Now they have to do the impossible

Kyle Tucker, Chas McCormick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opening Day: Cross it off the bucket list

Shohei Ohtani

Shohei Ohtani, shown on the Angel Stadium video board during his pre-game warmup as the teams lined up on the foul lines, on Opening Day. He pitched brilliantly but in a lost cause, the Angels losing 3-1.

The owners probably won’t stop by to see what I’m about to write, but their otherwise ill-advised 1 December-10 March lockout did me one solid. But only one.

After the World Series, and as soon as they went on sale, I’d bought tickets for what I thought would be the Angels’ home opener. They were scheduled originally to open the season on the road. But commissioner Rob Manfred’s cancellation of the regular season’s first series, in light of the owners’ further goalpost-moving shenanigans, turned the Angels’ home opener into Opening Day, after all.

It wasn’t enough to turn my thinking toward the owners’ side one iota, but it did enable me to cross something off my bucket list. Despite a lifetime of loving the game and watching countless games in the stands and on television, I’d never actually had the chance to be at the ballpark on Opening Day. Until Thursday evening.

The best part of the evening was that I got to do it with my now 28-year-old son, Bryan. The second-best part was being able to cross another item off the baseball bucket list within half an hour of us getting our pre-game food and drink, after putting replica 1972-1990 Angels hats onto our heads.

The Ball

The foul ball, now crossed off my bucket list, sitting atop my notebook, before I handed it to my son.

While the visiting Astros took batting practise, a line drive sailed into our section down the right field line. Adjacent fans made it impossible for me to see just which Astro hit the ball, but the ball bounced around off seats in front of us, then under them, and riocheted off a fan two seats to our right, before rolling on the floor under us to where I could grab the ball before another fan reaching under the seat in front of me did.

I held the ball up to see for myself that I wasn’t seeing or imagining things, then handed it to my son. He’d only been asking to try to catch a ball at Angel Stadium since, oh, the first time I got to take him there—in 2000, when the Angels beat the visiting Yankees one fine evening by prying the winning run out of The Mariano himself. We’d gone to plenty of games since. Thursday night, it was pay dirt at long enough last.

Of course, there was now a game to play, and the Angels lost, 3-1. These are my ten takeaways:

1) Shoh-time! The good news for the Angels was Shohei Ohtani starting on the mound. I’m convinced that what looked to be a lockout-dejected, ho-hum crowd in advance, shot into a near-sellout once Ohtani was announced as the Opening Day pitcher. Lockout after-effect, I suspected: I’d checked the ticketing for the game just prior to the announcement and there were several thousand seats remaining for the taking.

Well, now. The day before I set out for southern California from my home in Las Vegas, I checked the ticketing again. The tickets seemed to have flown off the board once Angel fans knew it would be Shoh-time. And Ohtani didn’t disappoint, much. He pitched four and two-thirds innings of one-run, nine-strikeout, four-hit, one-walk baseball.

The best the Astros could do against him was the third inning, after he caught Martin Maldonado looking at strike three and blew Jose Altuve away with a swinging third strike: Michael Brantley banged a double off the right center field fence and Alex Bregman sent him home promptly with a base hit to left center.

As a matter of fact, when Ohtani wasn’t becoming the first player in Show history to throw his team’s first pitch of the season and make his team’s first plate appearance of the season (the Angels like to bat him leadoff), he manhandled Altuve for three strikeouts on the night, including the nasty slider that shot over Altuve’s hard swing for the third such strikeout in the top of the fiftyh.

2) The bad news: Astros starter Framber Valdez was just as effective in six and two-thirds innings. (The Angels planned to keep their starting pitchers on an 80-pitch limit for the time being, after the lockout-imposed too-short spring training.) He struck six out, walked one, and surrendered two of the Angels’ four hits on the night.

3) The worse news, for the Angels: They came to within inches of taking a 2-1 lead in the seventh. Mike Trout led off by beating out a throw from shortstop that should have been ruled an infield hit but was ruled an error. Then Anthony Rendon hit a high liner that sailed into the left field seats . . . but missed the foul pole on the wrong side by a hair.

“When I saw the ball flying in the air,” Valdez said post-game of his narrow escape, “I got mad with myself that I didn’t make my best pitch. I just took a deep breath and threw my best pitch.” That would be the hard sinkerball on which Rendon promptely dialed Area Code 4-6-3.

