“A wonderful vessel, but not what defines you”

Buster Posey, Kristen Posey

As his wife, Kristen, looked and listened, Buster Posey announced his retirement officially Thursday afternoon.

When Sandy Koufax first re-appeared in a Dodger uniform, joining the team as a low-keyed organisation pitching coach in spring 1979, Thomas Boswell profiled him for a Washington Post Sunday magazine feature. He’d dropped out of sight just to live life several years after leaving a gig with NBC’s old Game of the Week, returning almost as quietly as he’d slipped away.

The return, and Koufax’s introspection, led Boswell to conclude, “Koufax has seen through the veil of his game. A sport can be extremely difficult without being extremely important. Baseball could fascinate him, but not control him.” This week, the still-young man who may yet prove the second-youngest Hall of Famer to retire at or near his peak gave a similar impression.

Just as with Koufax over half a century ago, you can pull a pocketful of definitions out when Buster Posey’s name is mentioned. They can begin with knowing both, generations apart, played only twelve seasons of major league baseball until walking away before the game could walk, push, or shove them away.

You can pull out all the individual honours (from a Most Valuable Player award to two Comeback Player of the Year awards), three World Series championships, catching a perfect game and a few mere no-hitters. But you can also join Posey’s hand to Koufax’s for having the heart, soul, and presence of mind to pass it on before it was passed on for them.

As a pitcher, Koufax is frozen in time, the thirty-year-old lefthander still at the mountaintop, leaving the game before the extreme pain through which he pitched could throw him into a ghastly decline. As a catcher, Posey is liable to be frozen likewise, a 34-year-old still within his peak, leaving the game before the extreme pain through which he caught and hit could do the same thing.

These two fundamentally decent men put baseball away in order to rediscover things called living.

For Koufax, who played the game as a low-keyed bachelor, it was a time to get to know more about and live as the quiet man with more individual interests and self-education than many who played the game with and even after him. For Posey, it’s time to get to know more about his family and about the family guy he’s always been anyway.

When Posey made official Thursday what was first reported Wednesday, he didn’t so much reveal it as remind us of it.

His wife, Kristen, sat next to him at the podium. Their sixteen-month-old adopted twin daughters, Livvi and Ada, accompanied the couple’s ten-year-old fraternal twins, daughter Addison and son Lee.

His former manager, Bruce Bochy, accompanied the family to Oracle Park for the press conference. “He gets it. He gets it,” said the skipper with whom Posey and their Giants won those three World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014. “The game, the pitching side, everything. He was just born to play baseball.” But Posey gets an awful lot more than just the depth of his game.

“First of all,” he began, “I’d like to thank the woman sitting up here with me today . . . You know better than anybody how hard, sometimes, I would take not performing the way I wanted to. But your love and perspective about what was truly important helped me through those times . . . I’m so excited to continue sharing life with you and watching our kids grow.”

“He was there,” wrote Andrew Baggarly, the Giants writer for The Athletic who broke the story of Posey’s retirement, “to let go of a baseball life, to move forward with the next phase and to fully wrap arms around the only role that he ever allowed to define him: husband, father, family man.”

Like Koufax in 1966, it turned out Posey went to spring training 2021 intending it to be his final season, come what may. What came was staggering enough.

Koufax led his 1966 Dodgers to a World Series and won a third major league-version Cy Young Award. Posey helped lead this year’s Giants to a 107-win season; he posted his highest single-season slugging percentage since his MVP season; he was ten defensive runs saved above his league’s average for catchers; he landed that second Comeback Player award.

Koufax walked away from a six-figure income that was baseball’s highest for any player at the time. Posey left a $22 million option for 2022 that nobody believed the Giants would reject. There was a $3 million buyout in his contract, but Baggarly says Posey and the Giants are negotiating how to turn that into an as-yet determined role in the organisation itself.

The Georgia guy who grew up rooting for the Braves but plighted his baseball troth to the Giants wants to keep it that way, even as he returns to Georgia for a spell to re-connect with his roots.

As a catcher, Posey retired the way he wanted to retire, as a Giant. As a man, he wants to remain a Giant one way or another without putting his family behind him. Baseball’s arguable best all-around catcher of the 21st Century’s second decade, too, saw through baseball’s veil and accepted what he saw without regret.

When he thanked his parents at Thursday’s announcement, Posey made a point of saying they’d given him “the foundation of knowing that baseball is a vessel that can be used to create wonderful memories and impact people’s lives, but ultimately it’s not what defines you.”

Koufax told Boswell of playing the game, “You are part of an entertainment. But you are not an entertainer. That is unnatural. But I enjoyed doing it . . . probably even more than the fans enjoyed watching. I thank them for enjoying it with me.”

Posey was at once part and parcel of maybe the single greatest decade the Giants have known since moving to San Francisco in the first place and unable to call himself the common element. “To me,” he said, “this is what encapsulates baseball. “It’s a lot more than just winning or losing games, although the wins do feel a lot better.”

