WS Game Three: No history, just a Braves win

Ian Anderson

Ian Anderson—If you can’t do both, what’s your real choice . . . trying to make history, or trying to take a World Series advantage?

Let’s see. Yes, on a cool, mostly misty, on-and-off light rainy night in Truist Park, Ian Anderson took a no-hit bid through five innings of World Series Game Five.

He faced eighteen batters and threw eleven first pitch strikes. He also threw about as many balls as strikes; 39 strikes out of 76 pitches, meaning one more strike than ball Saturday night. While he was at it, he and his batters wrestled to seven full counts.

You still want to yell at Braves manager Brian Snitker for hooking Anderson after a measly five innings? You might actually have ended up yelling at Snitker for leaving Anderson in an inning too long if he waited until Anderson took that kind of balance into the sixth.

You might be flooding social media with demands for Snitker’s summary execution on the spot, instead of celebrating the Braves taking a 2-1 Series lead with a 2-0 combined two-hit shutout during which four innings separated the Braves’ only runs.

You might forget how much you were touched by that sweet pre-game ceremony doing the late Hall of Famer Henry Aaron honour, especially knowing that Astros manager Dusty Baker was mentored and befriended by Aaron when he first arose as a Braves outfielder over four cups of coffee before slotting in full in 1972.

You might forget what sad fun it was to hear the Truist Park audience serenading Astros second baseman Jose Altuve and third baseman Alex Bregman with chants of “cheater! cheater!” when they batted in the top of the first.

Fun because at least the crowd saved it strictly for two of the five remaining Astrogate team members. Sad because nobody’s really processed yet what Andy Martino isolated in Cheated: The Inside Story of the Astros Scandal and a Colorful History of Sign Stealing: Altuve actually spurned the illegally-stolen signs and even demanded whomever transmitted them with the trash can bangs to knock it the hell off when he was batting.

You might forget Anderson and Astros starter Luis Garcia having a fine pitching duel between them, until Braves third baseman Austin Riley—with Eddie Rosario (one-out walk) and Freddie Freeman (base hit lined over unoccupied shortstop defying a defensive overshift) aboard—ripped one inside the third base line, past a diving Bregman, and down the line further for an RBI double in the bottom of the third.

You might forget the Truist Park organist having a little cheerful troll when Garcia batted with one out in the top of the third . . . giving him “Rock-a-Bye Baby” for walkup music—a neat little salute to Garcia’s baby-rocking arms motion before he goes into that little back-and-forth salsa step to deliver to the plate. Garcia’s tiny little grin over the serenade? Priceless.

You might forget that the would-be no-no got broken up in the top of the eighth, with Tyler Matzek on the bump for the Braves, when Rosario scampering in from deep left field positioning and Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson scampering out managed to let pinch hitter Aledmys Diaz’s somewhat shallow pop fly hit the wet grass with a thunk! Most likely, because Swanson didn’t want to plow Rosario even if either one could have caught the ball clean, and Rosario didn’t want to plow Swanson thinking the shortstop couldn’t hear him call for it. Oops.

You might forget Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud with one out in the bottom of the eighth, turning on Astro reliever Kendall Graveman’s unsinking sinker and sinking it over the center field fence.

You might also forget the Astros living up exactly to one of now-retired Thomas Boswell’s best arguments on behalf of the universal designated hitter, with the Braves at the plate with two out in the bottom of the second, and the DH still unavailable to either side in the National League ballpark.

D’Arnaud smashed Garcia’s full-count fastball high off the right field wall for a double. With Anderson on deck, the Astros handed Swanson an intentional walk and—what do you know—struck Anderson out to end the inning. Now, what was that Boswell wrote in February 2019?

It’s fun to see Max Scherzer slap a single to right field and run it out as if he thinks he’s Ty Cobb. But I’ll sacrifice that pleasure to get rid of the thousands of rallies I’ve seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the AL, you must pitch your way out of it, not ‘pitch around’ your way out of it.

Travis d'Arnaud

Travis d’Arnaud taking Astros reliever Kendall Graveman over the center field fence in the eighth Friday night.

Swanson’s not exactly tearing it up at the plate in the Series; his .417 Series on-base percentage is the product of three walks to go with his two hits in twelve plate appearances. Would someone care to explain why the Astros pitched around a comparative spaghetti bat with four strikeouts in the Series to get to that dangerous, .054-hitting pitcher looming in the on-deck circle?

