The Astros in the ALCS? Relax.

Manager Dusty Baker gets a hug from catcher Martin Maldonado as the Astros celebrate bumping the Athletics off in their ALDS Thursday.

We just got one step closer to the possibility of at least one losing irregular season team turning up in the World Series, anyway. Maybe it’ll still be enough to make commissioner Rob Manfred’s hopes of too-far-expanded postseasons future, which may or many not involve as many as sixteen teams, disappear. Maybe.

The best way to make that disappearance happen would have been a Houston Astros-Milwaukee Brewers World Series, of course. Unfortunately, the Brewers didn’t keep their side of the bargain. The National League West champion Los Angeles Dodgers wouldn’t let them. If anything, the chance of an Astros-Dodgers World Series re-match got a lot bigger after Thursday’s doings.

On Thursday night, the Dodgers destroyed the plucky, exuberant, fun-fun-fun San Diego Padres 12-3, to finish a National League division series sweep in which only one game turned out close thanks to a near-imploding Dodger bullpen. At least they know who they’ll face in the National League Championship Series, thanks to the NL East champion Atlanta Braves wiping the suddenly-upstart Miami Marlins out 7-0 in a dissimilar sweep.

The Padres at least scored in each of the three games. The Marlins scored five in Game One but got shut out in Games Two and Three. By a Braves pitching staff that’s now pitched shutouts in four of their five postseason games. Maybe the chance of an Astros-Dodgers World Series re-match isn’t quite as powerful as you might think?

The Astros wrecked any Oakland Athletics comeback hopes by turning an early 3-0 deficit into an 11-6 Game Four demolition so profound that the A’s ninth-inning pushback resembled unanswerable cries for help from the bottom of the ocean after falling off the Bay Bridge just when they’d finally decided life was too precious to jump.

Admit it: When the A’s jumped Zack Greinke for three in the second it looked for awhile as though they’d force a Game Five. About a blink of awhile when all was said and done.

Matt Olson snuck a base hit through an Astro infield shift, Mark Canha hit one for which Astro shortstop Carlos Correa dove and barely missed for his first lifetime hit off Greinke, Ramon Laureano hit a full-count slider into the left field bleachers, and it looked like the Astros gamble with Greinke—sending him to start with his sore arm possibly not fully recovered—would fail.

Then the A’s starter Frankie Montas’s fortune ran cold in the fourth. How cold? Try Antarctic cold. Michael Brantley hit a two-run homer and Correa hit a three-run bomb, then Montas two more or less excuse-me outs while leaving first and second when manager Bob Melvin lifted him to go to his usually reliable bullpen.

This time, that bullpen didn’t have it. The Astros tore six runs out of that pen before they were finished. Between them, the Astros and the A’s finished setting a new division series record by hitting 24 into the seats all set long. Each team hit twelve. Including Brantley, Correa, and Laureano twice in Game Four. Altuve joined the Thursday bomb squad when he hit one out off Jake Diekman with Martin Maldonado aboard to complete the Astros’ scoring.

But there’s unfinished Friday business to come. The Astros don’t know yet whether they’ll meet the American League East champion Tampa Bay Rays or the AL East runner-up New York Yankees. The Yankees held the Rays off 5-1 on Thursday, somehow, some way, and they’ll open Friday with a distinct advantage named Gerrit Cole. Sort of.

The sort-of is that Cole has never pitched on short rest in his entire major league career. Ever. He’s pitched 106 games on four days’ rest, 67 on five days’ rest, and 31 on six or more days’ rest. It may be the first time in Cole’s sterling career when the phrase “roll of the dice” applies to him.

Can they get a miracle from Cole Friday? He faces Tyler Glasnow, credited with the Game Two win despite surrendering four Yankee runs. Glasnow hasn’t done it since he pitched nine games in relief for the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates. They were the only nine relief gigs of his career to date. And the Rays will likely turn it over to their bullpen if Glasnow gets into trouble early enough.

Either way, Friday’s Yankees-Rays show will be must-see TV for baseball lovers in general but the Astros in particular. What a way to have to spend one of their only two days off before the ALCS begins—in San Diego’s Petco Park, under the pandemic-inspired semi-bubble/neutral-site plan.

