Put a meal and a stewardess on that flip

You’re not seeing things. That’s Willson Contreras’s bat in flight after the Cubs’ DH sent a three-run homer about that high en route the right field bleachers Friday night.

If you’re taking tallies to determine the bat flip of the year, Chicago Cubs designated hitter Willson Contreras should be among your top finalists. His Friday night flip in the ballpark formerly known as Comiskey Park, in the top of the third, was an absolute work of art. Enough to make Tim Anderson, Jose Bautista, Bryce Harper, and Tom Lawless resemble nursery school finger painters.

If you’re taking concurrent tallies to determine the most brain-damaged delayed over-reaction to Dali-esque flips, Chicago White Sox pitcher Jimmy Cordero should hold a place among the finalists likewise. He threw a pair of high inside pitches to Contreras and the second caught Contreras flush enough in the back, just off the C that begins the spelling of Contreras’s surname on his uniform back.

Flipped his bat high in the air? Contreras’s flip off the three-run homer he smashed on White Sox starter Dylan Cease (and Desist)’s dollar was the only flip yet where you were tempted to say what you used to holler watching a titanic home run fly out: “Put a meal and a stewardess on that one!”

If you’re going to be Fun Police enough to want retribution for a bat flip that looked as though it took off from O’Hare International and not Contreras’s hands, the time to go for it was Contreras’s next plate appearance in the top of the fifth. Cease walked Contreras on ball one up and a little in, ball two up and away, ball three inside middle, and ball four down and away.

There was no way Cease wanted to feed Contreras anything resembling the fastball that arrived just off the middle of the plate and flew the other way into the right field bleachers two innings earlier.

There was also no way Cease was trying to throw one through Contreras’s assorted anatomy, even if you could make a case that ball one up and in might have been a subtle nastygram reminding Contreras it’s not nice to channel your inner Michelangelo when you’ve already hit a ball through the equivalent of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Might.

Maybe Cease got it when Contreras defended himself after the game. “I’m not going to change anything,” he told reporters. “I play hard for my team. I always want to do the best for my team. But if they don’t like me, that’s fine. I don’t play for other teams to like me, anyways. And if I have to do it again, I will do it again.”

But there was every way the White Sox—clinchers of a postseason berth at least, hopefuls toward snatching the American League Central title, even in this pandemic-truncated season of surreal—were feeling just a little over-punished on the night.

You tend to feel that way when Yu Darvish and company are shutting you out, Darvish not quite so nail driving as he’s been most of this season—during which he’s redeemed himself to the tenth power and into the Cy Young Award conversation—but effective enough to keep you to three hits and one walk and only two runners getting as far as second base under his command.

You feel even more that way, after Contreras’s bomb flip put the Cubs up 4-0 and Javier Baez’s leadoff launch over the left center field wall made it 5-0 in the top of the fourth, after Victor Caratini wrestled your relief option Gio Gonzalez to a seventh-pitch sinker that didn’t have enough weight to pull it quite to the bottom, and Caratini sunk it into the same bleachers Contreras reached three innings earlier. Not to mention Kyle Schwarber’s second-inning blast, making for the Cubs a four-bomb evening.

“The dog ate his homework,” pleaded White Sox skipper Rick Renteria. “Detention!” replied the umps.

When Contreras got drilled, the Cubs got riled. They hollered mightily from their dugout, enough to get the umpires into a confab that resulted in Cordero, White Sox manager Rick Renteria, and pitching coach Don Cooper the rest of the night off for bad behaviour.

Renteria tried the dog-ate-my-homework excuse after the game. A second-grade child had a better chance of making it stick. “The ball got away from him,” he insisted of Cordero’s cone job. “We couldn’t convince [the umpire] of that . . . There was no warning. They just gathered and ejected him.” As if a second straight up-and-in pitch was inadmissible evidence.

