Alfred Hitchcock presents Opening Night

AlfredHitchcockAt long enough last came Opening Day. Well, Opening Night. On which New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge nailed the COVID-19 delayed season’s first hit and his teammate Giancarlo Stanton nailed its first home run two batters later.

On which the Washington Nationals opened without a key element, outfielder Juan Soto, whose positive COVID-19 test result came back well enough before game time to make him a scratch.

Before that rain-shortened game even got started, the word came from the opposite coast that Clayton Kershaw was scratched from his Opening Night start thanks to a back problem sending him onto the injured list.

In Washington, the Nats’ co-ace Max Scherzer would have loved if Judge and Stanton were Thursday night scratches. They accounted for all Yankee runs in the 4-1 final shortened in the top of the sixth when the rains smashed in with the Yankees having first and third and one out.

In San Francisco, Los Angeles Dodgers rookie Dustin May pitched five innings to San Francisco Giants veteran Johnny Cueto’s four, both men leaving with a one-all tie, and the Dodgers’ new $396 million man Mookie Betts broke the tie scoring on an infield ground out in the top of the seventh.

Scherzer’s good news Thursday night: eleven strikeouts. His bad news: four walks and an inability to solve Judge and Stanton. Judge also doubled home Tyler Wade in the third and Stanton singled home Gio Urshela in the fifth. Remove Judge and Stanton from the Yankee lineup and the Nats’ Adam Eaton’s hefty solo home run in the bottom of the first would have been the game’s only score.

Betts singled with one out in the top of the seventh and called for the ball. Published reports indicate that ball plus the evening’s official lineup card now repose in his home. “It’s just a new chapter in life,” he told reporters after the 8-1 Dodgers win.

After he came home when Justin Turner grounded into a force out, Corey Seager’s grounder got Cody Bellinger caught in a rundown at the plate, but Enrique Hernandez singled home Turner and Seager (who’d taken second during the rundown), Joc Pederson and A.J. Pollock walked back-to-back to load the pads, Austin Barnes sent Hernandez home with an infield hit, and Max Muncy walked Pederson home.

And, on both coasts, all four teams figured out a solution to the issue of whether or not to take a knee for “The Star Spangled Banner” that might actually help more than hurt the too-easily outraged.

Abetted by a suggestion from Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen, the Yankees and the Nats lined up on the base lines holding a long, long, long black ribbon, standing apart enough for social distance, then took their knees before “The Star Spangled Banner” was played.

On the same suggestion, the Dodgers and the Giants held a similar long, black ribbon and took their knees before the anthem’s playing. In Washington, both the Yankees and the Nats rose from their knees while the anthem was played. In San Francisco, ten Giants including manager Gabe Kapler plus Betts on the Dodgers’ side stayed on their knees during the anthem, with Bellinger and Muncy putting hands on Betts’s shoulder as a gesture of support.

I went back on record Thursday saying that there are far worse ways than kneeling before a national anthem to protest something you think is dead wrong. Kneeling, as two Scientific American writers I cited remind us, is anything except disrespect.

“While we can’t know for sure, kneeling probably derives from a core principle in mammalian nonverbal behavior: make the body smaller and look up to show respect, esteem, and deference,” wrote psychologists Jeremy Adam Smith and Dacher Keltner in 2017.  “. . . Kneeling can also be a posture of mourning and sadness. It makes the one who kneels more vulnerable. In some situations, kneeling can be seen as a request for protection.”

I’ll ask again: Would you rather those outraged by rogue police doing murder against black or any people raise clenched fists, burn a flag on the field, or start a riot with or without looting and plundering in the bargain? Neither would I. But if only now-former football quarterback Colin Kaepernick had thought in the first place to take his original knee before the anthem played, would that have worked very differently for himself and the outraged?

Let me repeat, too, that you don’t have to subscribe to every last clause or every last impulse of the social justice warriors to agree that rogue police doing murder is not what the land of the free and the home of the brave was supposed to mean. Neither must you subscribe to the formal Black Lives Matter movement itself to agree that black lives and all lives don’t deserve to end when those entrusted to uphold the law break it instead.

Let me repeat further that it’d be far better for baseball to limit playing “The Star Spangled Banner” to before games on Opening Days, games played on significant national holidays, the All-Star Game, and Games One and (if it goes that far) Seven of the World Series. Not so much to cut back on the kneeling protests but to re-emphasise that patriotism compulsory is patriotism illusory.

Back on the field, Soto’s COVID-19 positive test approaching Opening Night shook the game up just enough to provoke serious questions as to how MLB is going to navigate even this truncated season without further medical issues. And, whether the most stringent health and safety protocols will keep more Sotos from turning up positive.

Other surrealities include the empty stands, other than cardboard cutouts of fans in the seats, and the canned crowd sounds at the ballparks. The coronavirus world tour already turned baseball into something between The Twilight Zone and the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Now that the season is underway at last, should we throw Alfred Hitchcock Presents into the mix?

At least neither Opening Night game went to extra innings, so we didn’t have to deal right off the bat with the free cookie on second base awarded each team to start its extra half-inning. The mischief that’ll inspire will just have to wait.

