A mudswinging victory

Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper launches what proved his NLCS-winning two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth. Wild? The crowd went nuclear.

Bruce McClure, the membership ambassador for the Society for American Baseball Research, tweeted: “Why in the world did they insist on playing the [National League Championship Series] game in the pouring rain?” I had an answer immediately.

“Because,” I replied, “they wanted to see Bryce Harper drop every jaw in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the bottom of the eighth?”

“You win, good sir,” Mr. McClure answered.

Well, I didn’t win on Sunday afternoon. The Phillies did. At this writing, it’s fair to say those $330 million dollars Phillies owner John Middleton agreed to pay Harper over thirteen years might have been bargain-basement rate. It’s also fair to say no timetable should be placed upon the finish of Philadelphia going berserk over this.

One and a half innings after the elements and the mound mud they formulated helped the Padres to an overthrow one-run lead, and with J.T. Realmuto on first after a leadoff single against Padres reliever Robert Suarez, Harper checked in with the elements receding just enough and hit the biggest home run of his major league life. It took a little hair-raising in the top of the ninth to make it stick, but stick it did, sending the Phillies to the World Series.

“I knew he’d come with his best pitch,” Harper told Fox Sports field reporter/Sports Illustrated columnist Tom Verducci at one end of the dugout minutes after he ran it out. “I took the best swing I could. I just want to win this game.”

He’d just have to wait until the Phillies slithered out of a final Padres push in the ninth, when reliever David Robertson lost back-to-back one-out walks and gave way to Ranger Suárez, customarily a starter but also a lefthanded pitcher with a lefthanded batter due up.

Then Trent Grisham—a breakout star when the Padres slew the Mets’ dragon in the wild card series but almost a non-topic in this National League Championship Series—elected to try dragging a bunt for a base hit on Suárez’s first pitch. Neither he nor the Padres bargained on Suárez himself springing from the mound like a cat overdosing on Red Bull. Suárez threw him out at first almost in a blink.

The next man up was Austin Nola, the Padres’ catcher who hogged the headlines over the Padres’ lone NLCS win for starting the scoring with a base hit off brother Aaron on the mound for the Phillies. The only thing that might have made it sweeter if Big Brother Nola could land a hit now would have been if Little Brother Aaron was on the mound again.

But Little Brother was in the Phillies dugout on the same pins and cushions (thank you, Mrs. Ace) as his teammates until Big Brother skied Suárez’s first pitch to shallow right field, where Nick Castellanos ambled in, held off second baseman Juan Segura ambling out, and snapped the ball into his glove with the pennant attached.

Let the second guessing begin, mostly because it’s going to begin with or without any hint from me. The biggest one is probably going to be, thinking of the righthanded Robert Suarez staying in to face Harper the portside pulveriser, “Why the hell didn’t Bob Melvin bring Josh Hader in with Harper checking in at the plate?”

Reaching for the best bull in your pen when it’s shy of the ninth inning and your “save” situation is five minutes ago with a hard-mudslidden one-run lead isn’t just sound strategy, it’s absolutely mandatory. That’s smart baseball. Especially when your best just so happens to match ideally to their best and their best is due up next. Wasn’t that why the Padres dealt for Hader at the deadline, banking on the self-resurrection he’d make after leaving Milwaukee.

Of course it was. But just maybe Melvin just saw his Phillies counterpart do likewise with his best bull and get third-degree burned through no fault of either his or his man’s own. Melvin wasn’t going to let that happen to him or to his team. Mother Nature was being defiant enough all day long. And Harper had faced Robert Suarez in the eighth in Game Two, their only previous known confrontation—whacking into a double play.

The Padres mud-wrestled their way back from a 2-1 deficit in the seventh—Rhys Hoskins’s two-run bomb in the bottom of the third threatened to hold up otherwise despite Juan Solo’s solo satellite in the top of the fourth—because Phillies manager Rob Thomson’s reach for Seranthony Domínguez backfired under Mother Nature’s pouring.

The mound was muddy. The infield dirt was muddy. Both starting pitchers, Zack Wheeler for the Phillies and Yu Darvish for the Padres, had visible trouble keeping their landing feet from sliding more than a bare inch on the mudded mound downslope. Domínguez in the heavier rain had visible trouble holding and throwing his usually precise fastballs.

With Wheeler pushed out at the inning’s opening by Jake Cronenworth’s leadoff single, Domínguez fell behind 3-1 before throwing Josh Bell a fastball meaty enough to bang into right for an RBI double—after wild-pitching Cronenworth to second to make it simpler. After Domínguez looked to be finding a workable rain handle with back-to-back strikeouts, he threw two wild pitches while working to Grisham, enabling pinch-runner Jose Azocar to take third and score the Padres’ third run.

