There’s no place like home

2019-12-10 StephenStrasburg

Stephen Strasburg makes himself a Nat for life.

The temptation is overwhelming. So for once let’s give in to temptation. Stephen Strasburg, essentially, closed his eyes, clicked the heels of his spiked shoes, and chanted the mantra, “There’s no place like home! There’s no place like home!” And made himself a Washington National for life. Which was the probable outcome, after all, when he first bought a home in the D.C. region and then finished 2019 as the world champions’ World Series MVP.

That, as no few commentators observed in the immediate wake of Monday’s news, is what happens when a pitcher learns within the earliest days of his major league baseball life that he happens to wear the uniform of a team that actually cares about him as a human as well as a pitcher in the long term and not the short range. Enough to withstand a small but incinerating storm of criticism for acting upon it.

That’s what Strasburg learned, not without a little kicking and a little whispering (he doesn’t exactly scream), between 2010 and 2012. When he first hit the old disabled list (known nowadays as the injured list) in July 2010 with a stiff shoulder, hit it again after being in too-obvious pain in the fifth inning of an August start, then underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the rest of that plus the entire 2011 season. When former pitcher-turned-broadcaster Rob Dibble, then a Nats talker, said on the air that Strasburg just needed to suck it up and not call in the cavalry to save his butt every time he felt a little ache, the uproar cost Dibble his job. And helped save Strasburg’s career.

There were none so blind as those who couldn’t and wouldn’t see that there’s no such thing as one size fitting every last pitcher who takes the mound, and that there’s no such thing concurrently as every last pitcher experiencing pain in the limb that earns his keep equaling crystal over iron. It only took baseball thought a century to grok that pitching careers lasting two decades or just beyond were aberrations and not pre-ordained actualities, that you couldn’t and shouldn’t, really, expect every highly talented arm to endure just because some were so fortunate.

Strasburg underwent a surgery named for a man who’d been a quality pitcher for twelve seasons prior to undergoing the first such procedure and twelve more to follow, but a man who wasn’t exactly renowned around the game for throwing like a human howitzer, either. When he returned for 2012, the Nationals elected not to allow their prize, a well-hyped, high-priced product of San Diego State in the first place, to overdo it despite any personal inclination, his first full season back. And once again the hoopla, this time accusing the Nats practically of tanking it on behalf of preserving the crystal, never mind that their 2012 and 2013 shortfalls had nothing to do with the Strasburg Plan.

Strasburg didn’t implode the Nats in Game Five of the 2012 division series, when they followed a 6-0 lead taken in the first two innings by trying to hit six-run homers with every other swing of the bat or by trying to throw three strikes with every pitch from the mound. It wasn’t Strasburg who told the 2013 Nats they could survive without lefthanded relief. He didn’t tell anyone that Bryce Harper could survive trying to make himself the second coming of Pistol Pete Reiser in the outfield just because today’s fences are only slightly more forgiving than the concrete wall in old Ebbets Field, or that the Nats could survive him and other key men (Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos) on the DL with little substantial reserves on which to call in their absence. And Strasburg wasn’t the genius who told that year’s Nats the starting rotation could take the mound believing nothing better than that they had to throw shutouts just to break even.

There were none so dumb as those who spoke beyond their competence, either. The reports of the Nats’ competitive death were more than slightly exaggerated, and so were those saying their absolute World Series-winning window got slammed shut on their fingers. It took a few years, of course, but there’s something to be said for long-term planning and executing, hiccups (there were plenty enough) to one side, and today the Nats sit as world champions, in large portion because of the 31-year-old righthander who’s graduated through long, hard, smartly managed work into a near-perfect number two starter and a postseason menace.

Set that to one side, however, and listen to those in the know who knew that in his heart of hearts, however tempting might have been the offers that would lure him back to within immediate reach of his San Diego roots (the Dodgers and the Angels were thought to have eyes upon him), Strasburg didn’t want to be anywhere but in Washington. Crunching the numbers is fun and revelatory, especially when you divine as The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark has: “I have to wonder if we should be looking at the actual “value” of this deal by dividing $245 million by seven. That’s because Strasburg was already guaranteed four years, $100 million before he opted out of his last contract. So he actually got three years, $145 million out of the opt-out. That comes to $48.333 million a year. How ’bout that AAV!”

Strasburg didn’t exactly behave after the World Series like a young man eager to hit the road, Jack, as Sports Illustrated‘s Stephanie Apstein records: “The Nationals knew something else: Strasburg wanted this done. During negotiations, he asked for the team to open the ballpark every day so he could work out. So when general manager Mike Rizzo and managing principal owner Mark Lerner identified Strasburg as their top priority this offseason, they decided to act like it. They began discussing a potential deal as the 2019 season closed, and they talked in earnest after Strasburg officially opted out on Nov. 2. That urgency appealed to Strasburg, if not exactly to his agent.”

