With the sixth you get steamrolled

2019-10-06 PatrickCorbin

Patrick Corbin, the third man in the Nats’ starters-as-relievers plan, was the first and worst to be torched.

There is one bright side to the Nationals being bludgeoned 10-4 by the Dodgers Sunday night. It means they still have a shot in their National League division series. Because they’ll send Max Scherzer to the mound for Game Four. And all they need is Scherzer to be as close to Scherzer as possible.

If he is, the Nats have a fighting chance. And, Stephen Strasburg on regular rest for Game Five in Dodger Stadium. If he isn’t, they’ll look even more like baseball’s version of a Harold Stassen presidential campaign.

For the time being, though, they might want to can the starter-as-reliever strategy no matter how testy most of their bullpen is. They need Scherzer to pitch them as deep as possible without getting drowned. While praying manager Dave Martinez shakes Sunday off enough not to push anything resembling a panic button.

Certainly not the one he pushed Sunday afternoon, when he lifted his mostly cruising starter Anibal Sanchez after only 87 pitches, five innings, nine strikeouts (mostly on changeups, power worshippers), and a 2-1 lead, the last courtesy of Juan Soto’s monstrous two-run homer past the center field fence in the bottom of the first.

All of which followed Sanchez wriggling unscathed out of a ducks-on-the-pond first inning jam. If the only thing spoiling Sanchez’s gig was Max Muncy’s two-strike launch into the right center field bleachers with two out in the top of the fifth, surely Martinez could have kept Sanchez aboard for one more inning.

Well, maybe not. Whenever Sanchez gets a third crack at a lineup the other guys nail a .923 OPS against him. Maybe Martinez really didn’t have that much of a choice if he wanted to protect a 2-1 lead. Especially knowing his bullpen not named Daniel Hudson or Sean Doolittle were the second most self-immolating group in Washington aside from the federal government.

So Martinez reached for Corbin, the third man in his starter-as-reliever series plan. Maybe it was the right move, but there’s no maybe about how wrong the result ended up. Martinez surely thought the third verse would be the same as the first two.

Then he discovered an impostor in Corbin’s uniform.

Whoever was in Nats number 46 Sunday night, the Dodgers battered him for six runs in the top of the sixth and tied a postseason record with seven two-out runs total in the inning, keeping the Nats to only a two-runs-worth reply the rest of the way.

“Anibal was at 87 pitches. He gave us all he had,” said Martinez after the Nats were put out of their misery at last. “We were at a good spot in the lineup, where we thought Corbin could get through it. And his stuff was good . . . But he had every hitter 0-2. He just couldn’t finish.”

If the stuff was good, the command was hit by a mutiny. And then the Dodgers added insult to immolation when Russell Martin, who started the sixth-inning mischief with a two-run double bounding off the left center field fence, batted on 2-1 with David Freese on first in the top of the ninth and Hunter Strickland on the mound—and sent it into the seats above the left field bullpen.

The Nats must be wondering just what they ever did to Martin to make him treat them so disrespectfully. “You try to feast on mistakes,” Martin said after the game. “And he made a few mistakes.”

After actual or alleged Corbin knocked out two strikeouts following Cody Bellinger’s leadoff single, David Freese singled to right for first and third. And Martin on 2-2 sent a nice, low enough slider to the back of left center, leaving room to spare for Bellinger and Freese to come home. Corbin promptly walked pinch hitter Chris Taylor and the Dodgers knew this was an impostor. Enough for another pinch hitter, Enrique Hernandez, to lash a two-run double deep to left.

Feast on mistakes? To these Dodgers this Sunday night Corbin, or whoever snuck into his uniform, looked like a luau.

“That was one of those things,” Muncy said, “where once one guy started doing it, the next cat picked up on it and it just kind of rolled throughout the inning.” Steamrolled, that is.

Corbin didn’t flinch when a swarm of reporters crowded his locker after the game. “It just stinks,” he said in a voice so low, from so much pain, that you might have missed it unless you were in the front row of the swarm. “I feel like I let these guys down.”

