It’s a Gaus, Gaus, Gaus—sort of

Kevin Gausman

Kevin Gausman isn’t exactly swinging into McCovey Cove here—and he needed a little help from his friend sliding home head first to win Friday night.

Look, I don’t want to be a spoil sport. OK, maybe I do. A little. But anyone getting any ideas about celebrating Giants pitcher Kevin Gausman’s game-winning pinch loft Friday night as evidence against the universal designated hitter . . .

Seriously?

It’s not as though it meant the National League West for the re-tread Giants. They’d already nailed a postseason berth days before. It’s not as though Gausman was the best pinch-hitting option available to manager Gabe Kapler in the bottom of the eleventh with the bases loaded, one out, and relief pitcher Camilo Doval due up.

And, it’s not as though Braves reliever Jacob Webb threw him something with a nasty enough dance to the plate that the biggest boppers in the National League would have had trouble keeping time and step with it.

So come on. Let’s have a little fun with the home crowd in Oracle Park booing the hapless Gausman—who’s actually in the back of this year’s Cy Young Award conversation, having a splendid season on the mound (he woke up this morning with a 2.78 ERA, a 2.88 fielding-independent pitching rate, a 4.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a 10.7 strikeouts-per-nine rate)—because they had no clue Kapler was clean out of position players to send to the plate.

Let’s have a little more fun than that with Webb and Gausman midget-mud-wrestling the count from 1-2 to a full count, because Webb couldn’t find the zone with a search party and a bloodhound and because the Braves handed Evan Longoria and Donovan Solano free passes to load the pads in the first place.

Let’s have a little more fun than that with the Oracle crowd going from lusty booing to standing-O cheering after Webb pumped and delivered a 3-2 meatball that had so much of the zone a real hitter could have turned it into a walk-off grand slam while looking over his shoulder at Brandon Belt in the Giants’ on-deck circle.

But let’s give ourselves a reality check. Gausman’s loft to Braves right fielder Joc Pederson didn’t exactly push Pederson back to the edge of the warning track. It landed in Pederson’s glove while he took a couple of steps forward in more or less shallow positioning.

Shallow enough that the game missed going to the twelfth by about a foot south, on what might have been an inning-ending double play. Except that Brandon Crawford—who’d opened the inning as the free cookie on second and took third on Webb’s wild pickoff throw—had to beat Pederson’s throw home by sliding head first to the plate.

Crawford would have been dead on arrival if he hadn’t taken the dive and traveled beneath Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud whirling around for the tag that would have gotten the veteran Giants shortstop squarely even if he’d dropped into a standard slide. Even Gausman knows he had a better chance at breaking the land speed record aboard a Segway than there was of him walking it off.

“More than anything,” he said in the middle of his did-I-do-that postgame, “I was trying to not look ridiculous, just take good swings, swing at strikes. Obviously I never would have thought I would have got in that situation coming to the ballpark today.”

Not with a .184/.216/.184 slash line entering Friday night’s follies. Not with a lifetime .036 hitting average entering this season, despite having a reputation as the Giants pitcher with the best bat control at the plate. Not with tending to go the other way when he does connect on those very rare occasions. “Um, well, that’s the first time I’ve pulled a ball,” he said post-game. “Like, in the big leagues.”

Thanks to the rule that says a sacrifice fly doesn’t count as an official at-bat, Gausman’s loft actually cost him four points on his on-base percentage.

The game got to the extras in the first place because, after d’Arnaud himself hit one into the left field seats with two aboard and one out to overthrow a 4-2 Giants lead in the top of the ninth, another Giants pinch-hitter—Solano, hitting for earlier pinch-hitter/outfield insertion Mike Yastrzemski—hit a two-out, 2-2 service from Braves reliever Will Smith only a few feet away from where d’Arnaud’s blast landed.

After not having swung the bat in a major league plate appearance in three weeks, thanks to a turn on the COVID list, Solano at least entered a record book. His game-tyer meant the Giants have hit a franchise-record sixteen pinch-hit bombs this season, and possibly counting.

Gausman, on the other hand, is only the third pitcher in the Giants’ San Francisco era to win a game with a pinch swing. He joins Don Robinson (bases-loaded pinch single, 1990) and Madison Bumgarner (pinch single, 2018) without a base hit for his effort.

The way the Giants have played this year, cobbled together like six parts Clyde Crashcup and half a dozen parts Rube Goldberg, nobody puts anything past them now.

