It’ll take more than winning . . .

What Carlos Correa took on the shouhlder from Chris Bassitt on Opening Night isn’t likely to be the last such drill—not until the absolute last Astrogater isn’t an Astro anymore.

“Got to hear some boos, finally,” said Astros righthander Zack Greinke after Opening Night in Oakland. “That wasn’t fun to listen to, I didn’t think, but we played good so it didn’t matter. Hopefully we’ll keep playing good and it won’t be as big of an issue.”

Greinke wasn’t a member of the Astros in 2017. The season-opening roster now has only five remaining from that World Series-winning team: second baseman Jose Altuve, third baseman Alex Bregman, shortstop Carlos Correa, first baseman Yuli Gurriel, and pitcher Lance McCullers, Jr.

But there’s a reasonable enough suspicion that the Astros won’t stop hearing boos and catcalls until every last member of the 2017-18 team is gone, either to other teams or from the game itself. The pan-damn-ically truncated, fan-less, irregular 2020 season kept the Astros shielded from anything beyond fans outside the parks serenading their team bus.

Lucky them. Until now. With fans returning even in limited numbers this season, the Astros won’t be immune to road fans letting them have it. If Greinke thinks wins will neutralise them—wins such as their 8-1 Opening Night win over the Athletics—he may be guilty of wishful thinking.

That’d be a far less grave offense to be guilty of than the one over which the Astros remain convicted by the evidence and in the eyes of the rest of the game and its fans. The stain won’t leave for a long enough time. The pan-damn-ic didn’t really amputate the long arm of Astrogate after all.

Fair? Probably not to the 89 percent of the Astro roster who weren’t there and had nothing to do with Astrogate. More than fair to the eleven percent remaining.

Limited though it was by safety protocols, the Oakland crowd wasted no time. During pre-game introductions they booed the Astros loudly, accompanied by a few who carried assorted trash cans to bang just as loudly. The Astros should consider themselves lucky if lusty booing and can banging on the road are all they get.

“That’s fine,” said outfielder/designated hitter Michael Brantley of the Oakland crowd. “This is a veteran team. We’ve been in the World Series, we’ve been in the playoffs. The guys know how to compete day in and day out. They can boo, they can yell, they can do whatever they want. But at the end of the day we have each other’s backs, and that’s all that matters.”

Having each other’s backs is one thing. Genuine contrition for the worst cheating scandal major league baseball saw since the at-long-last-affirmed exposure of the 1915 New York Giants as pennant race comeback telescopic cheaters seems not to be Astro policy. That non-apologetically apology at last year’s spring-opening presser, pre-COVID shutdown, was no act, apparently.

They still don’t seem to get it so far. They still don’t seem to get just how terrible a look it was when commissioner Rob Manfred handed all 2017 players blanket immunity from discipline in return for spilling the deets about the Astro Intelligence Agency—the ones who either took an existing center field camera off its mandatory eight-second delay, or installed a new and illegal real-time camera, to steal signs from a clubhouse monitor and signal the stolen intelligence to their hitters with bangs on a large vinyl trash can nearby.

They still don’t seem to get, so far, that the AIA went a lot farther than went any team (the 2018 Boston Rogue Sox for certain, others quite possibly) who merely used existing video rooms at home and on the road to steal signs and relay them to baserunners to send the batters.

They still don’t get what then-Dodger pitcher Alex Wood meant when he said he’d rather face a batter using actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances than an AIA-like sign stealer, because the former still doesn’t know what’s coming and lacks the 50 percent or better chance of hitting it before he even sees the pitch.

They still don’t get why Astrogate team member Correa inspired lusty cheering when A’s starter Chris Bassitt drilled him in the fourth inning despite a runner being aboard. Or why Correa, Altuve, Bregman, and Gurriel are liable to be ongoing targets for brushbacks and knockdowns so long as they’re Astros.

Former Astrogater George Springer, now a Blue Jay, opened the season on the injured list. Will he face the catcalls from Blue Jay opponents unable to forget he was one of the Astrogate team? Time will tell, though other former Astrogaters haven’t really felt it in the hips or on opposing fans’ lips. Yet.

Remember: When Astrogate exploded from mere revelation in November 2019 to Manfred’s final report and limited discipline—the team fined and stripped of draft picks, general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch suspended for the season, then Luhnow and Hinch fired by owner Jim Crane who seemed himself barely able to grok the outrage—it wasn’t just fans outraged by the AIA.

