The Phillies look a gift Brave in the mouth

Will Smith, Travis d'Arnaud

Will Smith and Travis d’Arnaud, after the Phillies somehow declined the gift Smith tried to give in the ninth Tuesday.

Until the top of the ninth Tuesday night the Phillies hadn’t scored a single run in their previous twenty innings. Then the Braves all but gifted the Phillies a run in that ninth. They’d even gifted the Phillies the potential go-ahead run and then the bases loaded with one out.

The problem was the Phillies picking the wrong way to say thank you. All that got them was elimination from the National League’s wild card race with a 2-1 loss. It’s win the NL East or wait till next year for them now.

But the ninth-inning high-wire routines of lefthanded relief pitcher Will Smith—with a rather remarkable ability to get himself into hot water—got a little too high on the wire Tuesday night.

It wasn’t so much that he and the Braves escaped as that the Phillies sent a helicopter overhead to lift him to safety when they should have left him and the Braves wiring mad. The Braves won’t always find the opposition that willing to bail them out.

Thanks in large part to their grand old man Charlie Morton’s seven-inning, ten-strikeout, shutout-ball gem, while managing to pry only two runs out of Phillies starter Zack Wheeler in seven otherwise-strong innings, the Braves may have been lucky to take a 2-0 lead into that ninth.

But with Smith having the opening advantage against lefthanded Bryce Harper, the major leagues’ OPS leader, Smith found himself in a wrestling match that ended with Harper wringing himself aboard with a leadoff walk. Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto now represented the potential game-tying run at the plate.

Realmuto hit one on a high line to right center that ninth-inning center field insertion Guillermo Heredia had to run down long to catch on a high backhand. That spot of Braves fortune lasted just long enough for Phillies pinch-hitter Matt Vierling to hit a high liner to left, where Braves left fielder Eddie Rosario ran over, extended his glove, and watched the ball carom off its fingertips, setting up second and third for the Phillies.

Now the Phillies had veteran Andrew McCutchen—a long way from his days as a center field gazelle and a 2015 NL Most Valuable Player for a better array of Pirates—coming to the plate. McCutchen isn’t the danger he was once seen to be anymore, but he’s a veteran who still knows what he’s doing at the plate, and the Braves had no intention of letting his righthanded bat lay them to waste.

So the Braves ordered McCutchen walked intentionally, putting the potential second go-ahead run aboard, even while it looked as though Smith fooled nobody at the plate. The problem was that putting McCutchen aboard also put the Phillies’ fate into two bats described best as balky.

Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius continued playing through a bothersome elbow and a shrunken ability to handle pitching from the same side as which he swings, lefthanded. Third baseman Freddy Galvis, lately pressed into everyday service, simply keeps proving why the Phillies unloaded him in the first place four years ago—he’s not truly an everyday player, and though he switch-hits he’s not exactly a game-breaker at the plate.

The Braves now had only to pray that Smith could survive. The Phillies had only to pray that Gregorius and Galvis had a few more unexpected surprises in their bats. Every Braves fan in Atlanta’s Truist Park had to pray that Smith could put his own fire out with a real retardant, not with gasoline.

He served Gregorius a 1-1 offering, and Gregorius hit a high liner that looked for a few seconds as though it would find a way off the right field wall—but Braves right fielder Adam Duvall ambled back in front of the track to haul it in for the critical second out even as Harper was able to tag and score from third.

Now Smith went to work against Galvis. Two balls in the dirt, ball three high, a grounded foul for strike one, a called strike right down the pipe, and a hard line foul down the left field side out of play. Then, Smith threw Galvis a meatball so fat it could have been hit with a cardboard paper towel tube.

Galvis swung right through it. Strike three and the game.

The Cardinals won their seventeenth straight behind the aging arm of their own grand old man Adam Wainwright and a trio of home runs in a 6-2 win over the Brewers Tuesday night. The Phillies’ postseason hopes shrank to a hair in their none-too-formidable division.

“We have to win out,” said Phillies first baseman Brad Miller postgame. Easier said than done. They have to beat the Braves tonight and tomorrow and hope the Mess (er, Mets) beat the Braves over the coming weekend.

