The Phillies look a gift Brave in the mouth

Will Smith, Travis d'Arnaud

Will Smith and Travis d’Arnaud, after the Phillies somehow declined the gift Smith tried to give in the ninth Tuesday.

Until the top of the ninth Tuesday night the Phillies hadn’t scored a single run in their previous twenty innings. Then the Braves all but gifted the Phillies a run in that ninth. They’d even gifted the Phillies the potential go-ahead run and then the bases loaded with one out.

The problem was the Phillies picking the wrong way to say thank you. All that got them was elimination from the National League’s wild card race with a 2-1 loss. It’s win the NL East or wait till next year for them now.

But the ninth-inning high-wire routines of lefthanded relief pitcher Will Smith—with a rather remarkable ability to get himself into hot water—got a little too high on the wire Tuesday night.

It wasn’t so much that he and the Braves escaped as that the Phillies sent a helicopter overhead to lift him to safety when they should have left him and the Braves wiring mad. The Braves won’t always find the opposition that willing to bail them out.

Thanks in large part to their grand old man Charlie Morton’s seven-inning, ten-strikeout, shutout-ball gem, while managing to pry only two runs out of Phillies starter Zack Wheeler in seven otherwise-strong innings, the Braves may have been lucky to take a 2-0 lead into that ninth.

But with Smith having the opening advantage against lefthanded Bryce Harper, the major leagues’ OPS leader, Smith found himself in a wrestling match that ended with Harper wringing himself aboard with a leadoff walk. Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto now represented the potential game-tying run at the plate.

Realmuto hit one on a high line to right center that ninth-inning center field insertion Guillermo Heredia had to run down long to catch on a high backhand. That spot of Braves fortune lasted just long enough for Phillies pinch-hitter Matt Vierling to hit a high liner to left, where Braves left fielder Eddie Rosario ran over, extended his glove, and watched the ball carom off its fingertips, setting up second and third for the Phillies.

Now the Phillies had veteran Andrew McCutchen—a long way from his days as a center field gazelle and a 2015 NL Most Valuable Player for a better array of Pirates—coming to the plate. McCutchen isn’t the danger he was once seen to be anymore, but he’s a veteran who still knows what he’s doing at the plate, and the Braves had no intention of letting his righthanded bat lay them to waste.

So the Braves ordered McCutchen walked intentionally, putting the potential second go-ahead run aboard, even while it looked as though Smith fooled nobody at the plate. The problem was that putting McCutchen aboard also put the Phillies’ fate into two bats described best as balky.

Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius continued playing through a bothersome elbow and a shrunken ability to handle pitching from the same side as which he swings, lefthanded. Third baseman Freddy Galvis, lately pressed into everyday service, simply keeps proving why the Phillies unloaded him in the first place four years ago—he’s not truly an everyday player, and though he switch-hits he’s not exactly a game-breaker at the plate.

The Braves now had only to pray that Smith could survive. The Phillies had only to pray that Gregorius and Galvis had a few more unexpected surprises in their bats. Every Braves fan in Atlanta’s Truist Park had to pray that Smith could put his own fire out with a real retardant, not with gasoline.

He served Gregorius a 1-1 offering, and Gregorius hit a high liner that looked for a few seconds as though it would find a way off the right field wall—but Braves right fielder Adam Duvall ambled back in front of the track to haul it in for the critical second out even as Harper was able to tag and score from third.

Now Smith went to work against Galvis. Two balls in the dirt, ball three high, a grounded foul for strike one, a called strike right down the pipe, and a hard line foul down the left field side out of play. Then, Smith threw Galvis a meatball so fat it could have been hit with a cardboard paper towel tube.

Galvis swung right through it. Strike three and the game.

The Cardinals won their seventeenth straight behind the aging arm of their own grand old man Adam Wainwright and a trio of home runs in a 6-2 win over the Brewers Tuesday night. The Phillies’ postseason hopes shrank to a hair in their none-too-formidable division.

“We have to win out,” said Phillies first baseman Brad Miller postgame. Easier said than done. They have to beat the Braves tonight and tomorrow and hope the Mess (er, Mets) beat the Braves over the coming weekend.

