“We’re going to play to the end”

Kyle Schwarber

Kyle Schwarber hitting his first-inning bomb off Justin Verlander in Game Five. “We’re going to play all the outs. We’re going to see where it takes us,” he says approaching Game Six. The “where,” of course, is up to Zack Wheeler and the Phillies against Framber Valdez again.

Approaching World Series Game Six, the Phillies could lean on the experience of one member who’d been there, done that, down 3-2 in a Series, then took the final two and the world championship. That was seven years ago, when he was a Cub, his season began (thanks to injury) in the World Series, and the Cubs finally did what seven-eighths of the earth thought wouldn’t happen in its lifetime.

“We’ve overcome a lot of things throughout the course of this year to be in this position,” said Phillies left fielder/bombardier/periodic base thief Kyle Schwarber as the Phillies traveled to Houston Friday. “I think when we get there, you’re going to see a really resilient club and we’re going to play until the very end and we’re going to see where it takes us.”

Funny, but that’s just about what every 2016 Cub said, too, when the then-Indians had them on the ropes with the Series returning to Cleveland for Games Six and Seven.

That was then: the Cubs pushed, shoved, pitched, and pounded their way through two arduous games. This is now: The Phillies, whose World Series drought is barely an eleventh of those Cubs’, will have to do all that plus rip, snarl, tear, slice, dice, and air fry. Just as when he was a 2016 Cub, the Schwarbinator won’t surrender, to these Astros or anyone else.

“It’s going to take everything,” said Schwarber, who did what he could to keep the Phillies from losing Game Five when he opened with a nasty home run off future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander in what proved a to-the-max 3-2 Phillies loss. “It’s going to take everyone. We’re excited. Trust me. Sure, it’s frustrating, but we’re also very excited.”

The Phillies are in a strange position this postseason. They enter Game Six with their first series deficit since they wrestled their way to the final National League wild card in the first place. Beyond that, they have reason not to fear. They’ve come back several times to get here in the first place.

Game One of the wild card set against the Cardinals? Down 2-0 in the top of the ninth. Then: bases-loaded hit batsman, two-run single, run-scoring infielder’s choice, RBI single, and a sacrifice fly, and two Cardinal runs in the bottom of the inning weren’t enough to deny the first win of a Phillie sweep.

Game Four, National League Championship Series? A four-run Padres first didn’t exactly bury them alive. Bottom of the first: Two-run homer (Rhys Hoskins), RBI double (Bryce Harper). Deficit cut to one. Bottom of the fourth: Tying RBI single. Bottom of the fifth, after Juan Soto put the Padres back up with a homer? Two-run homer (Hoskins, again), RBI double (Harper, again), RBI single, two-run Phillie lead. Bottom of the sixth: Solo bomb (Schwarber), three-run lead. Bottom of the seventh: Solo bomb (J.T. Realmuto), four-run lead, ultimately four-run win.

Game Five, NLCS? Call it the Mud and Guts Game if you must. Bottom of the third: Phillies take a 2-0 lead with another Hoskins two-run thump. Top of the fourth: Soto cuts the San Diego deficit in half with another solo smash. Top of the seventh, with the Citizens Bank Park rain turning the field into a swamp and pitching grips and strides into mush and mire? The Padres take a 3-2 lead with an RBI single and two wild pitches enabling a run. Bottom of the eighth? Harper fights and fouls his way to a dramatic opposite-field two-run homer. Two Phillies relievers make it stick for the pennant.

Game One, World Series? Kyle Tucker’s two bombs help the Astros bushwhack Aaron Nola in the first three innings. So the Phillies return the favour by ripping five out of Verlander—RBI single and immediate two-run double in the top of the fourth; two-run double in the top of the fifth. The score stays tied at five until Realmuto breaks it for keeps with a leadoff bomb in the top of the tenth, and David Robertson survives a double, a walk, a wild pitch for second and third, and gets the game and win-ending ground out.

