Dear Joe and Jane Cyberjerk

2019-10-02 TrentGrisham

Not even facing questions squarely after Tuesday night’s disaster prevented Trent Grisham from Joe and Jane Cyberjerk’s vulgar and witless wrath.

Now that I think about it, it’s a bloody good thing Fred Merkle, Freddie Lindstrom, Ernie Lombardi, Mickey Owen, Ralph Branca, Gene Mauch, Leon Durham, Don Denkinger, Donnie Moore, Bill Buckner, and Mitch Williams didn’t live in the cyberspace era. Not to mention too many Cubs, Red Sox, Phillies, and St. Louis Browns.

At least they had to wait for the next newspaper editions to suffer the sewage thrown their way for committing their immortal sins. They didn’t have Twitter feeds or Internet forums to explode with the sort of insults that would have been considered obscene in Larry Flynt’s playroom.

Trent Grisham doesn’t have their temporary luxury. And if Joe and Jane Cyberjerk had their way, the only luxury he’d have would be a coffin, the sooner the better. Just look him up on Twitter. At the minute I sat down to write the cyberjerks didn’t quite out-number those looking to give the Brewers’ rookie a hug, but they were as nasty as the year is long and Grisham’s off-season will be longer.

The goat business still does booming business even though it should have long, long gone the way of the buggy whip, the stove iron, and the autogyro. Maybe there’s no point asking when they’ll ever learn. Two more laws of sports remain impervious to sense: 1) Somebody has to lose. 2) Too many people think losing a game equals moral failure, if not terpitude.

All Grisham did with the Nats having the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the eighth was scamper in from deep positioning in right field, get his glove down to cut off Juan Soto’s frozen rope single, and watch the ball skip to his right unexpectedly and behind him, ending any prayer he had of keeping the Nats from doing anything worse than tying the National League wild card game.

He didn’t start the Civil War or leave Mrs. Lincoln to answer questions about the play. He didn’t lead the Sand Creek massacre, sink the Titanic, assassinate Archduke Ferdinand, start the Chicago Fire, order the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, or found the Soviet Empire. He didn’t bomb Pearl Harbour, plot the Holocaust, or build the Edsel. He didn’t assassinate two Kennedys, a King, or a Beatle, blow up the Challenger, shoot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, level the World Trade Center, or create New Coke, either.

So tell us, Joe and Jane Cyberjerk. Be honest for once. And can it with the “my five year old would have come up with that ball!” crapola, while you’re at it. That theme’s been beaten to death and back more than a bazillion times. Even the simplest plays turn rotten through no fault of a human’s own. And you don’t know whether your five year old would have come up with Soto’s single.

Now tell us: Would you have been willing to go to work in front of 55,000 people right there in your office, and a few million more watching you on the flat screen, or listening on the radio, and take the risk that one errant baseball skipping away from your properly positioned glove in right field would ruin your day? If not your team’s? Your year? And several more to come?

I didn’t think so.

There isn’t a baseball team alive or dead that failed to understand that nothing’s guaranteed even when you’re strong enough to guarantee it. The biggest braggarts the game’s ever known know in their heart of guts that the minute the umpire hollers “Play ball!” all bets are off, all boasts are void, and from the first pitch to the final out nothing’s given except that someone wins, someone loses, and anything can happen in between—and often does.

Bigger game than Merkle, Lindstrom, Lombardi, Owen, Branca, Mauch, Durham, Denkinger, Moore, Buckner, and Williams have come up fatefully short on the game’s biggest days and nights.

Or did you forget Babe Ruth being foolish enough to try stealing second with the Yankees down to their final out of the 1926 World Series but with Bob Meusel at the plate and Lou Gehrig on deck?

Did you forget Robin Roberts missing a pickoff sign and throwing right down the pipe to Duke Snider, his kishkes saved when Richie Ashburn playing shallow nailed Cal Abrams at the plate, letting the Phillies’ 1950 Whiz Kids live long enough for Dick Sisler to hit the pennant-winning home run?

Did you forget Willie McCovey hitting a speeding bullet of a line drive that would have blown anyone else’s brains out but somehow caught Bobby Richardson with a bulletproof vest (well, glove) ending the 1962 World Series?

Did you forget Carl Yastrzemski popping out against Goose Gossage with two on despite the chance to yank the Red Sox back from the dead instead of ending the 1978 American League East tiebreaker game?

Did you forget Tommy Lasorda thought it was secure to let a relief pitcher pitch to Jack (The Ripper) Clark with first base open and the Dodgers one out from the 1985 World Series, only to watch Clark hit a glandular three-run homer and the Dodgers have no answer in the bottom of the last?

Did you forget Dennis Eckersley hanging a slider to Kirk Gibson to end Game One of the 1988 World Series?

Did you forget Mariano Rivera throwing Luis Gonzalez the one cutter that didn’t cut but did cut the Yankees down for keeps in the 2001 World Series? Or having no answer when Dave Roberts broke for second with the Red Sox three outs from being swept out of the 2004 American League Championship Series?

Maybe only Hall of Famers have any business coming up short in the biggest hours. One and all of the foregoing errant Hall of Famers were allowed to go forward with their Cooperstown careers. Except that they weren’t yet Hall of Famers when those horrors beset them.