Long ago, the father-in-law of convicted killer Jeffrey MacDonald, fearing his son-in-law might yet remain free on appeal in the deaths of his pregnant wife and two young daughters, proclaimed publicly, “If the courts of this country won’t administer justice, I most certainly will.” More players than you may remember said much the same thing about administering to the Astros the justice Manfred truly denied, though they didn’t quite have murder in their hearts for the unjudged.

Dodger relief pitcher Joe Kelly showed such players weren’t kidding, late last July, when he got his chance and sailed ball four past Bregman’s shoulder and subsequently threw one behind Correa’s head. For every one soul a little put-off by Kelly’s dusters, there were probably three who thought he didn’t go far enough administering Astrogate justice.

Too many fans would love nothing better than to see every last being in Astro fatigues pay such prices as Bregman and Correa. I observed one social media poster writing, and probably speaking for too many “Bean balls, mound charging, spiking, spitting, fighting, punches, headlocks, punches to the face hard and often. Umpires should call every pitch against them a strike.”

And then we should get really mad?

Actually, we should have Wednesday night—at home plate umpire Brian Gorman. He called strike on a wide outside pitch to Brantley early in the game, called balls on two more strikes so obvious Helen Keller could have seen them, and then Brantley slashed a single more or less into center field on one of the upper strikes that Gorman might have called a ball if taken. Brantley should have been out on strikes in that plate appearance.

Gorman was an equal opportunity offender. He called strike three on the A’s Matt Olson on a pitch that was far enough off the outside corner to slide a bat through without it touching either side. All night long Gorman’s strike zone was more improvisational than music legends John Coltrane, Cream, and Miles Davis. Robby the Umpbot may be closer to arriving at last than people think or might like.

You can search the archives of this journal and see precisely where I stood (and continue to stand) on Astrogate. So you know I’m not just looking to take the culprits off the hook when I say there’s a limit to how much Astrogate justice their opponents can administer and road fans can demand.

I get the urge and itch to send messages to Altuve, Bregman, Correa, and Gurriel. (McCullers being a pitcher won’t be batting unless he’s in the game and the Astros are playing a National League team on the road, thanks to Commissioner Nero forcing the absence of the universal designated hitter for this season at least.) They were members of the Astrogate team and they got away with murder.

But Brantley didn’t join the Astros until 2019. The rest of the roster had nothing to do with Astrogate. Joe and Jane Fan don’t always draw the proper distinctions, but the players can, do, and should. Save the return messages for the real culprits. Right?

Sort of. Nobody held a gun to the Astros’ heads to compel them to extend Gurriel another year with an option for next year. Nobody held guns to their heads to compel them to try for an extension for Correa, who now says he’s looking forward to the free agency market he’ll hit after this season.

Altuve and Bregman are locked in as Astros until 2024. Nobody will hold guns to the Astros’ heads and force the team to extend or re-sign them further. If any team reads the appropriate tea leaves and decides to make a trade play for either one, nobody will hold the Astros hostage until they agree to retain the pair.

It’s not fair to blame the entire 2021 Astro roster for the crimes of the eleven percent remaining Astrogaters. But it’s entirely understandable. The Astros will have to live with the continuing ramifications of their cheating and the continuing outrage of opponents and fans until the absolute last Astrogater no longer wears their fatigues.

The A’s re-up the whistleblower

Mike Fiers—the A’s re-sign the Astrogate whistleblower.

Under ordinary circumstances a team signing a good pitcher who’s a worthy number-four man in a starting rotation isn’t extraordinary. But then there’s Mike Fiers, whom the Athletics have re-upped for 2021 on a one-year, $3.5 million deal. There’s also San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer Susan Slusser dropping a troublesome suggestion.

Now the Giants’ beat writer and a former president of the Baseball Writers Association of America, Slusser was a longtime A’s beat writer for the Chronicle. So when she says, “The A’s were the only team to make Fiers an offer, I’m told. Interesting – was he being blackballed for being a whistleblower? I certainly hope that’s not the case,” it ought to sound an alarm or two.

Lots of teams have been in need of third and below starters. It shouldn’t have been that difficult for an innings-eating righthander with fourth-starter solidity to find a job even in this winter’s somewhat surreal market. Except that Fiers, who did say his preference was to stay in Oakland, isn’t just an ordinary fourth starter.