All the Phillies need to do now is continue overcoming that nasty 0-for-20 with runners in scoring position until Jean Segura slapped an RBI single in the eighth in Game Five. They need Zack Wheeler to be his best self on the Game Six mound. They need to continue overthrowing their earlier reputation for defensive mishaps and cut the Astros off with more of the glovework and derring-do they began flashing during the Philadelphia leg of the Series.

They need, in other words, to be better than the best of their selves that pulled them into the Series and into the 2-1 Series lead the Astros wrested away from them on their own soil. Astros Game Six starter Framber Valdez, who manhandled them in Game Two, also in Houston, intends to let them do nothing of the sort.

“I think I’m just going to try to continue doing what I’ve been doing all season,” Valdez said through an interpreter after Game Five. “Just try and attack hitters early, try to breathe, try to stay calm, try to meditate. It’s something that’s really exciting. I think it’s something that really adds a lot to your career, and I’m really excited for this opportunity.”

It’ll add something to the Astros’ resume, too: their first untainted World Series rings. Not to mention handing their manager Dusty Baker—the man who steadied the Astro starship after it was strafed by the in-house phasers of Astrogate, keeping his gradually turning-over team playing through the aftermath, three seasons following its exposure, despite the organisation’s turmoil and grotesqueries—the first World Series triumph of his long and mostly distinguished managerial career.

The Astros know the Phillies won’t be simple pickings despite shutting them out back-to-back in Philadelphia, once with a combined no-hitter. It’s the Phillies’ job not to make things simple for the Astros.

“What a better storybook ending,” asked Castellanos, whose limp bat is almost forgotten when you’ve seen his defense turning into must-see television all of a sudden, “than if we can go there and win this in Game Seven?”

First things first, Schwarber would remind one and all.

“We’ve got a pretty good pitcher going for us in Game Six,” the Schwarbinator says. “We’ve got to be able to bounce back offensively. I don’t think anyone believes more in this group than we do. That’s going to be a big thing for us. We’ve just got to be able to play all the outs. We’re going to see where it takes us.”

First, it needs to take them past the Astros in Game Six. Then the Phillies can worry about who writes their storybook ending—the team of Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry (who wrote the screenplay for The Natural); or, any given Astro, plus Jack Benny and Fred Allen, climaxing their long-running mock on-air feud while satirising the notorious weeper quiz show Queen for a Day:

Allen: An expert operating the Hoffman Pressing Machine will press your trousers
Benny: Now wait a minute! (Studio audience laughter and noise.) Now wait a minute, Allen!
Allen: Keep your shirt on, King!
Benny: You bet I’ll keep my shirt on!
Allen: All right, folks, tune in again next—
Benny: Come on, Allen, give me my pants!
Allen: Quiet, King!
Benny: Where are my pants?
Allen: Benny, for fifteen years I’ve been waiting to catch you like this.
Benny: Allen, you haven’t seen the end of me!
Allen: It won’t be long now!

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.

The Phlogging Phillies

Alec Bohm

Only 119 years after Jimmy Sebring hit the first one, off Hall of Famer Cy Young, Philadelphia’s Alec Bohm hits the 1,000th home run in World Series history off Houston’s Lance McCullers, Jr.

The mound can be the loneliest place on a baseball field at either of two extremes. One is when a pitcher is within the final out of consummating a perfect game. The other is when he’s getting murdered on that hill, in any game, never mind a World Series contest.

Lance McCullers, Jr. actually pitched two and a thirds clean innings in Game Three Tuesday night. It took two two-run innings him to get there, and it took two murderous swings to finish his night in the wrong page of the record book, on the absolute wrong end of a 7-0 Phillies win.

But don’t suggest, as the Fox Sports broadcast team and enough of the Twittersphere did, that McCullers might have been tipping his pitches. The Phillies sat so hard on his breaking balls and waited him out so patiently it seemed impossible to believe the guy who returned from a flexor pronator injury to post a 2.36 ERA since August was as vulnerable as he was in Game Three.

“I got whupped,” McCullers said emphatically postgame. “End of story. We got beat up pretty bad, and I got beat pretty bad. I obviously wanted to pitch well, and pitch much better than I did, but at the end of the day, all I can do at this point is get ready to go for a potential Game Seven.”

