The boundless world of Rays imagination

A TBS screen capture (including strike zone) as Michael Brosseau demolished Aroldis Chapman’s tenth-pitch fastball Friday night.

“The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless,” wrote the French philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Baseball is so often like that. His near-namesake Tampa Bay Rays utility man re-proved that Friday night.

You’ve heard of the Year of the Pitcher, right? Until Michael Brosseau squared off against recent near-executioner Aroldis Chapman in the bottom of the eighth, Friday was the Night of the Pitchers.

Neither the Yankees nor the Rays wanted to hear any nonsense about re-juiced postseason baseballs. They made Game Five of their American League division series into an arms race. With only three rude interruptions and Brousseau delivering the one that mattered most.

Brosseau. The guy Chapman nearly beheaded with a 101 mph fastball late in the regular season. The guy facing now facing Chapman after entering the game as a sixth-inning pinch hitter. The guy Thomas Boswell says was “undrafted, bypassed 1,216 times–is a ‘utility man’ who played every position except SS & C this year (including pitcher).”

The guy who wrestled Chapman to a ten-pitch plate appearance, after beginning with an 0-2 count, and hit that tenth pitch over the left field fence. Meaning, ultimately, game, set, and a Rays date with the Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series to come.

“I was just trying to get a runner on and get the next guy up,” Brosseau said after the game. “We knew the hits were coming not very often tonight . . . Obviously, going up there, trying to find a barrel, thankfully it happened.”

Brosseau may not have to buy his own steak in Tampa Bay for a very long time to come.

These Rays and these Yankees threw the kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room sinks at each other from the mound and got through seven and a half innings tied at one, with both runs on home runs and twenty strikeouts between them. And the Rays managed practically to sneak a 2-1 win.

That’s the number 28 payroll in all the Show taking down the number one payroll, if you’re scoring at home. (The Yankees actually hadn’t been the number-one payroll since 2011.) The barely no-name Rays, full of excrutiatingly average major league baseball players, taking down the Empire Emeritus and its usual pack of high-priced, high-profile spreaders.

The Rays, who survived Gerrit Cole’s first short-rest outing in his major league life, who got no-hit by Cole until Austin Meadows found the screws on a 1-1 fastball and sent it over the right field corner fence in the bottom of the fifth.

The Rays, whose first reliever on the night, Nick Andersen, didn’t let Aaron Judge’s fourth-inning leadoff launch to about the same region over the same fence knock him into praying to find the nearest available mouse hole into which to crawl in anguish. He shook it off and worked two full innings’ shutout relief from there. Nothing to it, folks.

The Rays, who withstood everything Zack Britton threw at them, pried one base hit and reached on one abnormal error by Yankee third baseman Gio Urshela but cashed neither of them in, until Brosseau won that showdown with Chapman.

“I knew it felt good,” Brosseau said about the immediate contact with that triple-digit-speed fastball. “I haven’t had much playing time [in Petco Park], so it’s kind of hard to read the dimensions, to see from daytime to nighttime, but it felt good off the bat.”

Just don’t ask him about payback. Everyone else noted poetic justice and karma turning superbitch. Not Brosseau. “No revenge,” he said. “We put that in the past. We came here to try and win a series. We came here to move on, do what we do best, and that’s play our game.”

Re-juiced postseason baseballs took about more than a third of postseason talk with all the home runs interfering in bunches with airline flight patterns until Friday night. The Yankees and the Rays must have drained them before getting started. Three hits all night long, and all three were home runs that almost barely cleared the top of the fences.

On normal rest Cole has a 2.74 earned run average. On five or more days rest, it’s 3.73. On short rest, it could have gone either way Friday night. Especially with the Rays having won the ten straight previous games in which Tyler Glasnow was their starting pitcher, or opener if you prefer. Not to mention the Rays’ key bullpenners entering the game rested slightly better than the key Yankee bulls.

It didn’t start brilliantly for Cole. He walked Brandon Lowe after striking Meadows out impressively, then drilled Randy Arozarena on the first pitch—days after Arozarena took Cole over the fence—which he didn’t likely mean to do, but good luck convincing the Rays, who’ve been waging bad-blood war against the Yankees all year as it is.

The punchout of Meadows made Cole the fastest pitcher to reach a hundred postseason strikeouts, in 79 innings. He nudged the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw to one side with it. But he walked the bases loaded around a ground out before catching Joey Wendle looking at strike three for the side.

Cole struck out the side swinging in the second, with fastballs hitting just a hair’s breadth short of 100 mph and a generous helping of late movement, and off-speed breakers maybe two hairs’ breadth short of 90 but diving like paratroopers. And then, he struck out two out of three in a 1-2-3 third.

Why, he even made early mincemeat of a hitter who usually does likewise to him. He got rid of Ji-Man Choi twice on ground outs, after the husky Rays first baseman came into the game hitting .526 off Cole including four home runs.

Himself starting on two days’ rest, Glasnow could have ended up with two on and no outs to open the game if Choi hadn’t made a pair of acrobatic plays to turn a pair of bad throws into tight outs. Glasnow himself threw D.J. LeMahieu’s leadoff grounder back to the box offline, and shortstop Willy Adames did likewise with Judge’s followup hopper, before Aaron Hicks lined out to deep center for the side.