As if the Astros didn’t have enough migraines this year. They lost Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery and Cole to free agency. Greinke pitched better than his 4.03 irregular season ERA tells you before his arm soreness kicked over. (His 2020 fielding-independent pitching [FIP]: 2.80.) If their set with the A’s went to a fifth game, they’d have gone most likely to Framber Valdez to open and turned it over to their bullpen at the first sign of trouble.

Now they get to open the ALCS with Valdez—who beat the A’s with seven two-run innings in division series Game Two. Setting them up to work Greinke on his regular rest including a Game Seven if need be. Jose Urquidy will look to prove his ALDS Game Three outing—slapped silly for four home runs in four and a third innings—was an aberration, but beware: his irregular season 2.73 ERA was deceptive looking considering his 4.71 FIP.

They also get to show a little more that their 29-31 irregular season record just might have projected to an acquitting winning record, maybe even another AL West title, if the season had been full and normal. Might.

One key reason for that 29-31 record was being hit with an injury bug enough to rival the battered Yankees of the past two years. But, deeper reality check: this year’s Astros aren’t really as good as last year’s. Even if manager Dusty Baker finally overcame his lifelong prejudice and learned how to have as much faith in his youth as in his elder players.

They lost their best player of the future, 2019 Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez, to a season-ending injury. Altuve struggled early, found his stroke later in August, then hit the injured list with a knee sprain. They’ve lost key pitchers Chris Devenski, Brad Peacock, and Roberto Osuna to season-ending injuries. This postseason Astro staff could be called, plausibly, Greinke, Urquidy, and the Newer Kids on the Block.

Even with those compromises, this year’s Astro Core Five (Altuve, Correa, Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel, and George Springer) had a lower weighted on-base percentage than last year’s edition. It looked better for the Astros that they bombed twelve homers and averaged 8.3 runs a game against the A’s better-than-they-look pitching staff. Of course, the chatter about slightly deadened balls on the irregular season and slightly amplified balls for the postseason is entirely coincidental.

It bodes well for the Astros whether they get the Rays or the Yankees in the ALCS, and they know neither of those teams are pushovers. Scoring 33 runs against a crew of A’s that scored 22, knowing that often as not 22 runs are good enough to win a short set, gives the Astros a little extra comfort to take in.

It even bodes well for them that somehow, some way, they’ve managed to get this far even under the still-hovering clouds of Astrogate. They hit the irregular season running with only nine men left on the roster from the 2017-18 cheaters. They’re closer than you might think or accept to turning what’s left of that roster over and finally putting the Astrogate stain behind them.

Turning what’s left of that roster over? Well, Gurriel has re-upped for another season. But Springer and Reddick face free agency this winter. New general manager James Click has said he’d like to keep Springer on board even with young Kyle Tucker’s emergence, but whether the Astros have the dollars to do it (they’d like to avoid luxury tax penalisation if possible) is another question yet to be answered.

The pandemic did the Astros a huge favour in keeping them from normal ballpark crowds who surely would have let them have it long and loud, over both the scandal of their illegal electronic sign-stealing cheating and their more sad than sickening, mealymouthed non-apologies at that disaster of a February presser.

(Don’t even think about it. Once more with feeling: there’s a Grand Canyon-size difference between a team like the Boston Rogue Sox using what MLB itself provided already in video rooms to steal signs and send them to baserunners to send hitters—you know, Mom and Dad give the kiddies the liquor cabinet keys daring them not to drink unlawfully—and the Astros who a) took an existing outfield camera off mandatory transmission delay, or b) installed a second, illegal real-time camera to send enemy signs to extra clubhouse monitors.)

Now, let’s be absolutely fair about this. Continuing to bop this year’s Astros on the nose over Astrogate when they have only eight men left playing from that tainted 2017 edition is unfair. Unfair but unstoppable, unfortunately, human nature being what it is.

Human nature includes being aghast that genuinely great teams  who would have demolished the league regardless felt compelled to operating the 2017 Astro Intelligence Agency or the 2018 Red Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring.

To too many people, cheaters once, cheaters always. Right? But nobody claimed the San Francisco Giants remained tainted for how their 1951 edition in New York cheated telescopically to pull off that dazzling pennant-race comeback and playoff force. Nobody really thinks the real curse upon the Cleveland Indians has to do with their 1948 telescopic cheating. (It doesn’t really have that much to do with trading Rocky Colavito at the end of spring training 1960, either.)

