Just when I think one of the funnest days of non-Mets baseball ever couldn’t get any more funner, I nod off in the eighth inning of the last reel of this rollicking quadruple-feature, the overly familiar Atlanta Braves leading the Los Angeles Dodgers by a run. I open my eyes maybe fifteen minutes later and the Los Angeles Dodgers are jumping all over one another, and probably not with Brian McCann’s approval. Hours later, by morning’s light, I tell Stephanie how the Dodgers won and how the Braves lost.
Without missing a beat, she lilts, “See ya, Braves!”
If that’s not the funnest way to cap off a daylong postseason festival, I don’t know what is. But I’ll check with McCann and wait for his ruling.
As recently as Saturday, I was drifting unmoored from the Mets, even the 2013 Mets, with whom, I assure you, I was quite done. Yet early Saturday I sat myself down on my couch, looked at the clock, and thought, “1:10 or 7:10?” But there was to be no :10 on Saturday. No Mets. No setting my ballological clock by their seventysomething wins and timeless hopes. Their season was over nearly a week, yet my insides hadn’t come to grips with it.
Now they seem a million miles away in both directions. The 2013 Mets belong permanently to the past, never to pop up with two out and a runner on first again. The 2014 Mets are nothing but unprovable theory until further notice, and I have a hunch the notices are a ways off. If it’s October, it’s not about the Mets.
Well, it’s always a little about the Mets. I wouldn’t find the Braves falling to earth with such a plodding thud so enjoyable if I didn’t retain some good, healthy Cublike enmity for them from when we were serious rivals. I’ve always thought we sucked the life out of them heading into the 1999 World Series by pushing them to something approaching the limit in that year’s NLCS (though the Mets never did receive royalty checks from the eventual world champions). I now believe the Braves have never, ever recovered from mustering all the strength it took to draw ball four from Kenny Rogers. They used to loom. They loomed in 2000 for our dreaded/anticipated playoff rematch until we got word at Shea, in advance of Game Three versus the Giants, that they’d been swept by St. Louis. A mocking Tomahawk chop ‘n’ chant went up.
How cheeky of us!
At some point Monday, while feasting intermittently on the four-game smorgasbord MLB laid out before me, I decided there was to be no mocking of any current playoff participant. They were all worthy competitors, none blessedly was the Yankees and each was where I’d very much like my team to be again before a mall stands on the site of Shea Stadium. That thought, however, occurred to me before Juan Uribe beat the Braves with an eighth-inning home run. If you can’t mock the Braves going down in their first playoff series of the year in the seventh consecutive year in which the Braves have been in the playoffs, then you’re just not extracting all the joy — Sheadenfreudic or otherwise — there is to watching baseball in this unfortunately Metless month.
I turned on my office TV a little after the start of the A’s-Tigers game, the third in the division series in which I had the least emotional capital invested. My relative lack of interest was appropriate, since the MLB Network telecast mysteriously came to me in Spanish. I checked my Panasonic and Optimum settings; they said I was loco and everything was as it was supposed to be. Nevertheless, the audio stayed in Spanish for innings on end. I shrugged and went back to my computer, now and again perking up at mentions of “Moneyball”; “Jim Leyland” and “Home Run Derby”. It’s easier than I would suspect to half-follow a baseball game in a second language. Eventually, I figured out how to bring back the English (I actually had to set my cable to “Español”) which was both too bad, because it exposed me to the inane American Matt Vasgersian, and great, because I could hear loud and clear the well-mic’d Grant Balfour and Victor Martinez inform each other of their respective shortcomings.
It was the long-awaited sequel to Bert Campaneris and Lerrin LaGrow, except with the pitcher and hitter on different sides and hostilities limited to verbiage. No bats or punches were thrown; only glares went awry. Balfour is apparently a piece of work and Martinez plays for a team that has suddenly forgotten how fearsome it can be. The A’s came out ahead in the end, which was fine with me, though I feel bad I can never conjure any genuine autumnal passion for the grand old Tigers, helmed by grand old Jim Leyland, representing a grand old city that could use a boost and is owed one after doing the lord’s work so effectively for two consecutive Octobers. Conversely, if it’s not October 1973, I tend to have a default setting that supports the Athletics, whoever happens to be on them in a given year. I’ve looked in on and listened in to three A’s playoff games in a row and probably still can’t identify half the roster. My problem, not Oakland’s.
