You gotta have heart plus

Don Larsen

Nothing before or after indicated Don Larsen (here delivering with second baseman Billy Martin in the background, waiting) had even a no-hitter in him, never mind the only perfect game in World Series history.

Finding foolish social media threads is as difficult as finding foolish pronouncements from the political (lack of) class. You don’t even have to hunt them for them to find you. The Twitterpater who launched one Tuesday involving Don Larsen’s 1956 World Series perfect game is a perfect example.

“Imagine,” he begins, “telling Don Larsen he’s done after 6 innings because the analytics department won’t allow him to face the top of the order for a third time.” Imagine, too, telling such a gentleman that, on that fine afternoon in Yankee Stadium, Larsen was as outlier as an outlier can become.

In the World Series era (1903-present), Larsen’s is the only one of 21 perfect games to have been pitched in a World Series, of course. He could have disappeared entirely into oblivion from there, or he could have done what he actually did posting a journeyman pitcher’s fourteen-season career, and nobody can ever take that from him.

“The unperfect man pitched a perfect game,” led Joe Trimble of the New York Daily News. “The million-to-one shot came in,” led Shirley Povich of the Washington Post. They would not have led thus if someone such as Christy Mathewson, Lefty Grove, Bob Feller, or Warren Spahn had done first what Larsen did first. Those were Hall of Fame pitchers you might have expected reasonably to do it.

Larsen himself knew it. Until the day he died at 90 over two and a half years ago, those who found Larsen’s telephone number and rang it hoping to talk a little baseball would be greeted, almost invariably, with, “You want to talk about my year with the Orioles, right?”

Nothing in Larsen’s performances before and after Game Five of the ’56 World Series indicated he might have such a jewel in him. One thread respondent replied with evidence that batters facing Larsen usually hit above .250 facing him the third time around in a game. Oops.

The thread launcher snarked back, “Larsen’s perfect game—the most iconic pitching performance in postseason history—couldn’t have happened today. The game has a heartbeat, and [Yankee manager Casey] Stengel knew it. Today’s clinical, data-as-gospel approach totally discounts that.”

Where to begin? With the counterpoint that the approach itself discounts nothing of the sort but the manner in which it’s deployed might? With the point that Stengel himself was as much about advance knowledge and matchups as he was anything else as a manager,  ages before anyone put a name to that knowledge?

“Baseball is percentage, plus execution,” Stengel loved to say to anyone who would listen.  In that order. He knew in his mind as well as his gut that without the one, the other goes in with an arm missing. (Even as late as 1963, managing the hapless embryonic Mets, Stengel lectured reporters about on-base percentage, decades before it became a sabermetrics/analytics linch pin.)

Should we then begin with the point that all the heartbeat on earth won’t always ensure a result commensurate to it? With the point that if all you needed was heart this year’s Phillies might have pushed this year’s World Series to a seventh game they might have won with it or lost in spite of it? With the point that men of the stoutest heart can and do fail as often as they succeed, if not often enough more so?

Larsen’s World Series perfecto ended in a 2-0 Yankee win. The game’s key moment has long been recognised as Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle’s running catch of now-fellow Hall of Famer Gil Hodges’s sinking fly to deep left center. If you’re looking for prior indicators that Larsen had it in him, be reminded that he started Game Two but got hooked after an inning and a third despite surrendering a single hit.

Double oops: Handed an extremely early 6-0 lead to work with, Larsen also walked four batters in that inning-and-a-third, including two in the bottom of the second, before surrendering a sacrifice fly to Hall of Famer Roy Campanella. Small wonder Stengel hooked him that soon. He wasn’t going to risk Larsen walking the Dodgers right back into the game if he could help it.

The manager had no advance knowledge, of course, that the man he brought in after a foul pop out and a bases-reloading walk, sinkerball pitcher Johnny Kucks, would surrender a two-run single (Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese), right before his relief, Tommy Byrne, surrendered a three-run homer (Hall of Famer Duke Snider).

