NLCS Game Six: The Braves’ new world

Eddie Rosario

Eddie Rosario hits the three-run homer that proved the game/set/NLCS winner for the Braves. (TBS screen capture.)

You thought Yordan Alvarez was the force the Red Sox couldn’t stop in the American League Championship Series? Have a good, long look at Eddie Rosario, the force the Dodgers couldn’t stop in the National League Championship Series.

There should be some interesting showdowns in the forthcoming World Series. When each LCS Most Valuable Player threatens to throw every round of ammunition they have, including cruise missiles, at each other’s pitching and defenses. If Alvarez and Rosario stay as they just were, they’ll make World War II resemble a snowball fight.

Rosario’s three-run homer off Walker Buehler in the bottom of the fourth Saturday night, and the Braves bullpen—especially AJ Minter and Tyler Matzek—throwing five one-run, ten-strikeout, one-walk innings, sent the Braves to the World Series with a 4-2 win. The regular season’s least-winning division winner buried the season’s second-winningest team.

Maybe the Astros don’t resemble such overdogs after all? Maybe this year’s Braves resemble not on-paper favourites but a miracle team?

Wrestled by the Dodgers out of last year’s short-season, ghoulash-playoff National League pennant. Buried a game under .500 at this year’s All-Star break. Then spending the second half playing .611 baseball while most of the rest of the National League East—which wasn’t all that powerful in the first place—dissipated. The Astros were .604 at the break but .563 in the second half.

Now the Braves stand as National League champions with a legitimate shot at taking the Astros down. They manhandled the Dodgers when it mattered most Saturday night. They didn’t let a little thing like getting blown out 11-2 in Game Five to lose twice in three games in Dodger Stadium bother them all that much.

“We’re up 3-2, and we’re going home,” said Braves first baseman and franchise face Freddie Freeman after Game Five. “It’s a great position to be in.” The guy whose eighth-inning division series Game Four blast off Brewers relief ace Josh Hader made the NLCS possible for the Braves in the first place sounded like an incurable optimist then. After Game Six, he sounds like a prophet.

But he put any prophetic powers he had to one side in the middle of the Braves’ postgame celebration. “I think this might be the definition of pure joy,” he said. “It really is. I really don’t, it hasn’t hit me at all. I don’t really know how to feel.”

Rosario know exactly how to feel, especially after he caught hold of Buehler’s dangling cutter with Travis d’Arnaud (two-out walk) and pinch hitter Ehire Adrianza (two-out double) on second and lined it a few seats inside the right field foul pole. “It’s truly a great moment,” Rosario said amidst the celebration, “not just in my career, but in my life as well, but I want more. I want to win the World Series.”

He was one of three mid-season trades Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos delivered when the Braves resembled the walking dead. They’d lost young superman Ronald Acuna, Jr. for the year to a torn ACL. They’d lost young pitching comer Mike Soroka to an Achilles tendon blowout after nine months rehabbing its original tear. They’d lost bombardier Marcell Ozuna to domestic violence issues and administrative leave.

Only one man around or observing the Braves decided there was still something worth saving. Anthopolous brought in Rosario from the Indians plus former Dodger Joc Pederson from the Cubs, Adam Duvall from the Marlins, and Jorge Soler from the Royals.

Pederson made himself enough of a pain in the rump roast casting a string of pearls before swine against his former team with his NLCS heroics at the plate. But even Anthopolous couldn’t have predicted Rosario—traded from the Indians for faded early-season pinch-hitting wonder Pablo Sandoval; the guy who came to the Braves injured and unable to play until 28 August—would steal the show and the set in the end.

“It’s still not lost on any of us that we didn’t accomplish our goal,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts postgame. “But for me, I’m giving credit to the Braves, because they outplayed us, plain and simple.”

The Dodgers knew going in that winning Game Six Saturday night would be on wings and prayers almost regardless of the opponent. Especially after Max Scherzer’s wing still remained dead enough to keep him from starting the game. Especially having to put the ball into Buehler’s wing on three days’ rest for only the second time in his young and promising career and this postseason.

They couldn’t afford a bullpen game so close to the one that hoisted them while they blew the Braves out in Game Five. But for three innings Buehler looked more than capable of keeping the Braves at bay, other than Austin Riley’s ground rule RBI double in the bottom of the first.

“I could tell when I was warming up that it was still tired,” Scherzer said after his Game Six scratch. The concern is “arm fatigue.” Historically, “arm fatigue” or “shoulder fatigue” have proven too often that they’re euphemisms for more serious issues. Late Saturday we learned Max the Knife said he’d be good to go for starting Game Seven.

Could it be our boy’d done something rash? The Dodgers still had to get there first. So much for that idea.

