Hinch didn’t blow it, the Nats won it.

2019-11-01 ZackGreinke

Zack Greinke walks off the field in Game Seven. His manager made the right move to follow. The Nats made the righter one to win.

It’s not going to make the pill any easier to swallow, but it wasn’t A.J. Hinch’s fault. He’s not the reason the Astros lost a World Series they seemed destined to win both going in and while they were just eight outs from the Promised Land.

I know Hinch didn’t even think about bringing Gerrit Cole in if he’d decided Zack Greinke had had enough. I second guessed it myself when first writing about Game Seven. And I was really wrong. Just as you are, Astroworld, to lay the loss on Hinch’s head. The Nats beat the Astros, plain and simple. Through no fault of Hinch’s.

He wasn’t even close to having lost his marble. Singular. He actually managed just right in that moment. It’s no more his fault that Howie Kendrick made him look like a fool right after he made his move than it was his fault the Astros couldn’t bury a Max Scherzer who had nothing but meatballs, snowballs, grapefruits, and cantaloupes to throw, two days after Scherzer’s neck locked up so tight it knocked him out of Game Five before the game even began.

Max the Knife wasn’t even a butter knife starting Game Seven and the best the Astros could do against him was an inning-opening solo home run by Yuli Gurriel and an RBI single by Carlos Correa. Remember, as so many love to bleat, the manager doesn’t play the game. Not since the end of the player-manager era.

And I get the psychological factor that would have been involved if Hinch brought Cole in instead of Will Harris. Likely American League Cy Young Award winner in waiting in to drop the hammer and nail down a win and a trophy. The Nats may have spanked Cole and company in Game One but Cole manhandled them in Game Five.

Even the Nats thought Cole was likely to come in if Greinke was coming out and, as their hitting coach Kevin Long said after Game Seven, they would have welcomed it after the surgery Greinke performed on them until the top of the seventh.

You had to appreciate an anyone-but-Greinke mindset among the Nats. Maybe even think within reason that that kind of thinking—never mind Anthony Rendon homering with one out in the top of the seventh— would leave them even more vulnerable once Cole went to work.

Pay attention, class. Cole pitched magnificently in 2019 and his earned run average was 2.19 with a postseason 1.72. But Harris, believe it or not, was a little bit better: his regular season ERA was 1.50 and his postseason ERA until Game Seven was (read carefully) 0.93.

Cole led the American League with a 2.64 fielding-independent pitching rate and Harris finished the season with a 3.15, but all that means is that Harris depends on the Astros’ stellar defense a little bit more than Cole does. And Harris walks into a few more dicey situations in his line of work. Plus, Cole never pitched even a third of an inning’s relief in his entire professional career, major and minor league alike.

Don’t even think about answering, “Madison Bumgarner.” Yes, Bumgarner closed out the 2014 World Series with shutout relief. And it began by going in clean starting in the bottom of the fifth. Bruce Bochy, who may or may not stay retired as I write, didn’t bring MadBum into a man on first/one-out scenario.

When Hinch said after Game Seven that he planned to use Cole to nail the game down shut if the Astros kept a lead, he was only saying he planned to use Cole where he was suited best, starting a clean inning, his natural habitat. Harris is one of his men whose profession involves walking into fires of all shapes and sizes when need be.

It was need-be time in Game Seven. Even Cole acknowledged as much in the breach, when he said postgame, “We just went over the game plan and he laid out the most advantageous times to use me. And we didn’t get to that position.”

Why lift Greinke after only eighty pitches on the night? Greinke historically is almost as tough on a lineup when he gets a third crack at it, but things really are a little bit different in the World Series. Even if Greinke did surrender a single run in four-and-two-thirds Game Three innings.

He may have performed microsurgery on the Nats through six but he’s not the long distance operator he used to be anymore, either, at 36. And he hadn’t exactly had an unblemished postseason before the Series. He’d been battered by the Rays in the division series; he’d been slapped enough by the Yankees in the ALCS.

As Hinch himself observed after Game Seven ended, “We asked him to do more today than he had done, and pitched deeper into the game more than he had done in the entire month of October. I wanted to take him out a bat or two early rather than a bat or two late.”

And Greinke himself believed the Nats were a lot more tough than their evening full of pre-seventh inning soft contacts at the plate indicated. “They got a good lineup, especially the top of the order,” he told reporters after the game. “It’s tough to get through no matter one time, two times, three times. All of them are tough. Really good hitters up there.”

He got the proof of that when Rendon hammered his 1-0 service halfway up the Crawford Boxes and Juan Soto focused for a walk on 3-1. When it’s winner-take-all you don’t want even a Greinke in a position to fail or for the Nats to be just a little bit better after all.

Hinch wasn’t going to walk his effective but lately erratic closer Roberto Osuna into this moment despite Osuna’s 2.63 ERA, 0.88 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, and league-leading 38 saves on the regular season. Osuna’s postseason ERA was up over 3.50 and his WHIP was reaching 2.00.

So Hinch, one of the most thoughtful and sensitively intelligent managers in the game today, really did reach for his absolute best option in the moment. He was right, I was wrong, and the only thing wrong with Hinch’s move wore a Nationals uniform.

The best teams in baseball get beaten now and then. The best pitchers in the game get beaten. The smartest managers in the game get beaten even when they make the right move. The only more inviolable baseball law than Berra’s Law is the law that says somebody has to lose. And now and then someone’s going to beat the best you have in the moment.

This was not Joe McCarthy starting Denny Galehouse over Mel Parnell with the 1948 pennant on the line.

This was not Casey Stengel failing to align his World Series rotation so Hall of Famer Whitey Ford (whose two shutouts are evidence for the prosecution) could start more than two 1960 World Series games.

This was not Gene Mauch panicking after a rookie stole home on his best pickoff pitcher and thinking he could use Hall of Famer Jim Bunning and Chris Short on two days’ rest in the last days of 1964.

This was not Don Zimmer doghousing Bill Lee, his best lefthander against the Yankees, and choosing Bobby (Ice Water In His Veins) Sprowl over Luis Tiant to stop what became the Boston Massacre in 1978.

This was not John McNamara with a weak bullpen and a heart overruling his head to send ankle-compromised Bill Buckner out to play one more inning at first base in the bottom of the tenth, Game Six, 1986.

This was not Dusty Baker sending an already season long-overworked Mark Prior back out for the top of the eighth with the Cubs six outs from going to the 2003 World Series.

This was not Grady Little measuring Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez’s heart but forgetting to check his petrol tank in Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series.

This was not Mike Matheny refusing to even think about his best reliever, Trevor Rosenthal, simply because it wasn’t yet a “proper” save situation with two on, a rusty Michael Wacha on the mound, and Travis Ishikawa checking in at the plate in the bottom of the ninth in Game Five of the 2014 National League Championship Series.

