Clayton Kershaw’s darkest hour

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Clayton Kershaw.

Stories emerged that, after the Nationals sent the Dodgers home for the winter Wednesday night, Dodger fans between rage and sorrow ran over Clayton Kershaw jerseys outside Dodger Stadium. Maybe someone should ask them if they could have done it better in front of 55,000 in the park and a few million in front of television sets.

You and me know the answer damn well. Joe and Jane Fan wouldn’t have had one thirty-second of the guts to go out there and taken the risk Kershaw took when manager Dave Roberts pushed both men’s luck and sent Kershaw out to start the top of the eighth.

By all right of logic Roberts should have given Kershaw a pat on the fanny, a big hearty thank you for striking Adam Eaton out to get the Dodgers out of a seventh-inning jam, and the rest of the night off, and then sent Kenta Maeda out for the eighth to do what Roberts in his original mind thought he should do, have Maeda dealing with Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto.

Kershaw’s professional enough to go out and try to do his job when called upon. If you think he went back out for the top of the eighth knowing he’d serve back-to-back pitches to be hit for back-to-back home runs, just mosey on back to the Flat Earth Society.

“We win as a team, we lose as a team,” mourned reliever Kenley Jansen, who’d made two division series appearances and struck out two in an inning and two-thirds’ work without so much as an accidental bump but whom, for whatever reason, Roberts didn’t want to trust while the Dodgers still had a 3-1 Game Five lead.

Tell it to Kershaw, as his teammates generally did after the Nats buried the Dodgers, 7-3, thanks to Howie Kendrick. He may or may not believe you. Even though he probably knows his overall body of work has a space for his plaque in the Hall of Fame in due course, Kershaw has a hard time forgiving himself for the too-well-chronicled hellhound on his postseason trail.

“That’s the hardest part every year,” lamented the lefthander whose beard doesn’t quite negate a still-boyish face that just had the friendly grin wiped off by the neighbourhood bully. “When you don’t win the last game of the season and you’re to blame, it’s not fun . . . Everything people say is true right now about the postseason. I understand that. Nothing I can do about it right now. It’s a terrible feeling, it really is.”

Kershaw is too polite and too self-critical to allow himself the thought that maybe, just maybe, his immediate supervisor set him up to fail.

When he relieved Game Five starter Walker Buehler in the seventh, after Buehler’s magnificent performance was punctured by a frightening drill of Kurt Suzuki leading to first and second and one out, Kershaw looked like the man of the moment striking Eaton out on three pitches to retire the side unscathed. And the Dodgers were a mere six outs from going to the National League Championship Series.

But in the eighth Kershaw threw Rendon a 1-0 fastball that looked like it would nick the floor of the strike zone and Rendon managed to send it over the left field fence. The next pitch Kershaw threw was a slider that hung to Soto, and Soto hung it into the right field bleachers. Then Roberts reached for Maeda. And Maeda struck out the side.

You can blame Kershaw for allowing the game to be tied up at three if you must. But he wasn’t anywhere near the mound when Kendrick turned on a down-and-in fastball with the bases loaded and nobody out in the top of the tenth and sent it up and over the center field fence.

Kershaw wasn’t but Joe Kelly was. Kelly, who’d suffered through a shoulder-troubled season about which “modest” may be an understatement. Kelly, who’d gone through the Nats in order in the ninth and provoked Roberts to push their luck again.

Kelly, whom Roberts trusted over Jansen and trade deadline pickup Adam Kolarek’s 0.77 ERA since becoming a Dodger and spotless division series work to date. Kelly, who surrendered maybe the single most humiliating hit against the Dodgers since Bobby Thomson’s was-it-or-wasn’t-it-tainted pennant winning Shot Heard ‘Round the World.

Not even the destruction wreaked by Red Sox spare part Steve Pearce in Game Five of last year’s World Series hit that far below the Dodger belt.

The worst part isn’t just that Kershaw’s getting the blame yet again for his manager setting him up for failure. It’s that he doesn’t quite understand and may never really know why he can be pitching’s version of Masterpiece Theater during the regular season but pitching’s version of My Mother, the Car in the postseason.

Don’t dismiss it as the pressure getting to him once and for all time. A man who lets pressure get to him is a man who wouldn’t pick himself up and try again over and over and over again. Say whatever else you want about Kershaw but you won’t get a conviction if you charge him with lacking fortitude.

Kershaw has had his moments of postseason triumph, few though they’ve been. The failures have outweighed them so profoundly they’re all but forgotten. And he’s not the pitcher he used to be anymore. The bullet fastball and shark-bite slider are gone. He spent this season remaking himself into a pitcher who survives by thought and guile. His 3.03 regular-season ERA is the highest he’s posted since his 2009 breakout, but a lot of pitchers would drink hemlock if they thought it would get their ERAs down to that number.

It’s bad enough that the sports goat business is still doing boffo business with Joe and Jane Fan. It’s worse when you see a man go out under the most ferocious pressure in games, with no thought in his mind other than doing his job with as little thought of failure as possible, no matter how often he’s been beaten under that pressure in the past, and get beaten on the spot.

Joe and Jane Fan can never admit to themselves that the other guys can be just a little bit better. It can only be their guys stinking up the joint as usual. If Rendon and Soto had missed by even less than a hair, they’d be calling for Kershaw’s statue outside Dodger Stadium.

They can’t admit Rendon and Soto were just better in those two fateful moments. No other explanation is acceptable. So they run over Kershaw’s jerseys in the Dodger Stadium parking lot with the minds of four year olds who’ve just been told no milk and cookies today.

Because he’s a Hall of Famer in waiting otherwise who’s been turned into a postseason pinata for too long. Well, I get that. But I also get that you could fill a room with the Hall of Famers who were bested with championships on the line. I won’t even begin to think now of the Hall of Famers who never got a chance to play for a championship at all.

Or the genuinely great teams who got shoved to one side in the World Series or before the postseason ended. The 1952-53 Boys of Summer, anyone? The 1954 Indians? The 1969 Orioles? The 2001 Mariners? Almost every Brave in creation between 1991 and 2005?

And guess what happened the morning after?

The sun still rose. The flora still bloomed. The fauna still played. The government continued its mischief. The nation still went to work, went to school, went about its everyday business. The world didn’t come spinning to a dead halt. Not even in southern California, not even for Dodger fans who’ve seen their team win a seventh straight National League West and come up short two stops short of the Promised Land.

And nobody figured out a way to overthrow the single most unimpeachable law of games, the law that says somebody’s going to be better than somebody in that sliver of space separating triumph from disaster.

“Spring training’s going to come,” Kershaw finally said. “I’m going to have to be ready to pitch and do the job the best we can.” He probably has lots of baseball miles to go, yet, before he sleeps. It won’t be his job to reconstruct the Dodger bullpen or augment a starting rotation that’s showing its age.