It’s about the time spent with family, the countless nights and days, pulling for your team, riding the emotions of the highs, riding the emotions of the lows, and ultimately enjoying the people you’re with along the way and making great memories together. I’m so very humbled to play a part in some of those memories.

If Posey like Koufax walks away as much because the pain of his profession within a profession—the hip, back, knee, ankle injuries, the concussions—makes that profession impossible to practise properly anymore, he had a Koufaxian way or referencing it.

“I don’t regret one minute of the last twelve years,” Koufax said at his retirement press conference, “but I might regret one season too many.”

“It was just getting to the point where things that I was enjoying were not as joyful anymore,” Posey said. And that was it.

“Thursday’s gathering was not about adulation,” Baggarly wrote. “Posey didn’t need anyone to give him his flowers. His ego didn’t demand it. It felt more like a graduation of sorts, an acknowledgment that one part of his life was ending and an eagerness to embrace the fullness of his family. It’s someone else’s turn to slap the lectern at City Hall and say, ‘Let’s go win it again next year’.”

What remains—beyond a wish of Godspeed to Posey, his wife, his children—is a brief fantasy. The fantasy of a fully-matured Sandy Koufax going into that once-familiar windup, broad leg kick, and elegant, forward-snapping delivery, throwing one of his elusive fastballs or voluptuous curve balls to Buster Posey behind the plate.

Even Giant fans who’d rather be dead than Dodgers, even Dodger fans who’d rather be dead than Giants, might agree that these two inviolable men, knowing better than most of their contemporaries where they belonged in the game, knowing sooner than most when the game no longer belonged to them, would make a transcendent battery.

Buster Posey retiring with no tour, just class

Buster Posey

Buster Posey’s two-run blast in Game One of this year’s NLDS with the Dodgers has proven the last blast of a Hall of Fame career.

On Memorial Day 2017, Buster Posey displayed a lot of what made him above and beyond a mere elite catcher. He hadn’t exactly lacked for credentials prior to that game, but he showed the measure of the man as well as the backstop for three World Series-winning Giants teams.

In the top of the eighth, Giants relief pitcher Hunter Strickland retired the Nationals’ Trea Turner and Jayson Werth with Bryce Harper coming to the plate. The righthander hadn’t seen Harper at the plate since the 2014 division series in which Harper tagged him twice for home runs.

The second of the two blasts might have been the more telling one. It was a high, parabolic bomb down the right field line that nobody—not Harper watching as he stepped forward, not Strickland turned around watching from the mound, not Posey still in his crouch—knew would be fair until it sailed past the foul pole and into McCovey’s Cove.

No one but a boring old artery-hardened “purist” or a moron would have accused Harper of showboating a blast he clearly didn’t know was fair or foul until it was seen passing the pole on the fair side. And who knew what crept into and out of Strickland’s head in the times to follow, since the scheduling to come kept the Giants and the Nats apart from then until this Memorial Day.

Strickland threw right into Harper’s right hip on the first pitch. Posey stood almost motionless behind the plate as the enraged Harper charged the mound. In fact, not a single Giant left their dugout until after Harper and Strickland traded a few punches. Posey looked as though trying to tell Strickland, You’re on your own, dude, I didn’t call for that pitch.

He never thought about restraining Harper. He waited until plate umpire Brian Gorman arrived near the mound as Harper and Strickland traded their first punches. It took almost ten full seconds after Harper started his mound charge before Posey finally strode toward the mound and the Giants began pouring out followed by the Nats.

Posey remained almost entirely on the periphery of the brawl once it began in earnest. While Giants pitcher Jeff Samardzija and outfielder Michael Morse collided en route the center of the scrum, it took three more Giants—pitcher George Kontos, outfielders Hunter Pence and Mac Williamson—to get Strickland out of the crowd. Nats first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and third baseman Anthony Rendon got Harper away from damage.

Did Strickland tell Posey before the game that he planned to nail Harper if he had the chance? Did Posey answer him in the words his body language subsequently suggested? Some thought Posey was being cautious because of his history of concussions behind the plate. Some thought Posey was only too well aware that, if the Nats decided to retaliate, he’d be a target the next time he batted against them.

Others thought Posey simply had no taste for a temperamental pitcher exercising an almost three-year-old grudge for surrendering home runs in a series their team actually won. Still others saw it, as I did, as an exercise in just how much genuine class Posey brought to baseball and to the Giants.

And, how much class he carried to the end of his career. There’ll be none of that farewell tour jive for the backstop who still looks, somehow, as though he’s that friendly and boyish looking 23 year old Rookie of the Year who just anchored his Giants to the first of three World Series rings in five years.

Posey planned for Thursday what The Athletic‘s Giants writer, Andrew Baggarly, tweeted the day before, announcing his retirement at 34 after twelve major league seasons. It’s going to feel just as strange seeing the Giants without Posey behind the plate anymore as it felt at first seeing this century’s Red Sox without Dustin Pedroia manning second base.