This was not Buck Showalter getting his Matheny on with the best relief pitcher in baseball (Zach Britton) not even throwing in the pen, never mind ready to go, with two on and Edwin Encarnacion checking in—in a two-all tie in the bottom of the eleventh—against a mere Ubaldo Jimenez at the 2016 American League wild card game plate. Because that, too, just wasn’t, you know, a “proper” save situation.

Hinch did exactly he should have done in the moment if he was going to lift Greinke. He reached for the right tool for the job. So did Mauch, in the 1986 ALCS, with the Angels on the threshold of the 1986 World Series, if he was going to lift Mike Witt but not trust Gary Lucas after the latter plunked Rich Gedman, turning it over to Donnie Moore.

It wasn’t Mauch’s or Moore’s fault that he threw Dave Henderson the perfect nasty knee-high, outer-edge forkball, the exact match to the one Henderson had just foul tipped away, and Henderson had to reach hard and wide again to send it over the left field fence.

It wasn’t Hinch’s fault that Harris threw Kendrick the best he had to throw, too, a cutter off the middle and at the low outside corner, and watched it bonk off the right field foul pole. Just ask Harris himself, as a reporter did after Game Seven: “It’s every reliever’s worst nightmare. [Kendrick] made a championship play for a championship team.”

Better yet, ask Correa, the only Astro somehow to have a base hit with a runner on second or better Wednesday night. “The pitch he made to Howie—I just don’t understand how he hit that out,” he said. “It doesn’t add up. The way he throws his cutter, it’s one of the nastiest cutters in the game. Down and away, on the black, and he hits it off the foul pole.”

Now and then even the best teams in the game get beaten. Now and then even the best pitchers in the game get beaten. Sometimes more than now and then. Nobody was better in their absolute primes this century than Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander. Yet Kershaw has a postseason resume described most politely as dubious and Verlander’s lifetime World Series ERA is 5.68.

And even the smartest skippers in the game lose. Hall of Famer John McGraw got outsmarted by a kid player-manager named Bucky Harris in Game Seven of the 1924 World Series, though even Harris needed four shutout relief innings from aging Hall of Famer Walter Johnson and a bad hop over Giants third baseman Freddie Lindstrom to secure what was previously Washington’s only known major league World Series conquest.

McCarthy and Stengel were at or near the end of Hall of Fame managing careers (Stengel was really more of a caretaker as the 1962-65 Mets sent out the clowns while their front office built an organisation) when they made their most fatal mis-judgments.

And yet another Hall of Famer, Tony La Russa, suffered a fatal brain freeze. His failure to even think about his Hall of Fame relief ace Dennis Eckersley earlier than the ninth-inning save situations cost him twice and would have kept the Reds from a 1990 Series sweep, if not from winning the Series itself.

The Astros had seven men bat with men in scoring position in Game Seven and only Correa nailed a base hit. The Nats went 2-for-9 in the same position. And, for a change, left three fewer men on than the Astros did.

The Astros couldn’t hit a gimp with a hangar door. The Nats punctured an Astro who dealt trump for six innings and made two fateful mistakes in the seventh that the Nats took complete advantage of. Then their best relief option in the moment got thumped with his absolute best pitch.

Because baseball isn’t immune to the law of unintended consequences, either. It never was. It never will be. The Astros were the better team until the World Series. The Nats ended up the better team in the World Series. And that isn’t exactly unheard of, either.

Few teams in baseball have been better than the 1906 Cubs, the 1914 Philadelphia Athletics, the 1954 Indians, the 1960 Yankees, the 1969 Orioles, the 1987 Cardinals, the 1988 and 1990 A’s, the 2003 Yankees, and the 2006 Tigers. They all lost World Series in those years. And two of them (’60 Yankees; ’87 Cardinals) went the distance before losing.

Yet the Nats scored the greatest upset in the history of the Series, and not just because they’re the first to reach the Promised Land entirely on the road. The Astros were Series favourites by the largest margin ever going in. And only the 1914 Braves were down lower during their regular season than the Nats were in late May this year.

But that year’s A’s, the first of two Connie Mack dynasties, weren’t favoured as heavily to win as this year’s Astros.

The Dodgers were overwhelming National League favourites to get to this World Series—until Kendrick’s monstrous tenth-inning grand slam. Then the Cardinals were favoured enough to make it—until they ran into a Washington vacuum cleaner that beat, swept, and cleaned them four straight.

The Astros didn’t have it that easy getting to this Series. The ornery upstart Rays made them win a pair of elimination games first. Then it took Yankee skipper Aaron Boone’s dice roll in the bottom of the ALCS Game Six ninth—refusing to walk Jose Altuve with George Springer aboard and comparative spaghetti-bat Jake Marisnick on deck—to enable Altuve’s mammoth two-run homer off a faltering Aroldis Chapman with the pennant attached.

Hinch made the right move in the circumstance and the moment and the Nats made the righter play. The championship play, as Correa put it. The play for the Promised Land. Soto’s eighth-inning RBI single and Eaton’s ninth-inning two-run single were just insurance policies.

When Hinch says that not bringing in Cole was a mistake he’d have to live with, he shouldered a blame that wasn’t his to shoulder. Even if his happen to be the strongest in Astroworld.

One for the road. And, the ages.

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The road was anything but lonesome for the Nationals this World Series.

From early in the season, when the Nationals were left for dead, and their manager left for death row, gallows humour often salved. So has it done though a lot of the now-concluded World Series. Such humour didn’t exactly hurt after their stupefying Game Six win in Houston, either.

Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki, himself hoping for a Game Seven return appearance after an absence due to a hip issue, couldn’t resist, after Max Scherzer showed up alive and throwing Tuesday. “We were all kind of making fun of him,” Suzuki told an interviewer, “saying he was going to rise from the dead.”

You could say that about the Nats themselves. They’ve been rising from the dead since the regular season ended, too. They won the World Series, beating the Astros 6-2 in Game Seven, rising from the dead, too. Inspired in large part by a pitcher who looked for most of his five innings’ work as though his ghost was on the mound clanking in chains.

And, with neither team able to win at home this time around. For the first time in the history of any major team sport whose championship is chosen in a best-of-seven set. The Nats and the Astros burglarised each other’s houses and left nothing behind, not even an old, tarnished butter knife in the silverware drawer. And the Astros’ hard-earned home field advantage proved the Nats’ road to the Promised Land.

Unearth Canned Heat warbling “On the Road Again,” from the opening tamboura drone to the final harmonics and all harmonica-weeping points in between. Crank up the Doors swinging “Roadhouse Blues.” Pay particular attention to the closing couplet: The future’s uncertain/the end is always near.

For five innings Wednesday night the Nats’ future was as uncertain as the Astros’ end was as near and clear as a 2-0 lead could make it. And try to figure out just how Scherzer with less than nothing other than his sheer will kept it 2-0 while getting his . . .

No. Not Houdini, for all his Game Seven escape acts. Scherzer wasn’t even a brief impersonation of Max the Knife, but after Wednesday he ought to think about a stand in Las Vegas. He’d make Penn & Teller resemble a pair of street hustlers. David Copperfield’s a mere practical joker next to this.

