The Maplegate that isn’t

Martín Maldonado

Martín Maldondo using a bat gifted him by ex-teammate Albert Pujols to nail a Game One single. Maldonado had to put the bat away for Game Two when it was determined an illegal bat—by a rule Maldonado wasn’t aware of going in.

Let’s see. Framber Valdez manhandled the Phillies for six and a third Saturday night, and the only run charged to his ledger was surrendered by his relief. The Astros jumped Zack Wheeler for a very early lead and made it stick, this time, for a 5-2 win in World Series Game Two.

The Phillies had a couple of close calls in the batter’s nox but not close enough to overthrow the Astros a second straight game. The Series still goes to Philadelphia tied at a game each, and the Phillies now have a home-field advantage until or unless the Astros snatch it from them.

But enough of the paranoiac crowd harped on Astro catcher Martín Maldonado’s illegal Game One bat, most likely after hearing it discussed by Fox Sports announcers Joe Davis and Tom Verducci during the Game Two telecast.

The bat in question was a gift from Maldonado’s one-time Angels teammate, Hall of Famer-in-waiting Albert Pujols. The reason the bat was made illegal—pay very close attention, ladies, gentlemen, and miscellaneous—has nothing to do with any contraband thunder inside it and everything to do with safety.

Maple bats have been around since 1993 World Series hero Joe Carter hipped Barry Bonds to their virtues, and Bonds helped forge his controversial third act swinging them. The type Pujols used and passed on to Maldonado—a Marucci A5 model with a 2.75-inch diameter—was banned starting in 2011. The ban included a grandfather clause allowing those like Pujols who’d used them in the Show before that to continue using them.

“I don’t think it’s strange,” the 36-year-old veteran catcher told reporters postgame. “It’s a rule, and I’ll follow it.” Translation: This isn’t exactly something to call Maplegate.

Maldonado drove the second Astros run home in Game One with the Pujols poker. It was his only hit in the game. He wasn’t aware of the bat’s status until MLB officials let him know prior to Game Two. (Maldonado’s MLB career began after the ban took effect.) He went back to his normal bat supply posthaste and went 0-for-3 Saturday night.

He was far more effective shepherding Valdez through a start that more than atoned for the bushwhackings the smooth lefthander took from last year’s World Series-winning Braves. In a series or Series between any two other teams, the Maldonado bat would be a nothingburger, medium rare.

But because it involves the Astros, of course, and the Astros have a tainted World Series championship that still lingers, even this nothingburger’s going to be elevated to a chateaubriand of prospective chicanery.

Even if it involves a player who wasn’t anywhere near the Astrogate team until the Angels traded him at the 2018 non-waiver deadline for pitcher Patrick Sandoval. Not to mention the same player leaving as a free agent after 2018 but returning to Houston in a July 2019 trade from the Cubs.

So let’s forget the Astros jumping Zack Wheeler for three straight doubles delivering two runs without an out in the bottom of the first Saturday night. Let’s forget the inning’s third run coming when Phillies shortstop Edmundo Sosa threw Yuli Gurriel’s bouncer low and on the short hop to first baseman Rhys Hoskins who couldn’t hold the short hop, enabling Yordan Alvarez (the third straight double) to come home.

Let’s forget Valdez unbalancing the Phillie lineup with murderous breaking balls going over, under, sideways, down, anywhere but face-to-face meetings with Phillie bats that managed a mere four scattered hits before the Astros turned to their bullpen.

Let’s forget Alex Bregman—following a double play that needed review because it didn’t look clear at first that Sosa’s toe brushed second base as he took the throw from third baseman Alec Bohm in the overshift—blasting a two-run homer into the Planet Fitness arch behind left center field for what proved the Astros’ two insurance runs in the bottom of the fifth.

Let’s forget the bullpens continuing to keep each other throttled except for Jean Segura’s seventh-inning sacrifice fly in the seventh and Bohm scoring on an error at third off Brandon Marsh’s grounder in the ninth, before Astros closer Ryan Pressly induced the game-ending ground out.

Let’s forget Kyle Schwarber missing a tremendous two-run homer in the top of the eighth, that would have pulled the Phillies back to within a mere pair. The Schwarbinator’s 2-2 blast off Astros reliever Rafael Montero looked like a bomb until it wasn’t, passing the right field pole by a hair on the foul side. Then he blasted another one, on the next pitch, deep enough to push Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker up against the fence . . . to catch it.

No, let’s just talk about the Maldonado bat switch for Game Two. Let’s just talk about how the Astrogate taint still holds deep enough that something for which any other team would have received a shrug receives red flags and white heat.

Maple bats have their own controversy for their tougher densities. The softer ash bat may be going the way of the canvas base bag thanks to a pestiferous pest that treats ash like dinner with all the trimmings. When maple bats splinter they’re believed more dangerous, even to the guy who swung it.

So let’s have a concurrent reality check. A none-too-well-hitting catcher whose presence is more for his pitchers’ benefit than his lineup’s isn’t going to provoke deep investigations for making the mistake of accepting as a gift and using a bat he didn’t know he wasn’t in the league long enough to ride a grandfather clause.

But a team that operated an illegal, above and beyond mere replay room reconnaissance and other sign-stealing sneakiness, electronically-based, unlawfully-camera’d, front-office-abetted (via the in-house-developed Codebreaker algorithm) sign-stealing intelligence agency?