Or maybe Ruth, Yastrzemski, Lasorda, Eckersley, and Rivera had a license to shake it off because they’d been there, done that on the big stages.

Maybe rookie outfielders who enter a wild card game after committing no errors in 70 outfield chances during 42 regular-season games don’t have any business getting a glove down only to see the ball behave like a Super Ball for a split second and escape like Bugs Bunny outwitting the witless Elmer Fudd yet again.

Maybe they make it too easy to forget relief pitchers brought in to shoot for six-out saves but having enough less of their usual command to load the pillows for the Sotos in the first place. Lucky for Josh Hader. His pleading Tuesday night’s disaster was on him wasn’t half as much fun as sending Grisham to the stockade.

Or maybe Thomas Boswell was right thirty years ago, lamenting Donnie Moore’s suicide, when he wrote, “The reason we don’t forgive you is that there’s nothing to forgive.” And maybe Joe and Jane Cyberjerk picked the wrong day to miss their second grade teacher’s having that in her lesson plan.

Almost to a one, Grisham’s Brewers teammates got to him as fast as they could in the Nationals Park visitors’ clubhouse and let him know they had his back. Grisham himself made it even easier. He didn’t flinch from even the most ridiculous questions after the game. He answered honestly, candidly, making no attempt to blame anyone else or anything else. Obviously he wasn’t raised to become an American politician.

For that his Wikipedia page got vandalised, too. It only began with inserting parenthetically, next to his name, “AKA ‘Bill Buckner’ and ‘Helen Keller Player of the Year’.” How about awarding Joe and Jane Cyberjerk the Howitzer Prize for Extinguished Commentary?

Can you top this?

2019-10-02 WashingtonNationals

Can the American League wild card game possibly beat the National League’s for surrealism?

An Athletics fan of my acquaintance in a Facebook baseball group told me this morning that, even in the dump of a Coliseum, the American League wild card game between the A’s and the Rays looked to be an absolute sellout. This is good.

Whether the A’s and the Rays come up with anything such as happened in the National League game Tuesday night is anybody’s guess until they play. And, hopefully, each team’s fans pray devoutly, it won’t be the kind of late twist of fate that squirted the Nationals to overthrow a win the Brewers looked to have in the safe.

Until Tuesday night it was the Nats who tended to suffer on wrong side of the pennant race’s or the postseason’s slings, arrows, slapsticks, anguishes, and surrealities. Then one unexpected skip on the grass of a bases-loaded eighth-inning single gave the Nats a deep taste of how it feels to be on the winning side of even one of those.

Maybe the Elysian Fields demigods decided at long enough last that, considering the toxic surreality that is Washington’s number one business—also known as the nation’s largest organised crime family—the nation’s capital and those who live there and root for the Nats deserved even a brief reprieve.

The history minded in the capital could see the ghosts of the last time a bad hop won something big for Washington baseball. Two bad hops in fact, both on the dime of Giants third baseman Freddie Lindstrom, one enabling the ancient Senators to tie and the other enabling them to win Game Seven of the 1924 World Series.

These Nats haven’t yet reached that close to World Series rings, of course. But after Juan Soto’s liner skipped surrealistically beyond the otherwise well positioned glove of rookie Brewers right fielder Trent Grisham, you might forgive the Nats and their fans if they permit themselves thoughts that, this time, they just might not get kicked to the rocks below after being led up the mountain to gaze upon the Promised Land.

The A’s and the Rays have a next-to-impossible act to follow Wednesday night. The Nats merely have a division series date with the Dodgers starting Friday in Los Angeles. They’ve crossed the Red Sea. Now comes the trek across the desert. As the man on the radio used to say, it won’t be easy, Clyde.

Some star-crossed teams can say at least that their signature transdimensional disasters were spread out over decades. The Nats have gotten theirs within just sixteen years of life adjacent to the Potomac. Their Montreal forebears never knew even a sixteenth of that. Maybe the 1994 strike costing them a clear postseason path.

Why, those Montreal forebears were even managed by Gene Mauch in their infancy and never had the chance to endure the kind of thing that sketched Mauch’s name into unfair infamy with the 1964 Phillies and the 1986 Angels. Lucky them.

But those now-ancient Expos never looked like the walking dead after a 19-31 season start, resurrected themselves after an embarrassing series loss to this year’s equally self-resurrected Mets, then romped to at least the first league wild card until they nearly blew it in September, either.

Those Expos never had the chance to go to four winner-take-all games before Tuesday night and lose every last one of them.

Those Expos were never betrayed by jumping out to a 6-0 lead in the first three innings of one of those games only to start swinging like they were trying to hit six-run homers on every pitch thrown to them or start pitching like they were trying to strike out the side on single pitches and enabling the Cardinals to overthrow them. The 2012 Nats thought of that.

Those Expos were never betrayed by their own manager hooking a sharp young pitcher with reserves still in the tank and two outs from a complete-game division series shutout, then failing to reach for Stephen Strasburg on call in the pen with the season absolutely on the line in another division series. Matt Williams dreamed that one up in 2014.

Those Expos didn’t get bastinadoed out of the race by the Mets when their skipper absolutely refused to betray The Book, whatever the hell it was at the time, and finally got caught completely out of the loop when his half-crazed closer tried to choke his right fielder in the dugout the weekend they were eliminated mathematically from the race. Williams conjured that one up, too, in 2015.

