Opening Day: Cross it off the bucket list

Shohei Ohtani

Shohei Ohtani, shown on the Angel Stadium video board during his pre-game warmup as the teams lined up on the foul lines, on Opening Day. He pitched brilliantly but in a lost cause, the Angels losing 3-1.

The owners probably won’t stop by to see what I’m about to write, but their otherwise ill-advised 1 December-10 March lockout did me one solid. But only one.

After the World Series, and as soon as they went on sale, I’d bought tickets for what I thought would be the Angels’ home opener. They were scheduled originally to open the season on the road. But commissioner Rob Manfred’s cancellation of the regular season’s first series, in light of the owners’ further goalpost-moving shenanigans, turned the Angels’ home opener into Opening Day, after all.

It wasn’t enough to turn my thinking toward the owners’ side one iota, but it did enable me to cross something off my bucket list. Despite a lifetime of loving the game and watching countless games in the stands and on television, I’d never actually had the chance to be at the ballpark on Opening Day. Until Thursday evening.

The best part of the evening was that I got to do it with my now 28-year-old son, Bryan. The second-best part was being able to cross another item off the baseball bucket list within half an hour of us getting our pre-game food and drink, after putting replica 1972-1990 Angels hats onto our heads.

The Ball

The foul ball, now crossed off my bucket list, sitting atop my notebook, before I handed it to my son.

While the visiting Astros took batting practise, a line drive sailed into our section down the right field line. Adjacent fans made it impossible for me to see just which Astro hit the ball, but the ball bounced around off seats in front of us, then under them, and riocheted off a fan two seats to our right, before rolling on the floor under us to where I could grab the ball before another fan reaching under the seat in front of me did.

I held the ball up to see for myself that I wasn’t seeing or imagining things, then handed it to my son. He’d only been asking to try to catch a ball at Angel Stadium since, oh, the first time I got to take him there—in 2000, when the Angels beat the visiting Yankees one fine evening by prying the winning run out of The Mariano himself. We’d gone to plenty of games since. Thursday night, it was pay dirt at long enough last.

Of course, there was now a game to play, and the Angels lost, 3-1. These are my ten takeaways:

1) Shoh-time! The good news for the Angels was Shohei Ohtani starting on the mound. I’m convinced that what looked to be a lockout-dejected, ho-hum crowd in advance, shot into a near-sellout once Ohtani was announced as the Opening Day pitcher. Lockout after-effect, I suspected: I’d checked the ticketing for the game just prior to the announcement and there were several thousand seats remaining for the taking.

Well, now. The day before I set out for southern California from my home in Las Vegas, I checked the ticketing again. The tickets seemed to have flown off the board once Angel fans knew it would be Shoh-time. And Ohtani didn’t disappoint, much. He pitched four and two-thirds innings of one-run, nine-strikeout, four-hit, one-walk baseball.

The best the Astros could do against him was the third inning, after he caught Martin Maldonado looking at strike three and blew Jose Altuve away with a swinging third strike: Michael Brantley banged a double off the right center field fence and Alex Bregman sent him home promptly with a base hit to left center.

As a matter of fact, when Ohtani wasn’t becoming the first player in Show history to throw his team’s first pitch of the season and make his team’s first plate appearance of the season (the Angels like to bat him leadoff), he manhandled Altuve for three strikeouts on the night, including the nasty slider that shot over Altuve’s hard swing for the third such strikeout in the top of the fiftyh.

2) The bad news: Astros starter Framber Valdez was just as effective in six and two-thirds innings. (The Angels planned to keep their starting pitchers on an 80-pitch limit for the time being, after the lockout-imposed too-short spring training.) He struck six out, walked one, and surrendered two of the Angels’ four hits on the night.

3) The worse news, for the Angels: They came to within inches of taking a 2-1 lead in the seventh. Mike Trout led off by beating out a throw from shortstop that should have been ruled an infield hit but was ruled an error. Then Anthony Rendon hit a high liner that sailed into the left field seats . . . but missed the foul pole on the wrong side by a hair.

