Funeral to frat party and back in a Wrigley blink

2019-09-19 MattCarpenter

Matt Carpenter runs out the bomb that proved the difference maker in the tenth Thursday.

You knew it was just round one of total weekend war when a throw to first to catch Kolten Wong in the act was challenged, the safe call upheld, and the Wrigley Field boos rained louder than a heavy mental concert Thursday night. In the top of the first.

And, as Cubs starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks and catcher Willson Contreras ended the half inning with a strike-’em-out (Paul Goldschmidt)/throw-’em-out (Wong) double play,  the cheering from the Confines would have drowned the earlier booing out if both could have happened at once.

Then, for the following seven innings, Wrigley Field resembled a funeral home with Cardinals starting pitcher Jack Flaherty the chief undertaker. Until the Cubs tied things at four in the bottom of the ninth, turned the funeral home into a frat party and sent it to extra innings.

With Craig Kimbrel—returning from elbow inflammation, not having pitched since the beginning of the month—taking the mound for the top of the tenth. Cardiac Craig, about whom it was written snidely that every time he nailed a postseason save for last season’s Red Sox his high-wire act still made it feel like losing.

He struck out former Cub Dexter Fowler on a full count. Then Matt Carpenter—who’d lost his third base job to rookie Tommy Edman, who came into the game late when it looked like the Cardinals had it in the bank, and who hadn’t gone long since late August—hit Kimbrel’s first pitch over the center field wall. That’s what a quick trip back to the minors to fix your swing can do for you.

It also knocked Wrigley back into funeral mode for the moment, until Kimbrel settled enough to get rid of Goldschmidt and Steve Cishek came in to get rid of Marcell Ozuna and get the Cubs one more chance. Which Giovanny Gallegos—the guy the Cardinals surrendered Luke Voit to the Yankees to obtain—had no intention of giving them in his first-ever Cardinals save situation.

Late game Cub insertions Ian Happ (fly out to center) and David Bote (swinging strikeout) were dispatched almost in a blink. And Nicholas Castellanos, the Cubs’ midseason acquisition from the Tigers, who’d been nothing but solid and beyond for the Cubs since, flied out to center to end it.

The 5-4 win pushed the Cubs four behind the Cardinals in the National League Central and one behind the Brewers for the league’s second wild card, the Brewers having flattened the Padres earlier in the day. The Cubs have to win a mere three straight against the Cardinals this weekend to keep pace with them and maybe re-claim their second card grip.

Flaherty’s evening ended after a 1-2-3 bottom of the eighth, 118 pitches, eight strikeouts, a lone walk, three hits overall, and one rudely-interrupting home run, keeping the Cubs otherwise unbalanced with a blend of breakers, changeups, and fastballs a barista would have envied for its smooth richness.

He walked off the mound for the final time of the game so collected he could have been forgiven for saying, quietly, “Well, I guess I’d better be shoveling off.” Even if he knows about as much about the old friendly radio undertaker Digger O’Dell, whose catch phrase it was, as this year’s American League East-and-100 game-winning Yankees know about avoiding the injured list.

And he got a nice respectful hand from even enough Cub fans and he’d earned every finger of it. Even that was just respectful, low-keyed applause and cheering. The real noise came after the Cardinals brought in former starter Carlos Martinez to open the bottom of the ninth, and Martinez opened with a walk to Nicholas Castellanos before Kris Bryant, who’d been kept quiet by Flaherty all night, smacked a single up the pipe.

With Kyle Schwarber and his 37 home runs so far checking in at the plate with the potential tying run. With Martinez falling behind to him 3-0 before striking him out, but with Ben Zobrist doubling home Castellanos, putting the tying runs into perfect position, and with Javier Baez—whose thumb is still balky but who can still run swiftly—pinch running for Zobrist.

It took eight and a half for Wrigley to come back to life. And when Contreras flicked a squirty grounder up the short third base line with Bryant tearing home as if it was supposed to be an unintentionally intentional suicide squeeze, only with all hands safe and first and third, the Confines became as unconfined as you imagine when the Cubs re-awaken from the dead.

Then Cardinals manager Mike Schildt brought in Andrew Miller, whose formidability as an Indian the Cubs remembered only too well from 2016, but who’s been worn down since by health issues stemming from his former bullpen overwork, to face the lefthanded Jason Heyward. Heyward smashed a grounder to second that pushed home Baez to tie things at four.

You got the idea early that even with the Flaherty factor hitting was going to be a challenge thanks to the notorious Wrigley winds, when Nicholas Castellanos skied one that might have flown out elsewhere but hung up for a right field catch in the first, and Jason Heyward hit a cannon shot liner that died a shuttlecock into Wong’s glove playing second ending the second.

And you also got the idea early and often that both sides weren’t exactly going to be in a big hurry to blow plate umpire Bill Welke to a steak dinner any time soon. Welke called so many pitches strikes that didn’t even graze the floor or the outside edges of the zone it’s a wonder neither Cardinal nor Cub decided to serenade him whistling the ancient television theme from The Outer Limits.

But you also knew the delight Cub Country took in Anthony Rizzo deciding to test his recently-sprained ankle by playing first base would be matched only by a sense that it would do a bigger favour to the Cardinals. And in the top of the third, it was.