The Nats put Muncy aboard on the house, a wise move considering he’d accounted for the first Dodger run in Sanchez’s final inning with a shot into the right center field bleachers. The wisdom lasted only long enough for Martinez to get the impostor out of there, get Wander Suero in, and and get another jolt when Justin Turner hit one into the left center field seats.

Of course, having nobody in the bullpen more reliable than Hudson and Doolittle complicates things. In a four-run hole the Nats weren’t about to burn either of those two. But bringing Strickland in to deal with the Dodgers in the ninth was almost like hiring Ma Barker to command the FBI. Martin’s launch off him was the ninth bomb Strickland’s surrendered in twelve lifetime postseason innings.

“[R]emember the crick that remains in your neck from watching the delicious meatballs Hunter Strickland has been serving up for weeks,” wrote the Washington Post‘s Barry Svrluga. “He is now a symbol of this battered bullpen and is slipping into ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’ territory.”

“We just have to keep plugging away,” Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki told reporters after the game. “You definitely feel confident. You have the lead. You still have to finish it. That is a good lineup over there. They did their job tonight.”

Suzuki and his Nats need Scherzer to do as close to his normal job as possible Monday. And if they find a ransom demand for the real Patrick Corbin, pay it.

Murphy’s law: Celebrate!

2019-06-14 TomLawless

Tom Lawless, the patron saint of bat flippers, starting his flip in Game Four, 1987 World Series . . .

The Fun Police have a new protester who played the game in an earlier era. And when Dale Murphy talks, it would be wise for the Fun Police to lend him their ears and not their billy clubs.

Murphy inaugurated his partial new life writing for The Athletic with a September 2018 essay in which he applauded doing away with throwing at batters on hot streaks. That was after the Marlins’ Jose Ureña was stupid enough to think the proper way to stop Ronald Acuna, Jr. from making mincemeat out of Marlins pitching was to open a game by drilling Acuna’s elbow.

The longtime Braves bombardier said then pitching inside is one thing but drilling hitters who offend you is something else entirely. “If Ureña thought he was being tough, he wasn’t. Good pitchers–and staffs–will take command of a situation before a guy is swatting home runs left and right. The Marlins kept throwing Acuña fastballs down the middle. Well, what did they think was going to happen? A light should have gone on. Hmm, maybe we should try something else.”

Now, Murphy wasn’t exactly amused when Madison Bumgarner barked at Max Muncy after Muncy drove one of Bumgarner’s offerings clean into McCovey’s Cove last week. Murphy was far more impressed not just that Muncy was sharp enough in spontaneity to hand Bumgarner a classic one-liner (I just told him if he doesn’t want me to watch the ball, go get it out of the ocean) that begat a classic troll shirt, but that Muncy had no qualms about even a lower-keyed celebration of, you know, achievement.

“Admiring a home run is OK,” Murphy writes in an essay published Friday. “Bat-flipping is OK. Emotion is OK. None of that is a sign of poor sportsmanship or disrespect for an opponent. It’s a celebration of achievement — and doing so should not only be allowed, but encouraged.” And he’s not limiting its encouragement to hitters alone, either. “Pitchers can shout excitedly after an important out,” he writes. They can pump their fist after a clutch strikeout. Players, fans—and basically any rational-thinking human—will understand that no harm is intended by these spontaneous expressions of joy.”

Last year, Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle jumped onto the fun train. And he said he wanted more than just bat flips. “If a guy hits a home run off me, drops to his knees, pretends the bat is a bazooka, and shoots it out at the sky, I don’t give a shit,” he said. To which I myself added, “I hope a lot of pitchers start channeling their inner Dennis Eckersley and start fanning pistols after they strike someone out. I’d kill to see a hitter moonwalk around the bases after hitting one out. Let’s see more keystone combinations chest bump or make like jugglers after they turn a particularly slick and tough double play.”

“These are some of the best athletes in the world, competing against some of the other best athletes in the world, with generational wealth at stake,” writes Murphy. “Yet, they’re expected to play baseball like they’re doing calculus at afternoon tea.” My own expression was (and remains) that whereas Willie Stargell was right saying, “The umpire doesn’t say, ‘Work ball’,” if you want to play baseball like businessmen, take the field and check in at the plate in three-piece suits.

