Off the wall in Fenway Park

Christian Vazquez

Christian Vazquez’s walk-off bomb should have been the co-story of Game Three with Nick Pivetta’s stout four extra innings’ shutout relief. But no . . .

You could hear the blue-murder screaming even before Christian Vazquez ended American League division series Game Three in the bottom of the thirteenth. You could hear furious Rays fans and sympathisers thinking Game Four deserves no shorter justice than the Red Sox getting killed to death.

They saw Vazquez hit a two-run homer, igniting a berserk celebration around all Fenway Park, and thought to themselves before hollering loud and long, We wuz robbed!!! They probably still think so.

They think the Rays should have come out of the top of the thirteenth with a 5-4 lead, the run scored from first by Yandy Diaz off Kevin Kiermaier’s two-out double against Red Sox reliever Nick Pivetta. That thought would have been wholly reasonable—except for the umpires calling for a rules review, ruling ground-rule double, and thus ruling Diaz back to third base.

The problem was Kiermaier’s drive bounced off the right field wall, off the track, then off Red Sox right fielder Hunter Renfroe and over the wall. Official Rule 5.05(a)(8) spells out the wherefore: If a fair ball not in flight is deflected by a fielder and then goes out of play, the award is two bases from the time of that pitch.

Rule 5.05(a)8 distinguishes between intent and lack of intent. Had Renfroe actually tried and succeeded in deflecting the ball over the wall, Diaz would have been awarded home because he’d passed second base just as the ball ricocheted off Renfroe’s thigh over the wall. But Renfroe never touched the ball with either hand.

Postgame, Kiermaier remained in abject disbelief. “I can’t believe that happened or we don’t get the chance to score right there,” the Rays center fielder said. “For one, I crushed that ball. I was hoping to leave the yard. I got a lot of snap and crackle but no pop. First and foremost, for that to happen right there, it just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Even the Red Sox didn’t know what to think at first.

“I’ve never seen that before in my life,” said center fielder Kike Hernandez, whose fifth-inning homer put the Red Sox up 4-2. “I wasn’t sure what was going to get called. I wasn’t sure if the runners had to return. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be like an errant throw where the runner would get two bags. Like I had no idea.”

It made sense to home plate umpire Sam Holbrook after the review mandated the ground-rule double ruling. “Very simple,” the ump said. “From an umpire’s standpoint, very simple textbook in the rule.”

Maybe the rule should be reviewed and changed, maybe it shouldn’t, if you consider intent paramount on a play that was so freakish in the first place. But within its strict letter, lacking verifiable intent on Renfroe’s part, Kiermaier indeed had to settle for the ground rule double and Diaz indeed had to return to third.

The game remained tied at four. Red Sox reliever Nick Pivetta recovered to finish his fourth inning worth of three-hit, no-run, seven-strikeout relief. Rays fans may consider it having added insult to insulting injury when Renfroe himself held on for the full-count walk with one out in the bottom of the thirteenth.

Then Vazquez—who’d only come into the game as a pinch-hitter for his catching predecessor Kevin Plawecki in the sixth—caught hold of Rays reliever Luis Patino’s first offering and sent it into the Monster seats above left center for the 6-4 Red Sox win. If the would-have-been Diaz run had held up, it would have meant the Rays losing by a single run instead of two.

In a game about which it was entirely fair to say it would be a shame for either side to lose, the Rays wrestled back from a 4-2 deficit in the top of the eighth off Red Sox reliever Hansel Robles. Wander Franco hit a 3-1 fastball down the chute for a leadoff homer over the Monster; Randy Arozarena with two outs doubled pinch-runner Manuel Margot home.

Before that, the Rays re-learned how stingy Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi can be after he gets touched up in the beginning. Once Austin Meadows parked a one-out two-run homer into the bullpens in the top of the first, Eovaldi went forward to pitch shutout ball the next four-and-a-third innings.

The Red Sox chased Rays starter Drew Rasmussen with three straight singles in the third, including Hernandez sending leadoff singler Christian Arroyo home with the tying run at two. Josh Fleming relieved Rasmussen and Rafael Devers greeted him with an RBI single up the pipe to put the Red Sox up, 3-2.

After Hernandez’s leadoff yank into the Monster seats off Rays reliever Pete Fairbanks to open the fifth, and the Rays tied things at four in the eighth, Game Three’s big story figured to be Pivetta. His stout extra-innings shutout relief reminded observers of Eovaldi’s own bullpen-saving, six innings stout relief in that marathon Game Three of the 2018 World Series.

