The day of living dangerously

SHAZAM!! Manuel Margot, training for the Olympic pole-vault team in the second inning Tuesday.

If you thought like me that Game One was The Little Bang Theory, what should we call Game Two? How about, The Day of Living Dangerously? For the Tampa Bay Rays, that is. They beat the Houston Astros, 4-2, Monday afternoon, but it looked for awhile as though they decided to defy a suicide pact.

Actually, it looked as though their usually-reliable bullpen bull Nick Anderson made and then abrogated the suicide pact, at the last split second before his end of the bargain would have required him firing the bullet through his head.

He’d surrendered back-to-back-to-back singles to Yuli Gurriel, Josh Reddick, and pinch-hitter Aledmys Diaz. He gave up the run to get George Springer to whack into a step-and-throw double play to second. Then, he re-loaded the pillows with back-to-back, four-pitch walks to Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley.

For a few brief and none-too-shining moments, with the shadows crawling across San Diego’s Petco Park, you could see the Rays’ dreams of somehow, maybe chasing the Astros home for the winter a little prematurely by Astro standards going up in a cloud of dust when Alex Bregman hit Anderson’s fastball just off the middle to him.

All afternoon long, the Rays took everything the Astros dished out, which was about ten times as much as the Rays could muster, and still clung to the lead they took in the first after the nice Astros were generous to a fault with them with no score, two out, and Randy Arozarena on first with a base hit to left instead of his customary home run.

Specifically, Altuve proved the generous one. The usually sure-handed, sure-armed second baseman snapped up Ji-Man Choi’s grounder to shallow right into the shift but threw offline enough to first baseman Yuli Gurriel to set up first and second. Setting Manuel Margot up to hit Astro starter Lance McCullers, Jr.’s second pitch to him into the left field cutouts.

From there it went thus: McCullers, way out-pitching his former Astros rotation mate Charlie Morton . . . and leaving after seven innings, in the seventh of which Rays catcher Mike Zunino—with two out and nobody aboard—hit a 1-1 sinker that didn’t sink enough over the center field fence.

The Astros, Dr. Peppering the Rays at the plate, outhitting them 10-2-4 . . . and still unable to paint the scoreboard more than Carlos Correa hitting otherwise effective Rays reliever Pete Fairbanks’s 1-0 fastball a lot further over the center field fence than Zunino’s would travel.

Every Astro hitter except Bregman having at least one hit on the day . . . and still going a measly 1-for-4 with runners in scoring position.

Diver down . . .

The problem was the Rays playing like they thought they were the 1969 Mets. Acrobats, jugglers, and precision shooters in the field. Maybe the only thing the Rays didn’t have going for them on defense was the 82nd Airborne. And maybe they think, who the hell needs those guys after Margot’s shazam! in the top of the second.

Gurriel (one-out single) on third, Martin Maldonado (two-out ground-rule double) on second, two out, and Springer swinging on 1-1. The ball sailing up and toward the right field line. Margot chasing across the sun field, glove shielding his eyes enough to keep the ball in sight. The high sidewall coming into quicker sight as the ball angled to foul ground. Margot taking a flying leap.

Olympic pole vaulters don’t clear their bars like that. Do they?

He speared the ball one-handed a split second before his torso hit the wall’s top fence brace and he bent over that brace and fell into a straight-down dive on the far side, bending just in time not to land flat on his head. Then he sprang up almost as swiftly, somehow, thrusting his glove hand up in a perfect Lady Liberty impression.

Shazam!

The Petco Park audience would have heaved a sigh of relief enough to blow a typhoon from the shores of California to the rock-bound coasts of Maine—if there’s been a real crowd in the park, that is.

When he sprang up almost as swiftly to show he held onto the ball, the Petco Park audience would have heaved a sigh of relief enough to blow a hurricane from the shores of California to the rock-bound coasts of Maine—if there’d been a real crowd in the park, that is.

After all the foregoing plus that near brain-scrambling pole vault of a catch, wouldn’t you think that even an Anderson who might still have been a little gassed or hung over from his Friday night’s labour would think twice before compelling a high-wire act with no guarantee of a trampoline to break his and the Rays’ fall.

