Now they have to do the impossible

Kyle Tucker, Chas McCormick

With Kyle Tucker backing him, Chas McCormick—who grew up a Phillies fan 35 miles away from Citizens Bank Park—made the possible catch of the Series off J.T. Realmuto’s eighth-inning drive to the right center field scoreboard wall in World Series Game Five Thursday night. 

This year’s Phillies, meet the 2019 Nationals. Sort of. Those Nats won every World Series game against that edition of Astros on the road including four in Houston. These Phillies split in Houston, then could win only once in their own cozy, stop-sign-shaped, noisy playpen. Now they have to do the kind of impossible those Nats did. If they can.

They have to win Game Six Saturday and then Game Seven Sunday. And if Game Five is evidence, they won’t get it without putting up a terrific battle. Better than the battle between the two that ended in a squeaker of a 3-2 Astros win Thursday night. Better than they were built to be.

Better than just half a collection of sluggers and a bullpen that can hang with any bullpen in the business. And enough to keep the Astros from saving themselves—until a forgotten Astro at first base and an Astro outfielder who grew up a Phillies fan saved the Astros’ lives in the bottom of the Game Five eighth and ninth, respectively.

Trey Mancini was a trade deadline acquisition from the Orioles but an 0-for-18 afterthought this postseason. Chas McCormick grew up 35 miles from Citizens Bank Park and never forgot the bloody nose then-Phillies outfielder Aaron Rowand incurred making a similar catch against the center field fence.

Mancini now found himself at first base after Astros veteran Yuli Gurriel had to come out a half inning after a collision resulting in a rundown out as he got trapped between third and the plate also resulted in a woozy head. With two out and Astros closer Ryan Pressly asked for an almost unheard-of-for-him five-out save, Kyle Schwarber loomed at the plate.

Schwarber electrified the ballpark in the bottom of the first when, with the Astros up 1-0 already, he drilled an 0-1 pitch from starter Justin Verlander into the right field seats to tie it. Now, with two out, first and third, and the Phillies back to within a run in the bottom of the eighth, Schwarber drilled one up the first base line on a single hop. The shot had extra bases down the line and the tying run home at least stamped on it.

Until it didn’t. Playing practically on the line as it was, Mancini hit his knees like a supplicant in prayer and the ball shot right into his mitt. While he was there, Mancini stepped on the pad. Side retired. In one flash Mancini went from self-made afterthought to the Astros’ man of the hour.

It’d take something even more stupefying to rob Mancini of that status. “That ball gets by him,” Pressly said postgame, “we’re looking at a different game.”

Something even more stupefying came along in the bottom of the ninth. When Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto sent Pressly’s 1-1 slider high and far toward the right center field scoreboard wall, with at least a double and likely more the likely result, the wall notorious for creating odd rebounds.

Until it wasn’t. Until McCormick ran to his left, took a flying leap, and snapped the ball into his glove a second before he hit the wall and landed on the track, the ball still securely in his glove, and by his own postgame admission stared up at whatever he could see of the Bank crowd he’d just snapped silent.

“I wanted to lay there longer,” he admitted postgame. “If it were the last out, I would have laid there all night.”

Pressly’s jaw fell as he saw McCormick nail the catch. As he remembered after the game, the only thing he could think as his hands clutched his head in wonder was, “Holy [you-know-what].”

Until that moment, the Astros and the Phillies wrestled and tussled like alley cats all Game Five long. The bad news was that the Phillies, the Show’s best on the season with runners in scoring position, extended to a third-longest World Series string of 0-for-20 with men in such position.

“[S]ometimes you go through times when you don’t hit with runners in scoring position,” said Phillies manager Rob Thomson postgame. “Then, three days later, everybody’s getting hits. So we just got to keep battling, that’s all.”

The Phillies can’t wait three days for hits. They have two days before it might be curtains. Three days maximum, after squandering what half the world thought would be the remarkable and ear-splitting home field advantage they’d stolen with a Series-opening split in Houston.

The worse news Thursday began when Astros’ rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña started the scoring when he singled up the pipe to send Jose Altuve (leadoff double, taking third on Phillies center fielder Brandon Marsh’s carom bobble) home in the top of the first.

After Schwarber’s ballpark-jolting bomb leading off the bottom, both sides wrestled each other’s starting pitchers, Verlander and Noah Syndergaard, into and out of a few more dicey jams—especially the Phillies loading the bases on Verlander with two out in the second before the future Hall of Fame righthander struck Rhys Hoskins out swinging rather violently.