Larsen threw 97 pitches in the perfecto, averaging 10.7 pitches per inning. Stengel was known both for his pitching management and his willingness to go to his bullpen the moment trouble arose enough. In fact, the Ol’ Perfesser’s Game Five plan was to start Larsen . . . but have his eventual ’58 Series MVP Bob Turley ready to go at the earliest sign of serious trouble.

(In due course, Stengel would execute that plan precisely: Larsen started Game Seven of the ’58 Series, but ran into trouble with an early one-run lead, prompting Stengel to bring Turley in. Turley went the rest of the way as the Yankees won.)

Would anyone really believe that Stengel—hooking Larsen early in Game Two when his control went AWOL, now with a World Series tied at two games each—wouldn’t have hooked Larsen even sixty-plus pitches in, if the Dodgers really began hitting him hard enough during the middle innings, even if those balls were hit for hard or long outs?

(Mantle’s catch was one of two very narrow escapes Larsen had in the same inning. The next Dodger batter, Sandy Amoros, running-catch hero of Game Seven the year before, securing their only World Series win as Brooklyn Dodgers, drove one into the upper deck that missed being a home run by inches past the foul pole.)

Looking at pitching wins and perfect games over a year ago, I drew a table to show just how much the perfecto pitchers were responsible for the outcomes by themselves. (My handicap: full game logs available for only nineteen of the perfect games.) Let me now isolate Larsen’s World Series perfecto according to that table of strikeouts, ground outs, fly outs, the win factor (WF) assigned to the pitcher—based on strikeouts divided by the sum of ground and fly outs—and the pitcher’s fielding-independent pitching rate on that season:

Pitcher Score K GB FB WF FIP
Don Larsen (1956 WS Gm Five) 2-0 7 6 14 .350 4.27

Larsen’s win factor of .350 is tied for fourteenth place among perfect game pitchers, with Tom Browning (Reds, 1988). Larsen was the beneficiary of fourteen fly outs including Mantle’s staggering catch. Among the ground outs was a second-inning smash to third by Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson that caromed off third baseman Andy Carey’s glove—and, in a marvelous stroke of fortune, right to shortstop Gil McDougald, who threw Robinson out by about the width of a hair.

What of that 4.27 FIP in 1956? Larsen is sixth from the bottom among the perfecto pitchers for the seasons in which they achieved those perfectos. Only one perfect game pitcher ever had a sub-2.00 FIP in the season during which he did it. In his case, too, having pitched a no-hitter in each of his three previous seasons, it really was a case of practise makes perfect:

Pitcher Score K GB FB WF FIP
Sandy Koufax (1965) 1-0 14 3 10 1.077 1.93

One of the thread respondents made note of Larsen’s lifetime performance against batters facing him the first, second, and third times in his starts: .228 the first time, .253 the second time, .278 the third time. A second made note of the OPS against Larsen in the same scenarios: .647 the first time, .711 the second, .788 the third. From there, I elected to look at how batters fared against Larsen in low, medium, and high-leverage situations:

Batters vs. Larsen, Career BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
Low Leverage .239 .317 .360 .677 94
Medium Leverage .252 .336 .381 .716 105
High Leverage .255 .354 .363 .717 106

The higher the leverage, the better batters generally did against Larsen, even if the distinction between his medium- and high-leverage pitching was as slim as you see. His strikeout-to-walk ratio also worsened the more batters saw him during a game over his career: 1.27 the first time around the order; 1.05 the second time; 0.79 the third time. Lifetime, too, Larsen struck out about five batters per nine innings’ work but walked 4.2 per nine.

All the heart in him couldn’t make Don Larsen a great pitcher. (Did all the heart on earth keep the Dodgers from succumbing?) It took nine Yankee hearts including his (Stengel didn’t pinch hit for anyone during the game) to do what he did in Game Five, 1956.

He had an equal zest for living; in fact, he was known as a champion drinker who reported hung over to Yankee Stadium on the fateful day. Not until he remarried happily in 1960 did he abandon the wild-enough ways that once prompted teammates to nickname him Gooney Bird.