Cordero tried the same excuse. “It was just a bad pitch, a bad pitch to him,” he said after the game. “The ball sunk a lot, and that happened.” Sorry. Attempted sinkers that rise enough to get a man in the back don’t sunk a lot. Detention for you.

Understand that Cubs manager David Ross is just old school enough that it wasn’t programmed into his own playing software to deliver as Contreras did after hitting a hefty home run. But the man whose first major league home run came off an ex-Cubs first baseman named Mark Grace in Arizona late in a blowout, and whose last major league home run put the Cubs up by three in an eventual World Series-winning Game Seven, wouldn’t throw his man under the proverbial bus for his exuberance.

“It wasn’t to disrespect the other group,” Ross told reporters after the Cubs finished what they started, a 10-0 shut-and-blowout. “It was because we’ve been struggling offensively and he brought some swagger. He brought some edge. I loved every second of it. I don’t think he deserved to get hit at all.”

Why, Grandpa Rossy even had the pleasant audacity of comparing Contreras’s orbital flip to the one Anderson delivered a year ago April. When Anderson ripped Kansas City pitcher Brad Keller’s canteloupe over the fence and made of his bat a helicopter rotor while he was at it, got drilled in the rump roast by Keller his next time up, and objected vociferously. Drawing his teammates out of the dugout, getting both Keller and Anderson ejected by Country Joe West—who may or may not have remembered Anderson zapping him over an unwarranted ejection the previous season.

“All the hype is on the guy on the other side when he bat-flipped, right?” said Ross. “I thought Tim Anderson’s bat flip last year where he flipped it and looked in his dugout, that’s what you want. That’s what Willson did.”

Making the White Sox resemble hypocritical flip-floppers is also what Willson did. Their Andersons can flip until the flock flies home, but the opposing flock better not even think about it. The Fun Police are now reduced to the dog eating their homework. The dog looks better than the White Sox.

Headhunters ball

Of course our guy didn’t throw at your guy’s attic on purpose. And of course we’ll take that polar beach club off your hands for twice the market value!

A little Saturday rough stuff between the Chicago Cubs and the Cincinnati Reds may or may not be surprising. But is it all that surprising that Angel Hernandez’s umpiring crew sent it near nuclear? Not Hernandez himself, for a change, but still.

The Cubs and the Reds played a doubleheader in Great American Ballpark. Thanks to his performance in the Cubs’ first-game win (3-0), Anthony Rizzo wasn’t exactly the Reds’ favourite person on the day. Neither was Cubs starting pitcher Yu Darvish, who was so effective he could (and did) drop his glove while delivering and still throw a strike.

First, Rizzo wrestled Reds starter Trevor Bauer to a ninth pitch and drilled it down the right field line and out of sight in the top of the third. Then, in the top of the sixth, Rizzo made shorter work of Bauer by hitting a fourth-pitch 1-2 service deeper into the right field seats.

But in the top of the nightcap’s fourth, rookie Cincinnati relief pitcher Tejay Antone greeted Rizzo leading off with a pitch straight over Rizzo’s head. Rookie though he may be, Antone had all the right moves at the ready, looking at his pitching hand immediately as he turned to his right.

Of course the ball just slipped away off course against the guy who took the Reds deep twice in the first game. And of course you can have that Antarctican beach club for twice the market value. Rizzo’s reputation for plate crowding doesn’t fly here, either. If you’re going to push a batter back off the plate, you’re going to throw inside and tight, not upstairs above the attic.

“We’ve played against the Reds a long time and they do like to move my feet,” Rizzo told reporters after Cubs relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel wild-pitched the winning Reds run home in the bottom of the seventh.

It’s just part of their reports–it’s been for years. I don’t think any pitcher would purposefully throw at someone’s head. I give the benefit of the doubt to every pitcher, especially Antone. He’s a rookie. He’s been throwing really well. The pitch inside was definitely for a purpose. It’s just, it’s at the head and that’s scary stuff.

