Yu’re kidding, right?

2019-11-16 YuDarvish

Yu Darvish looking staggered after surrendering the 2017 World Series homer that knocked him out of Game Seven after an inning and two thirds.

Practically from the moment Mike Fiers triggered Astrogate, there came a swell of blended rage and remorse from Dodger fans still smarting over Yu Darvish getting battered twice in the World Series, especially Game Seven. A lot of which fans now wanted to apologise. To Darvish.

All of a sudden a high-tech cheating scandal made a hero out of a pitcher whom we thought was caught tipping his pitches and battered accordingly, while any Dodger who was supposed to spot those things didn’t spot them. And who still felt the compulsion to apologise on the record just a couple of days later.

Just two years ago Darvish was Public Enemy Number One. Now, all of a sudden, he was embraced as another possible victim of the Astro Intelligence Agency. As God and His servant Branch Rickey are my witnesses, I swear sports fans take a back seat to few for absurdism.

You could have been Los Angeles’s most notorious wanted criminal, and you wouldn’t have inspired half the dragnet Dodger fans wanted to run to capture, draw, and quarter Darvish. And whatever was left of him. Now the guy who was compelled wrongly to a public apology in the first place gets a lavish bubble bath of apologies from the same fans.

“Why am I trending [sic]?” Darvish tweeted on Day One of Astrogate. “Do people finally realize I’m cool?” Priceless.

He’s too polite to reject them directly, but he’s too self-aware to accept them sight unseen. “I’m not looking for that,” he said in a post on his YouTube channel. “I don’t want them to change their minds.” Be careful what Yu wish for.

A simple “I stunk, that’s all” from Darvish on Twitter wasn’t enough. Nor, perhaps, is his further YouTube demurral. “If you ask me if I got hit in Game Seven because they stole signs, I don’t think so,” he said, in a translation by the Los Angeles Times columnist Dylan Hernandez. “The Astros have great players who don’t have to do that. So I think that whether or not they stole signs, the results wouldn’t have changed.”

Notice Darvish’s phrasing. I said more or less the same thing myself in a previous Astrogate entry. About the Astros having great players who don’t have to resort to crime, high tech or otherwise. Which is almost as much of what makes Astrogate such an outrage as the fact that they so flagrantly broke the actual rules about off-field electronic surveillance in the first place.

These Astros needed high tech spying to win about as much as Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign CREEPs needed whatever they were looking for—while so ineptly bugging Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex—for their man to win by a landslide in 1972.

And the Astros are accused only of operating the AIA in Minute Maid Park. So far. Nobody’s yet suggested they sent the agency on surveillance missions in road ballparks in the first place, never mind gotten away with it if they had.

Unless there’s evidence yet to be exhumed, it’s not very likely that the Astros bugged Dodger Stadium to get the drop on Darvish. Unless they had a mole among the stadium personnel, any Astro personnel trying to set up electronic surveillance in the road ballpark would have been caught, thrown out of the stadium, and maybe have to answer to la policia in the bargain.

Wouldn’t they?

Even Darvish himself let the suggestion enter his mind for a moment. “What’s been reported up to this point is that they used cameras at their home field,” he said, “so I don’t know if there was anything like that. But what they were doing was so high-level that I can’t honestly say there’s no chance they were also doing it on the road.”

Dodger fans wanting to make it up to Darvish should stop right at the point of apologising for wanting to hang him after the 2017 World Series. Especially since he wasn’t the only reason the Astros won Game Seven, and getting sent to bed without his supper after an inning and two thirds still left the Dodgers plenty of time to overthrow the 5-0 hole the Dodgers were in when he departed.

Memory time, boys and girls. Darvish’s Game Seven evening began with a leadoff double by George Springer and Springer coming home on a throwing error in the infield, allowing Alex Bregman aboard to reach second on the play. Then Bregman stole third with Jose Altuve at the plate, and Altuve pushed Bregman home on an unassisted ground out to first. Two runs, unearned, in the top of the first.

Top of the second? Brian McCann opened with a full-count walk. Marwin Gonzalez doubled him to third. Josh Reddick grounded out to second. And Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers, Jr. pushed McCann home and Gonzalez to third on another ground out to second, before Springer hit a full-count pitch into the left field bleachers.

Where were the Dodger brain trusters who didn’t catch him tipping pitches and fix it before the Astros could do any more damage than the Dodgers gifted them in the top of the first?

Where were the Dodger hitters who looked McCullers’s gift horse in the mouth, putting two or more on against him the first few innings including ducks on the pond in the bottom of the first, but swinging like Little Leaguers trying to hit six-run homers on every pitch and leaving the runners grounds for court martials, charges desertion?

The only reward Dodger fans got for Brandon Morrow (ending the second), Clayton Kershaw (four scoreless in relief), Kenley Jansen (a scoreless seventh), and Alex Wood (scoreless eighth and ninth) stopping the bleeding was a one-out RBI single from Andre Ethier in the sixth. The Dodgers had two or better on and men on second or better in five of the first six innings, and Ethier was the only man to cash in.

Now the Dodgers deny pitch tipping was the issue. Their roster included now-retired Chase Utley, said to be expert at catching pitch tipping. “[He] watched the Darvish outings,” says team president Andrew Friedman, “and said you couldn’t sell out on something that Darvish was doing.”

Darvish’s ERA in the first two 2017 postseason rounds was 1.62. His Series ERA: 21.60. The 2017 Dodgers won three more regular season games than the Astros despite the Astros out-hitting them—the Dodgers’ team ERA on that season was 3.38; the Astros’, 4.12. And you don’t need me to tell you the flip side of, “Good pitching beats good hitting.”