Pete Fairbanks and Diego Castillo finished what Glasnow and Andersen started. Castillo finished in reasonable style, striking Giancarlo Stanton and Luke Voit out before Urshela’s nasty liner up the third base line got snapped by third baseman Wendle as if having to catch a baby shot out of a cannon to save the little one’s dear life.

This wasn’t exactly the way the Yankees wanted to honour the memory of their Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford, who died Thursday night at home while watching the Yankees and the Rays tangle in Game Four. (Both teams honoured a moment of silence in Ford’s memory before the game began.)

It was almost a year since Chapman surrendered Jose Altuve’s ALCS-winning two-run homer. When not burning up social media calling for manager Aaron Boone’s head post-game, Yankee fans wasted little time calling for Chapman’s. Determining whom to rage against more was tough enough.

What wasn’t tough was to remind yourself that to err is human but to forgive is not fan policy. The good news is that, even with social-distancing considerations, no groups of Yankee fans have opened street parties at which they can run over Boone, Chapman, or other shortfalling Yankees’ jerseys. Yet.

The Yankees probably wish Ford and his Hall of Fame battery mate Yogi Berra had brewed a little mad chemistry from their Elysian Fields positions Friday night. The Rays only hope that, whatever mad science of their own got them through the Empire Emeritus will be enough for them to turn the Astros aside in the coming week.

“They’ve been the team to beat the last few years,” said Brosseau of the team the Rays got thatclose to knocking out in another tight full-five division series last year. “They knocked us out last year so it will be fun to face them again.”

Don’t bet against these Rays just yet. If they could get rid of the Yankees and their bomb squad, they won’t exactly let the thought of the Astros’ suddenly revived long distance callers shake their gill slits.

Whitey Ford, RIP: The Chairman takes his leave

“A couple of New York kids who made good,” Sandy Koufax’s biographer said of Koufax (Brooklyn-born) and Whitey Ford (Manhattan-born, Queens-raised), here sharing a handshake before Game One of the 1963 World Series.

When Jane Leavy researched and interviewed for her splendid biography of Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, she discovered something about then-U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky. Pinsky had an animus against Koufax’s fellow Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford.

Ford, who died Thursday at 91, was Leavy’s girlhood hero. Pinsky’s poem “Night Game” addresses Ford and Koufax, who met twice in the 1963 World Series with Koufax beating Ford twice. But over a decade earlier, Pinsky as a boy waited at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey to get Ford’s autograph.

Ford then was an emerging Yankee hero, a second place 1950 American League Rookie of the Year finisher who’d rolled a 2.51 ERA after his June call-up and beat Hall of Famer Robin Roberts to finish the Yankees’ World Series sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies’ “Whiz Kids” pennant winner.

Now, Ford pitched for the Army Signal Corps to fulfill his military obligation of the time. When Pinsky finally got to face Ford and asked for the autograph, Ford replied, “Not now, kid.”

When Pinsky told the story to Leavy while talking about “Night Game,” she called Koufax the morning after. After a couple of moments’ silence on the other end of the line, she noted, Koufax asked her, “Do you think he’d like a ball?” Two weeks later, Pinsky received the ball, autographed by Koufax and accompanied by a small, handwritten note saying, only, “Whitey’s really a good guy.”

“Ford subsequently redeemed himself in Pinsky’s estimation,” Leavy wrote, “with a plaintive, if belated, explanation for his youthful rudeness: ‘Soldiers don’t give autographs.’ (And in mine by asking for a copy of Pinsky’s poem. ‘He wrote nice about Sandy?’ Whitey said. ‘I’d like to see that.’)”

This was the same Whitey Ford who had a classic reaction when Koufax, winner of a spanking new Corvette as the 1963 World Series’s Most Valuable Player, left the awards banquet to discover the car parked on the sidewalk . . .with a $15 parking ticket attached to the windshield. “Sandy has only two flaws,” Ford cracked. “He can’t hit, and he can’t park.”

That from the pitcher who once cost the Yankees a run in a World Series game when he tagged and left third base too soon on what should have been a sacrifice fly by his Hall of Fame battery mate Yogi Berra.

The Los Angeles Times‘s Hall of Fame sportswriter Jim Murray handed Ford his enduring nickname, when he wrote rooting for the 1950s Yankees was like rooting for U.S. Steel with Ford—whose eight World Series Game One starts is a major league record—the chairman of the board.

A compact lefthander at 5’10”, Ford was most renowned for two things. Thing One: the likewise compact delivery that relied as much on his brains as his repertoire, an assortment of off-speed pitches he threw all around the strike zone, since he couldn’t even throw the proverbial lamb chop past a snail. Batters hit .235 off him lifetime.

“If it takes 27 outs to win,” his longtime manager Casey Stengel once said of him, “who’s going to get them out more ways than Mr. Ford?”

“He was like a master chess player who used his brain to take the bat right out of my hands,” recalled one-time Boston Red Sox outfielder Walt Dropo. “You’d start thinking along with him, and then Whitey had you because he never started you off with the same pitch in any one sequence.”