He doesn’t deserve to be harried to the rack of his regrets because his immediate supervisor pushed both their luck Wednesday night or because two Nats hitters were better than his best in the worst possible moment. Or, because the Dodgers had no answer other than a stranded hit batsman in the eighth, a stranded one-out baserunner on a single in the ninth, and the side gone in order in the tenth.

But Joe and Jane Dodger Fan don’t want to hear that now. They may not want to hear it until spring training, if that soon. It was so much more fun to just run over Kershaw jerseys. The only shock is that they didn’t burn Kershaw in effigy. Oops. Better not give them any more bright ideas.

Slam, dunk, don’t stop the dance

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Howie Kendrick swinging for a lifetime’s worth of filet mignon on the Washington house.

Dave Roberts learned the hard way Wednesday night that it takes the same number of moves to get destroyed as it takes to start unfathomable destruction. One.

And a one-time Dodger and Angel alike named Howie Kendrick got reminded all over again just how quickly you can go from a prospective bust—including three fielding errors all division series long—to a game-busting hero with one swing that looked so effortless it looked concurrently as if you could have done under sedation.

Fifteen years ago, with his Red Sox three outs from being swept out of an American League Championship Series, Roberts stole second on Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera to start the unlikeliest comeback of maybe all time. The 2004 Red Sox didn’t lose another game on their way to breaking their actual or alleged curse.

But this is 2019. Roberts is now a reasonably respected major league manager with a fourth straight first place finish and fourth straight postseason trip on his resume. And the way this trip ended Wednesday night sends lesser men past the nearest tavern and right to the distillery to drown themselves in the vats.

And Kendrick, 0-for-4 as he checked in at the plate with the bases loaded and nobody out in the top of the tenth, delivered one swing that’ll save him a small fortune in Beltway filet mignon dinners for the rest of his life.

It nailed the Dancing Nats’ trip to the National League Championship Series with a 7-3 division series Game Five triumph. Their motto now might be the name of a vintage song by rock legend Bryan Ferry: “Don’t Stop the Dance.” And they danced the 106 game-winning Dodgers home for maybe the most bitter winter of their existence since maybe their Brooklyn generations.

For the rest of his life Roberts is liable to face demands to know why he didn’t quit while he was ahead, 3-1 to be exact, accept Clayton Kershaw’s inning-and-threat-ending strikeout of Adam Eaton in the top of the seventh, pat Kershaw on his Hall of Fame-in-waiting fanny with a hearty “Thank you Kersh!” and go to his real bullpen post haste.

But Kershaw didn’t get his pat on the fanny. He got to open the eighth. He got battered back to back on back-to-back pitches by Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto. The first flew just over the left field fence, the second flew into the first couple of rows of the right field bleachers. Vaporising young stud starter Walker Buehler’s magnificent evening’s work and bringing the Nats back from the living dead.

Then Roberts reached for Kenta Maeda. And Maeda promptly struck out the side. Forget the second guessing. This was time for the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth guesses.

Roberts got what he’d asked for out of Kershaw to end the seventh. Why on earth push his own and Kershaw’s luck, knowing only too well that Kershaw’s Hall of Fame resume already has the long-enough sidebar of postseason humiliation as an attachment?

Because, he acknowledged after the defeat, he liked Kershaw against Rendon and Soto just a little bit more.

“[T]he success that Clayton’s had against Soto with the two-run lead, I’ll take Clayton any day in that situation,” Roberts said after the game. “I just think it’s one of those where it was easy for me to get Clayton, with the low pitches to get Rendon and to go out there and get Soto. And to have Kenta behind him. That was my thought, and not have Kenta go through Soto.”

Ancient history teaches that a Cardinals manager named Johnny Keane refused to even think about hooking Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in a threatening World Series Game Seven because he had a commitment to Gibson’s heart. Roberts has the same commitment to Kershaw’s. Keane and Gibson got a World Series win. Roberts and Kershaw got humiliated.

The problem is that Kershaw, one of the nicest men and beloved teammates in the game, goes into a postseason with a hellhound on his trail. And he knows it, sadly enough. After reinventing himself this season as a pitcher who can and does survive on guile to go with the smarts he’s had since his peak seasons, Kershaw couldn’t outsmart Rendon and Soto when he needed to most of all. More acutely, Kershaw can no longer deny what people have said of his postseason work for too long.

“Everything people say is true right now about the postseason,” he said after Game Five, soberly but sadly. “I’ve had to do it so much. I don’t know. It might linger for a while. I might not get over it. I don’t know.”

Roberts went with Kershaw’s heart. He should have gone with his own head. He let sentiment and heart overrule baseball. Oh, he got Maeda not going through Soto all right. He just had to watch Soto drive a second stake into the Dodgers’ heart to get it. Then, he sent Joe Kelly out to work a spotless ninth but pushed his luck yet again.

With further viable bullpen options to spare, a luxury Nationals manager Dave Martinez didn’t have, Roberts sent Kelly almost inexplicably out to work the tenth. Where Kelly walked Eaton on six pitches, surrendered a double to Rendon that was ruled ground-rule when it stuck in the fence, and handed Soto the intentional walk.

And, after Kendrick fouled off a nasty enough breaking ball, where Kelly served him a fastball toward the low inside corner. Not low enough. Kendrick drove it right over the center field fence. You thought the Nats were baseball’s greatest dancers before? Kendrick sent them into dugout moves even Soul Train never busted.

It isn’t just Kershaw for whom Roberts has to answer. Where was Kenley Jansen? Where was young lefty Adam Kolarek? Dodger fans will ask those two questions for the rest of the century. When not asking why Roberts still trusted Kelly despite his shoulder issues and season’s disasters. “Trust Kelly more than your closer Kenley Jansen,” said manager turned MLB Network analyst Kevin Kennedy. “I don’t have an answer for that. Does  Dave?”

The answer may or may not determine Roberts’s future in Los Angeles.

But what a moment it must have been for Martinez, when Kendrick exploded and Nats center fielder Michael A. Taylor hustled in and took a dive to snag Justin Turner’s game and series ending sinking liner. Game Five was the Nats’ entire season in microcosm: early and often faltering; later and often flying. The guillotine built for Martinez in May has been put into storage.

The only bad news for the Nats on the night might have been Stephen Strasburg. He was left almost an afterthought after the Nats’ late game destruction. He merely shook off Max Muncy’s two-run homer in the first and Enrique Hernandez’s leadoff solo bomb in the second to keep the Nats in the game almost as deftly as Buehler seemed to own them.

He’s gone from the world’s most feted draft pick to a pitcher who’s fought injuries to become good, often excellent, and periodically great. He’s comfortable with himself. He’s unflappable to the point that some people mistake him for emotionless. And he knows what he’s doing on the mound even when he’s punctured early.