He’d hinted toward it during the Giants’ brief postseason stay. “I’m definitely just going to take some time with my wife, talk with her, be able to be a full-time dad of four kids for the first time in a while,” he told reporters. “Yeah, just kind of take it slow and see how things progress.”

It’s not simple business to move forward when a franchise face, its arguable heart and soul, steps away from the game at all, never mind when he’s still either at the top of it or somewhere within reach of it. Posey anchored this year’s Giants and their somewhat surprising run to a 107-win regular season and the National League West title.

When he smashed a two-run homer off Dodgers ace Walker Buehler to open this year’s National League division series scoring between the two lifelong rivals (it bounced off a pillar into McCovey Cove), Giants fans hoped it meant the beginning of a run to the World Series. The Dodgers went on to win in five, only to be shoved to one side by the upstart Braves in the National League Championship Series.

Catching may be baseball’s most dangerous profession within a profession. Posey himself has evinced it. He’s incurred more than his share of concussions. He’s had surgery to repair a torn labrum. He got blasted so violently on a May 2011 play at the plate that a) he missed the rest of the season; and, b) baseball’s rulemakers augmented the rules to bar baserunners from leaving the baseline trying to score and to bar catchers from blocking the plate without the ball in their hands first.

He also sat out the pan-damn-ically shortened 2020 season voluntarily; the decision made as much for his adopted twin daughters born prematurely that summer as for the sake of his and his family’s health. (Posey and his wife, Kristen, are the parents of two pairs of twins; their fraternal twins, daughter Addison and son Lee, turned ten recently.)

In fact, Posey calling it a career after a mere twelve Show seasons at or near the top of his game lures a comparison to another great who once did likewise but at three years younger. “This is Koufaxian stuff,” writes The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe at FanGraphs, “a player retiring despite still performing at an elite level.”

The parallel between Posey and Sandy Koufax isn’t perfect, though both played just twelve years in the majors, accumulated numerous individual honors and reached the pinnacle of their respective positions in helping their teams win three championships, then departed abruptly. So far as we know, Posey isn’t playing through anything as debilitating as the three-time Cy Young winner’s chronic arthritis, but the long-term effects of multiple concussions are nothing to trifle with, and Posey, already a father of two before the adoption, has two new reasons to want to make sure he enjoys his retirement years.

There were those who couldn’t understand Koufax walking away from the mound at his peak because the idea of crippling himself for life was not an option for a 30-year-old man. There may be those who can’t understand Posey walking away from his station behind the plate at or near his peak because the idea of one more shot in the head meaning the difference between keeping all or about an eight of his marbles isn’t an option for a 34-year-old man.

Playing in an era that produced extremely few truly elite all-around catchers, Posey is number eight all time for the runs saved he’s worth above his league average behind the plate (+76). In 2021 he was still worth 10 runs saved above the league average for catchers.

At the plate, as opposed to behind it, Posey was still a force, perhaps an above-average force considering his injury history and the normal wear inflicted upon catchers in their prime. The traditionalists will point to his .304 “batting average”; his fourteen home runs were solid power production for a 34-year-old catching regularly still; his .399 on-base percentage wasn’t top ten in the league but brilliant for a catcher at his age.

He didn’t qualify for the “batting title,” his 454 plate appearances falling 47 short of qualifying. But my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances—shows this for Posey’s 2021 at the plate:

PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Buster Posey, 2021 454 197 56 2 3 1 .570

In other words, Posey was a better batter by a single point this year than Mookie Betts (.569) and a single point below Paul Goldschmidt (.571).

If you were to put Posey’s career RBA into the pack of Hall of Fame catchers who played all or most of their careers in the post-World War II/post-reintegration/night-ball era, you might think a lot more kindly toward his Hall of Fame case—he lands smack dab in the middle:

Catchers PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Mike Piazza 7745 3768 759 146 45 30 .613
Roy Campanella 4815 2101 533 113 50* 30 .587
Johnny Bench 8674 3644 891 135 90 19 .551
Yogi Berra 8359 3643 704 91 95* 52 .549
Buster Posey 5,607 2,285 540 67 53 43 .533
Carlton Fisk 9853 3999 849 105 79 143 .525
Ted Simmons 9,685 3793 855 188 100 39 .514
Gary Carter 9019 3497 848 106 99 68 .512
Ivan Rodriguez 10270 4451 513 67 76 58 .503
HOF AVG .543

Think about that. Think about how much worse you could be than pulling up fifth behind Mike Piazza, Roy Campanella, Johnny Bench, and Yogi Berra.

We’ll never know how he would have shaken out had he continued his career, particularly since there’s been talk aplenty that the Giants planned to transition him toward playing first base more frequently. Posey’s short career may sway voters away from him, at least those who still don’t grok that the Hall of Fame should be about greatness, not arithmetic. (Shut the hell up about his lack of 2,000 lifetime hits, you boring old fart purists, you social media slop heads, you sports talk radio runts.) Greatness, not the gold watch.