Thing Two: Mr. Ford’s sense of humour. A man who spends the bulk of his career cleaning up after his Yankee bestie Mickey Mantle’s messes almost as often as he befuddles hitters and pitches in the World Series (his 33 consecutive scoreless World Series innings remains a record) needs a sense of humour. And maybe a healthy supply of anti-migraine medication.

Ford wasn’t exactly allergic to the night life in his native New York (he was Queens-born), but he wasn’t exactly allergic to knowing when to shut it down, either. “His fellow rogues, Mickey, Billy [Martin], and Toots [Shor, the legendary New York sports restauranteur], were all gone,” New York Daily News writer Bill Madden wrote in his 2003 book Pride of October: What It Was to Be Young and a Yankee, “but he had survived, still the same wisecracking, self-assured son of the city.”

Wisecracking and practical joking. When Yankee infielders Joe Pepitone and Phil Linz were still barely past rookie status, according to teammate Jim Bouton in Ball Four, Ford and Mantle told the pair they’d finally arrived and were ready to go out on the town with the big boys. In Detroit, Ford and Mantle instructed Pepitone and Linz to dress to kill, hail a cab, and head to the Flame where they were to ask for Mantle’s table.

Pepitone and Linz did as instructed. They dressed to kill. They hailed their cab. And discovered the hard way that the Flame—once a legendary Detroit jazz and rhythm and blues hot spot (among others, assorted future members of Motown’s legendary Funk Brothers house band had played the place)—was now a ramshackle wreck with the glass blown out and maybe two surviving toasted tables remaining.

Ford’s playful side extended to making sure the Yankee bullpen didn’t get bored when members weren’t called upon to warm up and get ready to go into a game. “I think it should be known,” Bouton wrote on 5 April, in the journals he kept to compose Ball Four, “that when Whitey Ford was pitching for the Yankees he set up a table with a checkered tablecloth in the bullpen. On the table there was an empty wine bottle with a candle in it. Also hero sandwiches. Whitey Ford had style.”

Ford was a thinking craftsman on the mound and a practical joking, fun-living fellow off it.

And influence. A month and a half later, Bouton had to record: “Hot flash! Whitey Ford’s Italian restaurant in the bullpen has a real rival in the Baltimore bullpen: wienie roasts.”

When Whitey and Joan Ford married in April 1951 in Long Island City’s St. Patrick Church, Stengel arranged a little surprise for the couple: he loaded the entire Yankee team, including Joe DiMaggio, onto a bus following an exhibition game to hit the church. One Yankee was too nervous to get off the bus, like his fellow rookies, so the newlywed Fords went out to greet him.

That’s how he met Mickey Mantle for the first time. The friendship that must have made Ford wonder often enough whether the devil was punking him started on a bus outside his wedding church. “Years later,” Ford said, “Mickey told me the highlight of that day for him was meeting Joan, not me.”

The ever-quick Ford got a measure of vengeance when his first grandchild was born. When his son-in-law phoned in the dead of night to announce the birth to Grandpa, Ford called Mantle—who went into the Hall of Fame with him in 1974—first thing in the morning. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said. “Last night for the first time in my life I slept with a grandmother.”

In Pride of October Madden wrote that Ford wasn’t always comfortable having been the sole survivor among the little night-owl group of himself, Mantle, and Martin. The only time Ford was ever uncomfortable with Stengel—who judiciously managed him as an every-fifth-day pitcher to save him for the bigger games of Yankee races and the Series—was when Casey neglected to align his 1960 Series rotation to let Ford pitch more than twice, which probably did cost them that Series as much as Bill Mazeroski’s winning home run.

Ford was also uncircumspect about his late-career ball doctorings. Admitting he turned to chicanery in a bid to hang on as long as he could until elbow and arm miseries forced him to call it a career in 1967, Ford swore he never did it during his Cy Young Award-winning 1961 or his likewise 20 game plus-winning 1963.

“Well,” he added puckishly, “maybe a little.”

“For a long time,” Bouton revealed, “Whitey got away with throwing a mud ball that was positively evil.” If the grounds crews wetted the infield or the mound a little too generously, or he and/or his late-career catcher Elston Howard could mix saliva and dirt surreptitiously, Ford would get a tiny mud load on balls. One-time Los Angeles Angels pitcher/flake Bo Belinsky once said, “If a mud ball was left for me on the mound, I had two outs waiting right there.”

“Ford could make a mud ball drop, sail, break in, break out, and sing ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’,” Bouton continued.

Eventually the opposition, particularly Bill Rigney, the manager of the Angels, got wise to him and he had to quit using the mudder.

Then he went to his wedding ring. He gouged such sharp edges into it that we used to kid him about having lost the diamond out of it. He’d scuff up the ball with the ring and make it do all the things the mud ball did, except maybe now the song was different. He got by with the ring for a couple of months . . .

After that, Ellie Howard sharpened up one of the buckles on his shin guard and everytime he threw the ball back to Whitey he’d rub it against the buckle. The buckle ball sang two arias from Aida.

Madden convinced Ford to show him around the Astoria, Queens neighbourhood where he grew up as the son of a Con Edison electrical worker. Ford pointed to a yellow-bricked apartment building where he’d lived ten years and adjacent to where his wife-to-be lived as a girl. “I was sixteen and she was twelve,” Ford said. “She had great legs. That’s what attracted me most about her. We moved three or four times when I was growing up there. I guess every time the rent was due.”

