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 until Syndergaard—who’d settled admirably after the first 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.

————————————————————————-

* 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.

“I felt like there was an angel by my side tonight”

Noah Syndergaard

The mighty Thor didn’t have to strike ’em out to get ’em out and help shut ’em out Saturday night.

About the only correct observation out of the Angels’ 2-0 shutout of the Astros Saturday night was this, about the starting duel between two returning Tommy John surgery patients, Noah Syndergaard (Angels) and Justin Verlander (Astros): it was a matchup of returning former aces. Vintage, it was not.

But it didn’t have to be. Especially so far as the Angels were concerned. “He’s just a strike thrower,” said Angels manager Joe Maddon of his new pitching toy. “The changeup is outstanding, and the slider, he’s willing to pitch inside . . . He was totally in command of everything that he’s doing out there.”

“It was fun to play behind him,” said Mike Trout, who accounted for the second Angels run with a mammoth late game home run. “He gets on the mound, throws strikes. He tries to get back in the dugout as quick as he can. You saw that tonight. He’s just out there grinding.”

Syndergaard entered the game with a lifetime 4.63 strikeout to walk ratio and 9.7 strikeout-per-nine rate. Verlander entered with a lifetime 2.33 strikeout-to-walk rate and a 12.6 strikeout-per-nine rate. Now, have a gander at their Saturday night special.

The former Met known as Thor struck nobody out, surrendered two hits and issued two walks, and lived mostly on the ground, with eleven grounders among the sixteen outs he got in five and a third innings’ work. Verlander struck seven out (including designated-hitting Shohei Ohtani thrice), walked three, and surrendered three hits while getting an even number of grounders and flies.

“It’s a long road, man,” Verlander said postgame. “Lots of nervousness and anxiousness leading up to it. Felt like my debut. Got some things to work on, but coming out of it feeling pretty good.”

One problem was Verlander feeding Angels first baseman Jared Walsh a fat enough fastball to open the bottom of the second and Walsh hitting it over the right center field fence. Another was no Astro except Kyle Tucker (in the top of the second, a single) and Chas McCormick (top of the third, single) hitting anything that didn’t find an Angel glove, though a third (Aledmys Diaz) reached on a throwing error opening the top of the seventh.

A third, for the Astros, anyway, was Trout serving notice that he’d had it with the slump that marked his first two games and the Astros demolition that accompanied it. The Astros had battered Angels pitching for eight home runs in those games. But while their contact wasn’t hard Saturday night, Trout’s was.

He smoked a fly out to the rear end of Angel Stadium in the first, a hard ground out to second in the fourth, a hard line out to center stranding two runners ending the fifth, and then—as if to prove practise makes perfect—he turned on a 1-2 fastball a little low and a little away, from Astros reliever Ryne Stanek, and yanked it off the rocks behind the left center field fence, 445 feet from the plate, in the eighth.

“Trout’s gonna get you,” observed Astros manager Dusty Baker postgame. After a 2021 ruined early enough by a torn calf muscle, and an owner-lockout-imposed short spring training this time around, one that included a short illness toward its end, Trout found a dramatic way to shake away his season-opening rust.

So did the Angels’ bullpen. Ryan Tepera entered Opening Night by surrendering prompt, back-to-back homers to Alex Bregman and Yordan Alvarez, but on Saturday night he got five straight outs in relief of reliever Aaron Loup—who’d gotten three in relief of Syndergaard but was hapless to prevent Diaz reaching aboard third baseman Anthony Rendon’s off-line throw. And designated closer Raisel Iglesias used only eight pitches to retire the Astros in order to finish it.

The bulls also struck four Astros out, three more punchouts in their 3.2 innings’ work than Syndergaard in 5.1.

Syndergaard had other things on his mind to accompany his manhandling of the Astros’ formidable lineup. Wearing the same number 34 he’d worn as a Met, the number had particularly sober significance for his new team.

No Angel had worn the number since 22-year-old pitcher Nick Adenhart, thirteen years to the day before—when Adenhart was killed by a drunk driver celebrating his successful Angels debut. The Angels didn’t retire 34 officially, but no player sought that number since, just as no Angel since the death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs almost three years ago has asked for Skaggs’s number 45.

By most accounts, Syndergaard asked the team to wear the 34 he’s worn all his life, after signing a one-year, $22 million deal with the Angels, and he was only too well aware of what Adenhart’s death meant to the franchise and its fans. “I felt like there was an angel by my side tonight,” Syndergaard said postgame. “That was really special to me.”

As athletes, I feel like our number—to the everyday person, it’s just kind of a number—but to us, it’s part of our identity. Growing up, my number was 34 because I was a huge fan of Nolan Ryan. But now it kind of means something a little bit different to me. I want to use that to lift up his name.

If Syndergaard continues lifting his team the way he did Saturday night, there could be more than a few angels on the Angels’ shoulders over the long, arduous season yet to come.