There are Hall of Famers with quarter-century careers who don’t belong except as visitors. (Good evening, Harold Baines.) There are some not yet in Cooperstown whose careers weren’t half that long. (Be well in the Elysian Fields, Thurman Munson.)

Yadier Molina has had a third more career length than Posey, and he’s kept Posey from winning a couple more than one Gold Glove. He’s the superior defensive catcher by a wide enough margin; his Hall of Fame plaque will come primarily and appropriately because of his work behind the plate.

Yet the pair are almost exactly the same catcher when it comes to the position’s number-one job: handling a pitching staff. As of the end of the 2021 seasons, the pitchers throwing to Yadier Molina have posted a 3.70 earned run average . . . but those throwing to Buster Posey have posted a 3.68 ERA.

I don’t think you could find that many more tight similarities between two individual catchers playing their entire careers with two different teams. That’s without throwing in that Posey was the one who shepherded his pitchers to three World Series rings including Madison Bumgarner’s electrifying 2014 postseason performance. Molina has shepherded his pitchers to a pair.

But Posey’s been the better all-around catcher, and it isn’t even close. There’s no contest between Posey’s 129 OPS+ and Molina’s +97. RBA doesn’t do Molina any favours against Posey, either. (Do I have to say outright that, when he’s elected to Hall of Fame, Molina’s RBA will put him tenth in a class of ten?)

PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Buster Posey 5,607 2,285 540 67 53 43 .533
Yadier Molina 8284 3039 537 50 74 74 .456

That’s some difference in plate discipline there—Posey in twelve seasons taking three more walks than Molina has in eighteen seasons. It’s also taken eighteen seasons for Molina to draw seventeen fewer passes on the house. The bottom line there is that Molina’s greatness doesn’t include too much fear factor when he checks into the batter’s box but Posey’s does.

If you want to go the route of wins above replacement-level player (WAR), there’s only one player at any position with more WAR from 2012-2017 than Posey’s 43.0, a figure Jaffe says includes his isolated value as a pitch framer behind the plate. Hands up to everybody who guessed (correctly) that it’s Mike Trout.

Posey may not be quite the best all-around catcher who ever strapped it on in all major league baseball. But he’s no questions asked the best all-around catcher in the history of the Giants’ franchise. He wore the uniform with class, he played the game with class as well as greatness. He deserves both a pleasant and fulfilling baseball retirement and a plaque in Cooperstown.

—————————————————————

* – What’s with the asterisk next to Yogi Berra’s sacrifice flies? Simple enough: The sacrifice fly wasn’t an official stat until 1954. Berra played about half his major league career before that. So I needed a way to calculate the sac flies he might have hit if the rule took effect when his career began.

I took his number of recorded sac flies, divided that by the seasons he played under the rule, then took that result and multiplied it by the number of major league seasons he really played. The formula: Sac flies (SF) divided by sac fly rule seasons (SRS), multiplied by total MLB seasons. SF / SRS x YRS.

It was the best I could come to a total number of sacrifice flies you could have expected Yogi to hit all career long.

When getting it right means the worst message to kids

Wilmer Flores, Will Smith, Doug Eddings

Wilmer Flores—representing the potential Giants’ winning run—checking his swing Thursday night. On appeal from plate umpire Doug Eddings (far right), the check swing was denied by first base umpire Gabe Morales and thus strike three ended the NLDS and the Giant’s season. Some think such robbery sends the “best” message to kids.

Social media isn’t exactly renowned as the exclusive domain of the learned. But when you see something such as I’m going to quote—I won’t embarrass the source by identifying him, though I know him well enough to know that he ought to know better—you tremble for your country when you remind yourself that God may be just but humans may be willfully ignorant.

The gentleman in question responded to “The Strike Heard ‘Round the World,” my account of NLDS Game Five and the shamefully needless way it ended. With Wilmer Flores’s check swing ruled a strike, erroneously, by first-base umpire Gabe Morales on appeal. With Flores robbed of a chance to persevere against Max Scherzer, despite his weak career papers against Max the Knife.

With the potential tying run on first for the Giants and himself representing the potential winning run, Flores should have had the chance to try before it was game over. He was denied improperly. My correspondent says, essentially, so what? “So what” works as a classic jazz exercise by Miles Davis. Not proper baseball analysis.

What the players do is human, what the broadcasters do is human,” said the gentleman in question, being a former baseball broadcaster himself.

[S]o the umpires do human things, smart or stupid. players and fans have to live with it. we’re sending the worst kind of message to our kids. Kids need to know that rotten calls will be made against them and they can’t plead for a review because there won’t be any.

Oh. So one of championship baseball’s most important jobs is to send the best kind of messages to kids. Got it. Very well, I surrender.

Let’s talk, indeed, about the Worst Kind of Messages We Send Kids when an umpire makes a mistake on what might be the final out of a postseason set’s final game, offers at least a mildly coherent explanation, then allows his crew chief to elaborate when asked further with, “Yeah, no, we, yeah, yeah, he doesn’t want to say.”

