To err is human . . . and ties a Wild Series

Brett Phillips hits the single heard ’round the world Friday night in the ninth . . .

The unhappiest place on earth Saturday night simply had to be wherever Kenley Jansen, Chris Taylor, and Will Smith were after World Series Game Four ended. If you still find them there today, please resist the temptation to pound pairs of goat horns onto their heads. No matter how many real, aspiring, or alleged prose poets insist on leading you there.

Until further notice—and the way this Wild Series is rounding, bumping, and stumbling into shape, further notice could come as soon as Game Five—Jansen, Taylor and Smith were the three most deeply wounded or sick men on the planet who aren’t suffering COVID-19. They don’t need gasoline poured onto the flames inside their souls, even if Jansen might be more worthy of a critique than Taylor and Smith.

But Brett Phillips may also have been the single highest young man on the planet who needed no alcohol or marijuana to get there, among a crowd of Tampa Bay Rays teammates who probably thought they were somewhere near Phillips’s cloud after what he triggered in the bottom of the ninth.

“The Rays are going to ask for the biggest hit in the life of Brett Phillips,” purred Fox Sports play-by-play man Joe Buck, just before Jansen turned and delivered on 1-2. Nobody says Jansen intended to help Phillips answer in the affirmative. And Phillips, the Floridian who grew up a Rays fan in the first place, wanted nothing more than a simple line-moving base hit.

The ones you should feel for truly are Taylor and Smith. Jansen got into trouble not just by failing to make the pitch that ended up ending Game Four but by failing almost inexplicably to back up home plate, when his proper presence might have choked the Rays off at the pass enough to send the game to extra innings instead of an 8-7 Dodgers loss. Might.

The husky righthander intended anything but throwing Phillips a grapefruit to line softly but surely past the Dodgers’ right-side infield shift and into right center field for a base hit when the Rays were down to their final strike and a 3-1 Series deficit, with Clayton Kershaw looming to start Game Five.

But Taylor didn’t see the ball shoot off Phillips’s bat intending to let it carom off the fingers of his glove when he ran in to play the hop and had his eye just long enough on Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier rounding third that he cheated himself out of a clean play. And Taylor didn’t hit his cutoff man Max Muncy past first base with a perfect strike just so Muncy’s relay down the line to Smith could bounce off the edge of Smith’s mitt at the split second the catcher began turning to make a sweeping tag at the plate—unaware that trail runner Randy Arozarena wasn’t even close to scoring yet.

Smith certainly didn’t intend for Muncy’s relay to ricochet behind his right side and all the way to the track behind the plate area. He simply didn’t see Arozarena tripping into a tumblesault halfway down the third base line, scrambling back toward third, before realising the ball escaped in the first place.

“Obviously, Will can’t see that Arozarena fell,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts postgame. “Unfortunately, it was like that ‘unperfect’ storm. Just unfortunate.” The manager may have his flaws, but understatement isn’t one of them. This “unperfect” storm became a tsunami in almost a blink.

Arozarena recovered, dove, and pounded his hand on the plate nine times before he finally stood up with his team the winner. That ball might never have gone all the way back, though, if Jansen had backed up the plate the way pitchers are trained to a fare-thee-well to do.

Instead of saving the Dodgers’ hides and sending Game Four to extra innings, perhaps, Jansen inexplicably went toward the third base line almost in a jog. He stood next to it as Smith finished the ball-less sweep tag on a runner yet to arrive, and only as Arozarena finally shot toward the plate as Smith scampered back in a futile bid to retrieve the ball did Jansen run toward the plate.

Then he ran past it, and around the back of it while Arozarena landed with the winning run. He probably wanted to run through the clubhouse, out of the building, and into that Texas night and oblivion if he could have found it. Instead, Jansen faced the press, credited the hitters for doing their jobs, but couldn’t let himself own the backup lapse.

“Yeah, I mean, you know I tried to see, you know, what could I do,” Jansen said postgame. “I could’ve run a little bit more and then just see the play. But like I say, we came up short today, tomorrow’s another day and we’re going to come out there and give everything we’ve got and try to win ballgames.”

This oft-bruised relief pitcher usually faced up to disaster without flinching or ducking during a too-heavy host of Dodgers postseason calamities past. Now, he couldn’t bring himself at last to admit he’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time, when a little more hustle might have given the Dodgers at least one more inning to play, one more inning to make a Series advantage. Might.

How long before it really sinks in for one and all that the possible most insane finish to any World Series game ever came down to the last man sitting on the Rays’ bench? A guy who’d played in parts of four major league seasons, barely hit above the notorious Mendoza Line, and never hit a game-winning anything until the Rays were down to their final Game Four strike?

“When these guys were in the [2008] World Series,” the happy hero said postgame, “I was in eighth grade watching them. And now to be a part of it, helping these guys win a World Series game, it’s special.”

And how long before the “double Buckner” riffing on social media dissipates? Bad enough the late Bill Buckner was given too many years of unwarranted hell despite his moment of horror meaning only that his Boston Red Sox would get to play a Game Seven. Jansen, Taylor, and Smith’s moments of horror mean only that this Series is tied.