Was Darvish more right saying “I stunk?” Or did the Astros find some way to take the AIA on the road with them, after all? Were they that nervous about the Dodgers’ potential to out-pitch them?

I’ve written until I was blue in the fingers about baseball’s goats and fans inane enough to try making their lives to follow nightmares. The last time was in the immediate wake of Bill Buckner’s death on Memorial Day. I inadvertently omitted Darvish from the roll of those who really needed no forgiveness because there wasn’t a damn thing to forgive in the first place.

When Thomas Boswell eulogised Donnie Moore, after Moore’s shocking suicide in 1989, he wrote with no small indignation, “Many of us wish that, just once, we could be in your shoes and have a chance to fail so grandly. Although, if we really had to live the experience and its aftermath, which sometimes lasts a lifetime, maybe we would not.”

So Darvish had five runs torn out of him before he could get a third out in the Game Seven second? That didn’t make him a criminal. It made him a pitcher who tried and failed. The most successful people on earth try and fail, usually before their successes and more often than you think after them.

And they don’t all go to work with 50,000+ plus waiting to watch them in the office and millions more eavesdropping in front of television or radio, either.

Angel fans refused to forgive Moore for throwing a great pitch that Dave Henderson managed somehow to send over the left field fence to tie a game when the Angels were a strike away from the 1986 World Series. Haunted as it was, Moore was finally driven to shoot his wife and then himself. Only his wife survived.

He was only preceded by Fred Merkle, Freddie Lindstrom, Ernie Lombardi, Johnny Pesky, Ralph Branca, Gene Mauch, Willie Davis, Curt Flood, Luis Aparicio, Mike Torrez, Tom Niedenfeuer, and Don Denkinger. He was only followed by Buckner (in the ’86 World Series), Mitch Williams, Alex Gonzalez, Grady Little, and—so far as Astro fans are concerned (wrongly, I might add)—A.J. Hinch.

Come to think of it, if the Astros ended up losing the 2017 Series Ken Giles might have had the goat horns plopped on his head. His crimes included surrendering a fisted cue shot to Corey Seager on an inside fastball, walking Justin Turner on five pitches four of which were borderline corner calls, and throwing Cody Bellinger a fastball off the middle that was driven to deep left center to break a one-all Game Four tie in the top of the ninth.

Hinch brought in Joe Musgrove, who struck Yasiel Puig out and put Logan Forsythe aboard to load the pads for a double play, then surrendered a sacrifice fly before throwing Joc Pederson a slightly up, slightly in fastball on 0-1 and watching it sail into the right field seats.

But Giles took the abuse. Despite owning up after the game: “I didn’t do my job. Plain and simple. I let my team down.” Despite George Springer springing to his and Musgrove’s defense concurrently: “This game’s hard. They’re not out there trying to fail. I hope [Hinch] keeps giving ’em the ball. I have the utmost confidence in them, and I’m glad they’re on my team.”

Giles didn’t see another inning’s work in that Series. And it may have gotten to him a little more in the long run. He struggled in early 2018 and fumed when being lifted after a bad outing against the Athletics. He was demoted to the minors, then traded—in classic adding insult-to-injury style—to the Blue Jays . . . for then domestic violence-suspended Robert Osuna.

The Astros took a public relations beating over acquiring Osuna. And during this year’s World Series, assistant GM Brandon Taubman was fired after the Astros embarrassed themselves trying to defend his indefensible hollering with women reporters in post-ALCS triumph earshot that he was so fornicating glad they got Osuna.

Already still under questioning by baseball government over that incident, Taubman is now liable to face Astrogate questioning—as in, what did he know about the AIA and to what extent did he know it—while he’s at it.

Giles, meanwhile, regrouped entirely in Toronto. Though he finished 2018 on the down side, in 2019 he had a breathtaking comeback—a 2.27 fielding-independent pitching rate and a 1.87 ERA. Except that since he was in Toronto, nobody other than Blue Jays fans cared—if you didn’t count the trade deadline interest he drew before elbow inflammation put him on the injured list before the All-Star break.

Darvish went on to sign a mega-deal with the Cubs. He struggled out of the 2018 chute before going down for the season thanks to a triceps strain and concurrent elbow stress reactions. It’s not impossible that he put pressure on himself trying to live up to his new contract. Wasn’t the first, won’t be the last.

This year, Darvish struggled to regain his form—indignant Cub fans referred to him too often as “Flu Garbage”—before going mostly lights out in August and September: he was still prone to the long ball (well, so was American League Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander), but his ERA for those two months was 2.99.

And he really doesn’t want to think that the AIA did him in in Game Seven two years ago. “I feel that if I absolve myself and say it was the Astros’ fault . . . I can’t develop as a person,” he said in his YouTube posting.

“In life, I think huge failures are extremely important. I’ve had a few up to this point,” he continued. “The World Series was one of them. I think it will remain a point of reference for me. I’ve already learned a lot from it. So regarding that, I can’t view myself charitably. I think I have to continue to accept the results.”

That makes him an even better man than he already showed himself to be. But we’re going to learn soon enough whether Astrogate involves robbing their road hosts. And if it does, who were their Bonnie and Clyde?

Ron Fairly, RIP: See ya later

2019-11-03 RonFairly

Ron Fairly. (Seattle Mariners photograph.)

There’s plenty to be said for a fellow whose baseball life involves over seven thousand games, as a player and a broadcaster. There’s more to be said for Ron Fairly, who died at 81 on the morning the Nationals—for whom Fairly once played when they were the infant Montreal Expos—won the World Series last week.