That’s what happens when you open a game the way the Phillies did, with back-to-back singles in the top of the first, but you can’t cash them in after a force out, a swinging strikeout, and an infield ground out—two days after the Phillies were shut out by the NL Central bottom-feeding Pirates, of all people.

That’s what happens when Morton—the last man standing on the mound when the Astros won their now-tainted 2017 World Series title—all but toyed with them the rest of the way, the 37-year-old righthander making the Phillies’ lefthanded lineup stack look silly in going 2-for-15 with a walk before his evening ended.

“The moment doesn’t get too big for him, I know that,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker about Old Man Morton, who kept the Phillies off-balance on a deftly blended diet of curve balls, changeups, and fastballs. “I think he does a really good job of just staying with the next pitch and doesn’t get caught up in the big picture. And it’s just about making the next pitch, which is really, really good. That was, gosh, seven really good innings.”

That’s what happens when Wheeler, the National League’s strikeout leader among pitchers entering Tuesday, could manhandle the more formidable portion of the Braves’ lineup but couldn’t quite contain their lower-leverage bottom of the order in the bottom of the third—a leadoff double (Travis d’Arnaud, hitting seventh), an immediate first-pitch single (Dansby Swanson, hitting eighth) put Braves on the corners with nobody out.

Morton then bunted a high chop off the plate that pushed Swanson to second on the out, but Jorge Soler, the Braves’ leadoff hitter in the lineup, ripped a hard single down the left field line to send both runners home easily enough, before Wheeler retired Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies on grounders to second baseman Jean Segura.

That was the game until that too-close ninth. But the game put the Phillies’ core flaws into stark light, too. Even before the Phillies and the Braves squared off, The Athletic‘s Matt Gelb isolated the point: “[T]hey have too many holes right now.”

Didi Gregorius is tough to play against lefties. Andrew McCutchen is tough to play against righties. They love what Brad Miller has done, but he won’t start against lefties. Matt Vierling has provided a surprise boost for the Phillies in September, but he hasn’t gained the full trust of [manager] Joe Girardi.

The Phillies also lack the one thing that’s enabled the Braves to hang in and stand now on the threshold of wrapping an NL East that wasn’t exactly a division of baseball terrorists in the first place. Sure, the Mets spent 103 days leading the division—deceptively, as things turned out—but nobody in the NL East looked that much like a powerhouse.

What the Phillies lack that the Braves proved to have in abundance is depth. Their Harpers, Realmutos, and Wheelers all but willed them to stay in the race in the first place, but it may not have been enough. They just weren’t deep enough to hang in without major effort. A coming off-season overhaul may not shock anyone.

The Braves were deep enough in system and in the thought process of general manager Alex Anthopoulos that they withstood the full-season loss of their best young pitcher (Mike Soroka) and the rest-of-season loss of franchise center fielder Ronald Acuna, Jr. to serious injuries.

But they still have to find ways to neutralise that ninth-inning high-wire act.

Don’t let the 36 saves fool you. Smith’s 3.55 ERA and 4.28 fielding-independent pitching (FIP) should tell you the real story. So should 28 walks against 84 strikeouts in 66 innings’ work so far, not to mention 3.8 walks per nine innings. He seems too much to play with matches.

Snitker has two far-superior pen men to send forth when the game gets late and dicey, Luke Jackson (1.90 ERA) and Tyler Matzek (2.66 ERA). Between them, Jackson and Matzek pack a 3.34 FIP, a lot more comfortable than Smith’s. They should be considered more than in passing as viable ninth-inning options.

If these Braves want to get past postseason round one, they may want to consider how much less Jackson and Matzek like to tempt fate or challenge for baseball Darwin Awards. The last thing the Braves need now is to be the cobra with its own ninth-inning mongoose.

There’s another nice Mess they’ve gotten themselves into

Jacob deGrom

Losing Jacob deGrom for the season was the key blow, but the Mets lacked the ability to overcome that the Braves and the Phillies—squaring off critically this week—really had.

