WS Game One: Flash! Bash! Alakazam!

Jorge Soler

Soler swings into history and toward a Game One Braves win . . .

Yordan and Eddie Tonight, the Miniseries? The show went on, but they weren’t exactly the stars of the show Tuesday night.

Oh, they performed rather splendidly. But they turned out the headliners blown off the stage by the fourth-lowest opening performer and a wild animal act.

Which is just what Jorge Soler did with the third pitch of World Series Game One from Astros starter Framber Valdez. And, what the Braves bullpen did to the Astros the rest of the way in an emphatic enough 6-2 Braves win.

Fresh off his marquee performance against the Red Sox toward the Astros’ American League pennant, Valdez could only watch with everyone else in the Minute Maid Park house as Soler became the first player in major league history to open a World Series opener with a home run.

The audience could only watch, too, with a hybrid of frustration broken up only occasionally by their usual racket while four Braves relief pitchers kept the Astros to their only runs of the game. Not to mention helping guarantee the Braves a temporary home field advantage at least.

Valdez fell behind Soler 2-0 when he threw a sinker that dumped enough ballast en route the plate that it had altitude enough for Soler to send it on hefty flight into the Crawford Boxes above the left field scoreboard. A ground out (Freddie Freeman), an infield single (Ozzie Albies, beating out a grounder wide of the mound’s left side), and a quick theft of second later, Austin Riley split the left center gap with the RBI double.

The game wasn’t even half an hour old, and already fans of both teams must have asked, Yordan who? Eddie what?

That was before the Braves more or less snuck a third run home in the second—back-to-back opposite-field singles (Travis d’Arnaud to right, Joc Pederson to left), a long fly to the center field wall enabling two tag-ups and second and third, and Soler’s grounder to short getting Pederson caught in a rundown while d’Arnaud crossed the plate.

And, before Eddie Rosario pulled a leadoff base hit to right in the third and—following a come-back-on-message visit to Valdez from Astros pitching coach Brent Strom—Adam Duvall turned a hanging changeup into a cruise missile straight into the Crawfords and sent Valdez out of the game.

“It was my first World Series game, so I’m not going to tell you that I didn’t feel the pressure,” Valdez admitted postgame. “I think just being behind in the count so much is what hurt me more than anything in this game.”

In between Soler’s Series-opening history mark and Duvall’s two-run rip, Morton too a hard smash from Yuli Gurriel off his leg to open the Houston second. The ball ricocheted to Freeman at first for a simple enough out. Morton pitched on, getting the next two outs to end the second and then striking Jose Altuve out called on a particularly nasty curve ball.

“That one got me good,” Morton’s said to have told his catcher d’Arnaud of the Gurriel comebacker that ended up ending his season. “I’m sorry,” Morton told any and everyone who happened by after his exit and after the game ended.

He’d looked distinctly uncomfortable before throwing Altuve that out pitch. He looked pained but determined after it. Pained enough to come out of the game. He turned out to have pitched to three Astros on a broken fibula that means the end of his postseason and the Braves having to do what they’ve done best in an injury-dominated year—skip out of the way at the last second when disaster comes careening down the street.

A 37-year-old veteran channeling his inner Bob Gibson (1967: tried to pitch on after fellow Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente ripped one off his leg; fracture kept him out thirteen weeks)—and apologising for it postgame. “[I]f that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about Charlie Morton,” said Freeman postgame, “I’m not sure what does.

Morton’s been there, done that. His career’s first half was as much big and small injuries costing him a lot of his prime time as it was pitching like a craftsman in six postseasons with one World Series ring and a splendid-enough 3.35 lifetime postseason earned run average to show for it. The man is nothing if not a walking exercise in pain management.

“I didn’t think it was broken,” d’Arnaud said. “I just thought he took a line drive off of his leg. But to go out there and strike out the next guy with a broken leg, it blows my mind.” Actually, it turns out Morton’s first X-rays showed no break, but he probably stressed his leg into the break while working on Altuve.