Bregman’s high liner sent center fielder Kevin Kiermaier back. And back. To the track. At the wall. Caught. Game over. Crash carts taken off white-hot alert. Oxygen ventilators shut down for the night.

Every other Rays heart still threatening to break through their owners’ rib cages and skins. Every Astro probably wondering to themselves whether it would take nuclear weapons and exterminators to rid themselves of these death-defying pests. Maybe they’ll call the 82nd Airborne. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is out of business, you know.

 

The little bang theory

Diego Castillo, after closing the Rays’ ALCS Game One win Sunday night.

How bizarre was Game One of the American League Championship Series? Aside from being played in a National League ballpark, that is? Aside from the Tampa Bay Rays having a barely quenchable thirst for doing things the hard way and making the other guys do things likewise?

They beat the Houston Astros 2-1 Sunday night. Just as they beat the New York Yankees 2-1 to get here in the first place. Except that’s where the similarities end, no matter how good the Rays are at minimalism.

They’re to the low score what the Astros are to the big bang. They’ve played three postseason games thus far scoring two runs or less—and won two. Everyone else this postseason scoring two or less? Three wins, nineteen losses.

They struck out thirteen times against Framber Valdez and three Houston relief pitchers—and won. Just the way they did against the Yankees to get to the ALCS, and just the way nobody else this postseason has.

The Rays are about as intimidated by striking out as David was by Goliath. All year long including this postseason, you can look it up, they struck out thirteen times or more in twelve games—and won eight. Anyone else? Not even close. They’d rather strike out than hit into double plays.

They endured Sunday night without going to most of their A-list bullpen bulls. Nick Andersen and Peter Fairbanks didn’t even poke their noses out of their holes. Remember: there’ll be no days off during the ALCS, either. He who tends his bullpen best is liable to be he who survives with the least damage.

The lone Rays A-lister available Sunday after last Friday’s Yankee wrestling match was Diego Castillo. Largely because the chunky righthander himself told his boss he had at least an inning in him despite throwing 29 pitches over two innings to end the ALDS.

“Man,” said manager Kevin Cash after Sunday’s game, “he’s a stud. He was the one that was available between Nick, Pete and himself. We felt he could give us an inning.” So Cash brought him in to squelch a bases-loaded mess into which C-list reliever Aaron Loup managed to hand the Astros in the top of the eighth. No pressure.

Castillo threw one pitch to Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel. It was an intended sinkerball that hung up around Gurriel’s hands. Gurriel whacked it on the ground up the middle and right to the oncoming Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe. Lowe executed the step-and-throw inning-ending, disaster-ducking double play.

“We needed the ball on the ground,” said Rays catcher Mike Zunino after the game. “That’s the first thing. When Cashie left the mound, I told [third baseman Mike] Brosseau that he was going to get the ground ball.” So Lowe got it instead. Nobody’s perfect.

Sunday night wasn’t a Night of the Pitchers with a dramatic eighth-inning home run making the final difference between the two top teams in the American League East. This was the Amazing Randi versus David Copperfield with one hand behind their backs and one eye obstructed behind a patch.

It was the night the Astros’ young lefthanded lancer Framber Valdez came pretty much as advertised out of the chute. And, the night the Rays’ lefthanded, former Cy Young Award winning veteran Blake Snell came to prove he could get away with sticking his head into the lion’s mouth and yanking it out the split half second before the lion could snap its jaws around his neck.

It was the night the designated home team Rays went 1-for-8 with men in scoring position and left nine men on base, versus the designated visiting Astros went 2-for-8 with men in scoring position and left ten men on, with both teams having what looked like scores in the making snuffed by swift and slick pitching to some swift and slick infield defense.

It was also the night Jose Altuve hit a Snell meatball into the left field seats on 2-1 in the top of the first, Randy Arozarena found a Valdez sinker that didn’t sink under the middle of the zone to sink behind the center field fence in the bottom of the fourth, and a leadoff walk followed by a pair of grounders back to the mound and a clean base hit plating Rays shortstop Willy Adames in the bottom of the fifth.