Gausman is respected as one of the nicer guys in the game. Before Friday night’s contest the Bay Area chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America handed him their Bill Rigney Award for cooperation with the Bay Area press. “He’s been terrific, including during some trying times with his family,” said the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Susan Slusser announcing the award presentation.

But he didn’t really do any anti-DH people any real favours after all. He hasn’t augmented any legitimate case for keeping any pitchers swinging the bat any further than this year. The best thing you can say for his Friday night flog is that he connected. He ought to buy Crawford steaks for the rest of the season for sliding astutely.

This year’s pitchers at the plate woke up this morning with a whopping collective .110/.150/.142 slash line and an absolutely jaw-dropping .291 OPS. They’re also leading the league in wasted outs (388 sacrifice bunts), with the next-most-prolific such among the position players being the shortstops. (55.)

Now, for the money shot. Belt is one of the National League’s more consistent hitters this season. He took a .942 OPS into Friday night’s game. He whacked a two-run homer to vaporise a Giants deficit in the first inning. With one out, would any sane manager ask a pitcher to do anything more than stand at the plate like a mannequin, with a bat like that waiting on deck to hit with ducks on the pond?

Kapler’s living the proverbial charmed life. As a player, he was a member of the 2004 Red Sox who finally won their first World Series since the Spanish flu pandemic. He wasn’t exactly one of those Red Sox’s big bats, but he was a late-Game Four insertion as a pinch runner, with then-manager Terry Francona letting him hang around in right field as the Red Sox nailed the Series sweep in the ninth.

As the Dodgers’ director of player development in 2015, Kapler got away with a feeble response at best, when a couple of Dodger minor leaguers were accused plausibly of videotaping an assault by two young women against a third, plus sexual misconduct involving a player’s hand down the victim’s panties. The team elected not to report it to the commissioner’s office or to the police—and he didn’t go over their heads to do so, either.

Then, Kapler was run off the Phillies bridge because, in two seasons, he couldn’t marry his analytical bent to the live situations in front of him and the Phillies ended up three games under .500 total with him on their bridge.

Now, he has the bridge of the National League West leaders fighting tooth, fang, claw, and charm against those pesky Dodgers with a two-game division lead and fourteen games left. He’d better not get too comfortable emptying his bench again any time soon. His pitchers are only hitting .081 this season. And they won’t always have Crawford on third to bail them out in a pinch.

Salami on special at the Slam Diego Deli

Rookie Jake Cronenworth joined the Padres’ grand slam parade Saturday.

A spectre may be haunting major league baseball—the spectre of San Diego. The Padres, usually renowned for a checkered history, lots of ugly uniforms, a handsome ballpark where hitters usually go to die, and a seeming genius for watching as many as three top-of-the-line players depart for every one or two they could find. Rudely interrupted by a couple of pennants.

That was then and this is now: The Padres now wear uniforms that are passable, if unlikely to put them on the best-dressed men’s lists. They make the right headlines in the press and hash in the National League West and elsewhere. They also make hash out of the National League leader board, where you’ll find them as of this morning at the top for total bases, stolen bases, walks, slugging, OPS, and home runs.

Previous generations of baseball’s big bopping teams have earned colourful nicknames: The Bronx Bombers, the Pittsburgh Lumber Company, Harvey’s Wallbangers. To those add now Slam Diego. These Poundres don’t just hit home runs, they hit conversation pieces. Especially with the bases loaded. The Slam Diego Deli is the Show’s first to grind salami on special in four consecutive games.

When rookie shortstop Jake Cronenworth saw and raised center fielder Trent Grisham’s three homers in a Saturday burial of the Houston Astros by slamming Astros reliever Humberto Castellanos, it was the fifth San Diego slam in six games while they were at it.

The 13-2 win was also the Padres’s sixth straight win overall and raised their record in interleague play to 6-0 so far. These are not your grandfather’s, your father’s, or even your big brother’s Friar Ducks. Sitting, that is.There’s nothing like a not-so-little beatdown laid upon last year’s American League pennant winner to redeem a five-game losing streak that ended when the Poundres flattened the Texas Rangers 14-4 last Monday.

That just so happened to be the same game in which the Slam Diegans’s gigastar-in-the-making, Fernando Tatis, Jr., provoked this year’s first major debate over the Sacred Unwritten Rules—when he faced Juan Nicasio in the top of the eighth, with the bases loaded, one out, a 3-0 count, and a 10-3 Padres lead in Globe Life Hangar, and hit something too meaty to resist over the right field fence.