Flaherty batted with first and second with Rizzo ambling down the line, a la Keith Hernandez, slowly but surely, and practically in front of the mound, aiming as has become a Cubs mainstay to choke off the bunt even if it went near the third base line. Flaherty dropped the bunt, all right. Right up the short third base line. And on his still-balky wheel Rizzo couldn’t get the ball in time to keep the bases from loading.

The pillows stayed stuffed long enough for Dexter Fowler to dial Area Code 4-6-3 with Edman (a leadoff walk) scoring on the play. And Rizzo atoned for his ankle’s betrayal in the bottom of the inning, sending Flaherty’s first pitch to him the other way into the left center field bleachers to tie things at one. Smartly, Rizzo he didn’t run it out any faster than he absolutely had to or could.

The tie held up long enough for Edman to open the top of the fifth with a triple into the right field corner and for Harrison Bader, who’s been as much a struggler at the plate as reliable in the outfield this season, to smack a single up the pipe to break the tie.

The Cardinals got a scare when Wong had to leave the game after ending the top of the fifth with a ground out to first. He fumed over leaving the game and the Cardinals may have fumed quietly with him, since he’s their best player this season by wins above replacement-level.

Then they sent Carpenter out to play third and moved Edman to second. And Flaherty went back to work as though nothing short of an undetected tornado could interrupt his quiet pleasure in his work. You might feel that kind of quiet surety, too, if you took the fifth-best post All-Star break earned run average (1.07) of all time out to the mound to start your evening’s work of play.

Flaherty was so composed and efficient that the Cardinals didn’t even think about getting a reliever up until Martinez got up to throw in the bottom of the eighth, after Flaherty reached 108 pitches on the night. Don’t even think about it: Flaherty doesn’t look like a pure hard, grunting, thrusting thrower; he relies on mechanical soundness to provide the fastball’s power and the command of the breakers.

He nailed the Cubs’ impressive rookie call-up Kyle Hoerner (eleven runs batted in in his first ten games worth of impressive) on a called third strike that looked under and not on the floor, and while Hoerner objected mildly to the call Flaherty simply walked around the mound and went back to work.

Then he struck out his counterpart Hendricks swinging, and Hendricks to that point was working with equivalent composure, not letting the quirky Wrigley elements get as far into his head as a two-run deficit ordinarily might, though he engaged a long yet civilised-appearing discussion with Welke after that swishout before returning to the mound.

He was probably a little more miffed when Goldsmidt opened the St. Louis sixth with a sharp double down the left field line. The Cardinals must have wondered about his ump conversation when Ozuna was rung up on a pitch that didn’t even graze the outer strike zone before Hendricks nicked Paul DeJong on a runaway inside pitch.

But Yadier Molina, the Cardinals’ wise old man behind the plate, lined a single to left that Schwarber played on the carom off the heel of his glove before throwing home. Goldschmidt waved home from second should have been a Deadbird, except that he eluded Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, abetted by Contreras inside the baseline seemingly unable to get the handle on the tag.

Which ended Hendricks’s evening and gave the Cubs more reason to be miffed, when Bader stroked a liner to left center off Hendricks’s relief Rowan Wick, right after Wick turned Edman aside on a swinging strikeout. Then Schwarber opened the bottom of the seventh with a single up the pipe. And Flaherty in a momentary lapse of soundness wild pitched Schwarber to second while working to Ben Zobrist, before Zobrist grounded to second to push Schwarber to third.

And the Cubs’ basepath issues reared up and bit them flush on the fanny, when Contreras bounced one right back to Flaherty and Flaherty bagged the Schwarbinator in a 1-2-5-6 rundown out before Heyward grounded out for the side.

The Cardinals didn’t really look all that much better going 4-14 with men in scoring position in the first seven innings, but what matters is how you make it count when you do it and how you hang in there when the other guys decide it’s party time at the ninth hour. And Carpenter spoiled the party in the top of the tenth.

Leaving the Cubs to resist the temptation toward counting the days and accept the temptation to counting the ways they might keep both feet from their seasonal graves. They’d rather not be shoveling off just yet.

Want a blood feud this weekend? You may get one in Chicago

2019-09-19 WrigleyFieldSignForget the wild card races for a few moments. Have a good gander at the National League Central. Where the Cardinals and the Cubs entered Thursday’s play numeros uno and two-o in the division.

With a measly three games between them in the standings. And, count them, seven games yet to play against each other including three to end the regular season. You wanted an honest-to-goodness rivalry to take the season to the wire? You’ve got it now in the NL Central.

The Red Sox’s dissipation thanks mostly to their starting pitching means no Yankee-Red Sox duel to the death to finish. The American League Central is down to the Twins and the Indians with four games between them in the standings, but such as it is their rivalry seems more like a Friday night bowling league. There’s no blood feud there. Yet.

The western divisions in both leagues are so locked up that both champions-in-waiting (the Astros and the Dodgers) left their age-old or mere territorial rivals behind as far as New York City’s D train leaves 205th Street in the north Bronx when it arrives near Coney Island.