Matt Duffy promptly beat out an infield hit to third, which promptly moved Astros manager Dusty Baker to end Valdez’s night and bring Phil Maton in to strike Jo Adell out swinging for the side.

4) Cruising speed: Maton seemed on a bit of a cruise in relief until he hit Brandon Marsh with a pitch with two out in the bottom of the eighth and David Fletcher shot a 1-2 pitch through to the back of left center and gunned it for an RBI triple. That was the Angels’ first and last run of the game, alas.

5) The worse news, for baseball as a whole: That ridiculous three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. Under normal circumstances, if your reliever comes into the game and gets murdered right away—as Angels reliever Ryan Tepera was in the top of the eighth—you’d know he didn’t have it that night, right?

Father and son

Father (right) crossed Opening Day off his bucket list at last—and had the pleasure of doing it with his 28-year-old son.

Oops. Tepera’s first pitch to Alex Bregman sailed into the left field seats. The next Astros batter, Yordan Alvarez, hit a hanging slider on 1-1 over the center field fence. The Angels were lucky to escape with their lives after two prompt deep fly outs (Yuli Gurriel, Kyle Tucker) followed by a sinking liner up the middle (Jeremy Peña) that Trout caught on the dead run in from somewhat deep center to retire the side. (Trout also drew a loud ovation after he turned around and, from half-shallow center, winged the ball to fans halfway up the right center field bleachers.)

6) But there was good news on the relief front. Neither manager burned his relievers in the bullpens. If either Baker or Joe Maddon warmed a pitcher up, he either came into the game as soon as needed or he was handed what amounted to the rest of the night off. No Angels or Astros reliever was called upon to warm up more than once.

I paid as much attention to the relievers in the pen as I could, considering I was seated far opposite the pens behind the left field fence. The Angels used five relievers and the Astros, three. None of those eight pitchers threw any more than maybe 20-25 pitches before they were brought into the game. None of them could be called gassed going in.

Tepera simply didn’t have it Thursday night; Maton got vulnerable after ending one inning and getting two outs to open the next. The rest of the two teams’ bullpen corps (Hector Neris and Ryan Pressly for the Astros; Aaron Loup, Austin Warren, Jose Quijada, and Archie Bradley for the Angels) pitched clean-as-a-hound’s-tooth relief. Would that all major league managers were that judicious handling their pen men.

7) Memo to: Angel fans. Subject: The Wave. The 1980s called. They want their obnoxious, obstructive Wave back. One fan adjacent to our section kept calling for fans to do the Wave. I kept shaking my head, but I did notice that each of about ten attempts at it starting in our part of the park died before flowing to a fourth section of the field-level seats. Maybe there’s hope in such deaths, after all.

8) You were saying? The back-to-back Astro bombs to one side, this game wasn’t exactly the kind to send the old farts screaming to the whiskey shots. The game’s twelve total hits included three Astros doubles, Fletcher’s triple, and six singles. Altuve even stole second in the ninth, for whatever that was worth, since he ended up stranded.

9) Wasted Out Department: Altuve, the Astros’ pint-sized, gallon-hitting second baseman, also dropped a sacrifice bunt to third with one out in the seventh against righthanded reliever Warren, after Chas McCormick opened the inning with a double. Remember: A man on second with one out, and you have less chance of scoring a run after that bunt than you did before the bunt, even if you do exactly what Altuve did pushing McCormick to third.

Just what a man with a lifetime .512 Real Batting Average (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances), and a .297 lifetime hitting average with a man on second and one out, is doing thinking sacrifice escapes. With his team leading a mere 1-0 at the time, the Angels brought Quijada in to pitch to Brantley, and Brantley flied out shy of the track in right center for the side.

That’s what a wasted out did. The righthanded-hitting Altuve might have been futile against Ohtani on the night, but he has a lifetime .301 hitting average against righthanded pitchers. The Astros would have had a better chance scoring McCormick if Altuve hit away.

10) When Bregman checked in at the plate in the top of the eighth, the Angel Stadium video boards flashed a graphic with Bregman’s head shot plus this: [He] donated over 200 iPads  w/protective cases and iTunes gift cards to several Houston-area elementary schools that have autistic classrooms. He does that through his Bregman Cares charity, with a particular focus upon autistic children.