Larsen was a power pitcher with inconsistent control who was just good enough to pitch fourteen major league seasons including on five pennant winners and two world champion teams. He never again achieved anything within a light year or five of what he did that 1956 afternoon. He never pretended otherwise. He had no less heart lacking success than having success.

He also lived longer from that day forward than any other player, coach, or manager involved in his immortal afternoon. (He was also the last living St. Louis Brown before his death.) “The last one to go was Yogi in 2015,” he told a reporter in 2018. “It’s lonesome when you get to the top.”

Larsen more than anyone else knew that what he did in the ’56 Series made him and keeps him the all-time World Series outlier, whose record in depth before and after indicated no such performance—with or without his teammates’ aid and comfort—was even imaginable, never mind possible.

The unperfect man who threw the World Series’ only perfect game ever also did his eventual grandchildren a phenomenal favour. In 2012, Larsen auctioned his Yankee uniform from the game to pay for their college educations. Enough of social media might forget to remember that that’s stronger evidence of heart equaling result than any outing he ever had as a major league pitcher.

The Bronx is burning. Again.

Yankee Stadium

Nothing frustrated Yankee fans more than the pennant-winning Astros sweeping them out of the ALCS and celebrating in Yankee Stadium itself. Except maybe seventeen out of eighteen 21st century postseason push-outs and only one now fourteen-year-old World Series title.

Well. No wonder Yankee fans are somewhere between restless and roiled. Codify, a group whose specialty is “personalised game planning for greater pitching success” (their words, not mine), doesn’t restrict their observations to the mound alone. Two days ago, they noticed and shared something rather significant.

They noticed that, between 2010 and this year, the major league team that spends the most has gone to the World Series the least. That would be the team just flushed from the postseason by the ogres of the American League West in four straight American League Championship Series games.

Three out of six of, shall we say, the Show’s “thriftiest” teams (read: cheapest) have actually gone to the Series twice in that span. One was the team formerly known as the Indians, who fell to the Cubs (of all people) in seven in 2016. A second was the Rays, hosannaed perenially for the greatest ratio of competitiveness to roster payroll.

The third was the Royals, who went to the Series back to back and more or less had the second of them handed to them on a platter. (One more time: the Mets lost a 2015 Series that they could have won but for a defense that could have been tried by court martial for desertion.)

The Yankees, who spend almost habitually as though they’re the only baseball team authorised to operate their own mint presses, haven’t reached the World Series once in the same thirteen-year time frame. Only one other team within reach of their spending levels hasn’t, either, and that would be the fourth-highest spenders in Show over that span.

The Angels are a mess thanks to an owner who thought (erroneously) that baseball was marketing alone. (Said owner now plans to sell the team, which has Angel fans uncertain whether that’s a gift from the Elysian Fields gods or a reboot of My Mother, the Car in waiting.) The Yankees are a mess only in the terms by which their history and their fan base demands: if the Yankees aren’t in the Series, never mind winning it, the season is an abject failure and the Series is illegitimate.

Their 20th century success spoiled both the organisation and Yankee fans rotten. Their 21st century . . . well, you can’t really say a team that’s won ten AL East titles and gone to eighteen postseasons in 22 years is an abject failure. You can’t, I can’t, but Yankee fans can. And, do. Vociferously.

Across town, the Mets who haven’t enjoyed a quarter of the Yankees’ success have a fan base that gives cynicism a name rotten enough. The only thing needed to send too many Met fans into a spell of depression is a single bad inning in a game they might even win. In April.

They’re downright cheerful compared to the Yankee fan who thinks a single postseason game loss (never mind a postseason series loss) equals a mandate for summary executions. Preferably yesterday. (Remember: To err is human, to forgive is not necessarily Yankee fan’s policy.) Dodger fans are catching up to that rather rapidly.

Too many fan bases, what remains of them, would love to have those problems. Too many fan bases have been abused by tanking. Too many fan bases have been battered not by tanking but by brains gone to bed in the front offices of teams refusing to tank. A few make mythologies about of their teams’ signs of promise followed by surrealistic on-field calamties.