Scherzer’s trade deadline acquisition from the Nationals along with shortstop Trea Turner helped secure the Dodgers’ postseason arrival in the first place. Now, no matter what Buehler had starting Saturday night, the Dodgers’ streak of seven straight postseason elimination wins started Game Six close to final jeopardy.

Even allowing their injury quotient, they’d played like minor leaguers in most of the first four NLCS games. Chris Taylor almost singlehandedly yanked them back to the majors with his three-bomb Game Five.

Even if they managed to make the Braves look somewhere between silly and foolish in that game, by way of a bullpen worn down to their own winging prayers, and a jack-of-most-trades who’d hit about half his own weight down the final season stretch but who suddenly resembled what used to be his Hall of Famer-in-waiting teammate Albert Pujols.

These Dodgers couldn’t afford much of anything entering Saturday. They entered the postseason without first baseman Max Muncy thanks to his dislocated elbow and without longtime pitching ace Clayton Kershaw thanks to an elbow strain, and Dustin May to Tommy John surgery.

They’d lost reliever Joe Kelly to an injured bicep and third baseman Justin Turner to a hamstring injury during the NLCS. Both were considered gone for the rest of the postseason, however long it might last for the team that won 106 regular-season games—but still had to win the wild card game before the division series triumph that put them here at all.

Dodger fans approaching Game Six wanted to think, “They have us right where we want them,” even in Atlanta. It turned out the Dodgers had the Braves right where the Braves wanted whatever remained of Los Angeles’s Blue Man Group.

It didn’t have to be a plunge. It had only to be Minter relieving starter Ian Anderson and pitching four-strikeout, three-up/three-down ball in the fifth and the sixth. It had only—and especially—to be Matzek, walking into a second-and-third, nobody-out Dodger fire, after A.J. Pollock doubled the second and final Dodger run home . . . and striking out the side on eleven pitches. Including the Mookie Monster on three straight, ending the last serious Dodger threat of the night.

The night before, Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi bulled his way out of a bases-loaded jam in Houston by striking out the side. The difference was that Eovaldi stuck his landing while his offense remained sound asleep. Matzek stuck his landings with a two-run lead to protect and hand off.

He dispatched the Dodgers three-and-three in the eighth, handed Braves reliever Will Smith the two run lead, and watched with a packed Truist Park as Smith struck out the first two before getting Pollock to end it with a ground out to shortstop.

Once upon a time, Matzek was a Rockies washout who had to re-invent his pitching career with the independent leagues’ Texas AirHog. Now he’d blown what air was left out of the Dodgers’ tires. With his room for error about the size of a linen closet.

“My job is simple,” the beefy lefthander said after the game. “It’s go ahead, get out there and just try to strike guys out . . . I can’t let a pop up or a ground ball go through. I am looking to get those guys out and strike them out. It’s a simple job. Just go out there and throw my best stuff and I was lucky that my best stuff worked tonight.”

Just about all the Braves’ best stuff worked Saturday night. Just about none of the Dodgers’ did.

Especially against that mid-season pluck from the Indians who just nailed a 1.647 OPS for the entire NLCS, with a posteason series record-tying fourteen hits, nine runs driven in, three home runs including two in Game Four, two four-hit games, plus the base hit that walked a second straight Braves win off in Game Two.

This is a National League champion who didn’t even reach the .500 level until 6 August. They broke the record for the latest .500 reach by three days. The previous record holder was a team that went on to win the pennant and sweep the World Series. You may have heard of them: the 1914 Miracle Braves.

Sometimes things that happen to be in your franchise DNA take awhile to manifest. For the not-so-miraculous Astros awaiting the World Series showdown, that may not prove to be a good thing. It may well depend upon which half of Yordan and Eddie Tonight proves the bigger performer.

They may not have the Hall of Fame power (pitchers Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz; third baseman Chipper Jones) of the last Braves World Series team. But there shouldn’t be anyone calling this year’s Braves flukish now.

Freeman frees the Braves to await their NLCS opponent

Freddie Freeman

Jubilant Freddie Freeman approaches the plate to finish the eighth-inning bomb that held up to win the NLDS for the Braves Tuesday night.

Maybe it didn’t have quite the last-split-second hair raising quotient that the Red Sox’s final two American League division series wins had. But it wasn’t any less dramatic for Freddie Freeman and his Braves in winning their National League division series Tuesday.

Freeman’s eighth-inning tiebreaking home run off Brewers relief ace Josh Hader turned out the finishing blow in a set during which both teams scored as many runs in the first three games as they ended up scoring in Game Four alone.

What made the bomb so luminous, too, was that it was only the second time in the whole 145-year history of the franchise that any Brave delivered what proved a postseason series-winning hit in the eighth or later. It took one season shy of three decades for Freeman’s homer to join Francisco Cabrera’s National League Championship Series-winning base hit. (The fabled Sid Bream mad-broken-bodied-dash.)