“The first couple innings, I didn’t hit my spot, and they made me pay for it,” said the 31-year-old righthander who still looks like he’s at freshman orientation despite the beard that’s all grown up from having been born a mere goatee. “As a starter, you just kind of learn how you’ve got to trust your stuff, trust that it’s going to come to you. And it did.”

Tanner Rainey dispatched the Dodgers in order in the seventh. And Patrick Corbin—who’d been so badly humiliated in Game Three—got his chance for redemption in the eighth. Other than plunking Turner Corbin got it, zipping through the inning, including back-to-back strikeouts on Cody Bellinger and pinch-hitter David Freese.

Then it was Daniel Hudson shaking off a one-out single in the ninth. Then it was Kendrick obliterating Kelly and the Dodgers in the tenth. Then it was Sean Doolittle, who had his moments of doubt and disaster on the season before finishing up at reasonable strength, getting three including Taylor’s game-ending swan dive.

There wasn’t a Hunter Strickland or Wander Suero to be found. For all anyone knows, they were under strict orders not to move even their pinkies in the bullpen—under penalty of death, if need be.

“Today’s the biggest game of the year,” Martinez likes to say, to his players and to anyone else who cares to listen, “and we want to go 1-0 today.” He got what he asked for and more. It got the Nats to the second National League Championship Series in franchise history. (Their first? In 1981—as the Montreal Expos.)

For a very long time the article of faith, though not always accurate, was “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” These Dancing Nats have a better than even shot at making it, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in the National League.”

It’d beat the living hell out of everything else attached to Washington these and most days.

Sore winners

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The Cardinals earned their coming NLCS berth . . . and their skipper earned them an image as unsportsmanlike winners with a postgame rant.

Until he was out-boxed and out-thought by Muhammad Ali in 1964, Sonny Liston was so brutal in the ring he inspired gags about knocking his opponents out before the weighing-in was finished. Forgive the Braves if they think they were stink bombed, pistol whipped, and machine-gunned before “Play ball!” finished escaping the umpire’s mouth.

In avian terms cardinals are seed-eaters by nature, not birds of prey. Don’t tell that to the Braves at any time from now until spring training. Because baseball’s Cardinals turned into glandular enough birds of prey in the top of the first Wednesday afternoon. Leaving no carrion behind.

The 13-1 final score almost didn’t matter. What the Braves incurred from the Cardinals not even Alfred Hitchcock could have conjured. Losing a tenth consecutive postseason set was bad enough. How the Braves were destroyed in Game Five of this National League division series was precedent setting.

No team in the history of division series play ever scored ten runs in a single inning until the Cardinals did it to open Game Five. They did it without one batter in Cardinals feathers hitting one into the seats. It went from small ball to medium ball. Not that the Braves cared, particularly. It hurt just as deep as if they’d been nuked.

Especially after they were four measly outs from going to the National League Championship Series themselves on Monday night. Before Yadier Molina singled home the tying run in the eighth and hit the game-ending sacrifice fly in the tenth in Game Four. Before the trip back to Atlanta. Before the early burial.

Before Cardinals center fielder Dexter Fowler, once a World Series-winning Cub whose St. Louis tenure hasn’t always been a joyful noise, got thatclose to striking out before wringing a game-opening seven-pitch walk out of Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz. Before the Cardinals sent ten runs across the plate without one single soul hitting one into the seats.

And before Cardinals manager Mike Shildt—who looks so prototypically like a nerd you’d think he knew no expletive stronger than deleted at first glance—delivered a postgame rant of the kind that usually comes when a team’s been battered, not the other way around.

Tommy Lasorda and Lee Elia, you’ve been upstaged. Meet Shildt, in one fateful moment he’d surely love to walk back now. Meet Shildt, the sorest winner on the planet.

Once upon a time another generation of Cardinals collapsed so thoroughly in Game Seven of the 1985 World Series after being jobbed by a blown call near the end of Game Six that they looked like unsportsmanlike chokers. Shildt made his 2019 Cardinals look like unsportsmanlike winners.

“They [the Braves] started some (excrement). We finished the (excrement),” Shildt growled. “And that’s how we roll. No one (fornicates) with us ever. Now, I don’t give a (feces) who we play. We’re gonna (fornicate) them up. We’re gonna take it right to them the whole (fornicating) way. We’re gonna kick their (fornicating) ass.”

Rookie Cardinals outfielder Randy Arozarena, a ninth-inning pinch hitter who finished Game Five playing right field, filmed Shildt’s rant and posted it to Instagram. That’ll teach him. He couldn’t delete the post or apologise fast enough once it hit the Internet flying. Too late. Way to soil your own achievement, boys.

Fowler may or may not have been lucky to survive long enough to wring that game-opening walk; on 1-2 he foul ticked a pitch by less than a hair. “Did I?” he cracked after the game. “That was so long ago I can’t even remember.”

Foltynewicz hadn’t walked a single soul in his Game Two start. Little did he know. And little did anyone in the joint know Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong would even think about sacrificing Fowler to second, never mind doing it almost immediately. “After a good at-bat by Dex,” he’d say, “I told myself, ‘Just get him scoring position’.”

The Cardinals had one goal going in: take the Braves’ home audience out of the game as soon as possible. During the National Anthem if need be. They got close enough. After that, knowing they were sending Jack Flaherty to the mound, they figured a single run might be enough for the kid who pitched the National League’s ears off in the season’s second half.

“We know what kind of a pitcher Foltynewicz is and what he did to us last time and the way this series has been,” said first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, who beat out an infield hit right after Wong’s sacrifice. “We wanted to get on the board early.”

He forgot to mention the “often” part. And after left fielder Marcell Ozuna lofted a pitch that arrived around his toes into right to send Fowler home, Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman—as close to Old Reliable as the Braves have had since the retirement of Hall of Famer Chipper Jones—mishandled Yadier Molina’s hard grounder to load the bases.

Having the arguable worst week of his career as it was, en route a .200 NLDS batting average on four hits (including one homer and one double), six strikeouts, and one walk in 21 plate appearances, Freeman didn’t flinch after the massacre. “They got nine more runs,” he said. “That was pretty much the game right there.”

Matt Carpenter, penciled in to start at third base for the Cardinals, walked in a run. Tommy Edman, who’d taken Carpenter’s job during the season but was penciled in to start in the Game Five outfield, tore a two-run double down the right field line and chased Foltynewicz in favour of Max Fried. The Braves ordered a free pass to Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong.

And Flaherty had the strange distinction of becoming the rarest breed of pitcher: one who gets to hit before he’s even thrown a single pitch. Not to mention facing his high school buddy and teammate Fried. And he walked Carpenter home.