By all means hold the 2017-18 Astros to account in public opinion if Commissioner Nero didn’t, beyond a fine, a couple of stripped draft picks, and suspending their since-fired general manager, manager, bench coach (the Red Sox squeezed Alex Cora out as manager), and designated hitter. (The Mets squeezed Carlos Beltran out as manager before he even got to manage a spring training game for them.)

But don’t keep hammering this year’s Astros for it, until or unless someone discovers and produces proof of this year’s edition crossing to the dark side. (The Red Sox didn’t need anyone hammering them for their 2018 taint and similarly mealymouthed non-apologies. They plotzed this year all by themselves.)

You don’t have to root for or even like the Astros to give them whatever fair shake they deserve now. They’re a lot easier to like when you just watch them play baseball the way they normally play than they are when you have to listen to them talking to reporters. Which is what people have said about teams like the Yankees, the Dodgers, and even the St. Louis Cardinals for several generations, too, no?

Yet new manager Dusty Baker took their bridge and kept his and their marble (singular) through this season’s pandemic weirdness and Astrogate aftermath to sneak into the postseason at all. That has Baker in the Manager of the Year conversation and the Astros  on the brink of a possible third pennant in four seasons. The last team to go to three World Series in four seasons? Ladies and gentlemen, your 1998-2001 New York Yankees.

Consider this, too: With fans still kept out of the stands so far this postseason, it became too simple to hear every sound, noise, and utterance coming from the dugouts. Nobody heard anything this week that’s comparable to the Astrogaters banging the can slowly in 2017.

About the most suspicious sound coming out of Dodger Stadium during the Astros-A’s ALDS was the PA system DJ playing Booker T. & the MGs’ “Green Onions” at every opportunity. (That song was a huge hit—the year Dodger Stadium was born.) Some might wonder since when do today’s ballpark sound people have that kind of historic music sense. Speaking personally, it was music to my rhythm and blues ears.

The Great Escape

Liam Hendriks, who just might be able
to bust his way out of a double-chain-
locked footlocker if asked to do it.

Postseason baseball is littered enough with mishaps, mistakes, and acts of God (we think, often as not) that turn certain triumph into disaster in less than the proverbial New York minute. The Oakland Athletics got thatclose to seeing for themselves in the bottom of the eighth Wednesday afternoon.

When A’s catcher Sean Murphy’s glove was hit by the bat of Houston Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker with Carlos Correa aboard and nobody out, the catcher’s interference call stood an excellent chance of standing as the arguable worst postseason moment in A’s history.

That’s because it happened immediately after the A’s sacrificed their way back to a two-run lead in the top of the inning, with a pair of sac flies, one inning after Chad Pinder yanked them back from the dead and into a fresh tie with a long distance call.

The interference suddenly turned Oakland closer Liam Hendriks’s day’s work from somewhat routine with a three-up, three-down seventh into an eight-inning wrestling match. That was not what the A’s needed with a tenuous late, re-claimed lead, in a game they had to win to stay alive in the division series the Astros threatened to sweep.

It also could have made A’s manager Bob Melvin go from looking like a genius for bringing Hendriks in so soon in the first place to looking like a nut for . . . bringing him in so soon. But it turns out that Hendriks doesn’t like leaving his manager looking like a straitjacket candidate.

The husky righthander also isn’t averse to a hard wrestling match. Not even against these Astros whose 29-31 irregular season record belied their postseason batting revival thus far.

Not when Hendriks could get Yuli Gurriel to pop out to first, Aleidmys Diaz to ground out to second, and Josh Reddick to strike out so violently on a pitch that barely missed the middle of the plate that Reddick—pinch hitting for Astros catcher Martin Maldonado—fumed and broke the bat over his knee angrily as he left the plate area.

A’s fans might have a difficult time deciding the day’s biggest hero. Was it Pinder nailing Astros reliever Josh James’s first pitch after seventh inning-opening back-to-back singles for that game re-tying three-run homer into the right field corner cutouts? Was it Hendriks making Harry Houdini resemble a clumsy Watergate burglar in that 19th-nervous-breakdown eighth?