“I’ve had a lot of cool moments in my career,” Freeman said postgame, “but so far I think that’s going to top them right there. But hopefully that’s not the last cool one.” Right now, nobody’s willing to bet too heavily against either Freeman or his Braves. Yet.

You heard all season long about this or that team being wracked by injuries and surrealities? Few had to compensate as heavily as the Braves did. Too many teams losing their number-two franchise player, one of their best young pitchers, and a reliable other power bat might have collapsed like a blimp.

The Braves lost Ronald Acuna, Jr. thanks to a torn ACL making a play in center field. They lost Mike Soroko after his Achilles tendon blew out in May—after nine months’ rehab following its initial 2020 tear. They looked as though their season had paid put to hit without once seeing .500.

They lost Marcell Ozuna when the outfielder/bombardier was arrested for domestic violence in July—charged first with felonious aggravated assault and attempted strangulation, charges reduced to misdemeanor simple assault and battery, on administrative leave through the end of the Braves’ season, after he entered a diversion program.

When Acuna went down, and the Braves more or less sputtered into and past the All-Star break, general manager Alex Anthopoulos made his first move, bringing former Dodger Joc Pederson aboard from the Cubs in exchange for a minor league prospect.

That was Pederson pinch hitting for Braves reliever Luke Jackson in the Game One eighth and hitting a solo home run off Brewers reliever Adrian Houser for the only Braves run in the only series loss. That was also Pederson in Game Three, pinch hitting for Braves starter Ian Anderson, facing Houser again, and launching the three-run homer that proved the only Game Three scoring.

Houser may start seeing Pederson in his sleep. The Braves just want to keep seeing him mash. Even if he got the Game Four start as his reward and had to settle for pushing home the first of the two runs that tied things at four with a ground out to second base.

Freeman thinks landing Pederson merely began the Braves’ reversal. “When Alex went out and got Joc,” he said, “it brought a sense of energy that it just showed us that they still believed in us, to go add at the deadline.” Which is exactly what Anthopolous did. He nailed three 30 July trades to bring Jorge Soler from the Royals, Adam Duvall from the Marlins, and Eddie Rosario from the Guardians-to-be.

The NL East wasn’t a powerful division to begin with. But the longtime-leading Mets imploded, the Nationals hit the reset button, and the Phillies proved just short of being able to hold on. In Atlanta, as proverbially and poetically as feasible, that which didn’t destroy the Braves only made them stronger.

They went 36-19 to finish the regular season, including a too-simple-seeming sweep of the Phillies opening the final week to keep them from finishing what they threatened awhile to do and overthrow the Braves. They even shook off Soler’s COVID diagnosis entering the postseason. Now they’ve dispatched a Brewers team that won seven more regular-season games to lead an only slightly stronger NL Central.

They’re waiting to see who’ll be the last men standing between the Dodgers and the Giants, after the Dodgers tied that division series in Los Angeles Tuesday night in an all-Dodgers/all-the-time 7-2 win.

The game was a still-manageable 2-0 Dodger lead, with the Giants compelled to a bullpen game against a short-rested but deadly effective Walker Buehler, when Mookie Betts checked in in the fourth against Jarlin Garcia—after Buehler himself led off by reaching on an infield error.

“It’s not something we want to do all the time,” said Buehler about going on only three days rest, “but I felt that if things didn’t go our way [in the third game], I would feel really weird not pitching a game that we could lose a series.”

He didn’t have to worry. Until he surrendered a leadoff single to Evan Longoria and a one-out walk to Steven Duggar in the fifth, Buehler pitched stoutly and had to shake only one previous first-and-second spot of trouble away in the second. He even had the Giants slightly flummoxed when he went to his changeup a little more often than they were accustomed to seeing from him.

When the Mookie Monster parked an 0-1 pitch into the right center field bleachers, it suddenly seemed a question not of whether but by how big the Dodgers would take the game. An inning later, Betts sent Cody Bellinger home with a sacrifice fly deep to left center field. But Dodger catcher Will Smith—just call him the Fresh Prince of Dodger Stadium—squared off against Giants reliever Jake McGee with Corey Seager aboard (leadoff line single) and hit the first pitch over the left center field fence.

The Giants looked so overmatched in Game Four that their only two runs scored on ground outs, one with the bases loaded. That was Evan Longoria scoring on Darin Ruf’s grounder to second. The other was Brandon Crawford coming home in the eighth when Kris Bryant grounded one to the hole at third.

Buehler’s short-rest deliverance plus the Dodgers’ bats ensured Julio Urias on regular rest starting Game Five against Logan Webb in San Francisco Thursday. For the Braves, that’s going to be very must-see television. Which is what it already was on the left coast and elsewhere.