Fairly was a solid first baseman and outfielder who studied the game as attentively as he played it. When he became a broadcaster, his habits included calling walks by saying, “Those bases on balls, they’ll kill you every time.” Fairly should have known if anyone did: his playing statistics include 1,022 walks to 877 strikeouts. That’s a 0.83 strikeout to walk ratio, .84 below the Show average in his 21 seasons.

A lefthanded hitter with more than a little power, and blessed with almost the perfect surname for a major league hitter, Fairly was killed at the plate by his two Dodger home parks, the Los Angeles Coliseum (the baseball field shoehorned into the football emporium was hell on portsiders who didn’t always hit the other way) and Dodger Stadium (heaven for pitchers, hell for hitters) from 1959 (his first full season) through 1968 (his final full year as a Dodger).

And he knew it.

“I played in an era— the 1960s—that might have been the most difficult in which to make your living, as a hitter, of any in the history of the game of baseball,” said Fairly to FanGraphs interviewer David Laurila in 2011. “I played in Dodger Stadium, which was a big ballpark where the ball didn’t carry very well. It doesn’t take many [lost] hits during the course of a season for your average to drop a little bit, and you weren’t going to have as many home runs or RBIs there.”

He probably had the one of the most quiet instances of World Series shining of them all. Seven Dodger position players played all seven games of the 1965 Series and Fairly out-hit all of them, including Maury Wills, first base mainstay-to-be Wes Parker, the season’s super-sub Lou Johnson, and veteran Jim (Junior) Gilliam, who’d come out of retirement to play most of the season at third base and made a key play to save Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s Game Seven shutout.

Fairly’s 1.069 OPS for that Series was the tops among the Dodgers by far, well enough beyond Johnson’s .914. He went 11-for-29 with three doubles and two home runs against the Twins and drove six runs home while he was at it. It was a Series that threatened to become an all-home-team-winning set before Koufax’s Game Seven shutout.

“We started Sandy instead of [Hall of Famer Don] Drysdale, and the reason is that Sandy was more muscular and it would have taken him too long to warm up,” Fairly remembered to Laurila of that game. “Drysdale could warm up a lot faster if Sandy got into trouble.”

Koufax did struggle in the early innings, finding his vaunted curve ball unreliable and deciding to go strictly fastball the rest of the way. “It wasn’t until about the sixth or seventh inning that Sandy started to settle down, loosen up and get it going,” Fairly said. “On two days’ rest, he probably threw 140 pitches—maybe 160—and he was throwing better in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings than he was in the first three innings.”

(Don’t go there: before you start lamenting that today’s pitcher’s haven’t got the kidney to work like that, be reminded that Koufax would pitch only one more season to come, then retire after it, at thirty, beyond the top of his game. Among other things, continuing to be a human medical experiment to keep him pitching despite a then-unfixable arthritic pitching elbow was liable to compromise something a little more important to Koufax—like the rest of his life.)

Fairly also scored the only Dodger run in Game Two (which Koufax pitched after declining Game One because of Yom Kippur); he scored the first Dodger run in Game Three; he sent the first of four Dodger insurance runs home off Twins relief mainstay Al Worthington; his RBI double off Jim Kaat in the third gave Koufax a 4-0 Game Five cushion.

And he followed Johnson’s fourth-inning Game Seven homer with a double before coming home when his first base successor Parker bounced one over Twins first baseman Don Mincher’s head immediately to follow. Said Fairly, “[T]hat was it. Sandy took care of the rest.”

Fairly also remembered the ugliest moment of that 1965 season, the Candlestick Park brawl that climaxed a weekend of tensions between the Dodgers and the Giants, kicked off when Dodger catcher John Roseboro threw a return pitch to Koufax that zipped right past Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal’s head in the batter’s box—when Marichal was still looking ahead of and not behind himself.

Marichal had knocked Fairly down at the plate in the third inning, a little pushback after Koufax—who generally preferred domination over intimidation, but answering for a knockdown of Maury Wills in the first—sent one sailing over Hall of Famer Willie Mays’s head in the second. Marichal was less than thrilled, too, that Wills opened the game bunting for a base hit and Fairly drove him home two outs later.

When Marichal eventually came up to hit leading off the bottom of the third, Fairly was stationed in right field and occupied mostly by the wind that afternoon when Koufax threw Marichal a strike inside that Roseboro let get past him.

“After the pitch was made to Juan,” Fairly told Laurila, “I looked down because the wind was blowing so much, and all of a sudden I heard this roar. I looked up and here was Juan swinging the bat and both teams were running out of the dugout.” The return throw tripped Marichal’s trigger when he realised how close he’d been to a hole in the head.

As John Rosengren (in The Fight of Their Lives) and others have attested, both Marichal and Roseboro were buffeted by off-field events. Marichal was haunted by that year’s civil war in his native Dominican Republic, where his cousin was a presidential running mate; Roseboro was haunted by the Watts riots in Los Angeles.

And when Marichal wheeled around screaming “Why you do that??” he saw Roseboro advancing toward him, knowing Roseboro was karate trained, and in one sickening instant was overcome by fear. That’s when he brought his bat down on Roseboro’s head; it didn’t catch Roseboro’s head flush on but struck enough to open a gash over the catcher’s eye.

“Mays and Len Gabrielson were the two guys on the Giants who tried to break that fight up,” remembered Fairly. “Keep in mind, there wasn’t a lot of love between the Giants and Dodgers. We didn’t even like their uniforms. They didn’t like ours.”

