The All-Star Game was Clayton’s place

Clayton Kershaw, Blake Grice

National League All-Star starter Clayton Kershaw with fan Blake Grice, who touched Kershaw by telling the future Hall of Famer he was meeting him for Grandpa’s sake.

By right, this year’s All-Star Game start for the National League should have belonged to the Marlins’ Sandy Alcantara (he leads the Show’s pitchers with 5.3 wins above replacement level and his 1.76 ERA). And if the game were played someplace other than Dodger Stadium, it might have been Alcantara’s to start.

Braves manager Brian Snitker, managing the NL All-Stars as the previous season’s World Series skipper does, had his own idea. Especially since this was the first All-Star Game in Dodger Stadium since Jimmy Carter was still in the White House, and a Dodger icon was having an All-Star worthy season himself.

So Snitker elected to hand the opening ball to Clayton Kershaw. A Hall of Fame lock, approaching the sunset of an off-the-charts career, starting the All-Star Game in his home ballpark. You could imagine Snitker thinking to himself that you couldn’t pay to pre-arrange more serendipitous circumstances. Even with his own All-Star Max Fried among his pitching options.

It was a class gesture by the defending World Series-winning manager. Only one thing could have seen and raised, and that one thing was Kershaw himself. By most reports, one of the first things the 33-year-old lefthander did when Snitker called him to say the opening ball was his was to call Alcantara himself.

“He was awesome about it. I was really thankful about that,” Kershaw said, after the American League hung in for a 3-2 win through no fault of Kershaw’s own.

He let himself take the entire atmopshere in, even foregoing his usual pre-start intensity that compels teammates, coaches, and even his manager Dave Roberts to say nothing much more than “hello” to him. (He even let Roberts share lunch with him on Tuesday.) About the only thing Kershaw did remotely work-related was study some American League scouting reports.

One he didn’t have to study was Shohei Ohtani (Angels), whom Kershaw retired thrice when pitching last Friday. Wary of opening the All-Star Game with one of his signature breaking balls, Kershaw pumped a fastball that doesn’t have its former speed and Ohtani—interviewed before the game, promising to swing on the first pitch—smacked a broken-bat floater up the pipe into short left center for a leadoff single.

Then, having Aaron Judge (Yankees) 1-2, Kershaw suddenly couldn’t think of what to throw next. Some described him as buying time when he lobbed a throw to first. He bought more than he bargained for. He’d caught Ohtani having a snooze. Ohtani had drifted away from the pad and Kershaw’s lob turned into the first All-Star pickoff in fourteen years.

The two-way Angel could only laugh. Kershaw could only grin after first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (Cardinals) tagged Ohtani out. Dodger Stadium went nuclear. Kershaw finished striking Judge out, walked Rafael Devers (Red Sox), and lured Vladimir Gurrero, Jr. (Blue Jays) into an inning-ending ground out. The man who wanted to take it all in from start to finish then ducked out of sight and to a press podium under the ballpark.

Shohei Ohtani, Clayton Kershaw

All they could do was grin and laugh after Kershaw (right) picked Othani off first while working to Yankee bombardier Aaron Judge.

While the National League took an early 2-0 lead with Mookie Betts (Dodgers) singling home Ronald Acuña, Jr. (Braves; leadoff double off AL starter Shane McLanahan [Rays]) and—after a double play grounder by Manny Machado (Padres)—Goldschmidt hammering one into the left center field bleachers, Kershaw finished his press conference with a ten year old boy raising a hand.

“What’s up, dude?” Kershaw asked pleasantly.

The boy introduced himself as Blake Grice and told Kershaw how much his late grandfather loved both him and the Dodgers’ long-enough-retired broadcast deity Vin Scully and had wanted to meet them both. (His family had passes courtesy of MLB itself.) “So this moment is important to me,” the boy continued, “because I’m meeting you for him.”

The father of four children himself, Kershaw couldn’t resist when he heard that and saw the boy’s tears of likely gratitude for getting to do something for his grandpa in the presence of a Dodger icon who’s been the closest the Dodgers have had to longtime eminence Sandy Koufax.