A team still owned by the man who has never shown fealty to the ancient maxim that when you lead (or own) you take responsibility for what’s done by your subordinates?

The original Astrogate revelations‘ shocks hadn’t even hinted at wearing away when Jim Crane faced a very inquisitive followup press at the 2019 winter meetings and said, “If you want to talk about baseball, I’ll talk about baseball.” As if Astrogate had nothing to do with baseball. When the team held its infamous February 2020 non-apologetically apologetic presser, Crane said he “doesn’t think” he should have been held accountable.

On the threshold of the World Series there came credible speculation that Crane is thinking seriously about cashiering his general manager, James Click. Click’s done nothing since stepping in for the disgraced Jeff Luhnow but remake/remodel the Astros on the fly—especially building this year’s hammers-down Astros bullpen—to keep a great team on the field while simultaneously working his can off to leave Astrogate as far in the rear view mirror as possible.

Click plus manager Dusty Baker did the heaviest lifting to pull the Astros away from  Astrogate. And this is the thanks Click may yet receive? It’s one thing to acknowledge Crane felt as though Luhnow had torched him. It’s something else to seek more trustworthy advisors and operators yet fail to appreciate one of the key men pulling his team as far past that disgrace as possible while continuing to rule the American League.

Even Click can’t entirely negate the point that the Astros won’t cease to be suspect until or unless they win a World Series without even the merest suspicion of subterfuge. That’s as unfair as what the former Astros regime sanctioned in 2017-18. Suggesting Martín Maldonado was up to no good, using a gifted bat he had no knowledge was illegal for him to use, is likewise unfair.

We’re in for one hell of a World Series ride

J.T. Realmuto

Realmuto’s leadoff launch in the top of the tenth held up for the Phillies to win opening this World Series. But he almost didn’t make it that far . . .

Listen up, you sore-losing Met, Dodger, and Yankee fans. At least, those among you who think that there’s nothing more worth watching until hot stove season since your heroes (anti-heroes?) got pushed, shoved, and slugged out of the postseason.

Yours aren’t the only heroes (anti-heroes?) who got turned aside. So you can just boil yourselves alive in your harrumphing that the World Series means nothing to you. Because if Game One was any indication, the rest of us—including this Met fan since the day they were born—are in for one hell of a Series ride.

For those of us who put aside our personal rooting disappointments and watched, we got to see a script flipped Friday night.

We went in knowing that assorted polls pretty much sketched the Phillies as America’s team this time around. We also went in knowing numerous oddsmakings sketched the Astros as liable to grind the brave little Philsies into hamburger, one way or the other.

But we came away from the Phillies’s 6-5 Game One upending knowing we’d seen a dogfight turned strategic bombing turned bullfight all in the space of ten must-see innings. And, with just a few little shruggings un-shrugged along the way.

Until Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto hit an opposite-field home run leading off the top of the tenth, and Phillies reliever David Robertson shook off a one-out double and a two-out walk to make it stick, that is. And that’s when it might have hit, good and hard:

The ogres of the American League might have swept their way here in the first place, but they’re not exactly impenetrable or invincible. Last year’s Braves sure proved it, but some things need proving all over again. Come Friday night, the Phillies finally proved it. But it did take a little early survival to do so.

Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker got to within about a foot above several fans of pulling Realmuto’s drive back for what would have been a jaw-dropping out. He leaped, reached back, extended, everything short of a net springing from his gloves’ fingertips, but the ball eluded his reach by about a full visible foot.

“Honestly, I thought I got enough of it, but I kind of had flashbacks of the play that Tucker made on (Aaron) Judge’s ball [in the American League Championship Series],” Realmuto said postgame. “And once I saw him running back to the wall, I was thinking in my head, oh, please just don’t catch it, just don’t catch it. I knew it was going to be close.”

Nobody going in expected Game One itself to be that close.

I mean, admit it. Didn’t we think it was all but game over when Tucker took it upon himself to provide four-fifths of the Astros’ early scoring, staking future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander to a 5-0 lead after three innings?

Didn’t we think the Phillies might be a little demoralised after Aaron Nola—who’d pitched six and two-thirds perfect innings against the Astros to pull the Phillies towards their postseason berth clinch in the first place—got thumped by Tucker’s solo bomb halfway up the lower right field seats in the second and, when the game was still a manageable 2-0 Astro lead an inning later, his three-run blast a little further up those seatxs in the third?

Sure we did. We thought that, no matter how strong and deep would be the bullpen bulls for whom Phillies manager Rob Thomson would reach soon enough, the Astro machinery would either make that five-zip lead hold or pile another couple more on before the game was finally over.

We might even have thought Rhys Hoskins and Bryce Harper singling to set first and third up in the fourth, Nick Castellanos singling Harper home, then Alec Bohm lining a two-run double to left was just Verlander’s and the Astros’ way of toying with the Phillies, tossing them a couple of cookies before burying them alive.

Right?

We just didn’t quite bargain for Realmuto sending a two-run double of his own to the back of left center to tie it at five the very next inning. (For those to whom such things matter, in Minute Maid Park’s dimensions Realmuto’s double traveled 42 feet more than his tenth-inning bomb would.)

“No excuses,” Verlander said postgame. “I felt like I had some guys in good situations and just wasn’t able to quite make the pitches that I wanted to. A lot of credit to them as a lineup. They laid off some good pitches, and they were able to, when I did execute pitches, they were able to foul it off or put it in play and find a couple hits that way. Then when I did make a mistake, they hit it hard.”