Those Expos didn’t out-score the Dodgers 24-19 in a division series only to lose Game Five on a four-run Dodger seventh and a slightly surrealistic Clayton Kershaw save. That brilliant idea came to the 2016 Nats.

Those Expos didn’t push a division series to a Game Five and then watch in horror when their catcher committed a passed ball, then threw wild past first, then got caught in catcher’s interference before the next batter up got hit by a bases-loaded pitch to finish a four-run fifth against them. 2017 Nats.

They may or may not miss baseball in Montreal but they probably don’t miss having avoided those kinds of disasters, either. Until Tuesday night, moving them to restore Washington baseball began to resemble the capital’s only known non-government-involved case of being careful what you wished for.

Long, long ago, it used to be said with only partial actual accuracy: “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” Prior to Tuesday night it looked an awful lot like “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first to disaster in the National League.”

For seven innings Tuesday it looked like they were going to get chaperoned right off the grounds of the postseason dance before they could even present their tickets, never mind get that last dance with the prettiest girl. And the odds looked reasonable that Brewers closer Josh Hader would make damn sure their tickets would be voided when he opened by striking out Victor Robles on a full count.

Except that Hader didn’t bring his customary authority to the door. Then, it was hitting pinch hitter Michael A. Taylor (for Strasburg, who’d pitched three scoreless relief innings in the Nats’ all-hands-on-deck bullpen plan) with a pitch that got his hand and bat one after the other in a split nanosecond. Then, Hader found enough to strike Trea Turner out and set the Brewers a mere four outs from going to Los Angeles, instead.

But venerable veteran Ryan Zimmerman pinch hit for Adam Eaton and slashed a broken-bat base hit right up the pipe, with Andrew Stevenson, a far more swift set of legs, sent out to run for him. Then, after forcing him back from 3-0 to a full count, with “M-V-P!” chanting pouring down from the stands, Hader walked Anthony Rendon to load up the pillows for Soto.

Then it was Soto’s frozen rope into right. It was Grisham, whose leadoff walk preceded Yasmani Grandal’s two-run homer in the top of the first that the Nats back onto their heels too early, hustling in from deep positioning to pick it off. It was the ball taking that odd skip away from Grisham’s otherwise well positioned glove. It was Taylor and Stevenson driving home at the speed limit and Rendon right behind them before Grisham’s relay throw hit his cutoff man.

And it was Brewers third baseman Mike Moustakas taking the relay throw just ahead of Soto’s arrival at third and starting the brief rundown that bagged Soto at second for the side. And what proved the end, when Nats manager Dave Martinez—who almost mismangaed himself right out of a job in May—reached for Daniel Hudson, who shook off a one-out single to get two air outs for the game.

These Brewers ironed up and fought hard enough after Christian Yelich inadvertently kneecapped himself for the rest of the year that even Nats fans ached for them for just a moment. They’d gotten a sad taste of the kind of thing that used to bedevil the Red Sox before the turn of the century, the Dodgers in Brooklyn from pre-Pearl Harbour through 1955, and the Cubs from the (Theodore) Roosevelt Administration until 2016.

The kind of thing, too, that usually happened to the Nats, not by them.

The realist may say, “Don’t count your Dodgers before they’re hatched,” but the optimist, given a license renewal Tuesday night, has a day and a half window to tell the realist to sit the hell down, shut the hell up, and stop spoiling the fun. Even if the Dodgers end up keeping the fun to a day and a half window, it’s a window Nats fans wouldn’t dare to close, and you can’t blame them one lick.

The A’s and the Rays may feel like the Rolling Stones tasked with trying to follow James Brown on television’s legendary The T.A.M.I. Show in 1965. Come to think of it, by comparison to following the Nats, the Stones may have had it easier. May.

Dancing Nats skip to a division series

2019-10-01 TrentGrisham

It was Trent Grisham’s first error of the season. After 70 flawless chances in 42 major league games.

The Nationals had the plan for the National League wild card game. Max Scherzer would start. All hands would be on deck in the pen including Stephen Strasburg in case Scherzer got into hot water, and Patrick Corbin in case Strasburg fell into the soup.

It’d be their big rotation guns against the Brewers’ bullpenning game. With Christian Yelich out of the picture thanks to that busted kneecap, the Brewers would be short of power while the Nats would abound with it. Right?

It wasn’t in the plans for Scherzer to get taken deep early before settling in. Or, for the Nats to take a three-run deficit into the bottom of the eighth, have to tangle with the Brewers’ best bullpen arm, Josh Hader, and turn it into a one-run lead on a misplayed, bases-loaded, bases-clearing single. By a rookie right fielder who hadn’t committed an error on 70 chances in 42 previous major league games in the outfield. Right?

Oh, sure, they planned that Juan Soto, the boy wonder, would be one of the big men in the absolute clutch. So does every Nats fan and observer. Even on a night when it began to look as though the Nats began thinking the clutch was something you had to pump in an ancient car.

They just didn’t imagine Soto would whack the line single that sent the Brewers home for the winter, 4-3. Any more than the Brewers imagined right fielder Trent Grisham, though playing deep, wouldn’t be able to come up with the ball and keep the Nats to maybe a single run on the play. Any more than Grisham could imagine being a postseason hero in the first inning and a postseason victim in the eighth.

