NLDS Game One: Fun cops vs. fun cops

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Was Yadier Molina (left) reminding Carlos Martinez about throwing stones in glass houses Thursday afternoon?

Oh, brother. You knew going in that things between the Braves and the Cardinals in a division series would be interesting, to say the very least. Especially knowing the set pits one precinct of fun police against another. Then you got reminded soon enough about being very careful what you wish for.

The Cardinals and the Braves put on a few shows for the price of one, before the Cardinals hung in to finish a 7-6 win Thursday afternoon. The Comedy of Errors, starring one of this season’s most vaunted defenses. The Late Show, starring both sides’ bombardiers Paul Goldschmidt, Freddie Freeman, and Ronald Acuna, Jr. And Get Off My Lawn, starring Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez out of the ninth inning bullpen.

When the Show’s number three team for defense in terms of runs saved (95), the number five team for turning batted balls into outs (.705), and the number thirty team for allowing errors (a mere 66) allows three Game One runs on extremely playable grounders, you try to remind yourself the Elysian Field demigods do have a sense of humour, if you’re a Cardinals fan.

When your franchise youth settles for a long single in the seventh, after taking a leisurely stroll out of the batter’s box, and barely arrives at first when he might have pulled into second when the right fielder turned to throw in after playing the ball off the height of the fence, you try to see it from the youth’s perspective, if you’re a Braves fan.

When Cardinal fan’s relief ace—who’s renowned for making like Tarzan when he nails strikeouts or induces critical outs—calls out the same youth for having a ball when he does hit one that’s no questions asked out in the bottom of the ninth and has a blast running it out, demanding the boy wonder respect him, Cardinal fan has to remind himself or herself that Mama said there’d be moments and brain farts like that.

When Braves fan has to listen to venerable veteran Freddie Freeman call out Ronald Acuna, Jr.’s earlier stroll, he or she needs every ounce of restraint to keep from reminding Freeman—and any other Brave sharing Freeman’s thinking—that, all things considered, being at second where he belonged in the seventh might not have gotten them more in the end.

With all the foregoing and more it almost felt as though the Cardinals hanging tough, coming back, yanking far ahead with a four-run top of the ninth, and still beating the Braves, was a tough loss. And weren’t things weird enough without Braves reliever Chris Martin going down for the rest of the series after straining his oblique . . . while coming in from the pen assigned to work the eighth? Without throwing a single pitch?

“Every out, every pitch is important,” said the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter, who didn’t start but who pinch hit in the eighth and dumped the quail off Braves reliever Mark Melancon in the eighth to tie things up at three. “There’s a lot of adrenaline involved, but that’s what you play for, that’s why you’re here.”

“We’ve played all season expecting to win those type games. You give up that kind of lead, it’s tough to swallow,” said Freeman, who shot one over the center field wall one out after Acuna yanked a two-run homer into the same real estate in the ninth, then watched Josh Donaldson ground out and Nick Markakis look at strike three to end the Braves’ afternoon a day late and a dollar short.

Those two homers were joined by Golschmidt in the top of the eighth. Off Luke Jackson, who had to go in after Martin’s in-from-the-pen oblique tweak and watch Goldschmidt send his second pitch over the left field wall. They were the only bombs on a day both teams seemed hell bent on proving small ball hadn’t yet gone the way of the Yugo. If you didn’t know better, you’d have sworn some things were supposed to have been outlawed in recent times.

Things like Cardinals center fielder Harrison Bader not just beating out an infield single in the fifth and moving to second on—the horror!—a sacrifice bunt by Cardinals starting pitcher Miles Mikolas, but stealing third for the first such theft in a measly two tries off Braves starter Dallas Keuchel all year long. Not to mention Bader tying the game at one when he scored on Dexter Fowler’s ground out to second.

Things like Donaldson pushing the first run of the game home on what should have been dialing Area Code 4-6-3 in the bottom of the first but for usually easy-handed Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong blowing his backhand toss to first leaving all hands safe and enabling his Braves counterpart Ozzie Albies—who reached on a walk in the first place—to score.

Things like the Braves taking a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the sixth with only one hit—with Donaldson plunked with one out, Markakis doubling him to third, pinch hitter Adam Duvall handed first on the house, and, a pitching change and a strikeout later, Dansby Swanson motoring to beat an infield RBI single that turned into an extra run home when Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong’s throw to second bounced off Wong’s glove.