It tells me that the adults in the room who won’t stand for it when the kids dissemble upon being caught with their hands in the cookie jar or the liquor cabinet haven’t got that strong a leg to stand upon. I’d clean up betting that that’s what the kids in the room figure out, too.

Let’s talk, indeed, about the Worst Kind of Messages We Send Kids when the adults in the room decide, basically, yeah, we’re being rotten sonsabitches. But tough toenails, kids, that’s the way it is. This isn’t up for debate. We’re the mommies and daddies, that’s why. Because we said so, that’s why.

It tells me the adults in the room have no eyes to see. The kids in the room gather that their parents drink deep of power and parch themselves of prudence. They see might making right regardless of justification, in one or a hundred instances. They see authority with unsound foundation.

Let’s talk, indeed, about the Worst Kind of Messages We Send Kids when we tell them review isn’t an option. It tells me the adults in the room know three things about the country in which their game was born, nurtured, and grown in the first place: jack, diddley, and squat. Baseball’s government may lack in the complete range of reviewable acts, but baseball’s country’s government actually consecrated the right to review.

This nation’s founders consecrated a Bill of Rights that mandates, among other things, the right to petition for a redress of grievances. Such grievances are usually (though not exclusively; reference Congressional committee hearings) presented and argued before—what do you know—a Supreme Court. Never mind for the moment that given Supreme Court panels can seem as judicially tyrannic as umpires who are, after all, baseball’s most immediate arbiters.

But the Supreme Court has also overturned its own rulings frequently enough, unless higher authority—you know, the legislative branch, and the president, and in that order—writes and signs laws accordingly. The Supreme Court blew the Dred Scott decision? (It emanated first in the same city from which Curt Flood fired the Second Shot Heard ‘Round the World.) Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation plus the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments took care of that blown call. That’s just one example.

By the way, federal judges up to and including even Supreme Court justices can be impeached. (Sixteen have been, including Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase.) Baseball’s government hasn’t yet designed or imposed genuine umpire accountability. The better umpires in the game are compromised by their lessers.

Those concerned more with the Best Kind of Messages We Send Kids than with getting things right in championship or championship-aspirant games should ponder something else. Why might it be that ordinary, everyday enterprises impose accountability on their people, from the most obscure warehouse people to the highest-stationed boardroom people—but baseball can’t impose accountability on the arbiters who can, and often do, make, break, or compromise a game?

You want to send the Best Kind of Message to Kids? How about telling them that an improper lack of redress for check swings meant we’ll never know whether Wilmer Flores would have risen to the occasion of a 1-2 count, in a postseason series-deciding game, and overcome his career-long futility against Max Scherzer to keep the Giants’ now-ended season alive?

How about telling them the reason we’ll never know is because Flores was robbed of the chance to try once more at least?

Saying umpires make mistakes because they’re only human is one thing. Saying baseball shouldn’t do its best to correct and prevent key mistakes in-game—especially with a championship or an advance toward one on the line—is pitiful. Saying baseball shouldn’t do it because it would Send the Worst Kind of Messages to Kids, which is patent nonsense, should leave you at minimum with no credibility as a baseball commentator.

The strike heard ’round the world

Don Denkinger, you’re off the hook. Flores checking his swing into the arguable worst blown call in postseason history

Giants manage Gabe Kapler wouldn’t say it, even though anyone with eyes to see would say it for him. Even the Dodger fans among them. Maybe it wouldn’t change the outcome with that wired a Max Scherzer on the mound.

But ending this National League division series with that bad an umpire’s call? For the final out of the season for one team, not the first out of the ninth as was Don Denkinger’s infamous blown call at first in Game Six of the 1985 World Series?

There isn’t a jury in the land that would rule Kapler unjustified if he’d blown his proverbial stack or even demanded an investigation. This tight a Game Five between two of baseball’s most bitter of blood rivals plus the two winningest teams in this year’s Show deserved better than that.

These Dodgers and these Giants deserved better than first base umpire Gabe Morales ruling Wilmer Flores’s checked swing a strike to end it, after home plate umpire Doug Eddings—to his eternal credit—called for Morales’s help. That kind of help neither Eddings nor the Giants needed.

Two teams who’d been even-up in their regular season meetings, had the same number of hits against each other (173), and entered Game Five with each having 109 wins for the year including the postseason thus far, deserved better than a 2-1 Dodger win tainted through no fault of either team’s own.

“There are other reasons we didn’t win today’s baseball game,” Kapler said post-game. “That was just the last call of the game.” That was like a Japanese commander saying Hiroshima and Nagasaki were just the last blows of World War II.

Let’s give Morales a temporary benefit of the doubt. “[C]heck-swings are one of the hardest calls we have,” he said post-game. “I don’t have the benefit of multiple camera angles when I’m watching it live. When it happened live I thought he went, so that’s why I called it a swing.”

But Morales was shown a replay of that final pitch. Then, someone asked if he’d still call it failed check swing. Ted Barrett, the crew chief, answered for him. Sort of. As if Morales was incapable of speaking for himself.