It may not be unreasonable to question whether the Series gets quite that far, after the Phillies—satisfied to split the opening pair in Houston and come home to the raucous sound of their stop sign-shaped playpen—blasted McCullers in three out of the four and a third innings the righthander managed to pitch.

And, hit the 1,000th home run in World Series play since the Series was introduced in 1903 while they were at it.

Bryce Harper, bottom of the first, with Kyle Schwarber aboard (leadoff walk) and two out—saw only one pitch in that plate appearance, a slightly hanging knuckle curve ball. He hung it two thirds of the way up the lower right center field seats. That made for the sixth time this postseason that Harper sent first pitches flying long distance. It also made for him starting his first World Series game ever in front of a home audience with a bang.

Alec Bohm, leading off bottom of the second—He got a little whispering from Harper before he checked in at the plate leading off. Then he got a McCullers sinker to open that didn’t sink quite enough off the middle of the plate and lined it into the left field seats. Series home run number one thousand, since Pittsburgh’s Jimmy Sebring legged an inside-the-park job off Hall of Famer Cy Young in 1903’s Game One.

Brandon Marsh—Two evil-looking strikeouts later, Marsh hit a 2-0 slider high enough above Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker . . . and in and out of a young fan’s glove above the right field wall. An umpires’ review confirmed what Marsh just finished running out: The fan hadn’t crossed the top of the wall when the ball bounded off the wall top and into and out of his glove back onto the field. Home run. Jeffrey Maier remains singular in fan infamy.

The Schwarbinator—After McCullers pitched two three-and-three innings and looked to be settling in well enough, Schwarber came up with Marsh aboard (one-out line single to right) in the bottom of the fifth and detonated a 1-2 changeup far over the center field fence. Into a greenery of Forest of Arbor Vitae trees.

Rhys Hoskins—Immediately following Schwarber’s nuke, Hoskins wrestled McCullers to a 2-2 count, then drove it about five rows into the left field seats. It also drove McCullers out of the game at last, not to mention driving Astros manager Dusty Baker toward the second-guessers’ booth.

“Hitting itself is a contagious thing without the crowd,” said Hoskins postgame. “But, you throw in the crowd and the noise and the cheers, and I think it just makes it more contagious.” And, noisy. If they’d used a decibel meter in Citizens Bank Park Tuesday night, it would have been broken after the game’s first pitch.

That’s when Phillies starter Ranger Suárez threw Jose Altuve an outside sinker that the Astros’ mighty mite lined the other way to right, and Phillies right fielder Nick Castellanos ran in hard before catching it as he fell into a slide. “When Castellanos made that play in right field,” said Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto, “that was about as loud as I’ve ever heard that stadium.”

“It actually made me think about it,” said Suárez through his interpreter. “If we start like this, then we’re only going to finish even better.” How right he proved to be, even if his five smooth innings pitched turned out to be the footnote to the Phillies’ phlogging.

But why hadn’t Baker gone to his bullpen when the Astros were down by a more manageable four, on a night McCullers didn’t exactly have his A-game? Particularly remembering that the Yankees forced McCullers to battle in Game Four of the American League Championship Series, even if the Yankees didn’t wreak half the Phillies’ Game Three havoc?

Why did Baker let his man stay in long enough to set his own record of surrendering five bombs in a single Series game, enabling the Phillies to be the first in Series history to hit five bombs in five innings of a single game?

“The thought process,” Baker said postgame, “was the fact that he had had two good innings, two real good innings. Then they hit a blooper, a homer, and then I couldn’t get anybody loose. It was my decision.”

Baker brought Ryne Stanek in to stop the fifth inning bleeding and Stanek did his job by striking out the two Phillies he faced to end the inning. Then Baker went to Jose Urquidy, usually a starter but tasked as the long man out of the Astro pen for the postseason.

If the mound itself can be the loneliest place, the second-loneliest might be the long man’s status when his team’s played nine postseason games without need of a bullpen long man. Urquidy was almost the Astro pitching staff’s forgotten man until Tuesday night.