That’s what happens when you open a game the way the Phillies did, with back-to-back singles in the top of the first, but you can’t cash them in after a force out, a swinging strikeout, and an infield ground out—two days after the Phillies were shut out by the NL Central bottom-feeding Pirates, of all people.

That’s what happens when Morton—the last man standing on the mound when the Astros won their now-tainted 2017 World Series title—all but toyed with them the rest of the way, the 37-year-old righthander making the Phillies’ lefthanded lineup stack look silly in going 2-for-15 with a walk before his evening ended.

“The moment doesn’t get too big for him, I know that,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker about Old Man Morton, who kept the Phillies off-balance on a deftly blended diet of curve balls, changeups, and fastballs. “I think he does a really good job of just staying with the next pitch and doesn’t get caught up in the big picture. And it’s just about making the next pitch, which is really, really good. That was, gosh, seven really good innings.”

That’s what happens when Wheeler, the National League’s strikeout leader among pitchers entering Tuesday, could manhandle the more formidable portion of the Braves’ lineup but couldn’t quite contain their lower-leverage bottom of the order in the bottom of the third—a leadoff double (Travis d’Arnaud, hitting seventh), an immediate first-pitch single (Dansby Swanson, hitting eighth) put Braves on the corners with nobody out.

Morton then bunted a high chop off the plate that pushed Swanson to second on the out, but Jorge Soler, the Braves’ leadoff hitter in the lineup, ripped a hard single down the left field line to send both runners home easily enough, before Wheeler retired Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies on grounders to second baseman Jean Segura.

That was the game until that too-close ninth. But the game put the Phillies’ core flaws into stark light, too. Even before the Phillies and the Braves squared off, The Athletic‘s Matt Gelb isolated the point: “[T]hey have too many holes right now.”

Didi Gregorius is tough to play against lefties. Andrew McCutchen is tough to play against righties. They love what Brad Miller has done, but he won’t start against lefties. Matt Vierling has provided a surprise boost for the Phillies in September, but he hasn’t gained the full trust of [manager] Joe Girardi.

The Phillies also lack the one thing that’s enabled the Braves to hang in and stand now on the threshold of wrapping an NL East that wasn’t exactly a division of baseball terrorists in the first place. Sure, the Mets spent 103 days leading the division—deceptively, as things turned out—but nobody in the NL East looked that much like a powerhouse.

What the Phillies lack that the Braves proved to have in abundance is depth. Their Harpers, Realmutos, and Wheelers all but willed them to stay in the race in the first place, but it may not have been enough. They just weren’t deep enough to hang in without major effort. A coming off-season overhaul may not shock anyone.

The Braves were deep enough in system and in the thought process of general manager Alex Anthopoulos that they withstood the full-season loss of their best young pitcher (Mike Soroka) and the rest-of-season loss of franchise center fielder Ronald Acuna, Jr. to serious injuries.

But they still have to find ways to neutralise that ninth-inning high-wire act.

Don’t let the 36 saves fool you. Smith’s 3.55 ERA and 4.28 fielding-independent pitching (FIP) should tell you the real story. So should 28 walks against 84 strikeouts in 66 innings’ work so far, not to mention 3.8 walks per nine innings. He seems too much to play with matches.

Snitker has two far-superior pen men to send forth when the game gets late and dicey, Luke Jackson (1.90 ERA) and Tyler Matzek (2.66 ERA). Between them, Jackson and Matzek pack a 3.34 FIP, a lot more comfortable than Smith’s. They should be considered more than in passing as viable ninth-inning options.

If these Braves want to get past postseason round one, they may want to consider how much less Jackson and Matzek like to tempt fate or challenge for baseball Darwin Awards. The last thing the Braves need now is to be the cobra with its own ninth-inning mongoose.

Don’t blame replay for Bohm staying safe

Travis d'Arnaud, Alec Bohm

Repeat after me: Alec Bohm was out at the plate . . . Alec Bohm was out at the plate . . . (Atlanta Journal-Constitution photo.)

The arguments against using replay to determine close plays included that it would take a big, big, big piece of the human factor out of a game. Well, what the hell was that we saw in Atlanta Sunday night?

It was the human factor getting it wrong despite having what Braves pitcher Drew Smyly called five different angles on a nationally televised game.