Some of Ford’s boyhood acquaintances and friends in that predominantly Irish, Italian, and Polish neighbourhood grew up to go into baseball as he did, including future coaches Tony and Al Cuccinello and future Minnesota Twins pennant-winning manager Sam Mele. One who didn’t go into baseball was a kid named Anthony Benedetto, whose family owned a nearby beauty salon.

“It wasn’t until he after he left the neighbourhood,” Ford said, “that he changed his name to Tony Bennett. Kind of like me, going from Eddie to Whitey, only I think his new name did a lot more for him than mine did for me.”

Baseball-Reference shows ten major league players (including two who eventually became managers) named Whitey. Be assured that if you just say “Whitey” in any gathering, they’ll remember Ford first. But neither they nor even longtime Yankee fans will remember him as quickly as his widow, two of his three children (his son, Thomas, died in 1999), and his grandchildren.

Once during an Old-Timers Day ceremony, Ford and Berra watched the Yankee Stadium video board display a tribute to Yankees past who had passed away that year. Yogi turned to Whitey and said, “Boy, I hope I never see my name up there!”

Ford can now tell Berra in the Elysian Fields, “Yogi, I never wanted to see your name up there, either!” Even at 91, Ford’s family and baseball fans alike weren’t quite ready to see his name up there, either.

California bombs, California rough stuff

The pandemic-mandated empty house aside, 5 October might as well be Alex Bregman Day . . .

Mr. October Fifth? What’s up with that?

It’s not Alex Bregman’s birthday. (For the record, that’s 30 March.) It’s not his engagement date. (He popped the question to a Colorado lady named Reagan Howard in January.) It’s not his future wedding date. There seems nothing significant elsewhere for him about that date.

Except when he plays postseason baseball. For a fourth consecutive 5 October Bregman found a pitch meaty enough to send long distance. Mark your 2021 calendar accordingly if you must.

He led off the top of the fourth against Oakland starter Chris Bassitt Monday afternoon, starting an American League division series, and sent a 1-2 service into the pandemically-required unoccupied left field bleachers.

It put his Houston Astros on the board after the Athletics helped themselves to a 3-0 lead on long balls themselves. It gave his infield teammate Carlos Correa thoughts about not wanting to be left out of the action after Kyle Tucker followed with a single through the left side of the infield, Correa hitting a 2-0 pitch over the center field fence.

And—with no small assistance from Oakland’s normally vacuum-handed shortstop Marcus Semien’s boot on Josh Reddick’s two-out grounder in the top of the sixth—the Astros seized the chance at new life, not letting something like a subsequent 5-3 deficit spoil the day, and finished with a 10-5 Game One win.

It almost figured.

There are far worse talismans to attach to a team than 10-5. Especially to a team who got into this convoluted postseason with a losing record and who spent 2018 and 2019 doing not even once what they did Monday—come back from a pair of multi-run deficits.

Especially when several signature Astro bats returned to life at last. Let’s see. George Springer going 4-for-5 after an irregular season in which he had no four-hit games. Correa dialing nine twice and sending four runs home, after an irregular season in which he didn’t send four home or homer twice. The quartet of Bregman, Correa, Springer, and Jose Altuve each driving in at least one run in the same game after not having done that together even once on the irregular season.

And, thanks to the bubble concept putting postseason teams from the division series forward into neutral parks, the Astros’ three postseason wins have now happened in ballparks not their own.

The third, of course, happened in . . . Dodger Stadium. The home of a team with whom they have, ahem, some recent history. The division series home for Games One, Two, and (if necessary) Five of an A’s team that includes the former Astro who blew the whistle on Astrogate at last, last November, after those too well aware of their illegal, off-field-base, altered or extra camera transmitting sign stealing schemes couldn’t convince anyone else to expose it.

“As the game got deeper, the at-bats got better,” said Springer of the Astros’ Monday breakout. “They played the later innings better than we did. We just didn’t have the at-bats we typically do at the end of the game,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin.

How much of a pitcher’s park is Dodger Stadium still, even if it’s not quite the equal of its first two decades? In 91 previous postseason games played there, not once were six home runs hit there. Bregman’s one and Correa’s two were joined by Oakland’s Khris Davis, Sean Murphy, and Matt Olson.

“I’ve never seen the ball carry like that here,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker, who played eight seasons for the Dodgers from the 1970s to the 1980s.

Bregman’s 5 October long-distance mastery has also broken the three-straight-same-date postseason strings of Hall of Famer-to-be Albert Pujols (17 October 2004-05-06) and Francisco Lindor (6 October 2016-17-18). But he’ll have to wait ’till next year for a shot at equaling the five-streaks of Pujols (five straight 30 Mays) and Ryan Braun (five straight 24 Julys) among still-active players.

What’s the regular-season record? Seven. Who holds it? Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig (8 June 1932-38) and former Astros mainstay Lance Berkman. (21 September 2001-07.)

Then the doings down the freeway in San Diego, in Petco Park, had to go steal the show. The Padres had nothing to do with it. The New York Yankees did. Their winning score against the AL East champion Tampa Bay Rays was a measly 9-3, but oh what a show the Yankees made of it.