This is the Braves’ lot in 2021 so far. They incurred, dodged, withstood, and found ways to sneak through disaster to get to the postseason in the first place, never mind the World Series. A leg fracture taking their elder starting pitcher out for the rest of the way? Tell them about it. It wouldn’t shock them if they woke up on Game Two day having been kidnapped for the unreachable ransom.

Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton, escorted from the field in the third.

“No kidding. I don’t want to know what’s next,” said manager Brian Snitker after Game One. “But this is what we do, right?” Right. Nothing to it. Hit them with a tidal wave. Send them another hurricane riding the oblivion express. To these Braves those are just sun showers and some autumn breezes.

So far. It’s not that the Braves push their luck by design or premeditation. But you can’t help wondering just how many times they can still just wave their magic bats, gloves, or arms, and—flash! bash! alakazam!—make the other guys disappear.

Snitker had to reach for one of those arms a lot sooner than he might have expected going in. He brought AJ Minter in to take over for Morton. Minter pitched two and two thirds that would have been shutout ball if shortstop Dansby Swanson, usually one of the most sure-handed, sure-footed of the breed, hadn’t inadvertently kicked Astro center fielder Chas McCormick’s hard one-out, first-and-third grounder aside, enabling Kyle Tucker (one-out double) to score the first Astro run.

Luke Jackson followed Minter with one and two-thirds scoreless pitching before handing off to Tyler Matzek with lefthanded swinger Michael Brantley coming up with two outs in the seventh. He shook Brantley’s base hit off to strike Alex Bregman out looking for the side. But he couldn’t do a thing about Alvarez’s leadoff triple to the rear of right center opening the bottom of the eighth.

Alverz came home almost predictably when the next Astro batter, Carlos Correa, grounded out to second. After Matzek struck Tucker out on a somewhat violent swing, Gurriel ripped a drive off the left center field wall whose carom Rosario played perfectly, before throwing in perfectly to nail Gurriel at second trying to stretch the hit.

Or was it? At first glance it looked as though Gurriel’s drive hit on or above the yellow line atop the wall, which would have meant home run. Several television replays confirmed what the umpires on review ruled for certain—the ball struck the wall clearly if just barely below the line. Hocus pocus!

Not that it would have mattered in the end. The Braves landed an extra insurance run in the top of the inning, when Swanson wrung himself into a one-out walk and Soler on a check swing squibbed one into no man’s land beyond the mound that Astros reliever Ryne Stanek couldn’t get on a dive. Enabling Swanson to take third, before Freeman popped out to short right with Swanson on the run home and sliding in safely around Astro catcher Martin Maldonado’s backswinging tag attempt. Shazam!

So the Braves’ M&M Bulls didn’t do it with quite the howitzer heft by which they pinned the Dodgers to the wall winning National League Championship Series Game Six. But they did just what they had to do and kept the Astros from even thinking about a Game One overthrow regardless.

Will Smith shook a leadoff walk to pinch-hitter Aledmys Diaz off in the bottom of the ninth to get three straight ground outs—two force outs at second base, and a ground out to second—and that ended the game.

Abracadabra!

“Our team doesn’t worry,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker postgame, “and our team’s very confident. We have the knack of bouncing back after losses, after tough losses because they don’t quit, they don’t give up, they don’t get down. That’s the secret of sports.”

Beware, Mr. Baker. Your very confident Astros are up against a team that’s had to bounce back from tougher losses than Game One.

These Braves had to bounce back from losing their junior franchise face to a season-ending injury, after losing key young pitcher to a re-injured Achilles tendon and a key bomber to domestic violence protocols. Not to mention losing their leadoff hitting right fielder to COVID for the entire division series and most of the NLCS.

So the Braves will have to find a few more creative ways to survive losing their elder starter and clubhouse sage for the rest of the Series, too? Big whoop. Bad as losing Morton is, this, too, comes right into this year’s wheel house. They’d surely rather not, but where other teams crumple under the weight of forced creativity, these Braves thrive on it. So far.

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.