“When I saw the ball flying in the air,” Valdez said post-game of his narrow escape, “I got mad with myself that I didn’t make my best pitch. I just took a deep breath and threw my best pitch.” That would be the hard sinkerball on which Rendon promptely dialed Area Code 4-6-3.

Matt Duffy promptly beat out an infield hit to third, which promptly moved Astros manager Dusty Baker to end Valdez’s night and bring Phil Maton in to strike Jo Adell out swinging for the side.

4) Cruising speed: Maton seemed on a bit of a cruise in relief until he hit Brandon Marsh with a pitch with two out in the bottom of the eighth and David Fletcher shot a 1-2 pitch through to the back of left center and gunned it for an RBI triple. That was the Angels’ first and last run of the game, alas.

5) The worse news, for baseball as a whole: That ridiculous three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. Under normal circumstances, if your reliever comes into the game and gets murdered right away—as Angels reliever Ryan Tepera was in the top of the eighth—you’d know he didn’t have it that night, right?

Father and son

Father (right) crossed Opening Day off his bucket list at last—and had the pleasure of doing it with his 28-year-old son.

Oops. Tepera’s first pitch to Alex Bregman sailed into the left field seats. The next Astros batter, Yordan Alvarez, hit a hanging slider on 1-1 over the center field fence. The Angels were lucky to escape with their lives after two prompt deep fly outs (Yuli Gurriel, Kyle Tucker) followed by a sinking liner up the middle (Jeremy Peña) that Trout caught on the dead run in from somewhat deep center to retire the side. (Trout also drew a loud ovation after he turned around and, from half-shallow center, winged the ball to fans halfway up the right center field bleachers.)

6) But there was good news on the relief front. Neither manager burned his relievers in the bullpens. If either Baker or Joe Maddon warmed a pitcher up, he either came into the game as soon as needed or he was handed what amounted to the rest of the night off. No Angels or Astros reliever was called upon to warm up more than once.

I paid as much attention to the relievers in the pen as I could, considering I was seated far opposite the pens behind the left field fence. The Angels used five relievers and the Astros, three. None of those eight pitchers threw any more than maybe 20-25 pitches before they were brought into the game. None of them could be called gassed going in.

Tepera simply didn’t have it Thursday night; Maton got vulnerable after ending one inning and getting two outs to open the next. The rest of the two teams’ bullpen corps (Hector Neris and Ryan Pressly for the Astros; Aaron Loup, Austin Warren, Jose Quijada, and Archie Bradley for the Angels) pitched clean-as-a-hound’s-tooth relief. Would that all major league managers were that judicious handling their pen men.

7) Memo to: Angel fans. Subject: The Wave. The 1980s called. They want their obnoxious, obstructive Wave back. One fan adjacent to our section kept calling for fans to do the Wave. I kept shaking my head, but I did notice that each of about ten attempts at it starting in our part of the park died before flowing to a fourth section of the field-level seats. Maybe there’s hope in such deaths, after all.

8) You were saying? The back-to-back Astro bombs to one side, this game wasn’t exactly the kind to send the old farts screaming to the whiskey shots. The game’s twelve total hits included three Astros doubles, Fletcher’s triple, and six singles. Altuve even stole second in the ninth, for whatever that was worth, since he ended up stranded.

9) Wasted Out Department: Altuve, the Astros’ pint-sized, gallon-hitting second baseman, also dropped a sacrifice bunt to third with one out in the seventh against righthanded reliever Warren, after Chas McCormick opened the inning with a double. Remember: A man on second with one out, and you have less chance of scoring a run after that bunt than you did before the bunt, even if you do exactly what Altuve did pushing McCormick to third.