“We knew they could hit when they came in here,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker. “They’re known for that. They just took it from us tonight.”

We didn’t quite bargain for five Phillies relief pitchers—including their scheduled Game Three starter Ranger Suarez—and four Astros relief pitchers keeping both sides scoreless, with a few hiccups along the way on both side.

We sure didn’t bargain for Castellanos, defying the Phillies’ season-long reputation as a defense-challenged team, running for his life in from deep right—where he’d positioned respecting Astros rookie Jeremy Peña’s power—to send the game to extras in the first place, taking it from Peña and the Astros with a past-textbook sliding, one-handed catch just short of the line.

“I felt like I read the swing pretty well,” Castellanos said postgame, “and as soon as I saw the direction of the ball I felt like I got a good jump on it. I just thought he had a better chance of trying to bloop something in there than torching something over my head. So that was kind of my thought process there, just thought of it on the fly.” Good thinking.

We didn’t quite bargain for Realmuto, either, squaring up Luis (Rock-a-Bye*) Garcia, usually a starter but pressed into relief duty this postseason—and a man Realmuto had never before faced in his life.

The count ran full. Then Garcia threw Realmuto a fastball reaching the outer edge of the strike zone. Realmuto reached, connected, and sent it on its way. Yet, for a few brief, shuddering moments four innings earlier, it was lucky for the Phillies he got that far in the first place.

Astros center fielder Chas McCormick foul-tipped a hard one straight back and straight into blasting Realmuto’s old school-style catcher’s mask right off his head. It also knocked the husky catcher backward and down. Those watching on the Fox Sports 1 telecast could hear plate umpire James Hoye say, “You all right? Stay there a minute.”

“Honestly, my head wasn’t the problem,” Realmuto said. “It just smoked my jaw pretty good. It’s probably not going to be very easy for me to eat dinner tonight, but as long as my head’s OK, I’ll be good to go.”

“I didn’t move,” said Phillies backup catcher Garrett Stubbs postgame. “That guy’s not coming out for anything.” He was right. He didn’t even move his pinkie as Thomson and Phillies trainer Paul Buchheit tended the temporarily fallen Realmuto.

These Phillies won’t come out for anything, either. Unless it’s for Game Two. And, maybe, another few steps toward their own October/November surprise. Listen up one more time, sore-losing Met/Dodger/Yankee fans. (Maybe even you, too, Padres fans.) You may end up missin’ a great Series.

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* Just why is Luis Garcia’s rocking-the-baby motion while he does that little back-and-forth, samba-like step before delivering home just fine, while the Guardians’ Josh Naylor’s rocking-the-baby routine as he rounds the bases after hitting a home run is a capital crime

I don’t have an issue with either one, frankly. I’m still a big believer in letting the kids play and, if you want to see baseball played like Serious Business, find yourself a league where they play the game in three-piece suits.

But why isn’t Garcia accused of taunting the batters he faces with it while Naylor took heat for doing it to pitchers against whom he’s just gone the distance?

AL dragons vs. NL dragonslayers

Houston Astros

The Astros celebrate winning the AL pennant Sunday night in New York. The AL’s dragons get to tangle with some NL dragonslayers from Philadelphia in the World Series.

Maybe the Astros would have found ways to beat the Yankees yet again regardless. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered if Aaron Judge could have tied Game Four of the American League Championship Series with one intercontinental ballistic launch and sent it to extra innings.

The Astros won their third American League pennant at the Yankees’ expense Sunday night in Yankee Stadium. They did it in 2017, 2019, and now this year. But if Game Four proves to be free agent-in-waiting Judge’s final game as a Yankee, it couldn’t have ended more ignominously for him and for them.

The engaging, still-young man who pushed Roger Maris aside as the AL’s single-season home run champion, already 1-for-14 in the ALCS when he checked in against Astros reliever Ryan Pressly with two out in the bottom of the ninth, swung on a slider somewhat outside on 1-2.

The guy who can hit a ball of yarn past the Van Allen Belt grounded it right back to Pressly, who speared it one-handed coming off the mound toward first base. Pressly trotted a few steps further before underhanding it to Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel for game, set, sweep, and the Yankees heading home for the winter.

It continued the second-longest Yankee pennant drought since 1979-1994. It made the Leaning Tower of 161st Street resemble the giant who’d carried an entire town on his shoulders from one end of the hemisphere to the other only to collapse under its weight at long enough last.

“I could sit here and make excuses about if a ball falls this way, a ball drops that way or a pitch is made here and there,” Judge lamented after Game Four ended. “But what it comes down to is they just played better than us.”

The Yankees spoiled themselves leaning on Judge as their in-house extraterrestrial. The Astros, say what you still will about them, didn’t make that mistake. They didn’t lean too heavily upon any single big man, either winning the second-most games in the regular season or sweeping their way to the coming World Series.

Leaning that heavily upon one big man merely held the Yankees’ other issues aloft too high. Their bullpen was injured and inconsistent. They lost key secondary elements such as D.J. LeMahieu and Andrew Benintendi to injuries. Anthony Rizzo and Giancarlo Stanton weren’t consistent second bananas to the Judge Show. If Harrison Bader proved a pleasant surprise at the October plate, it wasn’t enough to overcome Judge and Stanton combining to go 6-for-32 the entire postseason.