Except that most of the conversation turned around Acuna’s eighth-inning trot. Some of it came from Freeman, who knew how frustrating it was to lose a potential run in a one-run loss with a mistake that wasn’t the first such.

“But I think you have that conversation once,” the well-respected first baseman continued. “It’s kind of beating a dead horse after that if you keep having the same conversation over and over again. You have to know that was a mistake.”

“It could have been a double, but things happen,” was Acuna’s way of explaining it. “I didn’t speak with the manager about it. I just went out to enjoy the game. I always try to give my best, but these are things that sometimes get away from me. They are not things I want to do. As players, we always try to give our best effort, but we make mistakes, we are human.”

He’s right about players being human and making mistakes, of course; in this instance, he’d been there before this year and been benched briefly for it. So is Braves manager Brian Snitker right when he says, “He should have been on second. And we’re kind of shorthanded to do anything about it right there. You hate to see that happen.”

But it’s open to debate whether Alibes is right saying, “He probably scores in that inning if he’s on second base. It’s a big deal. He knows he needs to do better there.” Albies is probably right in his second and third sentences there. About scoring from second, not quite.

Because Albies followed Acuna immediately with a grounder that pushed Acuna to third, but Freeman got hit by a pitch immediately to follow and Donaldson’s immediate bullet liner—with Acuna likely to run on contact—would have been the double play it became regardless.

Then Martinez had to make all that look like the mere warmup for the main attraction, when Acuna had what Martinez believed a little too much of a ball around the bases after depositing a meatball practically down the pipe over the center field wall. “I wanted him to respect the game and respect me as a veteran player,” Martinez fumed afterward. “Just play the game.”

Martinez even had ideas about chirping a lecture or three toward the Braves dugout before his veteran catcher Yadier Molina interceded and nudged him gently but firmly back to the mound. This was almost too rich for words in a game featuring a pair of teams only too notorious around the sport for being fun police units.

You almost can’t wait for the Braves to fume the next time Martinez goes into his Tarzan act if he ends a dicey inning with a nasty strikeout: “We want him to respect us as the National League East champions and not just a bunch of plug-ins who needed all 162 games to get here.”

If that’s the way the Cardinals and the Braves are going to be—as if playing a delicious Game One division series thriller and spiller just wasn’t quite enough—then let them suit up for Game Two in business suits, for crying out loud. Huffing “just play the game” after demanding “respect” tells me (and should tell you) that someone forgot about the “game” part. And, about throwing meatballs to power hitters.

Impatience is no virtue

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Ronald Acuna, Jr.’s fourth-inning bomb was almost half as important as bagging Todd Frazier trying to score in the sixth Tuesday night.

Zack Wheeler took the blame himself. The Mets pulled into heat-hammered Atlanta Tuesday and came up short against the National League East-leading Braves. Wheeler simply said he didn’t have it. But he had lots of help along the way to the 5-3 loss.

“It stinks,” Wheeler lamented after the game. “We’re on this run and I really didn’t give us a chance. This one’s on me.” Not entirely. A lot of the help Wheeler got came through the kindness of Braves left fielder Ronald Acuna, Jr.’s heart.

And if there’s justice in baseball world, Acuna should extend that kindness to Mets third base coach Gary DiSarcina and credit him with a major assist.

Because no sooner did Todd Frazier atone for a rally-compromising double play in the top of the sixth, whacking a double to the back of center field off Braves starter Max Fried, than Mets center fielder Juan Lagares lined a single right to Acuna playing in a none-too-deep left field positioning.

Frazier isn’t as swift afoot as he was earlier in his career, but even Hall of Fame road runner Rickey Henderson would have resembled Wile E. Coyote on a hit that shallow against a left fielder with an arm like Acuna’s.

You get why Frazier had eyes on the plate with the Mets down four runs at the moment. But DiSarcina should have thrown up a stop sign post haste. With the pitcher’s spot due to follow Lagares, and Wheeler’s evening over with recent acquisition Brad Brach up and throwing in the pen, the Mets were certain to send up a pinch hitter with Jeff McNeil, their leadoff man, due to follow if the pinch swinger could swing.