And it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to expect him to show enough rust when he arrived and went to work, even though Urquidy himself told reporters postgame that he works every day, a little warming up pregame, a lot of mental preparation during, just in case.

Except for inning-opening baserunners he wild pitched to second and third in the bottom of the sixth, though, Urquidy managed somehow to keep the carnage from metastasising the rest of the way. Making Baker look just a little foolish for letting McCullers start to see the Phillie lineup a third time in the fifth despite his two clean preceding innings.

“It was kind of mind-boggling,” Baker said, “because he doesn’t give up homers. He usually keeps the ball in the ballpark . . . What can I say? The line score looks bad, but they were just hitting us.”

“Give those guys credit,” McCullers said.

So what did Harper tell Bohm, before the Phillie third baseman checked in and laid McCullers’s first second-inning pitch to waste? Neither Harper nor Bohm would say when asked. “Nothing,” Bohm said, with a little grin.

“I think anytime you have information, you want to be able to give that to your teammates at any point,’’ was just about all Harper would say of it. “So anytime I can help my teammates, throughout the whole season we’ve done that.”  But helping his teammates also sent Harper yet another place into the record books.

His last plate appearance in the Bank prior to Game Three ended in the opposite-field, mud-drenched two-run homer he hit that ended up sending the Phillies to the Series in the first place. Then he detonated the first pitch he saw in the Bank Tuesday night. Nobody before him finished his LCS work at home with a bomb and started his World Series work at home with a bomb a week later.

“He’s a showman,” Realmuto said. “That’s what he is. There’s no doubt about that. He lives for these moments. He really feeds off this crowd and the emotions that they bring. And he doesn’t ever seem to let us down in those moments.”

Phillie shortstop Bryson Scott could only marvel at the early bombings, the first time five of a team’s first twenty batters ever homered in a single Series game at all, never mind against the same man on the mound.

“Ooh,” Stott began. “Bohm’s was cool. Line drive . . . Schwarber’s, though . . . Well, Rhys’ was cool, too. But Schwarber’s, into the trees . . . Bryce’s was awesome, too . . . But Schwarber’s into the trees . . . Oh, and Marsh’s was cool . . .The tree ball, though.” Based on the Gospel According to Stott, the Schwarbinator went tree for Game Three.

But Bohm hit the record books in a way that nobody else possibly can. One hundred and nineteen years after the Series first. Not the Bryce that’s right. Not the Monster Marsh. Not Rhys’s Pieces. Not the Schwarbinator.

The only thing the Bohmbardier seemed able to say after the game was no, man, we might be built like the ancient Strategic Air Command, but we’re really just the Third Army in disguise. “Guys aren’t trying to go up there and just hit homers. We’re hitters. Guys were working at-bats. Guys are taking singles the other way. And sometimes they make a mistake and we get ‘em.”

Sometimes, says the guy who connected on the first Game Three pitch he saw. I just hope the fan who came up with the Bohmb in the stands was told of the millenial milestone and sends it right to the Hall of Fame. Where it’s displayed behind a tiny plaque engraved, only, “Bohm’s Away!”

ALCS Game Three: Rock and troll

Carlos Correa, Eduardo Rodriguez

Rodriguez (right) couldn’t resist trolling Carlos (It’s My Time!) Correa as the top of the sixth ended . . .

Carlos Correa grounded out to end the Astros’s sixth Tuesday night. Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez couldn’t resist pointing to his wrist, trolling Correa’s becoming-more-familiar “It’s my time!” gesture whenever nailing a key Astros hit. There was a birthday boy in the house who wasn’t necessarily amused.

“No, no,” Alex Cora hollered, as Rodriguez returned to the dugout during the sides changing. “Don’t do that!” The last thing the manager wanted on his 46th birthday was any of his Red Sox poking the Houston bear they were taking down, before the bear could even think about stealing their picnic baskets.

Not even the pitcher who’d just pitched six solid innings the only blemish of which was a three-run homer two innings earlier. Not even while the Red Sox still held a six-run lead that finished in a 12-3 demolition giving the Red Sox a 2-1 American League Championship Series advantage and the Astros a monumental migraine.