In a Game Three that featured seven home runs, a 4-2 Oakland lead turned into a 7-4 Houston lead with a five-run fifth, and five lead changes before Pinder launched—who would have wagered that the day’s heaviest drama would be an eighth inning like that? Even on a day George Springer, who treats Dodger Stadium like his personal batting cage, struck out three times and didn’t hit a lick?

Finish the Astros off in the ninth? Child’s play. Strike out Springer, lure Jose Altuve into popping out to first, and get Michael Brantley to fly out to left? Simpler than shaving in the morning, right? There’s a clearance sale on bathing suits at the North Pole waiting for you.

The Atlanta Braves throwing their third shutout in four postseason tries at the Miami Marlins earlier in the day? Ho-hum. Pending whatever came between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays in another ALDS, plus the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres in another NLDS, the A’s and the Astros claimed Thursday’s Alfred Hitchcock Prize for High Drama.

To think that it looked like just another routine long distance exchange before the bottom of the eighth arrived.

Tommy LaStella, who had to leave the game in the eighth after he was hit on the arm by an Andre Scrubb pitch (and when will they change the name of the bone away from “humerus,” since LaStella thought it was as funny as a vampire managing the blood bank) opened the barrage with a first-inning, one-out launch over the center field fence.

Altuve faced Oakland starter Jesus Luzardo in the bottom of the first with one out. He caught hold of a changeup hanging a little off the middle of the zone and hung it to the same real estate but about 25 feet farther out. Brantley coming home on an infield ground out later in the inning merely made for a 2-1 Astro lead. Big deal.

A’s left fielder Mark Canha said “not so fast” leading off the top of the second and sent Astros starter Jose Urquidy’s 1-2 dangling slider dangling over and into LaStella’s and Altuve’s real estate—but landing at a mere 394 feet.

A’s first baseman Matt Olson decided the three half innings preceding him leading off the top of the fourth were a little too quiet. He hit Urquidy’s first pitch into the right field bleachers for a 3-2 A’s lead. Shortstop Marcus Semien decided the A’s punished Urquidy enough for one day, chasing him with one out in the top of the fifth with yet another launch over the center field fence.

Houston reliever Blake Taylor then put first claim on the day’s Houdini award, when he worked his way out of the subterranean chains slapped around him by LaStella’s walk and Pinder’s single by getting Khris Davis to fly out to center and—after walking Olson to load the pillows—getting Canha to fly out to center for the side.

Then it was the Astros’ turn to make up for lost time. They chased Luzardo in the bottom of the fifth when Diaz made him pay for walking Yuli Gurriel to lead off by hitting one into the left field bleachers. Luzardo rid himself of Maldonado when the Houston catcher bunted a line out to third before coming out.

But A’s reliever Yusmeiro Petit hit Springer with a first-pitch fastball, allowed Altuve to beat out an infield hit up the third base side, and served Brantley a pitch good enough to drive Springer home with a base hit. The good news for the A’s: Altuve got thrown out at third trying an extra advance. The bad news: Alex Bregman whacked an RBI double to the back of left center field.

Melvin let Petit put Correa aboard before lifting him for Jake Diekman. Tucker swatted an RBI single to short center before Diekman got Gurriel to ground out to third with the 7-4 Astros lead looking only too ominous for A’s fans’ comfort.

But when it was all over and the A’s lived to play a Game Four, the first thought would be how Melvin might have to shuffle his bullpen after Hendriks worked three innings Thursday, making him most likely unavailable until a Game Five if the set gets that far.

The second thought was who the Astros might send out to start if ailing Zack Greinke’s arm still isn’t ready to take a chance. Not to mention the sudden realisation that the Astros’ bullpen—which shut the A’s out in the first two games—may not be as invincible as Games One and Two made them look.

The third thought? Easy enough. If the A’s hang in there to overthrow the Astros, they’ll have a hard time deciding which Game Three moment was the one that lit the turnaround’s powder keg, Pinder’s seventh-inning solar plexus punch, or Hendriks’s eighth-inning escape.

They may debate that even longer than they would have debated where the interference call rated for postseason calamity.

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.

The Athletics have it—and how, potentially

This is not the Oakland Athletics and Houston Astros in a handshake line after a game. This is the social distance-defying debate triggered when Astros coach Alex Cintron insulted A’s outfielder Ramon Laureano after Laureano took his third plunk in the same series including two this day in August.