“Come here, dude,” Kershaw beckoned. He hugged the boy, gave him a clap on the back, and said, “Great to meet you. Thanks for telling me. That took a lot of courage to tell me that. Your grandad sounded like an awesome guy.” When Kershaw asked Blake if he had a parent with him, the boy’s father held up his cell phone. Kershaw beckoned him forward and he snapped a photo of the pitcher and the boy speaking for Grandpa.

It was more than enough to atone for the prayers thousands of fans in the ballpark and perhaps the millions watching on television must have had that, despite going down to its ninth straight All-Star loss and 21st such loss in 25 such games, the National League didn’t tie the game in the bottom of the ninth.

That’s because the latest to emerge from baseball’s apparent laboratory of mad science would have had the game decided in favour of the Home Run Derby winner’s league if nine full innings ended in a dead heat. (On Tuesday it would have been the National League, thanks to Juan Soto [Nationals] winning the Derby.) Thank God and His servants Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson that that didn’t come to pass.

The AL overthrew the NL lead with one out in the fourth when Giancarlo Stanton (Yankees) batted with Jose Ramírez [Guardians] aboard (leadoff single) and took Tony Gonsolin (Dodgers) far into the left center field bleachers. Byron Buxton (Twins) following at once found himself ahead in the count 2-1 when he caught hold of a Gonsolin fastball up and drilled it into the left field bleachers. Just like that, Gonsolin had surrendered 882 feet worth of home run travel.

Buxton admired game MVP Stanton’s blast from the on-deck circle and thought to himself, “I ain’t matching that.” Until he damn near did. “I don’t even know if you can put it in words how hard [Stanton] hit the baseball,” Buxton said after the game.

It made all the difference when the game otherwise became a pitching duel of sorts between eleven American League pitchers (including Framber Valdez [Astros] getting credit for the “win” despite striking nobody out in his inning’s work) and nine National League pitchers including the hapless Gonsolin tagged for the loss and, officially, a blown save.

For just the sixth time in four decades an All-Star pitcher got to start the game in his home ballpark. And for a few shining moments on the mound, Kershaw gave his home park’s audience a thrill topped only by the one he gave a ten-year-old boy looking to do his grandpa in the Elysian Fields a favour that couldn’t be done while the older man still lived on earth.

None of the highest highs or the comparatively few lows he’s endured in fifteen major league seasons have let Kershaw forget that baseball at core is about rooting, caring, loving. He had the parallel chance to remind a Dodger Stadium audience about it and to affirm it for a ten-year-old boy. He didn’t flinch at either opportunity.

Cut the crap

Sandy Alcantara’s pitch ricochets off Ronald Acuna, Jr. in the third.

So far as the Miami Marlins seem concerned, the heir apparent to Freddie Freeman as the Atlanta Braves’s franchise face doesn’t wear a Braves uniform. He wears a target. Especially after he hits home runs, in the postseason and otherwise.

Here we went again Tuesday afternoon. Game One, National League division series. And, yes, it was weird enough that the Braves and the Marlins played in Houston’s Minute Maid Park, with the Braves as the home team.

Then Acuna hit the second pitch from Marlins starter Sandy Alcantara over the right field fence opening the bottom of the first. As is characteristic of the ebullient outfielder, he watched for the briefest moment before flipping his bat to one side on his way up the first base line to run it out.

Acuna had reason enough to celebrate even before the Braves demolished the Marlins with a comeback 9-5 win. He became the youngest man in Show history to hit a leadoff bomb in a postseason game. He and the Braves got to enjoy it until the bottom of the third, with the Marlins holding a 4-3 lead and Acuna at the plate with one out.

Alcantara threw at and hit Acuna on an 0-1 count with a 98 mph fastball. At least Alcantara waited until Acuna greeted him again instead of going completely infantile and drilling Freeman following Acuna in the first. That may be the only thing to his credit.

Acuna might have said after the game that he’s kinda, sorta, kinda getting used to being Fish fodder, but that didn’t mean he was necessarily thrilled to be so high on their hit parade when the third-inning pitch struck. He took a few steps forward, toward the mound, holding onto his bat a bit, and both Braves coaches and umpires surrounded him before he entertained any ideas about relieving Alcantara of his head or any other extremities.