“In what other sport does this happen?” Murphy asks. “In what other sport is celebration considered disrespect? In football, guys plan celebrations. They choreograph them with teammates. They gesture when they get a first down. As far as I know, the world hasn’t ended.  Baseball is a strange place. It’s not OK to watch your home run, but it is OK for someone to throw a baseball 95 miles per hour at your head if you do.”

It’s still funny in anything but a ho-ho-ho way that when it’s free agency signing season the Old School wants us to remember they’re getting overpaid to play a game, for crying out loud . . . but when it’s time to actually play the game, God forbid the players look like they’re, you know, playing.

Murphy is careful not to say that those on the field who don’t like celebrating their achievements should be allowed not to like it, either. But he’s adamant that if they want to celebrate, they shouldn’t risk being decapitated the next time they bat against the pitcher they just took into the ocean. And, to Madison Bumgarner’s eternal credit, he didn’t even think about trying to flip Max Muncy when Muncy faced him the next time.

Neither did the arguable and unlikely father of the home run bat flip as we’ve come to know it face revenge.

I take you back to the 1987 World Series. The one in which no game was won on the road and the Twins won in seven. The one in which Tom Lawless—journeyman infielder, minus 2.1 wins above a replacement-level player, lifetime .521 OPS, lifetime hitter of two regular-season major league home runs, who hadn’t hit one out since 1984—squared up Frank Viola (a Cy Young Award winner the following season) with two on and nobody out, in the bottom of the fourth, in a tied-at-one Game Four, and hit a meaty fastball over the left field fence.

Lawless took ten leisurely steps out of the box up the first base line as the ball flew out. When it banged off a railing above and behind the fence, he flipped his bat about ten feet straight up into the Busch Stadium air before starting his home run trot. The crowd may have cheered as much for that flip as for the ball flying out in the first place.

“Look at this!” hollered then-ABC commentator Tim McCarver when showing it on a replay. McCarver and Al Michaels sounded absolutely exuberant. Viola didn’t exactly look thrilled to have just surrendered a tiebreaking three run homer, but he wasn’t exactly spitting fire or raging in the moment, either.

As Bleacher Report‘s Danny Knobler observes in Unwritten: Bat Flips, the Fun Police, and Baseball’s New Future, Viola never once retaliated for the Lawless flip. On 14 May 1989, Viola and Lawless met for the first time since that Series, with Lawless now a Blue Jay pinch hitting for Rob Ducey in the top of the fifth. Viola caught Lawless looking at a third strike in that pinch hit appearance. Lawless stayed in the game playing right field, of all places. He batted against Viola in the top of the eighth and grounded out to first.

Not once did Lawless face a knockdown or brushback.

It’s a shame someone didn’t teach that lesson to Hunter Strickland two years ago, when he opened against Bryce Harper by drilling Harper in the hip—over a couple of long, almost three-year-old postseason home runs the second of which Strickland thought Harper pimped, when the only thing Harper actually did was make sure the launch straight over the right field line and foul pole would fly out fair.

“I didn’t remember flipping it,” Lawless said after that ’87 Series game. “I’ve never been in a position like this before.” He never would be again, either. That blast was the only World Series hit of Lawless’s career, and he never played in the Series again.

In 2017, he told a Cardinals television broadcast interviewer, “I don’t have any idea why I did it. It just happened.” Spoilsport.

 

Gee, Officer Krupke—krup you!

2019-06-10 MaxMuncyMadisonBumgarner

He didn’t quite demand “Who died and left you the Baseball Police?” but Max Muncy splashed Madison Bumgarner’s self-righteousness Sunday afternoon . . .

When Madison Bumgarner’s pitching career ends, a good many people will remember him as a postseason lancer who throve and delivered when the heat was nuclear. Appropriately. And a good many people likewise will remember him as a classic get-off-my-lawn type with the petulance of a nursery school child whenever any hitter had the audacity to hit a home run off him. Also, appropriately.

The get-off-my-lawn Bumgarner arrived Sunday afternoon in AT&T Park when Dodgers infielder Max Muncy greeted him in the top of the first. The lefthanded Bumgarner threw the lefthanded Muncy a fastball fat and juicy. And Muncy drove it past about five kayakers into McCovey Cove behind the right field promenade.