The light never even changed to yellow. Frazier rounded third at just about the moment Acuna let fly. Frazier was such a dead pigeon sliding toward the plate you got the impression Braves catcher Brian McCann tagged him out as a mere formality. And a grand chance to close the distance escaped the Mets.

“His arm,” said Acuna’s manager Brian Snitker, “is a weapon.” Disrespecting that weapon equals disaster.

Coming off taking two of three from the Nationals last weekend, winning the two in almost anti-textbook examples of doing things the hard way, the Mets let Fried and the Braves compel them to try doing it the hard way again. I said it before, I’ll say it again: crisis addiction only wins you so many games.

All night long, whenever they swung the bat the Mets swung as if they thought they could hit the ball right out of Fried’s hand. With Fried pitching exactly the way you’d expect a guy with a 1.38 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, patience would have been the Mets’ virtue. Tuesday night they approached Fried as though patience were what you saw in the doctor’s waiting room.

And the Mets better hope they duck another kind of crisis, after McNeil tweaked his left hamstring trying to hustle out a leadoff ground out in the top of the ninth. He flung his helmet to the ground in obvious discomfort, let a trainer escort him back to the dugout, and said after the game he didn’t feel anything pop.

“Just a little snag,” said McNeil, who undergoes an MRI Wednesday. “Nothing crazy.” He and the Mets better hope it’s nothing “crazy.” Things have been crazy enough for them this year.

The Braves are deep enough that they could withstand life without shortstop Dansby Swanson and rookie slugger Austin Riley for a spell, even if they have been only 17-13 since the All-Star break. And they’re deep enough that even that post-break record doesn’t hurt them after spending the first half eluding everyone else in their division at 54-37.

The Mets aren’t that deep no matter how they’ve looked since the break. They can’t afford to lose McNeil for any appreciable time. And they know it.

“It’s tough. He’s a huge part of this team. He brings fire every day to the field,” said Wheeler. “He’s a ballplayer and you need those type of guys on your team and you need them in the lineup. It’s unfortunate that happened, hopefully it’s not too serious and he can get back decently quick. We need his bat, that’s for sure.” His bat, and his passion.

Recently minted Joe Panik’s going to play a lot more second base now, and he can still whip his leather with authority as well as postseason experience. Bringing back prodigal veteran Ruben Tejada—whom the Mets re-signed in March, but who hasn’t played a major league game since he was a 2017 Oriole while hitting .337 at Syracuse this year—is a band-aid.

There wasn’t much Wheeler could do on a night he admits was an off night from keeping the Braves off the bases and the scoreboard. Acuna himself opened the proceedings with a base hit in the bottom of the first and, after Freddie Freeman sent him to third with a one-out single, Josh Donaldson singled him home. A fly out later, Matt Joyce singled to deep enough right to score Freeman.

The Mets were in a 2-0 hole before they got a second crack at Fried. They’d squandered the first one brilliantly. Pete Alonso and J.D. Davis wrung back-to-back walks out of the Braves lefthander, but Ramos with a near-perfect inner zone pitch to handle and pull whacked it instead to Charlie Culberson, the former Dodger now pressed into shortstop service until Swanson returns from the injured list. Culberson tossed to second for the inning-ending force.

They looked like they’d get to Fried in the top of the second when, after two quick enough outs, Lagares singled up the pipe and, of all people, Wheeler himself got plunked to set up first and second. Never one to look a gift horse in the proverbial mouth, McNeil drilled a single deep enough to left to send Lagares home and cut the deficit in half. But Mets shortstop Amed Rosario let Fried fool him with a slider that broke right under his bat for the side-retiring strikeout.

Freeman put things a tick further out of reach in the bottom of the inning with an RBI single. After the Mets wasted two-out baserunners in the third and the fourth, Acuna made it a little more tough to catch up in the bottom of the fourth. With one out and nobody aboard, Acuna wrestled his way back from 0-2, caught Wheeler’s two-seamer traveling right down Main Street, and sent it traveling over the left field wall.

Ender Inciarte turned a three-run Atlanta edge into a four-run distance in the bottom of the fifth, after Wheeler wild-pitched McCann (leadoff single) to second, hitting a double into the right field corner to send McCann home with the fifth and final Braves run.

