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.

So much for a young man’s game

2019-10-08 ZimmermanScherzer

Ryan Zimmerman (left) and Max Scherzer looked older at a postgame presser than they looked playing Game Five of the Nats’ division series against the Dodgers Monday night.

Once upon a time, a generation insisted you couldn’t trust anyone over thirty. Even that was pushing it; to hear some of them talk (I know, because it was my generation, even if the words never quite came out of my own mouth) you’d have thought trusting anyone over 25 was begging for trouble.

At times in recent years it’s seemed as though baseball’s unspoken but unbreakable mottos include not trusting anyone over thirty. Well, now. If thirty is baseball’s new forty, then baseball’s geriatric generation’s been doing a lot of heavy lifting this postseason and beyond. Without walkers, wheelchairs, canes, or portable respirators, even.

It’s hard to believe because it seems like yesterday, sometimes, that he was a hot draft, but Stephen Strasburg—in the Nationals’ original starters-as-relievers postseason scheme—got credit for the win in the National League wild card game with three spotless relief innings. At the ripe old age of 31.

Strasburg also pitched six with a single earned run against him in division series Game One against the Dodgers and takes a lifetime 0.94 postseason ERA into his Game Five start in Dodger Stadium Wednesday. The Nats aren’t exactly a mostly-young team but they’re putting their fate into thirtysomething hands.

That may be the problem. Even with the professiorial beard he wears now, Strasburg doesn’t look his age yet. He still looks like a lad on the threshold of sitting for his final exams in freshman year. He isn’t even close to being as grizzled as Max Scherzer. Few among even his fellow old Nats do.

If you believe in respecting your elders (never mind how often your elders have betrayed your respect, as often they have), things get better from there. Consider, if you will:

* Two 35-year-old Nats, Max Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman, delivered the primary goods Monday night to push the Nats-Dodgers division series to a fifth game Wednesday. Max the Knife shook off a first-inning solo homer to go six and two-thirds scoreless including a crazy escape from a seventh-inning, ducks-on-the-pond jam, and Zimmerman jolted Nationals Park with a three-run homer into the crosswinds in the bottom of the fifth.

In those hours both Scherzer and Zimmerman looked as though they’d done it for the first time in their lives. Maybe there is such a thing as baseball’s fountain of youth.

* An ancient Cardinals catcher, Yadier Molina, tied Game Four of their division series with the Braves with an eighth-inning RBI single, then won the game with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the tenth. And, a followup bat flip the young’uns should envy.

* Another Cardinal ancient, Adam Wainwright, pitched maybe the best exhibition of pressure baseball of his life in Game Three. It went for nothing, unfortunately, since Wainwright left the game with the Cardinals behind 1-0. But Wainwright will tell his eventual grandchildren about the noisy standing O Grandpa got as he tipped his hat to the Busch Stadium faithful.

* On the other hand, if it took a young Braves whippersnapper (Dansby Swanson) to tie the game in the ninth, it took an old fart of 31 (Adam Duvall) to pinch hit immediately after and drive home what proved the winning runs with a single up the pipe. And I didn’t notice Duvall carrying a portable oxygen tank with him.

* “We got Verlandered,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said memorably after Pops Verlander, all 36 years old of him, threw seven shutout innings their way in Game One of their division series. And if you think 29 might as well be 30 and therefore on the threshold of dismissability, be reminded the Rays got Coled the following day. As in, Gerrit Cole’s seven and two-thirds, fifteen-strikeouts shutout innings.

* Abuelo Edwin Encarnacion, like Verlander an ancient 36, tied Game One between the Yankees and the Twins with an RBI double in the bottom of the first. A 30-year-old fart named D.J. LaMahieu put the Yankees up by a pair with a bottom-of-the-sixth home run; a 35-year-old creaker named Brett Gardner hit one out one out later, and the Yankees routed the Twins in Game One and the division series sweep.

Lest you think the postseason’s been the sole triumphant province of the senior citizenry, be reminded sadly that Nelson Cruz—all 39 years old of him, who had the regular season of a player young enough to be his grandson (41 home runs, 290 total bases, 1.031 OPS, 4.3 wins above a replacement-level player), and who hit one out to make a short-lived 2-0 Twins lead in Game One—ended Game Three on the wrong side when he looked at a third strike from all 31 years old worth of Yankee closer Aroldis Chapman.

Just as there’s a rule in sports that somebody has to lose, there’s a parallel rule that says sometimes one old man has to beat another old man to win.

A prehistoric Ray, Charlie Morton, took 35 years to the mound on Monday and threw five innings of one-run, three-hit, nine-strikeout baseball at his former Astros mates to keep the Rays alive, barely. And the Rays abused likewise 35-year-old Zack Greinke—who’d pitched like anything except a nursing home denizen since joining the Astros at the new single-season trade deadline—for six runs including three home runs in three and two-thirds innings’ work.

