A mudswinging victory

Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper launches what proved his NLCS-winning two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth. Wild? The crowd went nuclear.

Bruce McClure, the membership ambassador for the Society for American Baseball Research, tweeted: “Why in the world did they insist on playing the [National League Championship Series] game in the pouring rain?” I had an answer immediately.

“Because,” I replied, “they wanted to see Bryce Harper drop every jaw in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the bottom of the eighth?”

“You win, good sir,” Mr. McClure answered.

Well, I didn’t win on Sunday afternoon. The Phillies did. At this writing, it’s fair to say those $330 million dollars Phillies owner John Middleton agreed to pay Harper over thirteen years might have been bargain-basement rate. It’s also fair to say no timetable should be placed upon the finish of Philadelphia going berserk over this.

One and a half innings after the elements and the mound mud they formulated helped the Padres to an overthrow one-run lead, and with J.T. Realmuto on first after a leadoff single against Padres reliever Robert Suarez, Harper checked in with the elements receding just enough and hit the biggest home run of his major league life. It took a little hair-raising in the top of the ninth to make it stick, but stick it did, sending the Phillies to the World Series.

“I knew he’d come with his best pitch,” Harper told Fox Sports field reporter/Sports Illustrated columnist Tom Verducci at one end of the dugout minutes after he ran it out. “I took the best swing I could. I just want to win this game.”

He’d just have to wait until the Phillies slithered out of a final Padres push in the ninth, when reliever David Robertson lost back-to-back one-out walks and gave way to Ranger Suárez, customarily a starter but also a lefthanded pitcher with a lefthanded batter due up.

Then Trent Grisham—a breakout star when the Padres slew the Mets’ dragon in the wild card series but almost a non-topic in this National League Championship Series—elected to try dragging a bunt for a base hit on Suárez’s first pitch. Neither he nor the Padres bargained on Suárez himself springing from the mound like a cat overdosing on Red Bull. Suárez threw him out at first almost in a blink.

The next man up was Austin Nola, the Padres’ catcher who hogged the headlines over the Padres’ lone NLCS win for starting the scoring with a base hit off brother Aaron on the mound for the Phillies. The only thing that might have made it sweeter if Big Brother Nola could land a hit now would have been if Little Brother Aaron was on the mound again.

But Little Brother was in the Phillies dugout on the same pins and cushions (thank you, Mrs. Ace) as his teammates until Big Brother skied Suárez’s first pitch to shallow right field, where Nick Castellanos ambled in, held off second baseman Juan Segura ambling out, and snapped the ball into his glove with the pennant attached.

Let the second guessing begin, mostly because it’s going to begin with or without any hint from me. The biggest one is probably going to be, thinking of the righthanded Robert Suarez staying in to face Harper the portside pulveriser, “Why the hell didn’t Bob Melvin bring Josh Hader in with Harper checking in at the plate?”

Reaching for the best bull in your pen when it’s shy of the ninth inning and your “save” situation is five minutes ago with a hard-mudslidden one-run lead isn’t just sound strategy, it’s absolutely mandatory. That’s smart baseball. Especially when your best just so happens to match ideally to their best and their best is due up next. Wasn’t that why the Padres dealt for Hader at the deadline, banking on the self-resurrection he’d make after leaving Milwaukee.

Of course it was. But just maybe Melvin just saw his Phillies counterpart do likewise with his best bull and get third-degree burned through no fault of either his or his man’s own. Melvin wasn’t going to let that happen to him or to his team. Mother Nature was being defiant enough all day long. And Harper had faced Robert Suarez in the eighth in Game Two, their only previous known confrontation—whacking into a double play.

The Padres mud-wrestled their way back from a 2-1 deficit in the seventh—Rhys Hoskins’s two-run bomb in the bottom of the third threatened to hold up otherwise despite Juan Solo’s solo satellite in the top of the fourth—because Phillies manager Rob Thomson’s reach for Seranthony Domínguez backfired under Mother Nature’s pouring.

The mound was muddy. The infield dirt was muddy. Both starting pitchers, Zack Wheeler for the Phillies and Yu Darvish for the Padres, had visible trouble keeping their landing feet from sliding more than a bare inch on the mudded mound downslope. Domínguez in the heavier rain had visible trouble holding and throwing his usually precise fastballs.

With Wheeler pushed out at the inning’s opening by Jake Cronenworth’s leadoff single, Domínguez fell behind 3-1 before throwing Josh Bell a fastball meaty enough to bang into right for an RBI double—after wild-pitching Cronenworth to second to make it simpler. After Domínguez looked to be finding a workable rain handle with back-to-back strikeouts, he threw two wild pitches while working to Grisham, enabling pinch-runner Jose Azocar to take third and score the Padres’ third run.

Grisham flied out to right for the side. Melvin surely appreciated having the lead handed to the Padres for the first and only time in the game. But seeing Thomson’s best-bull-forward move get thrown in the mud that dramatically must have put one thought in the back of his mind: We are not going to let that happen to us in this dreck.