But it wasn’t in Grisham’s plans, either, to see the ball take a bizarre little skip under his glove and off to his right as he hustled forward and extended his glove down to take the likely hop. He reached to good position, then he saw the horrific skip away. Just like Leon Durham did in the 1984 National League Championship Series. Just like Bill Buckner did in the 1986 World Series.

Even as he retrieved the ball to start the rundown play that nailed Soto for the third out, Grisham would be forgiven if he wanted to lift up the Nationals Park right field grass, crawl under it, and leave behind nothing but a sign saying do not open until spring training.

He didn’t do that, but he did stand up and fess up to a rookie mistake. “I was getting ready to throw to home,” he said after the game. “Came in off-balance, it took a little funky hop on me because I came in off-balance. I didn’t really gather myself and the ball got by me.”

Said Brewers manager Craig Counsell, “The inning was an ugly inning. Crazy things happen.”

To think the Dancing Nats, whose celebratory dugout rug cutting after big hits has become their season’s trademark, skip on to a division series date with the Dodgers. Crazy things, indeed.

Certainly it wasn’t in the Brewers’ plans to have no further solution for Scherzer as he shook off the early-inning bombs, or Strasburg as he flicked any hints of mischief away like annoying mosquitoes, or Daniel Hudson off whom they got nothing but a one-out single in the top of the ninth before a fly out to center sent the Nats Park crowd nuclear.

Apologies, John Lennon, wherever you are. Baseball is what happens when you’re busy making other plans, too.

Just like that, the Brewers’ heroic late September driving despite losing Yelich—playing like a threshing machine bound to overcome the imploding Cubs, getting about as close as the thickness of a sheet of paper to snatching the National League Central—meant nothing but getting the chance to let a game they almost had in the vault slip to the Nats.

“We finally caught a break,” said Scherzer, knowing only too well the Nats’ previous futility in winner-take-all games. “Man, this is so good for this city, and the team, and this organisation. It’s getting the monkey off your back. It gives you a reason to believe.”

For Grisham, by his own admission, the eighth inning is “gonna sting. It’s gonna sting for a long time.” His teammates did their best to remove the sting, he said, with plenty of words of encouragement and assurances that they might not have reached even the wild card game without him.

“I can take solace in what a lot of these guys said to me, especially a lot of the older veteran guys,” Grisham continued, talking to reporters after changing clothes, his voice calm, his manner matter-of-fact. “I have a lot of faith in them and trust what they said to me . . . I just ended up making an error. It’s not my first, and it’s not going to be my last.”

Remember his composure facing up to it after the wild card game. It was worth more than any brickbat heartsick Brewers fans are liable to swing in his direction. Remember that when men young or old try their best and fail, that’s all it is. Failure isn’t pretty but it isn’t a moral or character lapse.

The Nats didn’t expect Scherzer to get into hot water right out of the chute. They got the Brewers leading the majors in walks, but they didn’t expect Mad Max to walk Grisham on 3-2 to open the game before former Dodger Yasmani Grandal hit one into the Nats’ bullpen in right to end a six-pitch battle.

And they sure didn’t expect Eric Thames to open the top of the second defying the scouting reports—which command he be fed a diet of off-speed pitches to keep him from making mischief—and sending the second of Scherzer’s two straight curve balls over the right center field fence.

“Sometimes you just have to tip your hat and move on,” said Scherzer after the game.

Their only answer for long enough was Trea Turner with two outs in the bottom of the third, sending Brewers starter Brandon Workman’s only serious mistake of the evening into the left field seats. And after five innings’ and six strikeouts worth of work, plus a bottom of the fifth in which the Nats put two on and abandoned them, exit Scherzer and enter Strasburg. And Strasburg worked three mostly effortless innings, striking out four.

Effortless enough that the Dodgers may not get to wait as long as they’d prefer to deal with him in the division series, perhaps as soon as Game Two. With Corbin prepared to open against them. And Scherzer in Game Three on regular rest. (Memo to the Dodgers: Be careful what you plan for.)

The Brewers sent their vaunted enough bullpen out to continue nullifying the Nats. And for most of the game the Nats looked as though they were putting good at-bats together but spoiling them by seeming often as not to try to hit six-run homers with key swings.

Then the game got to Hader, who’s normally about as welcome out of the Brewers bullpen for his opponents as a case of hiccups is to a glass blower. And when he opened the bottom of the eighth by striking Victor Robles out after first falling behind 2-0, it began to look as though the Brewers had figured out every known escape hatch to use against the Nats.

Except that Hader’s pitch command looked suspect enough. And proved suspect enough when Michael A. Taylor pinch hit for Strasburg, worked his way to a full count, then got hit by a pitch. No, he didn’t. The ball hit the bat knob. No, it didn’t. Actually, it clipped Taylor’s hand and the bat knob. And in that nanosecond order. The review took a few minutes but the hit batsman call stood.

It may yet stand as the single most powerful plunk of all time.

At first it looked like it might end up otherwise, though, when Hader struck Turner out swinging. Then Ryan Zimmerman, the Nats’ elder statesman, who’d like to play one more season even as a role player, pinch hit for Adam Eaton, who’d been 0-for-3 on the night. The elder slashed a single right up the pipe for first and second. And Anthony Rendon, to the shower of a rollicking “M-V-P!” chant down from the stands, wrestled his way into a full-count walk.