This is what 2021 became for the Mess (er, Mets). As MLB Network’s Jon Heyman points out rather cruelly, this year’s Mets have done what no Show team ever has done: spent the most days in first place (103) in a year they’ll finish with a losing record.

Look to your non-laurels, every St. Louis Brown ever, every Washington Senator before and after 1924, every Indian since the Berlin Airlift, every 1964 Phillie, every 1980s Brave, every 1987 Blue Jay, and even every 2007 Met.

Feel just a little better about yourselves, fellow 2021 collapsers in San Diego. Maybe you both fell out of contention officially and once and for all on the same day. But that exhausts whatever you actually had in common.

Well, ok. You both spent lavishly last offseason to augment, fortify, and strengthen. “It is a familiar formula,” the New York Post‘s Joel Sherman reminds us. “The teams that spend the most and/or add the most famous players are cheered and crowned in winter, often followed soon after by dismay in summer.”

Dismay? How about deflation? How about disaster? How about formerly gleeful prognosticators and impatient fan bases who feel again as though they’ve been walked up to the mountaintop, shown the Promised Land, and given a swift kick in the tail with a jackboot to crash on the rocks below?

Joe and Jane Padre Fan should count their blessings. They’re not half as accustomed to great expectations turning to gross vaporisations as are Joe and Jane Met fan. Joe and Jane Padre Fan adjacent to the pleasant, embracing San Diego waterfront expect no miracles but merely hope.

Joe and Jane Met Fan inside the belly of the New York beast, adjacent to the rumbling East River, expect everything—until they don’t. Even when the Mets held fast at the top of the none-too-powerful National League East heap this year, there was always the sense that, somewhere in New York or beyond, there was at least a minyan worth of Met fans thinking to themselves, “OK, when’s it going to happen?”

If you don’t know what “it” is, you haven’t watched the Mets for half as long as I have. And I was there to see them born with Abbott pitching to Costello and Who the Hell’s on first, What the Hell’s on second, You Don’t Want to Know’s at third, You Don’t Even Want to Think About It’s at shortstop, the Three Stooges in the outfield, the Four Marx Brothers on the bench, the Keystone Kops in the bullpen, and Laurel and Hardy on the coaching lines. I’m still not sure whether it was Casey Stengel or Ernie Kovacs managing that team.

Even by the standards of this year’s NL East, the division was the Mets’ for the taking—and they let the tellers reach for their own pistols to stick them up at the bank window. Meanwhile, the Braves and the Phillies open a series today in Atlanta. A measly two games separate them at the top of the division.

Too many Met injuries? Well, yes. But let’s look around.

The Braves lost a franchise player (Ronald Acuna, Jr.) trying for a leaping outfield catch dead middle through the season. One day later, they sat at 44-45. Since the All-Star break: 39-27. The Phillies almost lost a franchise player (Bryce Harper) at April’s end, hit in the face and wrist hard with a pitch, watched him struggle to get back into his full form through a wrist injury. At the All-Star break: 44-44. Since the All-Star break: 37-31.

Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos simply reached out, plucked a few spare outfielders at or around the trade deadline, and found the unforeseen gems in Jorge Soler and (after wearing out his welcome in Los Angeles and Chicago) Joc Pederson.

Phillies general manager Sam Fuld might have shocked more than a few observers (and a lot more than a few Phillies fans) when he went trolling for pitching at the deadline—but he came away with Ian Kennedy for the bullpen and Kyle Gibson to augment the rotation.

As in, the rotation that already included Zack Wheeler pitching his way into this year’s Cy Young Award conversation after spending last year only beginning to make the Mets wish, possibly, that they hadn’t given up his ghost just yet. In case Joe and Jane Met Fan need it rubbed in a little further, Wheeler to date has a 2.63 ERA, a 7.14 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a .216 opposition batting average against his former team.

Entering this week’s just about do-or-die set with each other, the Braves are fifth in the National League for team OPS to the Phillies at sixth. The Braves are sixth in the league with a team 3.95 ERA against the Phillies tenth with 4.41. They both play in home parks hitters love, but the Braves as of Tuesday morning were a .500 team at home while the Phillies as of Tuesday were seven below .500 on the road.