For the Brewers, it’s a too-early winter vacation after their pitching virtuosity proved futile against the disappearance of their bats. Christian Yelich’s back injury-abetted struggles continued in the division series, and while the Braves didn’t exactly bring the walls crumbling down the Brewers hit a measly .192 in the set—32 points below the Braves.

They did get beaten in the end when the Braves’ best batter launched against their best pitcher in the Game Four eighth. Starting Eric Lauer for Game Four because ace Corbin Burnes said he wasn’t feeling one hundred percent proved a mistake, and so did manager Craig Counsell not bringing Brandon Woodruff in earlier in higher-leverage.

But then here’s where the Brewers’ best bats fell too short. Avisail Garcia? Eight strikeouts, only two hard-hit balls, and two singles in fifteen at-bats. Kolten Wong? Five strikeouts, likewise only two hard-hit balls, and one single in fifteen at-bats. Willy Adames? Five hits in seventeen at-bats—four singles and a double, plus nine strikeouts and only three balls hit hard.

That’s why the Brewers pitched the division series like Hall of Famers—their three starters Burnes, Woodruff, and Luis Peralta showed a collective 1.56 ERA and 0.92 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, not to mention nineteen strikeouts in 17.1 innings pitched—but the Braves still took them out sweeping three after a Game One Brewers win.

“The vibe is the best that we ever had in this series,” Adames said before Game Four. “Today, the guys, I guess they woke up in a great mood. They came with energy. And I feel today we had the best vibe that we’ve had so far this series so far.”

The trouble was that the Brewers went in with the best vibes but the Braves played them as if they were jazz vibes legend Milt Jackson hammering out another virtuoso chorus of “Bags’ Groove.” Now the Braves wait to see who gets bagged in San Francisco Thursday night.

“Remember 1951?” OK, you asked for it.

The Shot Heard 'Round the World

No, Giants fan, you do not want anyone  remembering the Mugging at Coogan’s Bluff.

This one’s for the Giants fan[s] who hoisted a large, stylish enough sign showing a flying baseball and the words, “Remember ’51,” in Oracle Park Friday night. Whomever you are, allow me to assure you that the last thing you want anyone remembering is 1951.

I get it. You’re remembering the Giants mounting a staggering pennant race comeback from thirteen games out of first place around mid-August to force a playoff against the Dodgers for the 1951 National League pennant.

You’re remembering Ralph Branca relieving Don Newcombe and pitching to Bobby Thomson. You’re remembering, especially through that flying baseball image, Thomson turning on Branca’s 0-1 fastball and depositing it into the lower deck of the Polo Grounds’ left field seats.

You’re remembering The Shot Heard ‘Round the World. You’re remembering Giants broadcaster Russ Hodges going out of his mind screaming The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!

In the thrill of history’s hour Friday night, the 107 game-winning National League West champion Giants and the 106 game-winning National League wild card Dodgers finally met in a proper postseason for the first time ever in their long, ancient, rivalrous history together.

That was then: A pair of pennant playoffs between each other, under the ancient baseball regimes, in 1951 and 1962, both won by the Giants. This was Friday night: The Giants won division series Game One, 4-0, in which the Dodgers weren’t even a quarter of the kind of tenacious and energetic they’d been in beating the Cardinals at the last minute in the wild card game.

Giants second-full-season starter Logan Webb out-pitched the Dodgers four-full-season veteran Walker Buehler. Webb deployed his impressive collection of breaking balls and changeups to catch the Dodgers off-balance, sometimes asleep. Buehler struggled to find a handle but managed to endure after Buster Posey—the last Giant standing from their 2010, 2012, and 2014 World Series winners—sent a two-run homer ricocheting off the back of a Levi’s Landing column into McCovey Cove in the bottom of the first.

By the time Buehler found his handle, he got to exercise it only long enough for another former World Series champion, Kris Bryant (2016 Cubs, a Giant since this year’s trade deadline), to park one into the left field seats to open the bottom of the seventh. With Buehler out of the game after one out in that inning, Brandon Crawford hit one into the center field bullpen with two outs against a second Dodger reliever, Alex Vesia, in the bottom of the eighth.

So, yes, the Giants opened decisively enough and impressively enough Friday night. Now, back to you, Giant fan with the “Remember ’51” sign. I saw the sign, in a brief moment on the TBS telecast early in the game. They didn’t show it again all night but it stuck in my head well into Saturday morning.

You don’t really want the rest of baseball world to remember what you might actually hope the thrill of history’s hour now might compel it to forget. Here’s a hint: The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!

The 2017 Astros weren’t baseball’s first cheating champions by a long Shot. Come to think of it, neither were the 1951 Giants. But since you brought it up with that stylish-looking sign, gather around and allow me to ask.