Grisham flied out to right for the side. Melvin surely appreciated having the lead handed to the Padres for the first and only time in the game. But seeing Thomson’s best-bull-forward move get thrown in the mud that dramatically must have put one thought in the back of his mind: We are not going to let that happen to us in this dreck.

Darvish surrendered an eighth inning-opening  double to right to Bryson Stott, yielding to Robert Suarez. Suarez wrestled through the seventh unscathed. Hader was up and throwing in the Padres bullpen. But Realmuto began Suarez’s eighth-inning scathing by whacking an 0-2 pitch into left for a clean single. (As clean as the wet conditions allowed, of course.)

Still no sign of Hader. Suarez and Harper wrestled through two 1-2 foul balls to 2-2. The next pitch was a sinker hanging up in the outer middle region of the strike zone. Harper launched it parabolically, the opposite way, into the left field seats. Every occupant of Citizens Bank Park dared to believe it. The Phillies had just won the pennant. The top of the ninth would be a mere formality.

Not exactly, of course. It wasn’t easy for either team to get here in the first place, no matter how easy the Phillies made it look shoving the Cardinals and the Braves aside, no matter how easy the Padres made it look shoving the Mets and the Dodgers to one side.

Both teams had to hit the mid-season reset buttons. The Phillies had to get to the postseason in the first place almost despite losing Harper first to designated hitter-only duty after a shoulder injury and then for two months with a thumb fracture—on a pitch from the Padres’ Game Three starter Blake Snell, of all people.

It took Harper long enough to get anything resembling his groove back in the first place. The Phillies claimed the final National League wild card in the nick of time. Harper found his groove almost the moment the postseason began. Now he stands as the NLCS’s Most Valuable Player. The stupid money (Middleton’s term for his willingness to spend and invest in the team) looks absolutely Mensa now.

Harper’s hit five bombs all postseason long thus far and tied a franchise record for postseason for extra base hits. He’s hit a lot of indelible nukes in his career. Not even the ultimate grand slam he smashed against the Cubs a little over three years ago compares.

That one will become just a footnote to his career. Wherever the Phillies go from here, this one’s going to be cast in plutonium.

It’s phun unless you’re a Padres fan

Philadelphia Phillies

Rhys Hoskins (17) and the Phillies high, low, and any other five they can think of after waxing the Padres in NLCS Game Four . . .

After Saturday’s doings and undoings, the second-winningest regular season major league team is on the threshold of a potential World Series date with the eleventh-winningest regular season team. That’s about the full extent to which the Astros (the former) have anything in common with the Phillies (the latter).

Say what you will about Commissioner Rube Goldberg’s postseason array. I’ve said my share and then some. Permit me to share this, from an essay I wrote for the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America’s Here’s the Pitch newsletter, following the ends of each league’s wild card series:

Reviewing the 1948 national elections, for a spoken-word album hit called I Can Hear It Now, broadcast news titan Edward R. Murrow observed wryly that the people’s pulse was taken, they’d been told for whom they’d vote and by how many votes, “and, yet—it couldn’t hurt to watch the campaign, anyhow.” Postseason baseball this year is somewhat like that.

We haven’t been told unto death who’s going to claim the Promised Land and in how many games. (Yet.) And, it’s going to take a little bit longer thanks to a lot more artificially inflated competition this time around. But it couldn’t hurt to watch the games, anyhow.

That seems truer now, especially with regard to the National League Championship Series, in which the Phillies awoke Sunday morning one win shy of the aforesaid World Series date. It couldn’t hurt to watch them tangle with the Padres, also known as the tenth-winningest regular-season major league team, anyhow.

So far, it hasn’t hurt. Unless you’re a Padre fan.

Just when you think the Padres are going to piledrive the Phillies into the ground and back, these not-so-phutile Phillies find ways, means, and the moxie to overthrow the Padres and make it stick. For example, NLCS. Game Four Saturday night, overthrowing and thumping the Padres, 10-6.

The noise in San Diego’s Petco Park and Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park has been enough to make you think you’ve been time warped back to the peak of Beatlemania. The Phillies didn’t needed guitars, basses, and drums to do that. All they needed was to remind themselves—as first baseman Rhys Hoskins said they did, after the Padres jumped them for a four-run top of the first Saturday night—that they still had 27 outs with which to work.

Especially on a night manager Rob Thomson planned a bullpen game but had to be very careful not to let himself be forced into potential overwork assignments out of a couple of his bigger bullpen bulls, Seranthony Domínguez in particular. As things turned out, the Phillies didn’t need Sir Anthony to ride in, on his white horse or aboard any other means of transportation.