You can accuse Scott Boras of many things, plausibility be damned as it so often is when his name arises, but not caring about his clients above and beyond the commission dollars they earn him for his efforts isn’t one of those charges. (One of the most plain stupid arguments around Boras essentially denies that this is in fact what agents do, assume the heavy lifting of negotiating for their clients on a properly open job market, which in Hollywood and other entertainment worlds is thought right and proper but in professional sports is thought somehow unseemly if not criminal.)

“To establish a legacy and wear the curly W for his career was something that was very important to [Strasburg],” Boras told Apstein. “And I think it was because he knew that people in this organization cared deeply about him and always cared about his interests and the interests of his family.” Meaning that, for all those moments when Strasburg wasn’t entirely happy about the old Plan, as Apstein puts it, “[S]omewhere along the way, he began to feel grateful that his bosses took the long view. His heart was here, but so was his arm, thanks to those weeks on the bench.”

Now the hardest part will be making sure Strasburg’s long, slow arising up from the stoic presence he was for so long continues. Little by little he learned to loosen up in the dugout and finally couldn’t resist getting drawn into the revelries upon this or that moment’s triumphs. The smiles now far more frequent from his fully bearded phiz can provide backup power in the event of a Nationals Park blackout. As illustrated on Twitter—by the Nats themselves, tweeting the news of his signing not with a look at him on the mound but a look at him hitting and celebrating a mammoth three-run homer against the Braves—Stras gotta dance, too.

Boras isn’t entirely altruistic, of course, and he knows bloody well enough that Strasburg now off the market means his other high-profile pitching client Gerrit Cole stands to make out even more like the proverbial bandit, possibly this week during the winter meetings electrified Monday by the Strasburg heel click, if not by some time in early January. If nothing else Strasburg now prompts the Yankees and the Angels—both of whom are known to be all-in on Cole, both of whom are now bereft of a plausible backup in Strasburg—to remake and remodel the numbers enough that Cole lacking Strasburg’s full track record, quite (Cole’s lifetime ERA: 3.22; Strasburg: 3.17; Cole’s lifetime fielding-independent pitching: 3.06; Strasburg: 2.96), could yet make for spring training a $300 million man.

While you ponder what it all means for Anthony Rendon, in the wake of the Nats saying they could afford either Strasburg or Rendon but not quite both, it’s not yet to rule out that Rendon and the Nats might yet decide it’s worth whatever it takes either or both sides to keep him in Nationals Park, too. The Rangers appear to be in position with Rendon as the Angels and Dodgers, possibly, were with Strasburg before Monday, a homecoming option for the Houston native and a nebula for the Rangers moving into a new climate controlled ballpark and needing such a nebula to help the on-field product and the gate counts. And the Nats still have a bullpen to repair behind Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle, which repairs aren’t exactly prone to year-end clearance sales.

Rendon may yet remember that, a year ago, the Nats said publicly they weren’t going to break the proverbial bank for Bryce Harper because among other things they wanted to keep Rendon in the family. (We’ve learned long since that that wasn’t quite the complete story.) And Boras, his agent, too, also has one habit one wishes were known far more broadly than it is, which the Harper talks with the Phillies last winter disclosed: when his client prefers to talk to the incumbent or prospective employer himself, the agent obeys when, as Harper did talking to the Phillies, he’s told politely to keep his big trap shut.

There remains the prospect, perhaps taking his cue from Strasburg, perhaps thinking entirely without that factor, perhaps an equal division between the two, that Rendon, too, will click the heels of his spiked shoes and intone, without once referring to his native Texas, “There’s no place like home! There’s no place like home!”

The champion Nats and affordability

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Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg share a high five in Atlanta during 2019. The Nats say they can’t afford to keep both. Depends on how you look at it? (USA Today photo.)

One of the Nationals’ postseason titans will remain a Nat for 2020 at least. Howie Kendrick’s reward for putting paid to the Dodgers’ 2019 and for bombing the Nats ahead to stay in Game Seven of the World Series is a one-year, $6.25 million deal.

That’s the good news. The bad news for Nats fans is that owner Mark Lerner says they can afford to keep only one of their two homegrowns who are now testing their first serious free agency markets.

At minimum, it seems, either Stephen Strasburg or Anthony Rendon is “affordable” even for the team whose ownership—if you include Lerner’s father, Ted, whose fortune anchors in real estate—is baseball’s second richest (net worth $5.3 billion) at this writing, with Giants owner Charles Johnson first richest (net worth $5.1 billion) pending the Mets’ transition to Steve Cohen’s ownership. (Cohen’s net worth: around $15 billion.)