Pivetta’s outing probably changed Red Sox manager Alex Cora’s plan to start him in Game Four. After Sunday night’s win Cora probably won’t complain too much. He’d said previously that whatever the plan going in the game itself would govern the moves and the changes. When he needed a stopper before the Rays got any more ornery than tying the game at four, he picked the right man for the job.

Don’t blame the ground-rule double for costing the Rays Game Three. The Red Sox led each of the first six innings off with a man reaching base. The Rays’ none-too-shabby lineup struck out twenty times and worked only four walks. They had one hit in nine opportunities with runners in scoring position.

Don’t use it to steal Vasquez’s big moment, either. The moment in which he became only the fifth catcher in Show history to end an extra-inning postseason game with a walk-off home run. The other three: Carlton Fisk (Game Six, 1975 World Series), Tony Pena (1995 AL division series Game One), Jim Leyritz (1995 AL division series Game Two), and Todd Pratt (1999 National League divison series Game One).

The moment, too, in which he hit the sixth postseason walkoff bomb in Red Sox history, joining Fisk, Manny Ramirez (Game Two, 2007 ALDS), David Ortiz (Game Four, 2004 American League Championship Series; Game Three, 2004 ALDS), and Trot Nixon (Game Three, 2003 ALDS).

“There’s no, ‘He would have done this, would have done that’,” Holbrook said. “It’s just flat-out in the rule book, it’s a ground-rule double.” Though even Holbrook couldn’t remember having seen any similar play in the quarter century he’s been a major league umpire.

But this was not Don Denkinger absolutely blowing what should have been an out call to start the bottom of the ninth of Game Six, 1985 World Series. A blown call that infuriated those Cardinals so much that, after the Royals forced Game Seven and the umpire rotation placed Denkinger behind the plate for it, the Cardinals imploded almost completely to lose that Series.

These Rays are made of far better stuff than that. These Red Sox know it. The Red Sox now stand on the threshold of going to the American League Championship Series, but they won’t kid themselves that the Rays will be pushovers. Neither should you.

From chaos to bedlam and Game Seven

2019-10-29 AnthonyRendon

Anthony Rendon knew exactly how to shake off a dubious umpire’s call in Game Six.

The second loveliest word pair in baseball is “Game Seven.” (The first, of course, is “Play ball!”) And oh, brother, are we going to get one in this World Series.

I did say going in that this Series, between these two teams, wasn’t likely to end in either a sweep or an extremely short series. But I sure as hell didn’t expect it to get to Game Seven the way it got there.

Oh, I figured that neither wind nor heat nor gloom of potential elimination would stay a courier named Stephen Strasburg from the reasonably swift completion of his appointed Game Six rounds if he could help it. And, they didn’t.

With one cojones-heavy eight-and-a-third innings performance Strasburg pitched his way into legend and his Nationals to a seventh game that looked anything but likely after the way the Astros battered them in all three Washington games.

But I didn’t expect the next best thing to a 21st Century Don Denkinger moment, either, in the top of the seventh or otherwise. And I sure didn’t expect to see this such moment fire a team up instead of deflate them irrevocably at all, never mind with a near-immediate two-run homer once the hoo-ha stopped hoo-ha-ing.

Plate umpire Sam Holbrook decided, in essence, that a long, bad throw from Astros relief pitcher Brad Peacock fielding Nats shortstop Trea Turner’s little squeaker up from the plate, pulling first baseman Yuli Gurriel off the base, enough to let the throw hit Turner on the back of the knee the split second after his foot hit the base, equaled runner interference.

Turner inadvertently brushed Gurriel’s mitt off his hand. If the throw had reached the inside of the base instead of traveling to its front, Gurriel’s mitt wouldn’t even have been near the onrushing Turner. And Turner’s speed still would have beaten the play at first.

“What else do you do? I don’t know,” said Turner after the game. “The batter’s box is in fair territory. First base is in fair territory. I swung, I ran in a straight line, I got hit with the ball and I’m out. I don’t understand it. I can understand if I veered one way or another. I didn’t.”

It amplified this World Series’s being full of questionable, controversial calls, mostly around the strike zone. And if interference is strictly a judgment call, and umpires really are baseball’s equivalent of judges, as the game’s romantics often analogise, there might be cries for impeachment louder than any cried against particular American presidents past or present.

The Nats fumed long enough over the call—which robbed them of second and third and nobody out—that the umpires donned the headsets and called the New York review nerve center. Not for a review, since runner interference isn’t reviewable, but to send the message that the Nats wanted to play the rest of the game under protest.

And, without manager Dave Martinez, who exploded over the call as the sides changed during the seventh inning stretch and finally got ejected despite two Nats coaches managing to move him back toward his dugout, the better to keep his recently-mended heart and blood pressure from blowing like a presidential tweet storm.