Thumping the Padres after getting thumped in the first inning can give you that kind of security entering Game Five, a game the Phillies expect Zack Wheeler—who manhandled the Padres over seven innings and one measly hit in Game One in San Diego—to start and mastermind. Facing that plus the Phillies’ all-and-a-little-of-everything bats might mean no more baseball in San Diego after Sunday afternoon.

But neither the Phillies nor the Padres, or anyone else in the ballpark or in front of a television set, expected that neither starting pitcher would get out of the first inning alive for the first time in postseason play since it happened to Guy Bush (Cubs) and Johnny Allen (Yankees)—on the day Iraq first became an independent nation. (Game Four, 1932 World Series, if you’re scoring at home.)

The Padres opened by making Phillies starter Bailey Falter live down to his surname, with Manny Machado hitting one into the left field seats with two outs, followed by a two-run double (Brandon Drury) and an RBI single (Ha-Seong Kim). Often as not that kind of opening inning endures. When the runs are scarce enough, as they’ve been this postseason for the most part, that kind of opening holds to the final curtain.

Then Hoskins smashed a two-run homer atop Kyle Schwarber’s leadoff single off Padres starter Mike Clevinger in the bottom of the first. After J.T. Realmuto walked to follow up, Bryce Harper yanked a double to deep right center field to send Realmuto home and yank the Phillies back to within a run. (Yes, that’s ten extra-base hits in ten postseason games this time around for him.)

Bryson Stott tied things at four with an RBI single in the bottom of the fourth. The bad news from there: Juan Soto, who’s been having his issues in the field this set and who hadn’t yet done much of the bombing for which he was known well enough when the Padres dealt for him big at the regular season trade deadline, finally struck big with a one-out, tie-breaking, two-run homer in the top of the fifth.

Leave it to Hoskins to see and raise in the bottom of the inning. With one out, one aboard, and Padres lefthander Sean Manaea left in inexplicably to face the righthanded Hoskins, in Manaea’s first postseason appearance following a season in which he’d lost his slot in the starting rotation, Padres manager Bob Melvin didn’t even think about one of his bullet-firing bullpen bulls and left Manaea in to face the consequences.

“I was going to try to get him one time around the lineup,” said Melvin, who’d also managed Manaea in Oakland including the lefthander’s 2018 no-hitter. “I thought his stuff was better. He had 95. He had swings and misses when he got into the zone, but he couldn’t locate it.”

The consequences came when Hoskins hit a hanging sinker over the left center field fence, followed by Realmuto wringing out another walk and Harper drilling another RBI double, this time into left center, and the Phillies re-took a lead they wouldn’t surrender. With or without a fight.

“We knew with a bullpen game, the possibility of multiple guys having to be put in positions that they’re not used to being in, that we were going to have to slug,” said Hoskins postgame. “We did that tonight.”

Harper’s double finally prodded Melvin to get Manaea the hell out of there, in favour of Luis García—most assuredly not the Astros’ righthander who combined to shut the Mariners out, sweeping their American League division series. But Nick Castellanos greeted García with a first-pitch, opposite-field RBI single. Welcome to the party.

The Schwarbinator did García worse with two out in the next inning, beginning the Phillies’ insurance purchase with a launch over the center field fence. Mammoth enough, but not quite that close to the absolute nuke he detonated in Game One in San Diego. Steven Wilson took over the mound for the Padres for the bottom of the seventh, and Realmuto overtook him leading off, sending a 1-1 slider that hung up enough for the Phillies catcher to hang it a few rows into the left field seats.

The only thing quiet about Game Four from there was the play on the field, both sides’ bullpens keeping each other’s bats from getting any more obnoxious. The Citizens Bank audience was just as noisy the rest of the way as they’d been when the Phillies picked up, dusted off, and started their return from the living dead in the bottom of the first.

Compared to all that, the Astros waxing the Yankees in the Bronx, 5-0, in their own American League Championship Series Game Three was about as thrilling as a seaweed salad. Even the reminder that the Astros have never lost a postseason game when scoring five runs or more seemed a big case of big deal.

From Hall of Famer-to-be Justin Verlander in Game One through Cristian Javier keeping them quiet in Game Three, the Astros have gotten just enough at the plate. They even accept Yankee gifts, such as a grave misread between Aaron Judge and Harrison Bader playing a first-inning pop that was followed at once by Chas McCormick bouncing a two-run homer off the top of the right field fence, into the seats, and off Yankee ace Gerrit Cole while he was at it.

That plus the rest of the game reminded one and all that, by hook or crook, the Astros fear no team. Certainly not the Yankees, whom they beat in seven in the 2017 ALCS and six in the 2019 ALCS. Maybe not even if these Yankees could send Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, and the 2014 edition of Madison Bumgarner up against them. Maybe.