But come the top of the seventh, it was Sun Trust Park’s scattered audience now in need of oxygen above and beyond the oppressive heat: the Braves went to the bullpen. And in came Luke Jackson, whose recent misadventures may not have spelled final disaster but were misadventures enough to make Braves fans wonder if he hadn’t been taking lessons in pressure pitching from last postseason’s version of Craig Kimbrel.

Now the Mets went to pinch hitter Luis Guillorme in the pitcher’s hole to lead off the seventh. And Jackson gave the home audience a better reason to put the nitro pills under their tongues. He got Guillorme to pop out to Culberson out from shortstop, then caught McNeil and Rosario overanxious enough to strike them out swinging back to back.

But then Snitker went to Shane Greene, the new toy from Detroit who was supposed to step into the lockdown job out of the Braves’ pen but whose ERA since joining the Braves is a ghastly 14.54. If even one fan in the stands pondered thoughts of Snitker taking pity on the Mets with this move, you couldn’t blame him or her.

Right off the bat, Alonso and Davis singled back to back to open the top of the eighth. And after Ramos forced Davis at second, Snitker took no more chances, bringing in former Met Jerry Blevins. Michael Conforto grounded one to first that got rid of Ramos at second but sent Alonso home with the well overdue second Mets run.

Out came Blevins and in came another former Met, Anthony Swarzak. Frazier singled Conforto to second promptly, and Lagares beat out a grounder to the back of first base to score Conforto almost as promptly, pushing Frazier to second, and suddenly the Mets were back to a mere two-run deficit. But pinch-hitter Panik, swinging a little over anxiously himself, grounded out to short for the side.

Drew Gagnon, recalled from Syracuse (AAA) for his third spell with the Mets this year, got rid of pinch hitter Rafael Ortega, Acuna, and Ozzie Albies almost in a blink in the top of the ninth. But after McNeil’s ham snagged, another trade deadline-minted Brave reliever, Mark Melancon, shaking off his Miami disaster admirably, struck out Rosario and Alonso swinging to end it.

There are teams up and down the standings against whom you can go into crisis and come out with your heads intact and triumphant. The Mets were reminded Monday night that the Braves aren’t one of them.

Neither is Acuna’s throwing arm. Give it even a fraction of an inch, and he’ll take as much distance as you let him get away with. Not to mention his trying and having an excellent chance of becoming only the third player 22 or under to hit forty or more into the seats in a season—behind Hall of Famers Mel Ott and Eddie Mathews, the latter a Braves legend in his own right.

If the Mets want to remain baseball’s hottest post-All Star break team and stay in the postseason hunt, they’d better not dismiss that reminder lightly. Especially against these Braves, who almost never show mercy to those asleep at the switch.

This Derby doesn’t quite fit that well

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One of the 2019 Mets’ few bright lights, Pete Alonso proudly hoists his Home Run Derby winning trophy Monday night.

The remade/remodeled rules of the thing enabled Pete Alonso to win Monday night’s Home Run Derby in Cleveland’s Progressive Field. And Alonso, who’s one of the extremely few bright lights on a Mets team described charitably as a basket case, would have been the star of the show all around if it wasn’t for the kid named Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.

Gone is the longtime ten-outs window through which the Home Run Derby’s participants had to perform in the past. In is the three-minute, no-outs window through which they get to mash to their hearts’ content and their swings’ contact. Through that window did the chunky Blue Jay mash his way into becoming half of the only father-and-son tandem ever to win the Derby.

And, into the hearts of both the packed Progressive Field (commentators invariably noted the full house stayed full from late afternoon until the Derby finished) and the television audience. Hitting 91 home runs on the evening can do that for you, especially if you’re as effervescent as this son of a Hall of Famer showed himself to be.

It was great entertainment.

But it wasn’t baseball.

And there was the chance going in that this year’s Derby could be won by a guy who wasn’t even an All-Star in the first place.

As likeable as he is, as promising as his future still appears to be despite his awkward career opening after he’d turned the minors into his personal target practise, Guerrero isn’t even a member of the American League’s All-Star team. And Joc Pederson, whom Guerrero beat to set up the final showdown with Alonso, isn’t a member of the National League’s All-Stars this time. The Derby operates by a slightly different set of criteria than the All-Star Game, which has problems enough every year.