The eastern divisions are sewn up snugly enough, though there’s a vague potential for all-out war if, somehow, by some heretofore unseen alchemy, the Nationals and the Mets end up in the wild card game with one of them getting to deal with the Braves in a division series.

And the wild card rumbles are enough fun, even if you think there’s something just a little out of whack with sitting on the edge biting your nails to the nubs over the thrills, spills, and chills of seeing who’s going to end up . . . in second or even third place but with a postseason ticket regardless.

No, the real blood feuding resumes Thursday night in Wrigley Field. Which will be the Friendless Confines if you’re a Cardinals fan.

Where there’s about as much love or respect for the Cardinals as there was between Frank Hamer and Bonnie & Clyde. Where the legend may still hold that one season’s antics so enraged Hall of Famer Bob Gibson that he begged his manager to pitch him out of turn just for the pleasure of using the Cubs for target practise an extra time or two.

Bad enough the Cardinals’ Thursday starter Jack Flaherty entered as one of the National League’s hottest second-half pitchers. Worse: the Cubs only hit .168 against him with a .297 on-base percentage. Their best swinger against Flaherty, Anthony Rizzo, is down for the count with an ankle injury. Without the only Cub who hits higher than .250 against him—and Rizzo’s hit .533—Flaherty can start the game like a man sinking into a delicious hot tub.

Especially because his Cubs starting opponent, Kyle Hendricks, is a Cardinals pinata by comparison. The Redbirds have hit .249 with a .309 on-base percentage against Hendricks lifetime. The big swinger? Marcell Ozuna, who brings a 1.124 OPS against Hendricks lifetime into the game. Hendricks can’t exactly think about starting in a hot tub. He might have an early shower in which to think afterward if a) he’s not careful and b) his changeup betrays him.

But all September long the Cubs are a game over .500 and the Cardinals, two. But the Cubs just dropped a pair to the lowly but feisty Reds and woke up Thursday morning the winners of six out of their last ten compared to the Cardinals winning five of their last ten.

What a difference a few years makes. As ESPN reporter Jesse Rogers observes, not so long ago the Cardinals had issues on the basepaths, in the field, and out of the bullpen, but that was then and this is now: it’s the Cubs who now lead the league in outs on the bases, sit second in the league in errors (losing Rizzo doesn’t hurt at the plate alone), and haven’t converted more than 58 percent of their bullpen save opportunities.

And his colleague Bradford Doolittle observes that this year’s Cardinals do all the little things right but seem to think the big things are too big, while this year’s Cubs do the big things right while the little things seem not beyond but unknown to them by comparison. Tonight they’re going to test Rizzo’s ankle by letting him play first base. Think the Cardinals might test him the hard way with a few bunts?

There’s also that pesky location factor. The Cubs finish the home portion of their regular season this weekend before playing six on the road to finish, and their 31-44 road record to this point doesn’t exactly bode for getting their kicks on Route 66 or anywhere else. The Cardinals aren’t exactly road hogs, either, but their 36-38 road record when they woke up Thursday morning could turn just as easily into a 40-38 road record when they go to bed Sunday night.

Doolittle thinks Cardinal fans, despite their long standing reputation as being among baseball’s best, suddenly have “a sense of impending doom . . . A lot of people I talk to seem raw that the team didn’t trade for another starter at the deadline, even though their rotation has been lights-out ever since . . . They want to believe, but they aren’t all the way there yet. If the Cards flop against the Cubs, it could get a little ugly in St. Louis.”

Since 2017 the Cubs have actually been 20-5 against the Cardinals in the Confines. What does he think it’s going to get in Chicago if the Cubs flop against the Cardinals this weekend—pretty?

A one-time Cub broadcaster who devolved to become an American president once proclaimed morning in America. Just because it’s still only three years, just about, since their last World Series conquest doesn’t mean Cub Country would proclaim morning in America if the Cubs plotz this weekend.

 

 

 

The Gas Bill Gang

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs

They called Brooks Robinson at third The Hoover? They ought to call the Cardinals’ Kolten Wong at second the Electrolux.

It’s tempting to say don’t look now, but it’s hard to resist more than a look. While the Cubs took advantage of Yu Darvish’s almost unblemished start and the continuing slumber of most Mets bats Tuesday night, the Cardinals continued their takeover of the National League Central.

Not even a slightly odd seventh-inning rain delay in Miller Park could interrupt them. It took nine minutes and at least one playing of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s classic “Who’ll Stop the Rain” before the park’s crew got the roof closed.

It took another two and a third innings for the Cardinals to finish their 6-3 win over the Brewers, the final blow coming when Cardinals right fielder Dexter Fowler took a likely two-run homer away from Brewers late first base insertion Hernan Perez for the last out.

The Cardinals will take their wins any way they can get them. They’ve been getting a lot of them lately. They’ve overtaken the Mets with a 29-14 second half as far as that goes. They’ve shaken away their own 22-31 two-month spread over June and July.

And if you thought last year’s edition wasn’t exactly crawling with star power, this year’s could make last year’s look like the red carpet at the Oscars. The Retiring Redbirds. The Unknown Soldiers. The Gas Bill Gang. You choose.