With or without blindfolding and spinning me, I could not find for you even one Yankee fan who would have believed, in his or her worst nightmares, that their historic rivals from New England would open a century with three more World Series rings than the Yankees have in the same century’s first 22 years.

That was then: The Red Sox opened the 20th century with four more Series rings than the Yankees in the century’s first 22 years, they now have their struggles and mishaps, but Red Sox Nation has graduated to a state of what you might call inverted bliss. They know the Red Sox will win again. They strain to avoid obnoxiousness when the Red Sox don’t.

This is now: 40 pennants, 27 World Series championships, and 58 postseason appearances can’t comfort the Yankee fan who believes to his or her soul that life was sweetness and light when it was only yesterday that the Yankees were never less than baseball’s practically annual masters of all they surveyed.

Yester-century’s Red Soxs fan believed extraterrestrial disaster was their birthright. This century’s Yankee fan believes postseason arrest is a miscarriage of justice—for which every other Yankee in uniform or in administration must pay with his life. The Yankees have had seventeen postseason arrests in eighteen tries since the turn of this century. There are teams who’d have loved to have half of eighteen tries over the entire 54-year history of divisional play.

A retired New Jersey school principal and blog editor of my acquaintance, who is also a Yankee fan of impeccable stubbornness, writes (in the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America’s Here’s the Pitch newsletter, to which I also have the honour of contributing) that Philadelphia’s man of the year (so far), Bryce Harper, is the one the Yankees let get away—having failed to even think of making him an offer when he hit the free agency market for what he swore would be the only time in his life.

You might think that a professional educator would know without being reminded that the one who got away gets away only if you bait the hook and cast it in the first place. In Harper’s first Philadelphia season the Yankees had an AL East winner that swept the Twins in the division series but fell in six ALCS games to (sound familiar?) the Astros.

Those Phillies had only begun to hit their reset button. They play for a fan base that’s inspired people to imagine a Philadelphia wedding ceremony concluding with the clergyman instructing the gathering, “You may now boo the bride.” Show me a New York wedding featuring a hapless bridegroom who misses when stomping the napkin-wrapped goblet for good fortune, and I’ll show you a Yankee fan among the gathering demanding an immediate marital annulment.

It wasn’t a lack of Harper that took the Yankees out, then or now; it was lack of figuring out how to figure out the Astros’ solid starting pitchers and redoubtable relief corps. A lack of Harper didn’t send the Yankees home in an ALCS sweep this time; an inability to compel the Astros changing their diet from near-constant breaking balls on which they couldn’t even feed intravenously to just enough fastballs on which to gorge, did.

Aside from which, the Yankees had a Harper of their own in-house already, then and now. This time, they broke Aaron Judge under the weight of compelling him to carry them in the second half, while he made history as they went from ruthless conquerors to skin-of-their-teeth division-title survivors.

They had little enough to pick it up when Judge was finally unable to carry that weight any longer. Now, they risk losing him to another team willing to break their bank to sign him as a free agent, after he bet the house, the yacht, and half of the Bronx on his future at the season’s opening tables and ended up throwing 62 passes for openers.

Not even the most unapologetic but objective Yankee hater wishes real ill to fall upon them. Without Goliaths, baseball’s Davids have no targets. (It’s difficult to conceive the Yankees as David. This ALCS was Goliath vs. Goliath. The Phillies will be the World Series’s Davids.) Baseball’s health depends upon its Davids making honest efforts to win, top down. But too many baseball Davids surrender before the season’s first shots are slung.

Enough are baseball’s Goliaths who meet their Davids deep and often enough in the postseason. Their fans become frustrated, understandably. Fan noise sometimes makes it difficult to determine which is worse. Is it teams that invest unapologetically only to come up too short, too often? Is it teams that could invest but elect premedidated failure, on behalf of building for futures that depend on wiser minds than their incumbents?

You get the latters’ fans more than you get the formers’. And among the formers’ fans, none seem half as disgusted as Yankee fans. Or—to fans of the Davids, whether those Davids become so honestly or by premeditated, decadent design—half as disgusting.