An inning and a half worth of three-up, three-down baseball that looked to shape into a pitching duel between Rodriguez and Astros starter Jose Urquidy got ripped into a Red Sox demolition in the bottom of the second after starting as a mere tear. Two walks sandwiching a J.D. Martinez one-out double merely loaded the bases for Christian Vazquez’s line single the other way to right field and kept them there.

Oops. Christian Arroyo ripped one off the mound and off Astros second baseman Jose Altuve to send Martinez home with a second Red Sox run. Falling into an early 2-0 hole with ducks still on the pond against these Astros still seemed surmountable. Until Kyle Schwarber told them otherwise.

After taking ball one inside, ball two downstairs, and ball three just inside, Schwarber took Urquidy’s fastball around the middle halfway up the right field seats. It was the third salami slice for the Red Sox in three ALCS games. As if slicing two in Game Two wasn’t precedent enough, the Schwarbinator’s blast made the Red Sox the first ever to slice three in any postseason series.

Kiké Hernández followed Schwarber at once with a base hit pulled up the left field line, and Xander Bogaerts ripped a single up the pipe one out later, and finally Astros manager Dusty Baker got Urquidy out of there before the Red Sox could cover his grave. Yimi Garcia shook off a second-and-third-making wild pitch to dispatch Alex Verdugo for the side at last, but aftershocks were still to come.

They started an inning later, when Hunter Renfroe drew a one-out walk, stole second, then took third when Astros catcher Martin Maldonado’s throw to second bounced away from Altuve, before coming home on Vazquez’s floating base hit into short center. Then Arroyo drove Garcia’s slightly hanging slide into the rear row of the Green Monster seats.

The Astros may have punctured the impenetrable when Astros center fielder Kyle Tucker parked one into the right field seats with Michael Brantley (leadoff single) and Yordan Alvarez (one-out single banged off the Monster but played perfectly by left fielder Verdugo to hold him) aboard in the top of the fourth.

Two innings and three Astro pitchers later, Rafael Devers took a leadoff walk and the Astros got two outs quick enough to follow, especially center field insertion Jose Siri’s sliding catch running in long to take Verdugo’s floater into shallow center. Phil Maton then relieved Brooks Raley for the Astros, and he arrived just in time to feed Martinez something to hit into the Monster seats about as deep as Arroyo’s blast traveled.

Kyle Schwarber

The Schwarbinator slicing salami in the second to start the Red Sox romp in earnest . . .

Before this ALCS ends, the Red Sox may need to put new tires on the laundry cart into which they dump their home run hitters to celebrate the blasts in each moment. They’re already down to the last millimeter of tread as it is.

As if making sure the sealant on the first puncture held fast, Devers turned on Astro relieve Ryan Stanek’s first one-out pitch in the bottom of the eighth and sent that into the Monster seats, too. Renfroe’s diving catch on Correa’s two-out, opposite-field drive in the top of the ninth must have felt like the first mercy shown the Astros all night long.

Astros pitching coach Brent Strom wondered aloud whether his charges might be tipping pitches. Not willing to commit to that quite all the way, he acknowledged that—between the Red Sox’s postseason plate discipline and all-fields approaches and Astro pitchers falling behind in counts so often now—he’s more than a little concerned.

“This is a very good hitting team,” Strom said of the Red Sox, “and they’re very adept at picking up little things, much more so than most teams,” Strom said. “We need to be very cognizant of the little things, tipping-type things, things like that, that they’re very astute at. We’ve just gotten behind hitters.”

Cora said the Red Sox approach began changing when Schwarber came aboard in a July trade with the Nationals. “We were expanding,” Cora said, meaning the strike zone. “We didn’t walk too much, and when he got here and when he started playing, it was different. It’s a different at-bat, and other guys have followed his lead, and right now, like I said, this is the best I’ve seen this team this season offensively.”

Correa thinks the Red Sox aren’t picking up Astro pitch tips so much as they’re just doing their jobs at the plate when the Astros’ pitchers aren’t doing theirs on the mound. As an Astro, it’s murder for Correa. But as a baseball fan, pardon the expression, it’s a blast.