“I’m laughing because Max is up there,” the righthanded boy wonder remembered after the game about approaching the plate. “I’m trying to keep a straight face. I looked up into the stands and saw my mom, which was great. She was smiling and all excited. I didn’t expect Max.” That’s nothing compared to what Fried didn’t expect.

He didn’t expect Fowler and Wong to hit back-to-back RBI doubles. He didn’t expect to throw a wild pitch to Ozuna for strike three enabling Wong to come home after Goldschmidt left Wong room enough to take third on a line out to right. You almost swore Molina grounded out to end the flood at last because he took pity on the Braves for one brief, shining moment.

Adam Wainwright, who pitched heroically enough in Game Three only to see it laid to waste late, could barely believe what he saw from his seat in the Cardinal dugout. “Have you seen anything like that?” he asked before answering after the game. “We just kept the pedal to the metal . . . I was just trying to stay in the moment, but after that inning I came in to the guys and said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that’.”

The rest of the game seemed almost ceremonial even if Flaherty didn’t exactly have an untroubled outing. He shook of first and second and one out in the first, shrugged off Josh Donaldson’s solo home run in the fourth, and survived a bases-loaded jam in the fifth when he lost control momentarily and hit Ronald Acuna, Jr. with a pitch.

Considering the testiness between Acuna and the Cardinals most of the series the easiest thought to indulge was Flaherty trying to send the Braves’ youthful center field star a message. Considering everything else by that time, there was no way Flaherty would send a message pitch with what was then a twelve-run cushion that should have felt more like a hot tub, especially since Flaherty faced Acuna in the first and walked him without so much as a thought of inside and tight.

Pitching coach Mike Maddux went out to the mound at once to settle Flaherty. He didn’t want his lad making the same mistake Foltynewicz made in that first-inning flood, crossing the line between pitching with emotion and emotionally pitching. Flaherty got the message and got rid of Freeman on a ground out to second for the side.

After the flood, the Cardinals flipped from opening with offense on the brain to pure defense. They moved Edman to third and Fowler to right and sent Harrison Bader out to center field immediately after they’d finished the ten-run opening act. As if to remind his team he knew good and bloody well he had more than a glove working for him, Edman tore one off the top of the right field wall for a one-out triple in the top of the second.

Paul DeJong didn’t give Fried a moment to breathe before he ripped the next pitch off the wall for an RBI double. And after Flaherty zipped through the Braves in order in the bottom, Luke Jackson relieved Fried. He walked Wong on a full count, struck out Goldschmidt, plunked Ozuna on the first pitch, and got a sharp grounder out of Molina.

A grounder Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson picked and shoveled to second baseman Ozzie Albies, and the ball hit Albies’s bare hand leaving all hands safe. Then Bader lined one up the middle to score Wong and, after Edman struck out, DeJong hit another first pitch right through the left side to score Ozuna.

Thirteen runs in three innings. The rest of the game felt like a plain formality. The Braves bullpen from Josh Tomlin forward kept the Cardinals so quiet the rest of the way you began to feel tempted toward asking Braves manager Brian Snitker whether he’d think about trying a purely bullpen game if he could get a Game Five do-over.

“I don’t know that I’ve seen that many guys hit in the first inning that quick in my entire life,” Snitker said. “I don’t know. It wasn’t how we drew it up, I know that. I don’t know. That thing just kept rolling and we couldn’t stop it.”

“Everyone had sky high confidence going into that game and them scoring ten runs, it’s hard to swallow,” said Freeman after the game. “Everything went wrong from the get-go.”

“You don’t expect something like that to happen,” Donaldson lamented, “especially with how well we played all season.”

Any more than you expected Shildt’s post-mortem potty-mouth.

Tony La Russa’s Cardinals beat the Dodgers in a 2004 division series and, after it ended, led his players across the field for a handshake-and-hug line with the Dodgers after the 3-1 triumph. (Effervescent Jose Lima’s Game Three shutout was the only Dodgers win.) It was a grand and entirely endearing gesture. And baseball’s then-chief of discipline Bob Watson reprimanded the Cardinals for it.

La Russa may have had his flaws, but ranting like a drunken sailor over the freshly vanquished wasn’t one of them. Where’s Joe Torre, fellow Hall of Fame manager who now has Watson’s job among his other duties out of the commissioner’s office, to reprimand Shildt?

Letting the kids play is one thing. Letting them enjoy the living daylights out of the moment when they do big things without being broiled by baseball’s Fun Police for it is another thing. But letting a manager get away with a Shildt-like rant after a win at all, never mind one as lopsided as the Cardinals’ on Wednesday? That’s [fornicating] something else entirely.

This wasn’t Yankee manager Aaron Boone going on his now-famous “savages” rant in support of his players after a couple of nasty arguments with a couple of questionable umpires. This was a manager whose team had just humiliated a worthy opponent but who couldn’t resist grinding his heel on their fallen necks.

Arozarena owned up to making a rookie mistake posting his manager’s postgame potty mouth. Shildt made his team look so juvenile that most other fan bases in baseball will forget how surreal their first inning achievement was and hope the Cardinals go down hard in the National League Championship Series.

And if they do, they’ll probably find Braves fans leading the anti-charge. With no jury in the land prepared to rule them unjustified. It’s the least they can be allowed now.

Music from the Elders

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Not even Mother Nature could rain on Max the Knife’s parade Monday night.

Forget the starters-as-relievers plan that imploded with whatever impostor crawled into Patrick Corbin’s uniform Sunday. Come Monday, the Nationals wanted, needed, and all but demanded one thing.

On a day the Nats were one of four teams facing postseason elimination they needed Max Scherzer to be as close to Max Scherzer as possible. In the worst way possible. In the rain, even.

From the moment after Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner belted a two-out solo homer in the top of the first until he finally ran out of fuel while squirming out of a seventh-inning jam, Scherzer was a little bit more. For six and two-thirds to follow he was Max the Knife.

“It was amazing just playing behind him,” said third baseman Anthony Rendon after the Nats locked down the 6-1 Game Four win. “Max did what Max does.”

Elder Ryan Zimmerman, who wielded the heavy tenderiser in the bottom of the fifth, was a lot more succinct. “That’s the guy,” he said almost deadpan. Except that Zimmerman was also the guy. This was the night the Nats played sweet music from the elders. Above and beyond what they demanded going in.

Scherzer slew the Dodgers with what seemed like a thousand off-speed cuts mixed in with a few hundred speed slices and the Dodgers left unable to decide whether he’d dismantled them or out-thought them. Maybe both at once. Zimmerman was the third among division series teams’ oldest or longest-serving players Monday to do the major non-pitching damage keeping them alive without respirators to play another day.