AL dragons vs. NL dragonslayers

Houston Astros

The Astros celebrate winning the AL pennant Sunday night in New York. The AL’s dragons get to tangle with some NL dragonslayers from Philadelphia in the World Series.

Maybe the Astros would have found ways to beat the Yankees yet again regardless. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered if Aaron Judge could have tied Game Four of the American League Championship Series with one intercontinental ballistic launch and sent it to extra innings.

The Astros won their third American League pennant at the Yankees’ expense Sunday night in Yankee Stadium. They did it in 2017, 2019, and now this year. But if Game Four proves to be free agent-in-waiting Judge’s final game as a Yankee, it couldn’t have ended more ignominously for him and for them.

The engaging, still-young man who pushed Roger Maris aside as the AL’s single-season home run champion, already 1-for-14 in the ALCS when he checked in against Astros reliever Ryan Pressly with two out in the bottom of the ninth, swung on a slider somewhat outside on 1-2.

The guy who can hit a ball of yarn past the Van Allen Belt grounded it right back to Pressly, who speared it one-handed coming off the mound toward first base. Pressly trotted a few steps further before underhanding it to Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel for game, set, sweep, and the Yankees heading home for the winter.

It continued the second-longest Yankee pennant drought since 1979-1994. It made the Leaning Tower of 161st Street resemble the giant who’d carried an entire town on his shoulders from one end of the hemisphere to the other only to collapse under its weight at long enough last.

“I could sit here and make excuses about if a ball falls this way, a ball drops that way or a pitch is made here and there,” Judge lamented after Game Four ended. “But what it comes down to is they just played better than us.”

The Yankees spoiled themselves leaning on Judge as their in-house extraterrestrial. The Astros, say what you still will about them, didn’t make that mistake. They didn’t lean too heavily upon any single big man, either winning the second-most games in the regular season or sweeping their way to the coming World Series.

Leaning that heavily upon one big man merely held the Yankees’ other issues aloft too high. Their bullpen was injured and inconsistent. They lost key secondary elements such as D.J. LeMahieu and Andrew Benintendi to injuries. Anthony Rizzo and Giancarlo Stanton weren’t consistent second bananas to the Judge Show. If Harrison Bader proved a pleasant surprise at the October plate, it wasn’t enough to overcome Judge and Stanton combining to go 6-for-32 the entire postseason.

Oh, the Astros had some heroics of their own, of course. Yordan Alvarez looked like Paul Bunyan earlier in the postseason, enough so that enough thought he alone might be the one to blast the Astros forward. But he was awful quiet in the ALCS. There lay the Astros’ real secret weapon this time, though: if one guy falters, there are others too happy to pick up the slack.

Rookie Jeremy Peña said, “Sure, no problem-o.” A kid whose regular-season on-base percentage fell well enough short of just .300 tied Game Four in the top of the third, with two on aboard back-to-back inning-opening walks, when an ailing Yankee starting pitcher Nestor Cortes hung a cutter and Peña hung it down the left field line and over the fence fair past the foul pole.

“It’s surreal,” said Peña postgame, after he was named the ALCS’s Most Valuable Player. “You dream about this stuff when you’re a kid.” Nobody among his teammates cared two pins that he was a rookie stealing the thunder.

“If you’re in this clubhouse, you’re one of us,” said Lance McCullers, Jr., the Astros’ Game Four starting pitcher. “You don’t need to earn your stripes with us. You don’t need service time. If you’re in this clubhouse and you’re wearing this uniform, you’re one of us. It doesn’t matter if you’re here for a day or you’re here for seventeen years.”

“It’s been a blessing to play with this group,” said third baseman Alex Bregman, who’d sent Peña home with what proved the insurance run in the seventh, after yet another fielding mishap that came to define the Yankees’ postseason collapse the way their deflation from 15.5 games atop the AL East to a 10-18 August defined their regular-season descent from surreal to mere division champion.

Alvarez may not have provided strategic bombing in this ALCS, but after Yankee second baseman Gleyber Torres flipped what should have been a seventh inning-ending double play-starting toss past shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa, he re-tied the game at five each by swatting Peña home with an RBI single off Yankee reliever Jonathan Loaisaga.