They’re both in better shape than the deflated Mess in New York. Losing deGrom for the season, after he dropped a few more jaws despite earlier injury interruptions, was a blow that couldn’t be cauterised or treated simply. That goes without saying.

But the Mets’ pitching staff not named deGrom got reminded rudely and the hard way that they could even pitch no-hit ball and still discover themselves betrayed. The Mets turned up lost or terribly inconsistent at the plate, almost with or without men in scoring position and showing a distinct knack for bats coming back to life only after it mattered the most.

Marcus Stroman in particular pitched like an ace among the remaining starters; Aaron Loup turned into the Mets’ most dangerous bullpen weapon; Javier Baez shook off his early shakes upon arrival in New York to perform according to his previous notices.

But Francisco Lindor remained a textbook and casebook study at shortstop while struggling to live up to his glandular extension at the plate for the first two-thirds of the season. Michael Conforto in his walk year may or may not have pressed too furiously under the weight of his hopes for either a Met future or a free agency pay day. Pete Alonso re-learned the hard way that his bomb sight meant too little when there wasn’t always someone for him to drive in or someone behind him to drive him in.

That was how the Mets collapsed in August, entered September on a roll showing 10-5 from 28 August-12 September, then went 1-10 from there through Tuesday morning.

It’s one thing to give the boo birds a taste of their own medicine. To this day too many sports fans and too many sports commentators alike equate defeat with moral and character failure. Too many sports fans and too many commentators alike think a loss, or even a losing record (with or without spending 64 percent of the year in first place), equals the end of what’s left of the free world.

But from the top down, these Mets also seemed more interested in blaming the outside than looking inward when trouble arose. It’s something else entirely to say it’s all the fans’ or the press’s fault that a genuinely talented team didn’t know how to overcome the injury bugs the Braves and the Phillies overcame—in a division that looked so modest most of the season that any team ironing up for it could steal it in broad daylight.

Still-new owner Steve Cohen’s growing pains must end after the season does. The end must only begin with finding a new general manager and president of baseball operations. (Preferably, men or women who have verifiable allergies to scandal.) Possibly a new manager, though incumbent Luis Rojas hasn’t been a bad manager so much as he’s been a befuddled one as often as not.

But the most important acquisition the Mets can make to begin their revival should be an unfogged, unclouded mirror. The kind that enables them to see clearly, without alternative, where the issues lay. The kind that might have them unwilling to break the dubious record this year’s model’s collapse enabled them to set.

“It’s been a show for quite awhile”

Bryce Harper

Philadelphia’s king of swing launches one into the second deck Thursday night.

When April was just about over, Bryce Harper resembled dead meat. He’d just been nose-coned by an errant Genesis Cabrera fastball, and it turned out worse for him. No, his schnozz wasn’t smashed, but the pitch ricocheted onto his left wrist.

After an April that finished with him showing a 1.063 OPS Harper’s May was abbreviated to fifteen games and a .634 OPS to show for them. Clearly enough the lefthanded launcher struggled through the injury, making far less than his normal hard contact, and probably should have been tied down to rest and let it heal properly.

Finally, after an 0-for-5 game on 22 May, Harper was indeed put on the injured list. Phillies manager Joe Girardi got caught lying through his teeth about the depth of Harper’s wrist injury. Some believed the Phillies would rather “engage in subterfuge to trick the opposing manager than play with an actual full roster.”

One way or the other, for all the tricks and lack of treats, Harper clawed his way back. All the way back to awakening this morning with the major league leadership in OPS (1.055) and OPS+ (183). All the way back to the rare standing of a .300+/.400+/.600+ slash line. (Harper’s: .314/.428/.627.)

All the way back into the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award conversation. All the way back from that balky wrist to entering a weekend set against the Mets as Philadelphia’s king of swing.

All the way back to helping as big as Harper can help in yanking the Phillies back to three games behind the Braves in the National League East and 2.5 games away from the second National League wild card.