No sale. Both dugouts barked. Hernandez’s ump crew confabbed as Antone stepped into his errant-hand routine around the mound. Home plate umpire Nic Lentz handed warnings to both sides. Cubs manager David Ross, who wouldn’t have paid a wooden nickel for the pitch-slipping plea, was distinctly unamused.

Ross came out of his dugout at first, returned, then came back out after Lentz handed the warnings down. “I thought our dugout got pretty animated and the umpires stepped in and issued warnings, which I didn’t understand,” Grandpa Rossy told reporters later. “We hadn’t done anything from our perspective. A young man tried to take things into his own hands and send a message, and then it kind of escaped from there.”

With the Cubs dugout still bristling over Antone’s attic pitch to Rizzo, not to mention Antone still bristling quietly over having exchanged a few “grunts” with the Cubs previously, Ross and his pitching/catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello were ejected. It’s the first ejection in Ross’s managerial career. Welcome to Angel’s Hell, Gramps. You’re not supposed to say anything but “three bags full, sir” to the crew of the legend in his own mind.

Then the Reds got a taste of both theirs and Hernandez’s own medicine in the bottom of the fourth. Cubs reliever Adbert Adzolay zipped Reds center fielder Shogo Akiyama up, in, and tight. You’d have had to be a U.S. postmaster general not to know that Adzolay wanted to send the Reds a little return message about going upstairs against the guy who took you downtown twice in the first game.

That prompted veteran Reds leader and designated hitter for the game Joey Votto to bark at the Cubs, Kyle Schwarber in particular. Cincinnati skipper David Bell returned to the field for another conversation with the umps, during which Rizzo hollered at him from first base, which lured Votto and Reds outfielder Jesse Winker out to have it out with Rizzo.

First base umpire Dan Bellino tried and failed to convince Votto and Winker to knock it the hell off, then he invited both to kindly remove themselves from the game, at which point—pandemic protocols be damned—both benches and bullpens emptied to the field, although nobody even thought about throwing a punch.

“I went over to get an explanation for what happened,” Bell told reporters afterward. “And then I believe Anthony Rizzo started walking towards me and yelling at me,” Bell said. “I don’t know what he was saying, it didn’t really matter to me. And at that point, a couple of our players jumped over the railing and the umpire just started throwing everybody out of the game. Not everybody, but Jesse Winker, Joey Votto and myself.”

“Having each other’s backs and the Reds and all their guys and David Bell are going to have each other’s backs and we’re going to have our backs,” said Rizzo, who speaks fondly of Bell otherwise from Bell’s days as a Cubs infield coach. “That’s what happens when you’re competing anytime through baseball, but especially this year when it’s all heightened and you can hear every little thing.”

The Twitterverse erupted with a round of brickbats against Hernandez as the leader of the crew, but in absolute fairness this was one time when Hernandez himself didn’t jump the first bullet train to make himself the object of everyone’s attention. That’s about as far as absolute fairness should go, thanks to a time-honoured precept that when you lead you take responsibility for what your subordinates do, for better or worse.

Including making the headhunters captured by the game the story of the day, instead of Darvish’s virtuosity on the mound in the first game. Or even the hapless and once-formidable Kimbrel’s ninth-inning nightcap disaster, when he was brought in to try saving a 5-4 Cubs lead and should-have-been win. Oops.

He walked Reds catcher Curt Casali on 3-1 to open the bottom of the ninth. He struck Votto’s successor Mark Payton out, but he wild-pitched Casali’s pinch runner Freddy Galvis to second before walking Nicholas Castellanos. Winker’s successor Aristedes Aquino singled Galvis home, then Kimbrel wild-pitched Castellanos and Aquino to third and second, respectively, before walking Eugenio Suarez.