On Tuesday night the prime damage was done by aging catching mainstay Yadier Molina, sure, but considering he took six multi-home run games into the game with three of them happening in Miller Park, maybe the least surprising thing was Molina going long twice, a one-out solo in the fifth and a two-run shot off the left field foul pole in the seventh, two hitters before the odd rain delay.

“Everyone knows this is a good hitter’s park,” said the Cardinals’ grand old man after the game. “With the background, you see the ball pretty well here. I feel good hitting here.” He wasn’t the only one Tuesday night.

Maybe the strangest part of the Cardinals’ run is that the star they did import last offseason, Paul Goldschmidt, isn’t even one of their top three players on the season to date. He hasn’t been terrible, by any means, not with 29 home runs and an .801 OPS, but neither has he been the player who averaged 6.1 wins above replacement-level in 2017-2018 and finished sixth in last year’s Most Valuable Player voting.

Who’d have thought they’d awaken Wednesday morning to see second baseman Kolten Wong leading the Cardinals with 4.0 WAR, shortstop Paul DeJong right behind him with 3.7, pitcher Jack Flaherty with 3.4, and left fielder Marcel Ozuna with 2.4, right ahead of Goldschmidt’s 2.3?

Baseball Reference‘s WAR definition puts Wong a little past the middle between a qualified starting lineup player and an All-Star. DeJong was the Cardinals’ only All-Star this year. Goldschmidt missed out after six straight selections. And Matt Carpenter still  hasn’t become the bona-fide star he looked to be in the making when he finished sixth in the 2012 National League Rookie of the Year vote and fourth in the next season’s MVP vote.

These are definitely not the heirs to such star-striking Redbird teams past as those of the Rajah, Dizzy and the Gas Housemen, Stan the Man, Hoot Gibson and El Birdos (import star Orlando Cepeda hung that one on them in 1967-68), the Wizard of Oz and the Runnin’ Redbirds, or El Hombre.

And after the Dodgers humiliated them in an early-August sweep that kept them to two runs in three games, leaving them three and a half out in the Central, you could have been forgiven if even the most stubborn of Cardinal Country nationalists were ready to prepare for the season’s funeral.

But they’ve won fifteen out of eighteen since, including Tuesday night making for a six-game winning streak.

They’re getting the kind of second base defense from Wong that they got in ancient times from the late Red Schoendienst and better, Wong leading every second baseman in the Show through this writing with +14 defensive runs saved and nobody else at the position showing better than +6. They used to call Brooks Robinson the Hoover at third base? They ought to call Wong the Electrolux at second.

They’re finally getting the Cy Young Award-level performance expected of Jack Flaherty, even if his rocky first half won’t put him in the award conversation at season’s end. He’s had an 0.80 earned run average in his last nine starts (five runs in 56 1/3 innings, ladies and gentlemanpersons) and the slash line against him (.144/.221/.222) makes Mario Mendoza resemble Mickey Mantle.

And while it seems everyone else’s bullpen has added arson to injuries, the Cardinals’ bullpen snuck in through the service entrance to sport the Show’s second-best bullpen ERA (3.64) behind the Indians’, and the Tribal pen hasn’t been a model of consistency of late. And this was despite Jordan Hicks going down for the count and the season in late June with an elbow demanding Tommy John surgery.

You want to talk about star power or the lack thereof? Once upon a time there were Hornsby, Dean, Harry Brecheen, Gibson, Steve Carlton, and the injury-compromised John Tudor on the mound. Not to mention men like Lindy McDaniel, Bruce Sutter, and Lee Smith out of the bullpen. Flaherty hasn’t established his star power yet. But Giovanny Gallegos makes him look positively charismatic by comparison.

Gallegos is the reason everybody thought the Yankees fleeced the Cardinals in the dead of broad daylight in the Luke Voit deal. But with Hicks gone until some time in 2020, Gallegos is the Cardinals’ stealth bullpen bull. He’s doing what the Cardinals hoped Andrew Miller, a free agency signing over the winter, might revive enough to do once more.

He may have been pried for a run Tuesday night, surrendering a leadoff single to Perez in the eighth before his successor, Miller, let Perez home on a two-run homer (Yasmani Grandal), but he has a 2.07 ERA with 80 punchouts in 61 innings. And his slider does now what Miller’s used to do: enemy batters hit only .133 with a 43 percent strikeout rate when he goes to it.

Gallegos could be called one of the Cardinals’ Little Big Three out of the pen. There’s John Brebia with his 2.94 ERA and 2.91 fielding-independent pitching rate, not to mention 78 punchouts in 64 innings. And there’s John Gant, whose 2.97 ERA is a little deceptive against his 3.60 FIP, but Gant seems to pitch to his defense as much as anything else, which isn’t necessarily a terrible thing.

At least there isn’t anyone out of the Cardinals’ pen who’s liable to make a postseason game resemble a Craig Kimbrel appearance from last fall—yet. They won’t be keeping the crash carts and ambulances on call when these guys come out of the pen. Even Miller, who’s having his ups and downs this year after looking like something resembling his old self in the final third of last year, still has 11.9 strikeout per nine and a respectable if unspectacular 2.5 K/BB rate.