Jansen (74) could barely admit he’d blown it by not backing the plate when Smith lost the relay throw.

Nor was this quite ancient Dodgers catcher named Mickey Owen letting a Game Four-ending strike three become a passed ball, enabling Tommy Henrich to reach first starting a game-winning rally giving the Yankees a 3-1 Series lead instead of tying the Series at two each.

Short memories may be alien to Joe and Jane Fan who often leave you wondering what they crave more, the hero sandwich or a glass of goat’s milk. But they’re absolute requirements for a baseball player’s professional survival, as one reporter surely knew when asking Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner postgame just how that ninth-inning calamity could have happened while describing it in perfect thumbnail.

“You pretty much saw it,” Turner replied with a slightly dazed expression, before repeating the thumbnail in his own words and returning to standard boilerplate: show up, do the work, figure out a way to win tomorrow. Lucky for both teams that there would be a tomorrow.

The Dodgers thought for a moment that they’d send Clayton Kershaw out to the Game Five mound with a 3-1 Series advantage and just nine innings away from the Promised Land at last. Now Kershaw will pitch the biggest game of his life just to break a tie and leave Roberts to ponder whether to go for a bullpen Game Six or shove every one of his chips to the middle of the table with Walker Buehler starting on short rest.

As God and His servant Stengel are my witnesses, I swear to you that Rays manager Kevin Cash didn’t have Taylor misplaying Phillips’s line single or Smith mishandling the relay throw home in mind when he said and meant that, “eventually,” his team would get some bounces going their way.

A-ro-za-rena (as Buck pronounced it while he rounded third), his record-setting bombardier with nine this postseason, after a leadoff deficit-halving launch in the fourth, bouncing back up from that trip-and-tumble to shoot home with the game-winning run? Not even close to a flicker in Cash’s thinking.

“We’d tied the ballgame,” the manager said postgame, “so you’re feeling better, and then you’re sitting there saying, ‘My gosh, can this go any worse?’ There was so much that went through that game right there that I probably don’t even have the best recall right now.”

He did mean things like ten Rays hits including three homers and seven official runs batted in. He did mean bounces on balls the Rays put into play, including the broken-bat balloon shot Kiermaier—whose seventh-inning homer re-tied the game at six—lofted just past onrushing Dodgers second baseman Enrique Hernandez with one out in the ninth.

Maybe the only thing Cash could have predicted was Phillips having the fortitude not to let two strike calls that should have made the count 3-0 and not 1-2 rattle him. Subsequent replays including from straight above showed both those called strikes missing either side of the plate by a yarn thread. Veteran hitters are known to fume, sulk, or scream over such calls.

Phillips didn’t challenge plate umpire Chris Guccione. He didn’t demand immediate accountability from the Elysian Fields archangels. He just reset in the batter’s box, refused to take his eyes off Jansen’s incoming meatball just a little in off the middle at the belt and hit a no-doubt line drive that caught Taylor—moved from left to center field in a seventh-inning double switch—a little too far back before he ran in to play the ball.

The whole thing happened so swiftly it was easy to think that Phillips’s bat flew right out of his hands after he connected, instead of him dropping the bat almost by-the-way as he started running; and, that Smith actually lost the ball when he spun for the tag try. You might clean up at the sports book in the future if you bet on people remembering it just that way.

It might make you forget Turner setting a Series record in the top of the first, when he hit one out for the second straight Series game in the same inning. It might make you forget Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager meeting Arozarena in a five-way tie for the most single-postseason bombs in the third, with a blast so high and far that Rays starting pitcher Ryan Yarbrough didn’t even bother to turn and watch.

It might make you forget Seager tying Arozarena lasted exactly one full inning before Arozarena led off the fourth by hitting Dodgers starter Julio Urias’s first service over the right field fence to stand alone with nine. It might make you forget that the Rays’ oft-saluted bullpen actually had their worst struggle of the Series, after coming into Game Four with a collective ERA under two when taking over for Yarbrough’s games.

It might even make you forget what would have been the most surrealistic play of the night until Phillips hit that soft ninth-inning liner. When Muncy drove Seager home with the third Dodger run, tried advancing to second on the futile throw home, but overslid the base, popped right back up, and stumbled into Rays shortstop Willy Adames, who wrapped his arms around Muncy somehow as the pair fell back—with the ball still in Adames’s glove and Muncy’s foot off the base for the out.

This was also the night the Dodgers set a new single-postseason record by scoring their 54th run on two outs, and a night on which at least one run scored during nine consecutive half-innings, especially in the bottom of the sixth—when Brandon Lowe, whose Game Three looked as though his ferocious postseason slump returned, hit Dodgers reliever Pedro Baez for a three-run homer and the first Rays lead since winning Game Two.