The Yankees only looked like old men when it seemed you couldn’t visit one New York-area hospital this season without finding a group of Yankees among the emergency room patients. The Astros only looked like old men likewise regarding Houston-area clinics this year. Except to their opponents, it’s funny how they don’t look like old men when they play baseball.

Pops Verlander’s getting another crack at the Rays in Game Four. Strasburg the Elder has to tangle with a whippersnapper named Walker Buehler in Game Five. The eyes of us seniors will be upon them.

Unfortunately, there are those elders who behave occasionally like the ancient Alice Cooper lyric: “I’ve got a baby’s brain/and an old man’s heart.” Molina did after he sent the Cardinals toward Game Five. Hands around his throat in a choke gesture aimed at the Braves. In a series pitting two of baseball’s more notorious Fun Police departments, that puts a new twist on police brutality and underscores why respecting your elders is  easier said than done often enough.

How a Verlander Cy would make history

Houston Astros v Toronto Blue Jays

Justin Verlander during his no-hitter against the Blue Jays; if he wins this year’s AL Cy Young Award, he’ll make league history in another way . . .

Even I didn’t catch on and I was watching the game. But Justin Verlander’s no-hitter last Sunday could put him into the history books for reasons other than the no-hitter himself.

That’s because, according to Jayson Stark, five pitchers have thrown no-hitters in the same seasons in which they won Cy Young Awards and Verlander, in theory anyway, could become the sixth. But he’d still make history if he wins this year’s American League Cy—because no American League pitcher has yet won the Cy the same year they went no-no.

The previous five: Jake Arrieta (Cubs), Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers), Hall of Famer Roy Halladay (Phillies), Mike Scott (Astros), and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (Dodgers). National Leaguers all. And Koufax did it twice: in 1963, when he pitched the second of his four career no-hitters; and, in 1965, when his fourth proved that practise really makes perfect.

That’s not Verlander’s only shot at the history book this year. (If he does win, it would be his second Cy Young Award.) Suppose he and his rotation mate Gerrit Cole finish one and two in the American League Cy Young Award voting. (It could happen, folks.) According to Stark, it’d be the first time rotation mates ever finished 1-2 in the AL Cy Young vote.

And only one pair of starting rotation mates ever finished 1-2 in a Cy Young Award vote before. No, it wasn’t Koufax and Hall of Famer Don Drysdale. Good guess, though. Koufax won three Cys when it was still a major league award, not one in each league, and he won all three unanimously. Drysdale won it in 1962 even though it’s arguable that Cincinnati’s Bob Purkey probably should have won the award; Dean Chance (Angels) won the 1964 Cy but Koufax was posting a Cy-worth season when it ended after the baserunning injury that exposed his elbow arthritis at last.

It took until 2001 for rotation mates to finish 1-2 in a Cy Young Award vote: Hall of Famer Randy Johnson won the National League award, and should-be Hall of Famer Curt Schilling finished second. The Big Unit, of course, can’t complain since he won five Cy Young Awards including four straight; Schilling’s major Cy Young Award problem is having Cy-worth seasons when someone else was a) just a shade better or b) having a career year.

IF NO KOUFAX—Suppose Sandy Koufax wasn’t in the Show when he copped those three major league-awarded Cy Young Awards? Who would have won them in 1963, 1965, and 1966?

If you go by wins above a replacement-level player, and if Cy Young voters went by it in 1963 (yes, we’re theorising, since nobody thought about WAR back then), the winner would have been . . . Dick Ellsworth, the 23-year-old Cubs lefthander who just so happened to have his career year.

Ellsworth was credited with 22 wins, but he posted career-best full-season 2.11 earned run average (second in the National League to Koufax) and 2.68 fielding-independent pitching. Hall of Famer Juan Marichal won 25 games and had a sub-3.00 ERA for the first time in his career (2.42) and a solid 2.62 FIP.

So how did Ellsworth end up with more WAR than Marichal? Easy: Ellsworth pitched in maybe the National League’s most notorious hitters’ park for a notoriously lousy team still mired in its looney-tooney College of Coaches rotating managers experiment, and he really had to work for those 22 wins. (His ’63 ERA+ was a Show-leading 167.) Marichal’s team was better even though his Giants finished third in the league behind the pennant (and World Series) winning Dodgers and the second-place Cardinals.

Considering that Marichal was credited with 25 wins for a bona-fide pennant contender, it’s entirely possible that if Koufax hadn’t been in the league Marichal would have won the 1963 Cy Young Award. But Koufax was in the league and his ability to miss bats and avoid walks while leading a team to a pennant was just too overwhelming.