The odds don’t favour the Yankees Sunday night, either. They’ve scored (count ’em) four runs all ALCS long so far. Their ALCS OPS is eleven points lower than the Astros’ ALCS slugging percentage alone. If these Yankees can’t hit in this ALCS—it seems their season-long dependency on record-breaking but now-slumping Judge has begun to slice their own baloney—the flip side is that these Astros can pitch as well as they hit.

If the Empire Emeritus gets waxed in Game Four in front of their home audience, the noise might be as loud as Philadelphia but it won’t be the kind the Yankees want recorded for posterity. (Especially not involving free agent-to-be Judge’s potential final game as a Yankee.)

The Phillies have the opposite problem. The Game Five noise in the Bank may reach the Omega Quadrant if they beat the Padres Sunday afternoon. Unlike the Astros and the Yankees, you can call both the Phillies and the Padres many things, but boring isn’t one of them. Whatever Philadelphia’s noise ordinances are, you won’t find one cop alive willing to enforce them.

Oh, brothers!

Austin Nola

With this swing and NLCS Game Two base hit, Austin Nola became the first ever to nail a hit off his brother in postseason play. Pending the NLCS outcome, it gives Austin bragging rights over Aaron for just about eternity, for now . . .

For the first time in postseason history, siblings faced each other as pitcher and hitter. Little brother Aaron Nola, pitching for the Phillies, against big brother Austin Nola, catching for the Padres. Bottom of the second in Petco Park, two out, and an early/often 4-0 Phillies lead was cut in half a few minutes earlier.

Little brother was something of a star entry from almost the moment he arrived in the Show. Big brother got to the Show the hard way, even switching from his original shortstop position to the tools of ignorance behind the plate. Little brother had five years in Show before big brother got anything close to a clean shot.

Now, little brother lured big brother into an inning-ending bounce out to third base. Three innings later, though, Austin let Aaron know big brother was watching him carefully enough. With one out, and after several throws by little brother to first to keep Padres shortstop Ha-Seong Kim (leadoff single) from thinking too much about theft, big brother struck.

Few things in life satisfy quite so much as getting little brother back after he got you good the first time. Fewer times than that does big brother get little brother good and start what shoves little brother to one side for the day.

Kim took off with the pitch and without looking back while Austin slashed a line single the other way to right, starting a five-run Padres uprising that ultimately put paid both to Aaron’s afternoon and the game, an 8-5 Padres win that sends the National League Championship Series to Philadelphia even-up at one game each.

All that while the Nola boys’ parents A.J. and Stacie Nola sat in the stands, A.J. doing his level best to avoid favouritism by sitting with a Phillies jersey (Aaron’s, of course) over a Padres jersey (Austin’s, of course) around his torso. They must have been thinking of tireless backyard Wiffle ball contests between the two that seeded tireless travel-ball jaunts in an RV to get the brothers from game to game.

They must also have been thinking they’d sooner have seen the inside of the House of the Rising Sun in the boys’ native Louisiana than to see them squaring off against each other with the National League pennant at stake.

“Of course you always root for your brother and want him to do well,” Austin told a reporter after Game Two ended. “It has been strange. But we talked about this beforehand. It was understood between us that this is competitive. There’s no empathy here. We both want to win . . . Now that it’s the postseason, and it’s all-out—bottom line, I hope you do well next year, you know?”

Easy for him to say.

Six pairs of siblings squared off against each other in postseason play before Wednesday: Sandy Alomar, Jr. and Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar (1996, 1997), Dane Iorg and Garth Iorg (1985), Clete Boyer and Ken Boyer (1964), Irish Meusel and Bob Meusel (1921, 1922, 1923), and Doc Johnston and Jimmy Johnston (1920). The Boyers, the Meusels, and the Johnstons did it in World Series play.

Not one of them was a pitcher facing the other at the plate.

“That’s crazy, that it hasn’t happened ever,” observed Padres pitcher Mike Clevinger postgame. “You’d think that somehow, sometime, it would line up. That is crazy. Crazy. Amazing. That’s just wild. It’s awesome. Romantic. It’s like a storybook. Always. And you never know. If it took 100 years for this to happen, you think about how, 100 years from now, that could still be the only time that it happened. That is crazy.”

After Kim dove across the plate with the third San Diego run, Padres left fielder Jurickson Profar smacked Aaron’s first pitch to right to set first and third up with a single out. Juan Soto—the Padres’ spotlight trade deadline acquisition, who struggled somewhat to rediscover his well-regarded mojo after the deal, and the only Padre who’s had a taste of World Series triumph (as a 2019 National)—pulled a high, hard liner deep into the right field corner, sending the elder Nola brother home with the game-tying run.

Aaron nailed Manny Machado after ball one with three straight strikes including a big swinger for strike three. Phillies manager Rob Thomson lifted Aaron for lefthander Brad Hand with lefthanded Padres second baseman Jake Cronenworth due to hit. But a Hand curve ball sailing inside caught Cronenworth in the back as he turned trying to avoid it, and the Padre ducks were on the pond.