Do you really want us to remember again what ’51 Giants manager Leo Durocher hatched after he discovered his recently-acquired spare part, Hank Schenz, owned a hand-held Wollensak spy glass—and had used it to steal signs from the Wrigley Field scoreboard behind that park’s bleachers when he was a Cub?

Do you really want us to remember again that Durocher called a team meeting to announce he’d cooked up a plot to start stealing signs from the Polo Grounds clubhouse above and just beyond center field? With catcher-turned-coach Herman Franks wielding the Wollensak and tapping codes for the stolen signs to the Giants bullpen, from where the purloined intelligence would be flashed to the batter?

Do you really want us to remember again that, when Durocher asked his players who wanted the stolen signs, his Hall of Fame left fielder Monte Irvin refused stolen signs? Meaning his rookie Hall of Fame center fielder Willie Mays wouldn’t take them, either? Much as Mays felt beholden to “Mister Leo,” he felt even more beholden to Irvin as a big brother figure, and he’d assuredly follow Irvin’s lead.

Do you really want us to remember again how, while the Dodgers went a very solid 33-26 down the stretch in August and September 1951, the Giants with their little furtive intelligence operation cheated their way to shooting the lights out—going 40-14 down the same stretch, including a sixteen-game winning streak that included thirteen home wins—to end that season in the first-place tie?

Do you really want us to remember again the day Dodger coach Cookie Lavagetto smelled enough of a rat to bring a pair of binoculars into the Dodger dugout in a bid to catch the Giants in the act—but had them confiscated post haste by an umpire?

As now-retired Thomas Boswell snorted in 2001, after The Shot Heard ‘Round the World was chosen baseball’s greatest moment by The Sporting News and second-greatest sports moment by Sports Illusrated, “Why, it would be unfair for the victims to use binoculars to expose the telescopic cheaters!”

Do you really want us to remember Bobby Thomson telling Joshua Prager, the Wall Street Journal writer who affirmed the Durocher plot at last in 2001 (turning it into a splendid but troubling book, The Echoing Green), “I guess I’ve been a jerk in a way. That I don’t want to face the music. Maybe I’ve felt too sensitive, embarrassed maybe.”

Maybe you don’t remember that Ralph Branca never blamed anyone beyond Durocher directly when talking about it for publication. Branca always said of Thomson (who became his friend in later years), “He still had to hit the pitch.” He carried the weight of surrendering that pitch and that loss with uncommon grace for the rest of his and Thomson’s lives. (Thomson died in 2010; Branca died in 2016.)

“Over the years, when interviewing Thomson and Branca,” Boswell wrote, “I’ve been struck that Thomson seemed a bit ambivalent about his Moment while Branca never seemed the least ashamed. I took it that Thomson felt apologetic because he’d caused Branca a lifetime of nagging questions.”

You, Giant fan(s) hoisting “Remember ’51” Friday night. Before you bring that sign back Saturday night, rooting for the team that stunned this year’s National League by winning the West despite everyone else trying to write them off as a fluke phenomenon, think it over. Hard.

You don’t really want everyone else remembering the greatest shame and sham in Giants history. You don’t really want us remembering the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff long exposed as the Mugging at Coogan’s Bluff. You don’t really want us to remember all over again that the Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!

Do you?

Bases full of Mets? You’re off the hook.

J.D. Davis

J.D. Davis would love to have back that Max Scherzer meatball with the bases loaded in the fifth.

You hate to add to whatever inner misery comes into play for him. But J.D. Davis has spent this weekend making himself a prayer for the opposition. Bases full of Mets? Pray that Davis is the next man up. You can breathe again.

Missing about two months from May through past the All-Star break with a wrist injury has hurt like hell. It’s done Davis no favours, and it’s hurting the Mets in places where they need help, not hurt.

Friday night: Dodgers ace Walker Buehler left first and third for his relief Alex Vesia, after Pete Alonso caught a huge break when a ball he hit off his foot was ruled no foul and enabled him to beat out a run-scoring grounder. Vesia promptly walked Michael Conforto to load the pillows.

Up came Davis with the Mets down now by a single run. Ahead in the count, 2-1. Fastball rising—swing a shade too soon, swish. Fastball falling—Davis kept the bat on his shoulder and the ball barely hit the strike zone floor. Side retired, 3-2 Dodger win held up.

Saturday afternoon: The Mets down 3-0 to open the top of the fifth against Max Scherzer. Make that 3-1, after Brandon Nimmo hit one out. Jeff McNeil doubles to right. Alonso himself gets hit on the arm by a pitch. Conforto goes from 1-2 to three straight balls.

Pads padded. The Mets have Max the Knife going rope-a-dope. Up steps Davis. Another 2-1 count. Looks at a pitch just off the middle—called strike. Gets an unlikely meatball down the pipe—fouls it off. Gets damn near the same pitch next—swings right through it for strikeout, side, and the Dodgers clinging with their lives to that 3-1 lead.

