow, Verlander got Phillies shortstop Bryson Stott to pop out to right for the side.

But Syndergaard—no longer the bullet-throwing Thor of old thanks to injuries, illnesses, and finally Tommy John surgery—ran out of luck in the top of the fourth, when Peña sent a 1-2 service into the left field seats. Connor Brogdon relieved him and shook off Alex Bregman’s one-out double while striking out the side.

Verlander pitched as clean a fourth as you could ask of a 39-year-old righthander with or without his particular career resume, then had to perform another escape act in the fifth after striking two out to open. Bryce Harper lined one to deep right that Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker bobbled toward the corner, ensuring Harper’s double. Castellanos wrestled Verlander to a full count before popping out to left center for the side.

From there, the bullpens wrestled each other. Then, top of the seventh, came Gurriel’s leadoff double. One out and a wild pitch later came McCormick with Gurriel on third. McCormick bounced one to third, with the infield in, and beginning with Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm they had Gurriel trapped like the top man on the FBI’s old ten most wanted list.

Bohm threw to Realmuto. Realmuto threw to Stott. Stott threw to first baseman Hoskins joining the party just in case, and Hoskins reached to tag Gurriel while tumbling over the veteran Astro. Gurriel landed awkwardly on his right knee as it was, but Hoskins’s knee on the tumble also jolted Gurriel’s head.

The elder first baseman—whose string of 48 straight postseason plate appearances without striking out ended at Brogdon’s hands in the fourth—managed to play his position in the top of the eighth but that was all he had left after the collision. “A little pain,” the sleepy-eyed first baseman tweeted postgame, A little pain but the win made my knee feel better fast . . . I will get some treatment to get ready for Saturday, thank you for the well wishes.”

But Altuve and Peña partnered on building the third Astro run in the top of the eighth, Altuve with a leadoff walk off Phillies reliever Seranthony Dominguez, and Peña shooting a base hit through the infield the other way to right, Altuve running on the pitch and helping himself to third easily. David Robertson relieved Dominguez but could only watch helplessly as Hoskins knocked Alvarez’s grounder up the line down and tag the Astro left fielder out while Altuve scampered home.

The best Robertston could do in the inning was keep the damage to a single run. He couldn’t stop the Astros’ defensive acrobatics in the bottom of the eighth and ninth. Nobody could. And even after McCormick’s robbery of Realmuto in the bottom of the ninth, the Phillies weren’t dead yet.

Pressly hit Harper in the foot on a 2-1 pitch. Up stepped Castellanos, who’d spent much of the game keeping his free-swinging in check and timing himself to a few hard hit outs and, then, the eighth-inning walk that turned into him scoring the second Phillies run on Jean Segura’s opposite-field base hit.

Now he wrestled Pressly to a full count with the Bank crowd as loud as conceivable. Then he bounced one to shortstop. Peña picked it clean, threw to first even more clean, and the Astros had it in the Bank. And Verlander—whom the Phillies abused in Game One—got credit for his first World Series win. Ever.

He’d sported an 0-6 won-lost record in the Series lifetime until Thursday night. And he  admitted postgame that Schwarber’s leadoff launch—the first such homer ever by a Phillie in postseason play—woke him up post haste.

“[A]s a starting pitcher, been there, done that,” Verlander told reporters after shaking off a particularly profound rookie-style celebratory shower in the clubhouse and savouring every moment of it. “It just sucks because of the moment and obviously all the questions and weight.

“You have to rely on the hundreds of starts and thousands of pitches I’ve thrown before and just kind of say, OK, I’ve given up leadoff home runs before,” the righthander continued. “It’s not going to be indicative of what’s going to happen the rest of this game, by any means. Let’s see what happens.”

What happened from there handed Verlander a win as moral as it was baseball and the Astros a Series return ticket home. And the Phillies—who’d gotten thatclose to fully avenging their having been no-hit in Game Four—another challenge to meet and conquer. If they can.

“What’s a better storybook ending than if we can go there and win this in Game Seven?” Castellanos asked postgame, well aware that the Phillies need to win Game Six first. So did the 2019 Nationals, in a Series in which neither team won at home but the Nats had to win the four they won in the Astros’ noisy-enough cape.

“We’re here, I think, because we trusted ourselves this far,” said Hoskins thoughtfully enough. “I don’t see why there is any reason to change that.”

They’re going to need that if they want just to come out of Game Six alive enough to play one more day. These Astros won’t exactly let them have it without making them work shields up, phasers on stun, for every degree of it.

We’re in for one hell of a World Series ride

J.T. Realmuto

Realmuto’s leadoff launch in the top of the tenth held up for the Phillies to win opening this World Series. But he almost didn’t make it that far . . .

Listen up, you sore-losing Met, Dodger, and Yankee fans. At least, those among you who think that there’s nothing more worth watching until hot stove season since your heroes (anti-heroes?) got pushed, shoved, and slugged out of the postseason.