Fairly knew how completely out of character the brawl was for both the normally genial, prankish Marichal (whose wife swore he never awoke on the wrong side of the bed) and the quiet but attentive Roseboro. Indeed, Roseboro eventually forgave Marichal, the two became friends, and Roseboro campaigned for Marichal after the great pitcher was denied first-ballot Hall of Fame enshrinement.

“When you talk about all of the great pitching staffs the Dodgers had, keep in mind that Roseboro was the guy putting the fingers down,” Fairly told Laurila. “John was really good at calling games. He was one of the quietest guys I was ever around, but also one of the nicest. His locker was next to mine for years.”

Fairly remained with the Dodgers until 1969, when he was traded to the maiden voyaging Expos in a deal that brought Maury Wills (exiled to Pittsburgh after he walked away from the Dodgers’ winter ’66 tour of Japan) back to the Dodgers. He spent six seasons with the Expos before they traded him to the Cardinals; now already a part-time player, he also spent time with the Athletics (after their ’70s glory seasons), the Blue Jays, and the Angels before calling it a career.

The trade to Montreal affected Fairly negatively. He wasn’t a cold weather fan as it was, he didn’t like losing after those years of Dodger success, and he was haunted, says a Society for American Baseball Research biography, when he showed his then four-year-old son where Montreal is and the boy replied, “Does this mean I don’t have a daddy anymore?”

When he finished with the Angels it didn’t mean the end of his baseball life. Owner Gene Autry offered him a three-year deal in 1979 to broadcast Angel games on television with Dick Enberg and his old Dodger teammate Don Drysdale. Fairly stayed in the Angel booth until 1987, when came the crowning irony of his broadcast life: the Giants, of all people, invited him to take over for play-by-play man Hank Greenwald.

Try to imagine the Dodgers replacing Vin Scully with Russ Hodges (the legendary longtime voice of the Giants) and you have an idea how popular Fairly wasn’t in San Francisco. At least, not until the Giants brought Greenwald back to pair with him. “[We] had a lot of laughs,” Fairly said of their time together, which ended when Fairly moved up the Pacific to step into the Mariners booth. Where he stayed, very popular, until he retired in 2006.

He was known wherever he was on the air for “See ya later” calling home runs (including Hall of Famer Ken Griffey, Jr.’s in an eighth consecutive game) and as a raconteur steeped in baseball history and borne of a fine wit.

A favourite among Mariners fans was Fairly’s recollection of Koufax manhandling Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle in the 1963 World Series. As the sides changed and Mantle passed Fairly at first on the way back to centerfield, Mantle cracked, “Hey, Red, tell the bastard to lighten up, he’s making me look bad.”

Fairly made one more return to the broadcast booth, when the Mariners’ Hall of Fame announcer Dave Niehaus died unexpectedly after the 2010 season and Fairly filled in for a third of 2011. After that, it was home to Palm Springs and a quiet life of grandchildren and golf until esophageal cancer invaded and at last overtook him. “He had seemingly beaten the disease,” writes Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington) columnist Larry Stone, “but friends say it was the radiation that did him in.”

As a hitter, Fairly looked on the surface as though he cratered almost completely after Koufax’s retirement. He told an interviewer it was sort of Drysdale’s fault:

Drysdale told (general manager) Buzzie (Bavasi) that we should lengthen the grass and slow down the infield. I thought that was crazy. We were a ground ball/line drive team. We didn’t hit the ball in the air. Well, Buzzie lengthened the grass and it killed me. I didn’t have the speed to beat out infield hits and ground balls that had been getting through for me were winding up in infielders’ gloves.

Obviously, as a baseball theoretician Don Drysdale was one helluva pitcher.

Early in his career, Fairly had the distinction of rooming with Hall of Famer Duke Snider, a California native who also became a broadcaster after his playing days. Snider loved to regale the kid with tales from Ebbets Field where Snider’s prodigious power hitting and handsome looks earned him the nickname the Duke of Flatbush.

According to Laurila, Fairly remembered Snider saying he was batting in Ebbets Field with Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella on deck—with his chest protector and shin guards still strapped on. Campanella apparently didn’t think Snider could hit the pitcher in question with two out.

“Duke wouldn’t get in the batter’s box until Campy took them off,” Fairly said. “A few pitches later, Duke popped the ball up in the air. As he was running to first base, he was hollering at Campy, and Campy was laughing at him.”

I hope Fairly is giving them all a little friendly hell about it while they share a drink in the Elysian Fields now. Then, I hope Campanella gets to horn in with some jokes, and Mantle asks them to tell some bastard to lighten up, when Fairly, Drysdale, and Snider get to call some more games together up there.

Clayton Kershaw’s darkest hour

2019-10-10 ClaytonKershaw

Clayton Kershaw.

Stories emerged that, after the Nationals sent the Dodgers home for the winter Wednesday night, Dodger fans between rage and sorrow ran over Clayton Kershaw jerseys outside Dodger Stadium. Maybe someone should ask them if they could have done it better in front of 55,000 in the park and a few million in front of television sets.

You and me know the answer damn well. Joe and Jane Fan wouldn’t have had one thirty-second of the guts to go out there and taken the risk Kershaw took when manager Dave Roberts pushed both men’s luck and sent Kershaw out to start the top of the eighth.

By all right of logic Roberts should have given Kershaw a pat on the fanny, a big hearty thank you for striking Adam Eaton out to get the Dodgers out of a seventh-inning jam, and the rest of the night off, and then sent Kenta Maeda out for the eighth to do what Roberts in his original mind thought he should do, have Maeda dealing with Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto.

Kershaw’s professional enough to go out and try to do his job when called upon. If you think he went back out for the top of the eighth knowing he’d serve back-to-back pitches to be hit for back-to-back home runs, just mosey on back to the Flat Earth Society.