Cash met the postgame press with the kind of wicked grin you expect to see from the joker who just snuck into a swanky cotillion and swiped the most choice bottle of hooch from the wet bar when everyone else was too busy preening to notice. Then a reporter asked him where in the Rays playbook was the play on which you tie and win off a double-ricochet pair of errors.

“We worked on that a lot in spring training over the last couple of years,” Cash said while rubbing the corner of his right eye. “We hadn’t put it in, but I’m glad it was able to play in our favour tonight.” Then he flashed the same hooch-swiping grin with which he started and laughed.

If Jansen, Taylor, and Smith laughed even once in Game Four’s aftermath, it was that they might not weep. For Taylor and Smith, especially, you might want to think about saving a hug for them instead of a slug. There are, after all, two more Series games to play at minimum.

Mortal men on immortal fields show their mortality only too often at the worst possible moments. We should call it being human enough. Unfortunately, in sports, the fans have their own perverse code: to err is human, to forgive is not always fan policy.

A 2-1 Dodger advantage feels more like 3-1

At any angle, from any view, Walker Buehler overpowered the Rays Friday night.

“They’re more of a manufacturing team than a pure slugging team like Atlanta might be,” said Walker Buehler, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Game Three starting pitcher, before he actually went out and pitched against the Tampa Bay Rays. “You never know what lineup you get. We’re trying to figure out what they may do against you and work off that.”

Buehler then went out and hung a “Closed for Repairs” sign outside the manufacturers’ plant. The Rays don’t exactly have all the time in the world to put the repair crews to work.

The fixings will probably begin with otherwise stout Rays starter Charlie Morton. The same guy who flattend his old buddies from Houston to help the Rays win the pennant in the first place. The Dodgers slashed five runs on seven hits out of Morton in four and a third innings while Buehler refused to let the Rays catch hold of his full-zone fastballs or force him to work off-speed. Making it feel as though the eventual 6-2 final was a lot worse than a four-run deficit usually is.

Buehler does that when he’s on. He even takes a no-hitter into the fifth when need be. With one slightly off-the-charts outing the righthander suddenly turned the World Series from anyone’s to win to the Rays’s to lose. The Dodgers’ 2-1 Series advantage felt more like 3-1 when it finally ended.

“That might be the best I’ve ever seen his stuff,” said his catcher Austin Barnes after the game.

Buehler didn’t just expose the Rays’ continuing postseason flaw of striking out when they can’t and don’t make contact. The Rays have now done what no postseason team in history has accomplished, striking out 180 times.

They also have 113 hits, making them the only postseason team in history to hit 67 fewer times than they’ve struck out. In the middle of that, they went ten straight games—Game Four of their division series through Game Two of this World Series—with more strikeouts than hits.

Buehler’s thirteen punchouts also left the Rays striking out nine times or more in ten straight postseason games and a twelfth postseason game this time in which they struck out ten times or more. And, with thirteen hitters getting K’ed three times or more in single games.

“It’s like . . . people always say, ‘Why don’t they just hit the ball the other way when they shift?’” said Rays manager Kevin Cash Friday postgame. He laughed like Figaro, that he might not weep. “It’s hard enough just to hit the ball.” Against Buehler, whose three hits surrendered seemed like momentary lapses into generosity, it was impossible enough.

Against Morton, alas, with his fastballs not finding their intended destinations and his breaking balls left a little too readily over the plate, for a change, he might have been fortunate that seven hits were all the Dodgers could get. Begging the question as to why Cash, who normally thinks nothing of such moves when he smells trouble, left him in as long as he did this time around.

Sure Cash thought nothing of hooking Morton in Game Seven of the American League Championship Series at the first sign of trouble in the top of the sixth. And the world went bonkers over that. Since when does a manager that fearless not get his bullpen working and his man the hell out of there when he’s in the hole 3-0 with two out but two on in the third—the first of whom got there as a hit batsman off the foot?

All three of the Dodgers’ hits have come with two strikes,” tweeted ESPN’s Jeff Passan after the third. “And all three have been on pitches Charlie Morton left over the plate. Dodgers lead, 3-0, and they’re doing it against a pitcher whose opponents hit .170/.207/.284 vs. him with two strikes this year.

The Dodgers now have 87 runs this postseason. Fifty of them have come with two outs. “There’s two outs, but you can still build an inning, not giving away at-bats,” says the Mookie Monster, one of four Dodgers to knock in at least a run with two outs Friday night. “That’s the recipe. That’s how you win a World Series.”

I’m always fascinated by Kevin Cash’s pitching decisions,” tweeted The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark after the fourth inning. “Last Saturday, Charlie Morton had 66 pitches and a 2-hit shutout in the 6th – and Cash took him out. Tonight, he was down 5-0 with 78 pitches through the 4th – and got left in. Much quicker hook when Cash has a lead.”

Much harder for Cash to get away with bass-ackwards thinking, too. Not a single Rays bull poked his nose out of his stall before and after Max Muncy lined a two-run single to center. It took until the fifth—after Dodger catcher Austin Barnes dropped his safety-squeeze RBI bunt and Mookie Betts’s full-count, followup RBI single made it 5-0 in the fourth—before the Rays bullpen gate finally swung open.