“You can’t really call it a miracle,” said Nats right fielder Adam Eaton post-game, “but it will be a reality-TV movie. Come on, how many books are going to be written about this?” Let’s see . . . Bluff, The Magic Dragons? 20,000 Leagues Beneath Belief? Four Innings Before the Mast? The Nats in the Hat Come Back?

Making baseball’s best team on the year take a long walk into winter has all the simplicity of quantum physics. Doing it when you send a pitcher to the Game Seven mound with nothing but his stubborn will is only slightly less complex.

“I don’t think anybody really knew what to expect when he took the ball,” said Nats reliever Sean Doolittle after the game. “After what he went through with his neck, you don’t know how that’s going to hold up with his violent delivery. You don’t know what his stamina is going to be like. But with Max, we’ve come to expect the unexpected. It was gutsy, man . . . He willed us to stay in the game and that was awesome. I know guys fed off it.”

But on a night Astros starter Zack Greinke operated like a disciple of legendary Texas cardiovascular surgeon Michael DeBakey with the Nats practically on life support, that could have been fatal. Until Patrick Corbin, Anthony Rendon, Howie Kendrick, Juan Soto, Daniel Hudson, and—reality check, folks—the lack of Gerrit Cole made sure it wasn’t.

Scherzer pulled rabbits out of his hat and anyplace else he could find them and was almost lucky that only two of the hares treated him like Elmer Fudd. Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel sent a 2-1 slider with as much slide as a piece of sandpaper into the Crawford Boxes in the bottom of the second, and Carlos Correa whacked an RBI single off Anthony Rendon’s glove at third in the bottom of the fifth.

Nats manager Dave Martinez called for a review on that play, ostensibly to determine whether Yordan Alverez’s foot was actually off the pad after he rounded but was held at third on the play, but realistically to give Corbin a little more warmup time. Then Corbin went to work starting in the bottom of the sixth. And the Nats went to work in earnest in the top of the seventh.

With one out and Greinke still looking somewhat like a smooth operator, Rendon caught hold of a changeup reaching toward the floor of the strike zone and drove it midway up the Crawford Boxes. One walk to Soto later, Greinke was out of the game and Will Harris was in. With Cole—who’d paralysed the Nats in Game Five, and who was seen stirring in the Astro bullpen a little earlier Wednesday night—not even a topic.

For which the Astros’ usually clever, always sensitively intelligent manager A.J. Hinch is liable to be second guessed until the end of time or another Astros lease on the Promised Land, whichever comes first. If he thought Greinke at a measly eighty pitches was done, why not reach for Cole who’d hammerlocked the Nats in Game Five and probably had an inning or three in his tank?

“I wasn’t going to pitch him unless we were going to win the World Series and have a lead,” Hinch said matter-of-factly after the game. “He was going to help us win. He was available, and I felt it was a game that he was going to come in had we tied it or taken the lead. He was going to close the game in the ninth after I brought [Roberto] Osuna in had we kept the lead.”

“They got a good lineup, especially the top of the order,” Greinke himself said. “It’s tough to get through no matter one time, two times, three times. All of them are tough. Really good hitters up there.”

Except that Hinch still had a 2-1 lead when he thanked Greinke for a splendid night’s work.”He was absolutely incredible . . . he did everything we could ask for and more,” said Hinch when it was all over. “He was in complete control, he made very few mistakes, in the end the home run to walk was the only threat to him.”

You can bet that even the Nats thought Hinch would reach for Cole in that moment. It’s the Casey Stengel principle, as his biographer Robert W. Creamer once described: if you have an opening, shove with your shoulder. If you think your man is done but you still need a stopper, you reach for him like five minutes ago.

And in one or two corners of the Nats dugout the thought of Cole coming in was actually welcome. “When we saw Cole warming up,” coach Kevin Long told reporters after the game, “we were almost like, ‘Please bring him in.’ Because that’s how good Zack Greinke was.”

But Harris it was. He was one of the Astros’ most reliable bullpen bulls on the season, and he’d been mostly likewise through this postseason. But after swinging and missing on a curvaceous enough curve ball, Kendrick found the screws on a cutter off the middle and sent it the other way, down the right field line, and ringing off the foul pole with a bonk! that no one sitting in Minute Maid Park is liable to forget for ages yet to come.

“I made a pretty good pitch,” Harris said after the game. “He made a championship play for a championship team.”

“The pitch he made to Howie—I just don’t understand how he hit that out,” said Carlos Correa, the only Astro somehow to have a base hit with a runner on second or better Wednesday night. “It doesn’t add up. The way he throws his cutter, it’s one of the nastiest cutters in the game. Down and away, on the black, and he hits it off the foul pole. It was meant to be, I guess, for them. I thought we played great, but they played better. It was their year.”

Osuna relieved Harris and settled the Nats after surrendering an almost immediate base hit to Nats second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, but he wouldn’t be that fortunate in the eighth. He walked Eaton with one out, but Eaton stole second with Rendon at the plate and, after Rendon flied out, Soto pulled a line single to right to send Eaton home.

Ryan Pressly ended the inning by getting a line drive out from Cabrera, but another Astro reliever, Joe Smith, wouldn’t be that fortunate in the ninth. Ryan Zimmerman led off with a single up the pipe; Yan Gomes bounced one back to the box enabling Smith to get Zimmerman but not the double play; Victor Robles stroked a soft-punch line single into center; and, Trea Turner fought his way to a walk and ducks on the pond.

Hinch reached for Jose Urquidy, his Game Four opener and five-inning virtuoso back in Washington. But Eaton reached for and lined a hit into shallow enough center with Gomes scoring in a flash and Robles coming in behind him, freed up when Astro center fielder Jake Marisnick, usually one of the surest defensive hands they have, lost the handle on the ball and gave Robles room to move.

And, giving Hudson all the room he needed to pop George Springer out at second and to strike Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley out swinging to pop the corks and blow the lid off 95 years worth of Washington baseball frustration. Which looked impossible in late May, looked improbable just last weekend, but looks just as impossible the morning after.

Believing that Rendon could become only the fifth man to homer in Games Six and Seven of the same Series (behind Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Roberto Clemente, plus Allen Craig and—a mere two years ago—Springer himself) was more plausible. Believing Harris could become the first pitcher hung with a blown save in a Game Seven at home since Boston’s Roger Moret in 1975 wasn’t, necessarily.

But believing no World Series combatant would win even a single game at home in a seven game set defies everything. The Nats outscored the Astros 30-11 in Minute Maid Park; the Astros out-scored the Nats 19-3 in Nationals Park. The Astros played their heads, hearts, and tails off all year long to get the postseason’s home field advantage, and the Nats swooped in to rob them blind.