It was home plate umpire Lance Barrett missing a call on a bang-bang play at the plate in the top of the ninth but the replay review crew out of New York essentially doubling down on the wrong call, despite how right Smyly was and having five or even more angles to review.

It was Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm colliding with Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud as he arrived sliding as d’Arnaud with the ball lunged to block the plate, forcing Bohm to slide just offline enough to miss touching the plate even with his lead foot.

It was the Phillies winning 7-6 when the Braves went three-and-three in the bottom of the ninth and Bohm saying almost nothing but, “I was called safe. That’s all that matters.” Note that “I was called safe” isn’t exactly the same thing as saying, “I was safe.”

Even the Mets weren’t that coyly disingenuous about Michael Conforto elbowing his way to a blown call in his favour and a bases-loaded hit-by-pitch walkoff against the Marlins last Thursday.

With one out in the top of the ninth Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius lofted a fly the other way to left. Marcell Ozuna strode in toward the line to catch it. As Bohm tagged at third, Ozuna fired a two-hop strike down the line that hopped into the crouching d’Arnaud’s mitt. In the same split second d’Arnaud turned right, his folded leg across the plate with the tag on the sliding Bohm’s back leg.

D’Arnaud did bump Bohm in front of the plate for a moment. Bohm’s left foot, his lead foot, never touched the plate, flying just over it, and neither did the rest of his body parts, before he sprang up in a bent-knee pirouette and turned another one upright, waving his arms, including one wave that looked as though he were making a safe call.

If you want to give Barrett a benefit of the doubt you could say plausibly that d’Arnaud sprawling across the plate after the bumping tag on Bohm might (underline that) have obstructed his full view of Bohm’s slide.

“We saw it,” insisted Phillies manager Joe Girardi standing by his man and the review crew at once. “It looked like his big toe kind of hit the corner of the plate is what we saw when we saw a lot of the angles.”

I saw it, too, from a lot of the angles. For Girardi to say that, Bohm’s big toe must have been on his heel. On the angle his foot flew over the plate, his heel was actually a hair or two closer to hitting the plate than his big toe was.

Smyly didn’t pitch all that well Sunday night—he surrendered five runs on five hits in five innings’ work, including a two-run homer to Ozzie Albies in a three-run first and a leadoff solo to Freddie Freeman in the bottom of the fifth. But his perspective on that play at the plate was anything but impaired.

“[I]t’s clear that his foot didn’t touch the plate, that it was on the chalk,” Smyly told reporters post-game. “Everyone saw it and sees it, everyone knows it. And for MLB not to overturn that, it’s embarrassing. Why even have replay if you won’t overturn that? That’s the way I feel about it. I think everybody feels that way. There’s five different angles. It’s clear, he didn’t touch the plate.”

#HeDidntTouchThePlate became a Twitter hashtag almost as fast as the original play went down in the first place. Better that than the Truist Park audience throwing debris down onto the field. They had every right to be outraged, but better chanting (as they did) Bull-[sh@t]! Bull-[sh@t!] than throwing junk and at least one bottle kept from doing damage by, ironically, the netting hoisted to protect fans from bullet-fast foul balls.

Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, himself native to Atlanta, may have felt his team got jobbed, but he wasn’t too thrilled about the fans’ display, either. “It’s an embarrassing representation of our city because I know from being from here, that’s not how we act,” he said after the game.

And then probably the worst part of it all, I don’t think people realize we have families here. There are kids that are here, kids that are sitting in the front row, and you’ve got bottles whizzing by their heads. Just endangering kids that may not be able to protect themselves is downright embarrassing, and it should never happen again. It just can’t happen, and it never needs to happen again.

It spoiled a night on which both teams brought their bats to town and swung them with authority. From Albies in the first and Freeman in the fifth to Ronald Acuna, Jr.’s fourth-inning sacrifice fly and mammoth seventh-inning home run. From Rhys Hoskins’s leadoff bomb in the fourth and Gregorius’s three-run homer two outs and back-to-back singles later, to Bryce Harper’s opposite-field leadoff launch seven or eight rows into the left field seats in the sixth.

When The Athletic queried the New York replay crew about the Bohm safe call, the journal received an e-mail reply: “After viewing all relevant angles, the Replay Official could not definitively determine that the runner failed to touch home plate prior to the fielder applying the tag. The call STANDS, the runner is safe.” How many angles was “all relevant angles?”