An hour or so earlier, ancient Yadier Molina tied (with an eighth-inning single) and won (with a sacrifice fly) to get the Cardinals to a fifth game against the Braves. Great job, Yadi. Could the Nats top that? Zimmerman’s electrifying three-run homer answered, “Don’t make us laugh.”

All of a sudden the Dodgers’ stupefying sixth-inning assault in Game Three seemed like little more than a somewhat distant nightmare. Just as swiftly the Dodgers looked like the doddering old men on the field. Their average age is a year younger than the Nats’ but suddenly they looked in need of walkers and wheelchairs.

Scherzer and Zimmerman did their jobs so thoroughly that manager Dave Martinez didn’t even have to think about risking his or his club’s survival with a call into the Nats’ too-well-chronicled arson squad. If he had anything to say about it, the last thing he wanted was anyone not named Sean Doolittle or Daniel Hudson on call.

“I knew I needed to make a full-on start,” said Max the Knife after the game. “I know there’s times in the regular season where you’re not fresh, where you come into a game and you got to conserve where you’re at—try to almost pitch more—and today was one of those days.”

At first it seemed the Nats were trying to conserve . . . who know precisely what. Especially when it didn’t seem as thought they had that many solutions for Dodger starter Rich Hill’s effective enough breaking balls the first two innings. Or, for figuring out ways to avoid loading the bases twice, as they did on Hill and his relief Kenta Maeda in the third, and getting nothing but Rendon’s game-tying sacrifice fly to show for it.

But with that one-all tie holding into the bottom of the fifth, and Julio Urias in relief of Maeda, Trea Turner led off with a bullet single to left and Adam Eaton sacrificed him to second. Rendon singled Turner home to break the tie, Howie Kendrick lined a single to left center, and it looked like the Nats would content themselves with doing things the small ball way.

Then Dodger manager Dave Roberts lifted Urias for Pedro Baez. Zimmerman—the elder into whom enough were ready to stick a fork, though he’d said often enough he’d like to play one more year even as a role player—checked in next. Despite losing the platoon advantage. After he looked at a slider for a strike on the floor of the zone, he turned somewhat crazily on a fastball practically up in his face.

And, he sent it through the outfield crosswinds and onto the green batting eye past the center field fence.

“That’s what you play for, that’s what you work for all season and off season,” said Zimmerman, who hasn’t has as many such moments recently as he’d prefer but who’s still a much loved figure in his clubhouse and among the Nats’ audience. “Stay positive, the guys rallied around me, it’s nice to be back at all.”

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Let the old men be kids again: Zimmerman after his crosswind-splitting three-run bomb.

The Nats went on to tack their sixth run of the night on when Rendon hit another sac fly, this time to the rear end of center field, this time enabling Turner to come home. Greater love hath no Nat than to sacrifice himself twice for the dance. Unless it was Scherzer graduating from his tank next to E to living on pure fumes pitching the top of the seventh.

He got Corey Seager to fly out to right but surrendered a base hit through the right side to rookie Matt Beaty. Rookie Dodger second baseman Gavin Lux wrestled his way to an eight-pitch walk, and rookie catcher Will Smith looked at one strike between four balls for ducks on the pond, but pinch hitter Chris Taylor (for reliever Ross Stripling) threatened to walk the second Dodger run home until Scherzer struck him out swinging on the eighth pitch of the segment.

Then, after scaring the Nats and the Nationals Park crowd audibly with a hard liner down the right field line and foul by about a hair (every known replay showed how close it missed), Joc Pederson grounded one to second base, where late-game fill-in Brian Dozier picked it and threw him out. Launching Scherzer into one of his own patented mania dances into the dugout in triumph.

“My arm is hanging right now,” Max the Knife said after it was all over but the flight back to Los Angeles and a Game Five showdown between Stephen Strasburg and Walker Buehler. “That pushed me all the way to the edge—and then some.” Good thing Doolittle had four outs to deliver and Hudson, two, to close Game Four out with a flourish of their own.

In a game culture so heavily youth-oriented over the past few years Scherzer and Zimmerman must seem anomalous. “We’re a bunch of viejos,” Scherzer told a postgame presser about themselves and their fourteen teammates over the age an earlier generation considered the cutoff for trust. “We’re old guys. Old guys can still do it.”

That wasn’t easy or necessarily guaranteed. Scherzer’s season was compromised by an attack of bursitis and an upper-back rhomboid muscle, forcing him to miss the last of July and most of August. When he returned, after a couple of short but effective enough starts, he almost looked older than his actual 34 years.

He still kept his ERA to 2.92 and still led the Show with a 2.45 fielding-independent pitching rate, but entering the postseason there were legitimate questions about how much he might still actually have left past this year. Like Zimmerman, Scherzer would far rather let himself decide when he’s ready for his baseball sunset.

Max the Knife proved Exhibit A in favour of Martinez’s original starter-as-reliever division series scheme, striking out the side swinging in the eighth in Game Two. And Corbin’s Game Three implosion put the S-A-R idea to bed for the rest of the series, if not the postseason.

Zimmerman is, of course, the one Nat remaining who’s worn their colours since they were reborn in 2005, after long and often painful life as the Montreal Expos. They picked him fourth overall that year; he had an impressive cup of coffee with them down that year’s stretch and stuck but good.

His hope to age gracefully in baseball terms has been thwarted too often by his body telling him where to shove it when he least wants to hear it. He refuses to go gently into that good gray night just yet; he accepts his half-time or part-time status with uncommon grace.

“I really don’t think these are his last games,” Scherzer told the reporters with Zimmerman sitting at his right. “Only you think this is his last games.”

“The last home game [of the regular season], they tried to give me a standing ovation,” Zimmerman said. “I mean, I feel good. I think we’ve got plenty to go.”

“I feel young,” Scherzer said, turning to Zimmerman, “and I’m older than you.”

Scherzer is older than Zimmerman—by two months. But they looked as though they’d told Father Time to step back a hundred paces when they pitched and swung Monday night. Only after the game did they creak like old men.

Zimmerman started only because Martinez wanted to use the platoon advantage against the lefthanded Hill, and he struck out twice. But when he came to the plate as Roberts sent him the righthanded Baez in the fifth, Martinez had a decision: let Zimmerman swing anyway or counter with lefthanded Matt Adams off the bench.

Martinez stayed with Zimmerman. And in that moment Zimmerman became Washington’s King of Swing, leaving Scherzer to settle for being Washington’s King of Sling. Enabling the Nats to live at least one more day. And the way they grunted, growled, and ground Monday night, the Dodgers may yet have a fight on their hands in Los Angeles come Wednesday.

Just don’t expect to see Scherzer out of the pen Wednesday. Even he’s not crazy enough to even think about that scenario. The next time Max the Knife wants to be on the mound it’ll be to pitch for a pennant.

