Laz call finishes Super Tuesday

Jason Castro

What should have been strike three, side retired, game tied in the top of the ninth in Boston Tuesday night . . .

One game’s eighth inning was topped only by another game’s ninth. One team returning from the near-threshold of a too-early winter vacation was topped by another team returning from the threshold of a 3-1 series hole. One earthquake on the West Cost topped by one hurricane in the northeast.

Could anything to come be any more earth-moving or element-splitting than National League Championship Series Game Three and American League Championship Series Game Four?

Well, that may depend among other things upon who’s calling balls and strikes in either set’s remaining games. Because the rule book third strike that should have been called in the top of the ninth in Fenway Park didn’t send the Red Sox tied to the bottom of the ninth with yet another chance to walk off a postseason win.

Reality check. There were bad pitch calls in both NLCS Game Three and ALCS Game Four. Against all sides. There didn’t seem any particular favour or blessing bestowed particularly upon the Braves and the Dodgers out west or the Astros and the Red Sox back east.

When Laz Diaz called ball two on what even Ray Charles would have seen was strike three to Astros catcher Jason Castro, side retired, it might not necessarily have opened the door to that fresh Red Sox walkoff win. But they should have had the chance to try. Or at least to send the game to extra innings.

Red Sox pitcher Nathan Eovaldi, who’d pitched well enough in Game Two and should now have retired the side in Game Four’s top of the ninth, admitted postgame he thought he’d nailed the punchout. “I thought it was a strike,” the stout righthander said, “but again, I’m in the moment. I’m trying to make my pitches. I’m attacking the zone.”

Castro hinted that he, too, thought he was frozen alive in his own postgame comment. “Where that pitch started,” he said, “I didn’t think it was one I could pull the trigger on. It was a ball, then I was able to move on to the next pitch.”

He moved on to foul the next pitch off, rap a single the other way to right field sending Carlos Correa (leadoff double) home with the tiebreaking run, and leave the vault open for a walk and Eovaldi’s exit in favour of Red Sox reliever Martin Perez. The vault stayed unguarded for a three-run double (Michael Brantley), a free pass (to Alex Bregman), two RBI singles (Yordan Alvarez and Correa batting the second time in the inning), another RBI single (Kyle Tucker), and an inning-ending fly out (Yuli Gurriel).

The Red Sox and the Astros kept things to a 2-1 Red Sox lead until Jose Altuve tied it with a home run in the top of the eighth. Neither team hit particularly well against either Red Sox starter Nick Pivetta or each other’s bullpens until then. The Red Sox also led the entire Show in comeback wins on the regular season.

They didn’t have any similar self-resurrection in them in the bottom of the ninth.

Astros reliever Ryan Pressly surrendered a pair of two-out singles (Kike Hernandez, Rafael Devers), saw Castro let a pitch escape into a passed ball setting up second and third with two outs—a situation in which the Red Sox are customarily dangerous—but strike Xander Bogaerts out swinging for the 9-2 Astros win and ALCS tie.

Diaz blew 23 pitch calls Tuesday night, according to ESPN Stats & Info and cited by ESPN columnist Jeff Passan. He blew twelve thrown by Red Sox pitchers and eleven thrown by Astros pitchers. “[T]he one everyone— at least everyone in Boston—is going to remember,” Passan said soberly, “is the Nathan Eovaldi curve.”

“Good teams adjust to the ump,” snorted a followup tweeter. We’ll assume that tweeter couldn’t care less about getting it right by, you know, the actual rule book, even when a side should have been retired or when championships or progress toward them are on the line squarely enough.

To think that the Dodgers thought they’d stolen the day’s headlines, in Dodger Stadium far earlier, when they spent most of NLCS Game Three missing no opportunities to miss opportunities, until—standing five outs from season over—Cody Belllinger hit a three-run homer, before a base hit and a ground out set the table for Mookie Betts’s tiebreaking and ultimately game-winning RBI double.

And, for Kenley Jansen to strike out the side in the top of the ninth to secure the 6-5 Dodger win.

“it’s just hard to imagine a bigger hit,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts postgame about Bellinger turning on Braves reliever Luke Jackson’s high fastball and sending it into the right center field bleachers.

Just like that, the Dodgers taking the early 2-0 lead on (stop me if you heard this after Game Two) Corey Seager’s first-inning two-run homer, the Braves tearing Dodger starter Walker Buehler apart for four runs in the top of the fourth, then the Braves tacking a fifth run onto the board against reliever Ryan Bickford in the top of the fifth, seemed a pleasant memory. Even if the Braves still have a 2-1 NLCS lead.