But they can’t afford both.

“We really can only afford to have one of those two guys,” said Lerner about Strasburg and Rendon to NBC Sports Washington Thursday. “They’re huge numbers. We already have a really large payroll to begin with. So we’re pursuing them, we’re pursuing other free agents in case they decide to go elsewhere.”

Kendrick became a Nat in 2018, lost most of the season to a torn Achilles tendon, regrouped in 2019 for a .966 OPS, and became one of the keys to the Nats’ postseason conquest. His National League Championship Series MVP was merely the roast beef between the slices of boutique bread he surrounded it with before and after. Kendrick makes opposing managers look silly.

He took complete advantage of Dodger manager Dave Roberts almost inexplicably leaving Joe Kelly in for a second relief inning and hit a monstrous top of the tenth grand slam to finish the postseason hopes of the team for whom he played in 2015-2016 following nine better than useful seasons as an Angel.

Then Astros manager A.J. Hinch confounded fans and no few analysts alike by reaching for Will Harris instead of Gerrit Cole, as Game Seven starter Zack Greinke’s tank ran past E following a homer to Rendon and a followup walk to Juan Soto. And Kendrick made what Harris himself called “a championship play for a championship team.” It was the right move (Cole never pitched in relief in his life) made wrong.

Harris threw Kendrick a nasty cutter traveling low and away, and Kendrick sent it on a high line the other way until it went bonk! off the right field foul pole. Kendrick’s shot gave the Nats the Game Seven lead they didn’t relinquish and himself the likelihood that he’ll never have to buy his own drinks in Washington again. And it got him his reward for 2020, where he’ll have all season to accept thanks and, just maybe, deliver enough timely swings to send the Nats toward a successful renewal of their lease to the Promised Land.

But what of Strasburg, their World Series MVP, their postseason lancer whose lifetime 1.46 postseason ERA and 2019 1.37 postseason ERA overall hoists as a big-game pitcher the still young man who was their highest-hyped pitching prospect ever? Who survived second-year Tommy John surgery and assorted injuries to come to become first a good, then an above average, and finally a genuinely great pitcher who thrives the best when the moment’s the biggest?

And what of Rendon, their third-place National League MVP finisher in 2019, whose 1.059 postseason OPS and 25 runs postseason runs produced on the way to the Nats’ World Series triumph was at least as valuable to that conquest? Not to mention a third baseman who’s improved in leaps each season at the plate and at the hot corner?

(Rendon’s OPS from 2017-2019: .952; his real batting average [total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifices + hit by pitches divided by total plate appearances] over the span: .630. His lifetime RBA so far: .562. Out of eight Hall of Fame third basemen whose careers happened in the post-World War II/post-integration/night ball era, only four are higher than Rendon, in ascending order: George Brett, Eddie Mathews, Chipper Jones, and Mike Schmidt.)

Kendrick threatened to become the face of the postseason early and often, but Strasburg, Rendon, Max Scherzer, Juan Soto, and Ryan Zimmerman are the arguable none-too-small faces of the Nats. They personify the agenda Thomas Boswell says should be the Nats’ pursuit: “preserving the team’s culture.”

Maybe since-departed (for Japan, where he’ll get to play more than part time) Gerardo Parra brought the Nats the Baby Shark and opened their can of fearless fun factor in 2019. Parra may be crossing the Pacific but nobody wants to dispense with the Baby Shark just yet. Maybe not ever.

Boswell says the Nats must weigh such value as Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman, and “the versatile” Asdrubal Cabrera, Brian Dozier, Matt Adams, “and the modest but must-re-sign [Daniel] Hudson.” Sensibly enough.

But how about weighing the values of Strasburg and Rendon? And how about marrying those and the aforesaid values to an overall Nats culture of winning and having a blast doing it? No team in baseball was more plain fun to watch in 2019 than the Nats. Even the near-stoic Strasburg learned how to loosen up and shake a tail feather in the dugout.

Beware, Lerners. And general manager Mike Rizzo. You may think the Yankees have eyes for Strasburg, you may think the Phillies have likewise (remember what happened when you tried to get cute with Bryce Harper after 2018), but now the Angels may be laying in the weeds for him.

And that would be awfully tempting for Strasburg. Not just because there’d be a challenge for him in yanking their still-in-need-of-remodeling pitching staff into real competitiveness, but because they play an hour’s drive (assuming the traffic is decent, which is never a safe assumption in southern California) from Strasburg’s roots. Often as not in baseball you can go home again.

