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.

ALCS Game One: The world didn’t implode

Jose Altuve

Jose Altuve’s two-run homer tied Game One and turned the game’s momentum to the Astros . . . (Fox Sports screen capture.)

Before the American League Championship Series began, it was easy to remember but so hard to forget. The elephant still lingered in the room.

The American League West-winning Astros. The American League wild card-winning Red Sox. Electronic sign-stealing cheaters versus electronic sign-stealing cheaters. Right?

Not quite that simple. Not even if Red Sox fans and others still cringe over the 2017-18 Astro Intelligence Agency. Not even if Astro fans and others still think the 2018 Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring proved the Astros weren’t alone in high-tech cheating.

Those Red Sox got nailed using their replay room as a sign-stealing helpmate. But they didn’t install the video apparatus in there, MLB did—for them and all thirty teams, behind all home and visitors’ dugouts in all thirty ballparks. Their way, and they probably weren’t the only team doing it, depended on having men on base to relay stolen signs to their batters.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it one more time: With the best intentions, MLB in essence were Mom and Dad leaving the keys to the liquor cabinet behind expecting the kids were mature enough not to open up and party while they were out of town for the weekend. The 2018 Rogue Sox opened up and partied. The 2017-18 Astros built their own distillery.

Their front office used an in-house-designed computer algorithm devised for sign stealing during games, despite the designer’s warning that doing it in-game was illegal. They used a high-speed, real-time camera to abrogate the mandatory eight-second transmission delay and send opposing signs to clubhouse monitors, next to which someone sent the hitters the dope via the infamous trash can bangs.

Both teams cheated then. Both teams seemed like deer frozen in the proverbial headlights when asked to show public accountability and contrition. The Astros were far, far worse. They went far, far above and beyond both the traditional on-the-field, in-the-dugout gamesmanship and the sort of boys-will-be-boys thing the Rogue Sox and others did with the MLB-gifted replay rooms.

Commissioner Rob Manfred may have erred in granting players from those teams immunity in return for the details, but his investigation did at least turn up and discipline the key overseers.

He suspended then-Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch before owner Jim Crane fired the pair. He suspended then-Astros bench coach Alex Cora over Astrogate, but determined the 2018 Rogue Sox’s prime culprit was video room operator J.T. Watkins while manager Cora, his coaches, the front office, and maybe half the Red Sox’s players weren’t in on the replay room reconnaissance ring.

Nobody can redeem those Astros or Red Sox, even if the Red Sox did re-hire a contrite-enough Cora to manage them this year. But we can remind ourselves that, today, only five Astrogate players remain with the team. We should remind ourselves that at least one such suspect, second baseman Jose Altuve, actually demurred from accepting stolen signs and even told his teammates and others to knock off the trash can banging while he was at the plate.

Only nine Rogue Sox members remain in uniform today, too. And, the rules against electronic sign-stealing were tightened in Astrogate’s aftermath. Video room security is now three people deep. Video feed delays are now fifteen seconds over the previous eight. Players caught stealing signs electronically can be suspended without pay or credited major league service time.

This year’s Astros and this year’s Red Sox got to this year’s ALCS regardless. Remove their former taints, and you have two opponents who entered the set with suspect pitching (particularly the Astros, losing Lance McCullers, Jr. to a forearm issue) but very strong offenses. Then, you watched Game One Friday night, even if in spite of yourselves.

You watched Red Sox center fielder Kike Hernandez strike long twice but Altuve strike once to change the game’s momentum toward the eventual 5-4 Astros win.

You watched Astros starting pitcher Framber Valdez and Red Sox starter Chris Sale unable to get out of the third inning alive. You watched the ordinarily suspect Astros bullpen hold the Red Sox to four hits, one walk, and one measly run, when Hernandez—who tied the game leading off the top of the third by hitting a Valdez curve ball far over the left center field seats—caught hold of a Ryan Pressly slider and send it deep into the Crawfords in the top of the ninth.

You watched the Red Sox take a 3-1 lead in that third a ground out, a walk, and a base hit up the pipe later, when designated hitter J.D. Martinez’s hopping grounder bumped off Altuve’s glove to send shortstop Xander Bogaerts (the walk) home, before right fielder Hunter Renfroe ripped an RBI double past Astros third baseman Alex Bregman and down the left field line to score Bregman’s Red Sox counterpart Rafael Devers (the base hit).

You watched Altuve ruin that lead in the bottom of the sixth, with Astros center fielder Chas McCormick aboard on a one-out single, when he hit the first pitch he saw from Red Sox reliever Tanner Houck into the Crawfords.