If you wonder how big that can be at the most extreme, you should have watched the Phillies resurrect themselves against the Cubs, 17-8 Thursday night—with Harper doing the critical damage, especially a mammoth home run in the seventh.

So the Cubs battered seven runs out of the Phillies in the top of the third? The Phillies tore seven out of the Cubs in the bottom of the fourth. The Cubs who thought they had it made after the third didn’t know yet that they’d all but had it for the night.

Harper had already walked twice in the game when he squared off against Cub reliever Manuel Rodrigez in the bottom of the sixth with first and second and one out. On 1-2 he hit a long double sending Odubel Herrera home with the tiebreaking run. One out later, Didi Gregorius—who’d been drilled by a Cabrera pitch immediately after Harper took one off his beak in that late April game—singled Juan Segura and Harper home to make it 10-7, Phillies.

The next inning, after Willson Contreras got one back for the Cubs with a homer in the top of the frame, Harper got even more frisky. After Herrera doubled a pair home with one out, Harper faced yet another Cub reliever, Rex Brothers, and showed anything but brotherly love with first and third—he hit a three-run homer.

Segura merely added insult to injury with a two-run double in the bottom of the eighth. The Cubs, who’ve been dying since their trade deadline fire sale, gave up the ghost several innings earlier.

They must have wondered whether they’d been a little too greedy over apparent Phillies generosity in that seven-run third. Phillies starter Matt Moore walked the bases loaded and then hit Ian Happ with a pitch to start the Cub fun. Contreras then lined Rafael Ortega home, Patrick Wisdom sent a two-run double to the back of left center, and—one strikeout later—Matt Duffy hit one over the left center field fence.

The Phillies must have said to themselves, “Greed shall be its own downfall” in the fourth. Andrew McCutchen started that party with a two-run double down the right field line. A base hit and a hit batsman later, Matt Joyce wrung Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks for a bases-loaded walk. Herrera drove Brad Miller home with a base hit, and Freddy Galvis scored on a ground out, before Harper drew his second walk and J.T. Realmuto singled Joyce and Herrera home.

The full fifth and the top of the sixth passed cleaner than hounds’ teeth before Matt Vierling opened the bottom with a base hit up the pipe. After Herrera reached on an error at first base and Segura forced Vierling at third, Harper hit one the other way down the left field line to break the seven-all tie, before coming home with Segura when Grigorius shot one through the hole at shortstop into left.

Those were just warmups for what proved the main attraction in the seventh, with Herrera on third, Segura on first, and Harper hitting Brothers’s first pitch into the second deck behind right field.

“It feels good,” Harper said post-game, “but we’ve got a while to go. I want to keep playing well and have good at-bats, have good games and just be where we need to be down the stretch.”

“We’re all involved in this, right? And the game is always, to me, about our team,” Girardi said. “But he’s a big reason why we’ve hung around, just because of the season that he’s had and the last two-and-a-half months, whatever he’s done. It’s been incredible to watch. It’s been a show for quite awhile.”

“The challenge,” writes The Athletic‘s Matt Gelb, “has always been squeezing enough from the roster around Harper. It is flawed and will continue to be flawed even if the Phillies sneak into the postseason. It will not dampen the doubts about the organization’s long-term plan. But Harper has given the Phillies everything he promised, and the rest of the franchise has seventeen days to make it count for something.”

Neither Girardi nor the Phillies want the show to end. It might or might not be just a sliver outside possibility’s realm. But in theory, at least, they could even reach the postseason by a nose.

“Give us better balls”

J.T. Realmuto, Aaron Nola

J.T. Realmuto with Aaron Nola. The catcher says building a better baseball would be the logical thing. Logical? In the Age of Manfred?

If there’s anyone in baseball who should know pitchers and pitching better than the pitchers and their pitching coaches, it’s the catchers. Fellows like the Phillies’ J.T. Realmuto.

The number one job a catcher has is handling his pitching staff. The pitchers who’ve thrown to Realmuto in eight years major league time have a 4.50 ERA with him behind the plate. That’s 4.16 above the league average over those seasons.