Sunday, bloody Sunday

2019 NLDS Game 3 - Atlanta Braves v. St. Louis Cardinals

Adam Wainwright’s Sunday virtuosity ended up going for naught.

Adam Wainwright had every reason on earth to feel nothing but a powerful desire to arrange Carlos Martinez’s necktie party Sunday. So did every citizen of Cardinal Country. So did every last baseball fan who prayed for and got an impeccable pitchers’ duel, with the Braves’ Mike Soroka playing Dickey Betts to Wainwright’s Duane Allman for virtuosity.

The duel that ended with Martinez’s Spike Jones sneaking explosives into the drums and the Braves standing one win from a National League Championship Series engagement. It’s a good thing for Martinez that Wainwright is a forgiving soul. He had no intention after the staggering 3-1 Braves win in Busch Stadium of doing anything but giving Martinez a big hug.

“And Carlos will be ready tomorrow,” the 38-year-old righthander who may be approaching the end of a solid if injury-compromised career. “Let’s hope one moment doesn’t define his season, because I’d like to see him get another chance.”

Unfortunately, Wainwright and Cardinals manager Mike Schildt may be the only one with that wish. “He’ll be in that spot [Monday],” the skipper said, “and I’ll have full confidence in him.” He says that now, but . . .

Even Braves closer Mark Melancon had Martinez’s back after the game. “You’re not looking to see guys fail,” he told a reporter. “You want to do it the right way, big on big and beat somebody. We’ve all been there. I can’t say that I didn’t want to win, but Carlos is an incredible pitcher. We’ve got to come back strong tomorrow because he’s going to come back, I’m sure.”

After opening with a leadoff double but two straight strikeouts Sunday afternoon, Martinez surrendering back-to-back RBI hits that broke the Cardinals’ backs and Cardinal Country’s hearts for the bottom of the ninth means nobody’s really sure. “There were some pitches that didn’t go where they were supposed to go,” the righthander said afterward. “I didn’t have the best grip on the slider. I tried to get that pitch to do what it was supposed to do and I didn’t get to it.”

The single greatest exhibition of pressure pitching of Wainwright’s life was laid to waste right there.

With an enviable enough postseason pitching record as it is—he has a lifetime 2.79 ERA and 1.03 walks/hits per inning pitched rate in October—Wainwright for seven innings couldn’t be stopped with a subpoena, never mind a S.W.A.T. team. Especially throwing the curve ball he calls King Charles, the way Mets legend Dwight Gooden’s curve was once known as Lord Charles.

If Wainwright wasn’t quite as masterly as the Astros’ Gerrit Cole the day before, he was close enough and too much so for the Braves’ discomfort. He nailed eight strikeouts, trusted his defenders just enough, didn’t let plate umpire Sam Holbrook’s microscopic strike zone faze him any more than Soroka did, didn’t let his own club’s lack of cash-in offense bother him, and made a 1-0 lead—acquired on a Marcell Ozuna double, a Yadier Molina ground out pushing Ozuna to third, and a Matt Carpenter sacrifice fly in the second inning—feel almost like a 10-0 lead.

Then, after Brian McCann popped out to the third base side near the plate to open the top of the eighth, Wainwright’s tank ran past E. Dansby Swanson shot one through the hole at short for a single. Soroka’s pinch hitter Adam Duvall lined out to third but Ronald Acuna, Jr. worked himself to a full-count walk, Wainwright’s first of the day. And Ozzie Albies walked on 3-1 to load the pads for Freddie Freeman.

Exit Wainwright, enter Andrew Miller, who hasn’t been the same as he was with the Indians thanks to their overworking him while he was hot and a couple of injuries to follow that have sapped his once-formidable repertoire if not his heart. The Cardinals needed it to be classic Miller Time in the worst way possible now.

And after a swinging strike to open, Miller got Freeman to fly out to Dexter Fowler in center field and strand the ducks on the pond.

The problem was, the Cardinals weren’t any better after pushing Soroka’s relief Max Fried in the bottom of the eighth. Fried walked Carpenter to open, with Schildt sending swift Harrison Bader out to run for the veteran. Bader distracted Fried enough to compel a walk to Tommy Edman before Paul DeJong flied out toward the right field line. Exit Fried, enter Darren O’Day.

Also enter Jose Martinez pinch hitting in Miller’s lineup slot. O’Day faked a throw over and Bader took off, only to get hung up between second and third before O’Day threw him out at third. Then Martinez hit a sinking liner to left that Duvall on his horse could only reach and trap. You could taste the RBI that wasn’t on a plate dipped in A-1 sauce.

Bader’s arrest for attempted grand theft loomed even larger after Sean Newcomb relieved Day and got Fowler to fly out to his center field counterpart Acuna for the side. Then Schildt put Bader into center field, moved Edman from right field to third base, shifted Fowler to right field, and called on Carlos Martinez.

Josh Donaldson might have ripped a double past the diving Edman at third and down the left field line into the corner for a leadoff double, but Martinez bagged Nick Markakis and pinch hitter Adeiny Hechevarria—who’d been 4-for-6 in that role since joining the Braves—back to back on swinging strikeouts.

The bad news was Donaldson’s pinch runner Billy Hamilton, whose road running on the bases is almost his only ability that enables him to play major league baseball, getting too much into Martinez’s head. So much so that when Hechevarria swung strike three Hamilton stole third without so much as a beat cop hollering “Stop, thief!”

“At the time you want to get to third with one out, so that was a bad break,” Hamilton told reporters after the game. “But getting to third even with two outs, what if Martinez bounces one in the dirt? I could score. And maybe he has to pitch the next guy differently.”

Then, after Molina and Martinez confabbed at the mound with Molina obviously upset and Schildt joining them to settle them down and get back to business, McCann—the potential go-ahead run—was awarded first on the house and Rafael Ortega assigned to pinch run for the prodigal Braves’ catcher.

Swanson checked in at the plate 0-for-6 lifetime against Martinez. Every star aligned in Martinez’s favour. “The Cardinals start doing game management,” said McCann after the game, “and then Dansby came up clutch.”

Clutch enough to send one off the left field fence and send Hamilton home to tie it at one. “God blessed me with good hand-eye coordination,” the Braves’ shortstop said after the game. “In those situations, you just try and breathe and relax. It’s easier said than done.”

And Duvall dumped a quail into short center down for a base hit, scoring Ortega readily with Bader throwing home but well off and over the third base line, enabling Swanson to score the third run.

Only after walking Acuna did Martinez escape, getting Albies to line out to right. And after Freeman made a sensational extension to hold a wide throw from shortstop and keep his toe on first base to nail Kolten Wong opening, Paul Goldschmidt banked a double off the right field side wall off Melancon. But Ozuna looked at strike three on the inside corner and Molina flied out to center.