He’s not the only one with a California team pondering his presence. Rendon may be getting more than glances from the Dodgers he helped destroy in October. In fact, Strasburg and Rendon are both said to be on the Dodger radar, with incumbent Justin Turner willing to move to first base if Rendon becomes his new teammate. Beware, Nats. If you can’t or won’t keep them, the Dodgers might be only too happy to take them.

This would be called joining them if you can’t beat them. It was Strasburg who held down the fort in division series Game Five and didn’t let an early 3-0 Dodger lead knock him out of his zone. And it was Rendon who opened the game-tying top of the eighth, when Roberts gambled on Clayton Kershaw opening the inning, with a yank into the left field bleachers followed immediately by Soto’s yank into the opposite bleachers.

There’s only one thing that might hold the Dodgers back: luxury tax implications. That and that they’ve rarely handed out contracts for more than five years. And Strasburg and Rendon can leverage their southern California overtures when bargaining with other interested teams. (For Rendon, one is thought the Rangers, a homecoming for him as the Angels or Dodgers would be for Strasburg.)

Something to ponder, too, if the Nats let Strasburg and Rendon walk. Cole has suitors to burn, the Yankees in particular, reportedly, but then Scherzer did, too, a few years ago—and the Nats made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

It’s not unrealistic to think that losing Strasburg and Rendon alike equals gaining Cole on the mound and, maybe, Josh Donaldson for third base. Donaldson’s still better than serviceable at age 33 and he’s a lot less expensive than Rendon, and Boswell notes that Donaldson’s would be a personality fit in the Nats’ clubhouse.

But losing either Strasburg or Rendon, never mind both, would lose a particular degree of Nats gravitas.

“What cannot and need not be lost is the culture that this Finish the Fight team brought to life,” Boswell concludes. “Rosters change. Lucky and luckless seasons both arrive. But once a team sees what values it wants to embody—and what kind of players and people make that possible—then that’s the lodestar to follow.”

Strasburg and Rendon are two of those players and two of those people. The Lerners may want to keep that very much in mind before they decide once and for all that saving a few bucks is just a little more pressing than keeping what’s already proven aboard.

Maybe Cole, Donaldson, and a couple of other imports would fit the Nat culture. Maybe they really won’t. It’s the crapshoot every great team joins every year, similar to reading the size label on the shirt you bought and discovering the label lied in one or another direction. But a good gambler knows the moment when pushing his or her luck means disaster.

It just might be worth every extra dollar for the Lerners not to push their luck this time. Especially with two franchise faces who just so happen to be far more than just a couple of franchise faces, and have been since the days they were baseball born in Nats jumpers. (Not to mention a third, Zimmerman, who’s been a Nat since the day they were re-born in Washington, and would settle for one more year at a reasonable rate for a part-timer who just can’t hang it up quite yet.)

Contrary to what the giddoff-mah-lawn baseball romantics like to think, loyalty was never a prime baseball commodity. Not before the free agency era, not since, and not exclusively on the players’ sides. (Yes, Mr. Thurber, we can look it up.) This time, the Lerners have a splendid chance to show some to two of the guys who stayed the course and finally helped them reach the Promised Land.

From chaos to bedlam and Game Seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baby sharks? Try Jaws.

BruceTheShark02Well, World Series Game Two was a pitching duel after each side hung up a two-spot in their halves of the first inning. Justin Verlander and Stephen Strasburg ground and gritted and got their Houdinis on.

And then came the top of the seventh. A six-run Nationals inning that will live in Astro infamy and Nats legend. Deal with the Astros’ home field advantage? The Nats obliterated it with a little help from their spring training complex friends.

Baby Sharks? On Wednesday night the Astros got swallowed by Jaws. And in the top of the seventh they helped feed the beast that ran them out of their home aquarium, 12-3. And lost back-to-back games at home for only the second time since July.

“Reset, then come into an environment that we know is going to be pretty crazy,” said Verlander about the coming Game Three in Nationals Park, “and be ready to play baseball like we know we can.”

But there’s suddenly the nagging fear that the Astros may be the only ones who still know they can play that kind of baseball. They didn’t play it Game Two, against a team who shares with them both baseball’s best play since 24 May and a taste for making the other guys pay for their mistakes with usurious interest.

“Where would you like me to start?” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said as a reporter at the postgame presser asked about the top of the seventh. The one that only began with Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki’s leadoff home run.

Things actually began near the end of the bottom of the sixth, when the Astros had Yuli Gurriel on second with a double, rookie Yordan Alvarez aboard on an intentional walk, a game still tied at two, and two out.