Koufax actually didn’t lead major league pitchers in WAR for 1965—Marichal did. So why did Koufax win his second Cy Young Award. Too easy: 26 wins and a fourth no-hitter in as many seasons, which was a perfect game in the bargain. Not to mention pitching the pennant clincher on two days’ rest at the end of a hammer-and-tongs pennant race between the Dodgers and the Giants. And breaking Hall of Famer Bob Feller’s single-season major league strikeout record (with 382) didn’t hurt, either.

But if you went by 1965 WAR Marichal had an MLB-leading 10.3 to Koufax’s fourth-in-Show 8.1. There were two guys in between Marichal and Koufax among the 1965 major league WAR-leading pitchers, both of whom were having their career years: Sam McDowell (Indians) and Jim Maloney (Reds), both of whom finished with 8.2 WAR. And McDowell was arguably better than Maloney that year: McDowell led the American League with a 2.18 ERA and a 2.08 FIP; Maloney’s were a few points higher than Sudden Sam’s.

In 1966, the Dodgers and the Giants went at it for a final time among those 1960s pennant races and this time Koufax led the Show with his 10.3 WAR. He also led with a) his fifth-straight league-leading ERA (1.73, which also led the Show for the third time), his sixth-straight Show-leading FIP (2.07), his fourth Show strikeout title (317), and a Show-leading 27 wins.

Marichal finished right behind Koufax with 9.1 WAR, and Hall of Famer Jim Bunning (Phillies) finished with 9.0. As a matter of fact, only one American League pitcher finished in the top ten Show WAR among the hurlers in ’66: Gary Peters (White Sox), with 5.3.

It’s really to mourn that Juan Marichal, the arguable best righthanded pitcher of the 1960s, never won a Cy Young Award, either the MLB version or the league version, but it wasn’t his fault that a) Sandy Koufax was his contemporary through 1966, and b) someone else not named Koufax had either a career year (Dean Chance, 1964; Mike McCormick, 1967), an extraterrestrial year (Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, 1968), or came into his own completely and to stay (Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, 1969) during several of Marichal’s best seasons.

WHITHER WHITEY?—You may have noticed Hall of Famer Whitey Ford missing from the above discourse. In 1963, the Yankee bellwether got credit for 24 wins while helping lead his Yankees to (what a surprise) the pennant. So why didn’t Ford get much of a Cy Young Award nod that year?

For one thing, Ford wasn’t quite as good as Koufax and Marichal at missing bats; he lived on the ground ball as well as generally avoiding walks. For another thing, Ford got slightly better run support per start than Koufax, Marichal, and Ellsworth did in 1963.

On the other hand, his 24 wins were the second and final time Ford was a 20+ game-winner. And both those seasons came following the Casey Stengel era. The legend about Stengel and Ford is generally true; the Ol’ Perfesser really did tend to save Ford for the Yankees’ best opponents if he could help it.

According to Jay Jaffe’s The Cooperstown Casebook, a researcher named Jason Brannon discovered that Ford made forty percent more starts against the Yankees’ top two rivals than its bottom two in the Stengel era. When Ralph Houk succeeded Stengel starting in 1961, Ford made seven more starts (39) than in the only season Stengel allowed him to make more than thirty. And what do you know: Whitey won the Cy Young Award that year.

Except that he won 25 games but shows only 3.7 WAR. Even if you think Edwin Starr was right (War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!), you should know the reason: the 1961 Yankees simply bludgeoned the competition with all those home runs, and they could make any pitcher look like a Hall of Famer, never mind a Whitey Ford who is a bona-fide Hall of Famer.

(The ’61 Yankees are also slightly overrated as a team because of all those home runs and the Mantle-Maris home run chase. If you take the word of Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Lineups, and it’s a good word to take, five Yankee teams were actually far enough better; from first to fifth—the 1998, 1927, 1939, 1923, and 1937 editions. Me, I’d have thrown in the 1954 edition, if only because there’s something a little sad about a team winning 103 games and not winning the pennant . . . because the Indians chose ’54 to have their career year.)

POOR RICHARD’S ALMANAC—Dick Ellsworth, alas, had a 1966 he’d have just as soon forgotten. At age 26 had a respectable 3.46 FIP but his ERA barely missed reaching 4.00 . . . and he was hung with a major league-leading 22 losses. And the 1966 Cubs finished in tenth place.

The lefthander probably should have suspected it was going to be that kind of year when Topps released his baseball card in the spring. Bad enough: the player shown on the face was righthanded. Worse: The the photograph on the front was actually Ken Hubbs, the Cubs’ second baseman (and 1962 NL Rookie of the Year)—who’d been killed in a February 1964 small plane crash.