Oh, the Astros had some heroics of their own, of course. Yordan Alvarez looked like Paul Bunyan earlier in the postseason, enough so that enough thought he alone might be the one to blast the Astros forward. But he was awful quiet in the ALCS. There lay the Astros’ real secret weapon this time, though: if one guy falters, there are others too happy to pick up the slack.

Rookie Jeremy Peña said, “Sure, no problem-o.” A kid whose regular-season on-base percentage fell well enough short of just .300 tied Game Four in the top of the third, with two on aboard back-to-back inning-opening walks, when an ailing Yankee starting pitcher Nestor Cortes hung a cutter and Peña hung it down the left field line and over the fence fair past the foul pole.

“It’s surreal,” said Peña postgame, after he was named the ALCS’s Most Valuable Player. “You dream about this stuff when you’re a kid.” Nobody among his teammates cared two pins that he was a rookie stealing the thunder.

“If you’re in this clubhouse, you’re one of us,” said Lance McCullers, Jr., the Astros’ Game Four starting pitcher. “You don’t need to earn your stripes with us. You don’t need service time. If you’re in this clubhouse and you’re wearing this uniform, you’re one of us. It doesn’t matter if you’re here for a day or you’re here for seventeen years.”

“It’s been a blessing to play with this group,” said third baseman Alex Bregman, who’d sent Peña home with what proved the insurance run in the seventh, after yet another fielding mishap that came to define the Yankees’ postseason collapse the way their deflation from 15.5 games atop the AL East to a 10-18 August defined their regular-season descent from surreal to mere division champion.

Alvarez may not have provided strategic bombing in this ALCS, but after Yankee second baseman Gleyber Torres flipped what should have been a seventh inning-ending double play-starting toss past shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa, he re-tied the game at five each by swatting Peña home with an RBI single off Yankee reliever Jonathan Loaisaga.

Just like that, the Yankees handed the Astros the means to end the lead Bader handed his team in the bottom of the sixth, when the former Cardinal caught hold of Hector Neris’s first two-out pitch to him and sent it into the left field seats.

When Gurriel clutched Pressly’s underhand toss for the final series out, it handed baseball its first day with both pennants clinched since 1992. It handed the Astros yet another chance to give manager Dusty Baker yet another chance at the one thing that’s eluded him in his long and mostly distinguished managing career—a lease to the Promised Land.

Baker took on the Astros after Astrogate cost them A.J. Hinch, whose failure to put the brakes on the Astro Intelligence Agency’s illegal, off-field-based, electronic sign-stealing operation could have broken both the game and the organisation in half when it was exposed after the Astros fell to the Nationals in the 2019 World Series.

He might be the sentimental favourite come Series time—individually. The Astros will be up against a Phillies team that electrified their city and maybe most of the country with their own pennant conquest at home Sunday afternoon. Baker may be America’s manager but the Phillies may be America’s team this time. And Bryce Harper just may be America’s man within America’s team, if that’s the case.

No Astro delivered quite the transcendent blow Sunday that Harper did in the bottom of the eighth. Judge’s record-breaking 62nd home run merely broke a hallowed AL and Yankee team record and guaranteed his coming free agency riches. Harper’s deficit-overthrowing two-run homer held up to mean the pennant, in a rainy game that looked as though the Phillies and the Padres did more mud wrestling than ball playing.

The pitchers couldn’t grip properly or resist their landing feet sliding more than single inches on the muddy mound. The hitters changed batting gloves as often as they could. Batting helmets shone with rain water on top. New York wasn’t exactly paradise but Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park was practically a swamp. And no fan dared leave until it was done.

Harper stunned the Padres first by taking a tumbling Robert Suarez changeup on which he might have swung otherwise, once upon a time. He anticipated Suarez bringing a fastball soon enough, hoping only to find an outfield gap into which to send one, enough to bring J.T. Realmuto home from first with a tying run.

He got and did better than he hoped. He got a cutter hovering over the outer half of the plate and swung. The ball traveled about three or four rows the other way into the left field seats. The city that once hosted a record label proudly calling its brand of soul music The Sound of Philadelphia now had a new sound: bedlam.

The Biblical admonition goes that the last shall be first. The Phillies entered the postseason aboard the new three wild card system with the weakest regular season record of any postseason entrant and the eleventh-best record in the Show.

They’d survived an early season hump prompting their front office to throw out the first manager of the year. They’d survived injuries, including the two-month loss of Harper who needed the rest of the regular season to get his groove back. Both the Phillies and the Padres hit a partial re-set button at mid-season and burrowed their ways to their wild cards.

The Padres slew the NL dragons out of New York and Los Angeles. The Phillies slew those out of St. Louis and Atlanta. Then the Phillies won the pennant by taking four of five from the Padres. They ground, pushed, thumped, slashed, and thundered their way to the Series.

They reminded you that, when the dragonslayers meet each other, one of them gets fried.

They’re going to go up against an Astro team that still isn’t America’s favourite team thanks to the continuing taint of Astrogate. Never mind that only three position players from those 2017-18 cheaters remain with the team. Never mind mind that one (Jose Altuve) actually rejected being part of it. I say again, sadly: the taint won’t dissipate until the last member of the Astrogate teams no longer wears their uniform.