You watched another Red Sox reliever, Hansel Robles, fire sub-100 mph bullets in the bottom of the seventh to get rid of Bregman on a grounder to short and left fielder Yordan Alvarez on a hard-swinging strikeout, before offering Astros shortstop Carlos Correa a changeup that hung up enough for him to yank into the Crawfords to break the three-all tie.

You watched a Red Sox reliever who hadn’t pitched in almost two weeks, Hirokazu Sawamura, surrender a leadoff walk to Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel before McCormick bounced a base hit in front of Red Sox left-field insertion Danny Santana (a top-of-the-eighth pinch hitter). You saw Martin Maldonado take a pitch off his right wrist to load the pads with nobody out.

And you saw Altuve hit a sacrifice fly to center to send Gurriel home with the fifth Houston run, though a slightly more on-line throw might have gotten Gurriel at the plate to keep things within a single run for Hernandez’s second launch of the night.

Kike Hernandez

Hernandez’s dive-and-roll catch of Michael Brantley’s second-inning-ending, bases-loaded sinking liner wasn’t enough to stop the Astros Friday night. Neither were his two long home runs. (Fox Sports screenshot.)

Hernandez’s mayhem—the two homers on a 4-for-5 night (the first such leadoff hitter in the Show to do it), bringing him to fourteen hits in 28 postseaon at-bats this time around, his MLB-record third lifetime postseason game of ten total bases—may not have been quite enough for the Red Sox to take Game One. But it was more than enough to impress Astros manager Dusty Baker.

“I haven’t seen a hitter this hot in the last week than Kike Hernandez,” the skipper said post-game, after Hernandez’s first launch came during Baker’s brief turn talking to Fox Sports broadcasters Joe Buck and Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz. “Boy, when I saw that ball go up, I was like, oh man, that was a blast. Then he blasted another one. It’s not a good feeling when you know you’re live on air and you see that ball leaving the ballpark.”

Hernandez wasn’t the only one dancing with the record books. Altuve and Correa became the first teammates to homer in the same postseason game for a fourth time. “He is just so dangerous,” said Correa of Altuve post-game. “His track record in the playoffs is insane, and he just inspires me. He inspires me without saying much.”

That track record includes tying Hall of Famer Derek Jeter for number three on the all-time postseason bomb roll with his 20th such launch Friday night. But you should have heard Altuve speak of Correa, too. “He is amazing,” the compact second baseman said of his keystone partner at shortstop. “He likes this kind of game. He wants to go out there and hit big homers. It seems like he expects to go out there and do it, so if you’re expecting something, eventually you’re going to make it happen, and that’s him.”

Hernandez also impressed the Astros and maybe even some of their home crowd Friday night with a few defensive gems, particularly his dive-and-roll catch of designated hitter Michael Brantley’s bases-loaded, sinking line drive to end the bottom of the second. But he’d have swapped all that for a Red Sox win.

“I think overall we played a good game,” he said postgame. “Once again, we didn’t do a good job of adding on to the lead, and at the end of the day, that’s why we lost. We weren’t able to add any more runs.” That was in large part because the usually suspect Astro bullpen managed to keep them to a measly four hits and a walk in the unexpected bullpen game.

With Nathan Eovaldi starting Game Two, and the still-fresh memory of being shut out by the Rays to start a division series in which they won the next three straight, the Red Sox don’t exactly have reasons to cringe just yet. Even Sale admitted Eovaldi was their best foot forward to launch Saturday.

“We’ve got the right guy on the right mound, and that’s all we can say,” he said. “Our lineup is going to bang with the best of them. There’s no doubt about that. We’ve got to do the little things right, and with Nate taking the ball, that’s everything we could ask for.”

So guess what didn’t happen when the two teams still recovering from their own Astrogate and Rogue Sox scandals—yes, listed in the order of true gravity—tangled in Game One? Knowing that no one will be comfortable with either one wholly, but the Astros especially, until the last Astrogater or the last of the Rogue Sox no longer wears either uniform?

The world didn’t implode. The flora didn’t wilt. The fauna didn’t commit mass suicide. The moon didn’t fall into the river. The sun didn’t awaken before its appointed time. The nations didn’t fall from the earth. The earth didn’t go flat.

Unless there comes fresh contravening evidence, the Astros and the Red Sox played it straight, no chaser, in a game that would have classified as a bit of a thriller had it not been for that still-lingering elephant. The one aboard which the Astros, like it or not, still look far, far worse than the Red Sox or their fellow unverified-but-certain replay room rogues do.