It was almost as admirable for the Angels to show Bregman such respectful acknowledgement as it was for Bregman and his wife, Reagan, to take such an interest in lending hands to autistic children. Even if Bregman’s idea of saying thank you for such respect was to smash a leadoff homer in reply.

WS Game Two: Hunted, pecked, pricked, poked

Max Fried

Max Fried—getting stung repeatedly in the second hurt almost worse than if he’d been bludgeoned.

If you look purely at the line score of World Series Game Two, you’d think the Braves had their heads handed to them in the bottom of the second. But if you watched the game, you know the Astros dismantled them, almost too simply, and with some inadvertent help from the Braves themselves, to win 7-2 Wednesday night.

As a matter of fact, when the game began you could have been forgiven for thinking it might turn into a bit of a pitching duel despite the teams swapping a run each between the bottom of the first and the top of the second—one on a solo home run, one on a sacrifice fly.

Overall that’s about how the game shook out—if you didn’t include the Astros’ hunt-peck-prick-and-poke of four runs out of Braves starter Max Fried in the bottom of the second, after he fooled Carlos Correa into looking at a particularly nasty third-strike curve ball. Jose Altuve’s eighth-inning home run almost seemed a by-the-way insurance run.

“We didn’t want to go to Atlanta down by two,” Altuve said postgame. “So we left everything we had in there tonight. Obviously, very important win to tie the Series to keep going from there.”

“Obviously, I’m not happy about it.” said Fried. “Playoffs is a big momentum game. You’ve got to do everything you can to keep the crooked number off the scoreboard.”

It might actually have hurt less if he’d been bludgeoned than it did the way he was pecked in the second. And, if Astros starter Jose Urquidy hadn’t brought his A game to the mound, leaving the Braves mostly unable to hit him even if they’d swung warehouse gates.

Fooling Correa into the strikeout must have seemed aberrant even to a pitcher who struck out six in five innings’ work and walked only one batter. The second inning made Fried’s outing look far worse than it was in the long run, but a true shelling it wasn’t. It was like getting stung by angry hornets one after the other a few times before he finally slithered out of it.

It started with Kyle Tucker spanking a base hit up the middle and Yuli Gurriel punching one through the shift-opened right side for a base hit to follow up at once, sending Tucker to third. Fried jammed Jose Siri into a slow tumbling grounder to the far left side of the mound, but Tucker came home when they couldn’t get the swift Siri at first.

Then Martin Maldonado, a catcher so prized for his work behind the plate that Astro manager Dusty Baker bears with his pool noodle of a bat, punched one through the left side for a base hit. The problem now was the Braves’ usually sure-handed, sure-armed defense.

Left fielder Eddie Rosario came up with the ball and threw to third in a bid to stop Siri if they couldn’t stop Gurriel from scoring. Only third baseman Austin Riley came trotting down the line to serve as the cutoff man, and shortstop Dansby Swanson got caught unable to get to third covering in time because he was in short left. Rosario’s throw thus sailed wild and Siri sailed home with the fourth Astro run of the night. Ouch!

Maldonado went to second on that throw and took third when Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud let one escape with Altuve at the plate in an 0-2 count. Altuve flied out with Maldonado having to hold at third, but Michael Brantley pulled a base hit to right on which Maldonado could have walked home safely, making it 5-1.

Innings like that are as common to the Astros when they’re swinging right as you might think the big bombing innings would be. But they were the best in the game this year at avoiding strikeouts at the plate and hitting in most directions out to the field.

They may also have picked up on Fried tipping pitches. No, they’re not pulling another Astro Intelligence Agency trick or three. The rules since Astrogate’s explosion and aftermath include maximum replay room security. But the Astros were known without and before any Astrogate shenanigans for picking up even the tiniest tells from opposing pitchers and exploiting them mercilessly.

Fried’s habit of wiggling his glove fingers around the ball in his hand rapidly as he prepares to throw to the plate, like an amphetamine-driven lobster clawing its dinner down to manageable bites, may well have handed the Astros inadvertent but invaluable pitch  intelligence. After the second, Fried quit the glove snapping for the most part—and retired the next ten hitters he faced.

