The power of positive Padre-ing

It didn’t need a meal and a stewardess a la Willson Contreras, but Fernando Tatis, Jr.’s Thursday bat flip was second only to hitting two bombs in two innings helping the Padres steal the Thursday Show.

Clayton Kershaw channeling his future Hall of Famer self to pitch eight innings, strike thirteen out, walk one, scatter three hits, and refuse to let a single Milwaukee Brewer even think about coming home? Fun, and who cares?

The Oakland Athletics having a ball on the Chicago White Sox bullpen’s dollars and walking as much as swatting their way to a division series for the first time in fourteen years? More fun, and who cares again?

Marcell Ozuna joyously pantomiming a selfie up the first base line after he launched a mammoth two-run homer against Atlanta reliever Raisel Iglesias, driving the Fun Police and the boring old farts out of their skulls while helping the Braves to their first postseason series win since the immediate wake of 9/11? Marvelous. And who cares yet again?

The Slam Diego Padres thinking they were twelve outs from winter vacation one moment and deciding that being swept out of a wild card series by the St. Louis Cardinals was not a viable option? Now you’re talking.

Yes, it’s possible that the Padres and the Cardinals fighting baseball’s equivalent of the Battle of the Bulge right down to the final out, with Fernando Tatis, Jr. playing George Patton, just to force a third wild card game, was the most must-see baseball on a Thursday that was overloaded with must-see.

If we weren’t going to get a continuing opportunity for the 29-31 Brewers to push onward and possibly (underline that, gang) meet the 29-31 Houston Astros in the World Series, and thus make a first class chump out of Commissioner Nero and his hopes that this sixteen-team-opening postseason becomes a permanent blight on the concept of championship, the least we could get was some plain fun ball.

The Padres made sure it was the very least and absolute most when they out-wrestled, out-bopped, out-slapped, and out-lasted the Cardinals, 11-9, in Petco Park, the lair where the big bats normally went to die at the mercy of the infamous Dreaded Marine Layer. The one that floated into San Diego and turned booming home runs into bloated, crashing fly outs. Or, once in awhile, turned those bombs into measly dropping base hits at best.

These Padres couldn’t care less about that marine layer. They’ll just drive their long balls right through it and part it the way God parted the Red Sea. And they won’t even let it bother them that they can finish five innings, sit in the hole 4-2 against the Cardinals, and sit concurrently twelve outs from being swept into early winter vacation.

The Cardinals tack up two more in the top of the sixth? Tatis will just have to hit a three-run homer followed by Manny Machado hitting a solo bomb in the bottom to tie it. Then the Padres will keep the Cardinals from scoring in the top of the seventh, Wil Myers will hit one over the left field fence to open the bottom of the seventh, and—two outs after a walk to Austin Nola—Tatis will send one over the right field fence for a 9-6 lead.

“I feel like we needed that big swing for the entire team to get us going,” said Tatis—who hit four homers only three other extra-base hits from 2-27 September—about that first bomb. “We were missing a lot with runners in scoring position. I feel like whoever did it first, we were going to feed off that. Thank God I did it first, but I’m just happy the team clicked and we won the game.”

Padres reliever Drew Pomeranz has to plunk Matt Carpenter to open the St. Louis eighth and Tatis himself has to throw offline on the next play to set up second and third for Harrison Bader and Kolten Wong to hit back-to-back sacrifice flies and close the Cardinal deficit back to a single run? No problemo. Jurickson Profar will be more than happy to bop a two-out single in the bottom of the eighth and Myers will be even more than that to hit one over the center field fence.

Then Paul Goldschmidt leading off the top of the ninth hit an 0-1 bomb against an old Cardinals buddy, reliever Trevor Rosenthal, once a lights-out closer, but addled since by injuries and picked up by the Padres from the New York Mets’ scrapyard. For several brief, none-too-shining moments, it looked as though walking Carlson and letting Yadier Molina single Carlson to second meant Rosenthal was going to let the Cardinals re-tie at least and make the bottom of the ninth either a Padres last stand or a Padres plotz.

No chance. Pop out to second, swinging strikeout, and ground out to first. And pandemonium wherever Padres fans were watching since the pandemic-mandared empty ballparks came into force. Even the broadcasters working remotely from ESPN’s Connecticut headquarters let their enthusiasm for a game like that spill into the next work stations where another team was still covering and calling Kershaw and company.

“We’re in the playoffs. The game was not done, the job was not done until we get those 27 outs, we cannot back down, we cannot settle,” Tatis went on to say about his second homer. “There was a lot of game left. I was wanting to keep motivating my teammates, just to let them know, to keep on. They are a team that they’re going to answer back, so we’ve got to keep doing the work.”

How could the Dodgers and the Brewers possibly top the Friars roast? These Padres just did in one three-inning stretch what they’d never done in any postseason series—hit five over the fences. They never came back from four or more runs behind in any previous postseason—but they came back from 4-0 Thursday.

Tatis and Myers also became the first teammates to swing for the Delta Quadrant twice in a single postseason game since—wait for it!—Hall of Famers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in Game Three of the 1932 World Series. The one in which Ruth is still alleged to have called his shot. Neither Tatis nor Myers thought of calling theirs, but don’t bother us now, brothers and sisters.

For that matter, the last time the Cardinals blew a four-run lead in a postseason game was Game Four of the 1982 World Series, a series they won. Not to mention that in the past eight years the Cardinals won 139 times straight in games where they scored nine or more runs. Until Thursday.

“We played a great lineup, a great team,” said Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, who lasted three and two thirds and two runs worth Thursday, “and they came at us over and over and over again and we never backed down. We answered back almost every time. Every time we put them in a hole they came right back.”

The Friars’ work is never done yet. They still have to push, shove, and rumble past Jack Flaherty Friday. Flaherty started the irregular season brilliantly enough, then faltered mostly due to one horrific nine-run battering inflicted by the Brewers in mid-September. But he’s still Jack Flaherty. And he’s no pushover. Yet.

But that won’t diminish what the Padres did Thursday and all season long. Lots of teams made baseball fun again this year. These Padres made those guys resemble funeral home staffs. Even when you beat them, which happened 23 times against 37 times they beat the other guys, they wouldn’t let you go without feeling like the whole game was a party.

Oh, yes. Before I forget. When Tatis launched his second bomb, he delivered a lovely bat flip two steps out of the batter’s box. It wasn’t even close to requiring a meal and a stewardess on board, as Willson Contreras’s flip a week ago, but it spun like a Lockheed Constellation engine’s propeller warming up nonetheless.

The joyous leaping forearm bumps among Tatis and Myers and their mates after they crossed the plate were just as rich and just as much fun. Take that, Bambino, wherever you are!

Dear Joe and Jane Cyberjerk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t think so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dancing Nats skip to a division series

2019-10-01 TrentGrisham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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