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The Washington Nationals Are World Series Champions

Five times, the Washington Nationals faced elimination from the 2019 postseason. Five times, they trailed in those games. And five times, they prevailed. The Washington Nationals are World Series Champions. They were 19-31 in the late days of May. They were down 3-1 in the Wild Card Game with Josh Hader coming in. They were down 3-1 in Game 5 against the Dodgers. They were down 2-1 yesterday, coming back to Houston after scoring just three runs in their three, first-ever World Series home games, and they were down 2-0 entering the seventh yesterday. But the Washington Nationals are World Series Champions. That’s how the story of the 2019 season ends.

***

The game already promised to be a monumental one. It was a Game 7. It was a showdown between two of the game’s longest-tenured and best pitchers, Scherzer vs. Greinke: Max Scherzer, the overpowering madman risen from the grave of debilitating neck pain to pitch in the biggest game of his career, and Zack Greinke, the big acquisition of the trade deadline, the player who had once nearly left baseball due to anxiety now calmly preparing to take on the most anxiety-inducing situation in baseball. For the first time in history, all six previous games had been won by the road team, the Nationals and the Astros stunning each other and their home crowds by turns. The series win expectancy flipped over and over on itself. Now, though, it was a matter of one game.

Right from the outset, Greinke was masterful. He retired the side in the top of the first on just eight pitches. A slider for a lineout snagged by Alex Bregman, a changeup and a slider for a pair of weak groundouts. A swinging strike on a 68 mph curveball. And for six innings, the game was exactly that: Greinke’s. He controlled the edges of Jim Wolf’s pitcher-friendly strike zone, controlled the infield with his sure-handed fielding of each of the many balls hit his way, as if to accentuate the degree to which the game was steady in his grip. Through six innings, the Nationals managed just a single hit and a single walk. Any lead, with that kind of performance ongoing, would seem like a clear path to the championship.

Read the rest of this entry »


Nationals Take 2-0 Series Lead as a Little Bit of History Repeats

I had a recap half-written in my head after six innings of last night’s pivotal Game 2. It focused, as expected, on the pitching matchup of Stephen Strasburg and Justin Verlander; on how, perhaps more unexpectedly, both struggled in the first inning, each giving up two runs; and how they both settled, despite a tight strike zone and a steady stream of baserunners, into the familiar, soothing rhythms of solid-but-not-dominant pitching performances. (There was a little meditation, too, on the already-iconic Verlander leg throw.) Strasburg struck out seven, and Verlander, with his six, cleared the record for the most postseason punch outs of all time.

In the sixth, Verlander pitched his first clean inning of the game, and Strasburg escaped unscathed from a Yuli Gurriel double and an intentional walk of Yordan Alvarez. Through six, and the two teams were knotted at 2-2; Strasburg, with 114 pitches, was surely done for the night, and Verlander would just as surely be coming in for the top of the seventh.

As the broadcast faded to commercial, I settled into my nest of blankets. I know what this game is, I thought, like someone who doesn’t know what’s about to hit them.

***

The seventh inning, for whatever reason, always carries with it a sort of mystique. It’s the time when you rush to grab your last beers, when everyone stretches and you hear the creaking of your sad, aging joints, when the strange little ritual of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is performed. It doesn’t have quite the tension of the eighth and ninth, but the mood is clearly distinct from, say, the fifth; if you’re at the game, you’re probably a little tired, a little out of it, getting a little chilly. On midsummer nights, it’s around the time the sun fades away. And ever since I witnessed the life-changing devil magic of the Jose Bautista Bat Flip Inning, I’ve been unable to stop myself from paying a little more attention when the seventh rolls around. It’s usually normal, just another inning in another baseball game. But you never know. You never know when the fabric of the game will begin to rip — or when it might be rent asunder. Read the rest of this entry »


Correa and the Astros Emerge Triumphant in 11 Inning Thriller

It’s amazing how quickly a baseball game that has gone on for four hours and forty-nine minutes can end. On the first pitch of the bottom of the 11th inning — before the broadcast had even gotten a chance to fully cut away from its commercial break housekeeping — Carlos Correa ended Sunday night’s epic affair with a single swing.

It was a no-doubter right off the bat, and as Correa watched it fly, he pulled off one of the best postseason home-run celebrations we’ve yet seen. He walked down the line, bat parallel to the ground in his hand, before casting it aside; he cocked a hand to his ear, waiting for the cheers, daring any disapproval. Then, taking off down the bases, he pointed a finger upward, to all the fans leaping from their seats, before shooting his batting helmet into the waiting arms of his teammates, gathered around home plate to greet him.