Ladies and gentlemen, your American League West champion Oakland Athletics. The first team in this pandemic-truncated, pandemic-weirded season to clinch their division. Hands up to everybody who thought the National League West-owning Los Angeles Dodgers would be 2020’s first division clincher.

Now, hands up to everyone who thought the A’s division clinch would happen on a day off for them while the Houston Astros spent the same day losing to the Seattle Mariners, 6-1. To those who did, hands up to every A’s fan whispering to themselves or to each other, with the appropriate social distancing, that karma’s indeed a bitch.

The last time the A’s ruled the AL West was 2013. Since then, they’ve had three second-place finishes including last year and three fifth-place finishes. Detractors over those seasons, including the young man/Los Angeles Angels fan in southern California who grants me the honour of him calling me Dad, referred to them gleefully enough as the Chokeland Athletics.

That was then, this is now, and this is also two weekends after their arguable best player, third baseman Matt Chapman, went down for the rest of the season facing hip surgery. Chapman hadn’t been quite the overall hitter this year that he was in 2018-19, but his third base play remained top of the line. Late season free agent pickup Jake Lamb has proven a pleasant surprise in just six games (1.144 OPS over them) prior to this week.

That’s good, because the A’s will need all the pleasant surprises they can get. As if going 19-8 in August and 11-8 this month, following a 3-4 July, aren’t pleasant enough. They may still have a pleasant surprise coming in round one of the intolerably tolerable weirdness of the postseason to come.

This will also be the first time since 2015 that the Astros finish any season without the AL West crown on their heads. The Astros could still claim the final of six American League wild cards. Guess who’d tangle with them in the opening round if they do?

Hint: It’s the team whose pitching staff includes the former Astro who finally blew the Astrogate whistle last November, after he and plenty of others in the know couldn’t find sportswriters who could convince their editors to expose it without someone in the know going on record.

The entire Show gunned for the Astros this season once the Astros’ illegal, off-field-based electronic sign-stealing scandal’s depth plus the organisation’s seeming shortage of remorse became manifest in full. Nothing would have pleased the Show more than seeing the Astros humbled. Nothing would have pleased Astro fans—already coming to heartsick terms with their team’s subterfuges—less.

The A’s certainly did their part, taking the truncated season’s series against them 7-3, including a five-game set earlier this month in which they beat the Astros four out of five with two of the four decided by a single run and a third by two. The most satisfying of the five had to be when A’s center fielder Ramon Laureano singled trade deadline pickup Tommy La Stella home off Ryan Pressly in the bottom of the ninth, the day after the two teams split a doubleheader.

Earlier this season, the Astros spent a weekend drilling Laureano thrice, including twice in the final game of the set, the last of which provoked Laureano into a social distance-defying dugout confrontation when—after Laureano merely pantomimed a slider grip at Astros reliever Humberto Castellanos—Astro coach Alex Cintron threw him an insult that Latino men (Cintron himself is Latino) often answer with justifiable homicide at minimum.

In maybe the only instance in which commissioner Rob Manfred seemed to be whacked with the smart stick all year long, Cintron earned a twenty-game suspension to Laureano’s six. Cintron was offered no right of appeal; Laureano was. Appropriately.

At that point of the season the A’s had been hit by fourteen pitches. That weekend, Laureano wasn’t the only A to take three for the team; left fielder Robbie Grossman also took three drills from Houston pitching. The flip side: as of Monday, the Astros have taken twenty drills, led by utility infielder Abraham Toro’s six.

When the Astros tried mealymouthing their way through that February spring presser, during which the world hoped they’d own their 2017-18 espionage, practically seven eighths of players not wearing Astro uniforms swore their ranks would administer the justice Manfred didn’t.

Toro leading the Astros with six plunks isn’t right. He wasn’t even an Astro until down the stretch last year. Hitting him six times in the interest of Astro justice is rather like suing a new surgical intern for malpractise because of what his or her attending surgeon did two years earlier.

When Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly decided to send his own messages, at least he targeted two Astros (Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa) who’d been there and, unfortunately, done at least some of that. In a way, the Astros merely showing up to play— knowing they were the single most hated team in baseball, knowing they could have targets on their backs at any given time—showed character enough.