From there it was a contest to see whose bullpen depth mattered more and whose offense might turn possibles into plotzes worse. When it finally finished, the Rays stood at 33-0 when when leading after the seventh this year and holding a Show-leading 73-game winning streak when leading in the eighth.

They also stood proud Sunday night with a now 16-5 record in one-run 2020 games, the .762 winning percentage the best in major league history. The little engine that could? The Rays are the little engine that do.

“The one thing you learn about our club over 60 or 162,” Cash told reporters, “we’re in a lot of tight ballgames. And tight ballgames, you’ve got to teach yourself how to win those. That’s mistake-free, playing clean. There’s no margin for error and I think our guys take that approach every single night when they take the field.”

Tight ballgames? If Game One got any tighter there would have been crash carts in the cutout-filled seats and oxygen ventilators in the on-deck circles.

“They do some things that are unusual,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker before the game. If understatement is an irrevocable requirement for Manager of the Year, Baker might have this year’s award nailed down tight shut.

But Cash solidified his own airtight case, taking baseball’s version of of the 99 Cent Store (O Woolworth, where is thy sting?) to the top of the American League East irregular season heap and to the postseason’s number-one seed. He’s the director of the Rays starring in The Little Bang Theory.

They shoved the Toronto Blue Jays out of the wild card series in half a blink, wrangled the Empire Emeritus out of the division series, and neutralised the postseason-resurgent Astros’ big bats into cardboard tubes to open this week’s showdown.

They did it despite Snell seeming bent on setting new major league records for getting himself into more full counts than the law allows and escaping when it looked like the coppers had the cuffs around his wrists ready to click shut.

They did it despite Valdez striking out eight in six mostly splendid innings and the youthful enough Astros bullpen looking as though they’d been studying the Rays for what to do, how to do it, and when to do it.

No, the Rays had to suck the Astros into joining them for an act that made the Flying Wallendas resemble cartoon amateurs. They even had to find their own kind of exclamation point, with Castillo striking out Altuve, the pint size power plant who’d started the evening with the long ball, on a nice, nasty, diving-away slider to close it out at last.

Last fall, the Rays lost a division series to the Astros in five games but proved they could play up to and with the big beasts when given the chance. This fall they’re proving that the great white whales don’t stand that much of a chance against a pack of hell-bent-for-blubber anchovies. So far.

The Yankees, only human after all

The Yankees watch their season dissipate in the three-up, three-down top of the ninth Friday night.

“Man,” tweeted a Yankee fan of my acquaintance after Friday night’s arms race between the Yankees and the Rays ended. “So sad. Every. single. year.”

Did you ever think you’d see the day when Yankee fans finally tasted what baseball’s hardest of hard luck franchise fans tasted for about as long as the Yankees once ruled the earth? Neither did I.

Did you ever think you’d hear Yankee fans talking the way Chicago Cub and Boston Red Sox fans spoke for decades before the 21st century arrived? Never mind the Red Sox—the Red Sox—owning more 21st century Series rings than the Yankees?

The team that owned most of the 20th century is finding the 21st century impossible to navigate. If it comforts Yankee fans any, their 20th century ancestors found the first two decades of that century tough to navigate, too.

From the birth of the American League through the end of 1919, the franchise finished as high as second place three times. The closest they got to a World Series then was finishing a game and a half behind (imagine that!) the Red Sox, then known as the Americans. When, you ask? The same year New York experienced a pair of firsts: its first underground subway, and its first New Year’s Eve blowout in Times Square.

The 21st century Yankees are actually a little more fortunate. They’ve been to sixteen postseasons, two World Series, and won one Series. Their ancestors of a century ago would have killed to take that kind of jacket into 1920.

Telling that to today’s Yankee fan might amount to wasted energy. There are more cliches attached to the Yankees for better or worse than to any other major league team, and the truest of those are 1) they don’t like to lose; and, 2) they define failure as any season in which they don’t win the World Series.

In most of the 20th century, once they got their bearings for keeps, it was a lot easier for the Yankees to live up to those type of self-imposed pressures. They owned the bulk of the reserve era, when they scouted the deepest of the deep bushes, traded or sold from strength, and plucked jewels suspected and unsuspected alike from the mere mortals.