Funny thing, though, about that equally nefarious three-batter minimum for pitchers. Two Giants relievers faced the minimum in that five-run Dodger seventh before surrendering any runs. If bullpen preservation was part of it even if those two got pried, I can see already that this dumb rule isn’t going to end well for Kapler and other managers.

And, let’s be real, the PA people in charge of the piped-in sounds are only human, after all. Who’s going to be the first poor sap having to live down the accident of cranking up the wild cheering when the home team’s batter gets hit by a pitch?

On the other hand, it was easy enough to feel normal again once the Yankees and the Nats got underway . . . when home plate umpire Angel Hernandez began blowing pitch calls. Calling a few strikes balls and a few balls strikes? That’s about par for the course for him. So when’s that umpire accountability coming at last?

Before the game, Dr. Anthony Fauci—otherwise doing his best to battle a pandemic involving both a stubborn virus and a political (lack of) class that surely makes him wonder if he was really there when all this happened—threw out a ceremonial first pitch. Later, he was seen in the stands with his Nats-themed face mask off his face a spell. What’s up with that, Doc?

You’d love to say Fauci threw a perfect strike to Nats relief pitcher Sean Doolittle behind the plate, but you’d be lying like an office holder. Fauci’s delivery is described politely as resembling a man trying to compensate for a fractured upper arm. The ball sailed almost to the on-deck circle. Rumour has it that Hernandez called it a strike on the outside corner.

“Stop us before we mal-spend again”

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Max Scherzer isn’t buying the owners’ bid to renege on a March agreement to pay players their 2020 salaries pro-rated if baseball returns this summer.

Most of major league baseball’s labour issues have come down, historically and factually, to the owners trying to order the players to stop them before they overspend, misspend, or mal-spend yet again. And, again. Despise Scott Boras to your heart’s content, but he has a point when he calls upon players to decline bailing the owners out for their financial follies.

The players seem to want nothing more but nothing less than for the owners to live up to the agreement they secured in March, that the players would play a shortened 2020 with their regularly-due 2020 salaries pro-rated accordingly. The owners want the players to forget that deal and pitch and swing for less.

“If this was just about baseball, playing games would give the owners enough money to pay the players their full prorated salaries and run the baseball organization,” says the uber agent in a memo obtained by the Associated Press. But, of course, this isn’t just about playing baseball.

“The owners’ current problem is a result of the money they borrowed when they purchased their franchises, renovated their stadiums or developed land around their ballparks,” Boras continues.

This type of financing is allowed and encouraged by MLB because it has resulted in significant franchise valuations.

Owners now want players to take additional pay cuts to help them pay these loans. They want a bailout. They are not offering players a share of the stadiums, ballpark villages or the club itself, even though salary reductions would help owners pay for these valuable franchise assets. These billionaires want the money for free. No bank would do that. Banks demand loans be repaid with interest. Players should be entitled to the same respect.

Under normal circumstances such borrowings might have made a certain level of sense and seem unnecessary at certain points, as Boras and others who wheel and deal in the game understand well enough.

I’m hard pressed to recall what occupied Joe and Jane Fan’s mind more, the deficit financings by which the Ricketts family bought the Cubs and redeveloped Wrigley Field in the first place, or the Cubs reaching the Promised Land at long enough last four years ago. Uh, oh. It’s been four years since the Cubs won the World Series. Will their next Series drought last even half of 116 years?

Whatever you think of him, Boras—and he’s hardly alone—would like to remind you appropriately that it wasn’t the players who counseled the owners to borrow big buying their teams, and the players benefit comparatively small from baseball’s recent record revenues and profits.

Beware the rat, Boras advises: the Rickettses [and other owners likewise] “will be able to claim that they never had any profits because those profits went to pay off their loans. However, the end result is that the Ricketts will own improved assets that significantly increases the value of the Cubs — value that is not shared with the players.”

Before the AP made the Boras memo public, Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer tweeted, “We have previously negotiated a pay cut in the version of prorated salaries, and there’s no justification to accept a 2nd pay cut based upon the current information the union has received. I’m glad to hear other players voicing the same viewpoint and believe MLB’s economic strategy would completely change if all documentation were to become public information.”

Remember: An awful lot of public misinformation accompanied the runup to and the duration of the 1994 players’ strike. Hall of Famer Tom Glavine was there. Last week, he reminded one and all, “If it were to come down to an economic issue and that’s the reason baseball didn’t come back, you’re looking at a situation similar to the strike of ’94 and ’95 as far as fans are concerned. Even if players were 100% justified in what they were complaining about, they’re still going to look bad.”

The players association “has held firm that a March 27 agreement between the parties ensures the players their prorated share, while the league believes that language in the agreement calls for a good-faith negotiation in the event that games are played in empty stadiums,” notes ESPN’s Jeff Passan.

Good faith, indeed. The players, with good contemporary and historical reason, Passan continues, are “skeptical of the data the league shared that showed significant losses across the sport and recently submitted additional document requests to the league in search of information about local television revenue, national television revenue, sponsorship revenue and projections from teams.”