There were those, including Kelly, who pondered whether Manfred’s immunity in return for Astro players spilling their Astrogate secrets made them the snitches too many accused Fiers of being. When Astros pitcher Lance McCullers, Jr. lamented that nothing would be enough to satisfy Astrogate’s critics, he harrumphed concurrently, “By the way, there was only one snitch. And that’s the person who spoke to The Athletic.”

The pandemic also kept real fans out of the stands on the regular season, handing the Astros a big enough break. They didn’t have to try playing through live catcalls and boos and nasty banners in the stands. Road ballpark DJs were probably under orders not to even think about playing canned booing or nastygrams, never mind trash-can banging noises, whenever the Astros batted.

About the worst the Astros might have dealt with this season was the occasional cutout in the stands referencing their 2017-18 cheating. From what I’ve seen, trash can references were the most popular. When the Astros traveled to Los Angeles for a set with the Dodgers, fans outside Dodger Stadium’s entrance road let the Astros aboard their team bus have it. Trash can bangers abounded there. (One sign: “You’re lucky there’s a pandemic!”)

Even the independent league St. Paul Saints joined in the fun. They prepared an Astro the Grouch souvenir—showing a variation on the Sesame Street character in a trash can, with two baseball antennae on the lid, and a push-botton voice box calling the pitch or banging a can—as a late July giveaway and also for general sale. The demand overwhelmed their supplier.

The Saints issued an e-mail earlier this month saying Astro the Grouch would be on his way to his buyers at last, starting this week. (I’ll let you know when mine arrives.)

The A’s have resisted joining in the Astro trolling fun this year. Mostly. About the only team-delivered troll was a late July game in which the A’s didn’t play the Astros but did put a cutout in the stands of the Astros’ team mascot, Orbit . . .in a trash can. In early August, though, some A’s fans hired an airplane to fly around above the Oakland Coliseum towing a banner saying “Houston Asterisks.”

Of those who haven’t resisted Astrotrolls, maybe none was more relentless than Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer. He’s waged troll war against the Astros all year. His latest salvo: wearing cleats festooned with trash can images when he started against the postseason-bound Chicago White Sox this past Saturday. God only knows what Bauer has planned if some now-undetectable alchemy has his Reds meeting the Astros in the World Series. Big “if.”

Fiers proved himself made of tougher stuff than suspected after he spent a winter surviving everything from mere opprobrium to death threats. The A’s have proven themselves made of tougher stuff than suspected when coronaball finally got underway. Purely by dint of his rotational schedule, Fiers hasn’t faced the Astros on the mound this year just yet.

That could change if the Astros hold on to make the postseason and draw the A’s in round one. Add the likelihood of most of baseball world rooting for these much-burdened A’s to (sorry, can’t resist) can the Astros early, and that could make that round-one set must-listen radio or must-see TV.

Who hit Manfred with the smart stick?

2020-08-11 BasebrawlAstrosAs

A second drill of Ramon Laureano Sunday, followed by a vulgar insult thrown his way by Alex Cintron (who ducked away when the rumble began), triggers the brawl above . . . and gets Cintron suspended 20 but Laureano, six.

Mark well today’s date on your calendar. 11 August 2020. Until further notice, it will stand as Rob Manfred’s finest hour.

Alex Cintron, the Houston Astros hitting coach who goaded Oakland Athletics outfielder Ramon Laureano into charging the Astro dugout with an expletive Latinos consider grounds for justifiable homicide at most—suspended twenty games with no right to appeal.

Laureano, who’d been hit by Astro pitches three times last weekend and twice on Sunday, then had to put up with chirping from the Astro dugout after he pantomimed a slider grip following the second Sunday plunk—six games with a right to appeal. (And he should.)

Commissioner Nero using the brains he was born with for once—priceless.

USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale broke the news of Cintron first, Laureano immediately to follow, at about mid-day today. And while you can think that a player missing six games is a lot more critical than a coach missing twenty, especially in a pandemic-truncated season that still seems more Alfred Hitchcockian than Billy Hitchcockian, Cintron hit with the heaviest hammer sends a huge message.

Several key Astros hitters aren’t exactly running the table at the plate so far this year. Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker, and George Springer are hitting at or below the Mendoza Line. Alex Bregman is hitting more like Alex P. Keaton. Yuli Gurriel, Carlos Correa, and Michael Brantley are hitting like themselves, more or less, but those three aren’t always club carriers.