Diminishing the one whose record you break?

If Joe DiMaggio didn’t think Cal Ripken, Jr. diminished Lou Gehrig, neither should anyone else. Unfortunately . . .

You become accustomed to absurdity when loving, following and writing about a game. You see and hear it from those who love and follow it, those who play it, those who manage or administer it, and those who write about it. But then comes a remark that should win the ultimate Howitzer Prize for Extinguished Commentary.

I saw it in the context of late-spring observations on the health of certain Yankees, aboard a Facebook baseball group to which I belong, mindful that for almost three years The New England Journal of Medicine could be the Yankee yearbook. I saw concurrent references to Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken, Jr., Hall of Famers both, one setting the consecutive games played streak the other broke.

Both Gehrig and Ripken played through assorted injuries to reach their milestones, perhaps foolishly. Gehrig ended his streak only under orders from the insidious disease that would kill him shy of two years after removing himself from the Yankee lineup. Ripken was able to play 501 consecutive games more following the night he passed Gehrig and 870 more games total before retiring with 3,001 major league games played.

Aboard that group, I couldn’t resist noting Gehrig’s plaque in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park still calls him “a great ball player whose amazing record of 2,130 consecutive games should stand for all time.” Just as it did when it was first erected in the old Yankee Stadium on the Fourth of July in 1941.

The night Ripken said “not quite,” one of Gehrig’s Yankee teammates was in Camden Yards to see it happen. “Well,” said Joe DiMaggio to Ripken and the crowd after the game ended, “that goes to prove even the greatest records are made to be broken. And . . . wherever my former teammate Lou Gehrig is today, I’m sure he’s tipping his cap to you, Cal Ripken.”

Another group member thought not. “I still wish Cal would have stopped at 2130,” he wrote. “He would have been even more of a media darling if he said something along the lines of the memory of the man and the streak is too great to be broken therefore I am content to tie it and to hopefully be mentioned in the same breath as he in future conversation.”

Have I finally seen everything?

Well, I know better. But for abject absurdity if not sheer foolishness, that gets as close as possible. It only begins with Ripken having been a media target as much as a media darling the closer he got to meeting and passing Gehrig. For every one that marveled at his endurance, there was another who marveled that the Orioles put up with his “selfishness,” with putting his potential place in baseball history ahead of the team’s good.

My first response in the space of the group itself was to suggest such thinking as wishing Ripken stopped equal to Gehrig made it a wonder that any record would be broken. I remembered Henry Aaron saying, “I don’t want people to forget Babe Ruth, I just want them to remember Henry Aaron.”

I also wondered whether Ruth himself would have said, in 1919, “Gee, I think I’ll stop at 27 [home runs] because I don’t want to ruin Ned Williamson’s memory.” (Ruth’s 29 homers that year broke Williamson’s 1884 single-season record.) I didn’t dare add that I was pretty sure Pete Rose in 1985 didn’t think for a single minute, “Jeez, I can’t do this to Ty Cobb, can I?” before slashing his Tying and passing career base hits.

Guess I should have described myself as a hopeless romantic instead of an idealist but i really do wish that was the way it went down,” said the group member in question who thinks and wishes Ripken had stopped at 2,130. “Everyone would have known Cal could have easily surpassed Gehrig and I can’t foresee anybody breaking or even coming close to 2130 again. Your point though is certainly well taken.”

What manner of “hopeless romantic” goes ballistic at the mere idea of anyone challenging Ruth’s former single-season home run record in 1961? Which one has kittens over the likelihood of plainspoken, charisma-challenged Roger Maris and not glib, charisma-loaded Mickey Mantle breaking it?

Idealists don’t send aspiring record breakers hate mail. Hopeless romantics don’t write venomous newspaper columns or throw things at them. Then-commissioner Ford Frick wasn’t hopelessly romantic, he was cynically selfish—as a one-time Ruth ghostwriter and permanent Ruth acolyte—demanding separation between 154-game and 162-game seasons the better to be damn sure ruthsrecord (yes, they said it that way then) couldn’t really be erased.

(P.S. You asked for it. Maris needed five fewer plate appearances to hit 61 in ’61 than Ruth did to hit 60 in 1927. If you re-set Maris’s clock to start his season the game in which he hit his first homer of ’61, it took him 152 games to hit 61. Take that, Edsel Frick.)

I wondered further about such “idealists” as the brain-dead and the racists (who are their own kind of brain dead) threatening Aaron every step of the way as he approached, met, and passed Ruth on the career home run list.

I resisted the temptation to ask my fellow group member if he was one of those ready to wear black arm bands when Sandy Koufax smashed two of Bob Feller’s records in one 1965, Feller’s major league single-season strikeout record and his career record three no-hitters. (Koufax really hit Feller where it hurt, too: his fourth no-hitter proved that practise makes perfect.)