All game long the world seemed to think Martinez had lost his marble—singular—letting Scherzer stay on the mound despite have nothing to challenge the Astros with except meatballs, snowballs, and grapefruits. The skipper who eluded execution after 23 May now looked as though they’d pull the guillotine with his name on it back out of storage. Then the final three innings made him look like Alfred Hitchcock.

That 19-31 start to the Nats’ season? The worst for any team that went on to win that year’s World Series. From twelve under .500 to the Promised Land? You have company, now, 1914 Miracle Braves. An 8-1 postseason road record including eight straight road wins en route the trophy? Good morning, 1996 Yankees.

The first number one draft overall to end his season as the World Series MVP? Welcome to the party, Stephen Strasburg. The sixth man to hit a go-ahead homer in the seventh or later in a World Series? Roger Peckinpaugh, Hal Smith, Bill Mazeroski, Ray Knight, and Alfonso Soriano, meet Howie Kendrick, who’s now the only man in postseason history with more than one go-ahead homer in the seventh or later in elimination games.

The youngest man to hit the most homers in a single postseason and three in a single World Series? Today you are a man, Juan Soto.

All that courtesy of MLB.com and ESPN’s Stats and Info department. They give you the numbers. But they can’t really account for that old Nats magic. Nobody can, try though they might. The Nats just hope this isn’t the end of it. Which might be tricky if the Nats can’t convince Anthony Rendon to stay rather than play the free agency market or Strasburg not to exercise his contract’s opt-out option.

Cole is also a pending free agent. And he plopped a postgame cap on his head bearing the logo of his agent Scott Boras’s operation. When an Astro spokesman asked him to talk to reporters after the game, he was heard saying, “I’m not an employee of the team.” Then, he said he’d talk “as a representative of myself, I guess.”

Liable to be this year’s American League Cy Young Award winner, and facing maybe the fattest payday ever handed to a prime pitcher, Cole wouldn’t say if the Astros losing the World Series prompted him to declare his free agency that swiftly, that emphatically. He wouldn’t say whether he was mad that Hinch didn’t bring him in.

“We just went over the game plan and he laid out the most advantageous times to use me,” Cole told reporters. “And we didn’t get to that position.”

For Altuve, arguably the heart and soul of the Astros on the field and in the clubhouse alike, the heartbreak was impossible to hide. “I don’t think I can handle this,” he said candidly. “It’s really hard to lose Game Seven of the World Series. What I can tell you is we did everything we could . . . We did everything to make it happen. We couldn’t, but that’s baseball.”

Sometimes it’s even harder to win Game Seven. That’s baseball, too. The Nats stand in the Promised Land as living, breathing, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in Show” proof.

D.C. traffic jams don’t jam the Astros

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George Springer and Carlos Correa celebrate the Astros’ Game Three win Friday night.

The Washington Post‘s nonpareil baseball essayist, Thomas Boswell, couldn’t contain his joy. World Series Game Three loomed in Nationals Park, and Boswell—who never kept quiet about wanting to see baseball back in Washington in all the years it was absent—was almost beside himself.

With every post-season game,” he tweeted, “the Nats crowd arrives earlier & earlier. I just looked up and realized the place is full—FULL—and it’s 30 minutes before first pitch. And I don’t even know how long it’s been that way. Metro stop & Half Street jammed, all red, hours before game.

And well enough before Nats Park jammed full, the word came forth that Donald Trump wouldn’t be invited to throw out a ceremonial first pitch, even though President Tweety planned to attend Game Five if a Game Five proved necessary. The usual suspects on one side hemmed, the usual suspects on the other side hawed, but just because a man is a screwball doesn’t necessarily mean he can throw one.

Finally, both sides came out of their dugouts to line up on the foul lines. The Nats played the gracious hosts and laid the red carpets out from both dugouts for the Astros and the Nats to trod on their way out to the lines. The appropriately named church singer D.C. Washington sang “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Then Astros leadoff hitter George Springer gave Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki a good-luck pat on the chest protector as he checked in at the plate. The two exchanged friendly glances. And from that moment until the final out, we learned that the Astros are less unnerved by Washington traffic jams than Washingtonians are about Dupont Circle rush hours.

It proved easier for the clunkiest SUV to pass through the eye of a pileup than it did for the Nats to cash in all but one of the men they planted on the pillows en route the Astros’ 4-1 Game Three win Friday night. All the adoring home racket in the ballpark couldn’t coax the Nats into cashing in nobody from second base or better all night long, any more than all the adoring racket in Minute Paid Park stopped them from bushwhacking the Astros in Games One and Two.

This time, the Astros’ bats produced a strong enough version of the ones that delivered the American League’s third-most runs in the regular season, even if they weren’t yet total destroyers again. The Astros in the field made it look as though Game Two was just a one-in-a-thousand nightmare. And the Astro bullpen, pressed into service after four and a third innings, actually out-pitched starter Zack Greinke.

In other words, the Astros made this World Series look good, close, and tight all over again, even if the road team is doing the winning so far. And they guaranteed themselves at least a Game Five with Gerrit Cole on the mound. But the better news for the Astros was rediscovering their better selves just in time.

Overcoming 2-0 and now 2-1 posteseason deficits is a lot simpler than being in the hole 3-0. And the Astros have been 2-1 before. They won a World Series two years ago after falling into such a hole. They can afford to get their Alfred E. Neuman on now. What—us worry?

Which is exactly how they came into Game Three after a players’ meeting following the Game Two disaster. But don’t kid yourselves. They didn’t win Game Three because of any sort of rah-rah or black magic, even if they might have been tempted to rock around the cauldron in the clubhouse beforehand. They won Game Three because they’re still one helluva baseball team.

“The key was that we stayed confident,” said Jose Altuve, who wears the sash as the Astros’ true heart and soul, and who continued his own solid hitting pace, told reporters after the game. “We didn’t panic. Yes, the first two games, we didn’t do some things, but we keep believing in us. And guess what? Tonight we went out there and we make it happen.”

They made it happen and the Nats didn’t. The Nats became the first World Series team to go 0-for-10 with men on second or better in a Fall Classic game since the 2008 Phillies and the seventeenth in Series history overall. The good news for the Nats is that those Phillies went on to win the Series, anyway.

They’ve been in worse places this year and lived to tell about them. But they also have to remind themselves that the Astros weren’t going to look like a lost tribe forever. The Astros didn’t put up three straight 100+ win seasons or get to shoot for a second World Series trophy in three years by cowering after any pair of back-to-back losses.

They also loved getting to play what their future Hall of Fame pitcher Justin Verlander called old-time baseball. “Tension, traffic, strategy, decisions,” Verlander told reporters Friday night. “People were standing up most of the time. These are the two best teams in baseball at putting the ball into play. It should be like this.”

Give the Astros gifts, though, and they will say, “Thank you, sir,” before either doing what Astros usually do or making sure the other guys don’t. And Nats manager Dave Martinez gave them a carnation wrapped in a big red bow almost halfway through the game.