“It’s fun to watch as a fan of the sport, see how everybody in the lineup has the same approach,” the shortstop said. “They’re not chasing. They’re staying in the zone. They’re not swinging at borderline pitches. It’s beautiful what they’re doing. We’ve got to find a way to throw more strikes and keep the ball in the ballpark.”

But as much talk came about Rodriguez giving Correa a taste of his own celebratory medicine as about the Red Sox’s thorough dismantling of the Astros’ balky pitching staff and shaky offense—particularly their big three of Altuve, Brantley, and Alex Bregman now standing a combined 5-for-36 in the set so far—after the game finally ended.

Cora didn’t exactly hold it against Rodriguez, making a point of embracing his pitcher when Rodriguez returned to the dugout. But he still didn’t want Rodriguez or any of his players re-awakening the suddenly sleeping Astro giants.

“We don’t act that way,” he said postgame. “We just show up, we play, and we move on, and he knows. I let him know. We don’t have to do that. If we’re looking for motivation outside of what we’re trying to accomplish, we’re in the wrong business. The only motivation we have is to win four games against them and move on to the next round.”

Correa didn’t exactly mind. The way he spoke postgame, you’d have thought the Astros forgot about such concepts as bulletin-board fodder. “He did my celebration,” said the shortstop liable to command a nice free agency deal this winter, no matter his Astrogate past.

“I thought it was kind of cool,” continued Correa, who’d done his “It’s my time” wrist-tap in Game One after breaking a three-all tie with an eighth-inning bomb. “It’s just the way baseball should trend. I loved it personally . . . I keep it real all the time and say how it is.”

Rodriguez admitted he was caught up in the moment after getting Correa to end the sixth. Cora was stern but not exactly harsh with his pitcher back in the dugout. His embrace fit perfectly with Rodriguez’s previous insistence that Cora was like a father or older brother to his players as well as a manager.

“He understands that we’re not that way.” said Cora, whose Red Sox almost got humbled out of the races in the second half between injuries, COVID sufferings, and a bullpen remake. “We talk about humble approach and humble players, and that’s who we are. We like to grind, and we like to play, but we don’t do that.”

Well, good Lord, a team hammering and blasting its way to a rout can’t be faulted for being just a little less than humble in the moment here and there. Can they?

Mystique and Aura have left the building

Xander Bogaerts

Bogaerts throwing the perfect strike to the plate to bag Aaron Judge, after Yankee third base coach Phil Nevins didn’t stop Judge rounding third at the moment Bogaerts released the throw. This is the kind of thing that used to make Red Sox life living hell—in the last century.

If we must suffer the wild card system still, we hope yet that the wild card games themselves have potential for excitement, and maybe even a little transcendence. The kind that happened in the American League wild card game Tuesday night, in Fenway Park, was everything the Yankees didn’t have in mind.

Their season ended in a 6-2 loss to the Red Sox that flipped the too-long script of Yankee-Red Sox surrealities past and ancient. Because something that usually happened in the last century to the Red Sox, when they could just taste even a piece of glory, happened to the Yankees Tuesday night.

Two teams about whose seasons it could be said most politely that they threatened to implode at too many points collided. The Red Sox played like a championship team. The Yankees played like a team whose destiny was disaster. This was not the natural order of things for either side before the turn of this century.

That was the Twentieth Century: Dubious decisions with games on the line or close enough to it compounded what seemed ages of Red Sox disaster. This was Tuesday night: A dubious decision when the Yankees could have had a clean chance at possibly tying the wild card game all but guaranteed their homegoing instead.

Much as you’d like to see the sports goat business put out of business once and for all, it’s going to be hard to resist planting those horns squarely upon the head of Yankee third base coach Phil Nevin for what transpired in the top of the sixth.

Nevin only thought he could send Aaron Judge all the way home from first, when Giancarlo Stanton drove one off Red Sox reliever Ryan Brasier that looked like it was going to fly into the Green Monster seats. Until it didn’t. It banged off that notorious wall and to the ground in left center, where Red Sox left fielder Alex Verdugo overran the ball but center fielder Enrique Hernandez running right played the carom almost perfectly and threw in.