Then I reminded myself no milestone passer or record breaker could possibly erase the memory or the legacy of the one whose milestone he passed or record he broke. I learned that early from Ted Williams himself, a man who was nothing if not obsessed with his own legacy. “The other day,” Williams said at his own Hall of Fame induction, “Willie Mays hit his five hundred and twenty-second home run. He has gone past me, and he’s pushing, and I say to him, ‘go get ‘em Willie’.”

Williams didn’t think Mays diminished him. Teddy Ballgame, of course, probably believed nobody could diminish him. While whacking balls during batting practise he was once heard to say, “Jesus H. Christ Himself couldn’t get me out!”

Was Ruth diminished by Maris and Aaron? Was Feller diminished by Koufax? Was Cobb diminished by Rose? Was Walter Johnson diminished by Nolan Ryan breaking his lifetime major league strikeout record? Was Gehrig really diminished by Ripken?

DiMaggio didn’t think so. “He’s a one in a million ballplayer, who came along to break [Gehrig’s] record,” the Yankee Clipper told that cheering Camden Yards throng, “and my congratulations to you, Cal, you certainly deserve this lasting tribute.”

On the silver anniversary of the night he passed Gehrig (and whacked a home run while he was at it), I reminded anyone who cared to read it that Ripken didn’t (and doesn’t) live by 2,131 alone. He’s the arguable greatest all-around shortstop who ever played the game. Says who? Says 3,000+ hits and 400+ home runs (the only such middle infielder to do both) and +181 fielding runs (third only behind Mark Belanger and Ozzie Smith), says who.

You should be half afraid to ask whether Casey Stengel managing five consecutive World Series winners diminished the John McGraw who’d once managed a mere four. Or whether Tom Seaver striking out a record ten straight to consummate a nineteen-strikeout game diminished the Steve Carlton who’d struck out nineteen in a game previously without ten straight punchouts to finish.

Carlton wasn’t accused of diminishing the Koufax who struck eighteen out in a game twice or the Feller who did it once.

Tomorrow is Opening Day. The Show will be back and with a full season to come, even. Last year’s pan-damn-ically shortened, irregular season will recede a little further into the ranks of the aberrations. There may be a few milestones reached and passed this year, if not exactly all-time records of all-time idols.

Miguel Cabrera needs a mere 134 hits and thirteen home runs to become the only player who ever reached 3,000 lifetime hits and 500 lifetime home runs in the same season. At least nobody—whether fan group member or professional writer—can accuse Cabrera diminishing someone else’s achievement if he makes both.

Nobody can predict, of course. The likelihood isn’t that great, either, but imagine if the aging Cabrera’s thirteenth home run this year becomes his 3,000th hit, somehow. He’d be only the third man in Show history to do it. Hands up to anyone foolish enough to think he shouldn’t even think about trying to go long for 3,000 because it might “diminish” the only two men whose 3,000th hits were bombs—Derek Jeter (who did it first, in 2011) and Alex Rodriguez (who did it in 2015).

At September 2019’s end, just about, Justin Verlander struck Kole Calhoun out twice in a game. The first time nailed Verlander’s 3,000th career strikeout, the second time his 300th strikeout of that season. No pitcher ever delivered that trick before. The only thing that diminished Verlander even slightly was what happened after he punched Calhoun out for 3,000: Andrelton Simmons hit the pitch immediately following the punchout over the center field fence.

Entering 2021 Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw have over 2,500 lifetime strikeouts each. Suppose one of them endures long enough that his 3,000th strikeout-to-be might also become his 300th strikeout of the season in question. Would it really diminish Verlander if one of them pulls it off? Should he just try throwing grounders the rest of the way? Should his manager relieve him on the spot? The better not to soil Verlander’s glory?

God help Mike Trout, Ronald Acuna, Jr., Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor, Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis, Jr., or Christian Yelich if any of them should stand on the threshold of breaking Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Some bonehead somewhere is liable to suggest he should take a dive for game 57 on the grounds that it’s too great a record to be broken and, by the way, he shouldn’t ought to want to diminish DiMaggio’s memory.

Both Ripken and myself will probably be in the Elysian Fields before somebody else breaks Ripken’s streak, if somebody else actually does. But I’ll be there watching when Ripken and Gehrig holler down to the man, “Way to go, kiddo!” They won’t be screaming bloody murder with demands not to be diminished.

When Johnny Bench broke Yogi Berra’s record for lifetime home runs as a catcher, Berra wired him: “I always thought that record would stand until it was broken.” Funny how Bench didn’t exactly diminish Berra. Funny how Berra didn’t exactly feel diminished. Funny, too, how nobody who’s since passed Bench —for the record, they’re Carlton Fisk and Mike Piazza—diminished Yogi, either.

The only one diminished by suggesting that breaking venerated records diminishes the original record setter is the one making the suggestion in the first place.