Did you guess what happened from there right? If not, here it is: Four Rays relievers kept the Dodgers to a single run and three hits in their four and two-thirds innings work. They walked only two and struck out four. In other words, the Rays’ bullpen did what the Rays’ bullpen normally does. They just started four and a third innings too late Friday night.

It doesn’t discredit the Dodgers’ hitters to suggest Cash might have let them break into the house—only beginning with Justin Turner’s one-out, high line home run in the top of the first—and steal all the jewels and cash they could carry. The only thing the Dodgers swiped once Cash finally reached for the armed guards was Barnes catching hold of a John Curtiss slider that didn’t slide as far under the middle as it was supposed to slide and sending it over the center field fence in the top of the sixth.

Get the feeling the Dodgers are turning brand-new Globe Life Field into Dodger Stadium II? They’re not just pitching as though it’s their own vacation home, but they’ve hit one more home run in sixteen postseason games there than the Texas Rangers hit in thirty irregular season games in their brand new house.

Delayed security is not the best idea when you’re up against a Buehler who’s hell bent on making sure nobody got into the Dodgers’ house except Manuel Margot with a one-out double and Willy Adames with a two-out RBI double in the bottom of the fifth.

“Being a big-game pitcher and really succeeding on this stage, there’s only a few guys currently and throughout history,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts postgame. “He’s in some really elite company, and I’m just happy he’s wearing a Dodger uniform.”

With Friday night’s flush and the prospect of facing Buehler in Game Seven if the Series goes that far, the Rays would prefer he wear a police, fire, or military uniform right now. Those they can handle. Buehler they couldn’t. When he finished the fifth his lifetime postseason ERA stood at 2.34 and his 2020 postseason ERA alone stood at 1.88. And his streak of nine straight postseason gigs with a minimum six strikeouts and two runs allowed or less became the longest in Show history while he was at it.

“I think the more you do these things the calmer you get,” said Buehler postgame. Not about any records but just about pitching up when you’re striking for the Promised Land. “I don’t want to keep harping on it, but I enjoy doing this. And I feel good in these spots.”

As for World Series games pitched with ten or more punchouts, no walks, and no bombs surrendered, Buehler became only the eighth pitcher to have one. The previous Magnificent Seven: Sandy Koufax (1965), Bob Gibson (1968), Tom Seaver (1973), Randy Johnson (2001), Roger Clemens (2001), Cliff Lee (2009), and Adam Wainwright (2013).

Tampa Bay left fielder Randy Arozarena hit an excuse-us solo homer off Dodger closer Kenley Jansen with two out in the ninth. He’s now hit as many home runs in this postseason (eight) as he did when he was finally past his COVID-19 bout and saddled up for what was left of the irregular season. He also set postseason records with what’s now 52 total bases and 23 postseason hits as a rookie.

Turner had to settle merely for his first postseason bomb since 2017 and for tying Hall of Famer Duke Snider on the Dodgers’ postseason homer list with his eleventh. Barnes also slipped into the record books. Only one man previously had ever homered and squeezed a run home in the same Series game, and that was more than half a century ago.

We take you back to Hector (What a Pair of Hands) Lopez, New York Yankees outfielder, off Cincinnati Reds pitcher Bob Purkey in the deciding 1961 Series Game Five. Barnes is thus the only catcher ever to turn the single Series game bomb-squeeze trick. Roll over Bill Dickey, and tell Yogi Berra the news.

If only Arozarena’s bombings had better timers. Only four of his eight postseason bombs so far have either tied a game or given the Rays a lead. The rook whose 1.340 OPS in the first three rounds widened as many eyes as his home runs has a mere .885 OPS in the Series thus far.

The Rays overall are only hitting a .206/.250/.381 Series slash. They’ve actually struck out at the plate six fewer times than the Dodgers, but they’ve been out-hit by five, out-homered by three, and out-scored by seven. With Morton’s ghastly 10.38 Game Three ERA and Game One starter Tyler Glasnow’s grotesque 12.46, you have to remove them to find the Rays otherwise with a 2.10 Series ERA. Remove Dylan Floro and Dustin May from the Game Two equation, and the Dodgers otherwise have a 2.20 Series ERA thus far.

Timing is everything in this Series. The Rays’ inability to find theirs at the plate against Buehler and Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ finding and finer tuning theirs against Morton and Glasnow, and Cash’s timing off twice on charging his bulls, are three major reasons why the Dodgers holding a 2-1 Series lead feels more like a 3-1 lead going into Saturday night.

This is what the Dodgers saved Julio Urias for. You may have heard a little chirping after he didn’t appear even in a bullpen stir during Game Two, when the Dodgers couldn’t beat the Rays at their own bullpen game. They’d better hope he isn’t too well rested; he hasn’t pitched since he closed out NLCS Game Seven with three shutdown innings last Saturday. And he’s going up against a by-necessity Rays bullpen game with Ryan Yarbrough possibly opening and possibly going three.