When Yordan Alvarez walked and Correa sent a base hit to left opening the bottom of the sixth, Braves manager Brian Snitker hooked Fried in favour of Dylan Lee. After Tucker forced Correa at second with Alvarez taking third, the Braves’ defense faltered into the sixth Astro run.

Gurriel grounded sharply to Swanson at shortstop. He threw to second baseman Ozzie Albies hoping to start an inning-ending double play. Albies lost the ball as he turned to throw on to first. Tucker was ruled safe until a review was called—did Albies have control of the ball to get the out while losing it as he drew the ball out of his glove to throw on?

Several television replays showed Albies lost control of the ball after all, but not by as much as first surmised. The safe call held, and Alvarez scored, but Albies’s throw wasn’t in time to get Gurriel at first. Lee shook off a rather daring double steal to set up second and third by striking Siri out. Snitker brought in Jesse Chavez, and Chavez got Maldonado to fly out for the side.

The Braves got their second run in the top of the fifth when Freddie Freeman singled d’Arnaud home. Other than that, both bullpens kept each side behaving itself except for Altuve sending Drew Smyly’s first pitch of the bottom of the seventh into the Crawford Boxes, before the veteran reliever fell into and squirmed out of his own bases-loaded jam with no further damage.

Maybe the true shock of the evening was the Braves handing the ball to Kyle Wright for the bottom of the eighth. Wright’s a 26-year-old pitcher with a 6.56 fielding-independent pitching rate in four seasons. He had a 9.64 FIP and a 9.95 ERA in two brief starts on the regular season while up and down from the minors.

Throwing that against the Astros was something like offering to assure Hall of Famer Henry Aaron would face nothing but batting practise pitchers by decree, right? Wrong. Wright shocked the entire ballpark by striking the side out in order—including Maldonado and Altuve looking at third strikes after Siri opened with a three-pitch swinging strikeout.

“It was so encouraging to see Kyle tonight,” said Snitker postgame, even if he was thrown up as a sacrificial lamb in a lost game. “Just getting in there for that one inning and getting him out there and experiencing this atmosphere because he could play a huge part going forward. I thought he threw the ball extremely well.”

Wright lived on effective curve balls and sinkers Wednesday night. Snitker was inspired enough to ponder possibilities for Wright to spot start or even open a bullpen game during the Atlanta leg. With Charlie Morton gone thanks to that fibula fracture, Snitker needs to get even more creative with his pitching arrays now. Wright’s surprise may lift some of that burden a hair or two.

“He was locating,” said catcher d’Arnaud postgame. “His sinker was moving a lot. His curveball was moving a lot. He did a tremendous job. When I caught him in a rehab game for me, he looked exactly the same as he did that day. It was fun working with him, and it was great seeing him have the success today, especially in the World Series.”

With the tied Series moving to Atlanta for three possible games, thus switching the Braves to a home field advantage, it’s comforting to know that near the end of a night the Braves were pecked to death they might have found the Wright stuff, for however long.

WS Game One: Flash! Bash! Alakazam!

Jorge Soler

Soler swings into history and toward a Game One Braves win . . .

Yordan and Eddie Tonight, the Miniseries? The show went on, but they weren’t exactly the stars of the show Tuesday night.

Oh, they performed rather splendidly. But they turned out the headliners blown off the stage by the fourth-lowest opening performer and a wild animal act.

Which is just what Jorge Soler did with the third pitch of World Series Game One from Astros starter Framber Valdez. And, what the Braves bullpen did to the Astros the rest of the way in an emphatic enough 6-2 Braves win.

Fresh off his marquee performance against the Red Sox toward the Astros’ American League pennant, Valdez could only watch with everyone else in the Minute Maid Park house as Soler became the first player in major league history to open a World Series opener with a home run.

The audience could only watch, too, with a hybrid of frustration broken up only occasionally by their usual racket while four Braves relief pitchers kept the Astros to their only runs of the game. Not to mention helping guarantee the Braves a temporary home field advantage at least.

Valdez fell behind Soler 2-0 when he threw a sinker that dumped enough ballast en route the plate that it had altitude enough for Soler to send it on hefty flight into the Crawford Boxes above the left field scoreboard. A ground out (Freddie Freeman), an infield single (Ozzie Albies, beating out a grounder wide of the mound’s left side), and a quick theft of second later, Austin Riley split the left center gap with the RBI double.