The good news: Cardiac Kimbrel struck Mike Moustakas and Jose Garcia swinging, back to back, Garcia especially on one of the filthiest curve balls Kimbrel’s thrown in recent times. The bad news: That strikeout pitch escaped not just Garcia’s bat but one and all around and behind the plate, enabling Castellanos to score the Reds’ winning run.

Too-vivid reminders of how Kimbrel, formerly one of the most automatic closers in the Show, kept the crash carts on red alert during the 2018 Boston Red Sox’s postseason run even when credited with saves. The poor man threw four first-pitch strikes out of his six batters but only three of his eleven total strikes were called and his earned run average now matched a ten-dollar bill.

“We’re behind him every single day,” Rizzo said of Kimbrel. “Every time he comes to the mound, we’re behind him and have full confidence in him. He’s Craig Kimbrel. He has his resume for a reason.” That door swings both ways, unfortunately.

Yu’re kidding, right?

2019-11-16 YuDarvish

Yu Darvish looking staggered after surrendering the 2017 World Series homer that knocked him out of Game Seven after an inning and two thirds.

Practically from the moment Mike Fiers triggered Astrogate, there came a swell of blended rage and remorse from Dodger fans still smarting over Yu Darvish getting battered twice in the World Series, especially Game Seven. A lot of which fans now wanted to apologise. To Darvish.

All of a sudden a high-tech cheating scandal made a hero out of a pitcher whom we thought was caught tipping his pitches and battered accordingly, while any Dodger who was supposed to spot those things didn’t spot them. And who still felt the compulsion to apologise on the record just a couple of days later.

Just two years ago Darvish was Public Enemy Number One. Now, all of a sudden, he was embraced as another possible victim of the Astro Intelligence Agency. As God and His servant Branch Rickey are my witnesses, I swear sports fans take a back seat to few for absurdism.

You could have been Los Angeles’s most notorious wanted criminal, and you wouldn’t have inspired half the dragnet Dodger fans wanted to run to capture, draw, and quarter Darvish. And whatever was left of him. Now the guy who was compelled wrongly to a public apology in the first place gets a lavish bubble bath of apologies from the same fans.

“Why am I trending [sic]?” Darvish tweeted on Day One of Astrogate. “Do people finally realize I’m cool?” Priceless.

He’s too polite to reject them directly, but he’s too self-aware to accept them sight unseen. “I’m not looking for that,” he said in a post on his YouTube channel. “I don’t want them to change their minds.” Be careful what Yu wish for.

A simple “I stunk, that’s all” from Darvish on Twitter wasn’t enough. Nor, perhaps, is his further YouTube demurral. “If you ask me if I got hit in Game Seven because they stole signs, I don’t think so,” he said, in a translation by the Los Angeles Times columnist Dylan Hernandez. “The Astros have great players who don’t have to do that. So I think that whether or not they stole signs, the results wouldn’t have changed.”

Notice Darvish’s phrasing. I said more or less the same thing myself in a previous Astrogate entry. About the Astros having great players who don’t have to resort to crime, high tech or otherwise. Which is almost as much of what makes Astrogate such an outrage as the fact that they so flagrantly broke the actual rules about off-field electronic surveillance in the first place.

These Astros needed high tech spying to win about as much as Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign CREEPs needed whatever they were looking for—while so ineptly bugging Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex—for their man to win by a landslide in 1972.

And the Astros are accused only of operating the AIA in Minute Maid Park. So far. Nobody’s yet suggested they sent the agency on surveillance missions in road ballparks in the first place, never mind gotten away with it if they had.

Unless there’s evidence yet to be exhumed, it’s not very likely that the Astros bugged Dodger Stadium to get the drop on Darvish. Unless they had a mole among the stadium personnel, any Astro personnel trying to set up electronic surveillance in the road ballpark would have been caught, thrown out of the stadium, and maybe have to answer to la policia in the bargain.

Wouldn’t they?