That lead became 4-1 after Mets reliever Miguel Castro, relieving starter Rich Hill to open the Los Angeles sixth, surrendered a leadoff base hit to Dodger pinch hitter Matt Beaty, then walked the bases loaded and a run home. Leaving Jeurys Familia to enter the burning building and get the Mets out alive with a pop out behind second base, a fly out to somewhat deep right, and a force out at second.

Leaving Nimmo himself wondering perhaps what he might have to do, short of bribery, to arrange men on base when he’s at the plate later in the game. He ended his day a triple short of the cycle, the Dodgers unable to get rid of him until reliever Blake Treinen caught him looking at a third strike barely on the floor of the zone in the seventh. His first-inning double opened the game; his third inning single came with one out and nobody on in the third.

And, of course, no Met managed to reach base in the fifth until after Nimmo fouled off a fastball to open with two out in the first before pulling an inside Scherzer service into the right field bleachers.

There’s no point in singling one long-haul culprit out. These Mets overall have been a mess since Jacob deGrom went down for the count yet again, and maybe for good this season, in early July.

One big reason is their inability to hit with the bases loaded: holding a .208 average in that situation, the fifth lowest in the Show, isn’t the way to win games. Especially when the other guys are hitting .292 against them with the bases loaded.

Castro walking the bases loaded and then walking Beaty home ended up being the difference Saturday—Alonso’s two-out, seventh-inning blast into the left field bleachers with McNeil aboard gave them their second and third runs. The Mets put a man aboard in each of the eighth and the ninth and stranded both.

Things weren’t exactly helped when Hill opened by surrendering a leadoff bomb off the top of the left field fence to Trea Turner opening the bottom of the first and, one fly out to deep center later, a first-pitch yank over the center field fence to ancient Albert Pujols, to put the Mets into an almost-immediate 2-0 hole.

At 41 years old each, Hill vs. Pujols weren’t quite the oldest pitcher-batter matchup to end in a home run in Show history. That belongs to Julio Franco and Hall of Famer Randy Johnson. Thanks to my sabermetric friend Jessica Brand, I learned The Big Unit was a young turk at 43 when Franco, then a measly 49 and a Met, no less, turned on an 0-2 service in the top of the second and drove it over the left field fence. It was the 173rd and final home run of Franco’s career.

With 92 years of age between that pair, there’s something to be said for respecting your elders.

Davis himself is 0-for-6 with six strikeouts when he hits with the bases loaded this season. If you take Mets manager Luis Rojas at his word, Davis is pressing it too hard when he checks in at the plate with chances to do major damage. “Sometimes, guys tend to get anxious,” the skipper told MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo after Saturday’s loss.

I use J.D. as an example with the bases loaded in that situation; he was trying to do too much. He was trying to gather a little bit too much. It caused him to be late on a fastball. That’s probably from a mental standpoint what happens, you just get a little anxious because you have the bases loaded. It’s a key situation. There’s an adrenaline rush, and sometimes you drift away from your approach of being aggressive in the zone, which is what we preach here.

Davis wasn’t even trying to murder the ball. As peculiar as this might sound to those dismissing this year’s game as just a bomb-or-bust offensive game, neither the Mets nor the Dodgers tried hitting six-run homers in every plate appearance. Even with six of the game’s seven runs scoring on home runs, there was about as much hard ground contact as air lifting between the sides Saturday afternoon.

It’s not that the National League East is a division full of invincibles. But the Mets held the division’s ownership papers despite their glandular injury issues until very recently. They’ve now lost seventeen of twenty-three; they’ve fallen two games below .500; they’re seven back of the now division-leading Braves almost a month after they led the division by four.

It got bad enough for the Mets at the plate that new owner Steve Cohen—who’d shown the patience of Job up to that point—zapped them for their inconsistent hitting aboard Twitter during the week just finished. In cold print, it looked like a mini-tirade. In actuality, we’re not exactly talking about a certain late Yankee owner.

Cohen didn’t throw out the first manager of the year. He didn’t even really single any particular Met out for embarrassment. He didn’t demand an apology to the city of New York or build a guillotine outside Citi Field. He didn’t compare any pitcher to a horse who spit the bit; he didn’t dismiss his best power hitter as Mr. May.

He didn’t do anything, really, except get Rojas and injured shortstop Francisco Lindor—the off-season splash signing whose bat’s been inconsistent but whose defense has been off the chart (he was worth thirteen defensive runs before his injury)—to say he was right about the bats.

The fact that the Mets didn’t exactly hog the headlines at the trade deadline lingered in the back of some minds, too.