Darvish surrendered an eighth inning-opening  double to right to Bryson Stott, yielding to Robert Suarez. Suarez wrestled through the seventh unscathed. Hader was up and throwing in the Padres bullpen. But Realmuto began Suarez’s eighth-inning scathing by whacking an 0-2 pitch into left for a clean single. (As clean as the wet conditions allowed, of course.)

Still no sign of Hader. Suarez and Harper wrestled through two 1-2 foul balls to 2-2. The next pitch was a sinker hanging up in the outer middle region of the strike zone. Harper launched it parabolically, the opposite way, into the left field seats. Every occupant of Citizens Bank Park dared to believe it. The Phillies had just won the pennant. The top of the ninth would be a mere formality.

Not exactly, of course. It wasn’t easy for either team to get here in the first place, no matter how easy the Phillies made it look shoving the Cardinals and the Braves aside, no matter how easy the Padres made it look shoving the Mets and the Dodgers to one side.

Both teams had to hit the mid-season reset buttons. The Phillies had to get to the postseason in the first place almost despite losing Harper first to designated hitter-only duty after a shoulder injury and then for two months with a thumb fracture—on a pitch from the Padres’ Game Three starter Blake Snell, of all people.

It took Harper long enough to get anything resembling his groove back in the first place. The Phillies claimed the final National League wild card in the nick of time. Harper found his groove almost the moment the postseason began. Now he stands as the NLCS’s Most Valuable Player. The stupid money (Middleton’s term for his willingness to spend and invest in the team) looks absolutely Mensa now.

Harper’s hit five bombs all postseason long thus far and tied a franchise record for postseason for extra base hits. He’s hit a lot of indelible nukes in his career. Not even the ultimate grand slam he smashed against the Cubs a little over three years ago compares.

That one will become just a footnote to his career. Wherever the Phillies go from here, this one’s going to be cast in plutonium.

It’s phun unless you’re a Padres fan

Philadelphia Phillies

Rhys Hoskins (17) and the Phillies high, low, and any other five they can think of after waxing the Padres in NLCS Game Four . . .

After Saturday’s doings and undoings, the second-winningest regular season major league team is on the threshold of a potential World Series date with the eleventh-winningest regular season team. That’s about the full extent to which the Astros (the former) have anything in common with the Phillies (the latter).

Say what you will about Commissioner Rube Goldberg’s postseason array. I’ve said my share and then some. Permit me to share this, from an essay I wrote for the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America’s Here’s the Pitch newsletter, following the ends of each league’s wild card series:

Reviewing the 1948 national elections, for a spoken-word album hit called I Can Hear It Now, broadcast news titan Edward R. Murrow observed wryly that the people’s pulse was taken, they’d been told for whom they’d vote and by how many votes, “and, yet—it couldn’t hurt to watch the campaign, anyhow.” Postseason baseball this year is somewhat like that.

We haven’t been told unto death who’s going to claim the Promised Land and in how many games. (Yet.) And, it’s going to take a little bit longer thanks to a lot more artificially inflated competition this time around. But it couldn’t hurt to watch the games, anyhow.

That seems truer now, especially with regard to the National League Championship Series, in which the Phillies awoke Sunday morning one win shy of the aforesaid World Series date. It couldn’t hurt to watch them tangle with the Padres, also known as the tenth-winningest regular-season major league team, anyhow.

So far, it hasn’t hurt. Unless you’re a Padre fan.

Just when you think the Padres are going to piledrive the Phillies into the ground and back, these not-so-phutile Phillies find ways, means, and the moxie to overthrow the Padres and make it stick. For example, NLCS. Game Four Saturday night, overthrowing and thumping the Padres, 10-6.

The noise in San Diego’s Petco Park and Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park has been enough to make you think you’ve been time warped back to the peak of Beatlemania. The Phillies didn’t needed guitars, basses, and drums to do that. All they needed was to remind themselves—as first baseman Rhys Hoskins said they did, after the Padres jumped them for a four-run top of the first Saturday night—that they still had 27 outs with which to work.

Especially on a night manager Rob Thomson planned a bullpen game but had to be very careful not to let himself be forced into potential overwork assignments out of a couple of his bigger bullpen bulls, Seranthony Domínguez in particular. As things turned out, the Phillies didn’t need Sir Anthony to ride in, on his white horse or aboard any other means of transportation.

Thumping the Padres after getting thumped in the first inning can give you that kind of security entering Game Five, a game the Phillies expect Zack Wheeler—who manhandled the Padres over seven innings and one measly hit in Game One in San Diego—to start and mastermind. Facing that plus the Phillies’ all-and-a-little-of-everything bats might mean no more baseball in San Diego after Sunday afternoon.

But neither the Phillies nor the Padres, or anyone else in the ballpark or in front of a television set, expected that neither starting pitcher would get out of the first inning alive for the first time in postseason play since it happened to Guy Bush (Cubs) and Johnny Allen (Yankees)—on the day Iraq first became an independent nation. (Game Four, 1932 World Series, if you’re scoring at home.)