“Does this feel like a dagger?” Jackson asked postgame. Then, he answered. “No. This is just, you know, a speed bump.” Ordinary speed bumps in ordinary roads don’t destroy undercarriages as broadly as Bellinger and Betts destroyed the Braves Tuesday afternoon.

To hear Bellinger say it, it’s just hard to imagine a tougher hit. “Yeah, it’s not a hitter’s pitch right there,” he said postgame. “But in the moment, whatever happened, I saw it and I just tried to put the barrel on it and continue to pass the baton.” He passed the baton, all right, and Chris Taylor swung it for a followup single to chase Jackson in favour of Jesse Chavez.

There’s a story in and of itself. Chavez warmed up but finally sat back down in the Braves bullpen three times earlier in the game, before he was up and throwing in the eighth yet again. He probably threw the equivalent of a quality start’s worth of pitches in all four warmup. He managed to induce the second Dodger out on pinch hitter Matt Beatty’s grounder.

He lived long enough for the Mookie Monster to split the right center field gap on the first pitch, sending Taylor home with the sixth hard-won Dodger run of the day. If you can tell me what’s brilliant about warming up and sitting down a pitcher three times before warming him up yet again, then bringing him in as gassed as the day is long, you’re a better manperson than I.

Well before Eovaldi threw the third strike that wasn’t, longtime Boston Globe scribe turned MLB Network analyst Peter Gammons tweeted, “the best interests of baseball does not not include Laz Diaz theoretically trying to call balks and strikes in post- season.” Grammatical flaw and malaprop to one side, Diaz didn’t try even theoretically but failed factually 23 times.

Jerry Meals wasn’t exactly a virtuoso behind the plate so far as both the Braves and the Dodgers were concerned. But he didn’t blow the third strike that should have retired a side with a League Championship Series game tied to the bottom of the ninth, either.

“I don’t know how he did it,” said Correa of Castro finally singling him home with the tiebreaker, “but I admire that. Because I will tell you I wouldn’t be able to do that. Sitting down for that long and then going out there facing a guy throwing 100 in crunch time? That’s special.”

All Correa left out was the should-have-been side-retiring third strike that wasn’t. If the Red Sox don’t forget their now-lost home field advantage and dust themselves off to go on and take the set and the pennant, it might become the most infamous third strike that wasn’t in New England history. If not beyond.

The bullet bites the Dodgers

Corey Seager

Seager couldn’t stop the unstoppable smash hit in the bottom of the ninth.

It didn’t cost anyone a World Series they were one strike away from winning. It didn’t cost anyone a pennant. It was only Game Two of the National League Championship Series, and one team has a 2-0 disadvantage that actually can be overcome and overthrown in a best-of-seven set.

Corey Seager’s inability to stop Eddie Rosario’s two-out smash up the pipe in the bottom of the ninth Sunday night, and thus stop Dansby Swanson from scoring the winning Braves run, stands to be a candidate for the worst individual moment in Dodger postseason history. Unless the Dodgers can perform that overthrow.

How many years have you mused how readily one player can go from hero to goat in the same game—if not the same inning? But how often does it happen in a game—and a set so far—in which his team seems to see men in scoring position as allergies above opportunities?

Twice on Sunday, Seager played the hero, once in the top of the first and once in the bottom of the ninth. Within minutes of the second play, he stood shriven and the Dodgers stood halfway toward the end of their season, and all he’d been asked to do in that harrowing moment, in effect, was to try what amounted to catching a speeding bullet with his teeth.

Seager opened the Dodger scoring in the top of the first with Mookie Betts aboard on a jam-shot pop single to shallow left. He turned on Braves starter Ian Anderson’s first service and hammered it over the right center field wall. In two blinks he put Anderson and the Braves into a 2-0 hole.

In a four-all tie in the bottom of the ninth, Seager hustled from defensive shift positioning well behind second base to take Dodger reliever Brusdar Graterol’s slighly offline throw to second to erase pinch-runner Cristian Pache on Swanson’s would-have-been sacrifice bunt. That’s the way to make the Braves waste a precious offensive out even worse.

After Braves center field double-switch insertion Guillermo Heredia grounded out to push Swanson to second, Dodger manager Dave Roberts lifted Graterol for Kenley Jansen, with Rosario checking in at the plate having a 3-for-4 night and counting.