One has to go on quite a journey to reach a point of such inspired triumph, and Game 2 certainly provided such a journey. Far from the one-sidedness of Game 1, Game 2 saw the Yankees and the Astros exchanging narrow leads before spending five innings knotted in a 2-2 tie. While the Yankees’ bats and the individual performance of Masahiro Tanaka shared the spotlight in Game 1, it was pitching on both sides that took center stage for most of Game 2 — though the two teams constructed their dominant performances in rather different ways.

In the early going, the game looked like it could easily get out of hand for the Yankees. Starter James Paxton walked George Springer to lead off the bottom of the first, which, unfortunately for him, turned out to be a harbinger of command issues to come. Paxton never seemed comfortable; there was some speculation that he was tipping pitches, or that the Astros were stealing signs. Whatever the cause, it didn’t take long for the Astros to jump on him. A single from Alex Bregman, a walk from Yordan Alvarez, and a double from Correa in the bottom of the second gave the Astros an early 1-0 lead. After Michael Brantley and José Altuve reached on back-to-back singles with one out in the bottom of the third, Aaron Boone went to his bullpen. Any hope of length out of Paxton was dashed early. Read the rest of this entry »


The Nationals Try Something Entirely New, Clinch NLDS

The ball left Justin Turner’s bat at 70.3 mph, with a launch angle of 34 degrees. Per Statcast, batted balls with that exit velocity, hit on that plane, have an expected batting average of .550. A little better than a coin flip. There were two out, and nobody on base, and Sean Doolittle on the mound; there were thousands still left at Dodger Stadium willing the ball to fall, thousands more in the empty stadium in Washington praying for it to find a glove. The Washington Nationals had a 99.9% chance of winning the game. And also, Michael A. Taylor, out in centerfield, sprinting toward it — at the last moment, stretching out his glove — the ball, barely missing the ground, centimeters from escaping his glove.

Had the ball fallen, it barely would have made a difference. The Dodgers’ win expectancy would have improved to something like 0.5%. But that’s not what it felt like. Not for the Dodgers fans who had remained through the preceding disaster, looking for a sliver of hope, the slightest graze of cowhide against grass. Not for the Nationals fans, hoping for something they hadn’t yet seen — a glove closed around a ball for a series-clinching out, an end to the years of futility, the beginning of something completely new. This is where the postseason takes you: Years of your life, untold amounts of time and emotional energy spent, seeming to rest in the inches between a ball and a glove and a few blades of grass.

Taylor rose up and took the ball in his glove, a confused expression on his face. Turner, on the basepath 200 feet away, motioned to the dugout. But even as the game hung, for a few moments, in the purgatory of umpire review, the fans knew, and Sean Doolittle knew, jumping off the mound and into the stratosphere, and Adam Eaton knew, leaping in from right field. It was over. The Washington Nationals had won Game 5. They were advancing to the NLCS. And the Dodgers’ historic, 106-win season had ended. They were nine games too short, nine innings too short. A few runs, a few pitches, maybe. A few inches. Sometimes cliches are cliches because they’re true. Read the rest of this entry »


Faith, Hope, Etcetera in St. Petersburg

When the Tampa Bay Rays took to Tropicana Field this afternoon to play a do-or-die third game in this ALDS against the Astros, it had been almost six years to the day since they’d held a lead in a postseason series. That was in Game 4 of the 2013 ALDS. They had dropped the first two games in Boston, dominated by Jon Lester and John Lackey, sunk by two terrible starts from would-be aces Matt Moore and David Price, hammered by Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino, and David Ortiz. From the start, the Rays hadn’t been favored to win the series, a second Wild Card team that had outplayed their Pythag by five games; after their performance in front of the hostile Fenway masses, their outlook seemed grim.

But in Game 3, things took a turn. In front of the Trop’s biggest crowd of the season, the Rays finally got a good starting pitching performance, with Alex Cobb going five innings and allowing three runs (two of them earned). Meanwhile, the offense kept it close with one pivotal swing: Face of the franchise Evan Longoria, with two on and two out in the bottom of the fifth, went deep off Clay Buchholz, preventing the Red Sox from holding onto their lead. Tampa added another run in the eighth. And after Fernando Rodney blew the save, with two out in the bottom of the ninth, Jose Lobaton walked it off. It was the kind of moment that, when teams manage to turn around a postseason series, people look back on–a hinge moment, a moment where hope really returns.