Let’s be fair. The Cardinals came back from three and a half down after that Dodger sweep to three games up in the NL Central with a little help from their fiends—er, friends. Nothing wrong with that, but discredit where due.

The Cubs have three times the star power but they’re only five games over .500 since the All-Star break and fighting for . . . the second National League wild card. They now hold a two-game edge over the Phillies and three over the Mets, and the Phillies and the Mets are showing their vulnerabilities again.

The Phillies’ pitching woes keep betraying their offense; the Mets’ offensive woes, which boil down to nobody else stepping up consistently anymore to support Pete Alonso (who smashed the team’s single-season home run record Tuesday night with number 42) and, lately, a surprising Wilson Ramos (the rockpiling catcher has a 20-game hitting streak as of this morning), hold hands with their continuing bullpen problems to betray their mostly stellar starting pitching.

The Brewers have been done in by pitching that can be called broken, underachieving, spent, or all the above. It’s reasonable now to call the Brewers Christian Yelich and a cast of several. It’s also reasonable to ask how long they can survive with a middle infield (second baseman Keston Hiura, shortstop Orlando Arcia) that could be tried by jury for treason, as good as they are turning double plays: together they’re -9 defensive runs saved this year.

But none of that help would amount to anything if the Cardinals weren’t grateful recipients. Until they hit the 15-3 run they’re on now, their postseason odds at all were a somewhat generous 25 percent. As of this morning, their postseason odds overall are 86 percent, and they have a 57 percent chance of winning the NL Central as compared to 10.5 percent before the current run.

Ladies and gentlemanpersons, catch the paper stars. Meet your Retiring Redbirds. Your Unknown Soldiers. Your St. Louis Swiffers. Your Gas Bill Gang. Take your pick. Baseball’s cliches include the name on the front of the uniform out-ranking the name on the back. But these Cardinals may be taking that to the opposite extreme.

Don’t be shocked if their postseason breakout becomes someone we haven’t even discussed here. These Unknown Redbirds seem capable of the most unheard-of things anyone ever heard of. Come to think of it, and even with Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa, that’s practically how they won their last World Series rings eight years ago.

The wreck of the Pirates

2019-08-18 PittsburghPirates

The Pirates have more problems than just the reputation for headhunting earned by such brawls as this with the Reds on trade deadline day . . .

The iconic Roberto Clemente would have been 85 today. He’s probably playing a game in the Elysian Fields and, when getting news of his old club on earth today, shaking his head in dismay. Any way you look at it, and several have over the past couple of days, the Pirates are a mess.

Even winning three out of five from the Angels and the Cubs entering Sunday can’t turn this wreck of a leaky boat into the U.S.S. Constitution. The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was nothing compared to the wreck of the Pittsburgh clubhouse. These Pirates couldn’t raid an Everglades airboat and get away with it.

No baseball team likes to lose. The Pirates’ 7-26 run since the All-Star break would harry in a hurry anyone to the rack of their regrets. But there’s no hard written, hard enforced rule that that kind of futility on the field has to equal a clubhouse carpeted by rubber wall to rubber wall eggshells, either.

And nobody seemed to know just how deeply troubled the Pirates may have been until a couple of days ago. When The Athletic‘s Rob Biertempfel published a piece headlined, “A pair of altercations between players and coaches highlights the Pirates’ fraying clubhouse.” I’m not entirely certain all hell has broken loose as a result, but consider.

The worst kept secret in the National League was the Pirates’ pitching staff riddled by injuries and inconsistencies. The second-worst has been the Pirates’ apparent indifference to the periodic scrums into which they get when their penchant for pitching inside and tight crosses the lines between inside tight and headhunting. But . . .

“While the problems with health and performance are well-chronicled,” Biertempfel wrote, “the clubhouse conflicts have not been as apparent, aside from the team’s announcements of a pair of suspensions in July for separate altercations involving coaches and two relievers, Keone Kela and Kyle Crick.

“The details of those incidents, many of which have not previously been reported, illustrate rifts caused by envy, charges of favoritism, and overt insubordination against manager Clint Hurdle and his staff.”

Not been previously reported? The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which covers the Pirates daily, almost looked willfully ignorant about it. In early August, the paper’s Jason Mackey did a run-down of the Pirates’ problems on the field that hit things squarely enough. But almost nothing in the paper has appeared to shine even a flicker on the team’s deeper issues beyond almost rote announcements of suspensions involving two relief pitchers and one of those pitchers, Keone Kela, denying profusely that he’s a clubhouse pain.

Notoriously, Kela got himself a ten-game suspension for instigating what ultimately became a wild trade deadline-night brawl when he threw at Derek Dietrich—over a pair of April home runs one of which landed in the Allegheny River—and admitted outright he wanted to decapitate the Cincinnati outfielder.

But over a week earlier Kela got into a tangle with performance coach Hector Morales. The team announced his two-day suspension “for violating team rules.” What wasn’t revealed at the time was manager Clint Hurdle having to intervene and Kela engaging Hurdle in a shouting match that Biertempfel and others say amounted to downright insubordination against the skipper.

“Clint wasn’t even in the vicinity to break up anything,” Kela told Mackey. “I was letting [Morales] know that we had some differences in terms of what we believe with [team] culture. Clint and I have never had a shouting match at each other. And honestly, if you can’t tell, I’m truthful. I don’t have anything to lie about.”