Just like that, the Yankees handed the Astros the means to end the lead Bader handed his team in the bottom of the sixth, when the former Cardinal caught hold of Hector Neris’s first two-out pitch to him and sent it into the left field seats.

When Gurriel clutched Pressly’s underhand toss for the final series out, it handed baseball its first day with both pennants clinched since 1992. It handed the Astros yet another chance to give manager Dusty Baker yet another chance at the one thing that’s eluded him in his long and mostly distinguished managing career—a lease to the Promised Land.

Baker took on the Astros after Astrogate cost them A.J. Hinch, whose failure to put the brakes on the Astro Intelligence Agency’s illegal, off-field-based, electronic sign-stealing operation could have broken both the game and the organisation in half when it was exposed after the Astros fell to the Nationals in the 2019 World Series.

He might be the sentimental favourite come Series time—individually. The Astros will be up against a Phillies team that electrified their city and maybe most of the country with their own pennant conquest at home Sunday afternoon. Baker may be America’s manager but the Phillies may be America’s team this time. And Bryce Harper just may be America’s man within America’s team, if that’s the case.

No Astro delivered quite the transcendent blow Sunday that Harper did in the bottom of the eighth. Judge’s record-breaking 62nd home run merely broke a hallowed AL and Yankee team record and guaranteed his coming free agency riches. Harper’s deficit-overthrowing two-run homer held up to mean the pennant, in a rainy game that looked as though the Phillies and the Padres did more mud wrestling than ball playing.

The pitchers couldn’t grip properly or resist their landing feet sliding more than single inches on the muddy mound. The hitters changed batting gloves as often as they could. Batting helmets shone with rain water on top. New York wasn’t exactly paradise but Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park was practically a swamp. And no fan dared leave until it was done.

Harper stunned the Padres first by taking a tumbling Robert Suarez changeup on which he might have swung otherwise, once upon a time. He anticipated Suarez bringing a fastball soon enough, hoping only to find an outfield gap into which to send one, enough to bring J.T. Realmuto home from first with a tying run.

He got and did better than he hoped. He got a cutter hovering over the outer half of the plate and swung. The ball traveled about three or four rows the other way into the left field seats. The city that once hosted a record label proudly calling its brand of soul music The Sound of Philadelphia now had a new sound: bedlam.

The Biblical admonition goes that the last shall be first. The Phillies entered the postseason aboard the new three wild card system with the weakest regular season record of any postseason entrant and the eleventh-best record in the Show.

They’d survived an early season hump prompting their front office to throw out the first manager of the year. They’d survived injuries, including the two-month loss of Harper who needed the rest of the regular season to get his groove back. Both the Phillies and the Padres hit a partial re-set button at mid-season and burrowed their ways to their wild cards.

The Padres slew the NL dragons out of New York and Los Angeles. The Phillies slew those out of St. Louis and Atlanta. Then the Phillies won the pennant by taking four of five from the Padres. They ground, pushed, thumped, slashed, and thundered their way to the Series.

They reminded you that, when the dragonslayers meet each other, one of them gets fried.

They’re going to go up against an Astro team that still isn’t America’s favourite team thanks to the continuing taint of Astrogate. Never mind that only three position players from those 2017-18 cheaters remain with the team. Never mind mind that one (Jose Altuve) actually rejected being part of it. I say again, sadly: the taint won’t dissipate until the last member of the Astrogate teams no longer wears their uniform.

The Phillies haven’t won a World Series ring since the final months of the second George W. Bush administration. The Astros still hunt their first un-stained World Series rings. If the Astros think the Phillies can be taken as readily as the Yankees, the Astros may be in for a Series that’ll only feel as long as the Yankee winter now begun.

It’s phun unless you’re a Padres fan

Philadelphia Phillies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dangerous curves

Anthony Rizzo

Anthony Rizzo’s Game One home run is the only Yankee run to come home off a fastball so far this ALCS. The Astros are breaking them—a diet of breaking balls they can’t seem to hit, that is.