The Phillies haven’t won a World Series ring since the final months of the second George W. Bush administration. The Astros still hunt their first un-stained World Series rings. If the Astros think the Phillies can be taken as readily as the Yankees, the Astros may be in for a Series that’ll only feel as long as the Yankee winter now begun.

WS Game Six: Bang!! Zoom!!!

Jorge Soler

Jorge Soler’s detonation in the bottom of the third. (Fox Sports screen capture.)

Blowhard bus driver Ralph Kramden only threatened to bang-zoom his acid but loving wife Alice to the moon in the days of old. (She might have clobbered him if he’d really hauled off.) The Braves may not have threatened to do it to the Astros, exactly, but that’s what they did to win the World Series Tuesday night.

The way Braves starting pitcher Max Fried and relief aces Tyler Matzek and Will Smith worked the Astros over, the Braves needed only one bang-zoom, after all. Getting three and a half was beyond gravy. It was a six course meal crowned with a baked Alaska dessert.

Shutting out the team that led the entire Show with 5.3 regular season runs per game averaged, and the postseason with 6.7 runs per game averaged, also does that for you. However brilliant Fried, Matzek, and Smith were on the mound, though, it goes for naught if you can’t bring anyone home.

But when Jorge Soler hit that monstrous three-run homer in the bottom of the third, it let the air out of Minute Maid Park almost as fast as it took away what wind remained to the Astros. Now . . . everybody, breathe again.

The sun didn’t fall. The heavens didn’t go to hell. The great oceans didn’t dry up and blow away. The stars didn’t go out. When Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel grounded out to Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, throwing right on the button to longtime Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, for game, set, and Series, Armageddon didn’t begin.

But a few things that helped sour the Series for people who don’t live in either Atlanta or Houston ended, too. For now, anyway.

No more race-demeaning Tomahawk Chopping in the Truist Park stands or by traveling Braves fans present in Minute Maid Park. No more of the more stubbornly obnoxious among Astro fans acting and carping (falsely, on both counts) that their heroes were “scapegoated” when Astrogate exploded almost two full years ago.

But, also, there’ll be no more treating the entire Astros roster as barely-repentant cheaters because of the remaining presence of four Astrogaters. (Pitcher Lance McCullers, Jr. missed the entire postseason with an arm injury.) Even the Truist Park crowds for Games Three through Five isolated the point: they saved the “Cheater! Cheater!” chants purely for any of the four.

So now we can review and re-enjoy Fried surviving a near-disastrous near-ankle injury on a play at first base in the first inning to pitch six shutout innings. We can review and re-wonder about Luis (Rock-a-Bye Salsa) Garcia starting on short rest for the Astros, a move risky enough for manager Dusty Baker. He got away with it for two innings. In the third, disaster.

Now, we can re-enjoy Ozzie Albies poking his first base hit since Game Two. We can re-enjoy Fox Sports cameras captured a couple in the stands wearing makeshift World Series trophies for headdresses while Eddie Rosario waited out a five-pitch walk. We can re-enjoy Soler—the American League’s home run king in 2019, but somewhat lost this season, until two weeks before the Royals traded him to the Braves at this year’s deadline—hitting back-to-back, full-count liners foul out of play, before Garcia decided to sneak a cutter past him.

Dansby Swanson

Swanson reaching the Crawford Boxes in the fifth. (Fox Sports screen capture.)

And, we can re-enjoy Soler swinging as though trying to bring a great oak down but settling for bringing Garcia down instead, with the Minute Maid retractable roof open, and the ball flying over the left field seats, over the train tracks, out of the building, and rolling to the street off an awning outside.

Bang!! Zoom!!!

“I got to [full count],” Soler said postgame, “and I didn’t want the same thing to happen as the first inning at-bat, where I struck out on the off-speed pitch. So I was just kind of getting prepared for that.” That was like the Navy saying it didn’t want a Pearl Harbour rerun and was just kind of getting prepared for the Battle of Midway.

“He’s been swinging the bat so good,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker. “This whole World Series. Even just the walks he was taking were really big.”

Fried looked at last as though he had under complete control his familiar, nervous-looking glove-snapping around his hand on the ball when he takes his sign before delivering. He’d shaken off that first-inning play covering at first and getting thatclose to turning his right ankle, his landing ankle, to crumbs when Michael Brantley stepped on it crossing the pad on a ground ball.

A television replay closeup showed that not only had Fried’s foot missed touching the pad, Brantley never touched it either, even as Fried got the gloved ball on it as he fell backward. The Braves chose not to challenge the safe call. Fried picked himself up, dusted himself off, walked back to the mound, and sandwiched Jose Altuve’s runner-advancing ground out between two toasted strikeouts.

After swapping two scoreless innings to Astro reliever Cristian Javier’s one—they both  ended with slick double plays including the one he launched himself to end the bottom of the third—Fried had a breather and Javier went out for a second inning’s work. His first was three-and-three in the top of the fourth. He wouldn’t be that fortunate in the top of the fifth.

Not with Albies leading off with a walk, then taking second on a wild pitch. Not with a strikeout on Travis d’Arnaud proving the mere setup for Dansby Swanson smashing a down-the-pipe fastball into the Crawford Boxes. And, not with Freeman following a two-out walk to Soler by sending him all the way home with a double off the absolute rearmost center field wall.

Bang!! Zoom!!!