Syndergaard settled admirably after the first inning run and until Syndergaard—who’d settled admirably after the first run and retired nine straight from that score forward. Verlander escaped another jam in the third, which might have been another bases-loaded escape but for Peña leaping to steal a base hit off Nick Castellanos’s hard liner, but after Alec Bohm spanked a single past shortstop to follow, Verlander got Phillies shortstop Bryson Stott to pop out to right for the side.

But Syndergaard—no longer the bullet-throwing Thor of old thanks to injuries, illnesses, and finally Tommy John surgery—ran out of luck in the top of the fourth, when Peña sent a 1-2 service into the left field seats. Connor Brogdon relieved him and shook off Alex Bregman’s one-out double while striking out the side.

Verlander pitched as clean a fourth as you could ask of a 39-year-old righthander with or without his particular career resume, then had to perform another escape act in the fifth after striking two out to open. Bryce Harper lined one to deep right that Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker bobbled toward the corner, ensuring Harper’s double. Castellanos wrestled Verlander to a full count before popping out to left center for the side.

From there, the bullpens wrestled each other. Then, top of the seventh, came Gurriel’s leadoff double. One out and a wild pitch later came McCormick with Gurriel on third. McCormick bounced one to third, with the infield in, and beginning with Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm they had Gurriel trapped like the top man on the FBI’s old ten most wanted list.

Bohm threw to Realmuto. Realmuto threw to Stott. Stott threw to first baseman Hoskins joining the party just in case, and Hoskins reached to tag Gurriel while tumbling over the veteran Astro. Gurriel landed awkwardly on his right knee as it was, but Hoskins’s knee on the tumble also jolted Gurriel’s head.

The elder first baseman—whose string of 48 straight postseason plate appearances without striking out ended at Brogdon’s hands in the fourth—managed to play his position in the top of the eighth but that was all he had left after the collision. “A little pain,” the sleepy-eyed first baseman tweeted postgame, A little pain but the win made my knee feel better fast . . . I will get some treatment to get ready for Saturday, thank you for the well wishes.”

But Altuve and Peña partnered on building the third Astro run in the top of the eighth, Altuve with a leadoff walk off Phillies reliever Seranthony Dominguez, and Peña shooting a base hit through the infield the other way to right, Altuve running on the pitch and helping himself to third easily. David Robertson relieved Dominguez but could only watch helplessly as Hoskins knocked Alvarez’s grounder up the line down and tag the Astro left fielder out while Altuve scampered home.

The best Robertston could do in the inning was keep the damage to a single run. He couldn’t stop the Astros’ defensive acrobatics in the bottom of the eighth and ninth. Nobody could. And even after McCormick’s robbery of Realmuto in the bottom of the ninth, the Phillies weren’t dead yet.

Pressly hit Harper in the foot on a 2-1 pitch. Up stepped Castellanos, who’d spent much of the game keeping his free-swinging in check and timing himself to a few hard hit outs and, then, the eighth-inning walk that turned into him scoring the second Phillies run on Jean Segura’s opposite-field base hit.

Now he wrestled Pressly to a full count with the Bank crowd as loud as conceivable. Then he bounced one to shortstop. Peña picked it clean, threw to first even more clean, and the Astros had it in the Bank. And Verlander—whom the Phillies abused in Game One—got credit for his first World Series win. Ever.

He’d sported an 0-6 won-lost record in the Series lifetime until Thursday night. And he  admitted postgame that Schwarber’s leadoff launch—the first such homer ever by a Phillie in postseason play—woke him up post haste.

“[A]s a starting pitcher, been there, done that,” Verlander told reporters after shaking off a particularly profound rookie-style celebratory shower in the clubhouse and savouring every moment of it. “It just sucks because of the moment and obviously all the questions and weight.

“You have to rely on the hundreds of starts and thousands of pitches I’ve thrown before and just kind of say, OK, I’ve given up leadoff home runs before,” the righthander continued. “It’s not going to be indicative of what’s going to happen the rest of this game, by any means. Let’s see what happens.”

What happened from there handed Verlander a win as moral as it was baseball and the Astros a Series return ticket home. And the Phillies—who’d gotten thatclose to fully avenging their having been no-hit in Game Four—another challenge to meet and conquer. If they can.

“What’s a better storybook ending than if we can go there and win this in Game Seven?” Castellanos asked postgame, well aware that the Phillies need to win Game Six first. So did the 2019 Nationals, in a Series in which neither team won at home but the Nats had to win the four they won in the Astros’ noisy-enough cape.