Whistleblowers don’t fare as well as some people think after their whistles blast cases of wrongdoing to smithereens. When Fiers blew his on the Astros’ illegal off-field-based electronic sign-stealing cheating of 2017 and some of 2018 (at least) to The Athletic, it seemed as though half of baseball considered him a hero and half a rat bastard.

He moved to the Tigers for 2018 and to the A’s later that season. He warned both collections of new teammates that the Astros were playing with a stacked deck. He and others suspecting the Astros of extracurricular pitch intelligence also tried futilely to convince members of the press to run with and investigate it; those writers couldn’t convince their editors to let them run without a name willing to go on public record.

That’s when Fiers finally put his name on it to Athletic writers Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich in November 2019. From which point it swelled toward Commissioner Rob Manfred’s marshmallow hammer, the hammer constructed when he handed Astro players immunity in return for spilling, suspended a GM and a manager, voided two key draft picks and fined owner Jim Crane pocket money.

The Astros likely weren’t the only team in the Show using extracurricular off-field-based sign stealing, just the most sophisticated. They took an existing center field camera off the mandatory eight-second delay or installed a surreptitious new such camera, set monitors up in the clubhouse, and translators would decode the pitch signs and signal hitters with bangs on an adjacent trash can.

The 2018 Red Sox turned out to have enlisted their video rooms at home and on the road for a little extra aid to old-fashioned gamesmanship: the signs would be decoded off the feeds and sent to baserunners to signal batters. They—and anyone else thinking and doing likewise (would you be shocked?)—didn’t install anything extra.

Essentially, the Show handed those Rogue Sox and others, who knows how many yet, the keys to the liquor cabinet and dared them not to imbibe while Mom and Dad high tailed it out of town for the weekend.

Some looked at Fiers’ membership on the 2017 Astros and discovered a rank hypocrite, never mind that if he’d blown his whistle then he’d also have been denounced most likely as a backstabber on the spot. (Fiers wasn’t on those Astros’ postseason roster.) It’s called hell if you do and hell if you don’t.

“Even in cases of obvious right and wrong,” wrote The Athletic‘s Marc Carig last year, “crying foul on family is easy to call for in retrospect and hard to do in real time.” Remind yourself if you will how often you learned of egregious wrongdoing and lamented the lack of a whistleblower. Now ask how simple it really is to blow the whistle in the moment or even a comparatively short time later.

It took New York police legends Frank Serpico and David Durk several years’ futility trying to get that police department to attack graft before they finally went to the New York Times and launched the largest New York police scandal since Brooklyn-based bookie Harry Gross was found to have enough police on his payroll to staff half his borough’s precincts.

Cheating may be sports’ oldest profession, but affirmations don’t always happen concurrent to the instances, for the reason Carig enunciated. When Joshua Prager finally affirmed what was long just suspected—that the 1951 New York Giants cheated their way back into the pennant race to force the fabled playoff with an elaborate telescopic sign-stealing operation—it was half a century after the fact, with the surviving principals willing to talk long retired.

Prager eventually expanded his expose into The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca, and the Shot Heard Round the World. “A spitballer or corker can be caught by an umpire, who has the right to examine or confiscate equipment,” wrote the Washington Post‘s Thomas Boswell when Prager first hit The Wall Street Journal running.

Both teams play on the same damp base paths and inclined foul lines, even if they’ve been doctored a bit for home-field advantage.

But an elaborate system of sign stealing—with an old pro in the art of signs in a hidden space—is almost impossible to catch. Umps and foes are defenseless. The game becomes fundamentally unfair because knowing what’s coming is a big deal.

If revealing the Astros’ elaborate 2017-18 system at last made Fiers a criminal, maybe baseball needs more such criminals. If other teams needing fourth starters refused to even think about him because he blew a whistle instead of a ball game, after two years worth of trying futilely to get others to investigate without a blown whistle, something’s worse than a hanging slider driven out of sight.

Slusser doesn’t know for dead last certain. Neither does anyone else, possibly including Fiers. To those who still think blowing the whistle is worse than the crime, perhaps you’d like to ask what might have been, instead, if Alexander Butterfield hadn’t suffered a pang of conscience and an inability to lie under oath enough to expose Richard Nixon’s White House taping system.

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.