Wags, try to resist temptation to say you can’t hit what you don’t know in advance. But don’t let Cintron off the hook. A team who needs their hitting coach to hit their reset buttons at the plate needs to lose that hitting coach about as much as Mike Trout needs to lose his batting eye.

With one moment of abject stupidity, Cintron cost the Astros badly-needed resetting. Twenty games in a 162-game season is twelve percent of a long season. Twenty games in a truncated, 60-game season is a full third of a season that’s already been cast for an episode of The Outer Limits.

It’s not that charging the Astro dugout after Cintron uncorked his insult was necessarily brilliant on Laureano’s part, and Laureano knows it. But I’ll say it again: A Latino especially who knows that the vulgar version of “maternal fornicator” is a pair of fighting words to most Latino men is saying something at least as stupid as a certain American president saying the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic ended World War II.

Hurling that insult at a Latino gets you pounded into hamburger at minimum. At maximum, it can get you a shot in the head, or any other portion of your body at which the gun might be aimed.

And what the hell did Cintron or the Astros expect Laureano to do when he’d been hit by a second pitch Sunday and a third all weekend long? Send flowers? Blow them to steak dinners with all the trimmings?

We’re not exactly taking Commissioner Nero all the way off the hook just yet. His handling of the Astrogate scandal was a masterpiece of deferred accountability. He suspended a manager and general manager, fined an owner what amounts to tip money, and let every Astro player availing himself of the Astro Intelligence Agency’s illegal electronic sign-stealing network off the hook in return for spilling the deets.

He had to know good and bloody well that the Astros versus the A’s might have potential sub-stories, considering it was an A’s pitcher (and former Astro), Mike Fiers, who finally got fed up at the absence of press interest, no matter how many reporters he and others in the know told, and blew the whistle to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich last November.

You’d have to have been either a fool or a freshly-landed exile from the Klingon home world not to think that there was even a small chance that the Astros—who were only too notoriously un-apologetic about Astrogate this past aborted spring—might feel a little less remorse than repulsed that the A’s still harboured the big snitch.

Even if the A’s rotation setting meant Fiers wasn’t going to face them on the weekend. Even if the Astros’ pitching staff is injury-plagued enough that they lean as much on rookies such as the ones who did four-fifths of the weekend plunking. (Zack Greinke hit Robbie Grossman last Friday night.) Rookies aren’t immune to persuasions from their elders that one good way to make the team’s good graces is to send little messages in manners, however wrong or warped.

And, with everyone in baseball knowing that about seven-eighths of MLB players wanted if not demanded the proper Astrogate justice Manfred wouldn’t administer, Commissioner Nero looked even more foolish suspending Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly eight games for sending message pitches to Bregman and Correa in the same inning.

Nobody disputes that throwing upside Bregman’s head was dangerous stuff. But nobody with a mind disputes that Manfred’s hammer on Kelly’s head—which is still under appeal at this writing—looked even more arbitraily punitive, with or without the truncated season, compared to the blanket amnesty he granted the Astrogaters.

He did likewise with the Boston Red Sox and their Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring, of course. And, just as the Astros’ 2017 World Series title became tainted forever, so does the Red Sox’s 2018 World Series title. (Managed by Astrogate co-mastermind Alex Cora, the ’17 Astros’ bench coach/spymater.)

But those who still think the Astros get an unfair greater volume of scorn should remember there was (and remains) a significant difference between the two. One more time: The Astros went a few dozen bridges farther with their Astro Intelligence Agency, either installing or altering a real-time camera to facilitate their underground sign-stealing television network.

The Rogue Sox merely used what was already made available, at home and on the road. Nobody supplied the replay rooms with multiple video monitors for cheating, of course, but those rooms amounted to handing teenage boys the keys to the hooch hutch and telling them to resist temptation until they were of legal age.

Our better angels would like to think Manfred figured a few things out after the Kelly hoopla. Not just because he soon got a hammer to drop on any future cheaters, but because the hoopla reminded him in his heart of hearts that he shouldn’t have let the cheaters in Houston, in Boston, in the south Bronx (the Yankees were merely reprimanded for some 2017 chicanery), and perhaps elsewhere, off the hook anyway.

If our better angels are right, then for once Commissioner Nero put his fiddle down and behaved like an honest-to-God, genuine leader. For once.