Then it was Soto. With a foul off to open. Ball one far enough outside for a Washington Metro train to pass without bumping anything on either side. Then, the line drive that ducked and eluded the hapless Grisham’s glove. And ended up putting paid to the Brewers’ 2019.

Before the Brewers and the Nats suited up Tuesday night, Yelich actually let it be known he was half hoping for a shot at a World Series moment like Kirk Gibson’s in the 1988 World Series. The broken battler willing himself to one big swing where it mattered most and hurt the other guys most.

Just the way Gibson willed himself to pinch hit in the bottom of the ninth of Game One, sent Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley’s hanging slider into the right field bullpen to win it, and pumped his right arm and fist more to urge a body that belonged in traction around the bases than to celebrate.

“I’ve seen it, yeah,” Yelich said. “I wouldn’t even be capable of doing that kind of run right now. We’re a long, long, long ways away from that happening, but you never like to rule anything out.”

Having fought so tenaciously after losing Yelich to get to Tuesday night in the first place, the Brewers didn’t exactly like having their postseason ruled out too soon, either. And, having fought back from an early 19-31 plotz that threatened to lay their season almost entirely to waste, these Nats didn’t intend for their postseason to be ruled out too soon, either.

What’s brewing out of Milwaukee?

2019-09-26 RyanBraun

Ryan Braun slammed the Brewers toward a postseason berth clinch Wednesday night.

This season’s been strange enough without picking out the unlikeliest feel-good stories of the year. You thought a season-long battle with the injured list making the Yankees actually seem lovable was strange enough? You thought slugging their way to the American League Central title makes the almost-unexpected Twins’ case?

Well, then, what do you think about the real feel-good story of the year? It’s out of Milwaukee, you know. It’s called Lose MVP, Make Postseason Anyway. And as of this morning it could start changing to Lose MVP, Take Division.

The Brewers are doing what lots of fans only wish their teams might have done. Everyone wants to see their teams rise from the dead. The Brewers are bloody well doing it. Just like they did last September. Except that this time around they looked a little worse for wear before the month began. And they won’t have Christian Yelich in service again until spring training.

Be real. A runaway success is well and good. For all intent and purpose, that was this year’s Astros, Braves, Dodgers, and even the Yankees. Jaw dropping as the Yankees’ endurance was despite their season being St. Elsewhere, Yankee Stadium, their organisational depth helped make sure the farthest behind the Yankees ever fell was five and a half games—on 18 April.

The Astros were probably baseball’s second-most injury-challenged team, maybe with the now also-ran Phillies right up there with them. But the Astros are made of a lot stronger stuff and are at least as deep as the Yankees. They’re liable to end up with baseball’s best regular season record, if the Yankees don’t. They were last seen near five games behind even earlier than the Yankees—on 3 April.

And with Mike Trout out of the picture since going down for the season over nerve surgery in his right foot, Alex Bregman—who’s been Trout’s only anywhere-near-viable competition for the prize this year—is liable to end up as the American League’s Most Valuable Player, with Justin Verlander the likely AL Cy Young Award winner. These Astros aren’t exactly sad sacks. They could even win this year’s World Series. Could.

So turn to the Brewers. Whose best player and team carrier got knocked out of the box literally on 10 September when he smashed his kneecap on his own foul off the plate. A knockout that had an awful lot of people, yours truly included, thinking the Brewers might have been knocked out right then and there. Even as they hung in anyway that day to beat the Marlins by a run.

They finished that day five games out in the NL Central and a game behind the Cubs for the same. They finished the same day a game behind the Cubs in the wild card standing. And with Yelich out of  the picture, for all manager Craig Counsell’s absence of fear for what’s outside or nowhere within reach of the box, it was too easy to wonder how soon, not whether the Brewers’ tickets home for the year would be punched.

Lots of teams take a refuse-to-lose posture when disaster strikes. But you can count on a single hand how many act like their posture then. The Brewers are 19-4 in September overall—but 12-2 since Yelich was lost.

And after jumping the Reds for six in the first en route a 9-2 win Wednesday night—Ryan Braun’s grand salami on the game’s 20th pitch was merely the opening blow—they had the pleasure of delivering knockout punches to two teams for the price of one: the Cubs, who’ve spent September imploding; and, the Mets, whose post-All Star pluck and jive turned out to be less pluck than jive, after all.

The Brewers are not going to get cocky and kid either you or themselves that this makes Yelich expendable. They may be insane, but they’re not that crazy. But they weren’t exactly a threshing machine before September, either: they entered the month three games over .500 after an August that proved their season’s worst month.

They opened September 2-2, winning once and losing once each to the Cubs and the Astros. And then . . . and then . . .

* They took three straight from the Cubs.

* They beat the Marlins two straight before and including the night Yelich kneecapped himself, then beat them two straight more.

* They took two out of three from the Cardinals and three out of four from the Padres.

* They swept the Pirates, whose internal dysfunction this season was the year’s saddest feel-bad story, and now sit on the threshold of sweeping Cincinnati.