A ground out pushed Swanson to second, Graterol was lifted for Kenley Jansen with Rosario coming up, having gone 3-for-4 thus far—and having scored the Braves’ third run when third base coach Ron Washington waved him home daringly on an eighth-inning Ozzie Albies base hit, diving behind the plate just eluding Dodger catcher Will Smith’s tag.

All Jansen did now was throw Rosario one nice little cutter heading for the inside part of the plate. All Rosario did was fire it right back up the pipe at a reported 105.4 miles per hour. Seager had little choice behind second but to turn down to his right to try backhanding the bullet. It blasted off his downstretched glove and into shallow center field.

Swanson shot home with the winner in a 5-4 Braves win, the second walk-off-winning run in two NLCS games for these Braves, who must be feeling as though they’re living charmed lives so far. The bullet bit Seager and the Dodgers. With 32 teeth.

But if you’re going to pound the goat horns into Seager’s forehead, or even demand Dodger manager Dave Roberts’ immediate execution over one or two of his pitching decisions, you really should consider this:

How come the team that led this year’s National League in runs scored, and had a team .806 OPS with runners in scoring position, couldn’t go better than 2-for-18 with four walks and a hit batsman in 24 chances to get runs home so far in this set?

How come the two hits each came from Chris Taylor, with one of them a Game Two bloop misplayed by Heredia into a tiebreaking two-run double in the top of the seventh? Where have all the other Dodger bats been when they manage to get somebody on second base or beyond?

Go ahead and second-guess Roberts’ pitching moves all day long if you must. Argue as you must how foolish it was to send Max Scherzer out to start when Scherzer by his own postgame admission had a dead arm going in.

When Roberts lifted Scherzer for Alex Vesia in the fifth, this time there was no objection from the gassed marksman. Max the Knife was probably lucky that the worst damage in four and a third innings was former Dodger Joc Pederson—now a Brave, by way of the Cubs’ trade deadline fire sale—hitting a two-run homer well above the Chop Shop behind Truist Park’s right field seats in the third.

Argue as you must, too, that Roberts’ real weakness handling his pitching staff isn’t so much playing it by any analytical script as it is relying far too heavily on the more highly-revered members of his pitching staff, instead of paying close attention to which arms have which hot hands regardless of star power.

This time, it was using his 20 game-winning starter Julio Urias in an oft-familiar role—moving him between postseason starting and relieving, a role he’s normally thrived in performing—only to see it backfire spectacularly enough in the Braves’ two-run, re-tying eighth.

Argue as you must that Roberts could well have Graterol for the seventh—after Joe Kelly got rid of the Braves in order in the sixth—and saved Blake Treinen and Jansen to start clean eighth and ninth innings. Or, that he could have given Graterol the night off and used  Treinen and Jansen over the final three innings to divide the last nine outs between them. Or, that he could have brought lefthanded Justin Bruihl in to handle the lefthanded Braves due to swing in the eighth.

Roberts said postgame that in weighing every option the lefthanded Urias was the best arm he had to bring in for the eighth. There’s nothing but positive when you reach for what you think is the best available arm when there’s a two-run lead to protect. That’s what a smart manager does. But even Urias is only human, not Superman.

Sometimes, even in the worst possible moment, the other guys are just a little bit better. The goat hunters too often like to forget that when they’re prowling for a head onto which to plant the horns.

Roberts is no stranger to calculated gambling. If the Urias gambit worked, he’d have resembled a Stengelian genius. When he said postgame that the postseason is the time of year when “careful” isn’t an option, he was dead right. “Careful” wasn’t exactly an option for the Braves, either, when Washington waved Rosario home and left room for Game One walkoff conqueror Austin Riley to send an RBI double to the back of center field.

Since the Braves managed to stand the Urias gambit onto its own head with a little risk taking of their own, it may force Roberts into even deeper such gambling, since Urias was originally his projected Game Four starter but now may be compromised going into that game if he’s still on the slate.

But offer succor to Seager, not sulfuric acid. The Braves didn’t walk Game Two off because Seager did what he wasn’t supposed to do or what he knew better than to do. He’d done his level best to send his team toward a win as the game opened. He’d done his level best to keep them alive and toward extra innings.

Now, Seager did his level best again to keep his team alive but failed to stop the unstoppable bullet. The Dodgers have nine Game Two goats to hold to account. Those batters who couldn’t and didn’t hit with six more Dodgers in scoring position after Seager’s homer and before Taylor’s double.