Kela missed two months this season with shoulder inflammation. Since his return he’s been one of the Pirates’ better relievers. But after the Dietrich incident people were reminded that Kela had a reputation for trouble with the Rangers, including but not limited to “confronting players and causing disruptions” after spring training 2017.

They seem to have included what the Fort Worth Star-Telegram described as “multiple heated exchanges with more established teammates.” When the Rangers sent Kela down to AAA Round Rock as that spring training ended, that paper said most Rangers players agreed with the move.

“The Rangers decided that Kela, projected to be a key member of their bullpen, should be sent to the minors in an effort to preserve clubhouse chemistry,” wrote the Star-Telegram‘s Jeff Wilson. “It is the first known punishment for Kela since he joined the Rangers, even though sources have indicated he has a track record of confronting players and causing disruptions in only two seasons in the majors.”

So why did the Pirates deal for Kela in 2018 at the former non-waiver trade deadline? They liked his arm and the idea of adding him to a promising bullpen, even though, as Biertempfel notes, “they knew he came with a history of clubhouse issues.” But after the blowup with Morales and the outrage over the brawl with the Reds, “sources with the Pirates told The Athletic that many players are wary of Kela because his demeanor can be so mercurial.”

A week after the Kela-Morales-Hurdle showdown, bullpen coach Euclides Rojas was suspended by the team over a confrontation with Crick. Apparently, Crick challenged Rojas over preferential treatment perceived to be given to closer Felipe Vasquez and Rojas ordered Crick to mind his own business. When they argued over the issue, Biertempfel wrote, “a player went to management and insisted that Rojas should get the same level of punishment as Kela had.”

You expect certain key performers to get a few breaks on the team, and Vasquez is both a veteran and a two-time All-Star. He “is not always on the field during the pregame period when other relievers are stretching and shagging flies,” Biertempfel wrote. “Earlier this season, Vázquez explained there are times when he is doing other things — such as getting a massage, working with a conditioning coach or taking a nap — to sharpen his performance during the pregame period.”

If Crick was annoyed over such preferential treatment, and he may not be alone, you might expect one of the Pirates’ veterans to step in and settle him down. But that’s the problem, Biertempfel wrote: “many sources say the Pirates are lacking leadership — the no-nonsense, active type that was brought by players such as [long gone] A.J. Burnett and David Freese, as well as the low-key, calming presence of veterans like [long gone] Andrew McCutchen and Josh Harrison.”

Early in the 2018 season, when former Nationals manager Dusty Baker was interviewed and the subject of the Nats’ reportedly skittish clubhouse came up, Baker said it flatly: “Jayson Werth. That’s who they miss in that clubhouse.” Werth at the time had signed with the Mariners as a free agent, after an offseason in which his agent may or may not have deflected several offers, but he retired that June.

The Nats prize veteran leadership, even if some such as Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, and since-departed Bryce Harper often seemed more likely to lead by example rather than with a vocal, gently-but-firmly hands-on approach. Or, a rah-rah rousing. This year, however, the Nats’ clubhouse is one of the game’s more fun loving and cohesive. So are Harper’s Phillies. The cost-obsessed Pirates, of course, have unloaded several veterans in recent years on behalf of the ledger more than the field.

As the Nats once missed Werth, it’s entirely likely that the Pirates really miss McCutchen, whose skills may not be as acute as they were during his glory seasons in Pittsburgh but whose gentle style of off-field leadership might have gone a considerable distance in keeping the current waters undisturbed. He might even have kept the Pirates from adding such a known pot-stirrer as Kela in the first place. Might.

But there have been chronically losing teams who’ve found ways to band up and brace each other up in the lowest of hours. When the 1988 Orioles opened the season with a 21-game losing streak, players and manager alike took to gallows humour to keep their spirits from flying south. A new reporter on the Orioles beat coming aboard at the absolute depth of that streak? “Join the hostages,” Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. cracked to welcome him aboard.

Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, handed the bridge after Ripken’s father was fired earlier in the collapse, merely displayed similar wit and displayed a button handed him by a fan: “It’s been lovely, but I have to scream now.” Told of a local radio personality determined to stay on the air until the Orioles finally won a game, Robinson sympathised: “We’re gonna kill the poor guy.”

Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn finished his career as maybe the only conservatively decent player on the expansion, 1962 Mets—losers of 120 games, who managed somehow to avoid losing 21 straight at any point. (Their longest losing streak: seventeen.) Ashburn was most impressed by how the losing didn’t affect the morale of those Mets, made of veterans (mostly) and youth (somewhat) alike.

“Any losing team I’ve ever been on,” said Ashburn, who’d played with several as the 1950s Phillies faded following their unlikely 1950 pennant, “had several things going on. One, the players gave up. Or, they hated the manager. Or, they had no team spirit. Or, the fans turned into wolves. But there was none of this with the Mets . . . So we lose 120 games and there isn’t a gripe on the club. It was remarkable. You know, I can remember guys being mad even on a big winner.”