Go ahead and say it. The Brewers fattened themselves this month the way the Mets did out of the All-Star break, on preponderantly weaker pickings. But just as the Mets had to figure ways to elude both a bullpen made of 95 percent arsonists and a moment-challenged manager, the Brewers had to overcome:

* An entire roster whose individual wins above replacement-level player this year didn’t even show a single other All-Star level player, never mind anyone within a hundred nautical miles of Yelich’s level. And that’s despite five Brewers hitting 20 home runs or more this season (including Yelich’s 44), two (Yelich and Mike Moustakas) hitting 35 or more as of this morning, and the team’s on-base percentage sitting fifth in the league (.329) as of this morning, too.

* A starting rotation with only one member (Brandon Woodruff) showing a fielding-independent pitching rate under 4.00. (Woodruff missed all of August and most of September on the injured list.)

* A bullpen showing only one member (closer Josh Hader) with an FIP and an ERA below 3.00, with the average FIP (among its regular bulls) otherwise being 4.46. (They might have had a second bull close enough to Hader if Corey Knebel didn’t miss the season following Tommy John surgery.)

Now the Brewers are fighting on two fronts. They have a clean shot at sneaking the NL Central title right out from under the Cardinals’ noses. Or, they might have, if the Cardinals got to finish the regular season against anyone other than the Cubs. The Cubs have imploded so severely that winning even one of the final three this weekend might require a clergyman to verify the miracle.

More realistically, the Brewers have home field in the wild card game at stake. If the season ended this instant, the game would be played in Washington. But if the Brewers could end up tying the Nats’ season record, the game would be played in Miller Park, since the Brewers beat the Nats in their season series 4-2.

And the Nats—who had to find ways to survive their own manager’s periodic tactical lapses and their own self-immolating bullpen—won’t have it easy. After they finish with the Phillies today, they get to end the season interleague and against the Indians, still in the postseason hunt despite waking up this morning a game and a half behind the Rays for the second AL wild card.

The Indians won’t make things easy for the Nats. If they could survive a sweep at the Mets’ hands in New York, which proved maybe the true last grand stand of the Mets’ season, and stay in the hunt since, they won’t go down without a battle to the Nats.

But stranger things have been known to happen, including the Brewers being this far in the first place. Maybe the Cubs find enough self pride to give the Cardinals a run for it this weekend. Maybe enough, assuming the Brewers spend the weekend in Coors Field reminding the Rockies (whom they haven’t seen since may) who they’re dealing with, to set up a possible NL Central tiebreaker game.

They’re not strangers to that circumstance. Just last year they forced a division tiebreaker with the Cubs and beat them to force the Cubs to the wild card game they lost to the Rockies. These Brewers don’t seem to fear anything yet. Which gives this year’s almost-as-feel-good Cardinals a little more incentive than just rivalry pride to keep the Cubs in their apparent place on the final weekend.

But don’t bet too heavily against the Brewers, anyway. A team that loses its MVP and carrier and continues the September binge they started with him is not a team who’s going to dry up and blow away upon command.

Greinke makes the ‘Stros trade winners

2019-08-01 ZackGreinke

Zack the Knife makes the Astros the big trade winners. Will he help make them World Series winners?

No questions asked. The Astros slipped in at the eleventh minute, practically, and not only stole the new single trade deadline show but they did the absolute most to fortify themselves for the postseason run nobody doubts is theirs this season. Barring unforeseen disaster, of course.

With Gerrit Cole looking at free agency after the season it made sense for the Astros to seek a top-of-the-line starting pitcher with at least another full season of team control to line up with (don’t doubt it) future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander, so far the new ageless wonder of baseball.

So it came forth after the deadline passed that the Astros sent a quartet of prospects—good, promising, but not quite platinum-rated prospects—to the Diamondbacks for Zack Greinke, who isn’t exactly a slouch on the mound and who’s having a solid season in his own right so far.

They’ll get the rest of this season plus the final two seasons on the gigadeal Greinke signed with the Diamondbacks. The Snakes also sent the Astros a reported $24 million to help cover the rest of Greinke’s contract, on which the Astros will be responsible for the other $53 million. They’re not exactly complaining.

General manager Jeff Luhnow knew only two things about Greinke before he pulled the trigger on the big deal of the day: Zack the Knife has been a consistent pitcher who’s on the borderline of a Hall of Fame case; and, the righthander isn’t exactly one of the most combustible personalities in baseball.

“I don’t know him personally,” Luhnow told reporters, “but I think he’s not a guy that seeks the limelight, and that actually works well for us here in Houston. And slotting in with Verlander and Cole, he’s gonna not have to be the guy that’s in front of the camera the whole time.”

The Astros weren’t exactly over-occupied on doing the Greinke deal. Before that deal hit the news running Wednesday, they did a little bullpen fortification, getting Aaron Sanchez and Joe Biagini from the Blue Jays. The Jays also sent the Astros minor league outfielder Cal Stevenson. The Astros sent the Jays outfielder Derek Fisher.

Greinke was last seen striking out seven Yankees in five innings Wednesday. He left the park without talking to reporters, which may or may not have been an indication that he suspected or was told it was time to re-pack his bags.

On the same day, the Astros got flattened by the Indians, 10-4, in Cleveland; they finish with the Tribe Thursday before a weekend hosting the Mariners, but Greinke may not have his first Astros start until the Rockies hit town starting Monday.