But Alonso is an All-Star. So is Alex Bregman, the Astros’ deft third baseman who often seems to be six parts Little Rascal and half a dozen parts high on laughing gas, and you’re never quite sure which side dominates at any given time. Bregman was eliminated in the Derby’s first round after a mere fourteen blasts. He may not necessarily have been complaining.

Watching the showdown between Guerrero and Pederson, who put on a big show of their own (including two swing-offs) before Guerrero yanked his way to the final showdown with Alonso, Bregman got off the arguable second best line of the night: I couldn’t imagine three rounds of that. I was gassed after two minutes of it. The arguable best line of the night? It showed up on Twitter: Joc Pederson’s going after that $1 million like he’s behind in his rent.

And, on television, Dodger pitcher and All-Star Clayton Kershaw inadvertently provided the most charming moment—his two young children, Cali and Charley, accompanied Daddy to the ballpark for the Derby. There was Cali Kershaw, pretty in pink, pumping her hands and hollering, “Let’s go, Joc! Let’s go, Joc!” The little lady’s a natural scene-stealer, just as she was during last year’s National League division series.

This year’s Derby winner added $1 million to his bankroll for his effort. In Alonso’s case, earning $1 million for one evening’s glorified batting practise all but doubles what he’s earning all season long as a Met. And, entering the Derby and the All-Star break, Alonso out-performed the guy down the freeway in Philadelphia who signed a thirteen-year, $330 million contract by the time spring training was about two-thirds finished.

Alonso also made good on his very public promise to divide ten percent of the Derby prize money equally, if he won, between the Wounded Warriors project (which aids post-9/11 military wounded) and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, named for the firefighter who lost his life on 9/11 trying to save lives in the World Trade Center.

“There’s a lot I was hitting for tonight,” the exhausted Met said after he was handed the winning medal and trophy. “I’m just happy that I can donate some money to the causes that I wanted . . . I mean, I have the utmost respect for the people that put their lives on the line every single day. And I just want to show my gratitude, because a bad day for me is a lot different than a bad day for the service men and women that serve this country.”

Whom among the Derby participants is also an All-Star? Ronald Acuna, Jr. (Braves), Josh Bell (Pirates), Matt Chapman (Athletics), and Carlos Santana (Indians). Ridiculously, one of the Derby semi-finals was between two guys who aren’t even All-Stars this year. Alonso beat his fellow All-Star Acuna to set up the showdown with Vlad the Impaler, Jr.

Even an observer who isn’t irrevocably wedded to the more stubborn of baseball’s traditions is justified in saying that the Home Run Derby is more entertainment than baseball, since it is tied explicitly to the All-Star festivities, if it invites those who didn’t make either All-Star team as well as those who did.

And one is reminded even briefly that Yankee star Aaron Judge pre-empted any participation in this year’s Derby during spring training, when the Leaning Tower of the South Bronx said he was more concerned with helping his team win games after the All-Star break than with joining and winning a Derby. Judge won the Derby in 2017. His second-half performance wasn’t quite the same as his first half, and he won the American League’s Rookie of the Year award anyway. (He also may have exacerbated a shoulder issue while swinging for his Derby win.)

I analysed Derby winners’ seasons at the time Judge declined and discovered at least half of them had lesser than equal or better second halves of the regular seasons in which they won their Derbies. Last year’s champion, Bryce Harper (now a Phillie), had a better second than first half, to name one; Guerrero’s Hall of Fame father (then an Angel) had a lesser second than first half when he won the Derby, to name one more.

It’s great entertainment.

But it isn’t baseball.

And, contrary to the naysayers, nannies, and nattering nabobs of negativism (thank you, William Safire, of blessed memory), baseball games are better entertainment than million-dollar batting practise. Even million-dollar batting practise that turned out to contribute to two extremely worthy causes.

If there’s a 50-50 chance that a Derby winner will have a lesser than better second half after winning the prize, with or without Alonso’s admirable charity intentions, it’s a little more alarming for baseball than it is engaging for Joe and Jane Fan.

And guess who’s going to be the first to complain, of course, if and when their heroes in the Derby become less at the plate and in the field, especially if and when their teams hit the stretch drive running.