The Nats’ Game Three starter Anibal Sanchez gritted and ground his way through four innings, three runs, and no small volume of Astro peskiness, then got a small reward when Ryan Zimmerman led off the bottom of the fourth with a full-count walk and, a strikeout later, Victor Robles shot one fair past third baseman Alex Bregman and down the left field line for an RBI triple.

But Sanchez was due up next with the absence of a designated hitter in the National League park. Perhaps even the Astros couldn’t believe Martinez elected to let Sanchez hit rather than pinch hit for him despite having five serviceable-at-minimum bats on the Game Three bench, namely Matt Adams, Brian Dozier, Yan Gomes, Howie Kendrick, and Mr. Baby Shark himself, Gerardo Parra.

And, despite the fact that, unlike Greinke, who handles a bat very well, Sanchez with a bat is tantamount to having Lucky Luciano heading a task force to battle organised crime. And for all Sanchez’s heroics to open the National League Championship Series, he looked only too human Friday night with the Astros hitting his pitches firmly enough and knowing opponents hit .288 against him the third time around the order all year.

Yet with rookie Tanner Rainey warming in the pen all inning, Martinez let Sanchez hit. Then, he bunted foul for a strikeout and Trea Turner couldn’t push Robles home. And then Sanchez went out to work the top of the fifth, surrendering a run. Then, he went out for the sixth.

With one out Astros catcher Robinson Chirinos swung for the history books with a high liner off the left field foul pole net for what proved the Astros’ insurance run. It made number three in the first World Series ever to feature three catchers hitting bombs while in games as catchers. Suzuki and the Astros’ Martin Maldonado also did it, both in Game Two, and Maldonado after he replaced Chirinos behind the dish late in the game.

For just about the first time in the Series it left Martinez looking foolish. He had a chance to let bigger men do the clutch hitting in the bottom of the fourth, but he may have let his edginess about most of his bullpen not named Fernando Rodney, Daniel Hudson, or Sean Doolittle overcome his need in the moment.

When Grandpa Rodney, forgotten man Joe Ross, and apparent former arsonist Wander Suero pitched three and two thirds’ shutout ball following Sanchez’s evening-ending walk to pinch hitter Kyle Tucker (right after Chirinos’s net shot), it only amplified Martinez’s temporary brain vapor.

Now it almost seemed like a too-distant memory that Robles stole a first-inning run from the Astros when, after Springer opened the game beating out a nubber toward the mound, Altuve sent him to the rear end of the field where he reached up and back and made a twist-and-shout one-handed catch on the track just in front of the fence.

And it wasn’t as though the Astros battered the Nats into submission, Chirinos’s blast to one side. With Carlos Correa aboard on a one-out double down the left field line in the top of the second, Josh Reddick dumped a quail into shallow left that neither Turner out from shortstop nor Juan Soto coming in from left could reach as Correa alertly got his Road Runner on. It didn’t hurt him that Soto’s throw home took off like an airplane and sailed above both his catcher and his pitcher backing the play.

Altuve tore a double down the left field line leading off the top of the third that gave Soto trouble and an error when the ball rolled under the pads on the walls and Soto couldn’t find the handle soon enough to stop Altuve from making third. Then Brantley whacked a grounder that took a classic ricochet off the mound, upside Sanchez’s right side, and let Altuve practically cruise home.

And in the fifth, after Springer opened first pitch, first out on a smash to shortstop, Altuve hit a liner that bounced into left near the line for another double, and Brantley settled for old-fashioned through-the-infield hitting instead of playing Ricochet Rabbit, shooting a clean single through the right side to score the third Astro run.

Sanchez’s grit didn’t stop him from looking nothing like the same junkyard dog who somehow got thatclose to no-hitting the Cardinals in the NLCS. Greinke’s outing wasn’t a lot prettier despite him limiting the Nats to one run, and times enough he looked to be running on wings and prayers.

So let’s count the ways the Nats made a guy who wasn’t having the easiest night of his life, plus the Astro bullpen, feel as though they were just taking leisurely strolls through an overcrowded Union Station:

* Anthony Rendon fought to a seventh pitch and banged a two-out double to left in the bottom of the first, but birthday boy Juan Soto grounded out for the side.

* Asdrubal Cabrera and Zimmerman opened the bottom of the second with back-to-back singles . . . but Suzuki looked at an eighth-pitch third strike after three fouls on 2-2, and Robles dialed Area Code 5-4-3.

* Turner and Adam Eaton with one out in the bottom of the third walked and nailed a base hit to left, respectively, and one out later Soto worked out a walk for ducks on the pond. Then Cabrera struck out on maybe the single filthiest breaking ball Greinke’s thrown all year long.

* Eaton led off the bottom of the fifth with a single and, two outs later, Cabrera lined a double toward the right field corner. That’s when Greinke’s night ended and Astro reliever Josh James’s would begin and end by putting Zimmerman into the 0-2 hole—not to mention spinning hard into a face plant when a fastball up and in got a little too far in, a pitch that wasn’t even close to intentional—letting Zimmerman escape to a full count, then striking him out swinging.

“Sometimes you just have to tip your cap,” Zimmerman said after the game. “3-2 changeup. That’s a pretty good pitch right there.” When Chirinos asked Zimmerman if he was all right after the unexpected spinout, Zimmerman still on the ground simply replied, “Man, that was a close one.”

* Parra pinch hit for Suzuki in the bottom of the sixth—to a rousing chorus of “Baby Shark” and the stands doing the shark clap ravenously—and struck out so furiously he walked back to the dugout fuming. But Astro reliever Brad Peacock walked Robles, and then Martinez sent Adams, a power hitter, up to hit . . . for Rodney. Adams walked, pushing Peacock out and Will Harris into the game. And Harris dispatched Turner—who fouled one off the family jewels and spent a few moments on the ground in less than a fine mood—with a swinging strikeout, before Eaton grounded out for the side.

* And Kendrick finally appeared in the bottom of the eighth to pinch hit . . . for Ross. He shot a one-out single into right center. But Astro reliever Joe Smith caught Robles looking at strike three and got Yan Gomes, who’d taken over for Suzuki in the seventh, to ground out to Bregman on the dead run.

That’s what the Astros call navigating Washington traffic jams. It’s what the Nats ought to call jaywalking. Not the way to see an eight-game postseason winning streak end. Not the most advisable way of transit when the Astros finally get something even mildly resembling their normal Astros on.

The only real Game Three nuisance other than the Nats’ inability to cash in their chips was plate umpire Gary Cederstrom. This was one issue on which both the Astros and the Nats could agree. Cederstrom called too many balls strikes and too many strikes balls against both sides, enough to make them wonder whether the strike zone would finally shrink to the size of a guitar pick before the game ended.

Astro manager A.J. Hinch looked like a genius for setting his table in order that the Nats’ best bats wouldn’t see much more than Greinke and the two best Astro relievers, Harris and closer Roberto Osuna. He’s going to have to look like Casey Stengel in Game Four.