Two innings and three Astros relievers later, Freeman decided the Braves needed a little extra insurance, with the Astros down by a mere six. How to get it with two outs was the question. The answer proved simple enough. He caught hold of Ryne Stanek’s slightly dangling slider and drove it over the center field wall a little left of the Phillips 66 sign.

Bang!! Zoom!!!

“He’s been through good times. He’s been through the worst of times and now through the best of times,” said Swanson postgame of Freeman, the longtime Braves franchise face, who’s made no secret of his desire to stay with the team despite his free agency to come this winter. “Nobody deserves it on our team more than him. He stuck it out and really believed in the vision and mission that this place had. I’m just thankful for him to be on our team.”

Fried, Matzek (the seventh and eighth), and Smith (the ninth), kept the Astros so far in check there may have been suspicions that they’d been kidnapped and replaced with android replicas whose designers forgot to include batting eyes and arm strength.

As favoured sentimentally as his post-Astrogate Astros were disfavoured almost universally, Baker still doesn’t have that elusive World Series ring. Snitker, a Braves lifer who’s a mere six years Baker’s junior, has his first in five full seasons manning the Braves’ bridge.

Two old-school baseball men—who’ve learned and worked by the precept that analytics gives you what you need to know going in, but the moment in front of you and slightly ahead of you tells you what you should or shouldn’t do with that information—matched wits all Series long.

Freddie Freeman

Freeman, still the franchise face, going over the center field wall in the seventh. (Fox Sports screen capture.)

It took stout pitching and a little new old-fashioned long-range bombing to put the Braves over the top and to bury a collection of Astros with too little left in the tank,finally, to repel the invaders.

“First off, you’ve got to give a ton of credit to [the Braves],” said still-struggling Astros third baseman Alex Bregman postgame. “They were unbelievable. They pitched really well. They swung the bats, played good defense. We normally do hit a little bit more for power, and we didn’t. But you learn and move on. You use it as fuel during the off-season to get better and learn from it.”

What the Braves learned this season and taught or re-taught everyone else is that it’s possible to ride the arguable bumpiest road to the postseason and still come away from the ride hoisting the World Series trophy. “We hit every pothole, every bump you could possibly hit this year,” said the otherwise jubilant Freeman postgame, “and somehow the car still made it onto the other side.”

Potholes? Bumps? The Braves came out of a few nasty pileups. They lost franchise face heir apparent Ronald Acuna, Jr. to a season-ending knee injury in the outfield in early July. They entered the season without pitcher Mike Soroka, thanks to his re-injuring the Achilles tendon he’d barely finished rehabbing in the first place. They lost bombardier Marcell Ozuna to domestic violence charges and administrative leave.

The eventual rulers of the none-too-powerful National League East didn’t even have a winning record overall until 6 August. They broke the record for the latest season arrival above .500 they themselves held . . . since their 1914 “Miracle” ancestors arrived only on 3 August that year.

General manager Alex Anthopolous—who had to miss the Game Six and championship fun after being hit by COVID-19—swung four trade-deadline deals to land Soler, Rosario, Adam Duvall, and Joc Pederson. They went 36-14 in their final 55 regular season games. They still looked like postseason underdogs. Until.

They overthrew the NL Central-champion Brewers three straight after losing Game One of their division series. After getting blown out in National League Championship Series Game Five, they overthrew the wild card-winning Dodgers—owners of baseball’s second-best regular-season record with 106 wins—with their lights-out bullpen tandem Matzek and AJ Minter to win the pennant.

Then they lost starting pitcher Charlie Morton to a line drive off his leg in World Series Game One. And defied everyone who said losing the likeable, respected veteran for the rest of the set meant temporal and spiritual disaster for the upstarts.

When they finally reached the Promised Land, the Braves also defied several other factors. They became the first team ever to show a League Championship Series MVP and a World Series MVP who weren’t even with the team in the regular season’s first half. Their four outfield imports hit more postseason home runs together (twelve) than the rest of the team combined (eleven).

Bang!! Zoom!!!

Max Fried

Fried shook off a potentially shattering ankle injury in the first to shatter the Astros’ formidable offense.

When Sock-a-Bye Soler took Rock-a-Bye Samba downtown Tuesday night, only five men before him had ever hit three go-ahead home runs in a single World Series: Babe Ruth (1926), Lou Gehrig (1928), Gene Tenace (1972), Curtis Granderson (2015), and George Springer (2017). Soler joins Gehrig, Tenace, and Springer for doing it for World Series winners.

Only one other man ever got close to where Soler’s blast ended up. That was before the Astros became the team to be named later in the league swap that made a National League team out of the Brewers and sent the Astros to the American League.

The only thing keeping then-Cardinals superman Albert Pujols’s ninth-inning three-run homer from landing in Soler territory in 2005 NLCS Game Five was the closed roof. If the Minute Maid roof was open then, Pujols’s rip off then-Astros closer Brad Lidge might have bounded off the same awning—if not flown right to the street.

Somewhere in their Elysian Fields stomping grounds, the Braves’ late Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Phil Niekro, and Warren Spahn smiled down upon these rascally Braves while applauding madly.

The Astros went from steamrolling the White Sox and the Red Sox out of the postseason into spending most of this World Series being about as offensive as an ice cream sandwich. Except for stinging the possibly pitch-tipping Fried in Game Two, and overthrowing a first-inning battering in Game Five, the Astro offense either slept or turned up when it didn’t or couldn’t do them many favours.