“We win as a team, we lose as a team,” mourned reliever Kenley Jansen, who’d made two division series appearances and struck out two in an inning and two-thirds’ work without so much as an accidental bump but whom, for whatever reason, Roberts didn’t want to trust while the Dodgers still had a 3-1 Game Five lead.

Tell it to Kershaw, as his teammates generally did after the Nats buried the Dodgers, 7-3, thanks to Howie Kendrick. He may or may not believe you. Even though he probably knows his overall body of work has a space for his plaque in the Hall of Fame in due course, Kershaw has a hard time forgiving himself for the too-well-chronicled hellhound on his postseason trail.

“That’s the hardest part every year,” lamented the lefthander whose beard doesn’t quite negate a still-boyish face that just had the friendly grin wiped off by the neighbourhood bully. “When you don’t win the last game of the season and you’re to blame, it’s not fun . . . Everything people say is true right now about the postseason. I understand that. Nothing I can do about it right now. It’s a terrible feeling, it really is.”

Kershaw is too polite and too self-critical to allow himself the thought that maybe, just maybe, his immediate supervisor set him up to fail.

When he relieved Game Five starter Walker Buehler in the seventh, after Buehler’s magnificent performance was punctured by a frightening drill of Kurt Suzuki leading to first and second and one out, Kershaw looked like the man of the moment striking Eaton out on three pitches to retire the side unscathed. And the Dodgers were a mere six outs from going to the National League Championship Series.

But in the eighth Kershaw threw Rendon a 1-0 fastball that looked like it would nick the floor of the strike zone and Rendon managed to send it over the left field fence. The next pitch Kershaw threw was a slider that hung to Soto, and Soto hung it into the right field bleachers. Then Roberts reached for Maeda. And Maeda struck out the side.

You can blame Kershaw for allowing the game to be tied up at three if you must. But he wasn’t anywhere near the mound when Kendrick turned on a down-and-in fastball with the bases loaded and nobody out in the top of the tenth and sent it up and over the center field fence.

Kershaw wasn’t but Joe Kelly was. Kelly, who’d suffered through a shoulder-troubled season about which “modest” may be an understatement. Kelly, who’d gone through the Nats in order in the ninth and provoked Roberts to push their luck again.

Kelly, whom Roberts trusted over Jansen and trade deadline pickup Adam Kolarek’s 0.77 ERA since becoming a Dodger and spotless division series work to date. Kelly, who surrendered maybe the single most humiliating hit against the Dodgers since Bobby Thomson’s was-it-or-wasn’t-it-tainted pennant winning Shot Heard ‘Round the World.

Not even the destruction wreaked by Red Sox spare part Steve Pearce in Game Five of last year’s World Series hit that far below the Dodger belt.

The worst part isn’t just that Kershaw’s getting the blame yet again for his manager setting him up for failure. It’s that he doesn’t quite understand and may never really know why he can be pitching’s version of Masterpiece Theater during the regular season but pitching’s version of My Mother, the Car in the postseason.

Don’t dismiss it as the pressure getting to him once and for all time. A man who lets pressure get to him is a man who wouldn’t pick himself up and try again over and over and over again. Say whatever else you want about Kershaw but you won’t get a conviction if you charge him with lacking fortitude.

Kershaw has had his moments of postseason triumph, few though they’ve been. The failures have outweighed them so profoundly they’re all but forgotten. And he’s not the pitcher he used to be anymore. The bullet fastball and shark-bite slider are gone. He spent this season remaking himself into a pitcher who survives by thought and guile. His 3.03 regular-season ERA is the highest he’s posted since his 2009 breakout, but a lot of pitchers would drink hemlock if they thought it would get their ERAs down to that number.

It’s bad enough that the sports goat business is still doing boffo business with Joe and Jane Fan. It’s worse when you see a man go out under the most ferocious pressure in games, with no thought in his mind other than doing his job with as little thought of failure as possible, no matter how often he’s been beaten under that pressure in the past, and get beaten on the spot.

Joe and Jane Fan can never admit to themselves that the other guys can be just a little bit better. It can only be their guys stinking up the joint as usual. If Rendon and Soto had missed by even less than a hair, they’d be calling for Kershaw’s statue outside Dodger Stadium.

They can’t admit Rendon and Soto were just better in those two fateful moments. No other explanation is acceptable. So they run over Kershaw’s jerseys in the Dodger Stadium parking lot with the minds of four year olds who’ve just been told no milk and cookies today.

Because he’s a Hall of Famer in waiting otherwise who’s been turned into a postseason pinata for too long. Well, I get that. But I also get that you could fill a room with the Hall of Famers who were bested with championships on the line. I won’t even begin to think now of the Hall of Famers who never got a chance to play for a championship at all.

Or the genuinely great teams who got shoved to one side in the World Series or before the postseason ended. The 1952-53 Boys of Summer, anyone? The 1954 Indians? The 1969 Orioles? The 2001 Mariners? Almost every Brave in creation between 1991 and 2005?

And guess what happened the morning after?

The sun still rose. The flora still bloomed. The fauna still played. The government continued its mischief. The nation still went to work, went to school, went about its everyday business. The world didn’t come spinning to a dead halt. Not even in southern California, not even for Dodger fans who’ve seen their team win a seventh straight National League West and come up short two stops short of the Promised Land.

And nobody figured out a way to overthrow the single most unimpeachable law of games, the law that says somebody’s going to be better than somebody in that sliver of space separating triumph from disaster.