All Muncy did after connecting was take a few moderate steps up the line before starting his home run jog. If you’re measuring bat flips, Muncy’s was more like a bat dump. And as he rounded first, Bumgarner—who suffers neither fools nor home run hitters gladly—growled at Muncy: “Don’t watch the ball, run!”

Muncy wasn’t exactly unprepared as he rounded first heading for second. As he quoted himself after the Dodgers banked the 1-0 win: “I just told him if he doesn’t want me to watch the ball, go get it out of the ocean.”

If you thought “Don’t look at me!”/”Don’t look at him” troll T-shirts whipped up fast after Bumgarner roared just that at then-Dodger Yasiel Puig a few years ago, you hadn’t seen anything yet:

2019-06-10 GoGetItOutOfTheOcean

That shirt hit the cyberground almost as fast as Muncy’s blast flew into the cove. Its arrival made the old “Don’t look at me!” troll shirts seem on a time delay.

About the only thing Sunday’s game did otherwise was resurrect Bumgarner’s likely trade value should the Giants finally acquiesce to reality and kick off a painful but necessary remake/remodel. He pitched seven innings and, after Muncy put his ego into the drink, scattered three more hits while striking out five and surrendering no other runs.

That wasn’t even close to the story of the game.

Bumgarner is self-aware enough to know he comes off like the kind of grump that divides baseball fans almost in half. For every old-school grouse who thought Bumgarner was not only within his rights to let Muncy have what for rounding first, but also a little chin music, maestro, his next time up, there’s a new-school graduate who thinks Bumgarner’s still too young to become a boring old fart playing a game in which he happens to earn a ducal dollop of dollars while playing it.

“I can’t even say it with a straight face,” the lefthander told reporters after the game, and he couldn’t. Bumgarner looked like he was trying to stifle the kind of nervous snicker you might emit when something strikes you funny during something like a funeral.

“I was going to say the more I think about it, you’ve got to just let the kids play, that’s what everybody is saying, but . . . he struck a pose and walked further than I liked . . . They want to let everybody be themselves. Let me by myself —that’s me, you know? I’d just as soon fight than walk or whatever. You just do your thing, I’ll do mine. Everybody is different. I can’t speak for everybody else, but that’s just how I want to play. And that’s how I’m going to.”

Bumgarner has one point. There’s nothing wrong with letting him be himself, either. If he wants to treat baseball as though he ought to be pitching in a business suit instead of a Giants uniform, that’s his right and he’s earned it.

Except that he knows others enjoy the same right to be themselves. If he wants to bawl out a hitter who just laid waste to one of his pitches and has the audacity to enjoy having done it, then what he’s really saying is he doesn’t really respect the other guy’s right to be himself, too.

If Bumgarner wants to fume because he was sent into orbit, fine. But there’s a reason why Muncy’s basepath comeback kicked off a new supply of troll shirts. Bumgarner doesn’t want hitters admiring their home runs off him, whether or not they land among a crowd of kayakers on the waters? And he’s not exactly out there trying to serve them pitches they can hit for those home runs.

Unless there’s some personal animosity between them otherwise, a hitter who’s just sent one seaborne isn’t looking to add insult to injury when he has fun with it as it sails away and after it lands. (Pirates, try to remember that the next time Derek Dietrich plants one into the Allegheny River.) Neither is a pitcher who can’t resist a little gesture of triumph after he survives a very tough plate appearance by striking the batter out at last.

Let’s have no nonsense about it all just being MadBum being the competitor he is. “‘Enjoy the view, bitch, because I’m gonna strike your sorry ass out next time’ is being a competitor,” says Deadspin‘s Albert Burneko. “‘Stop watching your home run, it’s rude!’ is being the cops.”

Forget the business suit, maybe Bumgarner ought to take the mound in a police uniform. Gee, Officer Krupke—krup you!

It’s not as though Bumgarner doesn’t understand the thrill. This is a pitcher who’s hit eighteen home runs himself during his eleven-season career. Including a pair on Opening Day 2017. You might suggest Bumgarner take off the gun belt and billy club and have himself a ball around the bases the next time he hits one for distance.

But you can see the troll shirts now: “Fun for me but not for thee!”