That’s when Hinch elected to pinch hit for Verlander’s season-long personal catcher Robinson Chirinos, who’d shepherded Verlander through five shutout innings just the way Suzuki shepherded Strasburg through five and two thirds, with escape acts being the order of the hour as often as not no matter how much stronger the pair got after their two-run firsts.

Hinch sent up Kyle Tucker, figuring that his being lefthanded might have a better shot against the righthanded Strasburg. But Tucker helped Strasburg squirm out of the first-and-second chains by fighting his way into a called third strike. Then, Hinch sent Martin Maldonado out to catch Verlander for the seventh and for the first time all year long. And after Verlander served Suzuki an opening ball one a little upstairs, Suzuki served the next pitch richocheting off the edge of a large Lexus sign behind the Crawford Boxes.

“We’ve had our battles,” said Suzuki in a post-game on-field interview, and he took a lifetime 14-for-42 jacket with a pair of doubles against Verlander into Game Two. “He’s gotten me sometimes, sometimes I get him. He’s a great pitcher, and you’ve got to really zone in on one spot. He doesn’t make many mistakes, and when you get a pitch to hit you can’t miss it.”

“First-pitch curveball for a ball, and then fastball that was right there for him,” said Verlander, who more or less denied that being switched to Maldonado threw him off since he’d thrown to Maldonado “a lot” in 2018. “In the regular season, you’re like, ‘OK, here it is, hit it, right down the middle.’ In the World Series, it’s a different story. You can’t really ever do that. You still got to hit your spots.”

And if you don’t, you get hit. For distance, even. By a catcher whose body lately threatens to demand donation to forensic anthropology.

Then Verlander lost Victor Robles to a full count walk and his night was over. Becoming the first in Show to nail 200 career postseason strikeouts, breaking John Smoltz’s record of 199 when he fanned Robles in the top of the second, would have meant a lot more if the Astro bullpen didn’t perform an almost-from-nowhere, note-perfect impersonation of . . . the Nats’ bullpen as it looked for most of the regular season.

Hinch reached for Ryan Pressly and Trea Turner reached on another full count walk. And then the merry-go-round started going round enough that maybe, just maybe, the Astros were caught a little off guard and a lot more off balance.

Adam Eaton dropped a near-perfect bunt in front of the mound to push the runners to second and third, but Anthony Rendon—knowing the Nats wouldn’t pitch around him to get to Juan Soto—flied out to shallow center. Up came Soto. With the Astros having issued not a single intentional walk all year long to that point.

This may or may not qualify as calling the repairman when it isn’t broken, but Hinch ordered Soto walked on the house in favour of pitching to Howie Kendrick, who’s not exactly a simple out but isn’t exactly Juan Soto, his division series-conquering grand slam notwithstanding. The Astros saw more than enough of Soto’s mayhem in Game One. Not a second time.

It turned out to be the most powerful free pass of all time. For the Nats, that is.

Kendrick bounced one toward the hole at shortstop. Astros third baseman Alex Bregman scrambled left. He knocked the ball down to stop it from shooting through, then picked it up. Then, he dropped it. All hands safe and Robles home with a fourth Nats run. Then Asdrubal Cabrera, playing second for the Nats with Kendrick the DH in Houston, lined a two-run single up the pipe.

Up stepped Ryan Zimmerman, the Nats’ first base elder. Ball one hit the dirt and shot past Maldonado behind the plate allowing the runners to move back to second and third. Then Zimmerman on 2-2 bounced one weakly up the third base side and Bregman hustled in, barehanded the ball, but threw wildly down the line allowing Kendrick and Cabrera to come home and Zimmerman to take second.

Minute Maid Park turned into a graveside service. These were the Astros who entered the World Series as the heaviest favourites in history? The 107-game winners who took no prisoners and laid all in front of them to waste? And if the crowd couldn’t believe what they’d just seen, the Astros couldn’t believe it even more.

“They came into our building and played two really good games,” said Hinch at the presser. “We’re going to have to sleep off the latter one-third of the game. I don’t want to lump this into a horrible game. It was a horrible three innings. It wasn’t a horrible game.”

Well, it didn’t start that way, even if Rendon slashed a two-run double off Verlander and the left field wall with one out in the top of the first and Bregman hit a two-run homer off the back wall of the Crawfords in the bottom of the first.

If the Nats couldn’t cash in their few chances against Verlander over the following five innings, the Astros weren’t exactly doing much more to Strasburg other than periodically pinning him to the wall those same five innings only to discover he had more than a few escape routes to travel.