Hernandez fired a perfect strike to Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts as the cutoff man, and—as Judge rounded third barreling home on his long legs—Bogaerts whipped around to fire a perfect strike to Red Sox catcher Kevin Plawecki. Judge started his dive as Plawecki caught the throw, and Judge was a dead pigeon with his right hand about two feet from touching the plate.

Instead of first and third and one out, after finally ridding themselves of Boston’s lights-out starting pitcher Nathan Eovaldi, the Yankees settled for Stanton on second and two out. With Joey Gallo coming to the plate and popping out to Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers playing it back on the short outfield grass for the side.

And, with every cheering jaw in Fenway Park still dropped over Nevin turning Judge into a kamikaze.

Yankee manager Aaron Boone takes an excessive share of abuse for the Yankees’ in-season hiccups and postseason shortfalls—especially with his contract expiring now, but just about since he first took the Yankee bridge. Never mind that Boone managed back-to-back 100+ win seasons in his first two years on that bridge, which no Yankee manager did before him. Never mind the Yankees averaging 98 wins a year in his three full seasons on that bridge.

But even Boone’s worst critics can’t get away with hanging this one on him. Not that they’re not trying. From almost the moment Boone took the bridge in the first place, the first Yankee shortfall of any given series or season—a bad pitch, a bad plate appearance, a bad inning, a one-game losing streak—has brought demands for Boone’s perp walk and summary execution. Preferably five minutes earlier.

You’d think Yankeetown still hasn’t grasped the concept that it’s entirely possible for the other guys to play better and smarter when it means the most. Which is exactly what happened Tuesday night.

Boone once broke Red Sox Nation hearts with his pennant-winning blast in the bottom of the eleventh in Yankee Stadium in 2003. Now the poor man seemed as befuddled himself as everyone else in Fenway Park and in the ESPN television audience for making sense of Nevin’s send.

“I think . . . the ball coming in looked like it was going to be kind of an in-between hop to the infielder,” Boone said postgame about Hernandez’s throw in to Bogaerts. “Bogaerts did a good job of creating a hop, catching it clean and and obviously throwing home and getting him. And that kind of squashed the potential rally there, so I think what [Nevin] saw was what he thought was going to be kind of an in-between hop and really a tough chance.”

“Create” the hop? Bogaerts was simply standing on the short center field grass waiting for the throw and the hop created itself, right into Bogaerts’s glove held out to his left. He turned at the split second the ball hit his glove and threw home perfectly.

Bogaerts talking postgame said that play and his part in it meant even more than the two-run homer he drilled into the center field bleachers off Yankee starter Gerrit Cole in the top of the first. Small wonder. The Red Sox were the American League’s most defensively challenged team of the regular season. On Tuesday night they found it in them to play far above their own defensive heads when it mattered the most.

“That [play] was better than a homer for me, personally,” he said. “I mean, if that run scores, it’s 3-2. Stanton is at second base, the whole momentum is on their side. The dugout is getting pumped up. As Judge was out at home, I saw Stanton was pretty mad. He probably wanted a homer there, but also an RBI, and he didn’t get that, and he probably felt like he didn’t do much because that run didn’t score. But that changed the game.”

The Monster factor was made only too vivid in the bottom of the sixth, when Alex Verdugo sent a high liner to deep right off Yankee pitcher Luis Severino working in relief. The ball bounced off the lower part of the fence, a clean enough double, well enough to enable Bogaerts (aboard with a one-out walk) to score the fourth Red Sox run of the night.

Three times Tuesday night Stanton hit what looked like certain home runs. Aside from the sixth-inning rip that indeed turned out to change the game irrevocably, he ripped one so high toward the Monster that even the Red Sox thought it was going to disappear. Until it didn’t. Stanton was so certain that he settled into his home run trot and was held to a measly single.