With the coronavirus pandemic still in play, too, the players and the owners have health concerns to address and secure to the best extent possible if they want to play ball this summer. You may think the players are being greed heads for insisting that the owners live up to the March agreement and cut the shenanigans, but what does it say for the owners looking to use the pandemic still in play to force the players yet again to stop them before they overspend, misspend, or mal-spend—again?

There will always be the folks who blame the players no matter what,” tweets The Athletic‘s Marc Carig. “But let there be no mistake about it. The blame will also fall to the owners, who seem to have made weakening the union a priority over getting baseball back on the field.”

Part of that, of course, is an availability issue. It’s headlines when players sign bazillion-dollar contracts, but it’s crickets when the owners are asked to provide complete, undoctored financial disclosures that would indicate how much they actually as opposed to allegedly invest in actual baseball activity.

Do yourselves a couple of favours, dear readers. (All ten of you). Don’t let yourselves fall into the trap of thinking this is all a bunch of hooey over playing a kid’s game, for crying out loud! Remember whom you pay your hard-earned money to see at the ballpark. (Hint: it isn’t the owners, or even the general managers, no matter how dubious was that lopsided trade for which your team’s GM got the short end of the stick.)

Then, ask yourselves, if it’s just a kid’s game, for crying out loud, whether you, too, could really handle going to work every day knowing there’ll be about fifty thousand people watching you do your job at the office, on the loading bay, or along the conveyors—never mind whether you, too, could really hit Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, or Jack Flaherty into the bleachers or sneak a meatball past Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, or Cody Bellinger.

Now, put the dollar amounts to one side, and ask yourselves how you’d feel if you had a deal with your employer and your employer decided you need to renegotiate it down, because said employer needs a bailout after borrowing up and out the kazoo despite having the wherewithal to carry on without debt financing.

Thought so.

One for the road. And, the ages.

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The road was anything but lonesome for the Nationals this World Series.

From early in the season, when the Nationals were left for dead, and their manager left for death row, gallows humour often salved. So has it done though a lot of the now-concluded World Series. Such humour didn’t exactly hurt after their stupefying Game Six win in Houston, either.

Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki, himself hoping for a Game Seven return appearance after an absence due to a hip issue, couldn’t resist, after Max Scherzer showed up alive and throwing Tuesday. “We were all kind of making fun of him,” Suzuki told an interviewer, “saying he was going to rise from the dead.”

You could say that about the Nats themselves. They’ve been rising from the dead since the regular season ended, too. They won the World Series, beating the Astros 6-2 in Game Seven, rising from the dead, too. Inspired in large part by a pitcher who looked for most of his five innings’ work as though his ghost was on the mound clanking in chains.

And, with neither team able to win at home this time around. For the first time in the history of any major team sport whose championship is chosen in a best-of-seven set. The Nats and the Astros burglarised each other’s houses and left nothing behind, not even an old, tarnished butter knife in the silverware drawer. And the Astros’ hard-earned home field advantage proved the Nats’ road to the Promised Land.

Unearth Canned Heat warbling “On the Road Again,” from the opening tamboura drone to the final harmonics and all harmonica-weeping points in between. Crank up the Doors swinging “Roadhouse Blues.” Pay particular attention to the closing couplet: The future’s uncertain/the end is always near.

For five innings Wednesday night the Nats’ future was as uncertain as the Astros’ end was as near and clear as a 2-0 lead could make it. And try to figure out just how Scherzer with less than nothing other than his sheer will kept it 2-0 while getting his . . .

No. Not Houdini, for all his Game Seven escape acts. Scherzer wasn’t even a brief impersonation of Max the Knife, but after Wednesday he ought to think about a stand in Las Vegas. He’d make Penn & Teller resemble a pair of street hustlers. David Copperfield’s a mere practical joker next to this.

“You can’t really call it a miracle,” said Nats right fielder Adam Eaton post-game, “but it will be a reality-TV movie. Come on, how many books are going to be written about this?” Let’s see . . . Bluff, The Magic Dragons? 20,000 Leagues Beneath Belief? Four Innings Before the Mast? The Nats in the Hat Come Back?

Making baseball’s best team on the year take a long walk into winter has all the simplicity of quantum physics. Doing it when you send a pitcher to the Game Seven mound with nothing but his stubborn will is only slightly less complex.

“I don’t think anybody really knew what to expect when he took the ball,” said Nats reliever Sean Doolittle after the game. “After what he went through with his neck, you don’t know how that’s going to hold up with his violent delivery. You don’t know what his stamina is going to be like. But with Max, we’ve come to expect the unexpected. It was gutsy, man . . . He willed us to stay in the game and that was awesome. I know guys fed off it.”

But on a night Astros starter Zack Greinke operated like a disciple of legendary Texas cardiovascular surgeon Michael DeBakey with the Nats practically on life support, that could have been fatal. Until Patrick Corbin, Anthony Rendon, Howie Kendrick, Juan Soto, Daniel Hudson, and—reality check, folks—the lack of Gerrit Cole made sure it wasn’t.