Baseball’s boring old farts screamed about Tatis’s lack of manners. Rangers manager Chris Woodward, who harrumphed after the game about how offensive Tatis was for daring to swing 3-0 late in the middle of a blowout, lifted Nicasio for Ian Gibaut, who threw right behind Manny Machado’s rump roast immediately to follow.

The problem was that, this time, most of baseball applauded Tatis and decided the SURs a) were patent nonsense and b) don’t cover when a hitter as good as Tatis is fed something Ray Charles could have hit for distance. Apparently, so did Commissioner Nero, suspending Gibaut three games.

The further problem, once Padres manager Jayce Tingler got over his own dismay at Tatis violating the SURs, is that the whole hoo-ha just put rocket fuel into the Padres at the plate. The following night, they could only muster a 6-4 win over the Rangers but Wil Myers joined the deli crew in the top of the first, with the bases loaded and two out, clearing the left center field fence and staking the Pads to an immediate 4-0 lead.

The night after that, back in Petco Park, the Padres and the Rangers wrestled to a tenth inning ted at two. After the Rangers snuck an unearned run home in the top of the tenth, Machado checked in with the bases loaded on the free cookie at second to start their bottom of the tenth, a dubious-enough sacrifice bunt (sorry, I still say you don’t give outs to the other guys, especially with a man in scoring position gifted you), and back-to-back walks.

Machado re-opened the Slam Diego Deli by hitting a full-count meatball over the left center field fence. The night after that, Eric Hosmer checked in with one out, the Padres in the hole 2-1, and the pads padded on two base hits and a walk. Hosmer nailed Rangers starter Kyle Gibson with a drive down the right field line and into the seats. The Padres needed every morsel of that salami even more this time; they had to build and then hold on for the 8-7 win.

When they beat the Astros 4-3 Friday night, there may have been some wags thinking the Padres were on the threshold of disaster. The deli stayed closed. The Padres didn’t even load the bases once against five Astros pitchers. Don’t tell us the magic was gone before we really had a fair shot at it sinking in at maximum depth.

Thank God for Cronenworth. Be so [fornicating] glad the Poundres have Cronenworth. In the bottom of a second inning that began with a 2-1 lead and already added five runs on a leadoff bomb (Myers), a three-run homer (Grisham), and an RBI single (Ty France), Cronenworth tore into a Castellanos fastball on 3-1 and tore it over the right field fence.

“It’s somebody different every single night stepping up,” Cronenworth said after the Saturday night massacre. “Grish has three home runs tonight, Manny hit a home run tonight, Wil [Myers] hit a home run tonight, [starting pitcher] Zach Davies had an incredible outing. It started with him shutting their offense down and getting us back in the dugout as quick as possible.”

Don’t ask about his turn behind the San Diego Deli counter, though. The bad news is that the kid has the boilerplate mastered: “Put a good swing on a good pitch. Just keep my approach up the middle. Just happened to put a good swing on it.” Thank you, Friar Obvious.

Institutionally, the Padres have a few reasons to thank the Astros. It was the Astros who got them into San Diego in the first place, after that lovely city by the harbour and the Pacific hosted the Pacific Coast League Padres for generations. (Including a local kid named Ted Williams playing his minor league ball there, in the era when the PCL was the a major league in everything but name.)

The National League’s second expansion intended for Montreal and Dallas to have new teams. The Astros’s founding owner, Judge Roy Hofheinz, banged a gavel and said, “Not so fast, buster.” Hofheinz would rather have blown the Astrodome to smithereens than sanctioned a rival team playing a hop, skip, and bronco-busting bull’s jump up the road from (as then-Yankee first baseman Joe Pepitone called it) the world’s biggest hair dryer.

So the National League’s lords relented and, with no little help from Los Angeles Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley—who needed a place to dump his general manager Buzzie Bavasi, when O’Malley son and heir Peter was ready to graduate to the Dodgers’ front office—what was meant for Dallas ended up by the southern California seas.

Once upon a time, another Padres owner, Ray Kroc (McDonald’s mastermind and magnate), took to his own public address system to commiserate with fans over “the stupidest baseball playing I’ve ever seen.” Who the hell needs a Big Mac when you’re running the National League’s least-expected delicatessen lately?

The Queen City rides a Wild Horse

2018-12-22 YasielPuig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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