The Padres opened by making Phillies starter Bailey Falter live down to his surname, with Manny Machado hitting one into the left field seats with two outs, followed by a two-run double (Brandon Drury) and an RBI single (Ha-Seong Kim). Often as not that kind of opening inning endures. When the runs are scarce enough, as they’ve been this postseason for the most part, that kind of opening holds to the final curtain.

Then Hoskins smashed a two-run homer atop Kyle Schwarber’s leadoff single off Padres starter Mike Clevinger in the bottom of the first. After J.T. Realmuto walked to follow up, Bryce Harper yanked a double to deep right center field to send Realmuto home and yank the Phillies back to within a run. (Yes, that’s ten extra-base hits in ten postseason games this time around for him.)

Bryson Stott tied things at four with an RBI single in the bottom of the fourth. The bad news from there: Juan Soto, who’s been having his issues in the field this set and who hadn’t yet done much of the bombing for which he was known well enough when the Padres dealt for him big at the regular season trade deadline, finally struck big with a one-out, tie-breaking, two-run homer in the top of the fifth.

Leave it to Hoskins to see and raise in the bottom of the inning. With one out, one aboard, and Padres lefthander Sean Manaea left in inexplicably to face the righthanded Hoskins, in Manaea’s first postseason appearance following a season in which he’d lost his slot in the starting rotation, Padres manager Bob Melvin didn’t even think about one of his bullet-firing bullpen bulls and left Manaea in to face the consequences.

“I was going to try to get him one time around the lineup,” said Melvin, who’d also managed Manaea in Oakland including the lefthander’s 2018 no-hitter. “I thought his stuff was better. He had 95. He had swings and misses when he got into the zone, but he couldn’t locate it.”

The consequences came when Hoskins hit a hanging sinker over the left center field fence, followed by Realmuto wringing out another walk and Harper drilling another RBI double, this time into left center, and the Phillies re-took a lead they wouldn’t surrender. With or without a fight.

“We knew with a bullpen game, the possibility of multiple guys having to be put in positions that they’re not used to being in, that we were going to have to slug,” said Hoskins postgame. “We did that tonight.”

Harper’s double finally prodded Melvin to get Manaea the hell out of there, in favour of Luis García—most assuredly not the Astros’ righthander who combined to shut the Mariners out, sweeping their American League division series. But Nick Castellanos greeted García with a first-pitch, opposite-field RBI single. Welcome to the party.

The Schwarbinator did García worse with two out in the next inning, beginning the Phillies’ insurance purchase with a launch over the center field fence. Mammoth enough, but not quite that close to the absolute nuke he detonated in Game One in San Diego. Steven Wilson took over the mound for the Padres for the bottom of the seventh, and Realmuto overtook him leading off, sending a 1-1 slider that hung up enough for the Phillies catcher to hang it a few rows into the left field seats.

The only thing quiet about Game Four from there was the play on the field, both sides’ bullpens keeping each other’s bats from getting any more obnoxious. The Citizens Bank audience was just as noisy the rest of the way as they’d been when the Phillies picked up, dusted off, and started their return from the living dead in the bottom of the first.

Compared to all that, the Astros waxing the Yankees in the Bronx, 5-0, in their own American League Championship Series Game Three was about as thrilling as a seaweed salad. Even the reminder that the Astros have never lost a postseason game when scoring five runs or more seemed a big case of big deal.

From Hall of Famer-to-be Justin Verlander in Game One through Cristian Javier keeping them quiet in Game Three, the Astros have gotten just enough at the plate. They even accept Yankee gifts, such as a grave misread between Aaron Judge and Harrison Bader playing a first-inning pop that was followed at once by Chas McCormick bouncing a two-run homer off the top of the right field fence, into the seats, and off Yankee ace Gerrit Cole while he was at it.

That plus the rest of the game reminded one and all that, by hook or crook, the Astros fear no team. Certainly not the Yankees, whom they beat in seven in the 2017 ALCS and six in the 2019 ALCS. Maybe not even if these Yankees could send Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, and the 2014 edition of Madison Bumgarner up against them. Maybe.

The odds don’t favour the Yankees Sunday night, either. They’ve scored (count ’em) four runs all ALCS long so far. Their ALCS OPS is eleven points lower than the Astros’ ALCS slugging percentage alone. If these Yankees can’t hit in this ALCS—it seems their season-long dependency on record-breaking but now-slumping Judge has begun to slice their own baloney—the flip side is that these Astros can pitch as well as they hit.

If the Empire Emeritus gets waxed in Game Four in front of their home audience, the noise might be as loud as Philadelphia but it won’t be the kind the Yankees want recorded for posterity. (Especially not involving free agent-to-be Judge’s potential final game as a Yankee.)