“I looked over to their bench,” Acuna said post-game. “I said it’s been five times. At this point, I think we’ve become accustomed to it.” Not necessarily. If that were true, the Braves wouldn’t have engaged in a chirping contest with the Marlins before Acuna finally dropped his bat and took his base.

They also might not have answered the Marlins’ three-run top of the third with Marcell Ozuna doubling Acuna home following Freeman’s followup fly out and Travis d’Arnaud doubling Ozuna home to bring things back to within a run.

And they wouldn’t have bided their time, chased Alcantara out of the game in the seventh with a pair of inning-opening infield singles, one by Acuna himself, before Freeman forced Acuna at second with Yimi Garcia on the mound, Ozuna singled home Austin Riley to tie the game at four, and d’Arnaud hitting a 2-0 grapefruit far enough over the center field fence.

Nor would Ozzie Albies have followed d’Arnaud’s demolition with a base hit to chase Garcia in favour of James Hoyt, whose first service to Dansby Swanson disappeared over the center field fence, too.

That’s where the score stayed other than Matt Joyce’s excuse-me RBI single in the top of the eighth.

“I think it woke us up,” d’Arnaud said of Alcantara drilling Acuna. “And we took advantage of the momentum.” Said Braves manager Brian Snitker, “You better be good at going in and not hitting [Acuna] after a homer.”

Alcantara wasn’t, obviously. Nor was he especially good at covering his tracks after the game. Any expressions of the-ball-got-away-from-him/the-dog-ate-his-homework got vapourised when he added, referencing Acuna’s brief but interrupted advance to the mound, “If he’s ready to fight, I’m ready to fight, too, no matter what happens.”

Cut the crap.There was only one reason Acuna might have been ready to fight, and that was getting drilled his next time up after hitting one out and—oh, the hor-ror!—showing his pleasure over his feat.

Cut the crap. He’s hitting for a .318/.414/.665 slash line against them since he first faced them in 2018. It couldn’t possibly be that the Fish are fed up with Acuna making tuna salad out of them so far in his career.

Cut the crap. It doesn’t matter that has a .182 lifetime batting average against Alcantara into the proceedings. Maybe Acuna also felt like celebrating finally having something more to show than two walks, two strikeouts, and nothing else off the Miami righthander in ten previous plate appearances. Since when does that give Alcantara a license to drill when the first hit he surrenders to Acuna is a parabolic opening launch?

Jose Urena, whose 2018 drilling of Acuna after a bomb-flip got Urena suspended six games, has decent performance papers against Acuna otherwise, if not quite those of Alcantara’s: five strikeouts, three walks, four hits including that lone bomb, and a .235 batting average against him. But Acuna also has a .409 on-base percentage against Urena in 22 plate appearances. And he’s been hit twice in the bargain.

Cut the crap. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. You don’t want Acuna turning his bat into a helicopter rotor when he hits one out against you, stop throwing him cantaloupes to hit in the first place. You want to be a Fun Policeman, wear a police uniform and not a Marlins uniform on the mound.

It ruined Alcantara having a solid outing otherwise, until the Marlins bullpen—whose main men are the proud possessors of a 2.72 irregular season ERA—got dismantled in the seventh. It also put a little smudge on the Marlins’ 2020 reputation as a pleasant surprise who missed winning the National League East by finishing four behind these Braves.

But it also reminded close observers that Acuna has been bitten twice as often by the Fish as he’s been by any other major league team. MLB.com’s Mark Bowman was kind enough to point out that Acuna’s been drilled by Miami pitching once every 41.2 plate appearances—and once every 80 plate appearances by everyone else’s pitching staffs.

Acuna answered on social media after the game too. “They have to hit me because they don’t get me out,” he said in one tweet. “I’d like to take this time to apologize to absolutely NOBODY,” he insisted in an Instagram post. I’d like to take this time to say Acuna owes apologies to absolutely nobody.