Yours aren’t the only heroes (anti-heroes?) who got turned aside. So you can just boil yourselves alive in your harrumphing that the World Series means nothing to you. Because if Game One was any indication, the rest of us—including this Met fan since the day they were born—are in for one hell of a Series ride.

For those of us who put aside our personal rooting disappointments and watched, we got to see a script flipped Friday night.

We went in knowing that assorted polls pretty much sketched the Phillies as America’s team this time around. We also went in knowing numerous oddsmakings sketched the Astros as liable to grind the brave little Philsies into hamburger, one way or the other.

But we came away from the Phillies’s 6-5 Game One upending knowing we’d seen a dogfight turned strategic bombing turned bullfight all in the space of ten must-see innings. And, with just a few little shruggings un-shrugged along the way.

Until Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto hit an opposite-field home run leading off the top of the tenth, and Phillies reliever David Robertson shook off a one-out double and a two-out walk to make it stick, that is. And that’s when it might have hit, good and hard:

The ogres of the American League might have swept their way here in the first place, but they’re not exactly impenetrable or invincible. Last year’s Braves sure proved it, but some things need proving all over again. Come Friday night, the Phillies finally proved it. But it did take a little early survival to do so.

Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker got to within about a foot above several fans of pulling Realmuto’s drive back for what would have been a jaw-dropping out. He leaped, reached back, extended, everything short of a net springing from his gloves’ fingertips, but the ball eluded his reach by about a full visible foot.

“Honestly, I thought I got enough of it, but I kind of had flashbacks of the play that Tucker made on (Aaron) Judge’s ball [in the American League Championship Series],” Realmuto said postgame. “And once I saw him running back to the wall, I was thinking in my head, oh, please just don’t catch it, just don’t catch it. I knew it was going to be close.”

Nobody going in expected Game One itself to be that close.

I mean, admit it. Didn’t we think it was all but game over when Tucker took it upon himself to provide four-fifths of the Astros’ early scoring, staking future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander to a 5-0 lead after three innings?

Didn’t we think the Phillies might be a little demoralised after Aaron Nola—who’d pitched six and two-thirds perfect innings against the Astros to pull the Phillies towards their postseason berth clinch in the first place—got thumped by Tucker’s solo bomb halfway up the lower right field seats in the second and, when the game was still a manageable 2-0 Astro lead an inning later, his three-run blast a little further up those seatxs in the third?

Sure we did. We thought that, no matter how strong and deep would be the bullpen bulls for whom Phillies manager Rob Thomson would reach soon enough, the Astro machinery would either make that five-zip lead hold or pile another couple more on before the game was finally over.

We might even have thought Rhys Hoskins and Bryce Harper singling to set first and third up in the fourth, Nick Castellanos singling Harper home, then Alec Bohm lining a two-run double to left was just Verlander’s and the Astros’ way of toying with the Phillies, tossing them a couple of cookies before burying them alive.

Right?

We just didn’t quite bargain for Realmuto sending a two-run double of his own to the back of left center to tie it at five the very next inning. (For those to whom such things matter, in Minute Maid Park’s dimensions Realmuto’s double traveled 42 feet more than his tenth-inning bomb would.)

“No excuses,” Verlander said postgame. “I felt like I had some guys in good situations and just wasn’t able to quite make the pitches that I wanted to. A lot of credit to them as a lineup. They laid off some good pitches, and they were able to, when I did execute pitches, they were able to foul it off or put it in play and find a couple hits that way. Then when I did make a mistake, they hit it hard.”

“We knew they could hit when they came in here,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker. “They’re known for that. They just took it from us tonight.”

We didn’t quite bargain for five Phillies relief pitchers—including their scheduled Game Three starter Ranger Suarez—and four Astros relief pitchers keeping both sides scoreless, with a few hiccups along the way on both side.

We sure didn’t bargain for Castellanos, defying the Phillies’ season-long reputation as a defense-challenged team, running for his life in from deep right—where he’d positioned respecting Astros rookie Jeremy Peña’s power—to send the game to extras in the first place, taking it from Peña and the Astros with a past-textbook sliding, one-handed catch just short of the line.

“I felt like I read the swing pretty well,” Castellanos said postgame, “and as soon as I saw the direction of the ball I felt like I got a good jump on it. I just thought he had a better chance of trying to bloop something in there than torching something over my head. So that was kind of my thought process there, just thought of it on the fly.” Good thinking.

We didn’t quite bargain for Realmuto, either, squaring up Luis (Rock-a-Bye*) Garcia, usually a starter but pressed into relief duty this postseason—and a man Realmuto had never before faced in his life.