Up stepped Brandon Drury, who’d started cutting the early 4-0 Phillie lead in half with a leadoff home run in the bottom of the second. Up the pipe went his full-count line single with the runners in motion, home came Profar and Soto, and into the 6-4 lead the Padres went. Then Josh Bell—who followed Drury in the second by hitting Aaron’s first pitch right past the foul pole for a home run—lined one the other way through first and into right to send Cronenworth home and Drury to third.

Having broken the Hand, the Padres now faced righthanded Phillies reliever Andrew Bellatti. Kim returned to work himself into a bases-reloading walk, but Trent Grisham fought to a full count before lining two foul down the first base line and then looking at a nasty third strike on the inside corner.

Machado would add a little extra insurance in the bottom of the seventh against another Phillies reliever, David Robertson, freshly re-installed off the injured list, when he hit a 2-2 service about 424 feet over the center field fence. Except for Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins hitting Padres reliever Robert Suarez’s first pitch into the left field seats to open the top of the eighth, that was all the Phillies had to say for having their early swat-and-slash 4-0 lead eviscerated for keeps.

That lead began against Padres starter Blake Snell, who’d retired them in order in the top of the first, with designated hitter Bryce Harper lining a single over the middle and just above Kim’s upstretched glove. Right fielder Nick Castellanos followed to fight a jam pitch off the other way to right and falling in front of Soto, who struggled with the afternoon sun most of the time before the shadows began crossing the park.

Then it was Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm sending a line bloop into center to score Harper, second baseman Jean Segura swinging a strikeout, and center fielder Matt Vierling flying a long one the other way to right which Soto clearly lost in the sun despite trying to shield his eyes from the glare, scoring Castellanos. Then, it was shortstop Edmundo Sosa blooping one into short left to score Bohm, and left fielder Kyle Schwarber grounding one to first.

Drury knocked the ball down unable to handle it for a double play but able to step on the first base pad to get Schwarber for the second out—with Vierling scoring the fourth Phillie run. Hoskins then sent one high to right. Soto shaded his eyes again. This time, he had it for the side retired. From there he was hell bent on atonement. He finally got it when he sent Big Brother Nola home in that five-run fifth.

“I wish I could have taken a snapshot and just held the moment for like a day, you know, because that’s how fun it is,” said big brother after the game. “And I’m sure he would say the same thing, that stepping in the box and you get your brother in a situation, you know . . . just facing him in a big-league game is enough to just hold the moment.”

“I want to beat him,” little brother said. “I want to go to the next round and let him go home.”

Well, now. Until or unless Aaron gets Austin out later in this NLCS, especially in a moment where one false pitch might otherwise equal a game starting to upend and break open again, big brother has bragging rights on kid brother for . . . well, eternity may or may not be quite enough. Yet.

Little brothers are watching you

San Diego Padres

This Friars roast only roasted the Dodgers out of the postseason and the Padres to a pennant showdown with the likewise underdog Phillies.

“If you don’t win the World Series,” said Freddie Freeman, who won one with the Braves last year before signing with the Dodgers as a free agent following the owners’ lockout, “it’s just disappointment right now.” But you have to get to the Series for a shot at winning it.

The Dodgers won’t get there this time. Hours after the likewise-underdog Phillies shoved the Braves home for the winter to finish National League upset number one, baseball’s winningest regular season team couldn’t get past a National League division series against a band of upstart Padres that finished the furthest back in their division of any of this year’s postseason entrants.

Go ahead and blame manager Dave Roberts, if you must, for failing to do what plain sense instructed but, apparently, his Book instructed not to even think about it just yet. That was his best reliever, Evan Phillips, still sitting in the pen all seventh inning long, instead of being on the mound in the bottom of the seventh when he was needed most.

The Dodgers managed to eke out a 3-0 lead entering the inning, thanks to Freeman’s two-run double in the top of the third and Will Smith’s bases-loaded sacrifice fly in the top of the seventh. When the Padres answered with a leadoff walk, a base hit, and an RBI single without Tommy Kahnle recording a single out, Roberts needed a stopper with the Dodgers’ season squarely on the line.

And, with the Padres hell bent on not letting the set go to a Game Five in which they’d face a Dodgers’ starter, Julio Urias, who held them to three runs in Game One while the Dodgers bushwhacked their starter Mike Clevinger.

Roberts had that stopper in the pen. When Cardiac Craig Kimbrel spun out in the season’s final third and off the postseason roster entirely, Phillips became the Dodger pen committee’s number one arm. He posted the 1.94 fielding-independent pitching rate (FIP), the 1.13 ERA, the 11 strikeouts-per-nine rate, and the 5.54 strikeout-to-walk ratio to prove it.