When the 1958 Yankees clinched their pennant on the road, the team flight home was ruined by a nasty incident in which relief star Ryne Duren, in his cups and celebrating the clinch, walked up and down the aisle of the plane planting big cigars between assorted Yankee lips. He came to Ralph Houk, third-string catcher-turned-coach, and his thanks for putting a cigar between Houk’s lips was to get his face smashed in.

An enterprising New York Post reporter named Leonard Shecter—the future editor of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four—was aware of the incident. Being chewed out for missing one story, Shecter mentioned the Duren-Houk incident. The Post verified it and ran with it. The Yankees were so furious that then-general manager George Weiss canceled the usual pennant-clinching party.

And God only knew the “Mustache Gang” Athletics of the early-to-mid 1970s ran roughshod over the league—and each other. And not necessarily in that order. Even with three Hall of Famers on the team. (Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson.) Even managed by Dick Williams, a Hall of Fame manager who changed from the tyrant he was with the 1967-69 Red Sox to a far more laissez-faire skipper when he took the bridge of the Swingin’ A’s.

Wrote Bouton, in “I Managed Good But, Boy, Did They Play Bad”, Williams this time figured there was no point to rules if they weren’t making the team play better. He probably would have gotten his own lights punched out if he figured otherwise.

From what I know of the new Dick Williams and the bunch of guys on the 1972 Oakland team, they didn’t have many rules. Oh, maybe they weren’t allowed to punch each other in public. No punching a teammate, I suppose, in a nightclub. Fighting only allowed in the clubhouse. No screaming at each other when the wives are around. And don’t embarrass the manager to more than two wire services during any homestand.

. . . Which doesn’t mean the A’s won the championship just because they had long hair, or their manager had long hair, or their manager was permissive and let them do things their own way. That was maybe 10 or 15% of the reason. The other 85% was because they had a lot of good baseball players.

The Pirates don’t have a lot of good baseball players. They have a few good hitters who amount to a reasonably empty team .270 traditional batting average and a couple of decent pitchers who’ve kept them from worse than a team 4.99 ERA and 4.69 fielding-independent pitching rate. And owners to whom competing isn’t supposed to cost, you know, money—despite the franchise and its owners said to be worth $1 billion. Each.

Gallows humour? From the look of it, these Pirates have all the humour of a tax examiner. There’ll sooner be a real gallows on the PNC Park field than there’ll be even gallows humour in the Pirate clubhouse.

Kela, for one, thinks the Pirates’ dissension is all in the game. “It’s in any major sport,” he told Mackey. “When you’re playing at an elite level and you’re here to win, it’s a livelihood. You’re going to have disagreements because everyone has a viewpoint on how things should be done.”

Elite level? The only thing elite about these Pirates is that they can fight among themselves at the Swingin’ A’s level. They’re not good enough baseball players to get away with it for very long. If you see bolts of lightning hit PNC Park this afternoon, that’ll be Roberto Clemente telling his old organisation, “I am not amused.”

The Queen City rides a Wild Horse

2018-12-22 YasielPuig

Yasiel Puig, right after hitting the three-run homer that put the Dodgers ahead temporarily in Game Four of the World Series . . .

Vin Scully called him the Wild Horse. Any time Yasiel Puig hit the field or the basepaths in Los Angeles, Dodger Stadium knew the only thing predictable about the talented but maddeningly inconsistent outfielder was how unpredictable he often was. In six seasons as a Dodger, Puig was many things. Boring wasn’t one of them.

It’s not that you can say he didn’t give advance notice. A young man who survived daily death threats from the Castro regime, escaped on what amounted to a milk carton raft, stowed aboard a coyote boat across the Gulf of Mexico, slithered through Mexico with and without the notorious cartels, and walked into Texas to finish his defection, knows a few things about how precious is life is and how exponential is the preciousness of freedom.

Love of life has been snuffed out of lesser creatures in circumstances far less grave. Landing in major league baseball, Puig was like a small boy turned loose in the toy store and told not to even think about coming out unless his wagon was loaded to overflowing. Crash Davis in Bull Durham told a meeting on the mound, “This game’s fun, OK?” Puig has played the game as if Davis’s admonishment was Article VIII of the Constitution.

He had only to learn how to distinguish between incandescent fun and immaturity without wrecking what made him unique in the first place. At one point it took an exile to the minors to deliver the point. Sometimes it really did seem as if nobody loved Puig but the people, at least those in Dodger Stadium or clinging to their televisions and radios around southern California.

But he learned enough in that exile to return as a better teammate with a reasonable harness whose doffing should be saved for particular occasions, such as helping a fun clubhouse atmosphere and dugout enthusiasm. Now the Wild Horse, who can break a game wide open one minute while occasionally letting it escape temporarily the next, has the chance to teach Cincinnati more up close and personal what it means that the game’s supposed to be fun.

On Friday, and with apologies to Whitey Herzog (who once said it of the late Joaquin Andujar, pitcher/human time bomb), the Dodgers traded their Puig-in-the-Box and a concurrent nine surprises a day—along with veteran outfielder Matt Kemp, pitcher Alex Wood, and reserve catcher Kyle Farmer—to the Reds, for struggling pitcher Homer Bailey and a pair of prospects, infielder Jeter Downs and pitcher Josiah Gray.