The Phillies have the opposite problem. The Game Five noise in the Bank may reach the Omega Quadrant if they beat the Padres Sunday afternoon. Unlike the Astros and the Yankees, you can call both the Phillies and the Padres many things, but boring isn’t one of them. Whatever Philadelphia’s noise ordinances are, you won’t find one cop alive willing to enforce them.

Oh, brothers!

Austin Nola

With this swing and NLCS Game Two base hit, Austin Nola became the first ever to nail a hit off his brother in postseason play. Pending the NLCS outcome, it gives Austin bragging rights over Aaron for just about eternity, for now . . .

For the first time in postseason history, siblings faced each other as pitcher and hitter. Little brother Aaron Nola, pitching for the Phillies, against big brother Austin Nola, catching for the Padres. Bottom of the second in Petco Park, two out, and an early/often 4-0 Phillies lead was cut in half a few minutes earlier.

Little brother was something of a star entry from almost the moment he arrived in the Show. Big brother got to the Show the hard way, even switching from his original shortstop position to the tools of ignorance behind the plate. Little brother had five years in Show before big brother got anything close to a clean shot.

Now, little brother lured big brother into an inning-ending bounce out to third base. Three innings later, though, Austin let Aaron know big brother was watching him carefully enough. With one out, and after several throws by little brother to first to keep Padres shortstop Ha-Seong Kim (leadoff single) from thinking too much about theft, big brother struck.

Few things in life satisfy quite so much as getting little brother back after he got you good the first time. Fewer times than that does big brother get little brother good and start what shoves little brother to one side for the day.

Kim took off with the pitch and without looking back while Austin slashed a line single the other way to right, starting a five-run Padres uprising that ultimately put paid both to Aaron’s afternoon and the game, an 8-5 Padres win that sends the National League Championship Series to Philadelphia even-up at one game each.

All that while the Nola boys’ parents A.J. and Stacie Nola sat in the stands, A.J. doing his level best to avoid favouritism by sitting with a Phillies jersey (Aaron’s, of course) over a Padres jersey (Austin’s, of course) around his torso. They must have been thinking of tireless backyard Wiffle ball contests between the two that seeded tireless travel-ball jaunts in an RV to get the brothers from game to game.

They must also have been thinking they’d sooner have seen the inside of the House of the Rising Sun in the boys’ native Louisiana than to see them squaring off against each other with the National League pennant at stake.

“Of course you always root for your brother and want him to do well,” Austin told a reporter after Game Two ended. “It has been strange. But we talked about this beforehand. It was understood between us that this is competitive. There’s no empathy here. We both want to win . . . Now that it’s the postseason, and it’s all-out—bottom line, I hope you do well next year, you know?”

Easy for him to say.

Six pairs of siblings squared off against each other in postseason play before Wednesday: Sandy Alomar, Jr. and Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar (1996, 1997), Dane Iorg and Garth Iorg (1985), Clete Boyer and Ken Boyer (1964), Irish Meusel and Bob Meusel (1921, 1922, 1923), and Doc Johnston and Jimmy Johnston (1920). The Boyers, the Meusels, and the Johnstons did it in World Series play.

Not one of them was a pitcher facing the other at the plate.

“That’s crazy, that it hasn’t happened ever,” observed Padres pitcher Mike Clevinger postgame. “You’d think that somehow, sometime, it would line up. That is crazy. Crazy. Amazing. That’s just wild. It’s awesome. Romantic. It’s like a storybook. Always. And you never know. If it took 100 years for this to happen, you think about how, 100 years from now, that could still be the only time that it happened. That is crazy.”

After Kim dove across the plate with the third San Diego run, Padres left fielder Jurickson Profar smacked Aaron’s first pitch to right to set first and third up with a single out. Juan Soto—the Padres’ spotlight trade deadline acquisition, who struggled somewhat to rediscover his well-regarded mojo after the deal, and the only Padre who’s had a taste of World Series triumph (as a 2019 National)—pulled a high, hard liner deep into the right field corner, sending the elder Nola brother home with the game-tying run.

Aaron nailed Manny Machado after ball one with three straight strikes including a big swinger for strike three. Phillies manager Rob Thomson lifted Aaron for lefthander Brad Hand with lefthanded Padres second baseman Jake Cronenworth due to hit. But a Hand curve ball sailing inside caught Cronenworth in the back as he turned trying to avoid it, and the Padre ducks were on the pond.

Up stepped Brandon Drury, who’d started cutting the early 4-0 Phillie lead in half with a leadoff home run in the bottom of the second. Up the pipe went his full-count line single with the runners in motion, home came Profar and Soto, and into the 6-4 lead the Padres went. Then Josh Bell—who followed Drury in the second by hitting Aaron’s first pitch right past the foul pole for a home run—lined one the other way through first and into right to send Cronenworth home and Drury to third.

Having broken the Hand, the Padres now faced righthanded Phillies reliever Andrew Bellatti. Kim returned to work himself into a bases-reloading walk, but Trent Grisham fought to a full count before lining two foul down the first base line and then looking at a nasty third strike on the inside corner.