The free agency era hasn’t been as kind to them as their adversaries thought at first. Turns out that buying pennants—which the Yankees haven’t been the only ones to accomplish, no matter what their riches and resources and Joe and Jane Fan lead you to believe—wasn’t going to be an annual Yankee accomplishment.

Since the Messersmith decision at the end of calendar 1975, the Yankees have been to 27 postseasons, won eleven pennants, and won seven World Series. That’s not exactly the same as their dynastic reserve era, but even the Yankees know there are 29 other major league franchises who’d sell their mothers and grandmothers to show even half that kind of success.

I haven’t heard of any groups of Yankee fans gathering yet to burn Aaron Boone or Aroldis Chapman in effigy after Game Five of the division series freshly lost. But any to come wouldn’t shock. If the truest cliche about the Yankees is that they don’t like to lose, the truest cliche about their fans this century is, “To err is human, to forgive is not Yankee fan policy.”

They’re not even burning longtime general manager Brian Cashman in effigy just yet. Not even if they’re fuming wrongly that Cashman invited too much analytics into the Yankee mindset. The only wonder about that might be what took the Yankees so long to dip into those waters in the first place.

Too much analytics? They just got shoved out of the postseason by a Rays team that lives on analytics. Analytics and assembling competitive teams out of painfully average players on annual budgets that don’t equal a third of Gerrit Cole’s entire nine-year Yankee contract.

Too much dependence on the home run? Well, now. They didn’t become the Bronx Bombers in the first place because they established a tradition of slap-hitting, scratch-hitting basepath pests. The Hitless Wonders, the Gas House Gang, the Go-Go Sox, and the Runnin’ Redbirds they ain’t.

News flash: When pitching doesn’t win postseasons, home runs do, more often than not. The Yankees lived and died by the bomb on the irregular season and hit fourteen more than the Rays. They just hit one fewer than the Rays in Game Five. (And, one fewer than the Rays all ALDS long, incidentally.)

Until Mike Brosseau ended a ten-pitch wrestling match with Chapman with a dramatic one-out home run in the bottom of the eighth Friday night, the Yankees and the Rays were enjoying and wrestling with their own Night of the Pitchers.

A game like that was the most appropriate way to honour the memory of Whitey Ford, the Yankees’ witty and popular Hall of Fame lefthander, who died at his Long Island home Thursday night while watching the Yankees and the Rays tangle.

Cole did exactly what the Yankees are paying him $324 million for nine years to do. The Rays’ and the Yankees’ bullpens did what top of the line bullpens are supposed to do, even though the key Yankee relievers weren’t quite as rested as the key Rays’ bulls.

Until the eighth those pitching staffs had only one run each torn out of them, both solo bombs. The pitching on both sides even shook off a few scattered defensive miscues on both sides.

What the Yankees missed all year—aside from a near-repeat injured list performance akin to 2019’s making the New England Journal of Medicine into the Yankee yearbook—was pitching depth.

They chugged, slugged, and bulled their way to second place in the AL East, blasted the Cleveland Indians to one side in the wild card round, but bumped into the AL East champion Rays. Discovering the Rays could take everything they could dish out from the comfort of their better-rounded bullpen depth and deployment.

The Yankees missed Luis Severino recovering from Tommy John surgery, they lost James Paxton to a flexor strain, and they lost Domingo German to a domestic violence suspension. They worked around Adam Ottavino’s fall from what’s considered the Yankees’ inner circle of bullpen trust.

And it blew up in their faces in Game Two, when Boone deciding to try out-Raying the Rays with an opener and a bullpen game blew up in the Yankees’ faces. That was the first of Boone’s two most egregious series mistakes.

The second was pinch hitting for Kyle Higashioka—establishing himself as the best Yankee option behind the plate—with slumping Mike Ford to open the top of the eighth, then sending Gary Sanchez out to catch the rest of the game. Sanchez’s bat was faltering and his plate work more so.

It was Sanchez who didn’t think that maybe Chapman should have served Brosseau a tenth-pitch splitter instead of a down-and-in fastball. It was Sanchez who may have forgotten that Chapman’s vaunted speed-of-light fastballs get more hittable the longer he works because they don’t climb the ladders or go out on the limbs as well as when he works his first few hitters.