In Game 4, it was Jake Peavy for the Sox and anyone who had an arm for the Rays; for five and a half innings, the two teams traded tense zeroes. Then came a leadoff double in the bottom of the sixth for Yunel Escobar. An out later, a single from David DeJesus drove him in. The Rays, once again, had the lead. Their fate was in their hands. They had a chance of pushing the series back to Boston for a decisive Game 5, and as the Wild Card team, they knew as well as anyone that in an all-hands-on-deck, winner-take-all contest, anything can happen.

Of course, that anything never got a chance to happen. The Rays promptly lost that slim lead. They lost the game, and the series, 3-1. The Red Sox went on to be World Series champions; the Rays didn’t play October baseball again until this year. Read the rest of this entry »


This Is My House

A man in black stands in the bullpen. He looks different than the last time we saw him here, almost six months ago now. The strange uniform hangs off him so loosely; his hair is clipped shorter; his beard is longer. It is the early evening, and the sky is loosely clouded, the light and shadow falling in that way that is so familiar now, the way it only does in this specific place, this close to the ocean in the west.

The energy, though, is not familiar for this building: the loud blue everywhere, the excitement of thousands who are experiencing something they can only have once a year, or once every few years, or even once in a lifetime. They are not here for the man in black; he might as well be one of the shadows.

In the corner, though, above the bullpen, the faithful form their block of yellow. They hold up their signs, and the kids wear their little foam crowns. And if it wasn’t for the fact that the words they hold up mirror the ones sewn to the back of his uniform, you might not know that the person they were so excited to see is the same subdued presence now taking the man.

It is the 209th time that Félix Hernández has started a game in this ballpark. Read the rest of this entry »


The Twists and Turns of Edwin Jackson

It is 2019, and Edwin Jackson is making his first major league start of the season.

As far as games in mid-May go, this is not a particularly compelling one. The Blue Jays are not very good, and neither are the Giants; it is a sleepy grey afternoon in San Francisco, cool and windy. The Giants do have Shaun Anderson making his major league debut, and the Jays have the constant allure of Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. There is little promise, though, of fireworks on the pitching side.

Jackson is a veteran right-hander filling in a vacancy in a weak rotation. There is no expectation of transcendence here. He opens the frame by hitting Joe Panik with a cutter; he follows that up with a four-pitch walk to Steven Duggar, he of the 5.0% walk rate. Two men on, nobody out.

Jackson doesn’t seem frazzled. He gets ahead of Evan Longoria, and then, on a 93.6 mph fastball, induces a double play ball. And though he doesn’t emerge from the inning unscathed thanks to a Pablo Sandoval double, the damage is minimal. One run comes across; the game is tied.

When the third out is recorded, Jackson walks back to the dugout, having finished his first inning on a new team for the 14th time. Read the rest of this entry »


Mike Fiers Threw His Second No-Hitter

Last night, Mike Fiers threw his second no-hitter. He no-hit the Reds on 131 pitches, with three batters reaching against him on two walks and an error. It was the 300th no-hitter in major league history, and Fiers became the 35th pitcher in major league history to throw multiple no-hitters.

“You almost get emotional,” he said after the game.

***

The lights were out. Three panels of them out of five on the tower were non-functioning, looming barren above left field at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. Where usually there were rows of bright lights, a series of illuminations hanging above the names of Jackson, Henderson, Eckersley, there were instead the unimpressive shadows of bare bulbs.

The problem was unanticipated, and clearly not easily fixed. I was watching when the lights went out at Dodger Stadium last year, and that technical issue certainly looked more impressive — one moment I saw a ballpark where a baseball game was happening; the next, a panicky wave of cell phone flashlights cresting a sea of darkness. But while play resumed for the Dodgers in just 20 minutes, it took almost two hours for the scheduled game between the Reds and the A’s to begin. Fifteen more minutes and the game wouldn’t have happened at all. Even as Fiers took the field to begin warming up, the lights still flickered, unsure. Read the rest of this entry »


The Unstoppable Matt Shoemaker

I thank God every day. It’s still a dream. Being here, it’s a dream. It’s surreal and I’m trying to hold onto it.

Matt Shoemaker, 2013

***

The Blue Jays are playing the A’s. Two out, an 0-2 count in the bottom of the third, a runner on first. Matt Shoemaker is facing Stephen Piscotty.

You can probably guess what’s coming next. It’s Shoemaker’s specialty, his put away pitch, the pitch he has thrown 71% of the time this season when facing a right-handed hitter in a two-strike count: a splitter, diving out of the bottom of the zone. Matt Chapman guesses, and he takes his chances, straying a few steps away from first. Stephen Piscotty guesses, and when the pitch leaves Shoemaker’s hand, he doesn’t swing.