Lacking the viable fourth starter the Nats happen to have in their Game Four starter Patrick Corbin, Hinch is going bullpen Saturday night with Jose Urquidy, a promising rookie, to open. And as solid as the pen was, the Nats did make most of them work a little harder even if they couldn’t get anyone home with a Secret Service escort Friday night.

But yes, folks, we have an honest-to-God World Series again. Anxious enough to prove falling short of the Series last year was a mere aberration, the Astros made sure of it.

They didn’t have to play like their regular-season juggernaut to do it. All they had to do was what anyone who’s ever lived in Washington for any length of time (I have) can tell you has all the simplicity of a spider web—navigate a traffic jam.

The mental midgets strike

2019-10-18 ZackGreinke

Zack Greinke catches a breath on the Game Four mound Thursday night.

The news came forth toward the end of American League Championship Series Game Four. It’s further evidence that the Yankees themselves, even while imploding late in a game that ran away from them already, have more class than a few too many of their fans.

I don’t think you could find any fan base for any major league baseball team that lacks for a small but orally diarrhetic subset to whom no kind of abuse is off limits. But what a small pack of Yankee fans did to Astros righthander Zack Greinke before Game Four began Thursday night crossed several lines.

Greinke was having a pre-game warmup in the left field visitors bullpen with a police presence there already because of Game Three’s trash throwers from the  right field stands. The small pack above the bullpen, who may or may not have been egged on by a particularly abusive pack of the Twitterpated, let him have it but good.

Not because he’s an Astro and thus the adversary for claiming the American League pennant. Not because his mission for the night was to keep every Yankee bat possible from wreaking havoc. No, these animals taunted Greinke over the very real anxiety disorder and degree of clinical depression with which he’s afflicted and the medications he is prescribed duly to control them.

Stupidity doesn’t begin to describe even a small group of subhumans who think the price of a ticket and a seat in the ballpark includes a license to abuse a still-young man verbally and violently over a mental illness he neither asked to bear nor lives without, whenever he does what those subhumans wouldn’t have even a tenth of the courage to do to earn his keep.

Greinke said after Game Four that he didn’t hear the nasty taunts. Maybe he didn’t. Pitchers are notorious for what the fictional Tiger pitcher Billy Chapel, played by Kevin Costner in the film For Love of the Game, called “clearing the mechanism,” blocking every sound from their heads other than that of their pitches hitting the catcher’s mitt when bats don’t hit their pitches.

But even if Greinke cleared his mechanism even preparing in the pre-game bullpen, it didn’t justify that kind of taunting.

Yankee Stadium security ejected one of the bastards post haste and warned each other to watch out for others. Greinke went to the mound and, except for a shaking first inning in which three consecutive walks produced a single Yankee run with the bases loaded, kept the Yankees at bay with no small help from the Yankees themselves, starting the Astros to an 8-3 win that puts them on the threshold of a World Series date with the Nationals.

And, personally, I hope the Astros get it.

Not because I hold any brief against the Yankees themselves. Not because I kid myself that the Yankees are the only baseball team with a subset of fans about whom “animals” may be speaking politely. (Hello, Phillies, Cubs, Dodgers, and Red Sox, for openers.) I hope the Astros get their date with the Nats because it’s the Yankees in the ALCS and I’m sick of re-learning how the Yankee fan subset can go from worse to intolerable every day.

And if I’m sick of it while not being a Yankee fan, I can only imagine how sick it makes the Yankees themselves feel.

The right field region louts throwing junk and debris onto the field over an overturned play at first base or cheering when Astros third baseman Alex Bregman was hit by a pitch in Game Three were mere louts. Greinke’s assailants could be tried by jury for impersonating human beings.

And it seems very safe to presume that not one of the animals would have accepted any challenge to do what Greinke does with 55,000+ right there in his office and a few million more eavesdropping next to television or radio sets. Not without running home to Mommy at the mere suggestion.

If you want to bark at me for being out of line, go ahead and bark. And go to hell while you’re at it. Because I happen to suffer an anxiety disorder with a degree of clinical depression myself. I’m also one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to practise my profession with an audience in my office or my daily toil broadcast on the national and international airwaves.

And I don’t care how much money Greinke earns to pitch baseballs every year. You don’t hammer someone dealing day in, day out with mental illness. You don’t reference the medications he is duly prescribed as though it indicates weakness or a character flaw. You don’t even hammer him over going by his middle name as if that suggests he’s a man of any disrepute.

It may be an exercise in futility to hope Justin Verlander and the Astros kick Yankee butt in Game Five. Based on what I saw in Game Four, the Yankees themselves may be more than capable of kicking Yankee butt. It was as if George Springer and Carlos Correa hitting three-run homers reminded them, “Hey! You can’t mop the floor with us like that! Only we can mop the floor with us like that!”

On Thursday night, the Yankees forgot how to pitch, how to hit, how to field, and how pathetic it looks to drag a veteran great out for a relief appearance for one last display for his longtime fans and have to lift him post haste because, bad as his knees became over the course of a great career, his shoulder decided to bark its resignation.

Thursday night’s Yankees performed the impossible: they made the 1962 Mets resemble a smoothly running vacuum cleaner sweeping and cleaning all in their path. The Yankees looked as though they plugged the hose into the blower, not the suction port.

Especially first baseman D.J. LeMahieu and second baseman Gleyber Torres, who suddenly seemed to think of ground balls as oncoming white tornados determined to throw them around like debris in the late innings.

Bregman’s leadoff bouncer in the top of the sixth bounced right up into and off LeMahieu as though trying to have him for dinner on the run, rolling toward the mound. That might have been no great shakes otherwise except that the Yankees’ starting pitcher, Masahiro Tanaka, happened to be nearer to first base covering on the play.

That play ended Tanaka’s rather gutsy evening’s work and began Chad Greene’s out of the bullpen. And one out and one base hit later, Correa sent Greene’s four-seamer right down the pipe right up and into the left field seats in a near-perfect impersonation of Springer’s bomb three innings earlier.

And all that was just the prelude to the Yankees’ eighth-inning version of Operation Dumbo Drop.

Bregman opened against Yankee reliever Adam Ottavino by taking a pitch over the heart of the plate and pumping it right down the left field line for a leadoff double. Yuli Gurriel then bounced one up the first base line. And that one decided LeMahieu must have been awful appetising two innings earlier, because it ate him up like dessert before bouncing away into right field, allowing Bregman to third.

That’s when Yankee manager Aaron Boone decided to get the hapless Ottavino out of there and bring CC Sabathia aboard for a possible final farewell. And Astros super-rook Yordan Alvarez decided to bounce one up to the second base side, where it hopped up off the grass and off the body of Torres, who’d approached the ball with thoughts of throwing home to nail Bregman.