It gave the Braves their first postseason series lead in seventeen years and gave the Cardinals a reminder of what they might have really lost when Jordan Hicks, their originally assigned closer, having a solid season to that point, went down with Tommy John surgery in late June. Might.

Maybe a healthy Hicks keeps the Braves pinned in the ninth Sunday. Maybe he doesn’t. Two days after Martinez barely survived to keep a Cardinal win a win, he didn’t survive. And the Cardinals get to host the Braves for Game Four on the fiftieth anniversary of making the trade that helped change baseball.

It was 7 October 1969 when they traded center field mainstay Curt Flood to the Phillies. The trade Flood rejected for the reserve clause challenge that went all the way to the Supreme Court before losing—yet pushing open the door through which Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter and then Andy Messersmith would escort free agency’s advent.

Fifty years ago, too, the Miracle Mets shocked the world with their division, pennant, and World Series triumphs. Their golden anniversary team couldn’t stay the distance even toward a wild card game spot. The Cardinals have bigger stakes to play for on the Flood trade’s golden anniversary.

And a lot to make up for to Adam Wainwright, who’d love nothing more than one more postseason start at minimum. He won’t say he’ll retire after the Cardinals’ season ends; he won’t say he won’t, either.

“(I)n my mind, I’ve got two more series to pitch through, you know?” Wainwright said Sunday evening. “We got the NLCS (and) the World Series pitch through. But first we got to win (Monday). That’s where my head’s at right now. But no, I never once felt like today was it. Either we’ve got more games to win, or I’ve got more games to pitch.”

If his injuries over the years keep him from thinking about the Hall of Fame, Wainwright at least thinks the way a Hall of Famer does. Against a group of Braves who don’t know the meaning of the word surrender just yet, that attitude needs to rub off a lot more on the Cardinals now.

 

Martinez surprises with Max the Knife

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Could that someone out of the pen be Max the Knife?

Bet on it: it doesn’t happen if Matt Williams was still the Nationals’ manager. Bet a little on it: it might not even happen if Dusty Baker was still the manager. Davey Johnson, maybe. But it happened through the courtesy of incumbent Dave Martinez.

And it got him a return to Nationals Park with their National League division series against the Dodgers tied at one apiece. The Nats ain’t ready for the last dance just yet. And if they keep this up, they just might get one in the World Series in due course. Might.

Williams was too wedded to The Book, whatever he thought it was, to have even thought about bringing Max Scherzer in from the bullpen in National League division series Game Two. Compared to Williams, Baker was John Coltrane, but I’m not sure even Baker might have gone there, either.

Johnson’s the man who once inserted one relief pitcher into right field and the other on the mound (Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco, or was it Jesse Orosco and Roger McDowell), then rotated them between the positions until his Mets won the damn game. Johnson just might have reached for Scherzer Friday night.

But Martinez did, in the eighth inning. “We weren’t expecting that,” lamented Dodgers manager Dave Roberts after the Nats finished the 4-2 win they’d started. The Dodgers and just about everyone else in the solar system.

After a long season that only began with the distinct appearance of Martinez awaiting his call to the guillotine as its victim, not its operator, who the hell did he think he was Friday night, Casey Stengel?

The good news was Scherzer striking out the side in the eighth. The bad news was, the Nats still have an honest to God bullpen, and they’re still one of the shakiest bunches this side of the old Soul Train dancers. Daniel Hudson got the ninth inning gig and got himself the bases loaded—partly because Martinez took the gamble of putting the winning run aboard with two out to set up a possible force—before swishing Corey Seager out to end it.

And before Max the Knife came in for the eighth, Sean Doolittle, usually the Nats’ closer, relieved Stephen Strasburg for the seventh and, after striking out MVP candidate Cody Bellinger to open, threw Max Muncy a dead center meatball that Muncy drove dead over the right field fence to close the Nats’ lead to a single run.

Good thing Doolittle’s pinch hitter Asdrubal Cabrera smacked Dodger reliever Dustin May’s first service into right center field with second and third for the fourth Nats’ run. Better thing that Martinez was only too willing to say screw the protocols and reach for Scherzer for the eighth. Best thing that Scherzer got Gavin Lux, pinch hitter Chris Taylor, and Joc Pederson on three straight Duke Ellingtons: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

It’s one thing to go all-hands-on-deck in a win-or-be-gone play-in like a wild card game. It’s something else, seemingly, to load your bullpen with your grand starting pitchers in a division series. If you still want Scherzer to start Game Three for you in Washington, it’s entirely doable after Scherzer worked only the one inning without even thinking about asking what the hell he was doing strolling in from among the arson squad.

“All the chips are on the table,” Scherzer said after the game.

Except that Martinez hinted powerfully enough that it’d be Anibal Sanchez likely to start Game Three—with Patrick Corbin available in the bullpen. Nobody around the Nats thinks it’s such a beyond-sane idea. Certainly not Scherzer.

“I’ve been in these situations before where you’re pitching on two days’ rest in all-star games and different times in the postseason,” he told reporters after Game Two. “I know that on two days’ rest, you’ve got one inning in you. So, I said whatever the situation is, I’m ready to pitch.”

Remember: that’s the man who refused to let something so trivial as a black eye and a swollen face stop him from taking his next turn and throwing a ten punchout, four-hit gem in a doubleheader nightcap in late June. A man who’ll pitch when, never mind until he’s black and blue in the face isn’t going to flinch over coming out of a postseason bullpen for a quick round.

Oh, goody (not), the Dodgers must be thinking. Remember last year. They were undone in a World Series when the Red Sox started David Price twice and closed with him once, started Chris Sale once and closed with him once (the Series winner, as it happens), and started Eduardo Rodriguez once and drew him in from the pen twice. Hello, Yogi, wherever you are around the Elysian Fields, it’s threatening to get late early out there again.

Strasburg didn’t seem to mind that Max the Knife stole some of his thunder on a night when he needed to be a little beyond his best himself. You can afford to be sanguine when your mates pry three runs out of a Clayton Kershaw who still can’t seem to find and sustain the best of his best in postseason play, while you’re busy punching out ten in six innings, surrendering three measly hits, and one measly earned run.

And it helps even more when you now have a postseason career 0.64 ERA while allowing but one run so far this October. This keeps up, we’re going to be saying Strasburg’s name in the same postseason sentences as those of Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Mickey Lolich, Orel Hershiser, Curt Schilling, Madison Bumgarner, and Justin Verlander.

You may also be saying other names to refer to the Nats before long. Ringling Brothers and Scherzer and Strasburg Circus. Brother Martinez’s Traveling Salvation Show. The Mothers of Inversion. The Dodgers could be describing them with the last of those with “of Inversion” replaced by a twelve-letter compound euphemism for “maternal fornicator” before long.