There’s a reason a smash hit is called a smash hit. Often as not, it’s just too unstoppable.

When getting it right means the worst message to kids

Wilmer Flores, Will Smith, Doug Eddings

Wilmer Flores—representing the potential Giants’ winning run—checking his swing Thursday night. On appeal from plate umpire Doug Eddings (far right), the check swing was denied by first base umpire Gabe Morales and thus strike three ended the NLDS and the Giant’s season. Some think such robbery sends the “best” message to kids.

Social media isn’t exactly renowned as the exclusive domain of the learned. But when you see something such as I’m going to quote—I won’t embarrass the source by identifying him, though I know him well enough to know that he ought to know better—you tremble for your country when you remind yourself that God may be just but humans may be willfully ignorant.

The gentleman in question responded to “The Strike Heard ‘Round the World,” my account of NLDS Game Five and the shamefully needless way it ended. With Wilmer Flores’s check swing ruled a strike, erroneously, by first-base umpire Gabe Morales on appeal. With Flores robbed of a chance to persevere against Max Scherzer, despite his weak career papers against Max the Knife.

With the potential tying run on first for the Giants and himself representing the potential winning run, Flores should have had the chance to try before it was game over. He was denied improperly. My correspondent says, essentially, so what? “So what” works as a classic jazz exercise by Miles Davis. Not proper baseball analysis.

What the players do is human, what the broadcasters do is human,” said the gentleman in question, being a former baseball broadcaster himself.

[S]o the umpires do human things, smart or stupid. players and fans have to live with it. we’re sending the worst kind of message to our kids. Kids need to know that rotten calls will be made against them and they can’t plead for a review because there won’t be any.

Oh. So one of championship baseball’s most important jobs is to send the best kind of messages to kids. Got it. Very well, I surrender.

Let’s talk, indeed, about the Worst Kind of Messages We Send Kids when an umpire makes a mistake on what might be the final out of a postseason set’s final game, offers at least a mildly coherent explanation, then allows his crew chief to elaborate when asked further with, “Yeah, no, we, yeah, yeah, he doesn’t want to say.”

It tells me that the adults in the room who won’t stand for it when the kids dissemble upon being caught with their hands in the cookie jar or the liquor cabinet haven’t got that strong a leg to stand upon. I’d clean up betting that that’s what the kids in the room figure out, too.

Let’s talk, indeed, about the Worst Kind of Messages We Send Kids when the adults in the room decide, basically, yeah, we’re being rotten sonsabitches. But tough toenails, kids, that’s the way it is. This isn’t up for debate. We’re the mommies and daddies, that’s why. Because we said so, that’s why.

It tells me the adults in the room have no eyes to see. The kids in the room gather that their parents drink deep of power and parch themselves of prudence. They see might making right regardless of justification, in one or a hundred instances. They see authority with unsound foundation.

Let’s talk, indeed, about the Worst Kind of Messages We Send Kids when we tell them review isn’t an option. It tells me the adults in the room know three things about the country in which their game was born, nurtured, and grown in the first place: jack, diddley, and squat. Baseball’s government may lack in the complete range of reviewable acts, but baseball’s country’s government actually consecrated the right to review.

This nation’s founders consecrated a Bill of Rights that mandates, among other things, the right to petition for a redress of grievances. Such grievances are usually (though not exclusively; reference Congressional committee hearings) presented and argued before—what do you know—a Supreme Court. Never mind for the moment that given Supreme Court panels can seem as judicially tyrannic as umpires who are, after all, baseball’s most immediate arbiters.

But the Supreme Court has also overturned its own rulings frequently enough, unless higher authority—you know, the legislative branch, and the president, and in that order—writes and signs laws accordingly. The Supreme Court blew the Dred Scott decision? (It emanated first in the same city from which Curt Flood fired the Second Shot Heard ‘Round the World.) Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation plus the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments took care of that blown call. That’s just one example.

By the way, federal judges up to and including even Supreme Court justices can be impeached. (Sixteen have been, including Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase.) Baseball’s government hasn’t yet designed or imposed genuine umpire accountability. The better umpires in the game are compromised by their lessers.

Those concerned more with the Best Kind of Messages We Send Kids than with getting things right in championship or championship-aspirant games should ponder something else. Why might it be that ordinary, everyday enterprises impose accountability on their people, from the most obscure warehouse people to the highest-stationed boardroom people—but baseball can’t impose accountability on the arbiters who can, and often do, make, break, or compromise a game?