The Mets’ immediate response to Cohen’s comparatively benign bop was to beat the Giants in twelve with a three-run homer (Kevin Pillar) and an RBI double (freshly called-up Chance Sisco, pinch hitting). From there, it’s three straight lost to the Dodgers with one more to play Sunday before a cross country trip home to host the Giants.

It may also be one of the only periods in which you might hear Met fans saying to themselves, “We have the bases loaded? We’re doomed.”

A 2-1 Dodger advantage feels more like 3-1

At any angle, from any view, Walker Buehler overpowered the Rays Friday night.

“They’re more of a manufacturing team than a pure slugging team like Atlanta might be,” said Walker Buehler, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Game Three starting pitcher, before he actually went out and pitched against the Tampa Bay Rays. “You never know what lineup you get. We’re trying to figure out what they may do against you and work off that.”

Buehler then went out and hung a “Closed for Repairs” sign outside the manufacturers’ plant. The Rays don’t exactly have all the time in the world to put the repair crews to work.

The fixings will probably begin with otherwise stout Rays starter Charlie Morton. The same guy who flattend his old buddies from Houston to help the Rays win the pennant in the first place. The Dodgers slashed five runs on seven hits out of Morton in four and a third innings while Buehler refused to let the Rays catch hold of his full-zone fastballs or force him to work off-speed. Making it feel as though the eventual 6-2 final was a lot worse than a four-run deficit usually is.

Buehler does that when he’s on. He even takes a no-hitter into the fifth when need be. With one slightly off-the-charts outing the righthander suddenly turned the World Series from anyone’s to win to the Rays’s to lose. The Dodgers’ 2-1 Series advantage felt more like 3-1 when it finally ended.

“That might be the best I’ve ever seen his stuff,” said his catcher Austin Barnes after the game.

Buehler didn’t just expose the Rays’ continuing postseason flaw of striking out when they can’t and don’t make contact. The Rays have now done what no postseason team in history has accomplished, striking out 180 times.

They also have 113 hits, making them the only postseason team in history to hit 67 fewer times than they’ve struck out. In the middle of that, they went ten straight games—Game Four of their division series through Game Two of this World Series—with more strikeouts than hits.

Buehler’s thirteen punchouts also left the Rays striking out nine times or more in ten straight postseason games and a twelfth postseason game this time in which they struck out ten times or more. And, with thirteen hitters getting K’ed three times or more in single games.

“It’s like . . . people always say, ‘Why don’t they just hit the ball the other way when they shift?’” said Rays manager Kevin Cash Friday postgame. He laughed like Figaro, that he might not weep. “It’s hard enough just to hit the ball.” Against Buehler, whose three hits surrendered seemed like momentary lapses into generosity, it was impossible enough.

Against Morton, alas, with his fastballs not finding their intended destinations and his breaking balls left a little too readily over the plate, for a change, he might have been fortunate that seven hits were all the Dodgers could get. Begging the question as to why Cash, who normally thinks nothing of such moves when he smells trouble, left him in as long as he did this time around.

Sure Cash thought nothing of hooking Morton in Game Seven of the American League Championship Series at the first sign of trouble in the top of the sixth. And the world went bonkers over that. Since when does a manager that fearless not get his bullpen working and his man the hell out of there when he’s in the hole 3-0 with two out but two on in the third—the first of whom got there as a hit batsman off the foot?

All three of the Dodgers’ hits have come with two strikes,” tweeted ESPN’s Jeff Passan after the third. “And all three have been on pitches Charlie Morton left over the plate. Dodgers lead, 3-0, and they’re doing it against a pitcher whose opponents hit .170/.207/.284 vs. him with two strikes this year.

The Dodgers now have 87 runs this postseason. Fifty of them have come with two outs. “There’s two outs, but you can still build an inning, not giving away at-bats,” says the Mookie Monster, one of four Dodgers to knock in at least a run with two outs Friday night. “That’s the recipe. That’s how you win a World Series.”

I’m always fascinated by Kevin Cash’s pitching decisions,” tweeted The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark after the fourth inning. “Last Saturday, Charlie Morton had 66 pitches and a 2-hit shutout in the 6th – and Cash took him out. Tonight, he was down 5-0 with 78 pitches through the 4th – and got left in. Much quicker hook when Cash has a lead.”

Much harder for Cash to get away with bass-ackwards thinking, too. Not a single Rays bull poked his nose out of his stall before and after Max Muncy lined a two-run single to center. It took until the fifth—after Dodger catcher Austin Barnes dropped his safety-squeeze RBI bunt and Mookie Betts’s full-count, followup RBI single made it 5-0 in the fourth—before the Rays bullpen gate finally swung open.

Did you guess what happened from there right? If not, here it is: Four Rays relievers kept the Dodgers to a single run and three hits in their four and two-thirds innings work. They walked only two and struck out four. In other words, the Rays’ bullpen did what the Rays’ bullpen normally does. They just started four and a third innings too late Friday night.