Scherzer pulled rabbits out of his hat and anyplace else he could find them and was almost lucky that only two of the hares treated him like Elmer Fudd. Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel sent a 2-1 slider with as much slide as a piece of sandpaper into the Crawford Boxes in the bottom of the second, and Carlos Correa whacked an RBI single off Anthony Rendon’s glove at third in the bottom of the fifth.

Nats manager Dave Martinez called for a review on that play, ostensibly to determine whether Yordan Alverez’s foot was actually off the pad after he rounded but was held at third on the play, but realistically to give Corbin a little more warmup time. Then Corbin went to work starting in the bottom of the sixth. And the Nats went to work in earnest in the top of the seventh.

With one out and Greinke still looking somewhat like a smooth operator, Rendon caught hold of a changeup reaching toward the floor of the strike zone and drove it midway up the Crawford Boxes. One walk to Soto later, Greinke was out of the game and Will Harris was in. With Cole—who’d paralysed the Nats in Game Five, and who was seen stirring in the Astro bullpen a little earlier Wednesday night—not even a topic.

For which the Astros’ usually clever, always sensitively intelligent manager A.J. Hinch is liable to be second guessed until the end of time or another Astros lease on the Promised Land, whichever comes first. If he thought Greinke at a measly eighty pitches was done, why not reach for Cole who’d hammerlocked the Nats in Game Five and probably had an inning or three in his tank?

“I wasn’t going to pitch him unless we were going to win the World Series and have a lead,” Hinch said matter-of-factly after the game. “He was going to help us win. He was available, and I felt it was a game that he was going to come in had we tied it or taken the lead. He was going to close the game in the ninth after I brought [Roberto] Osuna in had we kept the lead.”

“They got a good lineup, especially the top of the order,” Greinke himself said. “It’s tough to get through no matter one time, two times, three times. All of them are tough. Really good hitters up there.”

Except that Hinch still had a 2-1 lead when he thanked Greinke for a splendid night’s work.”He was absolutely incredible . . . he did everything we could ask for and more,” said Hinch when it was all over. “He was in complete control, he made very few mistakes, in the end the home run to walk was the only threat to him.”

You can bet that even the Nats thought Hinch would reach for Cole in that moment. It’s the Casey Stengel principle, as his biographer Robert W. Creamer once described: if you have an opening, shove with your shoulder. If you think your man is done but you still need a stopper, you reach for him like five minutes ago.

And in one or two corners of the Nats dugout the thought of Cole coming in was actually welcome. “When we saw Cole warming up,” coach Kevin Long told reporters after the game, “we were almost like, ‘Please bring him in.’ Because that’s how good Zack Greinke was.”

But Harris it was. He was one of the Astros’ most reliable bullpen bulls on the season, and he’d been mostly likewise through this postseason. But after swinging and missing on a curvaceous enough curve ball, Kendrick found the screws on a cutter off the middle and sent it the other way, down the right field line, and ringing off the foul pole with a bonk! that no one sitting in Minute Maid Park is liable to forget for ages yet to come.

“I made a pretty good pitch,” Harris said after the game. “He made a championship play for a championship team.”

“The pitch he made to Howie—I just don’t understand how he hit that out,” said Carlos Correa, the only Astro somehow to have a base hit with a runner on second or better Wednesday night. “It doesn’t add up. The way he throws his cutter, it’s one of the nastiest cutters in the game. Down and away, on the black, and he hits it off the foul pole. It was meant to be, I guess, for them. I thought we played great, but they played better. It was their year.”

Osuna relieved Harris and settled the Nats after surrendering an almost immediate base hit to Nats second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, but he wouldn’t be that fortunate in the eighth. He walked Eaton with one out, but Eaton stole second with Rendon at the plate and, after Rendon flied out, Soto pulled a line single to right to send Eaton home.

Ryan Pressly ended the inning by getting a line drive out from Cabrera, but another Astro reliever, Joe Smith, wouldn’t be that fortunate in the ninth. Ryan Zimmerman led off with a single up the pipe; Yan Gomes bounced one back to the box enabling Smith to get Zimmerman but not the double play; Victor Robles stroked a soft-punch line single into center; and, Trea Turner fought his way to a walk and ducks on the pond.

Hinch reached for Jose Urquidy, his Game Four opener and five-inning virtuoso back in Washington. But Eaton reached for and lined a hit into shallow enough center with Gomes scoring in a flash and Robles coming in behind him, freed up when Astro center fielder Jake Marisnick, usually one of the surest defensive hands they have, lost the handle on the ball and gave Robles room to move.

And, giving Hudson all the room he needed to pop George Springer out at second and to strike Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley out swinging to pop the corks and blow the lid off 95 years worth of Washington baseball frustration. Which looked impossible in late May, looked improbable just last weekend, but looks just as impossible the morning after.

Believing that Rendon could become only the fifth man to homer in Games Six and Seven of the same Series (behind Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Roberto Clemente, plus Allen Craig and—a mere two years ago—Springer himself) was more plausible. Believing Harris could become the first pitcher hung with a blown save in a Game Seven at home since Boston’s Roger Moret in 1975 wasn’t, necessarily.