But that was also Realmuto behind the dish Friday night, when Aaron Nola struck ten straight Mets out from the first through the fourth, beginning and ending with Mets outfielder Michael Conforto . . . and tying the record set by the Mets’ late Hall of Famer Tom Seaver.

(How Phillies was this—their man breaks a record like that and they still lose the game? That Philadelphia wedding changed from “You may now boo the bride” to the couple reciting their wedding vows—and the minister handing them their divorce decree.)

So presume that Realmuto might be a little better and smarter than his pitchers’ overall ERA indicates. Could also depend on the pitchers, too. Nola’s an established ace, even if he’s not in the deGrom/Scherzer/Kershaw society.

Thus you might listen when Realmuto—who was rather outspoken before baseball’s government decided to enforce a foreign substances law it hadn’t enforced in a couple of generations—admits he can’t figure out what commissioner Rob Manfred was or wasn’t thinking when he decided it was time to stop, frisk, and dock almost midway through the working season.

“The biggest deal was to get guys to stop using the stuff that increased their spin rate the most,” Realmuto told The Athletic‘s Matt Gelb. “Guys have been using sunscreen and rosin forever. Now they’re not letting you do anything. So I really think the best thing they could possibly do, which obviously can’t happen during the season, is to get a better ball. Find a better ball. That’s the logical thing. It would make everybody happy.”

“He’s kidding, right?” said Sticky Fingers McSpidertack when he rang me too early this morning. I hadn’t even finished my first big mug of coffee, and Sticky was already trying to pick my reawakening brain. Remind me to get even some way.

“I don’t think he was kidding, Stick,” I replied. “Bear in mind that I’m still a little groggy. Dogs awakening you prematurely can do that to you.”

“Yeah, I know,” Stick said. “But when he says the best thing to do is to find a better ball, that scares me a little bit.”

“Why?” I asked. “It makes perfect sense, even to my still half-cloudy brain. I’ve said it myself before. Commissioner Nero needs to quit fiddling with the balls the way it’s been done the last few years and get a ball the pitchers can work with and the hitters can still hit.”

“You really need me to tell you?” Stick said. “Look at the past few American generations overall, never mind in baseball. Once upon a time, you built a better mouse trap and got rid of a better class of mice. That was then, this is now. Now, you build a better mouse trap and the cats gang up on you.”

“This is Commissioner Nero we’re talking about,” I said. “When he played the Mouse Trap Game as a kid, the mouse usually escaped.”

“I hear that. Even if you still sound like you’re talking underwater.”

“I still need my second mug of coffee, Stick.”

After I retrieved mug number two, I turned back to Realmuto’s commentary. He knows there were a few guys on the mound using their naughty sauce not to get a grip but to relieve the hitters of their grip—with a spin cycle that could get clothes completely dry as opposed to just damp dry if their pitches were the tumblers inside a front-loading washing machine.

But he also knows that most pitchers, plying their trade like the honest artisans they strive to be, weren’t using that new-fashioned medicated goo just to divide and conquer, either. “[T]hey can’t just not work with pitchers. You can’t throw them out there with these slick balls,” he insisted to Gelb.

It has to be somewhere in between where they can make a ball that has enough grip where guys don’t have to do that to be able to control it, but also a ball that’s not so sticky that it’s increasing spin rate. Which they should be able to do. It’s been different every season for the last four or five years. So it’s like, they can change the ball if they want. They just need to find the ball that works for everyone.

“Sounds so simple a child of five could do it. Now, somebody send the Phillies a child of five,” Stick said, channeling his inner Groucho Marx.

Gelb said, practically, that asking the Phillies themselves about the balls proved to be something like asking Jacques Cousteau about space exploration.

“Hey, I’m sure they’re trying, right? I guess for whatever reason they haven’t been able to find a ball that’s acceptable to everybody, but I know they’re working on it,” said Phillies president of baseball ops Dave Dombrowski. “I’ve been in GM meetings years ago where they passed around the ball with more tack on it, like they use in Japan, and say they were trying to develop something like that. But for whatever reason, we haven’t been able to find it. I hope they do. It would solve a lot.”

The dear boy.