Even Darvish himself let the suggestion enter his mind for a moment. “What’s been reported up to this point is that they used cameras at their home field,” he said, “so I don’t know if there was anything like that. But what they were doing was so high-level that I can’t honestly say there’s no chance they were also doing it on the road.”

Dodger fans wanting to make it up to Darvish should stop right at the point of apologising for wanting to hang him after the 2017 World Series. Especially since he wasn’t the only reason the Astros won Game Seven, and getting sent to bed without his supper after an inning and two thirds still left the Dodgers plenty of time to overthrow the 5-0 hole the Dodgers were in when he departed.

Memory time, boys and girls. Darvish’s Game Seven evening began with a leadoff double by George Springer and Springer coming home on a throwing error in the infield, allowing Alex Bregman aboard to reach second on the play. Then Bregman stole third with Jose Altuve at the plate, and Altuve pushed Bregman home on an unassisted ground out to first. Two runs, unearned, in the top of the first.

Top of the second? Brian McCann opened with a full-count walk. Marwin Gonzalez doubled him to third. Josh Reddick grounded out to second. And Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers, Jr. pushed McCann home and Gonzalez to third on another ground out to second, before Springer hit a full-count pitch into the left field bleachers.

Where were the Dodger brain trusters who didn’t catch him tipping pitches and fix it before the Astros could do any more damage than the Dodgers gifted them in the top of the first?

Where were the Dodger hitters who looked McCullers’s gift horse in the mouth, putting two or more on against him the first few innings including ducks on the pond in the bottom of the first, but swinging like Little Leaguers trying to hit six-run homers on every pitch and leaving the runners grounds for court martials, charges desertion?

The only reward Dodger fans got for Brandon Morrow (ending the second), Clayton Kershaw (four scoreless in relief), Kenley Jansen (a scoreless seventh), and Alex Wood (scoreless eighth and ninth) stopping the bleeding was a one-out RBI single from Andre Ethier in the sixth. The Dodgers had two or better on and men on second or better in five of the first six innings, and Ethier was the only man to cash in.

Now the Dodgers deny pitch tipping was the issue. Their roster included now-retired Chase Utley, said to be expert at catching pitch tipping. “[He] watched the Darvish outings,” says team president Andrew Friedman, “and said you couldn’t sell out on something that Darvish was doing.”

Darvish’s ERA in the first two 2017 postseason rounds was 1.62. His Series ERA: 21.60. The 2017 Dodgers won three more regular season games than the Astros despite the Astros out-hitting them—the Dodgers’ team ERA on that season was 3.38; the Astros’, 4.12. And you don’t need me to tell you the flip side of, “Good pitching beats good hitting.”

Was Darvish more right saying “I stunk?” Or did the Astros find some way to take the AIA on the road with them, after all? Were they that nervous about the Dodgers’ potential to out-pitch them?

I’ve written until I was blue in the fingers about baseball’s goats and fans inane enough to try making their lives to follow nightmares. The last time was in the immediate wake of Bill Buckner’s death on Memorial Day. I inadvertently omitted Darvish from the roll of those who really needed no forgiveness because there wasn’t a damn thing to forgive in the first place.

When Thomas Boswell eulogised Donnie Moore, after Moore’s shocking suicide in 1989, he wrote with no small indignation, “Many of us wish that, just once, we could be in your shoes and have a chance to fail so grandly. Although, if we really had to live the experience and its aftermath, which sometimes lasts a lifetime, maybe we would not.”

So Darvish had five runs torn out of him before he could get a third out in the Game Seven second? That didn’t make him a criminal. It made him a pitcher who tried and failed. The most successful people on earth try and fail, usually before their successes and more often than you think after them.

And they don’t all go to work with 50,000+ plus waiting to watch them in the office and millions more eavesdropping in front of television or radio, either.

Angel fans refused to forgive Moore for throwing a great pitch that Dave Henderson managed somehow to send over the left field fence to tie a game when the Angels were a strike away from the 1986 World Series. Haunted as it was, Moore was finally driven to shoot his wife and then himself. Only his wife survived.