Machado would add a little extra insurance in the bottom of the seventh against another Phillies reliever, David Robertson, freshly re-installed off the injured list, when he hit a 2-2 service about 424 feet over the center field fence. Except for Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins hitting Padres reliever Robert Suarez’s first pitch into the left field seats to open the top of the eighth, that was all the Phillies had to say for having their early swat-and-slash 4-0 lead eviscerated for keeps.

That lead began against Padres starter Blake Snell, who’d retired them in order in the top of the first, with designated hitter Bryce Harper lining a single over the middle and just above Kim’s upstretched glove. Right fielder Nick Castellanos followed to fight a jam pitch off the other way to right and falling in front of Soto, who struggled with the afternoon sun most of the time before the shadows began crossing the park.

Then it was Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm sending a line bloop into center to score Harper, second baseman Jean Segura swinging a strikeout, and center fielder Matt Vierling flying a long one the other way to right which Soto clearly lost in the sun despite trying to shield his eyes from the glare, scoring Castellanos. Then, it was shortstop Edmundo Sosa blooping one into short left to score Bohm, and left fielder Kyle Schwarber grounding one to first.

Drury knocked the ball down unable to handle it for a double play but able to step on the first base pad to get Schwarber for the second out—with Vierling scoring the fourth Phillie run. Hoskins then sent one high to right. Soto shaded his eyes again. This time, he had it for the side retired. From there he was hell bent on atonement. He finally got it when he sent Big Brother Nola home in that five-run fifth.

“I wish I could have taken a snapshot and just held the moment for like a day, you know, because that’s how fun it is,” said big brother after the game. “And I’m sure he would say the same thing, that stepping in the box and you get your brother in a situation, you know . . . just facing him in a big-league game is enough to just hold the moment.”

“I want to beat him,” little brother said. “I want to go to the next round and let him go home.”

Well, now. Until or unless Aaron gets Austin out later in this NLCS, especially in a moment where one false pitch might otherwise equal a game starting to upend and break open again, big brother has bragging rights on kid brother for . . . well, eternity may or may not be quite enough. Yet.

NLCS Game Six: The Braves’ new world

Eddie Rosario

Eddie Rosario hits the three-run homer that proved the game/set/NLCS winner for the Braves. (TBS screen capture.)

You thought Yordan Alvarez was the force the Red Sox couldn’t stop in the American League Championship Series? Have a good, long look at Eddie Rosario, the force the Dodgers couldn’t stop in the National League Championship Series.

There should be some interesting showdowns in the forthcoming World Series. When each LCS Most Valuable Player threatens to throw every round of ammunition they have, including cruise missiles, at each other’s pitching and defenses. If Alvarez and Rosario stay as they just were, they’ll make World War II resemble a snowball fight.

Rosario’s three-run homer off Walker Buehler in the bottom of the fourth Saturday night, and the Braves bullpen—especially AJ Minter and Tyler Matzek—throwing five one-run, ten-strikeout, one-walk innings, sent the Braves to the World Series with a 4-2 win. The regular season’s least-winning division winner buried the season’s second-winningest team.

Maybe the Astros don’t resemble such overdogs after all? Maybe this year’s Braves resemble not on-paper favourites but a miracle team?

Wrestled by the Dodgers out of last year’s short-season, ghoulash-playoff National League pennant. Buried a game under .500 at this year’s All-Star break. Then spending the second half playing .611 baseball while most of the rest of the National League East—which wasn’t all that powerful in the first place—dissipated. The Astros were .604 at the break but .563 in the second half.

Now the Braves stand as National League champions with a legitimate shot at taking the Astros down. They manhandled the Dodgers when it mattered most Saturday night. They didn’t let a little thing like getting blown out 11-2 in Game Five to lose twice in three games in Dodger Stadium bother them all that much.

“We’re up 3-2, and we’re going home,” said Braves first baseman and franchise face Freddie Freeman after Game Five. “It’s a great position to be in.” The guy whose eighth-inning division series Game Four blast off Brewers relief ace Josh Hader made the NLCS possible for the Braves in the first place sounded like an incurable optimist then. After Game Six, he sounds like a prophet.

But he put any prophetic powers he had to one side in the middle of the Braves’ postgame celebration. “I think this might be the definition of pure joy,” he said. “It really is. I really don’t, it hasn’t hit me at all. I don’t really know how to feel.”

Rosario know exactly how to feel, especially after he caught hold of Buehler’s dangling cutter with Travis d’Arnaud (two-out walk) and pinch hitter Ehire Adrianza (two-out double) on second and lined it a few seats inside the right field foul pole. “It’s truly a great moment,” Rosario said amidst the celebration, “not just in my career, but in my life as well, but I want more. I want to win the World Series.”

He was one of three mid-season trades Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos delivered when the Braves resembled the walking dead. They’d lost young superman Ronald Acuna, Jr. for the year to a torn ACL. They’d lost young pitching comer Mike Soroka to an Achilles tendon blowout after nine months rehabbing its original tear. They’d lost bombardier Marcell Ozuna to domestic violence issues and administrative leave.