News flash: MLB owns Rawlings, the sporting goods giant charged with making the Show’s balls. And, as Gelb writes, “it has pleaded ignorance to the constant changes in how the ball feels and behaves.”

“That’s the problem,” Stick said. “Commissioner Nero and his minions don’t have to plead ignorance. Their ignorance is the worst kept secret in baseball.”

“It is the single most important element to everything about the sport right now,” Gelb went on. “A consistent baseball. The lower seams and tighter-wound balls, combined with a lax attitude toward how doctoring the ball was policed, compelled pitchers to use sunscreen and stickier substances to better grip it.”

“That’s the other problem,” Stick said. “You don’t need me to tell you that, if you show me twenty pitchers finding solutions to working with these baby-ass-smooth balls, I’ll show you one or two pitchers figuring out they can squat inside hitters’ heads without even signing a lease.”

“I thought your own best pitch was what you called the Irish Spring Slider.”

“It was, until I switched to Ivory. Then every side was the dry side getting clobbered on me.”

Realmuto admitted he’s glad the Nero Regime did “something,” but he also admits he doesn’t know that they did the right thing. “But something had to change.” Something still has to change. If only Realmuto knew something about the art and science of making a baseball. He’d be better running Rawlings than the Nero Regime seems to be.

Since the Nero Regime are that ignorant about how to make baseballs, and that insouciant in their ignorance, how about coming up with a ball gripper both the Show’s government and, you know, the ones who actually go out there and play the game, can live with, without operating the Ball Police or the Stickum Security Service?

“I lost my Internet,” Stick said. “What does Gelb say about that?”

I read the quote back to him: “A mud machine and a rosin swab would be great. Science is amazing, and so is modern technology. Anything is possible — except a more consistent baseball with a transparent process about how it is manufactured.”

Stick pondered that a moment. Then, he said, “How come the country that came up with baseball in the first place can’t build a better baseball?”

“Because,” I said, “the moment someone comes up with that better mouse trap, the cats are liable to gang up on him.”

The Book of Ecdysiastes 1, 3, and 4

Max Scherzer

“I’m so happy I could just strip!”

“In the name of God and His servant Preacher Roe, just what the hell did Joe Girardi think he was doing out there tonight?” That was Gunko Gluedius on the Zoom. He was watching the Phillies play the Nationals Tuesday.

He couldn’t believe Max Scherzer came straight from the injured list and onto the suspect list. Three times in the same game.

“The TSA isn’t this freakazoid when they run you through the airport security checks,” I said, as calmly as I could. I know Gunko. He’s a pitching freak. It’s almost the only part of baseball he really loves. The other part is watching people like Anthony Fauci throw ceremonial first pitches sideways while aiming forward.

“No, they’re not,” Gunko replied. “Not with me, anyway. I had to fly to Seattle last week. I didn’t have the pre-check pass but they still didn’t think I should be peeled like a banana.”

Sometimes Scherzer looks like a fellow who’s spent as much time under the old-fashioned automotive grease rack as he’s spent on the mound. Sometimes he looks like a fellow who spent too much time cleaning the oven so his wife could have a big break.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s given to keeping anything like Goop, Pennzoil, Easy-Off, or pieces of Brillo hidden around his assorted anatomy.

He didn’t have to be thrilled about it, but he knew going in he’d be checked after his first inning’s work. But then Girardi decided to get cute. Especially with the Nats holding a 3-1 lead after three, the lone Phillies run to that point courtesy of former Nat Bryce Harper hitting a down and in cutter up and out into the right field seats in the second.

After a clearly unamused Scherzer stood for his second mandatory random search of the game in the third, Girardi asked the umpires to check Max the Knife again in the fourth.

“I bet that’s the only time in baseball history a manager decided to punish a pitcher for surrendering a bomb to his guy,” Gunko joked. I’m not necessarily sure he’ll win that bet.

As soon as he realised the fourth inning warrant was sworn out and being delivered, any amount of cute left Scherzer’s person at once. He thrust his hat and his glove to the ground. Then he opened his belt with such a savage yank there must have been those fearing for a split second that he was going to peel himself like a banana.