“Yeah, no, we, yeah, yeah, he doesn’t want to say,” Barrett said. If there’s a more mealymouthed response upon a blown call’s questioning on record, I’d love to see it. Even Denkinger wasn’t that foolish when confronted with how badly he’d blown it calling Jorge Orta safe at first despite being out by almost a full step.

“Obviously you don’t want a game to end that way,” Kapler also said. “Obviously it’s going to be frustrating to have a game end like that, but pretty high quality hitter at the plate that can climb back into that count. There’s no guarantee of success in that at-bat. It’s just a tough way to end it.”

Flores checked his swing on an 0-2 pitch that came in just under the low outside corner. All things considered, especially the proliferation of dubious pitch calls all series long against both the Dodgers and the Giants, it wouldn’t have been the worst possible outcome for the plate appearance to continue.

But Flores checked his swing. Eddings called to Morales. Morales rang Flores up for game, set, and match. Sending the Dodgers to a National League Championship Series against the Braves, sending Giants fans reaching for the nearest possible liquid salves, and soiling the Game Five this series deserved otherwise.

They’d gone tooth, fang, claw, and just about anything else not just to get to Game Five in the first place but to get to the bottom of the ninth with only a single run separating them.

The Dodgers had gone to a bullpen game, opening with reliever Corey Knebel, continuing with fellow reliever Brusdar Graterol, then sending starting pitcher Julio Urias out of the pen to pitch a solid enough third through sixth. Then back to the pen men Blake Treinen for the seventh and Kenley Jansen for the eighth.

The thinking was that the Giants—a club full of elders and anonymous role players for the most part—were so deadly in situational play that, as The Athletic‘s Andy McCullough observed, the Dodgers’ best shot at neutralising that advantage by throwing two-thirds of their bullpen at the Giants and returning Urias to the postseason role where he’d been so effective in the recent past while they were at it.

It’s not that teams haven’t gone to bullpen games before. The Rays make about a third of their living doing it. Why, almost a full century ago the Washington Senators (Washington—First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League) won the 1924 World Series going to a bullpen game prototype in Game Seven.

All the Dodgers needed was Urias on board with the idea. “He earned the right to pitch in this game,” said Dodgers pitching coach Mark Prior. “If he said, ‘No, I want it,’ he was going to get it.” They surveyed other Dodgers including starters Scherzer, injured Clayton Kershaw, and Walker Buehler, who’d pitched so effectively in the Dodgers’ Game Four win.

“When they were on board,” Prior said, “it made sense. Everyone is in it to win it. Let’s go.”

That’s how they countered the Giants sending their stout young starter Logan Webb out for Game Five. He gave the Dodgers as good as their pen game gave the Giants. He pitched seven solid innings. The only blemishes on Webb were Mookie Betts delivering three of the four Dodger hits against him, and Corey Seager sending the Mookie Monster home with a double down the left field line in the top of the sixth to deliver the game’s first run.

Until Scherzer came into the game, the only real blemish against the Dodgers’ pitching was Giants left fielder Darin Ruf tying the game at one leading off the bottom of the sixth, by hitting Urias’s full-count fastball over the center field fence.

But until the Flores check swing that should have been, the co-story of the game might have ended up being the Dodgers leaving the Giants behind with yet another Belli-ache plus Max the Knife plunged into their backs in the bottom of the ninth. More’s the pity.

Continuing his re-adjusted postseason revival—after an injury-marred regular season reduced him to terms so low people questioned why Dodger manager Dave Roberts kept running his former MVP out there at all—Cody Bellinger broke the one-all tie in the ninth.

He made the Giants pay after their young relief ace in the making Camilo Doval hit Justin Turner up and in on the first pitch after Will Smith grounded out to shortstop to open the top of the ninth. Gavin Lux snuck a base hit through the right side of the infield to set first and second up.

Then, Bellinger took ball one low, swung through a slider around the middle, bounced a foul ball off to the right, then shot one up the middle and into center field sending Turner home with the tiebreaking run. Which probably amped Scherzer up in the pen even more than he’d already sent himself.

When he wasn’t throwing warmup pitches, Scherzer paced and pranced like a maniac. It was a wonder nobody had to shoot a tranquiliser dart into his rump to make sure he could go in and pitch the bottom of the ninth without dismantling himself.

He all but shot in from the pen to the mound as the sides changed. It was so must-see television that the TBS broadcast obeyed the call, too, not cutting to a commercial break as he made his way to the mound. You’d have thought the back of his uniform carried not his surname and number 31 but Danger! High Explosives! Keep Back 500 Feet!

Pinch hitter Matt Beaty ended the top of the ninth by grounding out to Flores playing first for the Giants. “Flores touched first base,” said Betts with a laugh, “and it felt like Scherz was halfway to the mound.”

This was virgin territory: Scherzer had never recorded a relief save in his entire professional pitching career. Yet he flew in from the pen as though fourteen years’ worth of a Hall of Fame pitching career to date was merely the overture to his kind of Unfinished Symphony.