Only one man around or observing the Braves decided there was still something worth saving. Anthopolous brought in Rosario from the Indians plus former Dodger Joc Pederson from the Cubs, Adam Duvall from the Marlins, and Jorge Soler from the Royals.

Pederson made himself enough of a pain in the rump roast casting a string of pearls before swine against his former team with his NLCS heroics at the plate. But even Anthopolous couldn’t have predicted Rosario—traded from the Indians for faded early-season pinch-hitting wonder Pablo Sandoval; the guy who came to the Braves injured and unable to play until 28 August—would steal the show and the set in the end.

“It’s still not lost on any of us that we didn’t accomplish our goal,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts postgame. “But for me, I’m giving credit to the Braves, because they outplayed us, plain and simple.”

The Dodgers knew going in that winning Game Six Saturday night would be on wings and prayers almost regardless of the opponent. Especially after Max Scherzer’s wing still remained dead enough to keep him from starting the game. Especially having to put the ball into Buehler’s wing on three days’ rest for only the second time in his young and promising career and this postseason.

They couldn’t afford a bullpen game so close to the one that hoisted them while they blew the Braves out in Game Five. But for three innings Buehler looked more than capable of keeping the Braves at bay, other than Austin Riley’s ground rule RBI double in the bottom of the first.

“I could tell when I was warming up that it was still tired,” Scherzer said after his Game Six scratch. The concern is “arm fatigue.” Historically, “arm fatigue” or “shoulder fatigue” have proven too often that they’re euphemisms for more serious issues. Late Saturday we learned Max the Knife said he’d be good to go for starting Game Seven.

Could it be our boy’d done something rash? The Dodgers still had to get there first. So much for that idea.

Scherzer’s trade deadline acquisition from the Nationals along with shortstop Trea Turner helped secure the Dodgers’ postseason arrival in the first place. Now, no matter what Buehler had starting Saturday night, the Dodgers’ streak of seven straight postseason elimination wins started Game Six close to final jeopardy.

Even allowing their injury quotient, they’d played like minor leaguers in most of the first four NLCS games. Chris Taylor almost singlehandedly yanked them back to the majors with his three-bomb Game Five.

Even if they managed to make the Braves look somewhere between silly and foolish in that game, by way of a bullpen worn down to their own winging prayers, and a jack-of-most-trades who’d hit about half his own weight down the final season stretch but who suddenly resembled what used to be his Hall of Famer-in-waiting teammate Albert Pujols.

These Dodgers couldn’t afford much of anything entering Saturday. They entered the postseason without first baseman Max Muncy thanks to his dislocated elbow and without longtime pitching ace Clayton Kershaw thanks to an elbow strain, and Dustin May to Tommy John surgery.

They’d lost reliever Joe Kelly to an injured bicep and third baseman Justin Turner to a hamstring injury during the NLCS. Both were considered gone for the rest of the postseason, however long it might last for the team that won 106 regular-season games—but still had to win the wild card game before the division series triumph that put them here at all.

Dodger fans approaching Game Six wanted to think, “They have us right where we want them,” even in Atlanta. It turned out the Dodgers had the Braves right where the Braves wanted whatever remained of Los Angeles’s Blue Man Group.

It didn’t have to be a plunge. It had only to be Minter relieving starter Ian Anderson and pitching four-strikeout, three-up/three-down ball in the fifth and the sixth. It had only—and especially—to be Matzek, walking into a second-and-third, nobody-out Dodger fire, after A.J. Pollock doubled the second and final Dodger run home . . . and striking out the side on eleven pitches. Including the Mookie Monster on three straight, ending the last serious Dodger threat of the night.

The night before, Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi bulled his way out of a bases-loaded jam in Houston by striking out the side. The difference was that Eovaldi stuck his landing while his offense remained sound asleep. Matzek stuck his landings with a two-run lead to protect and hand off.

He dispatched the Dodgers three-and-three in the eighth, handed Braves reliever Will Smith the two run lead, and watched with a packed Truist Park as Smith struck out the first two before getting Pollock to end it with a ground out to shortstop.

Once upon a time, Matzek was a Rockies washout who had to re-invent his pitching career with the independent leagues’ Texas AirHog. Now he’d blown what air was left out of the Dodgers’ tires. With his room for error about the size of a linen closet.

“My job is simple,” the beefy lefthander said after the game. “It’s go ahead, get out there and just try to strike guys out . . . I can’t let a pop up or a ground ball go through. I am looking to get those guys out and strike them out. It’s a simple job. Just go out there and throw my best stuff and I was lucky that my best stuff worked tonight.”

Just about all the Braves’ best stuff worked Saturday night. Just about none of the Dodgers’ did.

Especially against that mid-season pluck from the Indians who just nailed a 1.647 OPS for the entire NLCS, with a posteason series record-tying fourteen hits, nine runs driven in, three home runs including two in Game Four, two four-hit games, plus the base hit that walked a second straight Braves win off in Game Two.