Murphy’s law: Celebrate!

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Tom Lawless, the patron saint of bat flippers, starting his flip in Game Four, 1987 World Series . . .

The Fun Police have a new protester who played the game in an earlier era. And when Dale Murphy talks, it would be wise for the Fun Police to lend him their ears and not their billy clubs.

Murphy inaugurated his partial new life writing for The Athletic with a September 2018 essay in which he applauded doing away with throwing at batters on hot streaks. That was after the Marlins’ Jose Ureña was stupid enough to think the proper way to stop Ronald Acuna, Jr. from making mincemeat out of Marlins pitching was to open a game by drilling Acuna’s elbow.

The longtime Braves bombardier said then pitching inside is one thing but drilling hitters who offend you is something else entirely. “If Ureña thought he was being tough, he wasn’t. Good pitchers–and staffs–will take command of a situation before a guy is swatting home runs left and right. The Marlins kept throwing Acuña fastballs down the middle. Well, what did they think was going to happen? A light should have gone on. Hmm, maybe we should try something else.”

Now, Murphy wasn’t exactly amused when Madison Bumgarner barked at Max Muncy after Muncy drove one of Bumgarner’s offerings clean into McCovey’s Cove last week. Murphy was far more impressed not just that Muncy was sharp enough in spontaneity to hand Bumgarner a classic one-liner (I just told him if he doesn’t want me to watch the ball, go get it out of the ocean) that begat a classic troll shirt, but that Muncy had no qualms about even a lower-keyed celebration of, you know, achievement.

“Admiring a home run is OK,” Murphy writes in an essay published Friday. “Bat-flipping is OK. Emotion is OK. None of that is a sign of poor sportsmanship or disrespect for an opponent. It’s a celebration of achievement — and doing so should not only be allowed, but encouraged.” And he’s not limiting its encouragement to hitters alone, either. “Pitchers can shout excitedly after an important out,” he writes. They can pump their fist after a clutch strikeout. Players, fans—and basically any rational-thinking human—will understand that no harm is intended by these spontaneous expressions of joy.”

Last year, Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle jumped onto the fun train. And he said he wanted more than just bat flips. “If a guy hits a home run off me, drops to his knees, pretends the bat is a bazooka, and shoots it out at the sky, I don’t give a shit,” he said. To which I myself added, “I hope a lot of pitchers start channeling their inner Dennis Eckersley and start fanning pistols after they strike someone out. I’d kill to see a hitter moonwalk around the bases after hitting one out. Let’s see more keystone combinations chest bump or make like jugglers after they turn a particularly slick and tough double play.”

“These are some of the best athletes in the world, competing against some of the other best athletes in the world, with generational wealth at stake,” writes Murphy. “Yet, they’re expected to play baseball like they’re doing calculus at afternoon tea.” My own expression was (and remains) that whereas Willie Stargell was right saying, “The umpire doesn’t say, ‘Work ball’,” if you want to play baseball like businessmen, take the field and check in at the plate in three-piece suits.

“In what other sport does this happen?” Murphy asks. “In what other sport is celebration considered disrespect? In football, guys plan celebrations. They choreograph them with teammates. They gesture when they get a first down. As far as I know, the world hasn’t ended.  Baseball is a strange place. It’s not OK to watch your home run, but it is OK for someone to throw a baseball 95 miles per hour at your head if you do.”

It’s still funny in anything but a ho-ho-ho way that when it’s free agency signing season the Old School wants us to remember they’re getting overpaid to play a game, for crying out loud . . . but when it’s time to actually play the game, God forbid the players look like they’re, you know, playing.

Murphy is careful not to say that those on the field who don’t like celebrating their achievements should be allowed not to like it, either. But he’s adamant that if they want to celebrate, they shouldn’t risk being decapitated the next time they bat against the pitcher they just took into the ocean. And, to Madison Bumgarner’s eternal credit, he didn’t even think about trying to flip Max Muncy when Muncy faced him the next time.

Neither did the arguable and unlikely father of the home run bat flip as we’ve come to know it face revenge.