Somehow, some way, the Yankees find ways to make history just when you think there isn’t a single piece of history left for that franchise to make. It only began with this: Not since 1956 (when Moose Skowron and Hall of Famer Yogi Berra did it in that World Series) had the Yankees hit two grand slams in a postseason at all—but Monday night they sliced salami for a second straight postseason game. No other American League team has ever done that.

Score nine or more runs in three straight postseason-opening games? Nobody did that before the Yankees did it this year. Score 31 runs in its first three postseason games? Nobody did that, either, until this year’s Yankees delivered.

So who the hell needed Gerritt Cole pitching six, striking out eight, and not letting a measly three runs shake him out of his skin before turning things over to Chad Green, Zack Britton, and Luis Cessa?

. . . but John Curtiss knocking down Gio Urshela (29) and Gleyber Torres after his salami was sliced was an uncalled-for and terrible look.

Luis who?

Simple: with a 9-3 lead, Yankee skipper Aaron Boone—with the spectre of no division series days off looming—wasn’t going to burn Aroldis Chapman unless the Rays got ornery in the ninth, which they didn’t. And Cessa got rid of the Rays with no interruption but a mere two-out walk.

Monday’s delicatessen slicer was Giancarlo Stanton in the top of the ninth against Rays reliever John Curtiss. It wasn’t as if Stanton was unfamiliar with Petco Park—he won the Home Run Derby there four years ago. Batting now on 2-2, Stanton caught hold of Curtiss’s slider just off the middle of the plate, and drove it just beyond Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier’s glove-extended leap and over the center field fence.

Then Curtiss just had to make the Rays look even worse, didn’t he? The next batter was Yankee, third baseman Gio Urshela—whose second-inning defense would have made ancient Yankees Clete Boyer and Graig Nettles plus Hall of Fame Oriole Brooks Robinson proud, with his leaping stab to pick Manuel Margot’s high hopper and throw him out, then his rolling seat-of-the-pants throw to nail Joey Wendle off a hard smash into the hole.

Curtiss sent Urshela sprawling on an up and in 0-1 pitch, with Urshela finally wrestling his way to popping out to the infield. Then Yankee shortstop Gleyber Torres checked in at the plate. Curtiss waited until 2-2 before playing Torres a little chin music. No wonder Torres couldn’t resist stealing second while Brett Gardner batted next.

Oops. Apparently, an awful lot of people called Torres out for the ninth-inning theft. “I don’t like seeing disrespectful things in the game,” crowed Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez on a TBS postgame show. Forget that the Yankees went 2-8 against the Rays on the irregular season and might be thinking that, no matter the score or the inning, every run counts.

Martinez might be the wrong man to ask, of course, but if you don’t like Torres stealing second with his team up by six in the ninth, did you like Curtiss making the usually likeable Rays—those unknown soldiers, who can normally beat you with the same aplomb as the big boys with the big names and the bigger paychecks—resemble unsportsmanlike sore losers?

Curtiss also made the Yankees look the way the beasts of the Bronx rarely look—sympathetic. And that’s over a month after Chapman nearly decapitated Michael Brousseau with a 101 mph fastball. But that was then, and Chapman’s been a little wild most of his career, anyway. He doesn’t have quite the control required to plan an execution. Not even with the Rays pitching inside tight to a few too many Yankees on the season before that head scratcher.

You’re embarrassed when a guy slices salami on your dollar? You man up, tip your hat, shake it off, and get the next guy out. You don’t knock that next guy and the guy following him down, off, back, or through just because your ego was sent into half orbit, with or without the bases loaded. (It would also help if you don’t surrender a leadoff single, a walk, a one-out RBI single, and a bases-loading walk to set it up, too.)

Things were notoriously tense enough between the Yankees and the Rays on the irregular season. Then, both sides tried to indicate going in that they were going to do their level best to play nice and no rough stuff. Then Curtiss had to deliver a little un-called for rough stuff anyway. No more Mr. Nice Guys?

Don’t be terribly shocked if Monday’s proceedings make Yankee rooters out of even those to whom rooting for the Yankees otherwise flouts family tradition. For this postseason, anyway, depending on whether the Rays behave reasonably from here on out.

Heartbreak Hotel, Cleveland

James Karinchak, rocking a Ricky Vaughn haircut, but having been rocked by Gio Urshela Wednesday night.

Bad enough: Cleveland having to host the world babyweight championship bout that was Tuesday night’s allegedly presidential debate. Worse: The Indians won’t get the chance to win their first World Series since the births of Israel, NASCAR, the Polaroid Land camera, and Scrabble.

Again.

They won’t even get to play a division series after the New York Yankees swept them out of their wild card series. But to lose an almost five-hour Wednesday night grapple extended by two rain delays totaling 76 minutes and finishing in a 10-9 Yankee win, after both sides threw everything including the kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room sinks?

It’s not quite the same as losing Game Seven of the 2016 World Series after one somewhat long rain delay and an almost equally soul-wrenching back-and-forth. But it’s close enough. It isn’t quite the single most heartbreaking loss in Indians history. (Game Seven of the 1997 World Series still clings to the top. Barely)

But it’s close enough to have turned Progressive Field—in the city that also hosts the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—into Heartbreak Hotel.