“We just kind of ran out of gas pitching-wise,” Baker said postgame. “Our guys, nobody complained, nobody alibied. And I’m not going to alibi. We got outplayed. What can you do, except go home, take a shower, figure out how you’re going to come back and win it next year. Look, last year we got one game short of the World Series, and this year we were two games short of the championship.”

Baker was right about their spent pitching. Missing future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery recuperation hurt. Being without their best 2021 starter, Lance McCullers, Jr., hurt. Baker bringing his should-have-been Game Six starter Jose Urquidy in for an inning of Game Five relief probably hurt. Veteran Zack Greinke starting to show his age at last hurt.

If you ask Minter, he’ll tell you the Braves transformed themselves from a small legion of also-rans into the guys who put the big boys into their places by hook, crook, and anything else they could think of so long as failure was no longer a dismaying, disgusting option.

“We are a bunch of misfits this year,” Minter said postgame. “I mean, we’re a group of failures. And that’s what makes this team special, because we know what it feels like to fail. We know what it feels like to lose, and we weren’t willing to accept failure this year. So we pulled it together somehow—and now we’re World Series champions. It’s cool, man.”

The Astros, of course, see themselves as anything but misfits. They were very gracious in World Series defeat. (“They deserve what they have,” said Altuve postgame.) But they see themselves now the way the Yankees did in the ancient, mid-20th Century. Shortstop Carlos Correa—one of their team leaders, one of the remaining Astrogate Five, and a possible departure in free agency this winter—said it right out postgame:

“Second place is not good enough for us. I know it’s not good enough for you guys. But it speaks volumes of how good our organization is, how talented our clubhouse is. Five ALCS in a row. Three World Series in five years. I don’t know what else you want to ask from a great ball club.”

Some might want to ask that they win a World Series without the taint of something like Astrogate.

They may yet win one, even next year, since the pitching remains deep even with Greinke and Verlander likely out of the picture and their youth includes a pair of solid stars in Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez. Even if Alvarez was a one-man wrecking crew in the ALCS brought low in the World Series. Even if Altuve (32), Gurriel (37), and Michael Brantley (34) can’t keep Father Time from coming too much longer.

“People expect greatness when you talk about the Houston Astros,” said Correa, who still seems at once embarrassed by Astrogate yet unable to resist playing the rogue. “They expect us to make the playoffs every year. They expect us to be in the World Series every year.”

But now the guys nobody really expected at mid-season to be in the World Series have won it. With a pitcher defying those critics who thought he wasn’t really ready for center stage just yet. With three big swings having nothing to do with illegally stolen signs sent to the batter’s box by trash can transmission.

Bang!! Zoom!!!

Baker Agonistes

Dusty Baker

Even people who still despise the Astros can’t bring themselves to wish ill upon post-Astrogate manager Dusty Baker.

Tuesday night won’t be virgin territory for the Astros. Two years ago, they came home to play out a World Series in the hole 3-2, too. That was then: They lost twice to the Nationals, who’d beaten them in Games One and Two in Houston as well.

This is now: Having the home field advantage hasn’t exactly helped the Astros yet. They split Games One and Two in Minute Maid Park. Then, they lost two of three to the Braves in Atlanta. They may have put a sanguine public face on approaching Game Six, but second baseman Jose Altuve isn’t exactly ready to pull the champagne corks just yet.

“I don’t feel like going home is any guarantee,” he told ESPN’s Jeff Passan. “We’ve got to go out there and fight. It’s not like, OK, we go home, we got them. No. We’re playing a really, really good team. Those guys take really good at-bats, they know how to pitch, they can do everything. And we got to go out there and fight.”

The Astros lost that 2019 Series a fortnight before the Astrogate whistle was blown at last. They’ve played since with the justly-earned reputation for having been baseball’s most egregious and extreme electronic cheaters, and they haven’t always helped their own cause trying to move past it since.

One minute, they’ve embraced the villain role. The next, they’ve seemed as close to contrite as you’d expect of any team who first thought their well-exposed competitive amorality wasn’t as big a deal as everyone else made it.

Altuve’s sober realism about returning the Series home to one side, Passan has it right when he observes that embracing the bad-guys role goes only so far: “[W]hile some may see the Astros’ use of others’ loathing as backward—the reaction to your misdeed becoming a source of fuel is rather twisted—what’s the alternative?”

One alternative would be winning a World Series to climax a postseason in which the Astros really have played it straight, no chaser. So far. Disdain and contempt will remain attached to them until the last Astrogate team member no longer wears an Astros uniform. That a genuinely great team went rogue above and beyond is nobody’s fault but theirs.

The Truist Park crowds in Atlanta serenaded Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Correa with singsong chants of “Cheater! Cheater!” every time those three checked in at the plate. (It’s to wonder why the fourth member of the remaining Astrogate infield, first baseman Yuli Gurriel, escaped the serenades.) Those crowds didn’t hammer the entire team over the transgressions of the few remaining. To their eternal credit.

Nobody’s suspected or come up with any evidence that the Astros have been up to no good this fall. They blew the White Sox out of a division series after getting blown out in Game Three. They overthrew the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series after a 13-3 blowout put the Red Sox up 2-1 in the set. They answered Braves center fielder Adam Duvall’s nuke of a first-inning grand slam to beat the Braves 9-5 in Game Five Sunday night and force the World Series back to Minute Maid Park. Straight, no chaser.