And it was Sanchez and Boone who forgot Chapman nearly let that Game Seven thriller in the 2016 World Series get away from those Cubs with an RBI double and a game re-tying two-run homer. Not to mention failing to put Houston’s Jose Altuve aboard with two outs, George Springer on base, and a spaghetti bat on deck, the better to finish pushing last year’s ALCS to a seventh game.

Sanchez and Boone’s memory vapours disappeared over the left field fence. The only Yankee manager ever to lead his charges to back-to-back 100-plus win seasons in his first two seasons on the Yankee bridge has become Sisyphus in pinstripes.

Sooner or later, the jubilant Rays trolling the Yankees by singing along with Frank Sinatra’s version of “New York, New York” had to call it a night after a hard-earned hearty party. The questions around this Yankee edition won’t call it a night, or a day, too soon this winter.

Neither will the continuing humbling of Yankee fans, who are seen only too often, with too much justification, as among baseball’s most singularly arrogant. Their absolute lowest of the low might have been the subset who trolled Astros pitcher Zack Greinke over his longtime battle with clinical depression last October.

Their forebears were spoiled rotten by all those 20th century decades of Yankee imperialism but never that disgraceful. Now the sons and daughters of those old imperial Yankee fans have to learn, little by little, to live with the idea that the Yankees may be only human, after all.

The boundless world of Rays imagination

A TBS screen capture (including strike zone) as Michael Brosseau demolished Aroldis Chapman’s tenth-pitch fastball Friday night.

“The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless,” wrote the French philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Baseball is so often like that. His near-namesake Tampa Bay Rays utility man re-proved that Friday night.

You’ve heard of the Year of the Pitcher, right? Until Michael Brosseau squared off against recent near-executioner Aroldis Chapman in the bottom of the eighth, Friday was the Night of the Pitchers.

Neither the Yankees nor the Rays wanted to hear any nonsense about re-juiced postseason baseballs. They made Game Five of their American League division series into an arms race. With only three rude interruptions and Brousseau delivering the one that mattered most.

Brosseau. The guy Chapman nearly beheaded with a 101 mph fastball late in the regular season. The guy facing now facing Chapman after entering the game as a sixth-inning pinch hitter. The guy Thomas Boswell says was “undrafted, bypassed 1,216 times–is a ‘utility man’ who played every position except SS & C this year (including pitcher).”

The guy who wrestled Chapman to a ten-pitch plate appearance, after beginning with an 0-2 count, and hit that tenth pitch over the left field fence. Meaning, ultimately, game, set, and a Rays date with the Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series to come.

“I was just trying to get a runner on and get the next guy up,” Brosseau said after the game. “We knew the hits were coming not very often tonight . . . Obviously, going up there, trying to find a barrel, thankfully it happened.”

Brosseau may not have to buy his own steak in Tampa Bay for a very long time to come.

These Rays and these Yankees threw the kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room sinks at each other from the mound and got through seven and a half innings tied at one, with both runs on home runs and twenty strikeouts between them. And the Rays managed practically to sneak a 2-1 win.

That’s the number 28 payroll in all the Show taking down the number one payroll, if you’re scoring at home. (The Yankees actually hadn’t been the number-one payroll since 2011.) The barely no-name Rays, full of excrutiatingly average major league baseball players, taking down the Empire Emeritus and its usual pack of high-priced, high-profile spreaders.

The Rays, who survived Gerrit Cole’s first short-rest outing in his major league life, who got no-hit by Cole until Austin Meadows found the screws on a 1-1 fastball and sent it over the right field corner fence in the bottom of the fifth.

The Rays, whose first reliever on the night, Nick Andersen, didn’t let Aaron Judge’s fourth-inning leadoff launch to about the same region over the same fence knock him into praying to find the nearest available mouse hole into which to crawl in anguish. He shook it off and worked two full innings’ shutout relief from there. Nothing to it, folks.