He was the invisible man in the fateful bottom of the seventh. Roberts lifted Kahnle for Yency Almonte, whose 1.02 ERA and 0.97 walks/hits per inning pitched rate on the season were belied by a 3.17 FIP. Ha-Seong Kim slipped an RBI double past Max Muncy at third and Juan Soto dumped an RBI single into right immediately following. Game tied. Whoops.

Almonte got rid of Manny Machado on a strikeout and Brandon Drury on a foul out. Roberts lifted him for a barely-warm Alex Vesia, and Jake Cronenworth greeted Vesia with a two-run single on 2-2. When Vesia ended the inning a walk later by striking Jurickson Profar out, the Dodgers were sunk.

“I feel like that’s been my lane the last couple days in the series,” Almonte said postgame. “I made the pitches I wanted to make, but they hit the ball and did what they had to do. They get paid as well. I get paid to make pitches, and they went their way.”

Even if they didn’t know it just yet. Even if they’d go down in order against Padres reliever Robert Suarez in the top of the eighth. Then Phillips got the call, for the bottom of the eighth. He struck the side out in order. Normally that might have sent a cross-country sigh of relief forth.

“Tommy, Yency, and Ves, they’ve all been out there,” Phillips said postgame, “and they’ve all competed their butts off this year and gotten big outs for us at times. The game of baseball doesn’t always go your way. Was I anticipating pitching in some sort of situation like that? Sure. But I still consider the three outs I got as just as important. Unfortunately, it didn’t go our way.”

But these Dodgers hit only .227 in this division series. They experienced insult added to injury when Josh Hader, well-revived in San Diego after faltering in Milwaukee at last, struck the side out in order likewise to nail the Padres’ trip to the National League Championship Series.

“I know the job’s not done,” said the Padres’ Game Four starter, Joe Musgrove. “We’ve got a lot of baseball ahead of us still, but this is something that needs to be celebrated. Those guys handed it to us all year long, and when it came down to it and we needed to win ballgames, we found ways to do it.”

Thus did Tyler Anderson’s five scoreless innings in the biggest start of his life, after he’d signed an $8 million 2022 deal with no rotation guarantee attached, go to waste. Thus did a 111-win season go to waste. Thus did the Dodgers become one of three 100+ winning teams to leave this postseason early. Thus do the Padres give San Diego above-and-beyond excitement and further hope.

“They played better than us,” said future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw, whose Game Two misery only began when Machado sent a 2-1, two-out pitch over the left field fence in the top of the first. “It’s hard to admit sometimes, but that’s the truth of it. They just beat us.”

The Dodgers helped beat themselves, too. Kershaw might not have had his best night in Game Two, but the Dodgers’ bats, concurrently, went to the plate with men in scoring position eight times and went hitless. They might really have begun beating themselves when Walker Buehler went down to Tommy John surgery and the Dodgers couldn’t find another established starter to fortify the rotation.

We’ll never know for dead last certain. We do know that a crowd of Padres moves that began with signing Machado to that $300 million plus deal, and climaxed with bringing Soto aboard from the remaking/remodeling Nationals at this year’s trade deadline, turned the Padres from the downstate kid brothers into the ones who showed their big brothers how little size matters if and when push comes to shove.

Roberts has taken his lumps from Dodger fans who seem to question every inning, never mind game, in which they fall short and any given move or non-move can be scrutinised to death. It comes with the job. He can say proudly that he’s managed the Dodgers to six NL West titles (including five straight) in seven seasons. Very few skippers can hang that on their shingles.

Now Roberts presides over a group who won more regular season games than any group in the Dodgers’ long and storied history from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. The problem is that he has only one pandamnic-short-season, surrealistically-scheduled World Series title to show for it.

He also got out-generaled and out-played with particular pronouncement by this band of Padres who survived no few lumps of their own to get here at all. Then he picked the wrong time to forget the import of getting your absolute best relief option out there to keep the upstarts from getting particularly frisky when you have them on the brink of forcing one more game, one more chance to send them home for the winter.

It’s not quite as grave as that 2014 night then-Cardinals manager Mike Matheny left his best bullpen option in the pen waiting while sticking with a still-rusty pitcher and watching the pennant fly onto Levi’s Landing aboard Travis Ishikawa’s three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth, of course. But it’s close enough. And the pain of the sting is almost as profound.

Don’t blame Roberts entirely. The man who guaranteed a Dodger World Series in back in May couldn’t have predicted that they wouldn’t be able to hit in this division series almost at all, never mind when it mattered the most, if they weren’t named Freeman and Trea Turner, and Turner did it through a lingering finger issue.