The Indians unable to cash in for another tie at minimum in the bottom of the ninth—when Yankee closer Aroldis Chapman’s should-have-been game-ending strikeout turned into a wild pitch, enabling pinch hitter Orlando Mercado to take first on the house, before Chapman regrouped and struck out swinging another pinch hitter, Austin Hedges? It isn’t Edgar Renteria ruining Charles Nagy with a two-out RBI single in the bottom of the eleventh.

But it’s close enough.

The Show’s most reliable irregular season closer and one of the league’s better defenses handing the Yankees a re-tie and go-ahead in the top of the ninth? It isn’t Bryan Shaw surrendering a tie-breaking and a semi-insurance run, and the Indians able to get only one of those runs back, in the tenth inning in Game Seven, 2016 Series.

But it’s close enough.

While you’re at it, it won’t do any good to comfort the Indians by telling them the Yankees once lost a World Series Game Seven by a 10-9 score. Not even if you tell the Tribe the Yankees lost it when Hall of Famer Yogi Berra playing left field could only watch helplessly when Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski’s leadoff drive sailed over the left field wall in ancient Forbes Field.

Cleveland’s going to have a tough enough time trying to figure out which part hurt the most Wednesday night. They’ll have plenty of candidates. They’ll need plenty of salve.

“We had many different things and a lot of obstacles, but this group stayed together — by any means,” said Sandy Alomar, the Indians’ interim manager thanks to Terry Francona’s continuing health issues, who might yet get Manager of the Year votes just for getting the Indians to the postseason at all. “We had an eight-game losing streak, they came back. Today’s game reflected how much this team grinds and how much they fight.”

The candidates for the biggest hurt of the Indians’ now-finished season may only begin with Alomar deciding he needed a strikeout machine to handle Yankee third baseman Gio Urshela in the top of the fourth, with the bases loaded, nobody out, and the Tribe with a 4-1 lead they built with a pair of RBI doubles and an RBI single in the bottom of the first.

Alomar brought in James Karinchak to relieve starter Carlos Carrasco, cheated a bit by the rain delays The first pitch of the game was delayed by rain that hadn’t yet arrived. The second hit in the bottom of the first, and that time the rain lasted slightly over half an hour.

Until he entered Wednesday night, Karinchak’s young career showed 131 batters facing him and only one ever hitting anything out. It also shows him rocking the jagged-back haircut Charlie Sheen made famous as fictional flame-throwing Indians pitcher Ricky Vaughn in Major League. Now, Urshela and Karinchak wrestled to a full count.

The Wild Thing he wasn’t, but poor Karinchak’s young career now shows one postseason appearance and one disaster. With one swing and one launch into the left field bleachers, former Indian Urshela burned his old team four ways to eternity.

He also made Yankee history while he was at it. Thirteen Yankees have hit postseason grand slams, and Urshela is the first Yankee third baseman to slice such salami and the only Yankee anywhere to do it when the Yankees were behind.

Maybe it’ll comfort Indians fans to know that the Buffalonto Blue Jays got shoved out of the postseason earlier and likewise Wednesday. When the Jays’ best pitcher, former Dodger Hyun-Jin Ryu, faced Hunter Renfroe, a Ray who’d been 2-for-18 with seven strikeouts lifetime against him, in the second inning . . . and Renfroe sliced what amounted to season-ending salami for the Jays.

All night long, the Indians had answers for the Yankees. Let Giancarlo Stanton put the Yankees up 6-4 with a sacrifice fly in the top of the fifth, three innings after Stanton accounted for the first Yankee run with a home run? Why, they’ll just let Jose Ramirez whack a two-run double down the right field line to re-tie in the bottom of the fifth.

Let Gary Sanchez—the embattled Yankee catcher benched for Game One after he made Mario Mendoza resemble Mickey Mantle on the irregular season, and batted ninth for Game Two—smack a two-run homer in the top of the sixth to break the six-all tie? Why, the Indians will just send Jason Luplow to the plate, pinch hitting for Josh Naylor—their return from San Diego, after unloading pitcher Mike Clevinger a fortnight after he violated  COVID protocol violations.

That was some cojones on Alomar pinch hitting for Naylor, who’d set a Show precedent with five hits in his first five postseason plate appearances. Good thing the Indians let Luplow smack a two-run double to the back of center field to re-tie the game at eight.

For good measure, they’ll even let Cesar Hernandez fight Chapman off to dump a floater of an RBI single into short center field to make it 9-8, Indians. Then, they’ll shake off Urshela’s likely game-saving double play start to end that eighth and bring in Brad Hand, who led the Show with sixteen saves and didn’t blow a single save opportunity all irregular season long while he was at it.

Hand picked the wrong night to open a save opportunity by walking Stanton. Urshela then singled Stanton’s pinch runner Mike Tauchman to second. Gleyber Torres beat out an infield dribbler to load the pillows, and Brett Gardner struck out, but Sanchez lofted a re-tying sacrifice fly to center field.

Up stepped American League batting champion D.J. LeMahieu. He called slider in the center pocket and cued it right up the middle and right through the Indians’ middle infield. And, alas, right under center fielder Delino DeShields’s down-stretched glove, enabling Urshela to score the tenth Yankee run.

The Indians ran out of answers in the bottom of the ninth.