So, with Bellinger shifted from first base to center field and Billy McKinney out playing first, Max the Knife unsheathed. He got Crawford to line out the other way to left. He shook off Turner bobbling Kris Bryant’s grounder up the third base line enabling Bryant safe on the error to strike out Lamonte Wade, Jr., who’d been making a name for himself with assorted ninth-and-later heroics for the Giants.

Then came Flores, the former Met who’d been part of their 2015 run to the World Series. A slider hitting the middle of the zone for a called strike. A foul off. Then, the fateful slider coming down and just off the corner. The checked swing. Eddings’ appeal to Morales at first. Strike three. Game, and Giants’ season, over.

There are eleven categories of reviewable umpire calls that managers are allowed to challenge. In the postseason, a skipper gets two challenges instead of the one allowed during the regular season. Check swings and pitches aren’t among the eleven. Maybe in the postseason they ought to be.

The “human element” be damned. When Whitey Herzog (Cardinals manager in 1985) called outright for replay in his 1998 memoir You’re Missin’ a Great Game, he had it as right as right can be: “This is for the championship—let’s get it right.” This was toward a potential championship and a win-or-wait-till-next-year game in the bargain. It should have been gotten right.

Seventy years ago, the Giants’ Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard ‘Round the World to finish a pennant playoff we’ve long since known, with full proof, was tainted by an off-field-based sign-stealing plot that helped those Giants come from thirteen games back to forcing that playoff in the first place.

Maybe it was tempting the fates a little too flagrantly when it turned out someone with the Giants—not a fan or fans, as I thought when seeing the sign in a flickering moment during the Game One telecast—tacked that “Remember ’51!” up on a deck rim in Oracle Park. Very clever, using a tainted triumph for motivation.

But ’51 was then, and this was Thursday night. Tainted not by cheating but by the kind of malfeasance that’s brought demands for further and fuller umpire accountability and for technology to help get the calls right. I don’t have to be as kind as Gabe Kapler.

Don Denkinger, you’re off the hook for the arguable worst blown call in postseason history. Maybe Scherzer would have retired Flores anyway if the proper call was made; maybe Flores would have kept the inning alive with a base hit. Maybe—unlikely as it might have been, considering his 0-for-17 lifetime jacket against Max the Knife—he might have tied or even won the game with one swing.

Maybe. We’ll never know now.

Until or unless baseball’s government effects real, substantial umpire accountability and stops allowing the “human element” to enable them to get away with murder, this NLDS Game Five’s finish should be known forever as The Strike Heard ‘Round the World.

Freeman frees the Braves to await their NLCS opponent

Freddie Freeman

Jubilant Freddie Freeman approaches the plate to finish the eighth-inning bomb that held up to win the NLDS for the Braves Tuesday night.

Maybe it didn’t have quite the last-split-second hair raising quotient that the Red Sox’s final two American League division series wins had. But it wasn’t any less dramatic for Freddie Freeman and his Braves in winning their National League division series Tuesday.

Freeman’s eighth-inning tiebreaking home run off Brewers relief ace Josh Hader turned out the finishing blow in a set during which both teams scored as many runs in the first three games as they ended up scoring in Game Four alone.

What made the bomb so luminous, too, was that it was only the second time in the whole 145-year history of the franchise that any Brave delivered what proved a postseason series-winning hit in the eighth or later. It took one season shy of three decades for Freeman’s homer to join Francisco Cabrera’s National League Championship Series-winning base hit. (The fabled Sid Bream mad-broken-bodied-dash.)

“I’ve had a lot of cool moments in my career,” Freeman said postgame, “but so far I think that’s going to top them right there. But hopefully that’s not the last cool one.” Right now, nobody’s willing to bet too heavily against either Freeman or his Braves. Yet.

You heard all season long about this or that team being wracked by injuries and surrealities? Few had to compensate as heavily as the Braves did. Too many teams losing their number-two franchise player, one of their best young pitchers, and a reliable other power bat might have collapsed like a blimp.

The Braves lost Ronald Acuna, Jr. thanks to a torn ACL making a play in center field. They lost Mike Soroko after his Achilles tendon blew out in May—after nine months’ rehab following its initial 2020 tear. They looked as though their season had paid put to hit without once seeing .500.

They lost Marcell Ozuna when the outfielder/bombardier was arrested for domestic violence in July—charged first with felonious aggravated assault and attempted strangulation, charges reduced to misdemeanor simple assault and battery, on administrative leave through the end of the Braves’ season, after he entered a diversion program.

When Acuna went down, and the Braves more or less sputtered into and past the All-Star break, general manager Alex Anthopoulos made his first move, bringing former Dodger Joc Pederson aboard from the Cubs in exchange for a minor league prospect.

That was Pederson pinch hitting for Braves reliever Luke Jackson in the Game One eighth and hitting a solo home run off Brewers reliever Adrian Houser for the only Braves run in the only series loss. That was also Pederson in Game Three, pinch hitting for Braves starter Ian Anderson, facing Houser again, and launching the three-run homer that proved the only Game Three scoring.