“I know he’s really good. I don’t know him personally, but I’m going to get to know him,” said Astros manager A.J. Hinch. “We acquired him because of how good he is. Certainly we expect him to be a big part of our push to win the division and keep winning into October. He’s an incredible pitcher.”

He has been, and he still is when all is said and done. His new teammates won’t disagree. “What a pickup!” Cole himself crowed. Referring to the front office, he added, “They nailed it. They did a fantastic job.”

Landing Greinke shot the Astros into being World Series co-favourites with the Dodgers at Caesar’s Palace Sports Book. But the Astros are smart enough to know Berra’s Law is immutable. Zack the Knife increases their odds of a return to the Series, but so is Andujar’s Law, as uttered by a long-ago Astro, the late Joaquin Andujar: “In baseball, there’s just one word—you never know.”

What we do know, though, is who were really the big winners and the big losers of major league baseball’s first single mid-season trading deadline.

THE WINNERS

Braves—Another starting pitcher wouldn’t have hurt them, necessarily, but what the National League East leaders really needed was a back-of-the-bullpen retooling. And, they got it, in an almost rapid fire series of deals.

They landed Shane Greene from the Tigers. They landed Chris Martin from the Rangers. They landed Mark Melancon from the Giants. As CBS Sports’s Matt Snyder observes, if the prices were too high for such reported availables as Edwin Diaz (Mets) and Felipe Vasquez (Pirates), the Braves did well enough shopping the sale aisle.

None of the new pen trio are anything near the most glittering names in the relief world, but neither are they slouches or pushovers. Changes of scenery from nowhere land to pennant contention do wonders for such pitchers, and it would be absolute gravy if the Braves get something out of Melancon resembling his final years in Pittsburgh and his only spell in Washington.

Greene, of course, was an All-Star this year and was wasted on a Tigers team in the middle of a rebuild. When the Braves can turn to him near the end of a game, either as the sure ninth-inning option or if things get a little dicey in the eighth, the sight of Greene warming up with his 1.18 ERA should be enough to make their division and the rest of the league quake.

Throw in Martin’s 10+ strikeout-to-walk ratio and 10.2 K/9 rate, and all of a sudden the Braves’ bullpen doesn’t look like it’s full of bull anymore.

Indians—So Trevor Bauer turned out to be a bigger pain in the you-know-where than his otherwise solid pitching was worth. Doesn’t mean the Indians dealt from weakness. Not with Corey Kluber on the threshold of returning from the injured list.

And the Tribe managed to address their biggest weakness in the deal: their corner outfielders weren’t hitting anywhere near the same area code as their new toys Yasiel Puig (from the Reds) and Franmil Reyes (from the Padres) put together. Add Puig’s mostly plus throwing arm in right field, and all of a sudden the Indians outfield isn’t just going to roll over and play dead.

The Indians also landed lefthanded pitching youth Logan Allen (also from the Padres), and when you consider how well they develop or re-tool starting pitching this is an upside acquisition for them, too.

But the real key was the impact bats. Puig secures them in right field for the rest of the season, and perhaps if he continues doing well enough the Indians would think of pursuing him when he hits free agency in the fall. Reyes, though, secures a DH spot for them for the foreseeable future while giving them an outfield platoon option in the bargain.

Suddenly it’s not to laugh about the Tribe’s outfield anymore.

Mets—Don’t laugh. Not only are they on a six game winning streak at this writing, the formerly left for dead Mets—and even I thought they were just awaiting the nails to be hammered into their coffin after that terrible weekend in San Francisco—are 12-7 since the All-Star break.

And maybe it’s an illusion since, aside from the Giants, they faced only real contender during the string. But they did take both games against the Twins in Minnesota, including a 14-4 blowout. All of a sudden, these Mets can play as well as they can pitch.

And while the world seemed to be sure only that either Noah Syndergaard or Zack Wheeler would have a change of address after Wednesday’s deadline, it took the Astros landing Greinke to knock the Mets’ landing Marcus Stroman well enough before the deadline out of the park.

Maybe Stroman wasn’t thrilled at first to go to what he thought was a non-contender. And maybe someone ramped up for kicks a rumour that the Mets had ideas about flipping Stroman to the Yankees post haste for some of the Yankees’ top farm produce. But the Mets wasted no time ridding themselves of Jason Vargas—who should have been cashiered over a month earlier—sending him to the Phillies almost as soon as Stroman’s acquisition was a done deal.

The Mets rotation now looks like Jacob deGrom (who pitched brilliantly against the White Sox Wednesday night only to get his almost-usual no-decision, the poor guy), Stroman, Syndergaard, Wheeler, and Steven Matz. And with Matz putting on a deadly off-speed clinic shutting out the Pirates last Saturday night, looking as though he’s finally found the secret to pitching without the power of a deGrom or a more disciplined Syndergaard, it gives the Mets a rotation with two number-ones, a two, and a pair of threes.

Nationals—Like the Mets, the Nats were left for dead a few times before the All-Star break. Like the Mets, too, the Nats are riding resurgent, sort of: 10-9 since the break. And the Nats needed a bullpen remake in the worst way possible.