They guess right — it’s a splitter, low, and it hits the dirt in front of Danny Jansen. Ball one. But Jansen recovers it faster than Chapman can recover his steps. He throws to first, where Rowdy Tellez is waiting, ready. They have Chapman caught. And as Tellez chases after him, ball in hand, Shoemaker does what he’s supposed to do. He runs from the mound to cover first, and when the ball comes his way, he, too, is ready. He sprints alongside Chapman, both of them unstable, the unwieldy dance of the rundown clearly in its dying stages. Shoemaker reaches out his glove, turns to avoid a collision, and suddenly —

Something is wrong. Read the rest of this entry »


The 17-Year-Old Boy in the 16-Foot Boat

The summer of 1962 was one of political turmoil. Within the United States, the civil rights movement continued to fight for an end to racial segregation, and outside the United States, the globe-consuming tension of the Cold War continued to intensify. The Vietnam War continued to escalate, with Robert F. Kennedy declaring in February that the United States would not leave Vietnam until Communism was defeated. The Space Race proceeded apace, with both Americans and Russians being launched into orbit. And the brewing conflict between President Kennedy’s administration and the still-new Castro regime in Cuba was reaching a fever pitch. In February, President Kennedy extended the embargo on trade with Cuba to include almost all exports; in March, the participants in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of the previous year were put on trial by the Cuban government, and in May were sentenced to 30 years of imprisonment. Both the United States and the USSR continued to test new kinds of nuclear warheads. The Cuban Missile Crisis loomed on the horizon; by midsummer, it was already clear that the pressure was about ready to boil over.

It was perhaps inevitable, then, that this conflict found its way into the relatively uneventful world of American professional baseball, where the most interesting thing going on was the Mets’ 120-loss inaugural season. Baseball in the United States, after all, is embedded in the national mythology, from the legends surrounding the sport’s invention to its status as America’s Pastime. The cultural significance of baseball was not lost to either side of the Cold War Conflict. New York Mirror columnist Dan Parker wrote that he was sure the world would be a better place “[i]f more ambassadors used sports instead of double talk as their medium of expression,” and that he’d “like to see the new envoy to Moscow introduce himself in the Kremlin by fetching Uncle Joe Stalin a resounding whack on the noggin with one of Joe Dimaggio’s castoff bats.”

Soviet paper of record Izvestia, meanwhile, in an attempt to undermine baseball’s status as a pillar of American values, claimed baseball was actually a descendant of the old Russian game lapta. In Cuba, where baseball had been the country’s most popular sport for almost a century, the game had developed yet another ideological purpose as a nationalist symbol, with the excellence of Cuban baseball demonstrating the values and victory of the revolution. 

In August of 1962, the ideological tensions existing in baseball manifested themselves in the form of one unlikely person: a 17-year-old boy in a 16-foot boat.

***

On August 5th, 1962, the Associated Press ran a curious news item. The headline read “Cuban Baseball Player Branded as Traitor,” and opened with this paragraph:

A Cuban baseball player who signed a U.S. major league contract but kept it a secret so he could disqualify his nation’s entry in the Central American Games has been denounced as a traitor, Havana Radio said yesterday.

The story identified the player as one Manuel Enrique Ameroso Hernandez. There was no other information about him, no age or identifying characteristics. All that was known was what he had done, and what he had planned to do: He had signed a contract with a major league team, which made him a professional baseball player, and had intended to identify himself as such and claim political asylum in Jamaica, where the Central American Games were being held. The Cuban team, then, having had a professional play for their team, would be disqualified from the competition.

Given baseball’s cultural importance to Cuba and the revolution, this would have been a stunning act of sabotage if it had been successfully carried out. But Hernandez’s reserved, apathetic demeanor leading up to the competition drew suspicion, and he eventually admitted his plan to his teammates. His actions were condemned in the strongest possible terms. Teammates were quoted as saying that they “would prefer death a thousand times before selling ourselves for the bloody dollars of the Yankee monopolies,” and the team issued a statement condemning “the traitorous and miserable attitude of Ameroso Hernandez for having signed as a professional and keeping this secret for the ruinous and cowardly object [of giving] our enemies the opportunity to disqualify our invincible team.” There was no clarification of what was to happen to Hernandez, nor of which major league team he had signed with in the first place.

In the coming days, as the story spread in the American media, more information came out about Hernandez. There was, first, the fact of his talent: Raul Castro had only recently sung Hernandez’s praises on the national stage as Cuban baseball’s finest player, and assessed his annual value at $60,000. (The highest salary in the major leagues in 1962 was $90,000, earned by both Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.) This revelation was followed by one that made the former all the more surprising: Hernandez was only 17 years old. Read the rest of this entry »