There went those thoughts. The ball bounced away from Torres and Bregman could have bounced off the plate after scoring the seventh Astro run. Then Correa lined one clean to shallow right field and Aaron Judge caught it cleanly enough. Then Judge, who owns one of the best throwing arms in the league, made a fatal mistake.

He caught Alvarez dead to right near second and could taste the double play he would have consummated if his on-the-money throw to Torres didn’t bang in and out of Torres’s glove. Lucky for Torres and LeMahieu that the Astros only got a single run out of those  mishaps.

Sabathia got pinch hitter Aledmys Diaz to fly out to short right but had to leave the game after falling behind Springer on 2-1 when his shoulder flared up. Jonathan Loaisiga got Springer to foul out, which is just about how Sabathia must have felt leaving the mound as he did.

Maybe the only reason the boo birds weren’t so loud in the top of the ninth is because a reported 75 percent of the Game Four crowd had left Yankee Stadium by then. Altuve opened with a weak grounder to second that somehow, some way, rolled under Torres’s glove into right center, enabling the Astros’ second baseman to make second unmolested.

Michael Brantley then hit a jam shot bloop single to shallow left, scoring Altuve with the eighth Astro run. It could have been nine after what was ruled a wild pitch but should have been ruled a passed ball on mal-positioned Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez let Brantley have second on the house with Bregman at the plate. There went the temporary cred Sanchez snatched with his two-run homer in the bottom of the sixth.

Bregman walked, but Gurriel popped out to Gregorius at short and, with Tyler Lyons entering to pitch for the Yankees, Alvarez and Correa struck out in succession to end that threat. All other things considered, the Yankees were probably lucky to escape with what remained of their Game Four lives.

And, for all intent and purpose, the game, after Astros reliever Roberto Osuna shook off a two-out walk to get Torres to fly out to right on the first pitch.

Did you know the Yankees had the game’s first lead thanks to that bases-loaded walk to Brett Gardner in the bottom of the first? I had a hard time remembering, too, after the shenanigans that followed in due course. Especially because the Yankees had the ducks on the pond three times all game long and cashed in only that lone run.

Especially after learning of the abuse thrown at Greinke pre-game. He may be too proud to say that it cut him to his soul enough to walk three in the first and surrender that run, but there isn’t a jury on earth who’d rule him unjustified.

And Greinke more or less settled down from there, before he was lifted with first and second in the fifth. He proved a better man than that small group of Yankee Stadium yahoos who thought taunting his illness, his medication, his mother, and his preferred manner of address was acceptable opposing-ballpark behaviour.

Maybe the least offensive spewings from that left field stands subset involved hammering Greinke concurrently—the louse!—for choosing to go by his middle name instead of his proper given name.

So much for the reputedly overly knowledgeable Yankee fan, who forgot if he really knew about the righthanded pitcher named Selva Lewis Burdette, Jr., once a Yankee prospect, who beat the Yankees three times to help the then-Milwaukee Braves win the 1957 World Series.

Or, about the Hall of Fame relief pitcher named James Hoyt Wilhelm, master of the hydra-headed knuckleball, who was once made a starting pitcher, and who just so happened to throw a 1959 no-hitter at the Yankees in the silks of the Orioles.

Or, about the Hall of Fame Yankee first baseman who considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth when forced to retire thanks to the fatal disease that has since borne his name. Well, part of his name, anyway: Henry Louis Gehrig.

Not to mention, about such Hall of Famers as George Thomas Seaver, Lynn Nolan Ryan, and George Kenneth Griffey, Jr. About a longtime Astro great and one-time Yankee named William Lance Berkman. About a Hall of Fame-bound, postseason-haunted Dodger pitcher named Edward Clayton Kershaw.

Not to mention such recent baseball notables as LeRoy Timothy Lincecum, Luis Dustin Pedroia, Ivan Carlos Beltran, D’Vaughn Juan Pierre, Guilleard Alfonso Soriano, Stefan Andrew McCutchen, Augusto Elvis Andrus, and Thompson Nicholas Swisher.

All of that can be dismissed as purely getting your dumb on. (Do those left field bullpen bastards also love the music of the Beatles, whose bassist and co-chief songwriter happened to be named James Paul McCartney?) Taunting Donald Zachary Greinke for his too-real anxiety disorder and clinical depression can’t be and shouldn’t be dismissed that readily.

One of the Twitterpated had the audacity to tweet that Greinke’s sympathisers are too much “mental midgets” to handle New York. This native to the Bronx—a very different Bronx, in which you were taught respect and punished for taunting the afflicted—would suggest such a Twitter twit is too much of a mental midget to handle a man with Greinke’s unpretentious courage.

I don’t envy the Yankees as a team and an organisation for having to contend with such grotesquery. It’s not their fault that they have a subset of fans who need trainers more than ALCS tickets. But let’s go, Astros.

“They threw the first punch”

ALCS Yankees Astros Baseball

Gleyber Torres, making Zack Greinke’s and the Astros’ Game One life miserable . . .

It was supposed to be a treat watching the Astros and the Yankees, mostly recovered from their regular season’s medical challenges. If you could say a pair of 100+ game winners were lucky to be there after they fought injury bugs as arduously as they fought field opponents, the Astros and the Yankees were just that.

Didn’t the Astros fight like six parts street gang and half a dozen parts cheetahs on speed to get their postseason home field advantage, going 12-2 to finish the season to nail down the point? Didn’t they look just that much better than the 6-8 finishing Yankees when the postseason began?

And hadn’t they survived an unexpectedly arduous division series with the upstart Rays—forcing them to open with Zack Greinke instead of Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole—to get to the American League Championship Series in the first place? While the Yankees turned out to have it so painfully simple sweeping the suddenly somnambulent Twins to get there that you could be forgiven for suggesting the Yankees might be just a little vulnerable?

There went those ideas in Game One Saturday night.

The Yankees were good on the road this year(.568 winning percentage) but they weren’t supposed to be able to handle the Astros there. They played each other seven times on the regular season with the Astros sweeping the Yankees in three in Minute Maid Park. But somebody forgot to remind the Yankees as they opened the ALCS.

At least, somebody forgot to remind Yankee second baseman Gleyber Torres. The Yankees shut the Astros out 7-0 in Game One and Torres was practically their one-man demolition operation. The Astros’ long term survival may now depend on how well they can keep Torres from even thinking about seeing and raising from Game Two forward.

Nobody’s going to accuse the Astros of being on the ropes after a Game One loss. The Yankees won’t be foolish enough to level that charge. Not even when they punctured the Astros’s hard won, hard desired home field advantage.

“We’ve been in the situation before,” said Astros second baseman Jose Altuve after the game, referring to 2017, when the Astros were down 3-2 in that ALCS but won. “Tomorrow we have Justin, we all know how good we feel about him, so it’s just one game, it’s a seven game series, so we still have a lot of baseball to play.”

With Verlander to start Game Two and Cole to start Game Three, everyone in Astroworld should be feeling good again. No matter how good these Yankees are at finding and exploiting even the tiniest rupture in the other guys’ armour.