The count ran full. Then Garcia threw Realmuto a fastball reaching the outer edge of the strike zone. Realmuto reached, connected, and sent it on its way. Yet, for a few brief, shuddering moments four innings earlier, it was lucky for the Phillies he got that far in the first place.

Astros center fielder Chas McCormick foul-tipped a hard one straight back and straight into blasting Realmuto’s old school-style catcher’s mask right off his head. It also knocked the husky catcher backward and down. Those watching on the Fox Sports 1 telecast could hear plate umpire James Hoye say, “You all right? Stay there a minute.”

“Honestly, my head wasn’t the problem,” Realmuto said. “It just smoked my jaw pretty good. It’s probably not going to be very easy for me to eat dinner tonight, but as long as my head’s OK, I’ll be good to go.”

“I didn’t move,” said Phillies backup catcher Garrett Stubbs postgame. “That guy’s not coming out for anything.” He was right. He didn’t even move his pinkie as Thomson and Phillies trainer Paul Buchheit tended the temporarily fallen Realmuto.

These Phillies won’t come out for anything, either. Unless it’s for Game Two. And, maybe, another few steps toward their own October/November surprise. Listen up one more time, sore-losing Met/Dodger/Yankee fans. (Maybe even you, too, Padres fans.) You may end up missin’ a great Series.

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* Just why is Luis Garcia’s rocking-the-baby motion while he does that little back-and-forth, samba-like step before delivering home just fine, while the Guardians’ Josh Naylor’s rocking-the-baby routine as he rounds the bases after hitting a home run is a capital crime

I don’t have an issue with either one, frankly. I’m still a big believer in letting the kids play and, if you want to see baseball played like Serious Business, find yourself a league where they play the game in three-piece suits.

But why isn’t Garcia accused of taunting the batters he faces with it while Naylor took heat for doing it to pitchers against whom he’s just gone the distance?

Mr. Commissioner, meet the real faces of the game

Rob Manfred, Liam Hendriks

Commissioner Rob Manfred with White Sox relief pitcher Liam Hendriks before last year’s Field of Dreams game. (The Athletic.)

Having a read of ESPN writer Don Van Natta, Jr.’s profile of commissioner Rob Manfred, I was almost convinced that maybe, just maybe, there really was more to Manfred than met the eye. Or, more than what comes forth in his stiff presence and often clumsy remarks.

Just maybe, the man isn’t the baseball-hating or baseball-illiterate Rube Goldberg-like abecedarian the caricatures so often portray. He did, after all, grow up a Yankee fan in upstate New York and can say proudly enough that he’s the only baseball commissioner ever who played Little League baseball. “All glove, no bat,” he remembers of being a Little League infielder.

My parents received a set of classic Revere copper-bottom cookware as a wedding present eight years before Manfred was born. (I still remember the fragrance of that special powder used to clean the copper bottoms, too.) Who knew Manfred (three years my junior) was the son of Revere’s production supervisor at their home plant in Rome, New York? An hour’s drive from Cooperstown, as it happens.

Born in 1958, Manfred took in his first live major league game at Yankee Stadium with his sports-obssessed father, sitting between the plate and first base on an Old Timers’ Day. Come game time, Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle crashed a pair of home runs and the Yankees beat the Twins, 3-2. When he finally became the game’s commissioner, he handed his father the first baseball with his stamp upon it.

“This is really an unbelievable thing,” Manfred, Sr. told his son. “I can’t say I disagree,” Manfred, Jr. told Van Natta.

A couple of hundred fathoms down, though, Van Natta noted that “more than once” Manfred told him what few baseball commissioners have dared to admit, that being the buffer absorbing the heat that should go to his bosses, the owners, is part of his job. Even if it’s about as pleasant as your private parts being caught in the vacuum cleaner’s handle.

And then it came.

“Every time it’s me, it ain’t one of those 30 guys—that’s good,” Van Natta quoted Manfred as saying. “Look, who the hell am I? I don’t have $2 billion invested in a team. I’m just a guy trying to do a job. I mean it. [The owners] deserve that layer. I believe they deserve that layer of protection. I’m the face of the game, for good or for bad.”

Mr. Manfred, unless it’s to boo and hiss your heads off over this or that piece of mischief, you may rest assured that no baseball fan anywhere in this country is paying his or her hard-earned money to head for the ballpark to see you or your bosses.

But I’m going to do you a small favour, as if you know me from the greenest bat boy on any professional baseball team. I’m going to introduce you to the true faces of the game. The ones whom those fans do pay their hard-earned money to see at the ballpark regardless of the machinations and deceptions of your bosses and theirs.

Mr. Manfred, meet Mike Trout. This is the guy you blamed once upon a time for not being baseball’s face, based upon his committing no crime more grave than letting his play and his clubhouse presence and his agreeability with fans before and after games speak for themselves, with no jive about the magnitude of being him.