“Spring training’s going to come,” Kershaw finally said. “I’m going to have to be ready to pitch and do the job the best we can.” He probably has lots of baseball miles to go, yet, before he sleeps. It won’t be his job to reconstruct the Dodger bullpen or augment a starting rotation that’s showing its age.

He doesn’t deserve to be harried to the rack of his regrets because his immediate supervisor pushed both their luck Wednesday night or because two Nats hitters were better than his best in the worst possible moment. Or, because the Dodgers had no answer other than a stranded hit batsman in the eighth, a stranded one-out baserunner on a single in the ninth, and the side gone in order in the tenth.

But Joe and Jane Dodger Fan don’t want to hear that now. They may not want to hear it until spring training, if that soon. It was so much more fun to just run over Kershaw jerseys. The only shock is that they didn’t burn Kershaw in effigy. Oops. Better not give them any more bright ideas.

Slam, dunk, don’t stop the dance

2019-10-09 HowieKendrick

Howie Kendrick swinging for a lifetime’s worth of filet mignon on the Washington house.

Dave Roberts learned the hard way Wednesday night that it takes the same number of moves to get destroyed as it takes to start unfathomable destruction. One.

And a one-time Dodger and Angel alike named Howie Kendrick got reminded all over again just how quickly you can go from a prospective bust—including three fielding errors all division series long—to a game-busting hero with one swing that looked so effortless it looked concurrently as if you could have done under sedation.

Fifteen years ago, with his Red Sox three outs from being swept out of an American League Championship Series, Roberts stole second on Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera to start the unlikeliest comeback of maybe all time. The 2004 Red Sox didn’t lose another game on their way to breaking their actual or alleged curse.

But this is 2019. Roberts is now a reasonably respected major league manager with a fourth straight first place finish and fourth straight postseason trip on his resume. And the way this trip ended Wednesday night sends lesser men past the nearest tavern and right to the distillery to drown themselves in the vats.

And Kendrick, 0-for-4 as he checked in at the plate with the bases loaded and nobody out in the top of the tenth, delivered one swing that’ll save him a small fortune in Beltway filet mignon dinners for the rest of his life.

It nailed the Dancing Nats’ trip to the National League Championship Series with a 7-3 division series Game Five triumph. Their motto now might be the name of a vintage song by rock legend Bryan Ferry: “Don’t Stop the Dance.” And they danced the 106 game-winning Dodgers home for maybe the most bitter winter of their existence since maybe their Brooklyn generations.

For the rest of his life Roberts is liable to face demands to know why he didn’t quit while he was ahead, 3-1 to be exact, accept Clayton Kershaw’s inning-and-threat-ending strikeout of Adam Eaton in the top of the seventh, pat Kershaw on his Hall of Fame-in-waiting fanny with a hearty “Thank you Kersh!” and go to his real bullpen post haste.

But Kershaw didn’t get his pat on the fanny. He got to open the eighth. He got battered back to back on back-to-back pitches by Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto. The first flew just over the left field fence, the second flew into the first couple of rows of the right field bleachers. Vaporising young stud starter Walker Buehler’s magnificent evening’s work and bringing the Nats back from the living dead.

Then Roberts reached for Kenta Maeda. And Maeda promptly struck out the side. Forget the second guessing. This was time for the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth guesses.

Roberts got what he’d asked for out of Kershaw to end the seventh. Why on earth push his own and Kershaw’s luck, knowing only too well that Kershaw’s Hall of Fame resume already has the long-enough sidebar of postseason humiliation as an attachment?

Because, he acknowledged after the defeat, he liked Kershaw against Rendon and Soto just a little bit more.

“[T]he success that Clayton’s had against Soto with the two-run lead, I’ll take Clayton any day in that situation,” Roberts said after the game. “I just think it’s one of those where it was easy for me to get Clayton, with the low pitches to get Rendon and to go out there and get Soto. And to have Kenta behind him. That was my thought, and not have Kenta go through Soto.”

Ancient history teaches that a Cardinals manager named Johnny Keane refused to even think about hooking Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in a threatening World Series Game Seven because he had a commitment to Gibson’s heart. Roberts has the same commitment to Kershaw’s. Keane and Gibson got a World Series win. Roberts and Kershaw got humiliated.

The problem is that Kershaw, one of the nicest men and beloved teammates in the game, goes into a postseason with a hellhound on his trail. And he knows it, sadly enough. After reinventing himself this season as a pitcher who can and does survive on guile to go with the smarts he’s had since his peak seasons, Kershaw couldn’t outsmart Rendon and Soto when he needed to most of all. More acutely, Kershaw can no longer deny what people have said of his postseason work for too long.

“Everything people say is true right now about the postseason,” he said after Game Five, soberly but sadly. “I’ve had to do it so much. I don’t know. It might linger for a while. I might not get over it. I don’t know.”

Roberts went with Kershaw’s heart. He should have gone with his own head. He let sentiment and heart overrule baseball. Oh, he got Maeda not going through Soto all right. He just had to watch Soto drive a second stake into the Dodgers’ heart to get it. Then, he sent Joe Kelly out to work a spotless ninth but pushed his luck yet again.

With further viable bullpen options to spare, a luxury Nationals manager Dave Martinez didn’t have, Roberts sent Kelly almost inexplicably out to work the tenth. Where Kelly walked Eaton on six pitches, surrendered a double to Rendon that was ruled ground-rule when it stuck in the fence, and handed Soto the intentional walk.

And, after Kendrick fouled off a nasty enough breaking ball, where Kelly served him a fastball toward the low inside corner. Not low enough. Kendrick drove it right over the center field fence. You thought the Nats were baseball’s greatest dancers before? Kendrick sent them into dugout moves even Soul Train never busted.