“You know it’s going to be a storm out there,” said Strasburg during one post-game interview, the man whose younger self might have fumed the rest of the game over Bregman’s first-inning bomb but whose mature self just shakes it off. “You’re going to weather it.”

And to think that the whole seventh-inning disaster was launched by a catcher who’d been 2-for-25 this postseason and 5-for-his-last-39 overall. The Nats generally don’t care who gets it started as long as it gets started, but Los Viejos, as Max Scherzer calls their veterans, have as much fun as the young’uns at it.

“Just trying to go out there and play for the guy next to you,” Strasburg eventually told MLB Network’s MLB Tonight after the game. “It was a hard-fought battle there. And they made me work every single inning.”

Maybe so, but the Astros are hitting .176 (3-for-17) with men on second or better so far in the Series, while the Nats are hitting .333 (7-for-21) with them. The Nats have out-scored the Astros 16-7 and hit a collective .307/.366/.547 slash line to the Astros’ .257/.321/.432 slash.

Both sides’ pitching is missing bats—eighteen strikeouts for the Nats, twenty for the Astros so far—but the Astros’ biggest two starters, Verlander and Gerrit Cole, pack a 6.22 Series ERA so far to the Nats’ big two’s (Scherzer, Strasburg) 3.30 Series ERA. It was June when the Astros last lost back-to-back Verlander and Cole starts, and those two pitchers hadn’t been saddled with losses on their ledgers back-to-back since August . . . 2018.

And thanks to STATS, LLC, we know that Verlander and Cole have done something no pair of same-season, same-team 20-game winners has done in 55 years: lost the first two games in a World Series. The last to do that: Hall of Famers Don Drysdale (Game One) and Sandy Koufax (Game Two) in 1965.

Since those Dodgers went on to win in seven, with Koufax throwing a pair of shutouts, you don’t need me to tell you the Astros would like to do likewise and the Nats would prefer they not. Right now, the odds of the Astros doing it have fallen to the basement and the Nats’ odds of stopping them have hit the observation deck.

Some might have thought the Nats blew the Astros the loudest raspberry in the southwest, when they sent Fernando Rodney out to pitch the bottom of the seventh Wednesday night, and he navigated a leadoff walk into a force at second, a pop out behind the infield, and a ground out to first. Rodney, after all, is the only active player in the Show who may have been an eyewitness to the Red Sea crossing.

Nah. Even with their by-now-too-famous dugout dancings after home runs big and small, the Nats aren’t that crass. But you could forgive Astroworld if it believes the Dancing Nats—whose theme song by now ought to be the Archie Bell & the Drells soul classic, “I Can’t Stop Dancing”—have a merciless streak of their own when their sharks smell blood in or on the Astro waters.

With reliever Josh James held over to open the top of the eighth, Maldonado couldn’t hold onto strike three to Robles leading off. A strikeout to Turner later, Eaton couldn’t hold off sending James’s first-pitch fastball right down the middle right onto a high line ending in the right field seats.

And after making his way through the Nats’ now-customary dugout dance, he plopped onto the bench next to Kendrick, where the pair of them began thrusting their arms out and barking like seals beating their flippers after being thrown particularly succulent fish.

Then Michael A. Taylor, inserted into center field in the bottom of the eighth, stood in to hit against Astros reliever Chris Devenski with one out in the top of the ninth. One pitch. One Game Two at-bat. One launch into the Crawford Boxes. One 12-2 Nats lead that became 12-3 when Maldonado sent spare Nats reliever Javy Guerra’s one-out, 1-0 fastball into a balcony past the Crawfords. It’s ok if you want to believe Guerra wanted to show just a little mercy.

But only a little. Rendon fielded but threw George Springer’s grounder to third just off enough that Zimmerman couldn’t dig it out. Then Jose Altuve lined a base hit up the pipe, ninth-inning center field insertion Jake Marisnick grounded one to third that Rendon threw cleanly to first, and the game finally ended.

And the Astros were clean where they didn’t expect to be. Home field advantage swallowed alive. Facing a trip to Washington where they’d prefer to nuke the Nats in kind, or at least get past them for once. Their theme song after Game Two could be Alice Cooper’s chestnut, “Welcome to My Nightmare.”

The last thing the Astros want to know is that only three teams in baseball history have gone on to win the World Series after losing the first two games at home: the 1985 Royals, the 1986 Mets, and the 1996 Yankees. Or, that among the last eighteen teams who won the first two Series games only one didn’t go on to win the rings—the 1996 Braves.

Don’t tell the Nats, either. They haven’t surrendered their May-forward mentality of hoping to go 1-0 each day. “The truth is, winning these games here does nothing for us on Friday,” Zimmerman said thoughtfully after Game Two. “Zack Greinke’s pitching. And Zack Greinke is pretty good, too. So believe me, we know there’s no let-up with that team over there. So we’ve just got to keep going and keep playing like we’ve been playing.”