Meet Shohei Ohtani. This is the two-way star who lights up the joint just by flashing that thousand-watt grin of his, never mind when he strikes thirteen out on the mound one night and belts baseballs onto the Van Allen Belt the very next. Between himself and Mr. Trout, you should be asking what on earth is wrong with the Angels that they still can’t find quality pitching enough to keep them in a race after they start in one but sputter unconscionably.

Meet Aaron Judge. This is the Leaning Tower of River Avenue who sends baseballs into the Delta Quadrant one moment and then, when made aware, goes out of his way to meet a Canadian kid to whom he’s number one among baseball men and who was handed one of his mammoth home run balls by an adult fan who knew the boy wanted nothing more than to catch one Judge hit out.

Meet Joey Votto. This is the future Hall of Fame first baseman who got himself tossed from a game early last year, but—after he learned his ejection broke the heart of a little California girl to whom he’s a hero above heroes—sent her a ball with his handwritten apology and autograph on it, prompting his team to drop game tickets and a little extra swag upon her the very next day.

Meet Bryce Harper. This is the guy who never apologised for being on board with letting the kids play. The guy now on the injured list with a thumb fracture and surgery to repair it after getting hit by a pitch thrown with one of the baseballs you and yours still can’t see fit to manufacture uniformly and with allowance for fairness on both sides of it, fairness for the pitchers and for the hitters alike.

Meet Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. and Bo Bichette. One is the son of a Hall of Famer who did last season what even his old man never did: led his league in on base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+, and led the entire Show in total bases. The other is the son of a respected major league slugger, has quite a lethal bat in his own right when his swing is right, and currently leads his league in trips to the plate. Together they’ve put some zip back into the Blue Jays.

Meet Oneil Cruz. The bat has yet to come to full life but the footwork, the glove, the throwing arm, have shown so far that you can be as tall as Frank Howard, J.R. Richard, and Randy Johnson and still play shortstop as though the position was created for you and not the Little Rascals in the first place. They’re falling in love with him in Pittsburgh, which needs all the love it can get, but they ought to fall in love with him all around the Show—except when he’s going so deep into the hole grabbing a grounder or a hopper that an enemy batter loses his lunch when he’s had a base hit stolen from him.

Meet Clayton Kershaw. He’s been around the block a few times. He’s a Hall of Fame lock as maybe the best pitcher of his generation. He’s still a quality pitcher and a class act. They still buy tickets on the road when they know he’s going to take the ball for the Dodgers. He’s faced his baseball aging curve with grace under pressure. And, for good measure, he’s the one active player who was seen fit to be part of the ceremony when the Dodgers unveiled that statue of their Hall of Fame legend Sandy Koufax this month, and you know (well, you damn well should know) what a class act Koufax was on the mound and has been in the decades since off it.

(You’re not still P.O.ed that Koufax waxed your Yankees’ tails twice while his Dodgers swept them in the 1963 World Series when you were seven, are you?)

Meet Justin Verlander. Missed a year plus recovering from Tommy John surgery. He has a 2.23 ERA and a 3.53 fielding-independent pitching rate so far this season. For any pitcher that’d be a remarkable return so far. For a future Hall of Famer who’s still suiting up at Jack Benny’s age (that’s a joke, son), it’s off the chart so far.

Meet Verlander’s 25-year-old Astros teammate, Yordan Álvarez. He’s leading the entire Show with his .667 slugging percentage, his 1.081 OPS, and his 206 OPS+. If there’s one untainted Astro who’s must-see viewing whenever he checks in at the plate, it’s him.

Meet Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers. The left side of the Red Sox infield is a big reason why the Olde Towne Team yanked themselves back up from the netherworld into second place in that rough and tumble American League East. Did I mention that Devers currently leads the entire Show with 177 total bases?

Meet José Ramírez. The Guardians’ third baseman is giving Devers a run for his money in the All-Star balloting that closes today. That thumb injury has put a crimp into his bat for now, and it’s had its role in the Guardians’ sudden deflation at the plate, but this guy just may be the face of his franchise right now. He ought to be one of the faces of this game.

Meet Mark Appel. This is the guy who went from number one in the draft to injuries as well as pressures and even to an exit from the game only to try giving it one more try—and finally coming up with the Phillies, nine years after that draft, and tossing a scoreless inning . . . at age 30. That’s as feel good a story as it gets for the oldest former number one to make his Show debut, no matter what happens with the rest of what remains of Appel’s career. They don’t all go to hell and back.

Those are only some of baseball’s faces, Mr. Commissioner. They’re the ones the fans want to see and pay through the nose to see. Despite your tinkerings. Despite your often erroneous readings of the room. Despite your inability or unwillingness to demand the same accountability of umpires that you do of players, coaches, and managers.

Despite your inability to let your professed deep love of the game come through without tripping over itself because, as an improvisor, well, if you were a musician the consensus would be that Miles Davis you ain’t.