It isn’t just Kershaw for whom Roberts has to answer. Where was Kenley Jansen? Where was young lefty Adam Kolarek? Dodger fans will ask those two questions for the rest of the century. When not asking why Roberts still trusted Kelly despite his shoulder issues and season’s disasters. “Trust Kelly more than your closer Kenley Jansen,” said manager turned MLB Network analyst Kevin Kennedy. “I don’t have an answer for that. Does  Dave?”

The answer may or may not determine Roberts’s future in Los Angeles.

But what a moment it must have been for Martinez, when Kendrick exploded and Nats center fielder Michael A. Taylor hustled in and took a dive to snag Justin Turner’s game and series ending sinking liner. Game Five was the Nats’ entire season in microcosm: early and often faltering; later and often flying. The guillotine built for Martinez in May has been put into storage.

The only bad news for the Nats on the night might have been Stephen Strasburg. He was left almost an afterthought after the Nats’ late game destruction. He merely shook off Max Muncy’s two-run homer in the first and Enrique Hernandez’s leadoff solo bomb in the second to keep the Nats in the game almost as deftly as Buehler seemed to own them.

He’s gone from the world’s most feted draft pick to a pitcher who’s fought injuries to become good, often excellent, and periodically great. He’s comfortable with himself. He’s unflappable to the point that some people mistake him for emotionless. And he knows what he’s doing on the mound even when he’s punctured early.

“The first couple innings, I didn’t hit my spot, and they made me pay for it,” said the 31-year-old righthander who still looks like he’s at freshman orientation despite the beard that’s all grown up from having been born a mere goatee. “As a starter, you just kind of learn how you’ve got to trust your stuff, trust that it’s going to come to you. And it did.”

Tanner Rainey dispatched the Dodgers in order in the seventh. And Patrick Corbin—who’d been so badly humiliated in Game Three—got his chance for redemption in the eighth. Other than plunking Turner Corbin got it, zipping through the inning, including back-to-back strikeouts on Cody Bellinger and pinch-hitter David Freese.

Then it was Daniel Hudson shaking off a one-out single in the ninth. Then it was Kendrick obliterating Kelly and the Dodgers in the tenth. Then it was Sean Doolittle, who had his moments of doubt and disaster on the season before finishing up at reasonable strength, getting three including Taylor’s game-ending swan dive.

There wasn’t a Hunter Strickland or Wander Suero to be found. For all anyone knows, they were under strict orders not to move even their pinkies in the bullpen—under penalty of death, if need be.

“Today’s the biggest game of the year,” Martinez likes to say, to his players and to anyone else who cares to listen, “and we want to go 1-0 today.” He got what he asked for and more. It got the Nats to the second National League Championship Series in franchise history. (Their first? In 1981—as the Montreal Expos.)

For a very long time the article of faith, though not always accurate, was “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” These Dancing Nats have a better than even shot at making it, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in the National League.”

It’d beat the living hell out of everything else attached to Washington these and most days.

Music from the Elders

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Not even Mother Nature could rain on Max the Knife’s parade Monday night.

Forget the starters-as-relievers plan that imploded with whatever impostor crawled into Patrick Corbin’s uniform Sunday. Come Monday, the Nationals wanted, needed, and all but demanded one thing.

On a day the Nats were one of four teams facing postseason elimination they needed Max Scherzer to be as close to Max Scherzer as possible. In the worst way possible. In the rain, even.

From the moment after Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner belted a two-out solo homer in the top of the first until he finally ran out of fuel while squirming out of a seventh-inning jam, Scherzer was a little bit more. For six and two-thirds to follow he was Max the Knife.

“It was amazing just playing behind him,” said third baseman Anthony Rendon after the Nats locked down the 6-1 Game Four win. “Max did what Max does.”

Elder Ryan Zimmerman, who wielded the heavy tenderiser in the bottom of the fifth, was a lot more succinct. “That’s the guy,” he said almost deadpan. Except that Zimmerman was also the guy. This was the night the Nats played sweet music from the elders. Above and beyond what they demanded going in.

Scherzer slew the Dodgers with what seemed like a thousand off-speed cuts mixed in with a few hundred speed slices and the Dodgers left unable to decide whether he’d dismantled them or out-thought them. Maybe both at once. Zimmerman was the third among division series teams’ oldest or longest-serving players Monday to do the major non-pitching damage keeping them alive without respirators to play another day.

An hour or so earlier, ancient Yadier Molina tied (with an eighth-inning single) and won (with a sacrifice fly) to get the Cardinals to a fifth game against the Braves. Great job, Yadi. Could the Nats top that? Zimmerman’s electrifying three-run homer answered, “Don’t make us laugh.”

All of a sudden the Dodgers’ stupefying sixth-inning assault in Game Three seemed like little more than a somewhat distant nightmare. Just as swiftly the Dodgers looked like the doddering old men on the field. Their average age is a year younger than the Nats’ but suddenly they looked in need of walkers and wheelchairs.

Scherzer and Zimmerman did their jobs so thoroughly that manager Dave Martinez didn’t even have to think about risking his or his club’s survival with a call into the Nats’ too-well-chronicled arson squad. If he had anything to say about it, the last thing he wanted was anyone not named Sean Doolittle or Daniel Hudson on call.

“I knew I needed to make a full-on start,” said Max the Knife after the game. “I know there’s times in the regular season where you’re not fresh, where you come into a game and you got to conserve where you’re at—try to almost pitch more—and today was one of those days.”