I take you back to the 1987 World Series. The one in which no game was won on the road and the Twins won in seven. The one in which Tom Lawless—journeyman infielder, minus 2.1 wins above a replacement-level player, lifetime .521 OPS, lifetime hitter of two regular-season major league home runs, who hadn’t hit one out since 1984—squared up Frank Viola (a Cy Young Award winner the following season) with two on and nobody out, in the bottom of the fourth, in a tied-at-one Game Four, and hit a meaty fastball over the left field fence.

Lawless took ten leisurely steps out of the box up the first base line as the ball flew out. When it banged off a railing above and behind the fence, he flipped his bat about ten feet straight up into the Busch Stadium air before starting his home run trot. The crowd may have cheered as much for that flip as for the ball flying out in the first place.

“Look at this!” hollered then-ABC commentator Tim McCarver when showing it on a replay. McCarver and Al Michaels sounded absolutely exuberant. Viola didn’t exactly look thrilled to have just surrendered a tiebreaking three run homer, but he wasn’t exactly spitting fire or raging in the moment, either.

As Bleacher Report‘s Danny Knobler observes in Unwritten: Bat Flips, the Fun Police, and Baseball’s New Future, Viola never once retaliated for the Lawless flip. On 14 May 1989, Viola and Lawless met for the first time since that Series, with Lawless now a Blue Jay pinch hitting for Rob Ducey in the top of the fifth. Viola caught Lawless looking at a third strike in that pinch hit appearance. Lawless stayed in the game playing right field, of all places. He batted against Viola in the top of the eighth and grounded out to first.

Not once did Lawless face a knockdown or brushback.

It’s a shame someone didn’t teach that lesson to Hunter Strickland two years ago, when he opened against Bryce Harper by drilling Harper in the hip—over a couple of long, almost three-year-old postseason home runs the second of which Strickland thought Harper pimped, when the only thing Harper actually did was make sure the launch straight over the right field line and foul pole would fly out fair.

“I didn’t remember flipping it,” Lawless said after that ’87 Series game. “I’ve never been in a position like this before.” He never would be again, either. That blast was the only World Series hit of Lawless’s career, and he never played in the Series again.

In 2017, he told a Cardinals television broadcast interviewer, “I don’t have any idea why I did it. It just happened.” Spoilsport.

 

A method to Donaldson’s madness?

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If Josh Donaldson was really furious over his jersey being brushed by an inside pitch, rather than the pitch actually hitting him, he’s baseball’s biggest crybaby. But if he was trying to rattle the Pirates into a starter’s ejection and an unexpected bullpen game when their pitching staff is already addled, he might be a genius . . . might . . .

Next to the question of former Red Sox bombardier David Ortiz’s prognosis following his being shot in a Santo Domingo ambush Sunday, baseball’s number one question Monday night just might have been, “Who whacked Josh Donaldson and Joe Musgrove with the stupid stick?” Don’t be sure anyone’s in a big hurry to claim responsibility for the deed.

Musgrove pitched to Donaldson in the bottom of the first with Dansby Swanson on third following a one-out double and a ground out advance. The Pirates righthander started Donaldson with a four-seam fastball inside. The ball grazed Donaldson’s jersey so obviously you could see it flap like a flag in the high wind.

It never touched the Braves’ third baseman.

Donaldson and Musgrove shared some glares as Donaldson began walking to first base. Pirates catcher Elmer Diaz stepped forward to try urging Donaldson toward first and Donaldson all but threw him to one side as if hoisting a sack of feed from a warehouse pallet.

Out came the benches. And out of the game went Donaldson and Musgrove, not to mention Pirates manager Clint Hurdle after he hustled to the umps to argue against Musgrove’s ejection.

Some thought Donaldson smirked at Musgrove as he stepped away from the batter’s box. Some thought Donaldson hollered words along the line of, “What the [fornicate] are you looking at, [female dog]?”

I can’t help wondering whether there wasn’t a little mischievious gamesmanship involved in the whole thing to begin with. Leo Durocher, Billy Martin, pick up the house phones. As a Pirates beat writer, Adam Berry, noted aboard Twitter, the Pirates at the moment didn’t have an actual starting pitcher to use for Wednesday’s and Thursday’s games against the Braves. The last thing they needed Monday night was an unanticipated bullpen game to open the set.