Not at the absolute rear end, where closer Sean Doolittle remains effective when he has something to save. It’s getting the games to Doolittle that caused one after another National migraine. But then the Nats landed Jays reliever Daniel Hudson and Mariners reliever Roenis Elias.

All of a sudden, the Nats seemed to find relief in the best way possible for that beleaguered bunch of bulls. And then they got really surreal—it turned out that they also got an old buddy (ho ho ho) from the Mariners, Hunter Strickland.

Strickland—who carried an almost three-year grudge over then-Nat Bryce Harper taking him deep twice in a division series, the second time awaiting whether his fresh blast straight over the foul line would leave the yard fair but misinterpreted as admiring the shot. (It flew fair into McCovey Cove.)

Strickland—then a Giant, who somehow hadn’t gotten the chance to face Harper until 2017, then entered a game with Harper leading off an inning and threw the first pitch right into Harper’s hip. Triggering Harper’s charge to the mound and the very delayed Giants pouring out of their dugout, during which pour former Nat Michael Morse’s career ended up being sealed when he collided with Jeff Samardzija and suffered a concussion.

Harper, of course, now wears the Phillies’ silks. But it would have been intriguing if Harper was still a Nat with Strickland coming aboard. Strickland’s coming back from a lat strain that disabled him for almost three months. And the Nats don’t see hide nor hair of the Phillies again until a four-game home set beginning 23 September.

By which time, the Nats may or may not be in the thick of the NL East race (the Braves suddenly started looking human enough the past couple of weeks), securing a wild card berth, or hoping they’ve got a leg up on 2020. A lot rides on the new bulls. But for now, the Nats took their number one need and addressed it respectably enough.

THE LOSERS

Red Sox—Like the Braves and the Nats, the Red Sox needed bullpen help badly. Unlike the Braves and the Nats, the Red Sox landed nothing. Not even a calf, never mind Diaz, whom the Mets were making available and who probably could have been had for a little less than they were said to have demanded for Syndergaard and Wheeler.

The Red Sox bullpen ERA in June: 4.92. The Red Sox bullpen ERA in July: 5.18. Letting some reasonably effective pieces make their ways to Atlanta and Washington instead does not portend well for the Olde Towne Team.

Dodgers—I know, it sounds funny to apply “losers” in any context to the National League’s 2019 threshing machine. But the threshing machine has one monkey wrench looming: the Dodger bullpen isn’t as formidable as it used to be.

Kenley Jansen isn’t really pitching like the Kenley Jansen of old this year. What’s behind him in the pen depends on whose description you read: mess, disaster, toxic waste dump, landfill, take your pick.

If the Mets and the Pirates were asking the moon for Diaz and Vasquez, the Dodgers if anyone had the moon to give in return. They’re loaded with prospects on the farm, and money in the vault, enough to have dealt a package of them for either reliever and still have a bountiful harvest to come.

Good luck holding leads against postseason lineups with that kind of pen. And the Dodgers won’t be able to hit themselves beyond their pen’s capability eternally. They won’t lose the NL West, necessarily, not with a fifteen-game lead at this writing, but their chances at a third consecutive World Series appearance and just one Series ring since 1988 just got a lot more thin.

Brewers—The pre-season favourites to defend their NL Central title aren’t exactly that good anymore. Losing Brandon Woodruff and Jhoulys Chacin to the injured list has left their rotation in tatters, and with the Giants yanking themselves back into the wild card play there went their ideas of maybe adding Madison Bumgarner for a stretch drive.

But they also needed some pen help, and what they brought aboard (Ray Black, Jake Faria, Drew Pomeranz) is serviceable but not quite as serviceable as what the Braves and the Nats brought aboard. The Brew Crew is liable to spend the rest of the season watching the Cardinals’ and the Cubs’ rear ends, but then with the NL Central as it’s been this year there could be a surprise in store. Could. Remotely.

Because the Brewers can’t live by Christian Yelich alone.

Twins—The AL Central leaders have gone from a double-digit division lead to looking only human at three games up on deadline day. They needed a little rotation help and a little bullpen help.

And they got only a little in the pen. Sam Dyson (from the Giants) and Sergio Romo (from the Marlins) are solid but not overwhelming. Maybe not for lack of trying, but the Indians’ blockbuster suddenly puts the Twins close enough to the Tribe’s mercy to make for a too-interesting stretch drive for them when they once looked like the division’s runaway train.

They can hit all the home runs they want, but if their pitching is compromised the Twins have a big problem coming. Like the Yankees, the Twins should have been more aggressive trade deadline players. Like the Yankees, they weren’t, for whatever reasons. And it could come back to haunt them down the stretch.

Yankees—Even Yankee haters won’t understand this one. The number one need for the injury-battered Bombers was rotation help. Especially after they’d just been flattened by the Twins and the otherwise-troubled Red Sox. And they did nothing to fix it.

The question may be why, or why not. If Bumgarner was off the market, they could have played for Stroman or for Mike Minor, even allowing for Minor’s rough July after a sterling June. They didn’t seem to play for any of the above. They didn’t even seem to be a topic if the Diamondbacks—knowing their own chances were still none and none-er—were looking to move Greinke to a contender.

And since their number one American League competition overall did land Greinke, the Yankees may ride a weakening AL East into October but they’re not liable to get past round one again, even if it may not be the Red Sox shoving them to one side this time.