Just what a man with a lifetime .512 Real Batting Average (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances), and a .297 lifetime hitting average with a man on second and one out, is doing thinking sacrifice escapes. With his team leading a mere 1-0 at the time, the Angels brought Quijada in to pitch to Brantley, and Brantley flied out shy of the track in right center for the side.

That’s what a wasted out did. The righthanded-hitting Altuve might have been futile against Ohtani on the night, but he has a lifetime .301 hitting average against righthanded pitchers. The Astros would have had a better chance scoring McCormick if Altuve hit away.

10) When Bregman checked in at the plate in the top of the eighth, the Angel Stadium video boards flashed a graphic with Bregman’s head shot plus this: [He] donated over 200 iPads  w/protective cases and iTunes gift cards to several Houston-area elementary schools that have autistic classrooms. He does that through his Bregman Cares charity, with a particular focus upon autistic children.

It was almost as admirable for the Angels to show Bregman such respectful acknowledgement as it was for Bregman and his wife, Reagan, to take such an interest in lending hands to autistic children. Even if Bregman’s idea of saying thank you for such respect was to smash a leadoff homer in reply.

WS Game Two: Hunted, pecked, pricked, poked

Max Fried

Max Fried—getting stung repeatedly in the second hurt almost worse than if he’d been bludgeoned.

If you look purely at the line score of World Series Game Two, you’d think the Braves had their heads handed to them in the bottom of the second. But if you watched the game, you know the Astros dismantled them, almost too simply, and with some inadvertent help from the Braves themselves, to win 7-2 Wednesday night.

As a matter of fact, when the game began you could have been forgiven for thinking it might turn into a bit of a pitching duel despite the teams swapping a run each between the bottom of the first and the top of the second—one on a solo home run, one on a sacrifice fly.

Overall that’s about how the game shook out—if you didn’t include the Astros’ hunt-peck-prick-and-poke of four runs out of Braves starter Max Fried in the bottom of the second, after he fooled Carlos Correa into looking at a particularly nasty third-strike curve ball. Jose Altuve’s eighth-inning home run almost seemed a by-the-way insurance run.

“We didn’t want to go to Atlanta down by two,” Altuve said postgame. “So we left everything we had in there tonight. Obviously, very important win to tie the Series to keep going from there.”

“Obviously, I’m not happy about it.” said Fried. “Playoffs is a big momentum game. You’ve got to do everything you can to keep the crooked number off the scoreboard.”

It might actually have hurt less if he’d been bludgeoned than it did the way he was pecked in the second. And, if Astros starter Jose Urquidy hadn’t brought his A game to the mound, leaving the Braves mostly unable to hit him even if they’d swung warehouse gates.

Fooling Correa into the strikeout must have seemed aberrant even to a pitcher who struck out six in five innings’ work and walked only one batter. The second inning made Fried’s outing look far worse than it was in the long run, but a true shelling it wasn’t. It was like getting stung by angry hornets one after the other a few times before he finally slithered out of it.

It started with Kyle Tucker spanking a base hit up the middle and Yuli Gurriel punching one through the shift-opened right side for a base hit to follow up at once, sending Tucker to third. Fried jammed Jose Siri into a slow tumbling grounder to the far left side of the mound, but Tucker came home when they couldn’t get the swift Siri at first.

Then Martin Maldonado, a catcher so prized for his work behind the plate that Astro manager Dusty Baker bears with his pool noodle of a bat, punched one through the left side for a base hit. The problem now was the Braves’ usually sure-handed, sure-armed defense.

Left fielder Eddie Rosario came up with the ball and threw to third in a bid to stop Siri if they couldn’t stop Gurriel from scoring. Only third baseman Austin Riley came trotting down the line to serve as the cutoff man, and shortstop Dansby Swanson got caught unable to get to third covering in time because he was in short left. Rosario’s throw thus sailed wild and Siri sailed home with the fourth Astro run of the night. Ouch!

Maldonado went to second on that throw and took third when Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud let one escape with Altuve at the plate in an 0-2 count. Altuve flied out with Maldonado having to hold at third, but Michael Brantley pulled a base hit to right on which Maldonado could have walked home safely, making it 5-1.