At first it seemed the Nats were trying to conserve . . . who know precisely what. Especially when it didn’t seem as thought they had that many solutions for Dodger starter Rich Hill’s effective enough breaking balls the first two innings. Or, for figuring out ways to avoid loading the bases twice, as they did on Hill and his relief Kenta Maeda in the third, and getting nothing but Rendon’s game-tying sacrifice fly to show for it.

But with that one-all tie holding into the bottom of the fifth, and Julio Urias in relief of Maeda, Trea Turner led off with a bullet single to left and Adam Eaton sacrificed him to second. Rendon singled Turner home to break the tie, Howie Kendrick lined a single to left center, and it looked like the Nats would content themselves with doing things the small ball way.

Then Dodger manager Dave Roberts lifted Urias for Pedro Baez. Zimmerman—the elder into whom enough were ready to stick a fork, though he’d said often enough he’d like to play one more year even as a role player—checked in next. Despite losing the platoon advantage. After he looked at a slider for a strike on the floor of the zone, he turned somewhat crazily on a fastball practically up in his face.

And, he sent it through the outfield crosswinds and onto the green batting eye past the center field fence.

“That’s what you play for, that’s what you work for all season and off season,” said Zimmerman, who hasn’t has as many such moments recently as he’d prefer but who’s still a much loved figure in his clubhouse and among the Nats’ audience. “Stay positive, the guys rallied around me, it’s nice to be back at all.”

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Let the old men be kids again: Zimmerman after his crosswind-splitting three-run bomb.

The Nats went on to tack their sixth run of the night on when Rendon hit another sac fly, this time to the rear end of center field, this time enabling Turner to come home. Greater love hath no Nat than to sacrifice himself twice for the dance. Unless it was Scherzer graduating from his tank next to E to living on pure fumes pitching the top of the seventh.

He got Corey Seager to fly out to right but surrendered a base hit through the right side to rookie Matt Beaty. Rookie Dodger second baseman Gavin Lux wrestled his way to an eight-pitch walk, and rookie catcher Will Smith looked at one strike between four balls for ducks on the pond, but pinch hitter Chris Taylor (for reliever Ross Stripling) threatened to walk the second Dodger run home until Scherzer struck him out swinging on the eighth pitch of the segment.

Then, after scaring the Nats and the Nationals Park crowd audibly with a hard liner down the right field line and foul by about a hair (every known replay showed how close it missed), Joc Pederson grounded one to second base, where late-game fill-in Brian Dozier picked it and threw him out. Launching Scherzer into one of his own patented mania dances into the dugout in triumph.

“My arm is hanging right now,” Max the Knife said after it was all over but the flight back to Los Angeles and a Game Five showdown between Stephen Strasburg and Walker Buehler. “That pushed me all the way to the edge—and then some.” Good thing Doolittle had four outs to deliver and Hudson, two, to close Game Four out with a flourish of their own.

In a game culture so heavily youth-oriented over the past few years Scherzer and Zimmerman must seem anomalous. “We’re a bunch of viejos,” Scherzer told a postgame presser about themselves and their fourteen teammates over the age an earlier generation considered the cutoff for trust. “We’re old guys. Old guys can still do it.”

That wasn’t easy or necessarily guaranteed. Scherzer’s season was compromised by an attack of bursitis and an upper-back rhomboid muscle, forcing him to miss the last of July and most of August. When he returned, after a couple of short but effective enough starts, he almost looked older than his actual 34 years.

He still kept his ERA to 2.92 and still led the Show with a 2.45 fielding-independent pitching rate, but entering the postseason there were legitimate questions about how much he might still actually have left past this year. Like Zimmerman, Scherzer would far rather let himself decide when he’s ready for his baseball sunset.

Max the Knife proved Exhibit A in favour of Martinez’s original starter-as-reliever division series scheme, striking out the side swinging in the eighth in Game Two. And Corbin’s Game Three implosion put the S-A-R idea to bed for the rest of the series, if not the postseason.

Zimmerman is, of course, the one Nat remaining who’s worn their colours since they were reborn in 2005, after long and often painful life as the Montreal Expos. They picked him fourth overall that year; he had an impressive cup of coffee with them down that year’s stretch and stuck but good.

His hope to age gracefully in baseball terms has been thwarted too often by his body telling him where to shove it when he least wants to hear it. He refuses to go gently into that good gray night just yet; he accepts his half-time or part-time status with uncommon grace.

“I really don’t think these are his last games,” Scherzer told the reporters with Zimmerman sitting at his right. “Only you think this is his last games.”

“The last home game [of the regular season], they tried to give me a standing ovation,” Zimmerman said. “I mean, I feel good. I think we’ve got plenty to go.”

“I feel young,” Scherzer said, turning to Zimmerman, “and I’m older than you.”

Scherzer is older than Zimmerman—by two months. But they looked as though they’d told Father Time to step back a hundred paces when they pitched and swung Monday night. Only after the game did they creak like old men.

Zimmerman started only because Martinez wanted to use the platoon advantage against the lefthanded Hill, and he struck out twice. But when he came to the plate as Roberts sent him the righthanded Baez in the fifth, Martinez had a decision: let Zimmerman swing anyway or counter with lefthanded Matt Adams off the bench.

Martinez stayed with Zimmerman. And in that moment Zimmerman became Washington’s King of Swing, leaving Scherzer to settle for being Washington’s King of Sling. Enabling the Nats to live at least one more day. And the way they grunted, growled, and ground Monday night, the Dodgers may yet have a fight on their hands in Los Angeles come Wednesday.

Just don’t expect to see Scherzer out of the pen Wednesday. Even he’s not crazy enough to even think about that scenario. The next time Max the Knife wants to be on the mound it’ll be to pitch for a pennant.