The game wasn’t even half an hour old, and already fans of both teams must have asked, Yordan who? Eddie what?

That was before the Braves more or less snuck a third run home in the second—back-to-back opposite-field singles (Travis d’Arnaud to right, Joc Pederson to left), a long fly to the center field wall enabling two tag-ups and second and third, and Soler’s grounder to short getting Pederson caught in a rundown while d’Arnaud crossed the plate.

And, before Eddie Rosario pulled a leadoff base hit to right in the third and—following a come-back-on-message visit to Valdez from Astros pitching coach Brent Strom—Adam Duvall turned a hanging changeup into a cruise missile straight into the Crawfords and sent Valdez out of the game.

“It was my first World Series game, so I’m not going to tell you that I didn’t feel the pressure,” Valdez admitted postgame. “I think just being behind in the count so much is what hurt me more than anything in this game.”

In between Soler’s Series-opening history mark and Duvall’s two-run rip, Morton too a hard smash from Yuli Gurriel off his leg to open the Houston second. The ball ricocheted to Freeman at first for a simple enough out. Morton pitched on, getting the next two outs to end the second and then striking Jose Altuve out called on a particularly nasty curve ball.

“That one got me good,” Morton’s said to have told his catcher d’Arnaud of the Gurriel comebacker that ended up ending his season. “I’m sorry,” Morton told any and everyone who happened by after his exit and after the game ended.

He’d looked distinctly uncomfortable before throwing Altuve that out pitch. He looked pained but determined after it. Pained enough to come out of the game. He turned out to have pitched to three Astros on a broken fibula that means the end of his postseason and the Braves having to do what they’ve done best in an injury-dominated year—skip out of the way at the last second when disaster comes careening down the street.

A 37-year-old veteran channeling his inner Bob Gibson (1967: tried to pitch on after fellow Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente ripped one off his leg; fracture kept him out thirteen weeks)—and apologising for it postgame. “[I]f that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about Charlie Morton,” said Freeman postgame, “I’m not sure what does.

Morton’s been there, done that. His career’s first half was as much big and small injuries costing him a lot of his prime time as it was pitching like a craftsman in six postseasons with one World Series ring and a splendid-enough 3.35 lifetime postseason earned run average to show for it. The man is nothing if not a walking exercise in pain management.

“I didn’t think it was broken,” d’Arnaud said. “I just thought he took a line drive off of his leg. But to go out there and strike out the next guy with a broken leg, it blows my mind.” Actually, it turns out Morton’s first X-rays showed no break, but he probably stressed his leg into the break while working on Altuve.

This is the Braves’ lot in 2021 so far. They incurred, dodged, withstood, and found ways to sneak through disaster to get to the postseason in the first place, never mind the World Series. A leg fracture taking their elder starting pitcher out for the rest of the way? Tell them about it. It wouldn’t shock them if they woke up on Game Two day having been kidnapped for the unreachable ransom.

Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton, escorted from the field in the third.

“No kidding. I don’t want to know what’s next,” said manager Brian Snitker after Game One. “But this is what we do, right?” Right. Nothing to it. Hit them with a tidal wave. Send them another hurricane riding the oblivion express. To these Braves those are just sun showers and some autumn breezes.

So far. It’s not that the Braves push their luck by design or premeditation. But you can’t help wondering just how many times they can still just wave their magic bats, gloves, or arms, and—flash! bash! alakazam!—make the other guys disappear.

Snitker had to reach for one of those arms a lot sooner than he might have expected going in. He brought AJ Minter in to take over for Morton. Minter pitched two and two thirds that would have been shutout ball if shortstop Dansby Swanson, usually one of the most sure-handed, sure-footed of the breed, hadn’t inadvertently kicked Astro center fielder Chas McCormick’s hard one-out, first-and-third grounder aside, enabling Kyle Tucker (one-out double) to score the first Astro run.

Luke Jackson followed Minter with one and two-thirds scoreless pitching before handing off to Tyler Matzek with lefthanded swinger Michael Brantley coming up with two outs in the seventh. He shook Brantley’s base hit off to strike Alex Bregman out looking for the side. But he couldn’t do a thing about Alvarez’s leadoff triple to the rear of right center opening the bottom of the eighth.