That’s the game the Rays usually master. Now it’s the mastery they need desperately enough.

The pennant-winning Rays do several favours

Your American League champion Tampa Bay Rays, with Randy Arozarena (right front) holding his ALCS MVP award.

For those of you who still love to ponder baseball in economic terms alone, have your fun now. The third-lowest 2020 payroll in the Show just finished off the third-highest—after knocking off highest to have the opportunity. Shout it out loud. The Rays win the pennant! The Rays win the pennant!

They who have the gold don’t always rule. For that matter, neither do they who have the platinum.The Tampa Bay Rays—lucky to have a couple of steel pieces amidst a cache of aluminum, tin, and Reynolds Wrap—are one trip shy of the Promised Land as of Saturday night.

After pushing past the New York Yankees’s platinum a little over a week earlier, the Rays  melted the Houston Astros’ gold into a 4-2 win in Game Seven of the American League Championship Series. Playing twelve games in thirteen days, the Rays beat both in final win-or-be-gone games. That only begins to describe their flair for the impossible.

This collection of bargains enough to make you think Woolworth’s was reincarnated as a baseball team became the first in major league history to stand on the threshold of a postseason series sweep, lose the next three straight, then win the first elimination game they’d face in the set.

They became the first to send out a starting pitcher against another starting pitcher with whom he’d collaborated previously to win a seventh World Series game. Charlie Morton got the better of Lance McCullers, Jr. with five and two-thirds innings of two-hit shutout ball on his part and just a little help from the friends he says are an honour to play and compete with.

They became the first to feature a rookie hitting a seventh bomb just in the postseason, when left fielder and series MVP Randy Arozarena sent Lance McCullers, Jr.’s 2-2 fastball over the right center field fence in the bottom of the first—after McCullers hit Manuel Margot with the first pitch of the inning.

They had Mike Zunino—a Seattle trade surrender whose steady defense got undermined by a few passed balls in Game Six but whose power is steady enough when he isn’t injured—provide the rest of their Saturday night scoring with a one-out, full-count launch into the left field seats of McCullers in the second and a one-out sacrifice fly off Jose Urquidy working relief in the sixth.

And, after manager Kevin Cash hooked Morton with a better too soon than too late attitude, the Rays’ bullpen wavered and bent only in the eighth, when Carlos Correa—who’d hit Nick Anderson for the game-winning bomb in Game Five—knocked a bases-loaded two-run single off Pete Fairbanks, who then got Alex Bregman to climax his series-long futility with a furiously swinging strikeout.

If Morton follows through on earlier hints that he might actually retire at 37, he’ll retire as a member in good standing of one elite club. Name the five pitchers who’ve had multiple scoreless starts in postseason winner-takes-it-all games. The answers: Morton plus Madison Bumgarner, Bret Saberhagen, Hall of Famer John Smoltz, and Hall of Famer-to-be Justin Verlander.

Saturday night was Morton’s fourth time out in such a game and his third as a starter. In every one of them, he never threw a pitch while his team was behind. The modest righthander who starts his delivery slow motion before his right arm becomes a whip, whom the Rays could afford because his injury history made him a bargain, really has been late-career better than advertised. If you needed a reminder, he rid himself of thirteen of his twenty batters on three pitches or less.

Arozarena also became the first rookie to hit seven homers in a single postseason. He may have been the only one who wasn’t counting. “I try not to pay attention to the statistics,’’ he said postgame, “but with the Iinternet and everyone bringing it up, you’re kind of aware of it. Honestly, I don’t pay attention to the statistics outside of me and what I can control.”

When Fairbanks shook off Yuli Gurriel’s one-out single to right to strike Josh Reddick out and get Aledmys Diaz to fly out to Margot in right, it would have touched off an all-night party in Tampa Bay if not for the coronavirus social distancing protocols. Those protocols also kept the jubilant Rays from much more than what Zunino said was confetti-tossing and Silly String shooting.

“We’ve done a great job to make it as fun as possible . . . but there’s nothing better than popping bottles and having that seep in and burn your eyes,” the catcher said post-game. That’s one reason why even the World Series winner, whomever it may prove to be, might be the first to reach the Promised Land and holler out, “Wait ’till next year,” hopeful that the pandemic recedes enough to let baseball get back to whatever normal it can achieve.

“Probably more so this year than any other year, the motivation is doing it for each other,” Morton said. “You adhere to protocols; you’re social distancing from families at home. Telling their kids they can’t hug them. This has brought out a level of humanity and empathy that you wouldn’t see in a normal season.”

It also kept baseball’s Public Enemy Number One in the wake of Astrogate from facing the slings, arrows, protest banners, and live catcalls sure to have greeted them on road trips if the pandemic hadn’t substituted cardboard cutouts for live fans.That was the biggest unexpected break the Astros—having enough with being exposed as illegal high-tech cheaters—could have received.

Fans settled for social media slappings plus masking and social distancing while greeting the Astros’ team bus live with slings, arrows, protest banners, trash cans (the mode by which they sent the illegally stolen signs to their hitters in 2017 and part of 2018) and live catcalls whenever the bus pulled into the road ballpark’s parking lot.