“It makes me not even want [replay review] anymore,” d’Arnaud said. “Honestly, it just slows the game down. It took like five minutes for them to decide that and, to me, they got it wrong. So I’d rather just not have it and get the game going.”

Some plays take a little longer than five minutes to decide, some take a little less. D’Arnaud’s frustration is the most understandable among any Brave. When Conforto was ruled a hit batsman as plate ump Ron Kulpa changed his strike call in the bottom of the ninth last Thursday, Mets broadcaster Ron Darling asked why have replay if the review umpires can’t get it right.

Kulpa admitted his mistake the following day. (He got a lovely ovation from the Citi Field audience Saturday for his admission.) Barrett hasn’t weighed back in at this writing. But the issue isn’t replay itself. The issue is that there’s still a human factor in baseball games, major league or otherwise, and that factor can still get it wrong even with every potential angle showing otherwise.

Even a major league player or two ripped the call. Padres third baseman Will Middlebrooks tweeted, “How do you watch that replay and say he’s safe. Hahaha this is a joke.” Of all people, Angels all-everything center fielder Mike Trout tweeted, “So bad…” followed by an emoji showing a smiley face in tears laughing. D’Arnaud’s brother Chase, himself a former major league utility infielder, tweeted back to Middlebrooks and Trout, “the guy makes that call in New York should be interviewed just like players who get interviewed after games.”

Not just by reporters but by baseball’s government, too.

It’s far too early in the major league season for a game and a call like that to wreak real havoc on a pennant race, of course. If the safe call was overturned as it should have been, it would have meant the Braves and the Phillies each at 5-4 and tied for first in the National League East this morning.

But if a replay review crew can still blow what angle after angle showed them wasn’t a runner safe across the plate in mid-April, how egregiously will they blow a similar call down the stretch in a game that weighs like a bank vault on the races?

It’s deja vu all over again for the Mets

2020-07-24 YoenisCespedes

Cespedes went into the seats in his return but deGrom added just more evidence for a non-support case Friday.

Pandemic delay or no pandemic delay, the 2020 season finds the New York Mets picking up just about where they left off last year. Not that beating the Atlanta Braves 1-0 on Friday was a terrible thing for them, of course. And not that Yoenis Cespedes, too long among the Mets’ living dead on the injured list, going long his first day back was terrible, either.

But their neglect of theirs and the National League’s best pitcher two seasons running, pending Jack Flaherty’s continuing maturation, continues yet. He’s too much a team player to say it, but surely Jacob deGrom thinks of games like Friday’s and thinks to himself, “It’s been lovely, but I have to scream now.”

Defending back-to-back Cy Young Awards, pitching like a future Hall of Famer, eight strikeouts in five innings, one walk, and one measly hit. (The innings limit was the Mets taking no chances after deGrom’s back tightness last week.) And nothing to show for it other than an ERA opening at zero.

Last year, deGrom had twelve such quality starts, averaging seven innings per, and came out with nothing to show for those. If his team played the way he pitched, he’d have been a 23-game winner and the Mets might have ended up in the postseason. Him definitely; them, might. As a former Mets manager once said, it was deja vu all over again Friday afternoon in Citi Field.

The Braves’ starting pitcher, Mike Soroka, got a grand taste himself of how deGrom must feel at times. He pitched six innings and, while he wasn’t deGrom’s kind of strikeout pitcher Friday afternoon, he did punch out three, scatter four hits, and come away with nothing to show for it but handshakes from the boss and whatever equals a pat on the back in the social-distancing season.

His relief, Chris Martin, wasn’t so fortunate. After ridding himself of Michael Conforto to open the bottom of the seventh on a fly out to deep enough center field, Martin got Cespedes to look at a first-strike slider just above the middle of the plate. Then he threw Cespedes a fastball just off it, and Cespedes drove it parabolically into the empty left field seats.

The piped-in crowd noise at Citi Field drowned out the thunk! when the ball landed in no man, woman, or child’s land. It was the game’s only scoring, but the Mets’ bullpen had a surprise of their own in store once deGrom’s afternoon was done.