But now Musgrove is likely to get the Thursday start, since he only worked two-thirds of an inning before the jersey brush. Except that he was originally scheduled to make his next start against the Marlins come Saturday. There goes that start. And though the Marlins normally make the Pirates resemble the Yankees, this year’s Fish have become known for making a few tough times for a few actual or alleged contenders now and then.

And for better or worse the Pirates seem to be the National League’s leading mound dusters this season. But the last thing they needed Monday was another pitching issue after sending Jordan Lyle to the injured list with a tightened hamstring.

“We’ve had no beef in the past until now,” Musgrove told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after the game. “For him to act that way and I did nothing but stand my ground. I hit him with the pitch and he stared at me and tried to intimidate me and I’m not going to let that happen. I looked back at him and he had a few words to say. He crossed the line and came at me. I took my hat and glove off and got ready to fight. I don’t know what else you can do in that situation.”

Musgrove may have been ejected less for the pitch itself than for throwing his hat to the ground angrily as the teams began scrumming. Hurdle still wasn’t happy about his man getting the ho-heave. “The hard part is watching a man cross the line and push the catcher out of the way,” Hurdle said of Donaldson’s shoving Diaz. The pitcher drops his hat and glove and . . .

“Since the time we’ve been on the playground at six-year-old we’ve tried to find ways to stand our ground,” the skipper continued. “I understand that in a vacuum saying that you shouldn’t throw your hat down, but if you’ve played the game or been around sports there’s time when you drop your hat and glove. The hard part is if the batter goes to first none of this happens.”

Is it possible Donaldson was aware enough of that scenario that he was willing to take one for the team in order to leave the already-vulnerable Pirates staff completely at the potential mercy of the Braves’ swingers with their bullpen in earlier than hoped for? The 13-7 Braves win certainly makes it look that way.

Because even though the Braves ended up going calmly in the bottom of the first, and Braves starter Kevin Gausman kept it 1-0 after a leadoff base hit in the top of the second, the Braves broke out the cudgels in the bottom of the second: a leadoff hit batsman, a walk, a runner-advancing ground out, a strikeout that loaded the bases thanks to the passed ball on strike three, and Ronald Acuna, Jr. coming to the plate. Acuna turned on a hanging curve ball from Alex McRae and drove it halfway up the left field bleachers.

If only it was one of Gausman’s better nights. Starling Marte hit the first pitch he saw in the top of the third over the center field fence with Kevin Newman and Bryan Reynolds aboard and nobody out. Part of it was Gausman’s own fault, after he threw offline trying to force Newman (leadoff single) at second on Reynolds’s grounder back to the mound.

Now both teams were into each other’s bullpens. Ozzie Albies flattened McRae’s hanging changeup on 1-2 and sent it into the left center field bleachers in the bottom of the third. If McRae was trying to take one for his team, what he took was almost cruel and unusual punishment when he walked Swanson to open the Atlanta fourth and Freddie Freeman drove a 2-1 fastball not far from where Acuna’s salami landed.

Geoff Hartleib had the dubious pleasure of seeing the score swell to 9-4 when Nick Markakis drove home his 1,000th career run on a single up the pipe. His teammates toasted him after the game. “It just means I’m getting old,” Markakis cracked to reporters.

Albies made it 10-4 in the seventh with a solo over the center field fence. Marte saw him leading off the top of the eighth with a first pitch bomb off former Met Jerry Blevins. Later in the inning, with Dan Winkler having relieved Blevins, pinch hitter Corey Dickerson shot a two-run single to make it 10-7.

So, naturally, in the bottom of the eighth, Johan Comargo, who’d replaced Donaldson after the jersey brush, singled Swanson home before Markakis, apparently deciding he wasn’t getting that old, hit a two-run homer. And Jacob Webb shook off a two-out walk to sink the Pirates in the top of the ninth.

“Musgrove and Donaldson have no particular history, and these teams are not rivals,” wrote Deadspin‘s Chris Thompson, who called Musgrove and Donaldson steakheads for their trouble. “And the ball that ‘hit’ Donaldson didn’t actually hit him at all. There was no reason for anyone involved to feel proud or pissed or slighted or triumphant, at all.”

But maybe, just maybe, Donaldson wasn’t as much of a steakhead as he looked.