But believing no World Series combatant would win even a single game at home in a seven game set defies everything. The Nats outscored the Astros 30-11 in Minute Maid Park; the Astros out-scored the Nats 19-3 in Nationals Park. The Astros played their heads, hearts, and tails off all year long to get the postseason’s home field advantage, and the Nats swooped in to rob them blind.

All game long the world seemed to think Martinez had lost his marble—singular—letting Scherzer stay on the mound despite have nothing to challenge the Astros with except meatballs, snowballs, and grapefruits. The skipper who eluded execution after 23 May now looked as though they’d pull the guillotine with his name on it back out of storage. Then the final three innings made him look like Alfred Hitchcock.

That 19-31 start to the Nats’ season? The worst for any team that went on to win that year’s World Series. From twelve under .500 to the Promised Land? You have company, now, 1914 Miracle Braves. An 8-1 postseason road record including eight straight road wins en route the trophy? Good morning, 1996 Yankees.

The first number one draft overall to end his season as the World Series MVP? Welcome to the party, Stephen Strasburg. The sixth man to hit a go-ahead homer in the seventh or later in a World Series? Roger Peckinpaugh, Hal Smith, Bill Mazeroski, Ray Knight, and Alfonso Soriano, meet Howie Kendrick, who’s now the only man in postseason history with more than one go-ahead homer in the seventh or later in elimination games.

The youngest man to hit the most homers in a single postseason and three in a single World Series? Today you are a man, Juan Soto.

All that courtesy of MLB.com and ESPN’s Stats and Info department. They give you the numbers. But they can’t really account for that old Nats magic. Nobody can, try though they might. The Nats just hope this isn’t the end of it. Which might be tricky if the Nats can’t convince Anthony Rendon to stay rather than play the free agency market or Strasburg not to exercise his contract’s opt-out option.

Cole is also a pending free agent. And he plopped a postgame cap on his head bearing the logo of his agent Scott Boras’s operation. When an Astro spokesman asked him to talk to reporters after the game, he was heard saying, “I’m not an employee of the team.” Then, he said he’d talk “as a representative of myself, I guess.”

Liable to be this year’s American League Cy Young Award winner, and facing maybe the fattest payday ever handed to a prime pitcher, Cole wouldn’t say if the Astros losing the World Series prompted him to declare his free agency that swiftly, that emphatically. He wouldn’t say whether he was mad that Hinch didn’t bring him in.

“We just went over the game plan and he laid out the most advantageous times to use me,” Cole told reporters. “And we didn’t get to that position.”

For Altuve, arguably the heart and soul of the Astros on the field and in the clubhouse alike, the heartbreak was impossible to hide. “I don’t think I can handle this,” he said candidly. “It’s really hard to lose Game Seven of the World Series. What I can tell you is we did everything we could . . . We did everything to make it happen. We couldn’t, but that’s baseball.”

Sometimes it’s even harder to win Game Seven. That’s baseball, too. The Nats stand in the Promised Land as living, breathing, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in Show” proof.

WS Game One: Why dream it? Drive it.

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Juan Soto (22) stole the World Series-opening show Monday night; Ryan Zimmerman (11) opened it by hitting the Nats’ first Series homer ever and the first by any Washington team since . . . 1933.

This was supposed to be a duel of the lancers on the mound to open the World Series. Right? It was going to be ace vs.ace, right? Gerrit Cole, baseball’s almost-Invincible Man, vs. Max Scherzer, going tooth, fang, claw, and anything else they could think of against each other, right?

That’ll teach me to forget the modified Lennon’s Law: Baseball is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. Especially when an initially jittery Juan Soto learns a lesson from Cole in the first inning but takes the A train his next time up.

And, when enough other Nationals prove even this year’s model Cole is only human, after all, at least on a single night. And, when Scherzer for five grinding innings out-pitches Cole for seven despite not having his best night. And, when the Nats bullpen bends but doesn’t break.

And, when the Astros’ vaunted enough home field advantage proves no less intimidating to the Nats than it proved to the Yankees in the opener of their American League Championship Series. We know how that worked out for the Yankees in the end. The Nats know bloody well they still have a none-too-simple road to follow even winning World Series Game One, 5-4, Monday night.

“Why dream it? Drive it,” said a 1941 advertisement for the DeSoto car. “This baby can flick its tail at anything on the road,” said a 1957 DeSoto ad. The Soto in a Nats uniform and still two days from the legal drinking age must have dreamed it entering. Then, he drove it twice.

A mammoth solo home run in the fourth, a long two-run double in the fifth. This baby can flick his tail at anything coming down from the mound. So it sure seemed to the Astros after Game One. “I feel like, in the last twenty-four hours, I’ve seen Soto more than my wife,” cracked Astros catcher Martin Maldonado after the game. “You have to prepared, you have to do scouting reports on it. That guy’s good. He’s very good.”

On Monday night that was like saying the Washington Monument was very tall.

The sharks bit and the Astros bit back. Even if Scherzer vs. Cole transpired the way pitching’s closest observers might have expected things to go until the bullpens were opened, nobody—not the Astros and certainly not the Nats—thought either team would win the easy way.