You want to send the Best Kind of Message to Kids? How about telling them that an improper lack of redress for check swings meant we’ll never know whether Wilmer Flores would have risen to the occasion of a 1-2 count, in a postseason series-deciding game, and overcome his career-long futility against Max Scherzer to keep the Giants’ now-ended season alive?

How about telling them the reason we’ll never know is because Flores was robbed of the chance to try once more at least?

Saying umpires make mistakes because they’re only human is one thing. Saying baseball shouldn’t do its best to correct and prevent key mistakes in-game—especially with a championship or an advance toward one on the line—is pitiful. Saying baseball shouldn’t do it because it would Send the Worst Kind of Messages to Kids, which is patent nonsense, should leave you at minimum with no credibility as a baseball commentator.

The strike heard ’round the world

Don Denkinger, you’re off the hook. Flores checking his swing into the arguable worst blown call in postseason history

Giants manage Gabe Kapler wouldn’t say it, even though anyone with eyes to see would say it for him. Even the Dodger fans among them. Maybe it wouldn’t change the outcome with that wired a Max Scherzer on the mound.

But ending this National League division series with that bad an umpire’s call? For the final out of the season for one team, not the first out of the ninth as was Don Denkinger’s infamous blown call at first in Game Six of the 1985 World Series?

There isn’t a jury in the land that would rule Kapler unjustified if he’d blown his proverbial stack or even demanded an investigation. This tight a Game Five between two of baseball’s most bitter of blood rivals plus the two winningest teams in this year’s Show deserved better than that.

These Dodgers and these Giants deserved better than first base umpire Gabe Morales ruling Wilmer Flores’s checked swing a strike to end it, after home plate umpire Doug Eddings—to his eternal credit—called for Morales’s help. That kind of help neither Eddings nor the Giants needed.

Two teams who’d been even-up in their regular season meetings, had the same number of hits against each other (173), and entered Game Five with each having 109 wins for the year including the postseason thus far, deserved better than a 2-1 Dodger win tainted through no fault of either team’s own.

“There are other reasons we didn’t win today’s baseball game,” Kapler said post-game. “That was just the last call of the game.” That was like a Japanese commander saying Hiroshima and Nagasaki were just the last blows of World War II.

Let’s give Morales a temporary benefit of the doubt. “[C]heck-swings are one of the hardest calls we have,” he said post-game. “I don’t have the benefit of multiple camera angles when I’m watching it live. When it happened live I thought he went, so that’s why I called it a swing.”

But Morales was shown a replay of that final pitch. Then, someone asked if he’d still call it failed check swing. Ted Barrett, the crew chief, answered for him. Sort of. As if Morales was incapable of speaking for himself.

“Yeah, no, we, yeah, yeah, he doesn’t want to say,” Barrett said. If there’s a more mealymouthed response upon a blown call’s questioning on record, I’d love to see it. Even Denkinger wasn’t that foolish when confronted with how badly he’d blown it calling Jorge Orta safe at first despite being out by almost a full step.

“Obviously you don’t want a game to end that way,” Kapler also said. “Obviously it’s going to be frustrating to have a game end like that, but pretty high quality hitter at the plate that can climb back into that count. There’s no guarantee of success in that at-bat. It’s just a tough way to end it.”

Flores checked his swing on an 0-2 pitch that came in just under the low outside corner. All things considered, especially the proliferation of dubious pitch calls all series long against both the Dodgers and the Giants, it wouldn’t have been the worst possible outcome for the plate appearance to continue.

But Flores checked his swing. Eddings called to Morales. Morales rang Flores up for game, set, and match. Sending the Dodgers to a National League Championship Series against the Braves, sending Giants fans reaching for the nearest possible liquid salves, and soiling the Game Five this series deserved otherwise.

They’d gone tooth, fang, claw, and just about anything else not just to get to Game Five in the first place but to get to the bottom of the ninth with only a single run separating them.

The Dodgers had gone to a bullpen game, opening with reliever Corey Knebel, continuing with fellow reliever Brusdar Graterol, then sending starting pitcher Julio Urias out of the pen to pitch a solid enough third through sixth. Then back to the pen men Blake Treinen for the seventh and Kenley Jansen for the eighth.