They left the matches, blow torches, gasoline cans, and incendiary devices behind. They performed no known impression of an arson squad. They cleaned up any mess they might have made swiftly enough.

Seth Lugo, maybe the Mets’ least incendiary reliever last year, shook off a double to left by newly minted Brave Marcell Ozuna, and his advance to third on a passed ball, to get Matt Adams—signed but let loose by the Mets and scooped up by the Braves—to ground out to third and Austin Riley to look at strike three. Crowning two innings relief in which Lugo also made strikeout work of Alex Jackson and Ronald Acuna, Jr.

Justin Wilson, taking over for the eighth and looking like he was finding the right slots last year, shook off Dansby Swanson’s leadoff single to strike Adam Duvall out looking, before luring pinch hitter Johan Comargo into grounding out to second and striking Acuna out for the side.

Then Edwin Diaz, the high-priced closer who vaporised last year, opened by getting Ozzie Albies to ground out, shook off a walk to Freddie Freeman, and struck Ozuna out looking and Adams out swinging for the game.

Already freshly minted Mets manager Luis Rojas looks like a genius, or at least unlike a lost explorer. And Cespedes—about whom it was reasonable to wonder if he’d ever play major league baseball again—made sure any complaints about this season’s universal DH were silenced for this game at least.

“The funny thing is I joked with him before the game,” deGrom told reporters postgame. “I said ‘why are you hitting for me?’ He went out and hit a home run for us which was big. I was inside doing some shoulder stuff, my normal after pitching routine and yeah I was really happy for him.”

It didn’t work out quite that well for the Braves, with Adams going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts on the afternoon. Neither side mustered an especially pestiferous or throw-weight offense other than Cespedes’s blast.

But you half expected a low-score, low-hit game out of both deGrom and Soroka considering the disrupted spring training, the oddity of “summer camp,” and perhaps just a little lingering unease over just how to keep playing baseball like living, breathing humans while keeping a solid eye and ear on social distancings and safety protocols.

In a sixty-game season it all counts even more acutely than it would have on a normal Opening Day. The Mets and the Braves were each expected to contend this season before the coronavirus world tour yanked MLB’s plans over-under-sideways-down. They’re not taking their eyes off that just yet.

Before the game began, the Mets and the Braves—like the New York Yankees and Washington Nationals in D.C., like the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants by the Bay Thursday night—lined up on the baselines and held a long, long, long black ribbon. This time, with nobody kneeling before “The Star Spangled Banner” was played.

Maybe athletes can remind people that it’s dead wrong for rogue police to do murder against black and all people without running into the buzz saws of explicit national anthem protests and fury over the protests, after all.

The Braves have other alarms, though. Freeman, of course, is recently recovered from COVID-19 but two of their three catchers—Tyler Flowers and former Met Travis d’Arnaud—showed COVID-19 symptoms and went to the injured list. The good news: both catchers tested negative for the virus.

But lefthanded pitcher Cole Hamels hit the IL with triceps tendinitis. Not good. Every live arm counts in a short season, especially for legitimate contenders. Just ask the Mets, who’ll be missing Marcus Stroman with a calf muscle tear, even if Stroman historically heals quickly.

You hope both teams recover swiftly enough. You also hope the Mets find a way to make deGrom’s won-lost record look as good as he pitches and fast. Those non-support filing papers don’t take that long to draw up.

 

David and Goliath face elimination

2019-10-08 TravisDArnaudJoseAltuve

“They played beautiful defense, especially in that play right there.”—Jose Altuve, about the relay that nailed him at the plate above.

Sometimes you can’t afford to respect your elders. As in, when they’re on the mound on short rest, their less-than-well-rested arms and bodies refuse their lawful orders, and it’s still now or never until your American League division series is over.

There probably isn’t a Rays player or fan alive who doesn’t have a world of respect for Justin Verlander. There isn’t any baseball person alive lacking in such respect. Even at 36, the man has skills, the man has brains to burn, the man has no fear, the man has class, and the man has heart.

And when he says he wants the ball no matter how much rest it wouldn’t be on, nobody says no to Verlander. Not his manager. Not his front office. And sure as hell not Astroworld. Saying no to Justin Verlander with his cred is like it once was telling Evel Knievel the Snake River Canyon wasn’t going to be his new best friend.