“I think the message is, don’t hang your head,” Verlander said just as thoughtfully. “We didn’t play our best baseball, things didn’t go our way, we have an off day tomorrow but we don’t have time to feel bad about ourselves.”

The Nats probably have no interest in giving them that time, either. The Baby Sharks are halfway to swimming in the Promised Land. The second half won’t necessarily be easy. But they’ve beaten the best Astro arms, gotten the Astros to help beat themselves, and discovered the Astros aren’t exactly Moby Dick.

The Nats on a Staples diet

2019-10-14 ParkerStaples

Ten-year-old Parker Staples preparing a ceremonial first pitch 24 May. He did it again Monday night—a wicked changeup. Almost like the ones ruining the Cardinals so far.

Who’s to say a lymphoma-stricken boy didn’t turn the Natonals’ season around on 24 May? Not the Nats limbering up for National League Championship Series Game Three Monday. And he did his share to help send the Nats to one game away from the World Series.

On 24 May, in remission, Parker Staples got his wish granted to be a National for a day, with a little  intercession from the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which does things like that and more for children suffering grave illnesses.

Parker got his wish beginning with Nats general manager Mike Rizzo signing him to a real live one-day player’s contract. He spent the day with his heroes in the clubhouse and on the field and got himself a nice round of signatures, sunglasses, and other swag from Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Yan Gomes, and Matt Adams among other Nats.

Then, looking proud and happy in his Nats home whites with his surname across the back above number 34, Parker walked out to the mound with Max Scherzer, whom he got to chat with before the moment, waiting behind the plate. The boy waggled his glove just a moment before going into a stretch at the rubber.

Then, he threw one to Scherzer that crossed the plate just under the low, lefthand-hitting corner. Scherzer’s pitch framing needed a little work; the boy missed a low strike by millimeters. But the kid threw one hell of a changeup.

And Max the Knife trotted back to the mound, plopped the ball into Parker’s glove, shared a hearty mid-five with the boy, then walked him off the mound toward the dugout in front of which he signed the ball for him.

That night, the 19-31 Nats ground their way back to 9-8 against the Marlins, of all people, when Soto crashed a three-run homer and Adams followed immediately with a solo blast in the bottom of the eighth. The Marlins’ lone answer back was Jorge Alfaro hitting Sean Doolittle’s first pitch of the ninth over the left center field fence, but Doolittle held on to close out the 12-10 Nats win.

Parker’s Game started the Nats’ season turnaround, right into the 74-38 they nailed from there to snatch a National League wild card, dispatch the Rockies in the wild card game, wrest the division series from the Dodgers, and pull back into Nationals Park Monday for Game Three of a National League Championship Series they dominated on the first St. Louis leg.

Hours before the game, the Nats couldn’t resist commemorating Parker’s first pitch. They tweeted, “On May 24, Parker threw out the 1st pitch at #Nats Park. On May 24, we turned our season around. Coincidence? We think not.”

You hoped it wasn’t pushing the Nationals’ luck to remind yourself Monday afternoon that, in a season which bullpen issues including their own were matters of life and death, their starting pitchers kept the other guys hitting .150 in this postseason so far. With a Game Three showdown between Stephen Strasburg and Jack Flaherty looming, boy wonder past (Strasburg) versus boy wonder present (Flaherty).

And with Scherzer himself hoping the joint went nuts Monday night. “I have a feeling it’s going to be even more crazy,” he told an afternoon presser, “given what we’ve done. Really, our first postseason win as an organisation, I think that means a lot to everybody in D.C., so it should be a fun time.”

Max the Knife got what he wished for. Nationals Park went nuts over the 8-1 Game Three win. And over being just one win away from the first World Series appearance by any Washington team since year one of the New Deal.

2019-10-14 ParkerStaples01

Parker Staples holding the 24 May lineup card Nats skipper Dave Martinez signed for him before that game.

With young Parker Staples throwing out the ceremonial first pitch again, another changeup hitting under the corner, too, the lad telegraphed Strasburg’s evening’s work only too acutely. Striking out twelve Cardinal batters on the night, not one of Strasburg’s strikeouts finished with anything resembling a fastball.

The power pitcher who hits 96 or better on the gun nailed those third strikes with changeups and curve balls and exploited almost to the point of mental cruelty the Cardinals’ continuing flaw, their near-complete inability to hit off-speed pitching.