The thinking was that the Giants—a club full of elders and anonymous role players for the most part—were so deadly in situational play that, as The Athletic‘s Andy McCullough observed, the Dodgers’ best shot at neutralising that advantage by throwing two-thirds of their bullpen at the Giants and returning Urias to the postseason role where he’d been so effective in the recent past while they were at it.

It’s not that teams haven’t gone to bullpen games before. The Rays make about a third of their living doing it. Why, almost a full century ago the Washington Senators (Washington—First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League) won the 1924 World Series going to a bullpen game prototype in Game Seven.

All the Dodgers needed was Urias on board with the idea. “He earned the right to pitch in this game,” said Dodgers pitching coach Mark Prior. “If he said, ‘No, I want it,’ he was going to get it.” They surveyed other Dodgers including starters Scherzer, injured Clayton Kershaw, and Walker Buehler, who’d pitched so effectively in the Dodgers’ Game Four win.

“When they were on board,” Prior said, “it made sense. Everyone is in it to win it. Let’s go.”

That’s how they countered the Giants sending their stout young starter Logan Webb out for Game Five. He gave the Dodgers as good as their pen game gave the Giants. He pitched seven solid innings. The only blemishes on Webb were Mookie Betts delivering three of the four Dodger hits against him, and Corey Seager sending the Mookie Monster home with a double down the left field line in the top of the sixth to deliver the game’s first run.

Until Scherzer came into the game, the only real blemish against the Dodgers’ pitching was Giants left fielder Darin Ruf tying the game at one leading off the bottom of the sixth, by hitting Urias’s full-count fastball over the center field fence.

But until the Flores check swing that should have been, the co-story of the game might have ended up being the Dodgers leaving the Giants behind with yet another Belli-ache plus Max the Knife plunged into their backs in the bottom of the ninth. More’s the pity.

Continuing his re-adjusted postseason revival—after an injury-marred regular season reduced him to terms so low people questioned why Dodger manager Dave Roberts kept running his former MVP out there at all—Cody Bellinger broke the one-all tie in the ninth.

He made the Giants pay after their young relief ace in the making Camilo Doval hit Justin Turner up and in on the first pitch after Will Smith grounded out to shortstop to open the top of the ninth. Gavin Lux snuck a base hit through the right side of the infield to set first and second up.

Then, Bellinger took ball one low, swung through a slider around the middle, bounced a foul ball off to the right, then shot one up the middle and into center field sending Turner home with the tiebreaking run. Which probably amped Scherzer up in the pen even more than he’d already sent himself.

When he wasn’t throwing warmup pitches, Scherzer paced and pranced like a maniac. It was a wonder nobody had to shoot a tranquiliser dart into his rump to make sure he could go in and pitch the bottom of the ninth without dismantling himself.

He all but shot in from the pen to the mound as the sides changed. It was so must-see television that the TBS broadcast obeyed the call, too, not cutting to a commercial break as he made his way to the mound. You’d have thought the back of his uniform carried not his surname and number 31 but Danger! High Explosives! Keep Back 500 Feet!

Pinch hitter Matt Beaty ended the top of the ninth by grounding out to Flores playing first for the Giants. “Flores touched first base,” said Betts with a laugh, “and it felt like Scherz was halfway to the mound.”

This was virgin territory: Scherzer had never recorded a relief save in his entire professional pitching career. Yet he flew in from the pen as though fourteen years’ worth of a Hall of Fame pitching career to date was merely the overture to his kind of Unfinished Symphony.

So, with Bellinger shifted from first base to center field and Billy McKinney out playing first, Max the Knife unsheathed. He got Crawford to line out the other way to left. He shook off Turner bobbling Kris Bryant’s grounder up the third base line enabling Bryant safe on the error to strike out Lamonte Wade, Jr., who’d been making a name for himself with assorted ninth-and-later heroics for the Giants.

Then came Flores, the former Met who’d been part of their 2015 run to the World Series. A slider hitting the middle of the zone for a called strike. A foul off. Then, the fateful slider coming down and just off the corner. The checked swing. Eddings’ appeal to Morales at first. Strike three. Game, and Giants’ season, over.

There are eleven categories of reviewable umpire calls that managers are allowed to challenge. In the postseason, a skipper gets two challenges instead of the one allowed during the regular season. Check swings and pitches aren’t among the eleven. Maybe in the postseason they ought to be.

The “human element” be damned. When Whitey Herzog (Cardinals manager in 1985) called outright for replay in his 1998 memoir You’re Missin’ a Great Game, he had it as right as right can be: “This is for the championship—let’s get it right.” This was toward a potential championship and a win-or-wait-till-next-year game in the bargain. It should have been gotten right.