“They played a great game,” said Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, “a near perfect game.”

But who the hell is Gleyber Torres? Oh, yeah—he’s the guy who became a Yankee when they traded Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs in the middle of 2016. But now he’s the youngest Yankee ever to drive in five in a single postseason game. And his clutch hit reputation is beginning to fan out beyond the Bronx.

You expected trouble going in with the Aaron Judges, Giancarlo Stantons, D.J. LaMahieus, Edwin Encarnacions, and Brett Gardners. The last one from whom you expected any pinstriped lip, never mind bat, is a kid middle infielder who may have hit the most quiet 38 regular season home runs of the year.

Outside New York, Torres isn’t exactly the Yankees’ biggest star yet. But on a night when Yankee starter Masahiro Tanaka was as untouchable as he was very touchable in the regular season, and Greinke proved vulnerable enough if not quite the pinata the Rays made out of him in the division series, Torres became the last guy the Astros wanted to see at the plate. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

“Man, they’re going to be telling stories about that kid for a while,” said Judge after the game. “He’s going to be a Yankee great, I know it. He just comes to work every single day. He’s always got a smile on his face. No situation is too big. I’ll see him in the box, bases loaded, big situation and he’ll give us a little smile in the dugout like he knows he’s going to go up there and do his job.”

At first it looked as though Tanaka and Greinke would turn Game One into a pitching clinic, if not quite the ones put on by Nationals pitchers Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer in the first two National League Championship Series games. Tanaka looked as untouchable as he normally does against the postseason Astros, and Greinke looked nothing like the guy who’d been humiliated at the hands and tails of the Rays.

“I thought Zack did a good job giving us a chance to win,” said Astros third baseman Alex Bregman, “and we just didn’t do anything offensively.”

“When you’re facing really good pitching, it makes hitting even harder,” said mostly struggling Astros center fielder George Springer, their 2017 World Series MVP but hitting a buck twenty in this postseason to date. “Hitting’s hard. But that being said, we’re a good team, and we understand that, so we’ve got to grind and string together some at-bats and we’ll see what happens.”

As the top of the fourth began each side had one base hit apiece and they’d both been negated by inning-ending double plays. Then LaMahieu opened the Yankee fourth with a base hit and swiped second while Judge struck out swinging on one of Grienke’s nastier sliders of the night. Up stepped Torres, whom Greinke struck out swinging to end the first. And he drove one to the back of left center bounding off the fence to score LaMahieu with the game’s first run.

Torres and Greinke squared off again in the sixth after Judge led off flying out to Astros center fielder George Springer. Once again Greinke’s first service looked just too good to Torres. This one got hammered into the middle of the Crawford Boxes.

And after a six-pitch, full count, wrestling strikeout to Encarnacion, Greinke battled Giancarlo Stanton—who’d only gotten to play eighteen regular season games thanks to two trips to the injured list—and, after wriggling his way to a full count after opening 0-2, Stanton nailed a fastball just under the middle of the plate and sent it into the Astros’ bullpen behind the right center field fence.

An inning later, Torres was in the middle of it yet again. With two outs, Yankee shortstop Didi Gregorius, LaMahieu, and Judge singled back-to-back-to-back, all into right field, off Astros reliever Ryan Pressly, before Torres sent the first pair home with a bloop single to center and helped himself to second when Springer threw in futilely toward the plate.

It was the kind of night on which Torres even making an out proved productive enough. With reliever Bryan Abreu on the mound for the top of the ninth Yankee third baseman Gio Urshela hit the first pitch of the inning, a slightly hanging slider, into the right field seats. Then with one out LaMahieu walked, Judge singled him to third, and—with the Astro infield drawn in just enough—Torres whacked a grounder to an oncoming shortstop Carlos Correa.

The good news: Correa pounced on the run to throw Torres out handily enough. The bad news: LaMahieu got such an excellent jump off third he could score the seventh Yankee run without fear even with Correa all over the Torres grounder well onto the infield grass.

The Astros hurt themselves when it was still a one-run game, though. In the bottom of the fifth, Bregman, their no-questions-asked MVP candidate, worked Tanaka for a leadoff walk and Yordan Alvarez, their probable no-questions-asked Rookie of the Year, slashed a line drive to right.

As Bregman led a little too far off first, as in more than half way to second, obviously thinking of third base as his immediate destination, Judge ran to snare Alvarez’s rope. Then the tall Yankee with the toothy grin of a kid a third his age fired in to first. Bregman slipped running back to the pillow but it almost wouldn’t have mattered since he’d had a bigger lead than the law allowed in the first place.

Was Judge catching Alvarez’s liner a guarantee? Fifty-fifty at best. But he has one of the better throwing arms among American League right fielders and with Bregman that far off the pillow, slip back or no, Bregman was dead meat.

It negated the spectacular theft Bregman committed in the top of the third, when he took a spinning leap behind third with his glove arm up like the Statue of Liberty to turn Urshela’s nasty line drive, which probably would have gone further up the line for extra bases, into a nasty out.

Tanaka can’t beat the Astros in the regular season, but in the postseason he looks like an ogre against them, taking a 2.00 lifetime postseason ERA against them into Game Two. He worked the corners like a craftsman and left the usually smart hitting Astros looking half lost at the plate.

“He was throwing the ball really good today,” said Altuve. “He was hitting spots with the slider, split, and fastball. He makes it out pretty good. You have to tip your hat to that. He got a late break, normally you can see the spin, but we couldn’t see anything.”

When they got into the Yankees’ effective bullpen, they actually pried a couple of base hits out of Adam Ottavino, back-to-back singles by Michael Brantley and Altuve, but Ottavino lured Bregman into dialing an inning-ending Area Code 6-4-3.

The Astros bullpen is usually one of the league’s best, too, but Pressly didn’t look comfortable in his turn and Abreu’s inexperience was exploited a little too readily. Especially against a Yankee team who—knowing Verlander and Cole awaited them in Games Two and Three—treated Game One like a must-win contest.

“They threw the first punch in Game One,” said Astros manager A.J. Hinch. “We get to the next day. We can punch right back tomorrow. I don’t think they’re going to be too comfortable tomorrow coming to the ballpark thinking they’ve got an easy game ahead of themselves.”

Verlander gives the Astros a far above average chance to punch back in Game Two. The last thing they want is going to the south Bronx in the hole. The Yankees have ways of burying people once they’re in holes against them. One of them is a 22-year-old second baseman who prefers hitting with men on base and has the numbers to prove it so far.

“The way he’s able to get to all kinds of pitches on different planes is impressive,” said Yankee relief pitcher Zach Britton, who worked a near-spotless eighth (one walk, two punchouts) Saturday night.

“As a pitcher, you know you have to executive every single pitch throughout an at-bat or you know he’s going to beat you,” Britton continued. “That’s where the bat-to-ball skill comes in. It’s crazy. You just don’t see it in such a young player.”

You do now.