The call in question got thatclose to overshadowing Strasburg’s masterpiece and the otherwise staggering 7-2 Nats win. And, the now very real prospect that this could become the first World Series in which the road team wins every game, including the Game Seven clincher.

This also may prove the most famous instance of a World Series team victimised by an umpire’s controversial call not collapsing, fainting, or imploding afterward. Talking about you, 1985 Cardinals.

That team got a Game Six jobbing in the bottom of the ninth when an inning-opening, obvious-to-the-blind infield out was called safe by first base ump Denkinger, who admitted in due course that he blew the call. Which was nothing compared to the Cardinals blowing their stacks before the Royals went on to win Game Six in that ninth or imploding completely and practically from the beginning—and it didn’t help that the ump rotation planted Denkinger behind the plate—in Game Seven.

But these Nats aren’t those Cardinals. “We’re all human,” said Anthony Rendon after the game in a field interview. “Whether we make mistakes or not, nobody’s going to feel sorry for us, so we’ve got to keep going.” Except that Rendon looked superhuman just minutes after the coolest heads finally prevailed.

Nats catcher Yan Gomes returned to first, his leadoff single having started the seventh-inning shebang in the first place. Adam Eaton popped out to third. Then Rendon himself checked in at the plate. And lodged maybe the single most explosive protest associated with Washington baseball since heartsick fans stormed RFK Stadium’s field at the end of the last Senators home game ever.

That protest caused a forfeit to the Yankees in a game the Senators were an out from winning. Rendon’s idea of a protest was to turn on Peacock’s 1-0 meatball and send it right into the Crawford Boxes above the left field wall. In 1985, Denkinger defanged the bear. On Tuesday night Holbrook poked the bear and he roared back.

That plus Rendon’s subsequent two-run double off the top of the bullpen gate in the top of the ninth sealed the Nats’ return from the land of the living dead. Turns out the interference protest didn’t exactly put Rendon in that bad a mood. “I was out here pretty happy about the delay,” he said in a postgame field interview. “I got to sit down awhile.”

But in another, later interview, Rendon became far more thoughtful.

“You can’t let any outside elements get into the game,” he told ESPN’s Jeff Passan. “No matter if it’s the crowd. You’ve got 40,000 people cheering against you. Or whether it’s the weather or if we’re in D.C. and it’s 40 degrees, whatever it might be. No one is going to feel sorry for you. They’re going to expect you to go out there and just perform as best as you can, and they’re going to expect the best out of you.

“Because I feel like people put professional athletes on a pedestal, where they say, ‘Oh, who cares, they’re making millions of dollars, they’re playing a game for a living so it’s easy. They should go out there and be successful every day’,” he continued. “We try to just keep our head down and keep playing.”

Nobody was going to feel sorry for the Astros, necessarily, after Game Six ended with catcher Robinson Chirinos, proud possessor of two Series home runs, popping out behind second base on a full count with Carlos Correa aboard on a two-out double.

Nobody was going to feel sorry for them, either, just because future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander didn’t have more than three shutout innings in him after Rendon’s first-inning RBI single. And, just because Verlander’s needle finally reached below E in the fifth, when Eaton pulled one down the right field line into the stands and, one out later, Juan Soto saw and raised with a skyrocket into the middle of the second deck past right.

“I didn’t really have great feel for the off-speed stuff,” Verlander, always a stand-up man, told interviewers after the game. “The last inning just a poorly executed slider and then really just kind of a fastball up and in.”

Nobody feels terribly sorry for a 107 regular-season winning team that raided Nationals Park like a S.W.A.T. team gone rogue in Games Three through Five after getting bastinadoed at home, then took an early 2-1 Game Six lead on George Springer’s hefty leadoff double ringing the top of the left field scoreboard, Jose Altuve’s sacrifice fly, and Alex Bregman’s solo bomb halfway up the Crawfords.

Nobody felt particularly sorry for the Nats, either, except perhaps in might-have-been terms, as the game went on and it looked again, too often, as though they’d forgotten how to hit with two strikes or otherwise, and how to see their men on base and in scoring position as wanderers to be invited home, not terminal patients allowed to die in peace.

Surely nobody would feel sorry for Strasburg, on the biggest night of his major league life, opening the game by tipping his pitches, as he subsequently admitted after pitching coach Paul Menhart pointed it out to him after the first inning ended.

He wouldn’t have let them, anyway. He pitched in and out of trouble like a sculptor resolving a particularly knotty chunk of stone midway through the game, then smoothed the knot into oblivion and nailed ten straight outs before he was lifted with one out in the bottom of the ninth.