Seventy years ago, the Giants’ Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard ‘Round the World to finish a pennant playoff we’ve long since known, with full proof, was tainted by an off-field-based sign-stealing plot that helped those Giants come from thirteen games back to forcing that playoff in the first place.

Maybe it was tempting the fates a little too flagrantly when it turned out someone with the Giants—not a fan or fans, as I thought when seeing the sign in a flickering moment during the Game One telecast—tacked that “Remember ’51!” up on a deck rim in Oracle Park. Very clever, using a tainted triumph for motivation.

But ’51 was then, and this was Thursday night. Tainted not by cheating but by the kind of malfeasance that’s brought demands for further and fuller umpire accountability and for technology to help get the calls right. I don’t have to be as kind as Gabe Kapler.

Don Denkinger, you’re off the hook for the arguable worst blown call in postseason history. Maybe Scherzer would have retired Flores anyway if the proper call was made; maybe Flores would have kept the inning alive with a base hit. Maybe—unlikely as it might have been, considering his 0-for-17 lifetime jacket against Max the Knife—he might have tied or even won the game with one swing.

Maybe. We’ll never know now.

Until or unless baseball’s government effects real, substantial umpire accountability and stops allowing the “human element” to enable them to get away with murder, this NLDS Game Five’s finish should be known forever as The Strike Heard ‘Round the World.

Freeman frees the Braves to await their NLCS opponent

Freddie Freeman

Jubilant Freddie Freeman approaches the plate to finish the eighth-inning bomb that held up to win the NLDS for the Braves Tuesday night.

Maybe it didn’t have quite the last-split-second hair raising quotient that the Red Sox’s final two American League division series wins had. But it wasn’t any less dramatic for Freddie Freeman and his Braves in winning their National League division series Tuesday.

Freeman’s eighth-inning tiebreaking home run off Brewers relief ace Josh Hader turned out the finishing blow in a set during which both teams scored as many runs in the first three games as they ended up scoring in Game Four alone.

What made the bomb so luminous, too, was that it was only the second time in the whole 145-year history of the franchise that any Brave delivered what proved a postseason series-winning hit in the eighth or later. It took one season shy of three decades for Freeman’s homer to join Francisco Cabrera’s National League Championship Series-winning base hit. (The fabled Sid Bream mad-broken-bodied-dash.)

“I’ve had a lot of cool moments in my career,” Freeman said postgame, “but so far I think that’s going to top them right there. But hopefully that’s not the last cool one.” Right now, nobody’s willing to bet too heavily against either Freeman or his Braves. Yet.

You heard all season long about this or that team being wracked by injuries and surrealities? Few had to compensate as heavily as the Braves did. Too many teams losing their number-two franchise player, one of their best young pitchers, and a reliable other power bat might have collapsed like a blimp.

The Braves lost Ronald Acuna, Jr. thanks to a torn ACL making a play in center field. They lost Mike Soroko after his Achilles tendon blew out in May—after nine months’ rehab following its initial 2020 tear. They looked as though their season had paid put to hit without once seeing .500.

They lost Marcell Ozuna when the outfielder/bombardier was arrested for domestic violence in July—charged first with felonious aggravated assault and attempted strangulation, charges reduced to misdemeanor simple assault and battery, on administrative leave through the end of the Braves’ season, after he entered a diversion program.

When Acuna went down, and the Braves more or less sputtered into and past the All-Star break, general manager Alex Anthopoulos made his first move, bringing former Dodger Joc Pederson aboard from the Cubs in exchange for a minor league prospect.

That was Pederson pinch hitting for Braves reliever Luke Jackson in the Game One eighth and hitting a solo home run off Brewers reliever Adrian Houser for the only Braves run in the only series loss. That was also Pederson in Game Three, pinch hitting for Braves starter Ian Anderson, facing Houser again, and launching the three-run homer that proved the only Game Three scoring.

Houser may start seeing Pederson in his sleep. The Braves just want to keep seeing him mash. Even if he got the Game Four start as his reward and had to settle for pushing home the first of the two runs that tied things at four with a ground out to second base.

Freeman thinks landing Pederson merely began the Braves’ reversal. “When Alex went out and got Joc,” he said, “it brought a sense of energy that it just showed us that they still believed in us, to go add at the deadline.” Which is exactly what Anthopolous did. He nailed three 30 July trades to bring Jorge Soler from the Royals, Adam Duvall from the Marlins, and Eddie Rosario from the Guardians-to-be.