The good news is that the 1966 Ellsworth/Hubbs card may not be all that valuable among collectible baseball cards. ComC, the Redmond, Washington-based card and comic trading Website, lists a mint condition Ellsworth/Hubbs at no higher than $55.74. The most valuable Ellsworth card? The 1964 card he shares with Sandy Koufax and Bob Friend (Pirates) showing the National League’s 1963 ERA leaders, at $142.48.

Losing Ken Hubbs was devastating to the Cubs and to baseball, of course, especially given the irony that he took up flying to conquer his fear of it. But Dick Ellsworth didn’t deserve to be embarrassed the way he was on his 1966 baseball card, either.

Previous ejection was Justin time

2019-09-01 JustinVerlander

Justin Verlander celebrates after pitching his third career no-hitter Sunday.

If anyone else has thrown a no-hitter in their first outing after one during which he was ejected, I have no record of it. So it’s entirely possible that, in that sense, Justin Verlander’s Sunday afternoon special in Toronto’s Rogers Centre was unprecedented.

Can you just picture some pitcher somewhere arguing with an ump and answering, if and when the ump in question asks why he’s trying to get himself an early trip to the clubhouse, “Nothing personal, but I’d kinda like to throw a no-hitter in my next start, too.”

Or some umpire answering when a pitcher asks why the unexpected or undeserved ho-heave, “Relax, kid, I’m doing you a favour, now you got a good chance of throwing a no-hitter your next time out.”

That assumed those pitchers have anything resembling Verlander’s ability and intelligence. And you can line those who do up on one surfboard. With a little room to spare.

If anyone else’s no-hitter was consummated by an obscure rookie third baseman hitting a two-run homer in the top of the ninth for the game’s only score, then throwing out a far less obscure rookie for the game’s final out, I’m also unaware of it as I write. So Verlander better not have been kidding when he said Abraham Toro was due for a big reward.

Toro ought to get at least a new car (Verlander can afford to buy a dealership, after all, we think) for going above and beyond to make Verlander only the sixth man in Show history to throw at least three no-hitters. Maybe from a Canadian dealership, since Verlander’s the first to throw more than one no-no in the same visitors’ park.

The company he joins? Four Hall of Famers (Bob Feller, Cy Young, Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan) and a nineteenth-century deadballer. (Larry Corcoran.)

But I’m pretty sure none of Corcoran’s, Young’s, Feller’s, Koufax’s, or Ryan’s no-hitters featured having to dispatch three sons of former major leaguers (Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggo, and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.), including two sons of Hall of Famers (Biggio, Guerrero), at the very top of the enemy batting order.

Verlander did. He struck Bichette and Biggio out twice, walked Biggio once, and rid himself of Guerrero on a pair of ground outs to third base and a foul pop to first.

Joining the deadballer may be the most appropriate for Verlander considering he did his Sunday work with a fastball that barely reached 90 mph if at all but a curve ball with more bite than a piranha in danger of missing its three squares on the day. He worked up and down the zone like an elevator operator, back and forth like a vacuum cleaner, and the only thing he had to worry about was whether the American League West-leading Astros would ever get a run on the board for him before his day was finished.

The Blue Jays went to a bullpen game beginning with former Met Wilmer Font, acquired in the Marcus Stroman trade, striking out three with one hit in two innings. Then two more Jays bulls, Sam Gaviglio and Zack Godley, worked three runless innings each, Gaviglio working three perfect with three punchouts and Godley shaking away two Astro hits while punching out two, plunking one, and surviving first and third in the seventh.

Then the Jays turned it over to Ken Giles, the closer and former Astro, having a renaissance season until he hit the injured list for a brief spell around the trade deadline, but who took a staggering 1.67 ERA into Sunday’s contest. And this was a day after he struck out the side to end a 6-4 Blue Jays win.

But Astros third baseman Alex Bregman opened Sunday’s top of the ninth with a double dunked into shallow right field. Giles flicked it off more or less with a three-pitch, swinging strikeout on the Astros’s explosive rookie outfielder/DH Yordan Alvarez, followed by a third-pitch fly out to center by Astros first baseman Aledmys Diaz.

Then came Toro, the switch hitter batting left.. Then came two Giles sliders, the first fouled off and the second ball one down and inside. Then came a four-seam fastball right down the pipe. And there it went the other way into the left field seats. Leaving Verlander to finish what he started, sandwiching a nasty swinging fourteenth strikeout between a pair of ground outs.

And leaving him to history.

“I can’t put it into words,” said the righthander who had four previous shots at a third no-hitter broken up in 2011, 2012, 2015, and last year. “I’ve come so close to the third one so many times.”

Maybe he should have been ejected in the starts immediately preceding those bids, too.