By the time the game ended, the only shock was that neither Strasburg nor two Nats relief pitchers to follow even thought about throwing a screwball. But you’d forgive the Cardinals if they wanted to reach for unlimited highballs.

“It’s not like they’re throwing it right down the middle,” said Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, a four-strikeout victim Monday night. “They’re making quality pitches. They’re throwing strikes and then they’re getting us to chase. They’ve done a good job. We’ve got to do a better job if we’re going to win.”

For three and a half innings the Strasburg-Flaherty matchup went mostly as advertised. Then the Nats slapped Flaherty silly in the bottom of the third. And Howie Kendrick went doubles happy on the night,  including driving one to send Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto home in the third, driving another one to send Rendon home in the fifth, and doubling in the seventh to kindly allow Ryan Zimmerman to single him home in the seventh.

An excuse-us Cardinal run scored in the seventh when Soto lost his footing as he fielded Paul DeJong’s should-have-been bases-loading single and threw inexplicably, perhaps in momentary confusion, toward an uncovered portion of real estate. It wasn’t even close to enough to negate the Nattacks.

“Shoot,” deadpanned Rendon after the game, “maybe we’re finally coming around.”

All Game Four starter Patrick Corbin has to do is stick to the script and resist the temptation to feed the Cardinals anything at or above the speed limit. And don’t worry about contact. The Cardinals’ defense was considered nonpareil entering this set, but any time the Cardinals managed to tag any pitch hard Monday night, there was a Nat with a glove committing grand theft base hit.

Rendon took a guaranteed leadoff hit away from Paul DeJong with a well-timed dive left in the third, and Victor Robles—freshly returned to the lineup after the hamstring tweak running up the line in division series Game Two—backpedaled deftly to reach for and snatch Kolten Wong’s leadoff liner to the track in the fourth.

As if to prove further that he was recovered well enough to make it count, Robles made Cardinals reliever John Brebbia pay for ending the fifth with back-to-back strikeouts by hitting a 2-1 fastball too far in the middle of the zone over the right center field fence to lead off the bottom of the sixth.

By the time the Cardinals got anywhere near a more balanced diet including fastballs, there on the mound, of all people, was Fernando Rodney—the grand old man of the Nats’ formerly beleaguered bullpen, who could probably say with a straight face that in his childhood the top ten were the Ten Commandments—to get them out in order in the eighth, including back-to-back strikeouts.

He threw Paul Goldschmidt one changeup near the end of a run of fastballs before catching him looking at a third-strike fastball. He threw Marcell Ozuna—whose premature slide trying for Rendon’s third-inning double let the ball get past him in the first place—two fastballs to open, then nailed him swinging and missing on (stop me if you’ve heard this before) a changeup.

Then as he walked away from the mound, Rodney turned, arched, and delivered his familiar arrow-shoot pantomime. You thought the big boppers, the dugout dancers, knew how to celebrate big moments?

Before you ask, I’ll answer: the Cardinals didn’t hit fastballs too well Monday night, either. Nats rookie reliever Tanner Rainey proved it by throwing sixteen fastballs in eighteen ninth-inning pitches to get rid of Jose Martinez (in the Cardinals starting lineup for a change) and Yadier Molina on swinging strikeouts before letting Tommy Edman settle for flying out to left to end the game.

Just don’t ask Kendrick to explain his torrid postseason to date. “Just having fun and trying to keep it loose,” he said in an on-field interview. “Same stuff I’ve been doing during the season, trying to stay consistent in my routine, trying to get pitches to hit.”

Five months ago the Nats were left for dead. Their manager was left to wonder when, not whether, he’d be taken on the perp walk to the guillotine. Now, they’re the swingingest act in Washington—at the plate, on the mound, in their dugout, and in their clubhouse.  “If you don’t have fun in this game, or in anything that you do,” said Rendon, “then in the end, you shouldn’t be doing it.

The Cardinals need a little of that. And any other mojo they can get working. As of the end of Game Three, they have two runs—both unearned—and eleven hits in this NLCS. Their manager Mike Shildt is only too well aware of it.

“We’ve got to get a lead at some point in this series. Hard to win a game if you can’t get a lead,”said Shildt, the man who promised after his team’s division series triumph to [fornicate] up anyone who got in their [fornicating] way. “We’ve got to figure out a way to create some offense early in the game and be able to hold it there. It’s the first time our pitching hasn’t been able to contain this offense. I’m confident we’ll be able to do that tomorrow.”

Maybe the Nats shouldn’t take chances. Maybe Parker Staples should be there to throw out the first pitch before Game Four, too. Considering the Nats season after he did it in May, and the Nats’ NLCS after he did it Monday night, well, if it ain’t broke, don’t call the repairman.