But when even a Hall of Famer elects to take the mound in a bid to kick his team into the League Championship Series no matter how fully rested he isn’t, no matter how obedient his slider isn’t, there isn’t a Ray or anyone else alive either who’d spot him with his command gone AWOL and refuse to get the drop on him before he finds a reserve tank.

These Rays seem like nice guys. So do these Astros. But do you think the Astros would stay nice guys if they faced even a Hall of Famer with his tank down to its final fume? If you do, I have a freshly purchased Taj Mahal I’d like to sell you at cost.

Powerful teams are fun to watch when they dominate as these Astros have done all year long, and the Astros are fun to watch even on their very occasional off days. But there’s nothing like a band of upstarts that nobody else wanted pushing them to the equivalent brink of elimination as the Rays did Tuesday night.

Their 4-1 win over the Astros was as good as blowing almost anyone else out by three times that margin. That’s how tough the Astros are. And that’s how stubborn the Rays are proving to be.

Even if Gerrit Cole takes the mound Thursday back in Houston, delivers just half of what he threw at the Rays in Game Two, and sends the Astros to an American League Championship Series with the Yankees—you want to talk about E.R. vs. St. Elsewhere?—there isn’t a soul to be found who’d say the Rays didn’t prove they could hang with the big boys after it looked at first as though they’d get hanged.

So the Rays got cute sending Diego Castillo out to open, and Castillo got cute striking out the side in the first. And impressing the hell out of Astros manager A.J. Hinch. “Castillo, thank God he was an opener and not a regular starter,” he said after the game. “Having him out there for four, five, six innings would be devastating for anybody.”

The Rays got even more cute after Verlander opened the bottom of the first with a three-pitch strikeout of Austin Meadows. Tommy Pham was cute enough to work Verlander to a 2-2 count including one swing at a pitch missing the low and away corner, then send a slightly hanging changeup into the left center field seats.

A walk (to Ji-Hin Choi) and a single (to Avisail Garcia) later Travis d’Arnaud, whom the Mets thought expendable very early in the regular season, expended a base hit into left center field to send Choi home, and Joey Wendle expended a double down the right field line to send Garcia home. Verlander got rid of Kevin Kiermaier with a swinging strikeout to prevent further disaster but the Astros were in a 3-0 hole.

He’d survive first and second in the second and a man on third in the third, but he couldn’t stop Willy Adames (it almost rhymes with “Adonis”) from hitting the third pitch of the fourth over the center field fence. A strikeout, a line out, and a walk later, Hinch had to admit Verlander’d been had on a night when his spirit was willing but his arm and body demanded the rest of the night off.

For a second night running, the Astros got Rayed.

“A good approach for those guys in the first, and then honestly, I need those infield singles to be caught,” said Verlander after the game, referring to balls the Rays hit just past the Astros’ infielders. “When you don’t have it, you need the balls that are put in play to go your way, and they didn’t. Obviously, not the way you would script it. You know, it sucks.”

Thus the Astros joining up to the Rays bullpenning, which began with two out in the second and Rays manager Kevin Cash lifting Castillo for Ryan Yarborough. Whom he’d lift for Nick Anderson with Jose Altuve on second after maybe the single most important play of the game. Maybe even of the Rays’s season.

Yordan Alvarez, the Astros’ uber-rookie, sent a double to the rear of the yard. Kiermaier picked it off the wall hop and fired a perfect strike in to Adames out from short on the grass behind second, and Adames fired just as perfect a strike home to d’Arnaud at the plate spinning to tag the road-running Altuve about a split second before the Astros’ second baseman’s hand touched the plate.

And pop went the Astros’ best rally while the Rays were at it.

“That,” said Kiermaier of Adames’s strike home, “was probably the most incredible relay throw from an infielder I’ve ever seen. That was such a huge moment for us, huge momentum shift, and it just doesn’t get any better than that.”

Not even Choi turning Michael Brantley’s line drive into a single-handed double play in the sixth, bagging George Springer returning to the pillow while he was at it. That was child’s play compared to The Kiermaier-Adames Show.

And Kiermaier gets no argument from Altuve himself. “We’ve been playing aggressive all year long. I don’t see why we shouldn’t do it right now. But sometimes you have to give credit to the other team,” the Astros’ impish second baseman said after the game. “They played beautiful defense, especially in that play right there.”