Houser may start seeing Pederson in his sleep. The Braves just want to keep seeing him mash. Even if he got the Game Four start as his reward and had to settle for pushing home the first of the two runs that tied things at four with a ground out to second base.

Freeman thinks landing Pederson merely began the Braves’ reversal. “When Alex went out and got Joc,” he said, “it brought a sense of energy that it just showed us that they still believed in us, to go add at the deadline.” Which is exactly what Anthopolous did. He nailed three 30 July trades to bring Jorge Soler from the Royals, Adam Duvall from the Marlins, and Eddie Rosario from the Guardians-to-be.

The NL East wasn’t a powerful division to begin with. But the longtime-leading Mets imploded, the Nationals hit the reset button, and the Phillies proved just short of being able to hold on. In Atlanta, as proverbially and poetically as feasible, that which didn’t destroy the Braves only made them stronger.

They went 36-19 to finish the regular season, including a too-simple-seeming sweep of the Phillies opening the final week to keep them from finishing what they threatened awhile to do and overthrow the Braves. They even shook off Soler’s COVID diagnosis entering the postseason. Now they’ve dispatched a Brewers team that won seven more regular-season games to lead an only slightly stronger NL Central.

They’re waiting to see who’ll be the last men standing between the Dodgers and the Giants, after the Dodgers tied that division series in Los Angeles Tuesday night in an all-Dodgers/all-the-time 7-2 win.

The game was a still-manageable 2-0 Dodger lead, with the Giants compelled to a bullpen game against a short-rested but deadly effective Walker Buehler, when Mookie Betts checked in in the fourth against Jarlin Garcia—after Buehler himself led off by reaching on an infield error.

“It’s not something we want to do all the time,” said Buehler about going on only three days rest, “but I felt that if things didn’t go our way [in the third game], I would feel really weird not pitching a game that we could lose a series.”

He didn’t have to worry. Until he surrendered a leadoff single to Evan Longoria and a one-out walk to Steven Duggar in the fifth, Buehler pitched stoutly and had to shake only one previous first-and-second spot of trouble away in the second. He even had the Giants slightly flummoxed when he went to his changeup a little more often than they were accustomed to seeing from him.

When the Mookie Monster parked an 0-1 pitch into the right center field bleachers, it suddenly seemed a question not of whether but by how big the Dodgers would take the game. An inning later, Betts sent Cody Bellinger home with a sacrifice fly deep to left center field. But Dodger catcher Will Smith—just call him the Fresh Prince of Dodger Stadium—squared off against Giants reliever Jake McGee with Corey Seager aboard (leadoff line single) and hit the first pitch over the left center field fence.

The Giants looked so overmatched in Game Four that their only two runs scored on ground outs, one with the bases loaded. That was Evan Longoria scoring on Darin Ruf’s grounder to second. The other was Brandon Crawford coming home in the eighth when Kris Bryant grounded one to the hole at third.

Buehler’s short-rest deliverance plus the Dodgers’ bats ensured Julio Urias on regular rest starting Game Five against Logan Webb in San Francisco Thursday. For the Braves, that’s going to be very must-see television. Which is what it already was on the left coast and elsewhere.

For the Brewers, it’s a too-early winter vacation after their pitching virtuosity proved futile against the disappearance of their bats. Christian Yelich’s back injury-abetted struggles continued in the division series, and while the Braves didn’t exactly bring the walls crumbling down the Brewers hit a measly .192 in the set—32 points below the Braves.

They did get beaten in the end when the Braves’ best batter launched against their best pitcher in the Game Four eighth. Starting Eric Lauer for Game Four because ace Corbin Burnes said he wasn’t feeling one hundred percent proved a mistake, and so did manager Craig Counsell not bringing Brandon Woodruff in earlier in higher-leverage.

But then here’s where the Brewers’ best bats fell too short. Avisail Garcia? Eight strikeouts, only two hard-hit balls, and two singles in fifteen at-bats. Kolten Wong? Five strikeouts, likewise only two hard-hit balls, and one single in fifteen at-bats. Willy Adames? Five hits in seventeen at-bats—four singles and a double, plus nine strikeouts and only three balls hit hard.

That’s why the Brewers pitched the division series like Hall of Famers—their three starters Burnes, Woodruff, and Luis Peralta showed a collective 1.56 ERA and 0.92 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, not to mention nineteen strikeouts in 17.1 innings pitched—but the Braves still took them out sweeping three after a Game One Brewers win.

“The vibe is the best that we ever had in this series,” Adames said before Game Four. “Today, the guys, I guess they woke up in a great mood. They came with energy. And I feel today we had the best vibe that we’ve had so far this series so far.”

The trouble was that the Brewers went in with the best vibes but the Braves played them as if they were jazz vibes legend Milt Jackson hammering out another virtuoso chorus of “Bags’ Groove.” Now the Braves wait to see who gets bagged in San Francisco Thursday night.