The Astros came into Game One on a 26-0 winning streak in games during which they scored two or more runs in the first inning, and 2-0 in such postseason games. And Cole came into Game One not having been hung with a loss since 22 May or thrown even one pitch when his team was trailing in a game since 2 September.

According to STATS, LLC., he’d also struck out 258 batters between 22 May and Game One. Not to mention pitching 175 innings from his previous three-run inning until the top of the fifth Monday night. STATS also notes that during the previous 22 starts of his winning string Cole threw 150.2 innings and was behind in only four.

There went those streaks. And, for Game One at least, the mystique of invincibility Cole constructed since the White Sox pried six runs out of him that 22 May in Minute Maid Park. Not to mention the second straight start in which he didn’t roll double-digit strikeouts after an eleven-game such streak to end the season and carry into his first two postseason starts.

But the Nats don’t kid themselves. They know Cole’s liable to get another crack at them before this Series is done. They also know Justin Verlander awaits in Game Two and, while he, too, has shown his vulnerability of late, he’s still Justin Verlander, he’s still a future Hall of Famer, and he still has miles to go yet before his limousine, not to mention his right arm, sleeps.

Just ask Patrick Corbin, who got pressed into relief service in the Game One sixth and dealt with nothing more severe than Astro rookie Yordan Alvarez’s one-out single. “It’s a huge win for us no matter who we were facing,” Corbin said after the game. “But [Cole] has been one of their guys all year and they have a great pitcher going tomorrow. All these games seem like they are going to be like this. It’s two good teams fighting.”

Scherzer fought his way through five innings with seven strikeouts, a first-inning two-run double from Yuli Gurriel, and stranding second and third in the top of the third. He got onto the winning side of the pitching ledger thanks to Adam Eaton singling Kurt Suzuki home with a broken bat and Soto swatting his deep two-run double in the top of the fifth. And, thanks to the Nats’ pen shaking away some testy moments until the ninth.

“Tonight,” Max the Knife admitted after the game, “was a grind. Take my hat off to the Astros offense. I was never able to get in the rhythm tonight. I was having to make all my pitches out of the stretch tonight, it felt like.”

But oh did it feel sweet for the Nats when Ryan Zimmerman, Mr. Nat, the true Original Nat, their first draft in 2005, the year they landed in Washington in the first place, got to hit the first World Series home run in Nationals history.

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Soto catching the train in the fourth . . .

Zimmerman caught hold of every inch of a Cole fastball traveling 97 miles and hour and arriving right down the chute and drove it high over the center field fence to cut the early 2-0 Astro lead in half in the top of the second. “I’ll be honest with you,” said Nats manager Dave Martinez to former Nats beat writer Chelsea Janes. “I got a little teary eyed for him. “He waited a long time to be in this position.”

“You’re kind of almost floating around the bases,” said Zimmerman, who’s bent on enjoying every last World Series moment now that he and his Nats are here, after a season rudely interrupted by plantar fasciitis in his right foot, and with the knowledge his current deal expires after the Series and his future isn’t exactly written.

And as sweet and sentimental as Zimmerman’s blast was for the Nats even that was nothing compared to Soto leading off the top of the fourth.

Disciplined beyond his years at the plate, as announcers have purred all postseason long and almost to a fare-thee-well, Soto looked at first at a Cole slider that hung up over the top of the zone and inside. Then Soto remembered what he’d learned when Cole struck him out swinging in the first: “He likes the fastball, so I go to the next at-bat ready to hit it.”

Sure enough, here came the fastball considered Cole’s favourite, climbing to the top of the zone. And there went the fastball, the lefthanded Soto driving it high and far enough to land in front of the Minute Maid Park train’s locomotive and bounce between the track rails, tying the game at two. “[He] again used the whole field and he stayed back and stayed within himself,” Cole told reporters after the game. “So you know, good hitters do that.”

Cole knew only two things Monday night. He knew on contact that Soto lit a rocket charge in that 1-0 fastball, and he knew he wasn’t having the sharpest night of a year in which his regular season left him the American League’s Cy Young Award favourite.

“I thought the fastball was leaking a little off the corner a couple times,” he said. “I struggled with the curveball command, kind of buried us in some bad counts and then just a poor pitch to Soto and not being able to finish that inning off without a crooked number.”

For the deep history minded, Zimmerman’s was the first World Series home run by any Washington player since Senators center fielder Fred Schulte smashed a sixth-inning three-run homer in Game Five of the 1933 Series. Providing the only three runs the Ancien Nats got that 5 October. Hall of Famers Heinie Manush and Joe Cronin were on board when he launched.

“Just to get us on the board,” Zimmerman told Sports Illustrated writer/Fox Sports reporter Tom Verducci. “For them to come out and Max grinding it out tonight. He had a lot of guys on base, he made pitches when he needed to, they did a good job not swinging at balls and got his pitch count up. Against a guy like Gerrit it’s not an easy task. So I was just trying to get the ball in the strike zone and, luckily, he made a mistake.