It doesn’t discredit the Dodgers’ hitters to suggest Cash might have let them break into the house—only beginning with Justin Turner’s one-out, high line home run in the top of the first—and steal all the jewels and cash they could carry. The only thing the Dodgers swiped once Cash finally reached for the armed guards was Barnes catching hold of a John Curtiss slider that didn’t slide as far under the middle as it was supposed to slide and sending it over the center field fence in the top of the sixth.

Get the feeling the Dodgers are turning brand-new Globe Life Field into Dodger Stadium II? They’re not just pitching as though it’s their own vacation home, but they’ve hit one more home run in sixteen postseason games there than the Texas Rangers hit in thirty irregular season games in their brand new house.

Delayed security is not the best idea when you’re up against a Buehler who’s hell bent on making sure nobody got into the Dodgers’ house except Manuel Margot with a one-out double and Willy Adames with a two-out RBI double in the bottom of the fifth.

“Being a big-game pitcher and really succeeding on this stage, there’s only a few guys currently and throughout history,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts postgame. “He’s in some really elite company, and I’m just happy he’s wearing a Dodger uniform.”

With Friday night’s flush and the prospect of facing Buehler in Game Seven if the Series goes that far, the Rays would prefer he wear a police, fire, or military uniform right now. Those they can handle. Buehler they couldn’t. When he finished the fifth his lifetime postseason ERA stood at 2.34 and his 2020 postseason ERA alone stood at 1.88. And his streak of nine straight postseason gigs with a minimum six strikeouts and two runs allowed or less became the longest in Show history while he was at it.

“I think the more you do these things the calmer you get,” said Buehler postgame. Not about any records but just about pitching up when you’re striking for the Promised Land. “I don’t want to keep harping on it, but I enjoy doing this. And I feel good in these spots.”

As for World Series games pitched with ten or more punchouts, no walks, and no bombs surrendered, Buehler became only the eighth pitcher to have one. The previous Magnificent Seven: Sandy Koufax (1965), Bob Gibson (1968), Tom Seaver (1973), Randy Johnson (2001), Roger Clemens (2001), Cliff Lee (2009), and Adam Wainwright (2013).

Tampa Bay left fielder Randy Arozarena hit an excuse-us solo homer off Dodger closer Kenley Jansen with two out in the ninth. He’s now hit as many home runs in this postseason (eight) as he did when he was finally past his COVID-19 bout and saddled up for what was left of the irregular season. He also set postseason records with what’s now 52 total bases and 23 postseason hits as a rookie.

Turner had to settle merely for his first postseason bomb since 2017 and for tying Hall of Famer Duke Snider on the Dodgers’ postseason homer list with his eleventh. Barnes also slipped into the record books. Only one man previously had ever homered and squeezed a run home in the same Series game, and that was more than half a century ago.

We take you back to Hector (What a Pair of Hands) Lopez, New York Yankees outfielder, off Cincinnati Reds pitcher Bob Purkey in the deciding 1961 Series Game Five. Barnes is thus the only catcher ever to turn the single Series game bomb-squeeze trick. Roll over Bill Dickey, and tell Yogi Berra the news.

If only Arozarena’s bombings had better timers. Only four of his eight postseason bombs so far have either tied a game or given the Rays a lead. The rook whose 1.340 OPS in the first three rounds widened as many eyes as his home runs has a mere .885 OPS in the Series thus far.

The Rays overall are only hitting a .206/.250/.381 Series slash. They’ve actually struck out at the plate six fewer times than the Dodgers, but they’ve been out-hit by five, out-homered by three, and out-scored by seven. With Morton’s ghastly 10.38 Game Three ERA and Game One starter Tyler Glasnow’s grotesque 12.46, you have to remove them to find the Rays otherwise with a 2.10 Series ERA. Remove Dylan Floro and Dustin May from the Game Two equation, and the Dodgers otherwise have a 2.20 Series ERA thus far.

Timing is everything in this Series. The Rays’ inability to find theirs at the plate against Buehler and Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ finding and finer tuning theirs against Morton and Glasnow, and Cash’s timing off twice on charging his bulls, are three major reasons why the Dodgers holding a 2-1 Series lead feels more like a 3-1 lead going into Saturday night.

This is what the Dodgers saved Julio Urias for. You may have heard a little chirping after he didn’t appear even in a bullpen stir during Game Two, when the Dodgers couldn’t beat the Rays at their own bullpen game. They’d better hope he isn’t too well rested; he hasn’t pitched since he closed out NLCS Game Seven with three shutdown innings last Saturday. And he’s going up against a by-necessity Rays bullpen game with Ryan Yarbrough possibly opening and possibly going three.

That’s the game the Rays usually master. Now it’s the mastery they need desperately enough.