The NL East wasn’t a powerful division to begin with. But the longtime-leading Mets imploded, the Nationals hit the reset button, and the Phillies proved just short of being able to hold on. In Atlanta, as proverbially and poetically as feasible, that which didn’t destroy the Braves only made them stronger.

They went 36-19 to finish the regular season, including a too-simple-seeming sweep of the Phillies opening the final week to keep them from finishing what they threatened awhile to do and overthrow the Braves. They even shook off Soler’s COVID diagnosis entering the postseason. Now they’ve dispatched a Brewers team that won seven more regular-season games to lead an only slightly stronger NL Central.

They’re waiting to see who’ll be the last men standing between the Dodgers and the Giants, after the Dodgers tied that division series in Los Angeles Tuesday night in an all-Dodgers/all-the-time 7-2 win.

The game was a still-manageable 2-0 Dodger lead, with the Giants compelled to a bullpen game against a short-rested but deadly effective Walker Buehler, when Mookie Betts checked in in the fourth against Jarlin Garcia—after Buehler himself led off by reaching on an infield error.

“It’s not something we want to do all the time,” said Buehler about going on only three days rest, “but I felt that if things didn’t go our way [in the third game], I would feel really weird not pitching a game that we could lose a series.”

He didn’t have to worry. Until he surrendered a leadoff single to Evan Longoria and a one-out walk to Steven Duggar in the fifth, Buehler pitched stoutly and had to shake only one previous first-and-second spot of trouble away in the second. He even had the Giants slightly flummoxed when he went to his changeup a little more often than they were accustomed to seeing from him.

When the Mookie Monster parked an 0-1 pitch into the right center field bleachers, it suddenly seemed a question not of whether but by how big the Dodgers would take the game. An inning later, Betts sent Cody Bellinger home with a sacrifice fly deep to left center field. But Dodger catcher Will Smith—just call him the Fresh Prince of Dodger Stadium—squared off against Giants reliever Jake McGee with Corey Seager aboard (leadoff line single) and hit the first pitch over the left center field fence.

The Giants looked so overmatched in Game Four that their only two runs scored on ground outs, one with the bases loaded. That was Evan Longoria scoring on Darin Ruf’s grounder to second. The other was Brandon Crawford coming home in the eighth when Kris Bryant grounded one to the hole at third.

Buehler’s short-rest deliverance plus the Dodgers’ bats ensured Julio Urias on regular rest starting Game Five against Logan Webb in San Francisco Thursday. For the Braves, that’s going to be very must-see television. Which is what it already was on the left coast and elsewhere.

For the Brewers, it’s a too-early winter vacation after their pitching virtuosity proved futile against the disappearance of their bats. Christian Yelich’s back injury-abetted struggles continued in the division series, and while the Braves didn’t exactly bring the walls crumbling down the Brewers hit a measly .192 in the set—32 points below the Braves.

They did get beaten in the end when the Braves’ best batter launched against their best pitcher in the Game Four eighth. Starting Eric Lauer for Game Four because ace Corbin Burnes said he wasn’t feeling one hundred percent proved a mistake, and so did manager Craig Counsell not bringing Brandon Woodruff in earlier in higher-leverage.

But then here’s where the Brewers’ best bats fell too short. Avisail Garcia? Eight strikeouts, only two hard-hit balls, and two singles in fifteen at-bats. Kolten Wong? Five strikeouts, likewise only two hard-hit balls, and one single in fifteen at-bats. Willy Adames? Five hits in seventeen at-bats—four singles and a double, plus nine strikeouts and only three balls hit hard.

That’s why the Brewers pitched the division series like Hall of Famers—their three starters Burnes, Woodruff, and Luis Peralta showed a collective 1.56 ERA and 0.92 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, not to mention nineteen strikeouts in 17.1 innings pitched—but the Braves still took them out sweeping three after a Game One Brewers win.

“The vibe is the best that we ever had in this series,” Adames said before Game Four. “Today, the guys, I guess they woke up in a great mood. They came with energy. And I feel today we had the best vibe that we’ve had so far this series so far.”

The trouble was that the Brewers went in with the best vibes but the Braves played them as if they were jazz vibes legend Milt Jackson hammering out another virtuoso chorus of “Bags’ Groove.” Now the Braves wait to see who gets bagged in San Francisco Thursday night.