You want to yell at either Game Three manager, you might want to bark at Baker. Garcia probably had a great shot at getting rid of Swanson and assuring himself of an easy inning-opening out if Anderson and his pool-noodle bat were due to lead off the bottom of the third.

See the fun you’d have forgotten about if you’d decided putting Snitker on trial for hooking Anderson after five no-hit innings that rank as some of the sloppiest no-hit innings you might ever have seen? That’s assuming you were actually watching the game and paying close attention to the pitches instead of thinking “no-hitter!” without taking your eye and mind deep.

“He walked down and said, ‘That’s it. Heck of a job’,” Anderson said postgame about his removal. “You feel a little bit of, I had more to give, but it’s something that you understand and move forward . . . I knew he wasn’t going to budge. We’re very fortunate to have him, and the way he treats us is phenomenal. He’ll shake your hand after every outing, good or bad, and that goes a long way.”

It’s not as though Snitker made the move purely driven by those pesky (to you) analytics, either. “He was throwing a lot of pitches in the top half of that lineup,” the manager said post-game. “I thought the fourth inning he really had to work hard to get through that. He had a really good fifth inning. And then I told him because he was like, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure?’ But I was just like, ‘Ian, I’m going with my gut right here. Just my eyes, my gut’.”

Oho, but what about those upcoming bullpen games necessitated by the broken leg taking Charlie Morton down when he might have been available to start Game Four or Five without it?

“I just thought at that point in time, in a game of this magnitude and all, that [Anderson] had done his job,” Snitker said. “And we had a bullpen that all the guys we use had two days off, and they were only going to pitch an inning apiece, and that made them available for the next two games after if it went south.”

Four innings of shutout, three-strikeout, no-walk, two-hit relief by Matzek, AJ Minter and Luke Jackson preceding him, and Will Smith following with a three-lineout ninth shaking Bregman’s leadoff single to one side, kept things from going south.

So now Snitker has to crank the mental gears up a little further until he can have Max Fried back for Game Five? He’s probably had to crank them up further for more ticklish situations than this. Like his outfielder Joc Pederson, Snitker prefers to cast pearls before swine—or anyplace else he can think to cast them.

Go ahead. Rant your heads off about hooking Anderson with a freaking no-hitter going after (despite) five sloppy innings’ work. We’d all have loved to see it continue. We’d all have loved to see the Braves finish the combined no-no. Nobody would reject a clean shot at further history made—it would have been the third no-no in postseason history and the first such combined no-no at once.

Anderson made his history as it was. He was the first rook to throw five no-hit World Series innings in 99 years. He can dine out on that for the rest of his life.

But isn’t a Series advantage the better option?

ALCS Game Two: The traveling Red Sox delicatessen

J.D. Martinez

Martinez—slicing salami in the top of the first . . . (Fox Sports screen capture.)

Two innings. Two thick slices of beef salami. Never before done in a single postseason game.

If there’s a spicier way for the Red Sox to recover from a tight enough American League Championship Series-opening loss than that, you may need to deploy an archaelogical expedition to exhume it.

Six teams have hit pairs of grand slams in the same postseason series, from the 1956 Yankees (World Series) to the 1977 Dodgers (National League Championship Series), from the 1987 Twins (World Series) to the 1998 Braves (NL division series), from the 2001 Diamondbacks (NLDS) to the 2013 Red Sox (ALCS).

Then came J.D. Martinez in the top of the first and Rafael Devers in the top of the second. Just like that, they powered themselves into postseason history and the Red Sox toward a 9-5 series-evening Game Two win. Even if the Astros managed to scrape, scratch, and then launch themselves out of an embarrassing blowout.

There were those asking before the postseason began whether the Red Sox could handle the team who beat them the most frequently when they met in October. The Rays beat them eleven times over the season’s final 89 games. Well, now. After an opening game shutout, the Red Sox sent the Rays home from the division series with three straight losses.

Then, they asked whether the Red Sox could handle the team that beat them with the most ammunition. The Astros beat them in five out of seven meetings in May and June and outscored them 42-25. Well, now. This ALCS is about to shift to Fenway Park after a set-opening split in Minute Maid Park.

The scoring thus far is 13-10, Red Sox. But don’t fool yourselves. The racket only sounded larger than life in Houston because the Astros elected to keep their home playpen’s roof closed for the most part. In open and cooler Fenway Park, the lack of a roof doesn’t matter. The postseason racket is manna for the Red Sox and anything but for visitors.

