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.

The Dodgers give the Giants a Game Two Belli-ache

Cody Bellinger

Cody Bellinger, hitting the Game Two-breaking two-run double in the sixth inning Saturday night.

If Cody Bellinger is finally, reasonably healing from everything that turned his regular season to waste, the timing couldn’t be better. For his Dodgers, and for himself.

First, he set up Chris Taylor’s wild card game-winning two run homer with a sharp theft of second base last Tuesday. Now, in division series Game Two, Bellinger started putting the game out of the Giants’ reach Saturday night with a sixth-inning, two-run double off Giants reliever Dominic Leone.

On a night that the Dodgers’ bats re-awakened following their half-asleep Game One loss in San Francisco—even starting pitcher Julio Urias managed to join the fun—Bellinger wasn’t exactly the most prolific Dodger at the plate, just the most important one.

With Trea Turner on second after a leadoff double lined down the third base line, and Will Smith walking his way aboard for first and second, Giants manager Gabe Kapler lifted his starting pitcher Kevin Gausman for Leone. Leone walked Taylor in part because plate umpire Angel Hernandez—what a surprise—called what should have been strike three ball three, on a pitch that hit the upper outside corner squarely enough.

Bellinger checked in at the plate next. With the kind of struggling regular season he had, he wasn’t about to look the proverbial gift horse in the proverbial mouth. He drove Leone’s first service to the back of center field, bounding off the wall, sending Turner and Smith home with Taylor having to stop at third.

Leone barely had time to regroup from that blow when A.J. Pollock lined his next pitch into left to send Taylor and Bellinger home while he bellyflopped his way into second safely for the double. Leone got the final two outs getting Urias’s pinch hitter Gavin Lux to ground out to second and Mookie Betts to fly out to center, but the four-run sixth held up toward the 9-2 Dodger win.

Pollock and Taylor collaborated on the Dodgers’ first run of the game in the top of the second, Taylor lining a one-out double into the gap in left center and Pollock going from 2-0 to a free pass to enable Gausman to get rid of Urias the easy way. Except that Urias refused to cooperate.

Something of an outlier among pitchers at the plate (he actually hit .203 in the regular season, 93 points above pitchers at the plate overall), Urias lined one to right to send Taylor home with the first Dodger run. Betts then lined a base hit to left to send Pollock home for the 2-0 Dodger lead.

Except for Donovan Solano’s one-out sacrifice fly in the bottom of the second, and Brandon Crawford singling home late-game entry Lamonte Wade, Jr. in the bottom of the sixth, the Giants had no answer for the Dodgers’ revival at the plate Saturday night.

The Dodgers weren’t about to provide the Giants answers, either. As if to slam a pair of exclamation points down on the salient point, Smith hit reliever Zack Littell’s first pitch of the top of the eighth into a voluptuous parabola that landed a few rows into the left field seats, and pinch-hitter Matt Beaty (for Dodger reliever Corey Knebel) plus Corey Seager added a pair of RBI singles before the inning expired.

But even though Bellinger struck out three times otherwise, that game-breaking two-run double in the sixth trained most eyes back upon him. He looked at last like the 2019 National League Most Valuable Player again, not like the guy who had everyone not looking deep thinking he spent this season sinking into oblivion with a ten-ton weight strapped to his ankle.

All season long, Bellinger tried to remake his swing to use the entire field while his body refused to cooperate. He’d had shoulder surgery last off-season, after injuring the shoulder first fielding several grounders and then celebrating his home run in Game Seven of last year’s National League Championship Series. Then, he missed the first eight weeks of this season after a leg fracture when he was spiked on a play at first base.

He also suffered a hamstring injury and, in September, a non-displacing rib fracture when he collided with Lux on a play in the outfield.

If you don’t think batterings like that can drain a fellow at the plate, you probably haven’t tried playing professional baseball. Bellinger’s tenacity in trying to play through or around those injuries is as admirable as the reality of his futility at the plate before healing completely from those injuries is deplorable.

Especially when the shoulder continued putting limits on his swing, opposing pitchers saw and exploited the resultant inability to catch up to rising fastballs or reach diver-down breaking balls, and Bellinger’s confidence eroded little by little as the season went forward.

Whether manager Dave Roberts was worse continuing to run him up there than Bellinger was in being so stubborn, despite the shoulder not recovering completely from that off-season surgery, it told you how deep this year’s Dodgers really are that they won 106 regular season games despite Bellinger’s injury-driven deflation.

Now, Bellinger could stand on second base in the sixth with a look akin to the many he had after big hits in his MVP season. Now, Roberts could laugh his fool head off trying to explain it postgame: “Mentally, I don’t see how it could hurt him. There can only be upside. He’s wanted to use the big part of the field, and for him to get rewarded was huge. I think there was a big weight lifted off his shoulders.”