“It’s whoever gets the big hits, and they got the big hits,” said Justin Turner (division series OPS: .466) after the Padres sealed the proverbial deal against himself and his mates. “You can point your fingers to whatever you want, but the bottom line is we didn’t get the job done. We got beat.”

As the Padres now prepare for a pennant showdown with the Phillies, their message for now should be loud enough and clear enough: Little brothers are watching you.

Stick this!

Joe Musgrove

Lend Me Your Ear Dept.: Having the umps check Joe Musgrove (second from left) for new old-fashioned medicated goo on his ears and elsewhere looked like desperation from Buck Showalter as Musgrove and the Padres bumped the Mets to an early winter vacation Sunday night.

Few things in this world are as profound as the wrench that happens when an individual resembles a genius one night and a fool the next. Unless it’s when a team resembles a well-lubricated Porsche one night and a two-stroke Trabant the next.

That wrench sent Buck Showalter and his Mets home for the winter after they played a Saturday and Sunday that put their entire season into microcosm. Including the re-exposure of the lacking that turned them from National League East dominators to division sliders finally settling for second best after a self-deflating previous weekend in Atlanta.

It also sent Showalter from being the skipper with the nerve to throw The Book to one side, and his best relief pitcher into the game when its “save situation” presented itself earlier than the ninth inning, to the one who thought a too-little/too-late gamesmanship exercise might knock the Padres off their game slightly more than mid-way through.

That was when the Padres didn’t expose it for them. The Mets’ few lackings this year included offensive depth past the middle of the batting order. The Padres out-lasted them in this wild card series when the lower end of their order suddenly figured out how to hunt, peck, hector, pester, and puncture.

The Padres didn’t lack for issues all year, either, but they rode Joe Musgrove and two relievers to a 6-0 Game Three one-hit shutout, on a night Musgrove simply fed the Mets things they could only hit with moderate contact to Padre defenders on red alert. The nearest Musgrove came to disaster was when Mark Canha sent one deep enough to right center field to send Trent Grisham crashing into the wall after he caught the drive with only inches to spare.

The Mets might have loved nothing more than the crash actually yanking Grisham out of the game. All series long he’d gone from the nothing-special regular season element, whose seventeen home runs didn’t negate puny plate performance papers otherwise, into a 1.917 wild card series OPS. His Real Batting Average on the season: .422. His RBA in the wild card set: 1.167.

The only thing better than moving Grisham to one side for the Mets would have been ridding themselves of Musgrove, who pitched the first no-hitter in Padres history in April and pitched Sunday night as though he’d made the Mets into the classic cartoon volunteers for a cartoon magician’s guaranteed-to-embarrass magic tricks.

Showalter thought he might do what his batters couldn’t entering the bottom of the sixth. He ambled out of the Mets dugout and asked Alfonso Marquez’s umpiring crew to check Musgrove for, shall we say, that new good-old-fashioned medicated goo. Marquez delivered the message to a slightly flustered Musgrove promptly.

“He said, ‘Buck wants to take a look at your glove, your face, your hat, all that stuff’. I said: ‘You take what you want, man’,” Musgrove said postgame. The umpires took looks at all that stuff, including an almost comical-looking inspection of Musgrove’s admittedly shining ears and lobes.

What irked Showalter was information handed him that indicated the spinning rate on Musgrove’s pitches were higher Sunday evening than they were all season long. Baseball government’s obsession with foreign substances (Spider-Tack, et. al.) and lack of apparent concern for consistently made and grippable baseballs was bound to yield oddities but nothing quite like this until that moment.

“When you see something that jumps out at you . . . I get a lot of information in the dugout,” Showalter said postgame. “We certainly weren’t having much luck the way it was going. That’s for sure. But I’m charged with doing what’s best for the New York Mets. And however it might make me look or whatever, I’m gonna do that every time.”

“Was that what he did?” asked Padres third baseman Manny Machado, who had a respectable if not spectacular wild card series himself, who happened to be a measly three feet from Musgrove while the pitcher was being frisked, and who knows Showalter from playing for him as an Oriole. “I wasn’t sure. I mean, how many hits did Joe give up? He gave up one hit? That’s pretty smart by them.”

Maybe not as smart as Machado charitably allowed. Showalter’s shortstop Francisco Lindor seemed uncertain himself. “There were some talks in the dugout,” he told reporters. “Buck made the decision to go check him. I respect that. I respect his decision. At the end of the day, hats off to Musgrove. He flat-out beat us.”

Padres manager Bob Melvin didn’t find it that amusing. If anything, he found it a character assassination attempt. “The problem I have is that Joe Musgrove is a man of character,” he fumed. “Questioning his character, that’s the part I have a problem with and I’m here to tell everybody that Joe Musgrove is above board as any pitcher I know, any player I know, and unfortunately the reception he got after that was not warranted.”