“We’re here, I think, because we trusted ourselves this far,” said Hoskins thoughtfully enough. “I don’t see why there is any reason to change that.”

They’re going to need that if they want just to come out of Game Six alive enough to play one more day. These Astros won’t exactly let them have it without making them work shields up, phasers on stun, for every degree of it.

The Red Sox need to receive, not send messages

Rafael Devers

Rafael Devers’s 4-for-6 Sunday—including a two-run single and another RBI single—helped the Red Sox bury the Royals. Where were days like these from others when the Red Sox needed them most?

When the Orioles sent Trey Mancini to the Astros in a three-way deal at the trade deadline, it looked like general manager Mike Elias pushed the plunger on the season despite the team rising back from the dead. No less than Baseball Prospectus described the popular Mancini as “the heart and soul of a franchise long depleted of either.”

Well, Mancini’s now guaranteed a trip to the postseason with the Astros having clinched a postseason berth at minimum (wrapping up the American League West is just a formality waiting to happen for them) . . . and the Orioles remain within sight of a wild card entry, a mere four games back of the Mariners for the league’s fourth wild card.

Nobody really wanted to see Mancini leave Baltimore, not even Elias despite his word-salad explanation of the deal. Not in the Oriole clubhouse, not in the Camden Yards stands. But candor requires us to own up and admit the Mancini deal wasn’t popular but neither did it prove disastrous. It’s been how long since the Orioles finished seasons with winning records?

The Orioles may end up falling short, but they put on a show of self-revival that portends well for their 2023 and shows what teams can do despite losing well loved members to the business’s actualities. There are teams who would do very well to pay attention, listen, and learn.

The team in Boston, for example.

It sent the Red Sox clubhouse into a wrench when backup catcher Kevin Plawecki was designated for assignment late last Friday night and released officially Monday. On Sunday, after the mostly moribund Red Sox ironed up and smothered the Royals 13-3, the players bathed the joint with Plawecki’s walk-up song, “Dancing on My Own.” That’d send the message, right?

What message? The message that it’s not nice to send a popular clubhouse guy packing? The message that it’s not nice to cut a guy loose who kept the club loose amid disaster and started the laundry-cart dugout ride for home runs with them even if he didn’t get to take the ride himself too often? The message that the front office just doesn’t get it?

How about whether the Red Sox didn’t need to be sending but receiving messages? Such messages as yes, the front office Lucys got some splainin’ to do but so do the players. They got some splainin’ to do about what NBC Sports Boston’s John Tomase calls “this undercurrent of victimization and grievance that has left the clubhouse feeling like it plays no part in the results on the field.”

We saw it in the mopey reaction to the trade of catcher Christian Vazquez, whose replacement, Reese McGuire, has significantly outperformed him, it must be noted. We saw it a year earlier when trade deadline reinforcements didn’t arrive quickly enough, even though Kyle Schwarber ended up keying a run to the American League Championship Series. And we’re seeing it now with Plawecki, a fine backup and veteran presence who isn’t the issue here.

The issue is the reaction of players who seem unwilling to accept responsibility for their role in this disappointing campaign. When right-hander Nathan Eovaldi tells WEEI.com’s Rob Bradford the clubhouse misses presences like Schwarber, Plawecki, and Hunter Renfroe, it comes off as a direct dig at Bloom’s priorities. But how about Eovaldi fills that gap? We’re still talking about a veteran-laden roster, after all. From Xander Bogaerts to J.D. Martinez to Rafael Devers to Kiké Hernández to Nick Pivetta to the dearly departed Vazquez, the Red Sox did not lack for experienced, winning players.

So where were they when the season started going south in July? They never stanched the bleeding, even though within their very own division, the Rays survived the loss of burgeoning superstar Wander Franco, Gold Glove center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, All-Star catcher Mike Zunino, ace relievers Andrew Kittredge and J.P. Feyereisen, and potential future ace Shane Baz, among others. They currently trail the Blue Jays by only half a game for the first wild card.

The Rays didn’t give up when injuries hit, but the Red Sox did, rendering the final eight weeks of the season meaningless.

It might now seem an Eighth Amendment violation to remind the Olde Towne Team now. It wasn’t that long ago when their age-old rivals from the south Bronx went to back-to-back postseasons despite being hit with injury bugs so pronounced you’d have thought their games were episodes of Bones, Grey’s Anatomy, and House, and that The New England Journal of Medicine was really the Yankee yearbook.