The Rays did the Astros and the rest of us another favour by pushing them home for the winter. Assume as you shouldn’t that the Los Angeles Dodgers send the Atlanta Braves home for the winter in Game Seven of the National League Championship Series Sunday. (The Braves aren’t going to go down without a fight, their Game Six futility to one side.) The Rays prevented a World Series dominated by too-much-is-more-than-enough talk about a grudge rematch.

There’s probably no way on earth Astrogate will be forgiven or forgotten for a long time to come. But the spectre haunting America of the Astros going back to the World Series this time around haunts no more. The last thing the Series needs when America needs the Series most is to be half dominated by Astrogate regurgitation and appetites for revenge.

Be certain the Astros will return to the Series in due course. When they do, they’re liable to be just about finished with what has to be done put Astrogate into the past at last—roster and organisation turnover. They have the makings of an impressive young bullpen and a few young positional talents ready to come into their own, too.

The Rays also did us all a bigger favour than even the foregoing. Not only will there be no losing team in the World Series, there’ll be only division winners squaring off. All that early postseason mess, all commissioner Rob Manfred’s apparent wet dreams about permanently expanded postseasons. Put it behind you for now.

Just pray that Manfred doesn’t take the wrong message from it and dance this mess around permanently. Reminder: the Rays had the American League’s best irregular season record. And real division champions—of however truncated an irregular season—will battle to get to the Promised Land. That’s the way it should always be.

The only thing left is for the Rays to come to terms with going from faceless to familiar. That could prove the simplest and most pleasant of their battles.

The Astros keep the extra inch

Greinke found what he needed when his skipper’s confidence found him when it was needed.

Once upon a time, stealing the pennant came to mean things like eleventh-hour surges at the end of the stretch drive. Or, off-field-based (and illegal) sign-stealing chicanery. (That means you, 1914 Philadelphia Athletics, 1940 Detroit Tigers, 1948 Cleveland Indians, 2017 Houston Astros, and 2018 Boston Red Sox.)

This time around, it may still mean the Tampa Bay Rays stealing the American League pennant by robbing the Houston Astros wide awake every time the Astros think a nicely-hit ball is about to send a run or two home.

But not quite yet.

Whatever you think about the Astros, they won’t just go gently into winter vacation. They didn’t muster up a jaw-dropping eleven-run first inning such as the Los Angeles Dodgers dropped on the Atlanta Braves earlier Wednesday. They didn’t have to. They needed just an extra home run and a managerial non-decision to live to play one more day at least.

This time, in Game Four of the American League Championship Series, the Astros didn’t give the Rays’ defensive aerialists further chances to rob them blind whenever they thought hard hits had chances to fall in. This time, they didn’t give the Rays the inches from which the Rays would push, shove, nudge, and yank miles.

This time, George Springer hit a tie-breaking two-run homer in the bottom of the fifth off Rays starter Tyler Glasnow and Astros manager Dusty Baker did an about-face rather than lift his starter Zack Greinke with first and second, one out, and white-hot Rays left fielder Randy Arozarena—whose two-run homer off Greinke in the top of the fourth tied the game in the first place—checking in at the plate in the top of the sixth.

Baker had his options just about ready to roll. He had Cristian Javier and Ryan Pressly throwing in his bullpen. And when he went to the mound, he talked to Greinke some but to catcher Martin Maldonado more, and Maldonado stood up for his pitcher just when Greinke needed it the most.

Greinke didn’t forget Game Seven of last year’s World Series. That’s when then-skipper A.J. Hinch noticed he’d run out of fuel and lifted him for Will Harris, his best relief option. To Greinke it meant lack of confidence, never mind that he’d been battered by the Rays in that division series, slapped silly by the New York Yankees in that ALCS, and taken for a home run by Washington’s Anthony Rendon before walking Juan Soto in that Game Seven seventh.

That was then: Greinke came out for Harris and Howie Kendrick ripped what looked like Harris’s unhittable cutter for a two-run homer off the Minute Maid Park foul pole with the Astros’ next-to-last Series hopes attached. This was Wednesday night: Baker turned around and returned to his dugout.

Greinke struck Arozarena out on a check swing. He got help from Astros shortstop Carlos Correa cutting off a hopper from Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi that might have left room for left fielder Manny Margot to score, if Correa didn’t reach it on the short outfield grass and knock it down.

Then Greinke struck out Michael Brosseau—whose late home run against the Yankees got the Rays to this ALCS in the first place—with a changeup that dove off a cliff just before Brosseau’s bat could give it a kiss. Kiss the Rays’ deepest threat of the night goodbye. Then turn the game over to the pen.

Arozarena’s check swing came on what would have been ball two. Brosseau struck out on what would have been ball four and an Astro lead cut to 4-3. And thus would Rays shortstop Willy Adames’s RBI double have been a tie game in the top of the ninth with the likelihood of extra innings.