Right now, the Red Sox ride momentum they snatched back from the Astros in Game Two even more swiftly than the Astros wrestled it for themselves in Game One.

Things were bad enough for the Astros on Saturday with their starting pitcher Luis Garcia taking the ball on a balky right knee, the leg on which he pushes off the pitching rubber. They got worse when Kyle Schwarber opened Game Two with a double to deep left center, Rafael Devers returned from 0-2 to work a one-out walk, and Alex Verdugo waited a two-out walk to set up the ducks on the pond for Martinez.

Rafael Devers

Devers, slicing salami in the second . . . (Fox Sports screen capture.)

The Red Sox designated hitter brought a string of no hits in his twelve previous plate appearances with men on base. Martinez made up for it with one swing, driving a 1-0 fastball just off the strike zone’s bull’s eye the other way and into the right field seats.

Unaware in the moment about Garcia’s push knee, Martinez knew the pressure was almost entirely on the Houston righthander who looks almost as though he does the rhumba at the rubber before he delivers home. “[The pressure’s] not on me to come through there,” Martinez said postgame.

“It’s the first inning,” he continued. “He has the bases loaded. I’m trying to tell myself that, trying to stay relaxed and just looking for a pitch so I can just put a barrel on it.” Barrel? Martinez put a depth charge into it.

Garcia was probably lucky to get out of the inning on life support by striking Hunter Renfroe out. But after Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi slithered out of his own lesser two-out jam in the bottom of the first, Alex Bregman aboard with a two-out double as Yordan Alvarez flied out to deep center, Garcia wouldn’t be so fortunate in the second.

He walked Kevin Plawecki, Eovaldi’s personal catcher, on four high pitches. Manager Dusty Baker and head trainer Jeremiah Randall visited the mound. The entire Astros infield plus catcher Martín Maldonado surrounded them. Garcia finally admitted his right knee bothered him a good while before Game Two.

Baker lifted him for another righthander, Jake Odorizzi, who might have waited to start Game Four otherwise in the Astro plan. Inadvertently, Baker did the Red Sox what may yet prove the largest favour done the Olde Towne Team this year. Pitchers who relieve by profession get themselves ready swiftly enough when they get the call, even if they’re brought in with all the time they need to heat up when taking over for the wounded Starters don’t.

Being a starter by trade, given all the time he needed to warm up, Odorizzi went through as quick a version of his normal pre-start routine as he could muster in the moment. For him it was quick, but for the Red Sox it meant getting a good, acute, long look at him to determine just what he would or wouldn’t have coming in—and how they could or couldn’t exploit it.

And Odorizzi knew it going in.

“I was caught off guard by it, obviously,” Odorizzi said postgame, referencing the Garcia knee issue. “I didn’t know what was going on. I knew he was healthy coming into the game, so I was caught off guard by it. I think everybody was.

“My typical routine is out the window at that point,” he continued. “I hadn’t even stretched, thrown, anything, so it was going to take me a good while to warm up. I think all things (considered) — I’m sure it felt like forever for y’all — but for me, that was about the fastest I can warm up. Usually it takes me 30-plus minutes. I think I did it in under 15. So not ideal, and it’s not like it’s a fun warmup. You’re sitting there pretty much naked in front of the other team.”

Finally, the game got back underway, and the Red Sox showed how much they appreciate naked models with which to work.

Odorizzi dodged one bullet when Christian Arroyo’s long drive down the left field line banged foul off the box seat rail. But he couldn’t dodge Arroyo finally lining a base hit through the open right side, contravening the Astros’ defensive shift. Schwarber struck out swinging, but Kiké Hernández lofted a fly base hit to left.

This time, the ducks on the pond were set up for Rafael Devers, the Red Sox’s lefthanded hitting third baseman bothered himself by a balky forearm. But the forearm knew how to behave when it mattered the most. Devers pulled a 1-1 cutter that arrived up in the middle and a little inward high down the right field line and just inside and past the foul pole.

That second slice of salami tastes even better than the first. Especially with a little spicy mustard on it.

Xander Bogaerts popped out near first base, Verdugo dropped a jam shot into left for a base hit, but Martinez grounded sharply right back to Odorizzi to stop the Red Sox merry-go-round. But an 8-0 lead in two innings meant the music would play onward and upward.