 

NLDS Game One: Fun cops vs. fun cops

2019-10-04 YadierMolinaCarlosMartinez

Was Yadier Molina (left) reminding Carlos Martinez about throwing stones in glass houses Thursday afternoon?

Oh, brother. You knew going in that things between the Braves and the Cardinals in a division series would be interesting, to say the very least. Especially knowing the set pits one precinct of fun police against another. Then you got reminded soon enough about being very careful what you wish for.

The Cardinals and the Braves put on a few shows for the price of one, before the Cardinals hung in to finish a 7-6 win Thursday afternoon. The Comedy of Errors, starring one of this season’s most vaunted defenses. The Late Show, starring both sides’ bombardiers Paul Goldschmidt, Freddie Freeman, and Ronald Acuna, Jr. And Get Off My Lawn, starring Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez out of the ninth inning bullpen.

When the Show’s number three team for defense in terms of runs saved (95), the number five team for turning batted balls into outs (.705), and the number thirty team for allowing errors (a mere 66) allows three Game One runs on extremely playable grounders, you try to remind yourself the Elysian Field demigods do have a sense of humour, if you’re a Cardinals fan.

When your franchise youth settles for a long single in the seventh, after taking a leisurely stroll out of the batter’s box, and barely arrives at first when he might have pulled into second when the right fielder turned to throw in after playing the ball off the height of the fence, you try to see it from the youth’s perspective, if you’re a Braves fan.

When Cardinal fan’s relief ace—who’s renowned for making like Tarzan when he nails strikeouts or induces critical outs—calls out the same youth for having a ball when he does hit one that’s no questions asked out in the bottom of the ninth and has a blast running it out, demanding the boy wonder respect him, Cardinal fan has to remind himself or herself that Mama said there’d be moments and brain farts like that.

When Braves fan has to listen to venerable veteran Freddie Freeman call out Ronald Acuna, Jr.’s earlier stroll, he or she needs every ounce of restraint to keep from reminding Freeman—and any other Brave sharing Freeman’s thinking—that, all things considered, being at second where he belonged in the seventh might not have gotten them more in the end.

With all the foregoing and more it almost felt as though the Cardinals hanging tough, coming back, yanking far ahead with a four-run top of the ninth, and still beating the Braves, was a tough loss. And weren’t things weird enough without Braves reliever Chris Martin going down for the rest of the series after straining his oblique . . . while coming in from the pen assigned to work the eighth? Without throwing a single pitch?

“Every out, every pitch is important,” said the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter, who didn’t start but who pinch hit in the eighth and dumped the quail off Braves reliever Mark Melancon in the eighth to tie things up at three. “There’s a lot of adrenaline involved, but that’s what you play for, that’s why you’re here.”

“We’ve played all season expecting to win those type games. You give up that kind of lead, it’s tough to swallow,” said Freeman, who shot one over the center field wall one out after Acuna yanked a two-run homer into the same real estate in the ninth, then watched Josh Donaldson ground out and Nick Markakis look at strike three to end the Braves’ afternoon a day late and a dollar short.

Those two homers were joined by Golschmidt in the top of the eighth. Off Luke Jackson, who had to go in after Martin’s in-from-the-pen oblique tweak and watch Goldschmidt send his second pitch over the left field wall. They were the only bombs on a day both teams seemed hell bent on proving small ball hadn’t yet gone the way of the Yugo. If you didn’t know better, you’d have sworn some things were supposed to have been outlawed in recent times.

Things like Cardinals center fielder Harrison Bader not just beating out an infield single in the fifth and moving to second on—the horror!—a sacrifice bunt by Cardinals starting pitcher Miles Mikolas, but stealing third for the first such theft in a measly two tries off Braves starter Dallas Keuchel all year long. Not to mention Bader tying the game at one when he scored on Dexter Fowler’s ground out to second.

Things like Donaldson pushing the first run of the game home on what should have been dialing Area Code 4-6-3 in the bottom of the first but for usually easy-handed Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong blowing his backhand toss to first leaving all hands safe and enabling his Braves counterpart Ozzie Albies—who reached on a walk in the first place—to score.

Things like the Braves taking a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the sixth with only one hit—with Donaldson plunked with one out, Markakis doubling him to third, pinch hitter Adam Duvall handed first on the house, and, a pitching change and a strikeout later, Dansby Swanson motoring to beat an infield RBI single that turned into an extra run home when Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong’s throw to second bounced off Wong’s glove.

Except that most of the conversation turned around Acuna’s eighth-inning trot. Some of it came from Freeman, who knew how frustrating it was to lose a potential run in a one-run loss with a mistake that wasn’t the first such.

“But I think you have that conversation once,” the well-respected first baseman continued. “It’s kind of beating a dead horse after that if you keep having the same conversation over and over again. You have to know that was a mistake.”

“It could have been a double, but things happen,” was Acuna’s way of explaining it. “I didn’t speak with the manager about it. I just went out to enjoy the game. I always try to give my best, but these are things that sometimes get away from me. They are not things I want to do. As players, we always try to give our best effort, but we make mistakes, we are human.”

He’s right about players being human and making mistakes, of course; in this instance, he’d been there before this year and been benched briefly for it. So is Braves manager Brian Snitker right when he says, “He should have been on second. And we’re kind of shorthanded to do anything about it right there. You hate to see that happen.”

But it’s open to debate whether Alibes is right saying, “He probably scores in that inning if he’s on second base. It’s a big deal. He knows he needs to do better there.” Albies is probably right in his second and third sentences there. About scoring from second, not quite.

Because Albies followed Acuna immediately with a grounder that pushed Acuna to third, but Freeman got hit by a pitch immediately to follow and Donaldson’s immediate bullet liner—with Acuna likely to run on contact—would have been the double play it became regardless.

Then Martinez had to make all that look like the mere warmup for the main attraction, when Acuna had what Martinez believed a little too much of a ball around the bases after depositing a meatball practically down the pipe over the center field wall. “I wanted him to respect the game and respect me as a veteran player,” Martinez fumed afterward. “Just play the game.”

Martinez even had ideas about chirping a lecture or three toward the Braves dugout before his veteran catcher Yadier Molina interceded and nudged him gently but firmly back to the mound. This was almost too rich for words in a game featuring a pair of teams only too notorious around the sport for being fun police units.

You almost can’t wait for the Braves to fume the next time Martinez goes into his Tarzan act if he ends a dicey inning with a nasty strikeout: “We want him to respect us as the National League East champions and not just a bunch of plug-ins who needed all 162 games to get here.”

If that’s the way the Cardinals and the Braves are going to be—as if playing a delicious Game One division series thriller and spiller just wasn’t quite enough—then let them suit up for Game Two in business suits, for crying out loud. Huffing “just play the game” after demanding “respect” tells me (and should tell you) that someone forgot about the “game” part. And, about throwing meatballs to power hitters.