One night after they punished American League Cy Young Award favourite Shane Bieber, the Yankees had to survive the elements and Indians tenacity to get themselves a division series date with the Rays, who beat them out of the American League East title and who lack both the Yankees’ star power and the meaning of the word “quit.”

“You don’t have to pour champagne on each other,” said Yankee manager Aaron Boone, whose winners stuck to the COVID protocols and exchanged mere fist bumps to celebrate, “to appreciate what an epic game that was and the fact that we’re moving on.”

Forgive Cleveland if the epic side of the game escapes for a good while. Embrace these Indians who fought the good fight against a Yankee team they never saw on the irregular season but had to get past excess familiarity with the medical profession for a second straight season.

So far as the Indians are concerned, these Yankees picked the wrong time to remember how to win on the road. And, the Tribe with the irregular season’s best pitching overall picked the wrong time to post an 11.00 ERA in two games against the Empire Emeritus with eleven walks in eighteen innings and seven home runs surrendered.

So far as these Yankees are concerned, they survived the best the Indians could throw at them to make it four times in the past four seasons they’ve sent either the Indians or the Minnesota Twins home for the winter early. But the Indians and their fans—already rubbing their eyes over Francisco Lindor, Franmil Reyes, and Carlos Santana going 1-for-23 at the plate this set—are going to wonder how their number one strength, their pitching, became their number-one vulnerability.

Don’t remind Cleveland that the same thing happened in the 1954 World Series, when another stellar Indians pitching staff—including Hall of Famers Bob Lemon and Early Wynn, Mike (The Big Bear) Garcia, and what still remained of Hall of Famer Bob Feller—led an 111-game winning team into a Series sweep by the New York Giants. It won’t make this one sting any more gently.

“That game is literally the definition of a rollercoaster ride right there,” said Indians relief pitcher Nick Wittgren after it ended Wednesday night. “It was amazing to see our guys fight back . . . We were fighting, battling the entire game. That was fun to watch. It would have been a little more fun to be playing tomorrow.”

Usque ad proximum annum expectare.

They were a little hard on the Bieber last night

Aaron Judge runs out the bomb he detonated off Shane Bieber on the fourth pitch of the game Tuesday night.

New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone is fond of saying his team can turn on a dime. He’d much rather they keep turning on the Cleveland Indians the way they did to open their American League wild card set. As a matter of fact, Boone’s wards were a little hard on the Bieber Tuesday night.

The Yankees and the Indians opened in Cleveland the same night the first debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden went down. Depending upon where you peeked, the country had a hard time determining which wildfire was worse—the allegedly presidential debate, or the Yankees’ 12-3 demolition. The jury may be out until Election Day.

The Yankees could be seen as having had less time to prepare for Indians starter Shane Bieber than Trump and Biden had to face each other. They hadn’t faced the presumptive American League Cy Young Award winner all irregular season long, anywhere. They also went in having lost six of their last seven irregular season games and compiled an 11-18 road record.

Bieber had twelve season starts and faced four postseason teams—three of whom had winning records—seven times. Nobody took him long in any of his starts. Only once all year did he surrender a single run in the first or fifth innings. Nobody scored on his dollar at home all year.

Then the Yankees caught hold of him Tuesday night.

They needed only four straight fastballs to rip two runs out of him in the top of the first. American League batting champion D.J. LeMahieu saw a third straight fastball and lined a single to right field. Aaron Judge started his first plate appearance to follow seeing a fourth straight Bieber fastball. He finished it with that fastball, too, sending it over the right center field wall.

“We had a big, long hitter’s meeting,” Judge said after the game, “about all sticking to the same plan and just trying to work counts, get pitches to drive and I think, as a whole, we did that. That’s when this team is dangerous, when we go out there and we can just grind out at-bats. Any mistakes that are thrown up there, we hammer them.”

Bieber’s fastball sat so easily up or under in the zone to open that LeMahieu wouldn’t exactly call a three-pitch plate appearance a hard grind when pitch three sat right in the middle. Then the slender righthander who hadn’t surrendered a home run at home all irregular season long made the same mistake to Judge over the middle of the plate.

“The first inning didn’t go as planned,” said Bieber, showing a gift for understatement lacking too vividly in the presidential debate hall. “I wish I would have been with my off-speed stuff in the zone, and challenged those guys a little more. I forced myself into some bad situations and some bad counts on top of not having my best stuff and making mistakes. No excuses. It was not good.”

Neither was the rest of Bieber’s outing on a night Gerrit Cole struck out thirteen Indians in seven innings while walking nobody, had only one truly shaky inning (the third) and escaped with only an RBI double by Indians third baseman Jose Ramirez, then surrendered his only other run an inning after that, when left fielder Josh Naylor hit one over the right center field wall.

Cole otherwise looked even better than the guy who didn’t let five walks stop him from beating the Yankees in Game Four of last year’s American League Championship Series. The guy the Houston Astros let walk into free agency and right into the Yankees’ $324 million arms last winter.

In case you were wondering, only one pitcher before Cole ever struck out thirteen without walking a man in a postseason assignment—the late Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, in Game One of the 1973 National League Championship Series, and that was a game Seaver lost to the Cincinnati Reds, 2-1.