“My plan,” Baker told reporters after the 4-3 Astro win, “was to take him out, but I wasn’t really convinced of my plan. Sometimes you look in the guy’s eyes, sometimes you listen to the catcher, and you do what you gotta do.”

“It was nice having someone have confidence in me,” Greinke told the reporters. “Because since I’ve been here, they haven’t seemed to have confidence in my ability. So it was nice having that happen in an important time like that.”

Especially for a seventeen-year veteran whose arm was ailing and inconsistent all postseason long, until he found the best of his late-career self when he needed it the most Wednesday night, putting his best off-speed pitches into a Mixmaster and cranking no higher than cookie-mixing speed.

He also vindicated Baker, a very veteran manager who’s not allergic to the analytic game but who’s lived as much by his gut as his brain and has often been caught with his pants down when his gut gets betrayed by circumstances far beyond his control.

Baker was one game from yet another tsunami of second-guessing when Greinke justified his gut Wednesday night. The skipper isn’t all the way through the turbulence just yet. But for once in his life Baker read his players and tea leaves right. He may yet have a few sharp readings left in him before this set’s over. May.

If baseball’s the game of inches, Greinke and the Houston pen made sure the Rays didn’t get the inches that would have mattered. Not that the Rays bullpen was caught sleeping. They matched shutout innings with the Astros’ bulls until Adames’s double off Pressly, brought in to close things out after Javier walked Choi to open the ninth. And the Rays used two bulls who weren’t exactly considered among their A-list stoppers.

The Astros’ own core five of Springer, Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Yuli Gurriel played their 54th postseason game together, passing a once-fabled Yankee core (Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Scott Brosius, Tino Martinez, and Paul O’Neill) by a game.

Winning it 4-3 made it that much more precious to the Astro core who may yet play their last games together in this set. One Astro win doth not a Rays collapse make, and the Astros are smart enough to know they’re in for a continuing fight, but don’t fault them for savouring Game Four a little extra.

Especially on a night Altuve’s first-inning launch over the left field fence and Springer’s fifth-inning flog meant the eighteenth lifetime postseason bombs for each man. Matching them to Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson and putting them one behind Hall of Famer-to-be Albert Pujols in the divisional play-era postseason rolls.

Not to mention a night on which Altuve’s apparent and frightening case of the yips at second base took its first steps toward potential dissipation, Altuve handling a pair of none-too-tough chances and throwing without the ball deciding on its own to go to the enemy side.

“Those are things that happen in baseball,” Altuve said, facing the press for the first time all series long. “I left that in the past and showed up today ready to play some baseball and help my team.” The question then becomes whether Altuve can leave those game-changing mishaps in the past. He sure thinks so. Springer’s pretty sure he knows so.

“He prides himself in every aspect of the game,” the center fielder said. “When he believes that he failed or let the guys down, he takes it to heart. But one of the most impressive things about Jose is how he can clear his head and contribute in all aspects of his game. I know the head he has on his shoulders. He’s our leader and always has been.”

That comes from the guy who watched Altuve start Wednesday night’s scoring with a second first-inning solo bomb in as many days and his third in the series, swat an RBI double in the fourth, and tell himself, “You’re not taking care of all the scoring, bro,” before driving a 2-1 service down the left field line and into the third patio up the Western Metal Supply Co. building.

The Astros still had to wrestle for their win. Even if the Rays didn’t have to get their acrobats on, they still turned four double plays on the evening and rapped out seven hits to the Astros’ nine. They’re still out-pitching the Astros by a few hairs, finishing Game Four with a team 2.31 ERA to the Astros’ 2.65.

The bad news for the Astros: Come Game Five, the Rays can go to their bullpen A-listers at will. The Astro pen otherwise has looked remarkable for the most part, but the Rays live and die by their bullpen as much as they live and die by their high-wire defense.

Most likely, the Astros send Framber Valdez out to start Game Five, likely against the Rays’ Blake Snell. No announcements were made at this writing, and Rays skipper Kevin Cash would have no compunction at all against going to a bullpen game the Astros aren’t positioned or built to deliver just yet.

But, as the Beatles also sang once upon a time, a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

The little bang theory

Diego Castillo, after closing the Rays’ ALCS Game One win Sunday night.

How bizarre was Game One of the American League Championship Series? Aside from being played in a National League ballpark, that is? Aside from the Tampa Bay Rays having a barely quenchable thirst for doing things the hard way and making the other guys do things likewise?

They beat the Houston Astros 2-1 Sunday night. Just as they beat the New York Yankees 2-1 to get here in the first place. Except that’s where the similarities end, no matter how good the Rays are at minimalism.

They’re to the low score what the Astros are to the big bang. They’ve played three postseason games thus far scoring two runs or less—and won two. Everyone else this postseason scoring two or less? Three wins, nineteen losses.

They struck out thirteen times against Framber Valdez and three Houston relief pitchers—and won. Just the way they did against the Yankees to get to the ALCS, and just the way nobody else this postseason has.