It’s not that any Astros were allergic to making any history themselves. George Springer became first in Show to hit one out in five straight World Series games. Until he sent a 2-1 service from Nats reliever Tanner Rainey over the center field fence to lead off the bottom of the seventh, he’d been tied at four with Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson and Lou Gehrig.

Springer appreciated the feat only to a small extent. “I’d rather win,” he said earnestly after the game. “I mean, cool. Great. It’s an honor . . . But no doubt about it. I’d rather win.”

He did his part to try to make that happen, too, when he doubled in the eighth with Kyle Tucker on second and Daniel Hudson—who’d managed to strand the bases loaded ending the seventh—on the mound for the Nats. And if it hadn’t been for Nats center fielder Victor Robles misreading Tucker at first following his pinch single leading off, and throwing in to first off Aledmys Diaz’s fly out when he might have had a play on Tucker at second, Springer might not have driven in the fourth Astro run of the night.

Springer lingered at first thinking his drive had a shot at going out. Tucker waited to tag thinking the ball might be caught. Then, postgame, Springer fielded questions about why he didn’t end up on third with Tucker scoring. “I can’t go to third right there,” he told reporters. “Because the guy on second had gone back to tag. If I had gone to third, I’m out.”

If not for that, Jose Altuve’s followup high liner to right might have tied the game. But it gave the Nats just enough of a re-awakening for Martinez to reach for Sean Doolittle and ask him for a four-out save. Ask and you shall receive. First, Doolittle ended the eighth by getting Michael Brantley to fly out. Then, he struck Alex Bregman out, got Gurriel to fly out to not-too-deep center, and got Carlos Correa to line the first pitch out to left where Soto snapped it into his glove to end it.

“Welcome to the World Series, baby,” Doolittle replied when asked what he thought about coming in with a man on second. “One-run game, facing Brantley, such a good hitter, such a professional hitter. In the World Series? You know, that’s what you live for, coming into those big moments, in these big games. I’ve tried to change the way that I think about them and embrace them and try to enjoy it.”

Soto surely won’t complain about making a little history of his own. As in, the youngest player to homer and steal a base in the same postseason series, nudging Derek Jeter (Game one, 1996 ALCS) to one side. And, the third youngest to hit cleanup in a World Series game, behind Ty Cobb (1907) and Miguel Cabrera (2003).

Never mind that he’s made an impressions the Astros won’t be able to forget too readily.

“He was the key guy we couldn’t control tonight,” acknowledged Astros manager A.J. Hinch. “His bat-speed is electric . . . He’s calm in the moment. Clearly, this is not too big a stage for him. He was the difference in the game. He’s got that ‘it’ factor. He’s got fast hands. He’s got no fear.”

Springer couldn’t get over Soto’s homer. “I’ve never seen a left-handed hitter hit a ball there against [Cole],” he said of the track job. “Just an incredible swing.”

“He’s a special player,” Zimmerman said. “Really since the day he came up. You can tell the special ones when they come up because they can slow the game down.”

About the only thing the Nats don’t like regarding Soto slowing them down is that, as of Wednesday morning, they’re still two days away from being able to celebrate with Soto in the adult fashion. Come Friday, Soto can have a stiff drink legally.

“That’s why we need to win this,’’ said Nats second baseman Brian Dozier to USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale. “We’ve done all of this celebrating with him, and it sucks, because he’s not old enough to drink. We need to win this so we can do this thing right. This guy is 20 winning a World Series game for us.”

Why dream it? Drive it.

Two from first in the National League

2019-10-12 MaxScherzer

Thanks large to Max the Knife, it’s “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and two from first in the National League” . . .

Max Scherzer wanted to be a Cardinal when he grew up. That’d teach him. He got to be a Tiger for long enough. Then he got to be a very wealthy National. Earning every last dollar of his delicious contract long enough before this year’s National League Championship Series.

And thanks to himself and Anibal Sanchez making for a little deja vu all over again, the Nats are halfway to their first World Series.

Now, remember, that’s only halfway. But right now the Nats can’t be feeling anything other than that all the way won’t necessarily be the hard way, if not no way.

That was 2013: Sanchez and Scherzer were Tigers who kept the Red Sox hitless through five in back-to-back American League Championship Series games. This is 2019: they  kept the Cardinals hitless through five or more in back-to-back NLCS games. The first teammates to do it once against a single team became the first to do it twice likewise.

They just hope the net result this time isn’t what it was six years ago. In 2013 the Red Sox still went all the way to a World Series triumph. In October 2019 the Nats would prefer that the Cardinals not even think about it.

Sanchez lost his would-be no-no to a pinch hitter with two out in the Game One eighth Friday night. After dueling Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright magnificently, matching him strikeout for strikeout and keeping the Redbirds unbalanced at the plate, Scherzer lost his to Cardinal first baseman Paul Goldschmidt leading off the Game Two seventh Saturday afternoon.

And, after he rid himself of the next three Cardinals swiftly enough to end his afternoon, what was Max the Knife’s reward?