When he blew away the Indians’ middle infield, Francisco Lindor and Cesar Hernandez, on swinging strikeouts, before convincing Ramirez his only recourse was to pop one out to Torres behind shortstop, Cole let the Indians know early enough and often enough that they weren’t going to have a simple evening’s baseball to play.

Only nobody paid as much attention to Cole’s work or his marriage with postseason history as they might have paid if the Yankees hadn’t turned Bieber and a couple of Indians relievers into their personal batting practise pitchers.

They slapped Bieber for a single run in the third, two each in the fourth and the fifth. In order, it was AL home run champion Luke Voit doubling Aaron Hicks home with two out in the third, Brett Gardner doubling home Gleyber Torres and LeMahieu catching the Indian infield asleep with an infield RBI single pushing Gardner home in the fourth, and Torres with Gio Urshela aboard hitting one out in the fifth.

That was the 105th pitch of Bieber’s evening, corroborating Judge’s observation of the Yankee game plan at last. By that point, Bieber was probably itching to tell the Yankees what Biden told Trump during one of the president’s more insistent of his nightlong harangues, “Will you shut up, man?”

Interim manager Sandy Alomar, filling in for ailing Terry Francona, was kind enough to lift Bieber after that 105th pitch of the outing traveled from Torres’s bat to the bleachers. He didn’t tell the Yankees to shut up, man, on a night nobody could. But Alomar—whose guidance of the Indians into the postseason in the first place may actually get him Manager of the Year votes despite his interim status—did speak kindly of his still-young pitcher.

“Seems to be he was too excited,” Alomar said after the demolition ended at last. “He was the best pitcher in the American League this year. He had a bad game tonight.” That was like saying the Japanese navy had a bad set at Midway.

Even injury-hobbled Giancarlo Stanton joined in the fun. After striking out twice in four previous plate appearances on the night, the Yankee designated hitter squared off against reliever Cam Hill with one out in the top of the of the ninth and tore a 1-0 fastball—also arriving in the meatiest part of the zone—over the left center field fence.

The Yankee assault and battery almost wiped Chicago White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito out of the day’s memory bank, thirty-four days after Giolito pitched a no-hitter the too-easy way against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He went into the top of the seventh threatening to become the only pitcher other than Hall of Famer Roy Halladay to pitch a regular-season no-hitter (that was Halladay’s perfect game) and a postseason no-no the same year.

Former Cardinal/Angel Tommy La Stella said not so fast leading off the bottom of the seventh in the Oakland Athletics’ ramshackle ballpark. With the White Sox up 3-0 already, La Stella took what he could get on a 2-2 service and snuck a base hit right through the middle.

Even playing without their best all-around player, Matt Chapman, the A’s made things a little too easy for Giolito and the White Sox. It only began when they were foolish enough to send lefthander Jesus Luzardo, young, gifted, but inconsistent, against a lineup so full of righthanded bats it’s a wonder the Oakland Coliseum didn’t list when they batted.

“Nothing against him,” said White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson when learning they’d face Luzardo, “but we have been doing good against lefties. I guess they haven’t done their homework so hopefully we can go out and continue to do what we’ve been doing against lefties.”

They did. They got six of their nine Game One hits off Luzardo and chased him in the fourth inning. In the third, they had Anderson on second with two out, Jose Abreu at the plate with a 2-0 count, first base open, and previous called strikeout victim James McCann on deck, and A’s manager Bob Melvin elected to let Luzardo keep pitching to Abreu.

Abreu elected to hit the next pitch, a fastball Luzardo intended to sail toward the outer edge of the plate but disobeyed orders and arrived smack dab in the middle. The ball disappeared smack dab over the left field fence. “Obviously,” Luzardo said post-game, “the guy’s an MVP-caliber type hitter, so you’ve got to be careful. I made a mistake. That’s not where I intended to put it.”

An inning before that, Luzardo intended to throw Adam Engel an 0-2 fastball up and in, and the ball disobeyed orders then, too. That disobedient ball went up, out, and into the bleachers.

It’s been that way for the Billy Beane-era A’s every time they reach the postseason. His A’s have been a second-guesser’s delight. This time, the second-guessers get to guess why Melvin insisted on starting Luzardo instead of rested righthander Mike Fiers against the starboard-hitting White Sox. Saying as the manager did that the White Sox hadn’t seen a lefty with Luzardo’s kind of stuff all year won’t fly half as far as Engel’s and Abreu’s home runs did.

This year’s bizarro-world postseason is barely a game old and the A’s and the Indians face elimination games Wednesday. So do the American League Central-winning Minnesota Twins after the 29-31 Houston Astros beat them 4-1 in Target Field Tuesday. So do the Buffalonto Blue Jays (third) after the AL East-winning Tampa Bay Rays edged them 3-1 in Tropicana Field.

The only solace for the A’s, the Twins, and the Jays is that none of them suffered anything close to the assault with deadly weapons the Indians suffered. Those three aren’t presumed to be half as cursed as the Indians—the last time the Indians won the World Series was during the Berlin Airlift.

With the same pairs playing Wednesday, plus the National League’s wild card sets beginning the same day, it’s to wonder only what further strange brews are liable to boil and which boils get lanced. At least there won’t be a presidential schoolyard argument to detract from the main events.