That’s a reference to the Citi Field crowd chanting “Cheater, cheater!” at Musgrove post-check. Maybe the crowd became as desperate as Showalter’s sticky-stuff gambit made him look. Maybe they remembered Musgrove was a member of the 2017 Astros whose sign-stealing operation leaves that triumph suspect for all time, even though the pitchers had nothing to do with it. Maybe they forgot Musgrove admits to being embarrased to wear his ’17 Series ring because of his then-team’s shenanigans.

They certainly didn’t consider that the guy from El Cajon which is a very brief commute from San Diego, the guy who grew up rooting for the Padres, was a guy who took the mound amped up with thoughts that he really was living the dream, handed the ball in a Padres uniform on the most important night of his life to date.

“I dove into the fact that we got all the fans in San Diego waiting for this moment,” Musgrove said. “The girlfriends and wives here. The fan base that followed us from San Diego, and I tried to put that on my shoulders and carry.” That fan base had a contingency enough in Citi Field Sunday night that you could hear the “Beat L.A.!” chants as the game neared the finish.

The only question for these Padres now is whether they can and will beat the ogres of the National League West awaiting them in a division series come Tuesday night. They survived the loss of Fernando Tatis, Jr. to a shoulder injury and then a suspension over actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances. It doesn’t mean they’ll survive the Dodgers. But they may not make it that simple, either.

There’s no “only” question for these Mets entering their long winter.

Sunday starter Chris Bassitt embarrassed himself. It only began when Bassitt loaded the bases with two outs in the top of the second before another of the Padres’ final third in the order, catcher Austin Nola, swatted a two-run single . . . on 0-2.

“I was just beating myself,” he said honestly of his four-inning performance. “Looking back at the Atlanta start, I’m not sure how many runs they scored on walks, and then tonight I know they scored two guys on walks. Not too proud of that.”

It was the last thing Bassitt needed with free agency looming for him. He’s not the only one in that position. Saturday’s pitching heroes, starter Jacob deGrom and reliever Edwin Díaz, face free agency, too: deGrom by way of exercising his contract opt-out, Díaz by the expiration of a deal that once looked like a franchise embarrassment before he corrected himself and went from nothing like Seattle to this season’s never-better performance papers.

Brandon Nimmo, one of three Mets to acquit himself series-long at the plate, also faces free agency, as do pitchers Carlos Carrasco, Taijuan Walker and Trevor Williams. General manager Billy Eppler, who looked like a genius last winter in signing or acquiring Max Scherzer, Starling Marte, Eduardor Escobar, Bassitt, and Canha, doesn’t look so sharp for not having made a trade deadline fortification move even rummaging an admittedly thin trading floor.

And the Mets don’t look so smart for having built themselves so surely around deGrom and Scherzer they failed to have a consistent rotation behind that pair when their health faltered. Scherzer still looked ailing from his season-long oblique trouble when he was battered in the first wild card set game. DeGrom pitched just enough to his standard to give the Mets room for their Saturday night special.

But the lack of offensive depth behind Marte, Pete Alonso, Nimmo, and NL batting average champ Jeff McNeil burned them, too. When Marte was lost from earliest September through the start of the wild card set with a finger fracture, that lack behind the remaining three bit the Mets where it really hurt. The team on-base percentage for the set was a weak .283.

And with Max the Knifed on Friday, plus Marte playing the wild card set despite the lingering finger issue, the Mets’ health maintenance may need yet another review and remake.

None of which will dissolve the sting of their Sunday embarrassment. The Padres didn’t bomb the Mets into submission Sunday night, they just pecked, poked, prodded, and pushed on a night the Mets had no answer for Musgrove other than one desperation gambit.

The night before, Showalter resembled a prudent man who learned a hard lesson for bringing in Díaz—his and the league’s best closer on the season—in the seventh when the save situation was then and not the ninth. Sunday night, Showalter resembled a flailing  man overboard who’d take an anchor for a life preserver.

“Let me phrase this the right way,” said Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen, not doing these games since ESPN carried them but appearing on an SNY postgame show.

Buck Showalter is completely in his rights to ask the umpires to check a pitcher for foreign substances. It’s up to umpires then to decide whether it’s an appropriate thing to do. I thought that considering the circumstances, 4-0, sixth inning, season on the line, it smacked of desperation and it was fairly embarrassing I thought for Buck to do that in that spot. It was not necessary. As it turned out, Musgrove was not cheating. If you’re going to pull a stunt like that, you better be right and Buck wasn’t right.

Lucky for Showalter that he doesn’t believe he’s too old to learn. We’ll to learn soon enough what he learned from this weekend that might do him right in managing a team that may yet have a different enough look next year than the one he almost led deeper into this postseason.