I get it. Plawecki wasn’t a world beater at the plate or behind it; his usual role seemed to have been as the catcher of choice for starting pitchers Eovaldi and Michael Wacha, their two best starters when they’re not injured. Above and beyond that, Plawecki was one of the cast of Show characters who play roles unseen on the field.

“The Plaweckis of the world,” writes the Boston Globe‘s Jon Couture, “get teams through the grind, help rookies adjust, and are beloved for their conscientiousness and camaraderie. They’re needed. Thus, the pointed reaction for an end-of-the-roster guy.” (Thus, too, the likeliest reason the Rangers are interested in the now-free Plawecki and might even sign him today.)

Tomase gets it, too, but only to a particular valid extent. “Recognizing the temperature of the locker room is a necessary management skill,” he writes, “and at times the Red Sox could do a better job of communicating decisions to the rank and file.”

But we often go too far in castigating this move or that as harmful to the delicate clubhouse ecosystem.

Sometimes the players just need to man up and admit that management doesn’t owe them anything, because they did not honor their half of the bargain. Sometimes their performance leaves the boss no choice but to cut their buddy because he’s not part of the future. Sometimes next year matters more than this one.

Castigate Bloom as you wish for this unmade move or that unmade move or the other move that backfired. Fair enough. But when Tomase says the Red Sox players left Bloom little enough choice this year but to play wait-till-next-year, too (or wait-till-last-year, considering their reinforced run to the ALCS), he’s not just writing through his chapeau.

Lucky for the Red Sox they’ve got more 21st Century World Series rings than anyone else in the Show so far. Before that, a season such as this would have been written off as just another entry in the long log of rotten Red Sox malfortune. Who would have thought that the Orioles of all people would end up better off and with more respect approaching the finish line?

Beltway bombshells—Soto, Mancini go west

Juan Soto

Juan Soto stole the show in Game One of the 2019 World Series and helped his Nats reach the Promised Land. That was then, this is now, and the still-top-flight Soto is a young man going west to San Diego . . .

The Big One dropped, in both directions on opposite coasts. The Nationals, who’ve gone from surrealistic World Series champion and National League East powerhouse to hell in a little over two and a half years, traded what should have stayed a franchise foundation to the Padres, the National League West contenders who often enough mistake splash for sustenance.

Juan Soto goes West the day after it turned out he’d end his Nats tenure with a bang, throwing Tomas Nido out at the plate to keep the Mets to a mere three-run top of the second, and crunching his former teammate Max Scherzer’s 1-1 fastball for a leadoff home run in the bottom of the fourth en route a 7-3 loss to the Mets. It won’t make it easier for Nats fans to swallow this.

Soto became expendable when he turned down a $440 million extension that looked stupid-fat on paper while packaged to deny him the thing he wanted most. He wanted ten years and got them. He wanted the total dollars and got them. He didn’t get the highest annual average value the way the packaged was packed.

Maybe Soto was foolish taking the all-or-nothing stance. But maybe the Nats were just as foolish, with or without a pending potential ownership change, to decline making even that small enough adjustment. Standing just as all-or-nothing, with Soto not due to hit free agency for the first time until 2025, the Nats decided even the next Ted Williams was expendable.

Stop laughing at the Ted Williams comparisons. Only five hitters through age 23 have higher OPSes than Soto does: Williams, fellow Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Stan Musial, and Hall of Famers to be Albert Pujols and Mike Trout. The order from the top is Williams, Cobb, Trout, Musial, and Pujols. His June slump leaves his season so far not quite as good as his priors, but rehorsing himself last month restored Soto on the way back where he belongs.

But if he had a fat enough hand in the Nats’ 2019 in-season resurrection from the outhouse to the Promised Land, will it be fat enough to push the Padres to the Promised Land at last? Baseball’s worst kept secret is that Padres general manager A.J. Preller has a genius for trades equal to Soto’s big swings and nothing much to show for them.

Oh, he’s managed to land some of the bigger fish on the trade market in exchange for high-rated prospects who haven’t yet returned to take a big bite out of his hind quarters for the most part—if you don’t count Trea Turner. (Nat turned Dodger.) But there’s always a real first time. Isn’t there?

He’s run the Padres eight seasons, delivered such blockbuster trade acquisitions, at the in-season deadline or the offseason, as Mike Clevinger, Jake Cronenworth, Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove, Blake Snell, and Fernando Tatis, Jr., the Padres haven’t yet gone to any full-season postseason. (They reached the National League division series during pan-damn-ic short 2020.)