You thought the Citi Field people missed an opportunity by not playing “The Pink Panther Theme” when Jacob deGrom had the honour of first come, first frisked under the Show’s new this-time-we-mean-it-until foreign substance crackdown?

The Citizens Bank Park people should have had that classic from the Book of Ecdysiastes on cue and ready to blast, bump, grind, and growl. Right down to the last trombone.

“I bet you every woman in the house would have coughed up double the price of their tickets to see Scherzer drop trou–and anything else he could think of,” Gunko crowed.

Unless his wife would cough up triple the going price to have divorce papers drawn up on the spot. Grounds? Since Max the Knife isn’t exactly reputed to be one of baseball’s heretofore-unconfirmed cheaters, I’d hazard the guess it would be on the grounds of unaccounted for exhibitionism outside the marital home.

But perhaps Mrs. Scherzer instead would lead the cheers. “Get it, honey, Get it! Show ’em what I know you’re made of!”

Obviously, not even pitching and surviving Game Seven of a World Series with nothing left to throw but meatballs, grapefruits, and canteloupes up to the plate after a neck issue almost took him out showed enough of what Scherzer’s made of.

Remember, the Phillies’ pitchers had to be stopped and frisked, too. Except that Nationals manager Dave Martinez isn’t the kind of guy who’d have had three warrants per pitcher per game sworn out.

He’d better not be. When Scherzer got the third stop-and-frisk order of the night, Martinez looked more ready to file brutality charges than Scherzer did.

Maybe Martinez remembered the night Girardi was managing the Yankees and his starting pitcher Michael Pineda got caught and suspended for suspicious ring around the neck.

“Did you see Scherzer hollering, ‘I got nothing! I got nothing!’ when he got searched the third time?” Gunko hollered to me. Of course I did. It was easier to read Scherzer’s lips than the first George Bush’s.

If you think the pitchers were trying to get away with murder with their new fashioned medicated goo before—and just maybe they were doing it not to be cute but to deal with Commissioner Nero’s incessant ball tinkering the last few years—beware the managers trying to get away with murder for using their newly-conferred freedom to file ball police complaints not to uncover contraband but to live and rattle rent-free in a pitcher’s head.

They can be sent to bed without their supper for it, too. Not just after Girardi got sent there after Scherzer stared him down cold following the fourth-inning flap. It’s in the memo:

Please note that a manager will be subject to discipline if he makes the request in bad faith (e.g., a request intended to disrupt the pitcher in a critical game situation, a routine request that is not based on observable evidence, etc.)

“Oh, that’s cute,” said Gunko when I read that portion to him. “Bad faith, huh? That’s about as clear as a glass of water from the East River.”

“I haven’t had a glass of water from the East River since Bill Clinton was still in the White House, Gunko. But it’s right there. This isn’t supposed to become downright harassment.”

By that time, the Phillies’ Rhys Hoskins made the score 3-2 with a healthy belt on a highball out over the left center field fence off Nats reliever Tanner Rainey. Somehow, another Nats reliever, Brad Hand, survived the bases loaded and one out in the ninth to escape with his and the Nats’ lives.

By that time, too, up in New York, Yankee pitcher Jonathan Loaisiga got frisked on a warrant—after pitching two thirds of the eighth inning and getting battered like a pinata on five hits for four earned Royals runs. Why were those umps patting Loaisiga down—for not using the naughty sauce properly?

And where were the Oakland Coliseum PA people when Athletics relief pitcher Sergio Romo almost did what Scherzer couldn’t quite bring himself to almost do—drop trou after finishing the seventh, but only far enough to let his long jersey keep him covered? Not even two bars of “The Happy Organ.”

“Let’s talk about bad faith,” Gunko urged. “You ever heard of the cop who pulls a driver over for a taillight issue and uses it as an excuse to have the poor sap’s car searched and stripped without a warrant? Don’t tell me there’s a manager alive who wouldn’t dream up a taillight issue for an excuse to have a pitcher stripped, searched, and slammered.”

I wouldn’t dare tell Gunko that. It’s right there, in Ecdysiastes 1, 3, and 4.