“You have to tip your cap to those guys,” said Astros catcher Robinson Chirinos, whose just-passing-by solo home run off Chris Poche in the top of the eighth provided the lone Astros scoring. “The relay was perfect. It was textbook. They needed a perfect relay and they did it to throw Jose out at home plate. That was a big difference in the game tonight.”

When Jose Altuve himself gives you a five-star review, you’re being more than—what’s that overcooked word deployed about the Rays?—resilient.

Face it. On one postseason day when the Rays and the Astros had the nation’s baseball stage to themselves, the un-glamorous, un-beautiful, un-sexy, un-bankable Rays stole the show all for themselves. The Beatles themselves couldn’t have upstaged these No-Rays Tuesday night.

They were supposed to be about as deadly as babies in strollers at the plate. They were supposed to be a pitching staff full of anonymous relief pitchers with the occasional token starter and even Cy Young Award winner who couldn’t possibly keep getting away with all that bullpenning jazz.

Never mind that said Cy Young winner, Blake Snell, had Altuve on third and MVP candidate Alex Bregman on first with one out in the ninth when he went in from the pen Tuesday night, then struck Alvarez out swinging before coaxing Yuli Gurriel into the game-ending ground out right up the pipe, where Wendle just happened to be waiting to throw him out.

They have a manager named Cash for a team whose overseers seem allergic to spending any. They play their home games in a toxic waste dump that looks like a warped pressure cooker on the outside and an abandoned landfill on the inside, playing baseball on the last of the sliding-boxed zippered-billiards table surfaces.

And they are resilient, these No-Rays, even if the word “resilient” may turn into something less than a compliment before too long. “We’re good. Everybody uses the word resilient and that’s great but we’re also very good,” Cash told a reporter. “You can use that word resilient over and over and in a way it’s kind of knocking us. The truth is this is a very good team.”

The truth is also that the Astros are finding that out profoundly. The Rays may have finished with the American League’s fifth-best regular season record and the Show’s seventh best, but somehow, some way, the Rays have out-scored the Astros 17-13 in the division series so far. Somehow, some way, they’ve out-homered the Astros six to four. Somehow, some way, they have a better on-base percentage, a better slugging percentage, an OPS slightly over a hundred points higher, and more walks.

The Rays may not survive Game Five, after all, but they won’t leave the Astros thinking it wasn’t a battle royal even if Cole does go second-verse-same-as-the-first. Even if Cole will pitch on regular rest as opposed to Verlander asking to go on three days for the first time in his life and Zack Greinke getting nuked on eleven days’ rest.

“We have a great pitching staff, we play great defence and our bats are starting to come together,” said Pham, with all due modesty.

“People before this series started talking about David and Goliath,” Kiermaier. “I understand they are really good on paper and we might be the team that is not as appealing, but don’t ever count us out. We got guys feeling really good about themselves and we are clicking as a team all year. That is a dangerous recipe for success.”

Sounds a lot like what they once said about the Astros, doesn’t it?

After shoving the similar but slightly less obscure Athletics to one side in the wild card game to get their chance with the Astros—who have all the reputation and intimidation you could ask for in pushing 107 regular season winning chips to the middle of the division series table—the No-Rays and the Astros are equals for standing on the brink of elimination in Game Five.

Even with the Astros holding what they hope is the home field advantage trump. Not that the Astros are worried, necessarily, even if almost to a man they can’t wait to escape the Trop. (The Rays may not necessarily love the joint, either, but their 2019 season record shows ambivalence at best: they were the same on the road as they were at home, 48-33.)

The Astros opened the regular season against the Rays in the Trop and beat them once before losing three straight more. Aside from Games One and Two, they tangled in Minute Maid Park for three in late August. The Astros won the first two of that set; the Rays won the third. It’s not unheard of for the Rays to win in Minute Maid.

“We have done it years ago, when we have the home field. We win at home, then we lost on the road, then we come back home and make it happen,” Altuve said after the game. “So we’ve been here before. There’s no pressure right now.”

Altuve, one of the most intelligent as well as talented players the Astros have ever yielded up, also needs nobody to remind him there was no pressure on the original David, either.