In the top of the ninth, against Red Sox relief pitcher (and former Yankee product) Garrett Whitlock, Stanton sent a parabolic launch the other way into the right field seats just past the Pesky Pole himself. By then it was an excuse-me! shot for only the second Yankee run. Whittaker ended the game by getting Yankee second baseman Gleyber Torres to pop out to right.

Kyle Schwarber

The Schwarbinator became the first of two former Cubs batting leadoff Tuesday night to strike big . . .

Legends real and alleged used to include longtime Chicago newspaper star Mike Royko’s postulate that the team with the most ex-Cubs lost. The Red Sox and the Yankees may have really tempted real or imagined ancient fates with their chosen leadoff men Tuesday night: World Series-winning ex-Cub teammates Kyle Schwarber (designated hitter, Red Sox, by way of the Nationals) and Anthony Rizzo (first baseman, Yankees, at this year’s trade deadline).

Those moves came of dire necessity, actually. The Red Sox lacked designated hitter J.D. Martinez after he rolled his ankle in the Red Sox season finale, and the Yankees lacked second base regular D.J. LeMahieu thanks to a sports hernia. So, naturally, the Elysian Fields gods decided to have a little mad fun. Right?

Schwarber struck first. With Cole already having a miserable evening in the hole 2-0, the Schwarbinator led off the bottom of the third by driving a 1-2 service no doubt and about twelve rows into the right field seats. Rizzo struck back with one out in the top of the sixth, hitting Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi’s first service on a high line inside that Pesky Pole for the first Yankee run. Then Judge promptly beat out a tough bouncer to shortstop.

The good news for the Yankees is that that finally got Eovaldi out of the game, after he’d manhandled them brilliantly through five and a third including eight strikeouts and no walks. The bad news was Judge on the threshold of disaster on the Stanton home run that wasn’t and the Nevin send that shouldn’t have been.

No Yankee reached base on walks all night. Seven Red Sox reached on walks from Cole and three Yankee relievers. Only Clay Holmes out of the Yankee pen, facing five batters, didn’t walk a single Red Sox batter while surrendering one hit and striking one out. The walks really burned the Yankees in the bottom of the seventh, when Verdugo sent the insurance runs home with two out, slashing a two-run single against Yankee reliever Chad Green to score Hernandez and Schwarber—both of whom had reached on walks.

That Yankee sixth is what used to happen to the Red Sox when they could just taste even a piece of glory in their mouths. Something surreal. Something from The Twilight Zone. Something else from The Outer Limits. Something more from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Leaving the Red Sox yet again fallen to the rocks below when they’d gotten to within one mile or a few innings of the mountaintop.

Why, even B.F. Dent himself—hitter of the home run that broke an earlier generation of New England hearts in the 1978 American League East playoff game—was in the Fenway stands and chatting for one minute with ESPN analyst Buster Olney. (He admitted he’s still asked about that three-run homer into the ancient Monster net—about two or three times a day.)

Except that the ESPN audience probably noticed Dent a lot more than the crowd around him in the stands did. They were too well and appropriately occupied with the Yankees incurring the kind of outrageous malfortune that once seemed the birthright of Red Sox baseball.

Before the game Dent predicted to Boston Globe columnist (and author of The Curse of the Bambino) Dan Shaughnessy, “I think Gerrit Cole will pitch a great game, and I think the Yankees will beat ’em.” That’d teach him. Cole pitched two full innings in the hole 2-0 and got nobody out while facing two more batters after Schwarber’s leadoff launch in the third.

This time, it was the Yankees crushed by trans-dimensional furies and a fatal miscalculation. It’s starting to become as much a Yankee thing this century as a Red Sox thing last. From Dave Roberts stealing second to launch that surreal 2004 Red Sox self-resurrection to Jose Altuve’s pennant-winning two-run homer, it looks as though Mystique and Aura really have left the building.

The ladies didn’t have to take Phil Nevin’s baseball brain with them, though.

Wherever the Red Sox go from here, and they know it won’t be easy tangling with the AL East champion Rays in a division series, nothing can change the extraterrestrial triumph over the Empire Emeritus that gives them that chance in the first place.