I don’t have a dog in the American League Championship Series hunt. I tend to admire individual Yankees and Astros and not to root for either team. As a personal preference, and in spite of Commissioner Rube Goldberg’s less-than-the-very-best-people postseason construction, the National League Championship Series tangling between the Phillies and the Padres is just a little more fun.

Not just yes but hell yes: I enjoyed seeing Aaron Judge smashing a 62-year-old American League single-season home run record. I enjoy every time I watched mighty mite Jose Altuve at the plate, especially knowing Altuve really was one of the few Astros who actually didn’t want any Astro Intelligence Agency-pilfered signs banged his way when he was at the plate.

And it’s still a kick seeing Justin Verlander defy his age (he’s Jack Benny’s age at this writing), pitching into the Cy Young Award conversation this season, then opening this ALCS by turning the far younger Yankees into his personal lab experiments in Game One. That, folks, is what a Hall of Famer does when he’s staring into Yankee eyes from the mound.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking merely that the Astros hit better than the Yankees to take their 2-0 ALCS advantage. The Astros can hit. They’ve been able to hit like F-15s or Stealth bombers since the first time they dispatched the Yankees from a postseason five years ago. Even the best pitchers in the business know they’re in for a fight when someone in Astro silks checks in at the plate

(Want to know one reason why Astrogate and the team’s largely, apologetically non-apologetic replies pissed people outside Houston off? Because we knew good and damn well they didn’t need an illegally installed closed-circuit television network and a front-office-down intelligence agency’s black-bag job stealing signs to do it. Those teams and this Astro team could turn seaweed into base hits and clumps of weeds into interstellar orbiting satellites.)

But here’s a bulletin for you. These Astros are also pitching the Yankees to death. That formidable Yankee offense has been manna to an Astro pitching staff whose mantra seems to be not just throw your best stuff as often as you can throw it but, also, those guys are vulnerable to curves, whether they’re on beautiful women or on the pitches coming out of your hands.

Several analyses I’ve seen indicate that this year’s Yankees will turn fastballs into powder but breaking balls will turn them to jelly by comparison. They hit .252/.357/.482 when seeing fastballs coming up to the plate but .221/.282/.401 when seeing breakers, whether curve balls, sliders, cutters, or changeups.

Don’t be shocked if there’s a sign in the Yankee Stadium home clubhouse before Game Three, a yellow diamond sign advising, “Dangerous curves ahead.”

Verlander threw breakers over half the time in Game One. Framber Valdez barely showed them any heat in Game Two; his repertoire for the evening consisted almost entirely of either “Dead Man’s Curve” or “Slip Slidin’ Away.” His relief (Brayan Abreu, Ryan Pressly) threw a combined 41 pitches and 36 were breaking balls. (Pressly threw 21 breakers including changeups out of 22 pitches closing the game out.)

The Yankees scored twice in each game. You’d think they’d catch the hints. Both RBI hits in Game Two (both in the fourth inning, too) came when the batters (Anthony Rizzo, run-scoring ground out; Gleyber Torres, beating out an infield grounder for a base hit) put breaking balls into play. In Game One, one of the two Yankee runs came likewise: Harrison Bader hitting a slider over the left center field fence in the top of the second.

Rizzo caught hold of a rising full-count fastball in the top of the eighth and pulled it into the right field seats. That’s only one of the four Yankee runs in the ALCS so far coming when the batter got himself a fastball to hit, and only one of the three Yankee plate appearances resulting in a run coming home involved contact with a breaking ball—and two of those came on contact soft enough.

Unless they want to see nothing but a diet of breakers—and unless that generous menu portion of breaking balls starts taking tolls on even well-seasoned Astro arms—the Yankees’ survival in this ALCS just may depend long term on whether they quit offering at every one thrown their way, force the Astros to show them the heat that matters most to them, or figure how to make contact with the breakers that can begin by getting more balls past the infield.

If they don’t, all these Astros have to do to keep these Yankees from doing damage is to send Jayne Mansfield’s corpse into their sights.