If pun was intended, it wasn’t exactly the smartest or cleverest. It was difficult not to think that Bellinger should have had more extended recovery from that shoulder surgery, taken a somewhat extended spring training, and returned in May at fullest possible strength.

It was between sorrowful and infuriating to see Bellinger playing through the short recovery and subsequent injuries and listening to the witless writing him off as just another slumper who suddenly didn’t know what he was doing.

He’s not quite out of the wilderness yet. But watching him drive that Game Two-breaking double gave you almost as much hope as it seems to have given him. “I feel 100 percent, you know?” he said postgame. “I don’t know how my body is, but I feel really good.”

What he did Saturday night was enough to leave the Giants nursing a serious Belli-ache and the Dodgers feeling even better about moving the series tied at one to Dodger Stadium for Game Three.

Even if they might wonder privately which Max Scherzer will turn up on the mound. Will that someone be Max the Knife? Will he be the tired veteran who surrendered ten runs in his final two regular-season starts, before fighting on fumes to pitch one-run, four-and-a-third innings’ baseball in the wild card game? The answer comes Monday.

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.

Max the Knife comes up aces

Max Scherzer

Dodger fans asked Max the Knife for something he’d never had in his career before Wednesday night—a curtain call.

Nothing could spoil Max Scherzer’s mound premiere in a Dodger uniform Wednesday night. And it wasn’t for lack of trying by the Astros. Not even for lack of trying by one particularly brain dead Dodger fan down the right field line.

The Astros made a grand enough effort after Scherzer left the game following seven stellar innings and ten strikeouts marred only by a solo home run and an RBI single. They had to settle for losing by two runs instead of five.

The Dodger bullpen made a grand enough effort, too, letting the Astros pry three runs out of them including a two-run homer in the top of the ninth off Kenley Jansen before he finally struck out the side to end the 7-5 Dodger win without any further self-immolation.

The aforesaid meathead in the stands did his best to contribute to a potential overthrow, too. With two out in the top of the eighth, struggling Cody Bellinger playing right field, and Carlos Correa at the plate against his old buddy Joe Kelly, Correa on 1-0 lifted a long foul down the line. Bellinger had a running bead on the ball and a certain side-retiring catch ready and waiting.

Until he didn’t.

Bellinger jumped just enough to make the catch. Except that the idiot in a Mookie Betts jersey with a glove on his left meathook reached up to snatch the ball right before it would have landed in Bellinger’s glove. Some of the fans surrounding the jerk congratulated him. Others surrounding him looked as though they wanted to brain him.

Technically, the jerk didn’t quite cross the line into obvious fan interference. But you’d think even the most profit-hungering souvenir hunter would be smart enough to back down when the right fielder has a chance to end an inning with a catch just above the edge of the fence padding.

Instead of side retired, Correa got extra life against Kelly. He swung and missed for strike two immediately after the stolen foul out, fouled another off, then turned on a hanging slider and sent it almost halfway up the left field bleachers for the third Astro run of the night.

Dodger Stadium security removed the miscreant after Correa finished his trip around the bases. A few of the fans in the same region let the security people know just how happy they weren’t over that removal. They’d better be grateful that this wasn’t another World Series game.

They’d also better be grateful that not even jerks being jerks could spoil Scherzer’s first outing as a Dodger.

The packed, roaring house just gave Scherzer even more incentive to go forth and do what he tends to do best, refusing to let even Michael Brantley’s one-out bomb in the top of the first, or Kyle Tucker singling Yordan Alvarez home with two outs in the fourth keep him from his appointed ten punchouts thanks to an effective curve ball setting up the fastest fastballs he’s thrown all season.

“You live for this,” Max the Knife said after the game. “You live to pitch in front of 50,000 people going nuts.”

They went nuts enough that still-ailing Clayton Kershaw, his fellow three-time Cy Young Award winner, nudged Scherzer back out of the dugout after his outing ended to take what he’d never taken in his entire career to that point—a curtain call.

“With everything on the line, the way the crowd was, that was a high-adrenaline start, coming here,” the righthander continued. “Try not to do too much. Just pitch my game, go out there and do what I can do, and just try to navigate the lineup. The offense tonight went off.”

“Went off” was a polite way to put it. The Astros barely had time to let their opening 1-0 advantage sink in when Betts turned on Jake Odorizzi’s slider and sent it over the center field fence to lead the bottom of the first off. A walk, a swinging strikeout, and a Jose Altuve throwing error later, Will Smith turned on Odorizzi’s fastball and drove it into the right field bleachers.