He was only preceded by Fred Merkle, Freddie Lindstrom, Ernie Lombardi, Johnny Pesky, Ralph Branca, Gene Mauch, Willie Davis, Curt Flood, Luis Aparicio, Mike Torrez, Tom Niedenfeuer, and Don Denkinger. He was only followed by Buckner (in the ’86 World Series), Mitch Williams, Alex Gonzalez, Grady Little, and—so far as Astro fans are concerned (wrongly, I might add)—A.J. Hinch.

Come to think of it, if the Astros ended up losing the 2017 Series Ken Giles might have had the goat horns plopped on his head. His crimes included surrendering a fisted cue shot to Corey Seager on an inside fastball, walking Justin Turner on five pitches four of which were borderline corner calls, and throwing Cody Bellinger a fastball off the middle that was driven to deep left center to break a one-all Game Four tie in the top of the ninth.

Hinch brought in Joe Musgrove, who struck Yasiel Puig out and put Logan Forsythe aboard to load the pads for a double play, then surrendered a sacrifice fly before throwing Joc Pederson a slightly up, slightly in fastball on 0-1 and watching it sail into the right field seats.

But Giles took the abuse. Despite owning up after the game: “I didn’t do my job. Plain and simple. I let my team down.” Despite George Springer springing to his and Musgrove’s defense concurrently: “This game’s hard. They’re not out there trying to fail. I hope [Hinch] keeps giving ’em the ball. I have the utmost confidence in them, and I’m glad they’re on my team.”

Giles didn’t see another inning’s work in that Series. And it may have gotten to him a little more in the long run. He struggled in early 2018 and fumed when being lifted after a bad outing against the Athletics. He was demoted to the minors, then traded—in classic adding insult-to-injury style—to the Blue Jays . . . for then domestic violence-suspended Robert Osuna.

The Astros took a public relations beating over acquiring Osuna. And during this year’s World Series, assistant GM Brandon Taubman was fired after the Astros embarrassed themselves trying to defend his indefensible hollering with women reporters in post-ALCS triumph earshot that he was so fornicating glad they got Osuna.

Already still under questioning by baseball government over that incident, Taubman is now liable to face Astrogate questioning—as in, what did he know about the AIA and to what extent did he know it—while he’s at it.

Giles, meanwhile, regrouped entirely in Toronto. Though he finished 2018 on the down side, in 2019 he had a breathtaking comeback—a 2.27 fielding-independent pitching rate and a 1.87 ERA. Except that since he was in Toronto, nobody other than Blue Jays fans cared—if you didn’t count the trade deadline interest he drew before elbow inflammation put him on the injured list before the All-Star break.

Darvish went on to sign a mega-deal with the Cubs. He struggled out of the 2018 chute before going down for the season thanks to a triceps strain and concurrent elbow stress reactions. It’s not impossible that he put pressure on himself trying to live up to his new contract. Wasn’t the first, won’t be the last.

This year, Darvish struggled to regain his form—indignant Cub fans referred to him too often as “Flu Garbage”—before going mostly lights out in August and September: he was still prone to the long ball (well, so was American League Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander), but his ERA for those two months was 2.99.

And he really doesn’t want to think that the AIA did him in in Game Seven two years ago. “I feel that if I absolve myself and say it was the Astros’ fault . . . I can’t develop as a person,” he said in his YouTube posting.

“In life, I think huge failures are extremely important. I’ve had a few up to this point,” he continued. “The World Series was one of them. I think it will remain a point of reference for me. I’ve already learned a lot from it. So regarding that, I can’t view myself charitably. I think I have to continue to accept the results.”

That makes him an even better man than he already showed himself to be. But we’re going to learn soon enough whether Astrogate involves robbing their road hosts. And if it does, who were their Bonnie and Clyde?