The Rays, who withstood everything Zack Britton threw at them, pried one base hit and reached on one abnormal error by Yankee third baseman Gio Urshela but cashed neither of them in, until Brosseau won that showdown with Chapman.

“I knew it felt good,” Brosseau said about the immediate contact with that triple-digit-speed fastball. “I haven’t had much playing time [in Petco Park], so it’s kind of hard to read the dimensions, to see from daytime to nighttime, but it felt good off the bat.”

Just don’t ask him about payback. Everyone else noted poetic justice and karma turning superbitch. Not Brosseau. “No revenge,” he said. “We put that in the past. We came here to try and win a series. We came here to move on, do what we do best, and that’s play our game.”

Re-juiced postseason baseballs took about more than a third of postseason talk with all the home runs interfering in bunches with airline flight patterns until Friday night. The Yankees and the Rays must have drained them before getting started. Three hits all night long, and all three were home runs that almost barely cleared the top of the fences.

On normal rest Cole has a 2.74 earned run average. On five or more days rest, it’s 3.73. On short rest, it could have gone either way Friday night. Especially with the Rays having won the ten straight previous games in which Tyler Glasnow was their starting pitcher, or opener if you prefer. Not to mention the Rays’ key bullpenners entering the game rested slightly better than the key Yankee bulls.

It didn’t start brilliantly for Cole. He walked Brandon Lowe after striking Meadows out impressively, then drilled Randy Arozarena on the first pitch—days after Arozarena took Cole over the fence—which he didn’t likely mean to do, but good luck convincing the Rays, who’ve been waging bad-blood war against the Yankees all year as it is.

The punchout of Meadows made Cole the fastest pitcher to reach a hundred postseason strikeouts, in 79 innings. He nudged the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw to one side with it. But he walked the bases loaded around a ground out before catching Joey Wendle looking at strike three for the side.

Cole struck out the side swinging in the second, with fastballs hitting just a hair’s breadth short of 100 mph and a generous helping of late movement, and off-speed breakers maybe two hairs’ breadth short of 90 but diving like paratroopers. And then, he struck out two out of three in a 1-2-3 third.

Why, he even made early mincemeat of a hitter who usually does likewise to him. He got rid of Ji-Man Choi twice on ground outs, after the husky Rays first baseman came into the game hitting .526 off Cole including four home runs.

Himself starting on two days’ rest, Glasnow could have ended up with two on and no outs to open the game if Choi hadn’t made a pair of acrobatic plays to turn a pair of bad throws into tight outs. Glasnow himself threw D.J. LeMahieu’s leadoff grounder back to the box offline, and shortstop Willy Adames did likewise with Judge’s followup hopper, before Aaron Hicks lined out to deep center for the side.

Pete Fairbanks and Diego Castillo finished what Glasnow and Andersen started. Castillo finished in reasonable style, striking Giancarlo Stanton and Luke Voit out before Urshela’s nasty liner up the third base line got snapped by third baseman Wendle as if having to catch a baby shot out of a cannon to save the little one’s dear life.

This wasn’t exactly the way the Yankees wanted to honour the memory of their Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford, who died Thursday night at home while watching the Yankees and the Rays tangle in Game Four. (Both teams honoured a moment of silence in Ford’s memory before the game began.)

It was almost a year since Chapman surrendered Jose Altuve’s ALCS-winning two-run homer. When not burning up social media calling for manager Aaron Boone’s head post-game, Yankee fans wasted little time calling for Chapman’s. Determining whom to rage against more was tough enough.

What wasn’t tough was to remind yourself that to err is human but to forgive is not fan policy. The good news is that, even with social-distancing considerations, no groups of Yankee fans have opened street parties at which they can run over Boone, Chapman, or other shortfalling Yankees’ jerseys. Yet.

The Yankees probably wish Ford and his Hall of Fame battery mate Yogi Berra had brewed a little mad chemistry from their Elysian Fields positions Friday night. The Rays only hope that, whatever mad science of their own got them through the Empire Emeritus will be enough for them to turn the Astros aside in the coming week.

“They’ve been the team to beat the last few years,” said Brosseau of the team the Rays got thatclose to knocking out in another tight full-five division series last year. “They knocked us out last year so it will be fun to face them again.”