This is a National League champion who didn’t even reach the .500 level until 6 August. They broke the record for the latest .500 reach by three days. The previous record holder was a team that went on to win the pennant and sweep the World Series. You may have heard of them: the 1914 Miracle Braves.

Sometimes things that happen to be in your franchise DNA take awhile to manifest. For the not-so-miraculous Astros awaiting the World Series showdown, that may not prove to be a good thing. It may well depend upon which half of Yordan and Eddie Tonight proves the bigger performer.

They may not have the Hall of Fame power (pitchers Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz; third baseman Chipper Jones) of the last Braves World Series team. But there shouldn’t be anyone calling this year’s Braves flukish now.

NLCS Game Five: Dead men make tales

Chris Taylor

Taylor starts the Dodger party in the bottom of the second Thursday night, hitting the first of his three bombs on the evening off Max Fried’s fastball down the chute. (TBS screen capture.)

Memorandum to: Boston Red Sox; Minute Maid Park, Houston. Subject: How to return from the dead.

Dear Red Sox: Pay attention to what the Dodgers did Thursday night. It isn’t the only way to keep postseason elimination outside the door. But it was as profound and unlikely as the night was long.

You’ve certainly got the firepower capable of doing together what Chris Taylor did almost by himself to the Braves all the live long night. You’ve got the mind over matter power to coax your bullpen back to reasonable efficiency. You’ve got the defense that’s capable of turning prospective Astro hits into definitive Astro outs.

You’re also needing two straight triumphs on the road to return from the dead to the World Series. It’ll be no simpler for you to do that than it will for the Dodgers in Atlanta. But it’s not impossible, either. Impossible is in the eye of the beholder. You proved that winning the 2018 American League Championship Series against the Astros, remember?

Just like Dodger manager Dave Roberts, who isn’t quite the tactical conqueror or strategic genius your Alex Cora happens to be, you haven’t quit believing in the impossible just yet. Have you?

Hopefully not, because you Red Sox know better than I know that anything can happen in baseball—and usually does. All you have to do is be as certain as mere human men can be that, when anything happens, it’s you making it happen, not you to whom it happens.

If Taylor can yank himself even further onto the high plateau to hit three insane home runs all by himself during an 11-2 blowout of the Braves, you Red Sox have a collection of bats who need only provide one burst of power each, preferably with someone on base ahead of him.

Hopefully, you won’t have to sacrifice a key pitching arm to save and continue your season. It might have been curtains for the Dodgers when their National League Championship Series Game Five opener Joe Kelly had to leave the game with a biceps strain in the top of the first, while in the middle of pitching to Austin Riley.

Suddenly the lack of genuine snap to Kelly’s bread-and-butter curve balls in the inning, one of which Freddie Freeman smashed into the right center field bleachers for a two-run homer, made sickening sense.

Kelly’s gone for the rest of the postseason, however long it lasts for the Dodgers. Roberts pulled six pitching rabbits out of his hat after Kelly went down, and they pitched eight and a thirds worth of three-hit, nine-strikeout, no-walk shutout relief. Taylor did most of the rest of the work for him.

You Red Sox may have such postseason supermen as Kike Hernandez to send to the plate, but you’re smart enough not to count on him alone to run roughshod over the Astros in their house. Roberts didn’t exactly plan that Taylor should be responsible for 55 percent of the Dodger runs Thursday night.

He merely leaned forward and enjoyed it with the rest of Dodger Stadium’s throng and the millions in front of the telly, the radio, or the Internet. He enjoyed the Dodger batters stretching their plate appearances, going the other way when need be, refusing to see the Braves’ pitches as incoming carnivores. He sure as hell loved the power, too.

Dodgers left fielder A.J. Pollock started the fun when he hit Braves starter Max Fried’s second pitch of the bottom of the second over the left field fence. Old Albert Pujols, starting at first base because he still has a useful bat against lefthanded pitchers, slipped a base hit to left immediately. Immediately after that, Taylor Tonight went on the air.

Fried started Taylor with a fastball right down the chute. And Taylor started the blowout by driving it clean to the rear end of the Dodger bullpen in left.

One inning later, with one out, Pollock lined a single to left with one out, Pujols cued a single the other way into right, and Taylor flared one into short center, beyond the reach of onrushing Braves shortstop Ozzie Albies and incoming Braves center fielder Adam Duvall, to single Pollock home.

Two innings after that, a leadoff walk to Will Smith turned into Pollock dialing Area Code 6-4-3. But Pujols hung in to work a full count walk out of Fried, which walked Fried out of the game in favour of Braves reliever Chris Martin. For having the audacity to start Taylor off with two strikes, Martin’s reward was his head on the proverbial plate. Also known the unsinking sinker getting sunk into the right center field bleachers.

Dylan Lee took over for the Braves in the sixth and made the Dodgers behave themselves despite Corey Seager’s two-out single, and Lee even kept the Dodgers on time out for the first two outs of the bottom of the seventh. Then he ran into Taylor. He ran Taylor to 2-2. But then Lee somehow hung a changeup, and Taylor hung it into the left field bleachers.