Alverz came home almost predictably when the next Astro batter, Carlos Correa, grounded out to second. After Matzek struck Tucker out on a somewhat violent swing, Gurriel ripped a drive off the left center field wall whose carom Rosario played perfectly, before throwing in perfectly to nail Gurriel at second trying to stretch the hit.

Or was it? At first glance it looked as though Gurriel’s drive hit on or above the yellow line atop the wall, which would have meant home run. Several television replays confirmed what the umpires on review ruled for certain—the ball struck the wall clearly if just barely below the line. Hocus pocus!

Not that it would have mattered in the end. The Braves landed an extra insurance run in the top of the inning, when Swanson wrung himself into a one-out walk and Soler on a check swing squibbed one into no man’s land beyond the mound that Astros reliever Ryne Stanek couldn’t get on a dive. Enabling Swanson to take third, before Freeman popped out to short right with Swanson on the run home and sliding in safely around Astro catcher Martin Maldonado’s backswinging tag attempt. Shazam!

So the Braves’ M&M Bulls didn’t do it with quite the howitzer heft by which they pinned the Dodgers to the wall winning National League Championship Series Game Six. But they did just what they had to do and kept the Astros from even thinking about a Game One overthrow regardless.

Will Smith shook a leadoff walk to pinch-hitter Aledmys Diaz off in the bottom of the ninth to get three straight ground outs—two force outs at second base, and a ground out to second—and that ended the game.

Abracadabra!

“Our team doesn’t worry,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker postgame, “and our team’s very confident. We have the knack of bouncing back after losses, after tough losses because they don’t quit, they don’t give up, they don’t get down. That’s the secret of sports.”

Beware, Mr. Baker. Your very confident Astros are up against a team that’s had to bounce back from tougher losses than Game One.

These Braves had to bounce back from losing their junior franchise face to a season-ending injury, after losing key young pitcher to a re-injured Achilles tendon and a key bomber to domestic violence protocols. Not to mention losing their leadoff hitting right fielder to COVID for the entire division series and most of the NLCS.

So the Braves will have to find a few more creative ways to survive losing their elder starter and clubhouse sage for the rest of the Series, too? Big whoop. Bad as losing Morton is, this, too, comes right into this year’s wheel house. They’d surely rather not, but where other teams crumple under the weight of forced creativity, these Braves thrive on it. So far.

ALCS Game Two: The traveling Red Sox delicatessen

J.D. Martinez

Martinez—slicing salami in the top of the first . . . (Fox Sports screen capture.)

Two innings. Two thick slices of beef salami. Never before done in a single postseason game.

If there’s a spicier way for the Red Sox to recover from a tight enough American League Championship Series-opening loss than that, you may need to deploy an archaelogical expedition to exhume it.

Six teams have hit pairs of grand slams in the same postseason series, from the 1956 Yankees (World Series) to the 1977 Dodgers (National League Championship Series), from the 1987 Twins (World Series) to the 1998 Braves (NL division series), from the 2001 Diamondbacks (NLDS) to the 2013 Red Sox (ALCS).

Then came J.D. Martinez in the top of the first and Rafael Devers in the top of the second. Just like that, they powered themselves into postseason history and the Red Sox toward a 9-5 series-evening Game Two win. Even if the Astros managed to scrape, scratch, and then launch themselves out of an embarrassing blowout.

There were those asking before the postseason began whether the Red Sox could handle the team who beat them the most frequently when they met in October. The Rays beat them eleven times over the season’s final 89 games. Well, now. After an opening game shutout, the Red Sox sent the Rays home from the division series with three straight losses.

Then, they asked whether the Red Sox could handle the team that beat them with the most ammunition. The Astros beat them in five out of seven meetings in May and June and outscored them 42-25. Well, now. This ALCS is about to shift to Fenway Park after a set-opening split in Minute Maid Park.

The scoring thus far is 13-10, Red Sox. But don’t fool yourselves. The racket only sounded larger than life in Houston because the Astros elected to keep their home playpen’s roof closed for the most part. In open and cooler Fenway Park, the lack of a roof doesn’t matter. The postseason racket is manna for the Red Sox and anything but for visitors.

Right now, the Red Sox ride momentum they snatched back from the Astros in Game Two even more swiftly than the Astros wrestled it for themselves in Game One.