Don’t bet against these Rays just yet. If they could get rid of the Yankees and their bomb squad, they won’t exactly let the thought of the Astros’ suddenly revived long distance callers shake their gill slits.

California bombs, California rough stuff

The pandemic-mandated empty house aside, 5 October might as well be Alex Bregman Day . . .

Mr. October Fifth? What’s up with that?

It’s not Alex Bregman’s birthday. (For the record, that’s 30 March.) It’s not his engagement date. (He popped the question to a Colorado lady named Reagan Howard in January.) It’s not his future wedding date. There seems nothing significant elsewhere for him about that date.

Except when he plays postseason baseball. For a fourth consecutive 5 October Bregman found a pitch meaty enough to send long distance. Mark your 2021 calendar accordingly if you must.

He led off the top of the fourth against Oakland starter Chris Bassitt Monday afternoon, starting an American League division series, and sent a 1-2 service into the pandemically-required unoccupied left field bleachers.

It put his Houston Astros on the board after the Athletics helped themselves to a 3-0 lead on long balls themselves. It gave his infield teammate Carlos Correa thoughts about not wanting to be left out of the action after Kyle Tucker followed with a single through the left side of the infield, Correa hitting a 2-0 pitch over the center field fence.

And—with no small assistance from Oakland’s normally vacuum-handed shortstop Marcus Semien’s boot on Josh Reddick’s two-out grounder in the top of the sixth—the Astros seized the chance at new life, not letting something like a subsequent 5-3 deficit spoil the day, and finished with a 10-5 Game One win.

It almost figured.

There are far worse talismans to attach to a team than 10-5. Especially to a team who got into this convoluted postseason with a losing record and who spent 2018 and 2019 doing not even once what they did Monday—come back from a pair of multi-run deficits.

Especially when several signature Astro bats returned to life at last. Let’s see. George Springer going 4-for-5 after an irregular season in which he had no four-hit games. Correa dialing nine twice and sending four runs home, after an irregular season in which he didn’t send four home or homer twice. The quartet of Bregman, Correa, Springer, and Jose Altuve each driving in at least one run in the same game after not having done that together even once on the irregular season.

And, thanks to the bubble concept putting postseason teams from the division series forward into neutral parks, the Astros’ three postseason wins have now happened in ballparks not their own.

The third, of course, happened in . . . Dodger Stadium. The home of a team with whom they have, ahem, some recent history. The division series home for Games One, Two, and (if necessary) Five of an A’s team that includes the former Astro who blew the whistle on Astrogate at last, last November, after those too well aware of their illegal, off-field-base, altered or extra camera transmitting sign stealing schemes couldn’t convince anyone else to expose it.

“As the game got deeper, the at-bats got better,” said Springer of the Astros’ Monday breakout. “They played the later innings better than we did. We just didn’t have the at-bats we typically do at the end of the game,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin.

How much of a pitcher’s park is Dodger Stadium still, even if it’s not quite the equal of its first two decades? In 91 previous postseason games played there, not once were six home runs hit there. Bregman’s one and Correa’s two were joined by Oakland’s Khris Davis, Sean Murphy, and Matt Olson.

“I’ve never seen the ball carry like that here,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker, who played eight seasons for the Dodgers from the 1970s to the 1980s.

Bregman’s 5 October long-distance mastery has also broken the three-straight-same-date postseason strings of Hall of Famer-to-be Albert Pujols (17 October 2004-05-06) and Francisco Lindor (6 October 2016-17-18). But he’ll have to wait ’till next year for a shot at equaling the five-streaks of Pujols (five straight 30 Mays) and Ryan Braun (five straight 24 Julys) among still-active players.

What’s the regular-season record? Seven. Who holds it? Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig (8 June 1932-38) and former Astros mainstay Lance Berkman. (21 September 2001-07.)

Then the doings down the freeway in San Diego, in Petco Park, had to go steal the show. The Padres had nothing to do with it. The New York Yankees did. Their winning score against the AL East champion Tampa Bay Rays was a measly 9-3, but oh what a show the Yankees made of it.