And he may be lucky that his incumbent first baseman Eric Hosmer declining to waive his no-trade clause to move to Washington didn’t kill the Soto deal. Hosmer has declined so precipitously since becoming a Padre as a free agent that, if Preller wants to get the rest of his due salary off the San Diego books, he’ll have to move yet another good prospect to do it if he finds a team willing to take Hosmer on.

Then, again, as USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale notes, Soto locked in through 2025 has another upside: in the unlikely event the Padres still can’t cross the threshold, Preller can still find a way to flip him on behalf of bringing other delicious-looking prospects back for a team and organisational renewal.

If there’s good news for the Nats, it’s getting five prospects in return for Soto and Josh Bell, with all five rated somewhat higher than the haul they took back from the Dodgers in exchange for Max the Knife and Trea Twinkletoes. But if there’s worse news for the Nats, it’s the number one problem with prospects: No matter how highly rated, they’re just prospects who might or might not cut it fully as Show players.

If they do cut it, it’ll take the sting out of losing a bona fide franchise player only if their cutting it turns into another world championship or two. If they don’t, this one’s liable to sting for Nats fans as long and as deep as such historically notorious purgings as Brock for Broglio, Ryan for Fregosi, Seaver for a quartet that sounds more like a law firm—Flynn, Henderson, Norman, and Zachry—than team reinforcements.

This wasn’t even the top deal of the day when it comes to breaking fan hearts. It’s not that Nat fans weren’t wringing hands and drying tears once they first knew Soto became expendable, but Oriole fans in the throes of seeing an unlikely revival enough to put the team right into the wild card hunt from almost out of nowhere hurt even more losing Trey Mancini.

Hours before Soto moved west, Mancini’s ticket to the Astros was punched in a three-way deal sending promising but inconsistent outfielder Jose Siri from the Astros to the Rays, pitcher Chayce McDermott from the Astros to the Orioles, and pitchers Jayden Murray and Seth Johnson from the Rays to the Orioles.

Trey Mancini

Trey Mancini tipping his cap to Oriole fans after what proved his final home game in Baltimore—he goes somewhat west now, to the Astros.

For Mancini it’s a terribly mixed blessing. One moment he goes from a home ballpark whose left field fence was moved back far enough to cut his power production at home to a ballpark with a short enough porch that he’d have hit over twice the ten bombs he has on the season so far. But he also says goodbye to a mutual love affair between himself and a city starving for the days when the Orioles were consistently great, year-after-year.

His agreeable personality and his courageous fight to beat colon cancer two years ago endeared him even further to Oriole fans than his live bat. As Baseball Prospectus observes, “Mancini . . . was the heart and soul of a franchise long depleted of either.”

The depletion may include Orioles general manager Mike Elias, who offered one of the most cacophonous explanations ever heard after a team struggling to return to greatness unloads a highly popular and franchise-valuable player:

The winning last couple of months that we have, the momentum we have, has made this a much more difficult decision and a much more complicated trade deadline than it would have been or that any of the past ones have been.But ultimately, I have to tether my decisions to the outlook and the probabilities of this year. We have a shot at a wild card right now but it is not a probability that we’re going to win a wild card.

Translation: In one deal and one bowl of word salad whose flavour no dressing on earth could improve, Elias as much as told Oriole fans he’s pushing the proverbial plunger on both this season whole and his team’s gallant, almost-from-nowhere re-entry into the postseason picture, however much distance the Orioles might still have to travel to get there.

Maybe Elias is still building for the nearest future after all. But maybe something could have been done without making the Orioles’ heart and soul the proverbial sacrificial lamb. Could, and should. “He’s the nicest human I’ve ever met,” says Orioles first baseman Ryan Mountcastle, a sentiment that seems to be common in the Oriole clubhouse and Baltimore itself.

Until today, people were even willing to bet on the Orioles having a phenomenal enough shot of reaching in. Now they’re uttering a couple of four letter words, one of which is the vulgar synonym for fornicate and the other a word meaning either a large receptacle for holding gas, an armoured attack vehicle, or taking a dive. Three guesses which meaning Orioles (and Nats) fans think applies.

“Teams liked to claim that captains were no longer necessary because one player shouldn’t be elevated above his teammates,” BP says, “but also, that same force made one player essentially untradable. If someone is designated the heart of a team, you can’t cut him out. Their value might go to waste.”

The region of the nation’s capital has taken enough blows that have knocked the wind out of its belly in the last few years. The Nationals and the Orioles, both of whom enjoy substantial capital followings, have told them, basically, “What’s two more sucker punches among friends?”