Things were bad enough for the Astros on Saturday with their starting pitcher Luis Garcia taking the ball on a balky right knee, the leg on which he pushes off the pitching rubber. They got worse when Kyle Schwarber opened Game Two with a double to deep left center, Rafael Devers returned from 0-2 to work a one-out walk, and Alex Verdugo waited a two-out walk to set up the ducks on the pond for Martinez.

Rafael Devers

Devers, slicing salami in the second . . . (Fox Sports screen capture.)

The Red Sox designated hitter brought a string of no hits in his twelve previous plate appearances with men on base. Martinez made up for it with one swing, driving a 1-0 fastball just off the strike zone’s bull’s eye the other way and into the right field seats.

Unaware in the moment about Garcia’s push knee, Martinez knew the pressure was almost entirely on the Houston righthander who looks almost as though he does the rhumba at the rubber before he delivers home. “[The pressure’s] not on me to come through there,” Martinez said postgame.

“It’s the first inning,” he continued. “He has the bases loaded. I’m trying to tell myself that, trying to stay relaxed and just looking for a pitch so I can just put a barrel on it.” Barrel? Martinez put a depth charge into it.

Garcia was probably lucky to get out of the inning on life support by striking Hunter Renfroe out. But after Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi slithered out of his own lesser two-out jam in the bottom of the first, Alex Bregman aboard with a two-out double as Yordan Alvarez flied out to deep center, Garcia wouldn’t be so fortunate in the second.

He walked Kevin Plawecki, Eovaldi’s personal catcher, on four high pitches. Manager Dusty Baker and head trainer Jeremiah Randall visited the mound. The entire Astros infield plus catcher Martín Maldonado surrounded them. Garcia finally admitted his right knee bothered him a good while before Game Two.

Baker lifted him for another righthander, Jake Odorizzi, who might have waited to start Game Four otherwise in the Astro plan. Inadvertently, Baker did the Red Sox what may yet prove the largest favour done the Olde Towne Team this year. Pitchers who relieve by profession get themselves ready swiftly enough when they get the call, even if they’re brought in with all the time they need to heat up when taking over for the wounded Starters don’t.

Being a starter by trade, given all the time he needed to warm up, Odorizzi went through as quick a version of his normal pre-start routine as he could muster in the moment. For him it was quick, but for the Red Sox it meant getting a good, acute, long look at him to determine just what he would or wouldn’t have coming in—and how they could or couldn’t exploit it.

And Odorizzi knew it going in.

“I was caught off guard by it, obviously,” Odorizzi said postgame, referencing the Garcia knee issue. “I didn’t know what was going on. I knew he was healthy coming into the game, so I was caught off guard by it. I think everybody was.

“My typical routine is out the window at that point,” he continued. “I hadn’t even stretched, thrown, anything, so it was going to take me a good while to warm up. I think all things (considered) — I’m sure it felt like forever for y’all — but for me, that was about the fastest I can warm up. Usually it takes me 30-plus minutes. I think I did it in under 15. So not ideal, and it’s not like it’s a fun warmup. You’re sitting there pretty much naked in front of the other team.”

Finally, the game got back underway, and the Red Sox showed how much they appreciate naked models with which to work.

Odorizzi dodged one bullet when Christian Arroyo’s long drive down the left field line banged foul off the box seat rail. But he couldn’t dodge Arroyo finally lining a base hit through the open right side, contravening the Astros’ defensive shift. Schwarber struck out swinging, but Kiké Hernández lofted a fly base hit to left.

This time, the ducks on the pond were set up for Rafael Devers, the Red Sox’s lefthanded hitting third baseman bothered himself by a balky forearm. But the forearm knew how to behave when it mattered the most. Devers pulled a 1-1 cutter that arrived up in the middle and a little inward high down the right field line and just inside and past the foul pole.

That second slice of salami tastes even better than the first. Especially with a little spicy mustard on it.

Xander Bogaerts popped out near first base, Verdugo dropped a jam shot into left for a base hit, but Martinez grounded sharply right back to Odorizzi to stop the Red Sox merry-go-round. But an 8-0 lead in two innings meant the music would play onward and upward.

With Eovaldi pitching a gutsy five and a third innings, Hernández himself cranked the music up a little further with one out in the top of the fourth. He yanked a 2-1, down-and-in  Odorizzi splitter into the Crawford Boxes. It was merely the fifth home run of the postseason for the streaky guy who once couldn’t convince the Dodgers he was worth everyday play.