In one grand move the Dodgers cleared a serious enough outfield logjam and bought themselves some breathing room regarding the luxury tax (oops–competitive balance tax, ho ho ho), which translates even more simply to room for a serious run at free agent rightfielder Bryce Harper, a player who has long enough believed in making baseball fun again and has no reserve about enunciating it.

Things haven’t been all that much fun for the Reds since their last known postseason appearance. And if they weren’t even a topic when it came to the teams with the interest and the finances to hunt down Harper, getting Puig means there’s an excellent chance of things becoming a lot more lively in Great American Ballpark for at least one season.

Puig, Kemp, and Wood can become free agents after the 2019 season. Kemp restored himself as a valuable player in 2018 when he returned to the Dodgers in a deal with the Braves that many thought was supposed to mean a brief stopover before moving on promptly. But he stayed in Los Angeles, made his third All-Star team, and had a first half that looked like a reasonable facsimile of the former self that looked like a superstar in the making but didn’t quite get there.

(Here’s a pretty one for you: the so-called “untradeable contract.” As Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times tweets, “Remember this the next time you hear a player has an “untradeable” contract: Matt Kemp has been traded four times on his ‘untradeable’ contract. The Dodgers alone have traded him twice on that same contract.”)

Wood has been a better than useful pitcher for the Dodgers even if his 2018 wasn’t quite the level of his 2017. In the latter he led the National League in winning percentage while having his best season overall to date. Like Puig, Wood is a six-year veteran; Kemp has thirteen seasons on his jacket and may yet find Great American Ballpark’s hitting friendliness enough to his liking to play himself into one more two- or three-year payday.

But the eyes of Cincinnati will remain on Puig, who could make for the plain most exuberant days of Reds baseball since the incendiary Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton, and Randy Myers forged the Nasty Boys bullpen who factored big in the Reds’ unlikely 1990 World Series sweep and left their own trail of mayhem in their wake before the group was broken up starting a season or two later. Maybe Puig, likewise a free agent after 2019 and looking at age 28, will bring enough fun, mayhem, and destruction of enemy pitching and baserunners (if he doesn’t throw them out, his missile launcher arm at least keeps them still enough) to convince the Reds to extend Puig a few more seasons.

“When Puig entered major league baseball,” writes Sports Illustrated‘s Gabriel Baumgaertner, “bat flips and exuberance were still frowned upon as unnecessary showmanship and disrespectful to opponents. Now, MLB runs marketing campaigns encouraging the type of emotion that was discouraged for so long. Puig is no small reason why the shift in mindset has occurred.”

His first week in major league service sure didn’t hurt. Puig had a week that players would kill to have over a full season: he caught a high drive and doubled up a runner on the same play; he hit four home runs including a grand salami; he threw out Andrelton Simmons at first base from deep right on a throw for which Roberto Clemente would have given a champagne toast.

His final days as a Dodger reversed Don Vito Corleone’s maxim about the relationship between misfortune and reward. On 14-15 September, against the Cardinals in St. Louis, Puig smashed five home runs—two the first day, three the second, overdue vengeance against the fans who’d trolled him a few years earlier, as the Dodgers fell out of the postseason early enough, with “Dodgers win? When Puigs fly!” Games like that helped send the Dodgers to this postseason. And almost helped them win the World Series.

Puig’s three-run homer off Milwaukee closer Jeremy Jeffress in the top of the sixth put Game Seven of the National League Championship Series enough out of reach to send the Dodgers to the Series in the first place. Puig flew, all right—a little bat flip here, a little crotch chop or two there as he ran the bases, having the time of his life, and not even his worst critics this side of Madison Bumgarner could really blame him.

But in Game Four of the World Series, Puig’s great reward led to unforeseen misfortune. A day after the Game Three marathon ended in Max Muncy’s leadoff homer in the bottom of the eighteenth, Puig checked in at the plate—in the bottom of the sixth—after Cody Bellinger’s infield ground out turned into the game’s first run on a throwing error. With one swing Puig made it 4-0, this three-run homer landing even farther up the left center field bleachers than his Milwaukee blast did after bounding off the yellow line.

Who knew that Red Sox pinch hitter Mitch Moreland would answer with a three-run bomb of his own in the top of the seventh? Or, that eventual Series MVP Steve Pearce would hit the game-tying bomb in the following inning, a prelude to his Game Five mayhem? Or, that the Red Sox would run the table for five in the top of the ninth, putting the Dodgers into a Series hole from which they never really saw light again?

In the moment as Puig’s drive flew over the fence Dodger Stadium was noisier than a heavy metal concert. The Wild Horse had almost as much fun running that bomb out as he’d had running out the Milwaukee mash and even the Red Sox weren’t about to think it untoward of him. Maybe they knew in their heart of hearts, “Let the kid have his fun, we have a little fun of our own to have yet.”

In the centenary of their first and worst-stained World Series championship, the Reds hope Puig does with them what he did often enough as a Dodger. The promotional possibilities are limitless, if nothing else. Imagine a Great American Ballpark audience festooned with T-shirts and placards referencing his uniform number and hailing, “Get your kicks with Puig 66!”