Oh, nothing much except credit for a win and a late spell of hair-raising before Daniel Hudson nailed down the 3-1 final in Busch Stadium. Everything was as succulent as the Nats could ask until reliever Sean Doolittle nailed two outs to open the bottom of the eighth and Paul DeJong rapped a clean single to right center.

Then Jose Martinez pinch hit for Cardinals reliever Andrew Miller, a day after he broke Sanchez’s no-no in the same role. After wrestling Doolittle to a tenth pitch, Martinez hit a nice, neat line drive right at Nats center fielder Michael A. Taylor. All Taylor had to do was stand still, let the ball come right to him, hold his glove up for the catch, and breathe as he threw the ball back in.

But Taylor inexplicably pushed in a few steps, then broke right back realising he’d come in too short, and by the time he was back for a flying leap the ball flew over his outstretched glove and toward the wall. DeJong whipped his horse and galloped home with the Cardinals’ first run since the fourth inning of Game Five in their division series.

Just like that Taylor threatened to negate the first-swing leadoff yank off Wainwright that he sent about six or seven rows into the left field seats in the top of the third. Just like that, it may have felt more than a little that the Nats’ splendid, mostly self-made fortune was about to get waylaid by a tax collector.

Lucky for him and the Nats that Doolittle didn’t give the Cardinals the chance for their mostly dormant bats to awaken any further. He got Dexter Fowler to fly out almost promptly to erase the side.

And then Nats skipper Dave Martinez baffled just about everyone with Natitude except anyone paying attention to the past performance papers. With a lefthander already in the game, Martinez brought in Patrick Corbin, his already-designated Game Four starting lefthander, to open the bottom of the ninth against lefthanded hitting Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong.

Martinez remembered what the Cardinals probably wanted to forget, that Wong came to the plate having gone 0-for-5 with two strikeouts against Corbin previously. The last thing Martinez wanted was Wong reaching base somehow and turning the bases into a track meet. And, sure enough, Wong obeyed the script. On 0-1 Corbin lured him into a simple ground out to second base.

Then Martinez brought Hudson in to finish it off with Goldschmidt flying out to left and Marcell Ozuna popping out to first.

The game actually might have ended 1-0 if Cardinals manager Mike Shildt hadn’t blundered his way into a pair of Nats insurance runs in the top of the eighth. With first and second and one out, and after pitching coach Mike Maddux confabbed with Wainwright on the mound, Shildt elected to let his veteran righthander pitch to lefthanded Adam Eaton.

Eaton—who came into Game Two with a lifetime 1.169 OPS (5-for-11) against Wainwright. With the lefthanded Miller ready to go in the bullpen. Shildt paid more attention to Eaton’s so-far game-long struggle to hit in the peculiar Busch Stadium shadows than to Eaton’s history with Wainwright. And the shadows long enough progressed to the point where they weren’t quite so bothersome at the plate.

What was bothersome was Eaton ripping one right past a diving Goldschmidt at first, up the right field line, and off the sidewall, letting Matt Adams (Scherzer’s pinch hitter with a one-out double) score standing up and Trea Turner (following Adams with a shuttlecock single to right center) to follow him, Turner diving across the plate like an Olympic swimmer with the third Nats run.

That’s the way to [fornicate] up anyone getting in your Cardinals’ way, Skip.

Scherzer and Wainwright put on yet another clinic in knocking the balance to one side Saturday afternoon, each righthander leaning at least as much if not more on breaking balls just off-speed enough to keep the hard hit balls down to a minimum and keep their defenses working possible overtime. Even running several deep counts Max the Knife thrust when he absolutely had to.

“I came in and my arm didn’t feel great,” he told reporters after the game. “But around the fourth or fifth inning I felt like everything kind of loosened up in my shoulder. I was able to find my arm slot and I was driving my fastball into locations where I wanted.”

Each struck out eleven batters; each threw first-pitch strikes two-thirds of the time; it was the duel of the masters that Wainwright described before Game Two as the next best thing to an early Christmas present. It sure didn’t hurt that the odd shadows crawling across the field for a little more than half the game made things very conducive to smart, sharp pitching.

Which is exactly what both teams and their fans expect on Monday night when Game Three begins in Nationals Park. When Jack Flaherty, the Cardinals’ boy wonder who all but ruled the National League from the mound in the season’s second half, tangles with Stephen Strasburg, a former boy wonder who carries a 1.32 lifetime postseason ERA on his jacket.

And since the Nats now have three reasonably reliable bullpen bulls to call upon, it won’t be quite as simple as just hoping Flaherty knocks the bats right out of the Nats’ hands. The Nats don’t let their bats get knocked away that way for very long these days.

The Cardinals’ starting players are now 2-for-54 in the NLCS. If they don’t figure out how to recalibrate their bats and hit, and fast, Flaherty can no-hit the Nats himself including strikeouts for every out, and the Nats will still find a way to win.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence in our hitters,” Wainwright said after the game. “I think our hitters are going to do something special in Washington.” With Strasburg looming and Corbin right behind him in Game Four, they’d better.

Right now they’re saying, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and two from first in the National League.” The Nats are too smart, too aware of their past postseason plotzes, to let this thrill knock them off task just yet.