One inning and one out after that, Betts struck again, hitting a 3-1 heater into the left field bleachers. An inning, two outs, and a walk after that, A.J. Pollock hit one over the left field fence and Odorizzi must have thought by then that he could have pulled an automatic pistol out of his pocket, fired toward the plate, and still watched the bullet travel out of the yard off the end of a Dodger bat.

The Astro righthander blamed poor mechanics since the All-Star break, but with a 4.95 ERA and a 5.06 fielding-independent pitching rate on the season you could almost wonder whether the Astros threw him up as a sacrificial lamb Wednesday night.

“My fastball has been flat,” Odorizzi said after the game. He could have said “flat-tened” and it wouldn’t have made a difference. “There are a lot of things I am working on between outings, but then I am reverting back to bad form.”

The bad news for the Dodgers was that such reversion threatened to ruin Jansen and them in the top of the ninth. He surrendered a leadoff single to Aledmys Diaz before Tucker sent a hanging cutter into the right field bullpen. Then Jansen re-horsed to strike Robel Garcia, Jason Castro, and pinch-hitter Meyers out swinging.

Nothing, though, could diminish Scherzer’s impact. Especially with the Dodgers in straits desperate enough in the starting pitching department. Walker Buehler and Julio Arias have had to hold fort while Kershaw’s forarm inflammation hasn’t subsided yet, and it’s already kept the lefthander out since early July.

Tony Gonsolin’s shoulder is inflamed likewise. Still-ailing Kansas City import Danny Duffy isn’t likely to be ready before September. And the execrable Trevor Bauer remains on administrative leave while MLB and the Pasadena police continue investigating sexual assault accusations against him.

The Dodgers hogged the headlines on trade deadline day when they swept in and snatched Scherzer (plus star infielder Trea Turner) from the Nationals and right out from under their downstate rival Padres’s noses. Now Scherzer had to live up to the headlines—just the way he forced himself to live up to the biggest noise of 2019 and pitch on nothing but fumes and will to keep the World Series-winning Nats in Game Seven just long enough to give them a chance to win it in the first place.

Manager Dave Roberts almost wasn’t worried. Almost. Buehler and Urias must have felt as though thousand-pound iron blocks were removed from both their shoulders after Scherzer’s evening’s work finished.

“From the moment I got to the ballpark, we got to the ballpark, you could just see that elevation, anticipation from our guys,” Roberts said post-game. “The buzz in the crowd from the first pitch, him taking the mound, donning the [Dodgers’ home uniform] for the first time—he delivered. He delivered. Just the intensity. It was so much fun. And it was just really cool to see the crowd smell it and want him to finish that seventh inning.”

“I mean, it’s Max Scherzer,” the Mookie Monster said post-game. “I think that kind of speaks for itself.” (In case you were curious, Betts had one hit—a double—in six lifetime plate appearances against Scherzer before they became teammates.)

For Scherzer, coming off the only mid-season trade of his distinguished career, and to the team he’d helped beat in the 2019 National League Division Series, the hardest part’s over. For now. “I’m a Dodger,” Max the Knife said. “It feels a lot more normal when you just go out there and pitch and win. Winning kind of cures everything.”

It might even get him the final home address of his career. Might.

If he keeps pitching the way he did Wednesday night, even at age 37, and nobody including Scherzer shouldn’t be shocked if the Dodgers decide to make it worth his while and his bank account to keep him in the family. At least until his arm finally decides to resign its commission a couple of years from now. Maybe with a couple of more World Series triumphs to its credit before he’s done.

Put the goat milk down

As Randy Arozarena pounds the plate celebrating the Game Four-winning run, Max Muncy—whose spot-on relay throw home bumped away wild—looks momentarily shell shocked.

Very well, I surrender for the time being. Nothing written or said by me or anyone is going to stop Joe and Jane Fan from hanging the goat horns on any or all of Kenley Jansen, Chris Taylor, and Will Smith.

As if they’re anticipating yet another Los Angeles Dodgers full postseason meltdown from there. As if to prove myself and others right when we say baseball fans too often prefer a glass of goat milk to the hero sandwich.

As if Tampa Bay spare part Brett Phillips didn’t nail Jansen’s errant off the middle pitch for that floating line single whose hop began the chain of events that turned a certain Dodgers win and 3-1 Series advantage into an 8-7 Rays win and maybe the . . . third most devastating loss in Dodger history? The fourth?

It can’t ever be the other guys being a little more heads-up and winning. It can only be our guys blowing it higher than Old Faithful. It can only ever be our guys leaving the front door open for them to rob us so blind we’re lucky if they left a couple of napkins behind while absconding with the cash, silver, and jewels.