The Rays are about as intimidated by striking out as David was by Goliath. All year long including this postseason, you can look it up, they struck out thirteen times or more in twelve games—and won eight. Anyone else? Not even close. They’d rather strike out than hit into double plays.

They endured Sunday night without going to most of their A-list bullpen bulls. Nick Andersen and Peter Fairbanks didn’t even poke their noses out of their holes. Remember: there’ll be no days off during the ALCS, either. He who tends his bullpen best is liable to be he who survives with the least damage.

The lone Rays A-lister available Sunday after last Friday’s Yankee wrestling match was Diego Castillo. Largely because the chunky righthander himself told his boss he had at least an inning in him despite throwing 29 pitches over two innings to end the ALDS.

“Man,” said manager Kevin Cash after Sunday’s game, “he’s a stud. He was the one that was available between Nick, Pete and himself. We felt he could give us an inning.” So Cash brought him in to squelch a bases-loaded mess into which C-list reliever Aaron Loup managed to hand the Astros in the top of the eighth. No pressure.

Castillo threw one pitch to Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel. It was an intended sinkerball that hung up around Gurriel’s hands. Gurriel whacked it on the ground up the middle and right to the oncoming Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe. Lowe executed the step-and-throw inning-ending, disaster-ducking double play.

“We needed the ball on the ground,” said Rays catcher Mike Zunino after the game. “That’s the first thing. When Cashie left the mound, I told [third baseman Mike] Brosseau that he was going to get the ground ball.” So Lowe got it instead. Nobody’s perfect.

Sunday night wasn’t a Night of the Pitchers with a dramatic eighth-inning home run making the final difference between the two top teams in the American League East. This was the Amazing Randi versus David Copperfield with one hand behind their backs and one eye obstructed behind a patch.

It was the night the Astros’ young lefthanded lancer Framber Valdez came pretty much as advertised out of the chute. And, the night the Rays’ lefthanded, former Cy Young Award winning veteran Blake Snell came to prove he could get away with sticking his head into the lion’s mouth and yanking it out the split half second before the lion could snap its jaws around his neck.

It was the night the designated home team Rays went 1-for-8 with men in scoring position and left nine men on base, versus the designated visiting Astros went 2-for-8 with men in scoring position and left ten men on, with both teams having what looked like scores in the making snuffed by swift and slick pitching to some swift and slick infield defense.

It was also the night Jose Altuve hit a Snell meatball into the left field seats on 2-1 in the top of the first, Randy Arozarena found a Valdez sinker that didn’t sink under the middle of the zone to sink behind the center field fence in the bottom of the fourth, and a leadoff walk followed by a pair of grounders back to the mound and a clean base hit plating Rays shortstop Willy Adames in the bottom of the fifth.

From there it was a contest to see whose bullpen depth mattered more and whose offense might turn possibles into plotzes worse. When it finally finished, the Rays stood at 33-0 when when leading after the seventh this year and holding a Show-leading 73-game winning streak when leading in the eighth.

They also stood proud Sunday night with a now 16-5 record in one-run 2020 games, the .762 winning percentage the best in major league history. The little engine that could? The Rays are the little engine that do.

“The one thing you learn about our club over 60 or 162,” Cash told reporters, “we’re in a lot of tight ballgames. And tight ballgames, you’ve got to teach yourself how to win those. That’s mistake-free, playing clean. There’s no margin for error and I think our guys take that approach every single night when they take the field.”

Tight ballgames? If Game One got any tighter there would have been crash carts in the cutout-filled seats and oxygen ventilators in the on-deck circles.

“They do some things that are unusual,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker before the game. If understatement is an irrevocable requirement for Manager of the Year, Baker might have this year’s award nailed down tight shut.

But Cash solidified his own airtight case, taking baseball’s version of of the 99 Cent Store (O Woolworth, where is thy sting?) to the top of the American League East irregular season heap and to the postseason’s number-one seed. He’s the director of the Rays starring in The Little Bang Theory.

They shoved the Toronto Blue Jays out of the wild card series in half a blink, wrangled the Empire Emeritus out of the division series, and neutralised the postseason-resurgent Astros’ big bats into cardboard tubes to open this week’s showdown.

They did it despite Snell seeming bent on setting new major league records for getting himself into more full counts than the law allows and escaping when it looked like the coppers had the cuffs around his wrists ready to click shut.

They did it despite Valdez striking out eight in six mostly splendid innings and the youthful enough Astros bullpen looking as though they’d been studying the Rays for what to do, how to do it, and when to do it.

No, the Rays had to suck the Astros into joining them for an act that made the Flying Wallendas resemble cartoon amateurs. They even had to find their own kind of exclamation point, with Castillo striking out Altuve, the pint size power plant who’d started the evening with the long ball, on a nice, nasty, diving-away slider to close it out at last.

Last fall, the Rays lost a division series to the Astros in five games but proved they could play up to and with the big beasts when given the chance. This fall they’re proving that the great white whales don’t stand that much of a chance against a pack of hell-bent-for-blubber anchovies. So far.