“I saw an incredible pitcher,” said A.J. Hinch, the Astros’s equally thoughtful manager, after the game. “I mean he was really good, and as I said before the game, he has an uncanny ability to slow the game down when he is under any duress.”

Thus do we get a neck pain-relieved Max Scherzer versus Zack Greinke for Game Seven. With all hands on deck for both sides, very likely, including Gerrit Cole and Patrick Corbin and maybe even Anibal Sanchez. Ready to throw whatever kitchen sinks the Astros and the Nats can throw at each other without pulling their arms right out of their sockets.

Thus did we see Max the Knife throwing on flat ground before Game Six and a little in the bullpen during the game, as if to say the Sunday afternoon shot did what it was supposed to do, though certainly not without risk, and he was going to take the mound come hell, high water, or other pain in the neck.

Remember: this is the guy who pitched when he was black-and-blue in the face a day or so after he got hit by an errant batting practise foul bunt in June. A Sunday cortisone shot, and a little chiropractic, and Scherzer was back in the picture. The Nats thank God and His servant Bucky Harris that the game wasn’t dicey enough to compel Martinez to bring Scherzer in Tuesday night, as the skipper admitted crossed his mind while Scherzer threw just to loosen up at mound height.

As if these Nats are rookies at ducking disaster. Not a team that was 19-31 as of 23 May before doing exactly as the Astros did from that date through the end of Game Six: produce the same won-lost record since. And the Astros’ dominant season belies that they spent too much of it looking like an episode of E.R. If they win the Series you won’t know if they should get rings or medical board certification.

But all of a sudden the worst break of the Series for the Nats—Scherzer’s neck locking him up so severely Sunday morning his wife had to help him just wash and dress and he was a Game Five scratch—turned into maybe the greatest break in their history. Because Greinke has a postseason resume described best as modest. And Scherzer even in questionable health is Max the Knife.

The Nats went back to Houston with their heads squarely in Astro-fashioned nooses. On Tuesday night they threw the nooses off. “It had to be this way, right?” said Nats reliever Sean Doolittle, who shook off Correa’s ninth-inning double to finish what Strasburg and company started. “It’s the most 2019 Nats thing ever for this to go to a Game Seven.”

Some of us think just about the entire world otherwise might be surprised. But maybe Doolittle’s onto something. Why, Soto couldn’t resist getting his Bregman on in the fifth, carrying his bat to his first base coach after hitting his blast a la Bregman doing likewise after hitting his in the first.

Now for the stupid part. Bregman actually apologised after the game for his bat carry. The Sacred Unwritten Rules, you know. “I let my emotions get the best of me,” he told a reporter. “I’m sorry for doing that.”

No few grouses crawled all over him for doing it. Soto wasn’t one of them. “I just thought it was pretty cool,” he said of Bregman’s carry. “I wanted to do it.” Bregman, for his part, said he deserved Soto’s response.

Some Nats might have thought Bregman was being a little bit of an ass; Martinez said after the game, simply, “We didn’t like it.” Doolittle, who’s said in the past that he doesn’t care if those bombing him flip bats or mimick bazooka shootings, wasn’t one of those Nats.

“Knowing Soto, I don’t think there was any malice behind it,” Doolittle told a reporter. “And playing against Bregman for a long time, I don’t think there was any malice behind what he did, either. There’s just a lot of emotion in the game . . . Those are two exciting young players. I thought it was fun.”

Holster your weapons, Fun Police. A little mad fun even in Game Six isn’t a terrible thing. Let Bregman have his when he hits one out; let Soto have his when he hits one out. Especially compared to when it was just plain mad in the seventh inning. Especially when the umpire gives the bear a nastier poke than any big bopper carrying his club to his coach after his big bop.

Especially when we get a Game Seven during which we can expect the Nats and the Astros alike to bop till they drop. The only thing we can’t expect is a Washington or Houston legend like Walter Johnson or J.R. Richard coming in to pitch the ninth, then taking it hammer and tongs through extra innings’ shutout relief, until someone finally bends, breaks, gives, or growls.

Well, nobody said you could have everything. Both the Nats and the Astros will just have to settle for a very prospective kitchen sink Game Seven, and one will just have to settle for hoisting the World Series trophy after it. The lease to the Promised Land. The first such lease for any Washington major league team since the birth of IBM; the second such lease in three years for an Astro team that would secure dynastic status with it.

Game Six proved the viability of an old baseball cliche: Anything can happen—and usually does. Game Seven promises a banquet full of you ain’t seen nothing yet. Let’s hope the promise is kept. For Nats fans, for Astros fans, and for baseball itself.