With Eovaldi pitching a gutsy five and a third innings, Hernández himself cranked the music up a little further with one out in the top of the fourth. He yanked a 2-1, down-and-in  Odorizzi splitter into the Crawford Boxes. It was merely the fifth home run of the postseason for the streaky guy who once couldn’t convince the Dodgers he was worth everyday play.

Kike Hernandez

. . . and, Fox Sports getting cute demonstrating just how well Hernández sees pitches lately . . . (Fox Sports screen capture.)

The infielder-outfielder’s first Red Sox postseason’s success continued so dramatically that Fox Sports couldn’t resist developing a special visual to demonstrate how hitters on a roll are believed to see pitches coming their way—it showed Odorizzi’s splitter blowing up into a beach ball just after leaving his hand, floating up and down toward Hernández’s hitting wheelhouse.

According to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, also an in-game Fox analyst, the Red Sox hitters had a pre-game confab reviewing their attack plan against Astro pitching when Schwarber piped up with a plan of his own: “Let’s be like Kike,” the Schwarbinator said. “Spray balls all over the park. Hit ’em on top of the railroad tracks.”

Ask Hernández what turns him from a mere jack-of-all-trades with a little power and a modest career curriculum vitae into a weapon in the postseason lifetime thus far but into Hank Aaron in this postseason—especially after he was wrung out by a battle with COVID from late August through early September—and he’s either stuck for an answer or reduced to boilerplate.

“I don’t know,” he said when Rosenthal asked. “I guess feeling good. The importance of the game is allowing me to stay focused, stay locked in, not think too much about it. I’m just glad I’m able to put good at-bats, get on base, drive myself in to help us win, to get to this position.”

Sure. That oh-so-slight move forward in the batter’s box, especially on the breaking balls Hernández formerly had trouble handling, had nothing that much to do with it. From a lifetime .196 hitter on breakers in the regular season to a .700 hitter with three bombs on breakers this postseason. We’ll buy that not-think-about-it jazz—as soon as we make the last payment on that Antarctican beach club.

The Astros’s five runs seemed almost incidental compared to the Red Sox’s mayhem Saturday afternoon. With two out in the bottom of the fourth, Kyle Tucker drove one bouncing off the left field scoreboard wall to send Yordan Alvarez (walk) home, and Yuli Gurriel lined a two-run single the other way to right.

The next time they scored, in the bottom of the ninth, Gurriel hit a full-count fastball up from Red Sox reliever Darwinzon Hernandez into the Crawfords and, one out later, late-game catching insertion Jason Castro hit Hernandez’s 2-1 meatball over the center field fence. Compelling Red Sox manager Alex Cora to bring in Ryan Brasier to fool Jose Altuve into hitting a pitch on the strike zone’s ceiling to deep left for the game-ending out.

“We won the seventh, eighth, and ninth,” Baker said postgame. “But those two innings in the beginning, that’s a tremendous mountain to climb.”

In absolute fairness, the Astros’ pitching issues have proven a bump to the Red Sox’s plate formidability now. Even winning Game One the Astros were forced to get six and two thirds innings from their bullpen after starter Framber Valdez couldn’t get out of the third inning alive. Garcia being salamied on a balky knee meant eight bullpen innings Saturday.

Odorizzi gave the Astros’ proper relief corps a break Saturday, but José Urquidy—who hasn’t pitched since 3 October, and who carries a 4.14 fielding-independent pitching [FIP] rate for the regular season—is now listed to start Game Three. He’s a calculated risk even in Fenway Park, since the Red Sox team OPS was almost thirty points higher against righthanded than lefthanded pitching this year.

It also meant Odorizzi out of any Game Four plan, maybe not even a topic until a Game Six if the set gets there. It may mean Valdez having to start Game Four on short rest. Not to mention that the Astros can’t afford any more short starts—and once-formidable Zack Greinke isn’t exactly stretchable anymore. With his own regular season 4.16 ERA but 4.71 FIP, Greinke may even be a bigger risk now if he has to work past forty pitches.

Losing Lance McCullers, Jr. to a forearm muscle strain for the ALCS is hurting a lot more than the Astros bargained for, so far.

Cora bet the ranch that he could get away with a running of the bulls in Game One because Eovaldi would give the pen itself relief on Saturday and leave the manager the option of starting Nick Pivetta and Eduardo Rodriguez in the first two Fenway games, the order unknown at this writing. Cora won that bet.

It didn’t hurt that the Red Sox opened a traveling delicatessen in Houston Sunday with salami prominently on display, either.