Kike Hernandez

. . . and, Fox Sports getting cute demonstrating just how well Hernández sees pitches lately . . . (Fox Sports screen capture.)

The infielder-outfielder’s first Red Sox postseason’s success continued so dramatically that Fox Sports couldn’t resist developing a special visual to demonstrate how hitters on a roll are believed to see pitches coming their way—it showed Odorizzi’s splitter blowing up into a beach ball just after leaving his hand, floating up and down toward Hernández’s hitting wheelhouse.

According to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, also an in-game Fox analyst, the Red Sox hitters had a pre-game confab reviewing their attack plan against Astro pitching when Schwarber piped up with a plan of his own: “Let’s be like Kike,” the Schwarbinator said. “Spray balls all over the park. Hit ’em on top of the railroad tracks.”

Ask Hernández what turns him from a mere jack-of-all-trades with a little power and a modest career curriculum vitae into a weapon in the postseason lifetime thus far but into Hank Aaron in this postseason—especially after he was wrung out by a battle with COVID from late August through early September—and he’s either stuck for an answer or reduced to boilerplate.

“I don’t know,” he said when Rosenthal asked. “I guess feeling good. The importance of the game is allowing me to stay focused, stay locked in, not think too much about it. I’m just glad I’m able to put good at-bats, get on base, drive myself in to help us win, to get to this position.”

Sure. That oh-so-slight move forward in the batter’s box, especially on the breaking balls Hernández formerly had trouble handling, had nothing that much to do with it. From a lifetime .196 hitter on breakers in the regular season to a .700 hitter with three bombs on breakers this postseason. We’ll buy that not-think-about-it jazz—as soon as we make the last payment on that Antarctican beach club.

The Astros’s five runs seemed almost incidental compared to the Red Sox’s mayhem Saturday afternoon. With two out in the bottom of the fourth, Kyle Tucker drove one bouncing off the left field scoreboard wall to send Yordan Alvarez (walk) home, and Yuli Gurriel lined a two-run single the other way to right.

The next time they scored, in the bottom of the ninth, Gurriel hit a full-count fastball up from Red Sox reliever Darwinzon Hernandez into the Crawfords and, one out later, late-game catching insertion Jason Castro hit Hernandez’s 2-1 meatball over the center field fence. Compelling Red Sox manager Alex Cora to bring in Ryan Brasier to fool Jose Altuve into hitting a pitch on the strike zone’s ceiling to deep left for the game-ending out.

“We won the seventh, eighth, and ninth,” Baker said postgame. “But those two innings in the beginning, that’s a tremendous mountain to climb.”

In absolute fairness, the Astros’ pitching issues have proven a bump to the Red Sox’s plate formidability now. Even winning Game One the Astros were forced to get six and two thirds innings from their bullpen after starter Framber Valdez couldn’t get out of the third inning alive. Garcia being salamied on a balky knee meant eight bullpen innings Saturday.

Odorizzi gave the Astros’ proper relief corps a break Saturday, but José Urquidy—who hasn’t pitched since 3 October, and who carries a 4.14 fielding-independent pitching [FIP] rate for the regular season—is now listed to start Game Three. He’s a calculated risk even in Fenway Park, since the Red Sox team OPS was almost thirty points higher against righthanded than lefthanded pitching this year.

It also meant Odorizzi out of any Game Four plan, maybe not even a topic until a Game Six if the set gets there. It may mean Valdez having to start Game Four on short rest. Not to mention that the Astros can’t afford any more short starts—and once-formidable Zack Greinke isn’t exactly stretchable anymore. With his own regular season 4.16 ERA but 4.71 FIP, Greinke may even be a bigger risk now if he has to work past forty pitches.

Losing Lance McCullers, Jr. to a forearm muscle strain for the ALCS is hurting a lot more than the Astros bargained for, so far.

Cora bet the ranch that he could get away with a running of the bulls in Game One because Eovaldi would give the pen itself relief on Saturday and leave the manager the option of starting Nick Pivetta and Eduardo Rodriguez in the first two Fenway games, the order unknown at this writing. Cora won that bet.

It didn’t hurt that the Red Sox opened a traveling delicatessen in Houston Sunday with salami prominently on display, either.