Thus was Game Four of this Wild Series nothing to do with the Rays hanging in tenaciously and finding their way back to timely hitting, but everything to do with the Dodgers hell bent for becoming eight-straight division winners who found ways to turn championship-caliber teams into the 1962 New York Mets.

“I been in this game a hundred years but I see new ways to lose I never knew were invented yet,” those Mets’ manager Casey Stengel liked to say. Far as Joe and Jane Dodger fan are concerned, those Mets had nothing on these Dodgers, and it’s easier to turn Donald Trump into an educated thinker than to imagine those Mets within two coasts distance of a World Series.

Saturday night’s frights only sent the Dodgers into Game Five in a head heat with the upstart, upset-minded, 99 Cent Store-budget, wing-prayer-and-wishes Rays. This Series has a minimum two more games to go. The worst case scenario after the hapless Taylor and Smith performed their leathery Ricochet Rabbit ball act was future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw pitching a possible tiebreaker instead of the Promised Land game.

You want worse Dodger defeats than Game Four? Here’s a roll for you:

Game Four, 1941 World Series. (Mickey Owen drops the strike that would have tied that Series at two.)

Game Three, 1951 National League pennant playoff. (Ralph Branca. Bobby Thomson. The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!)

Game Six, 1985 National League Championship Series. (Sure it’s safe to pitch to Jack [the Ripper] Clark with first base open and the Dodgers an out from forcing Game Seven.)

Game Seven, 2017 World Series. (Yu Darvish tipping pitches and bushwhacked in the first two innings, little knowing those Houston Astros played the full season with a stacked camera and monitor and an empty trash can.)

Game Five, 2019 National League division series. (Back-to-back tying homers from Washington’s Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto; ultimate winner: ex-Dodger Howie Kendrick slicing salami in the tenth.)

So you want to condemn Jansen, Taylor, and Smith to the same Phantom Zone where live the goats of baseball past? Feel free if you must. The rest of us will continue to forgive. Well, maybe we won’t forgive Jansen too soon for neglecting to back up the plays at the plate. Even if he couldn’t have stopped Randy Arozarena from diving home after the relay escaped Smith, Jansen should have been there regardless.

But we’ll forgive Jansen the pitch Phillips tagged. We’ll forgive him because .202-hitting spare parts aren’t supposed to hit established closers even for floating line drives and the percentages on 1-2 were in his favour.

We’ll forgive him because who the hell knew such a spaghetti bat would turn the finish into veal parmigiana. We’ll forgive Taylor and Smith, too, because we know in our hearts and guts they committed errors of anxious anticipation.

Taylor couldn’t wait to field Phillips’s floater on the hop and throw to his cutoff man Max Muncy—until the hop bounded off his glove’s fingers. Smith couldn’t wait to get the tag on Randy Arozarena—until Muncy’s relay glanced off his mitt as he turned for the tag . . . and learned the hard way Arozarena tripped over himself halfway down the third base line while the ball traveled to the track well behind the plate.

And if you, Joe and Jane Fan, won’t forgive, we who know your rage and sorrow obstruct your vision and thought will forgive them for you. The Dodgers lost a ballgame on Saturday night. They didn’t lose a third lease on the Promised Land in four years. Yet. The Rays won a ballgame Saturday night. They haven’t crossed the Jordan. Yet.

We’ll forgive Jansen, Taylor, and Smith just the way we should have forgiven Fred Merkle, Freddie Lindstrom, Ernie Lombardi, Mickey Owen, Johnny Pesky, Ralph Branca, Gene Mauch, Tom Niedenfuer, Tommy Lasorda, Bill Buckner, John McNamara, Grady Little, all Cubs from 1909-2015, all Red Sox from 1919-2003, all Indians from 1949 forward, all Giants from 1963-2009, all Phillies from 1900-1979/1981-2008, and maybe even a couple of Yankees from last year and this.

We’ll forgive them just the way we should forgive every Diamondback since 2002, every Brave other than those from 1995, every Oriole since 1984, every Red (except one) since 1991, every Tiger since 1985, and every Angel other than those from 2002.

Just the way we should forgive every Brewer, Padre, Mariner, and Ranger so far. Not to mention every St. Louis Brown who ever walked the face of the earth and every Washington Senator who walked it from 1925-71.

We’ll forgive them because Thomas Boswell was right when he wrote, in 1990, “The reason we don’t forgive you is because there’s nothing to forgive in the first place. You tried your best and failed. In games, there’s a law that says somebody has to lose.” It would be easier to amend the U.S. Constitution than to overturn that law.