But they enter Game Six with a couple of red flags flying regardless. Just what was manager Dusty Baker thinking when he sent Jose Urquidy out to pitch the Game Five fourth, when he had enough capable and available bullpen arms and really needed Urquidy to start Game Six?

Did Baker thus force himself to roll the wrong dice starting Luis Garcia on short rest against a fully-rested Max Fried, whom the Astros pecked apart early but without quite nuking him in Game Two?

Did Baker—who steadied the Astrogate-broiled clubhouse when coming aboard in its immediate wake; whose long and winning resume, historic shortfalls, and personal respect made him the sentimental favourite to win it all at last—really sacrifice a season to send set back to Houston?

Was Baker being canny in Game Five? Too clever by half? Does he know something about Rock-a-Bye-Samba Garcia that nobody else knows yet? Or, will Game Six end up another entry in Baker’s too long, too sad, often rotten-luck roll of postseason fate?

His critics often say he should have known better. His admirers say he’s been as much a victim of surrealistic dumb luck as anything else. Baker is either a big-hearted overthinker or the one-man resurrection of every hard luck team that ever reached the mountaintop and tripped to the rocks on the Jordan’s banks.

The man who’s managed more winning games than any skipper who’s never won a World Series is either Gene Mauch redux; or, he’s a one-man 1908 Giants, 1960 Yankees, 1969 Cubs, 1978 and 1986 Red Sox, 1987 Blue Jays, 2006-07 Mets, and almost every St. Louis Brown or Washington Senator, ever.

2002 World Series, Game Six: Baker lifted his Giants starter Russ Ortiz after the Anaheim Angels (as they were known then) swatted a pair of singles to open the bottom of the seventh with the Giants leading 5-0. With all good intention and heart, Baker handed Ortiz the “game ball” before turning it over to Felix Rodriguez. The Angels weren’t exactly indifferent to that.

Bing! Scott Spiezio hit a prompt three-run homer. The Angels finished handing the Giants’ pen their heads on plates to win at the eleventh hour, then won Game Seven decisively.

2003 National League Championship Series Game Six: Baker’s Cubs stood five outs from the World Series in the top of the eighth. He left a gassed starter Mark Prior in to take it on the chin and off a shortstop’s double play error, opening up what proved an eight-run Marlins eighth.

Then, in Game Seven, Baker inexplicably let Kerry Wood live long enough to surrender seven runs as the Marlins went to the World Series they’d win in six.

Baker’s often been accused of managing certain postseason games as though he’s just taking regular-season target practise against his league’s also-rans. But it wasn’t exactly his fault that his 2017 Nationals lost NLDS Game Five after swapping wins the first four games with the Cubs, either.

He didn’t ask Max Scherzer in relief to surrender a two-run double before Matt Wieters turned a passed ball into a ghastly run-scoring throwing error up the first base line. He didn’t ask Max the Knife to hit a batter with the bases loaded to finish that four-run Cubs seventh, leading to the 9-8 Cubs win.

That doesn’t exactly keep the second guessers in line, of course. I’ve second-guessed Baker often enough in the past, and I know it wasn’t his fault that that inning swallowed him alive—and cost him his job. He’s taken five different teams to postseasons; he’s been fired after 90+ win teams he managed ended postseasons in agony.

There are reasons teams have turned to him over the years, especially the one that wandered into scandal all by itself and needed an untainted human to take their game bridge, while they remade/remodeled the front office almost completely, and figure out how to steer them past it without being buried by it.

It hasn’t been perfect by any means. Baker didn’t look great at this season’s beginning, when road fans now allowed back to the ballparks after the 2020 pan-damn-ic absences trolled his Astros to make up for lost outrage time, and Baker played the whatabout card in return. He was better than that, he knew better than that, and we knew better than that.

The Astros needed heart, dignity, class, and soul to lead them out of their self-inflicted disgrace. That’s why they turned to Baker last year. But one of his 2003 Cubs, Doug Glanville, outfielder turned instructive and respected ESPN writer, has isolated perhaps the best reason Baker now has one more chance to land that ever-elusive claim to the Promised Land.

“Dusty always had time to talk to players to bring them together,” Glanville began, in a piece he published the day before World Series Game Five.

It was a priority that he not only get the biographical notes of your life, but he wanted to put himself in your shoes. Listen to your music, read about your perspective and embrace your culture. Not just as a company-wide initiative but as an evolution of life. He lets you change him, openly trying to grow. And he pushes you to do the same.

These were life lessons, not just baseball lessons. He wanted to take the gift of a lifetime of playing baseball and share it to make us all better. It went way beyond learning how to hit a curve ball or figuring out when Greg Maddux was going to throw his back-up slider. This was real life, and teammates were family. Every day was a celebration, a chance to get together over something joyous. And he was the Godfather, inheriting sons with the humility to know he can learn from them just as much as he can impart his own wisdom.

Does this make a manager better at running a bullpen or using his bench? I can’t say. But 18 years after I played for him, I still apply the lessons I learned from him as a father and a husband.

The Astros could force this World Series to a seventh game. They’d still have to win that. And Altuve is right when he suggests these Braves are no pushovers, no matter how Game Five shook out.

You may think still that an Astro loss would be nothing less than extraterrestrial justice. But you may think as well what a shame it would be that Baker has to be on the bridge incurring it if it happens. And you’d be right.