The Dodgers abusing yet another Braves reliever, Jacob Webb, for three in the eighth—Trea Turner singling Mookie Betts home with nobody out; Pollock sending a three-run homer into the left center field bleachers—seemed as though they were saying, “Who died and named Taylor in his will to have all the fun tonight?”

Who also died and left in his will that the Dodgers were particularly vulnerable to lefthanded pitchers? They’d gone 4-for-40 against Braves portsiders entering Game Five . . . and carved Fried up like a Halloween pumpkin going 8-for-21 before his evening ended mercifully enough.

“At the end of the day, it’s playoff baseball,” said Fried, who denied calmly that pitching playoff baseball in front of his home folks from Santa Monica (TBS broadcasters observed he’d left sixty game passes for them) got to him worse than the Dodgers did. “It’s a really good team that won a lot of games, and you’ve got to be on top of your game. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as sharp as I needed to be.”

The guy who sent the Dodgers past the National League wild card game in the first place with his eleventh-minute two-run homer didn’t need anything but to remind one and all it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing, or three of them. Some Dodger fans think that RBI single in the third only proved that Taylor’s only human, after all.

Jackie Robinson. Duke Snider. Roy Campanella. Gil Hodges. Frank Howard. Steve Garvey. Ron Cey. Pedro Guerrero. Mike Piazza. Shawn Green. None of those Dodger bombers of legend—and there are four Hall of Famers in the lot—ever hit three into the seats or beyond in a single postseason game.

What do Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Stan Musial, and Cal Ripken, Jr. have in common? They hit three postseason homers at all . . . one each: Mays, 1971 NLCS; Musial, 1944 World Series; Ripken, 1997 ALCS. It must be humbling to think you did more in one postseason game than three of the game’s all-time greatest did in their postseason lives.

What do Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, and George Brett have in common? They each hit three bombs in one postseason game and Ruth did it twice—but none of those three did it the way Taylor did, going 4-for-5 with six runs batted in in those games. One other man hitting three out in one postseason game ever did the same four-fer with six steaks: Taylor’s teammate Pujols.

And none of the above on the postseason three-bomb game did it in a game their teams absolutely had to win if they weren’t in the mood to be home in time to deck the halls and yards for Halloween. Or, to leave their teams standing as the only such team to win seven consecutive win-or-be-dead postseason games.

Taylor had one spell of three homers in a single week this year before he partied hearty Thursday night. He went 8-for-72 over the regular season’s final five weeks—and now stands 9-for-17 in this NLCS alone, including his Thursday night 4-for-5.

“The highlights,” Pujols said of Taylor postgame, “are going to be there the rest of his life. That’s something you’re going to share forever.”

“The only thing that excites him, I’ve seen, is he likes to have a beer,” Pollock said of Taylor. “He gets excited about that, a beer with the boys, and then he loves watching surfing. Maybe the three home runs today might have spiked his adrenaline, but probably not. Most likely just the beer and watching surfing.”

So, naturally, a beer-loving surfer dude who battled with a balky neck down the stretch does in a little over two weeks what nobody else has done in an entire career—namely, walk one postseason game off with a home run and then hit three in a postseason elimination game. Let’s go surfin’ now, come on on safari with me.

The only thing the Dodgers have to do now is sweep the Braves back in Atlanta. As the man once said on the radio, it ain’t easy, Clyde. Writing the Braves off this year has proven an exercise in presumptuousness so far.

Remember that, Red Sox. You, too, have been written off often enough this year. You may not have a Taylor in your midst, but the foot you’re said to have in the grave isn’t as far beneath its surface line as you think.

“You name it, we have to do it,” Cora has said approaching ALCS Game Six.

Meaning Nathan Eovaldi gotta Eovaldi when he starts Game Six. Meaning Kike Hernandez can’t take another night off at the plate the way he did, somewhat surprisingly, in Game Five. Meaning the Schwarbinator gotta Schwarbinate, and shake off his Games Four and Five plate absences.

Meaning, too, that the bullpen gotta bullpen, especially if you get to Game Seven and Nick Pivetta, Garrett Whitlock, and Tanner Houck are recalibrated fully, critical when the pen’s depth is still under compromise. (And closer Matt Barnes is still injured and among the missing.)

Meaning Xander Bogaerts has to get his bat back to where his glove at shortstop mostly remains, top of the line or close enough. Meaning the next time you pinch hit Bobby Dalbec and Travis Shaw, make sure they’re not carrying pool noodles to the plate.

Nobody has to make Chris Taylor’s kind of history Friday night, Red Sox. But your manager’s right. You name it, you have to do it. Whatever it takes to win twice in a row. The Astros won’t make it easy for you. But you didn’t get here the easy way, this time, anyway.

You have nothing to lose but your season. You have a pennant to win. Red Sox of all shapes, sizes, swings, and slings, unite.