Innings like that are as common to the Astros when they’re swinging right as you might think the big bombing innings would be. But they were the best in the game this year at avoiding strikeouts at the plate and hitting in most directions out to the field.

They may also have picked up on Fried tipping pitches. No, they’re not pulling another Astro Intelligence Agency trick or three. The rules since Astrogate’s explosion and aftermath include maximum replay room security. But the Astros were known without and before any Astrogate shenanigans for picking up even the tiniest tells from opposing pitchers and exploiting them mercilessly.

Fried’s habit of wiggling his glove fingers around the ball in his hand rapidly as he prepares to throw to the plate, like an amphetamine-driven lobster clawing its dinner down to manageable bites, may well have handed the Astros inadvertent but invaluable pitch  intelligence. After the second, Fried quit the glove snapping for the most part—and retired the next ten hitters he faced.

When Yordan Alvarez walked and Correa sent a base hit to left opening the bottom of the sixth, Braves manager Brian Snitker hooked Fried in favour of Dylan Lee. After Tucker forced Correa at second with Alvarez taking third, the Braves’ defense faltered into the sixth Astro run.

Gurriel grounded sharply to Swanson at shortstop. He threw to second baseman Ozzie Albies hoping to start an inning-ending double play. Albies lost the ball as he turned to throw on to first. Tucker was ruled safe until a review was called—did Albies have control of the ball to get the out while losing it as he drew the ball out of his glove to throw on?

Several television replays showed Albies lost control of the ball after all, but not by as much as first surmised. The safe call held, and Alvarez scored, but Albies’s throw wasn’t in time to get Gurriel at first. Lee shook off a rather daring double steal to set up second and third by striking Siri out. Snitker brought in Jesse Chavez, and Chavez got Maldonado to fly out for the side.

The Braves got their second run in the top of the fifth when Freddie Freeman singled d’Arnaud home. Other than that, both bullpens kept each side behaving itself except for Altuve sending Drew Smyly’s first pitch of the bottom of the seventh into the Crawford Boxes, before the veteran reliever fell into and squirmed out of his own bases-loaded jam with no further damage.

Maybe the true shock of the evening was the Braves handing the ball to Kyle Wright for the bottom of the eighth. Wright’s a 26-year-old pitcher with a 6.56 fielding-independent pitching rate in four seasons. He had a 9.64 FIP and a 9.95 ERA in two brief starts on the regular season while up and down from the minors.

Throwing that against the Astros was something like offering to assure Hall of Famer Henry Aaron would face nothing but batting practise pitchers by decree, right? Wrong. Wright shocked the entire ballpark by striking the side out in order—including Maldonado and Altuve looking at third strikes after Siri opened with a three-pitch swinging strikeout.

“It was so encouraging to see Kyle tonight,” said Snitker postgame, even if he was thrown up as a sacrificial lamb in a lost game. “Just getting in there for that one inning and getting him out there and experiencing this atmosphere because he could play a huge part going forward. I thought he threw the ball extremely well.”

Wright lived on effective curve balls and sinkers Wednesday night. Snitker was inspired enough to ponder possibilities for Wright to spot start or even open a bullpen game during the Atlanta leg. With Charlie Morton gone thanks to that fibula fracture, Snitker needs to get even more creative with his pitching arrays now. Wright’s surprise may lift some of that burden a hair or two.

“He was locating,” said catcher d’Arnaud postgame. “His sinker was moving a lot. His curveball was moving a lot. He did a tremendous job. When I caught him in a rehab game for me, he looked exactly the same as he did that day. It was fun working with him, and it was great seeing him have the success today, especially in the World Series.”

With the tied Series moving to Atlanta for three possible games, thus switching the Braves to a home field advantage, it’s comforting to know that near the end of a night the Braves were pecked to death they might have found the Wright stuff, for however long.