Somehow, some way, the Yankees find ways to make history just when you think there isn’t a single piece of history left for that franchise to make. It only began with this: Not since 1956 (when Moose Skowron and Hall of Famer Yogi Berra did it in that World Series) had the Yankees hit two grand slams in a postseason at all—but Monday night they sliced salami for a second straight postseason game. No other American League team has ever done that.

Score nine or more runs in three straight postseason-opening games? Nobody did that before the Yankees did it this year. Score 31 runs in its first three postseason games? Nobody did that, either, until this year’s Yankees delivered.

So who the hell needed Gerritt Cole pitching six, striking out eight, and not letting a measly three runs shake him out of his skin before turning things over to Chad Green, Zack Britton, and Luis Cessa?

. . . but John Curtiss knocking down Gio Urshela (29) and Gleyber Torres after his salami was sliced was an uncalled-for and terrible look.

Luis who?

Simple: with a 9-3 lead, Yankee skipper Aaron Boone—with the spectre of no division series days off looming—wasn’t going to burn Aroldis Chapman unless the Rays got ornery in the ninth, which they didn’t. And Cessa got rid of the Rays with no interruption but a mere two-out walk.

Monday’s delicatessen slicer was Giancarlo Stanton in the top of the ninth against Rays reliever John Curtiss. It wasn’t as if Stanton was unfamiliar with Petco Park—he won the Home Run Derby there four years ago. Batting now on 2-2, Stanton caught hold of Curtiss’s slider just off the middle of the plate, and drove it just beyond Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier’s glove-extended leap and over the center field fence.

Then Curtiss just had to make the Rays look even worse, didn’t he? The next batter was Yankee, third baseman Gio Urshela—whose second-inning defense would have made ancient Yankees Clete Boyer and Graig Nettles plus Hall of Fame Oriole Brooks Robinson proud, with his leaping stab to pick Manuel Margot’s high hopper and throw him out, then his rolling seat-of-the-pants throw to nail Joey Wendle off a hard smash into the hole.

Curtiss sent Urshela sprawling on an up and in 0-1 pitch, with Urshela finally wrestling his way to popping out to the infield. Then Yankee shortstop Gleyber Torres checked in at the plate. Curtiss waited until 2-2 before playing Torres a little chin music. No wonder Torres couldn’t resist stealing second while Brett Gardner batted next.

Oops. Apparently, an awful lot of people called Torres out for the ninth-inning theft. “I don’t like seeing disrespectful things in the game,” crowed Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez on a TBS postgame show. Forget that the Yankees went 2-8 against the Rays on the irregular season and might be thinking that, no matter the score or the inning, every run counts.

Martinez might be the wrong man to ask, of course, but if you don’t like Torres stealing second with his team up by six in the ninth, did you like Curtiss making the usually likeable Rays—those unknown soldiers, who can normally beat you with the same aplomb as the big boys with the big names and the bigger paychecks—resemble unsportsmanlike sore losers?

Curtiss also made the Yankees look the way the beasts of the Bronx rarely look—sympathetic. And that’s over a month after Chapman nearly decapitated Michael Brousseau with a 101 mph fastball. But that was then, and Chapman’s been a little wild most of his career, anyway. He doesn’t have quite the control required to plan an execution. Not even with the Rays pitching inside tight to a few too many Yankees on the season before that head scratcher.

You’re embarrassed when a guy slices salami on your dollar? You man up, tip your hat, shake it off, and get the next guy out. You don’t knock that next guy and the guy following him down, off, back, or through just because your ego was sent into half orbit, with or without the bases loaded. (It would also help if you don’t surrender a leadoff single, a walk, a one-out RBI single, and a bases-loading walk to set it up, too.)

Things were notoriously tense enough between the Yankees and the Rays on the irregular season. Then, both sides tried to indicate going in that they were going to do their level best to play nice and no rough stuff. Then Curtiss had to deliver a little un-called for rough stuff anyway. No more Mr. Nice Guys?

Don’t be terribly shocked if Monday’s proceedings make Yankee rooters out of even those to whom rooting for the Yankees otherwise flouts family tradition. For this postseason, anyway, depending on whether the Rays behave reasonably from here on out.