By the time matters were settled, 6-3, at Comerica Park, Michael Wacha was deep into perfect-gaming the Pirates in Pittsburgh, which was both too bad for those of us wishing the Bucs all the best after two decades of them experiencing mostly the worst, and pretty darn impressive in that Michael Wacha has less big league experience than Zack Wheeler. But Wacha’s flirted with a no-hitter before, so maybe it wasn’t surprising that this rookie was completely suppressing an opponent in a do-or-die showcase. Wacha didn’t get the perfecto or the no-no, but he and his Cardinal comrades stayed alive, which is swell if you love Game Five drama in a short series, yet is too bad if you’d like the Cardinals to fly south for the winter. Unlike the Braves, they have a penchant for overstaying their welcome most Octobers.
Natch the one Cardinal I can’t root against is Carlos Beltran. The most I can ask of him is not to break too many Pirate hearts the next time he revises the postseason record book (I’ll bet “postseason” didn’t exist as a going phrase when Babe Ruth was belting 15 World Series home runs but doing absolutely nothing in the then-nonexistent preceding playoff rounds). Can’t not cheer for the greatest center fielder we ever had, however. Ideally, I thought early in the Pirate-Cardinal series, Carlos changes uniforms and joins Marlon Byrd on the Bucs. Then I decided that was only a temporary solution. Let us instead have Carlos, Marlon and 23 other really good, really likable players be Mets and cut out the middlemen.
But this isn’t about the Mets, remember?
Wacha’s 2-1 gem, with supporting jewelry provided by Charlie Morton, Pedro Alvarez and, most tellingly, Matt Holliday, took only 2:36 to craft, which allowed the baseball-gluttonous among us plenty of space to fill our bellies with the Rays and the Red Sox. Those guys required the same nine innings they used at PNC Park, yet somehow needed 4:19 to bring their affairs to resolution. If you were rooting for the Red Sox, it went on far too long. If you were rooting for the Rays as I am — USF’s surprise victory over Cincinnati the other night must have stirred my long-dormant inner Tampan — it went exactly as long as necessary, until Jose Lobaton could end it with a home run.
During the TBS telecast from Tropicana Field, the announcers kept insisting that due up in the bottom of the ninth were Ben Zobrist, Evan Longoria and the pitcher’s spot…that’s right, the pitcher’s spot, because so many moves were made and the Rays’ DH had come out and…oh, wait, Joe Maddon double-switched Lobaton into the game. That’s how obscure Jose Lobaton, imminent postseason hero, was before his swing for history. He had replaced Jose Molina a half-inning earlier and it wasn’t fully comprehended where he was batting.
Well, that’s been taken care of. Now Lobaton is up there with other catchers whose low profiles were irrevocably raised on their final swings in a given October game. Like Francisco Cabrera in 1992. Like Todd Pratt in 1999. Sort of like J.C. Martin in 1969, though Martin bunted to win Game Four of the World Series and reached first via clever baserunning. Gary Carter (for us) and Johnny Bench (against us) also had hits that ended tense postseason matches, but those fellas were fairly recognizable to the public at large already.
The Rays’ 5-4 victory ensured at least one more game in their ALDS, which — unless you’re going to be an actual Sox fan about it — is preferable to a sweep. Sweeps are boring if your team isn’t doing the sweeping. Double-elimination games, where somebody will be forced to go home, are the most enticing propositions for the unaligned. Thanks to Wacha, we knew we’d be getting that in St. Louis on Wednesday. Thanks in great part to Freddy Garcia, whom I’ve never forgiven for prickishly walking across the outfield while R.A. Dickey was preparing to pitch to Brett Gardner on July 3, 2011, it appeared we’d get a Game Five at Turner Field, too.
If I had my druthers, every starting pitcher would go nine and every ace would go on three days’ rest when his team absolutely, positively has to win, and that’s with knowing that the latter almost never really works. It worked with Johan Santana down the stretch in 2008 and it worked with Josh Beckett in 2003, but those were exceptions. The most famous example of the gamble not paying off, at least where we were concerned, was Yogi sending Seaver to the Coliseum mound when I wasn’t defaulting to the A’s 40 years ago. Tom had given his all on a Tuesday night but was back out there on a Saturday afternoon, pitching merely well when pitching fabulously was necessary. That was the George Stone business we still mutter about. If you caught George on with Gary, Keith and Ron during the final Saturday of the season — and I really hope you did — Stone came off as somebody who wasn’t bitter about Berra’s decision to bypass him in Oakland in 1973…but nevertheless maintained that he, not Tom, should’ve pitched Game Six.
If he had…well, never mind all that right now.
Someday, nobody will ask Ricky Nolasco about not taking what was supposed to be his turn with the 2013 Dodgers one game from clinching the LDS because Don Mattingly’s decision to start his ace of aces, Clayton Kershaw, on three days’ rest didn’t backfire. That is to say Kershaw started, was very good if not typically spectacular, and the Dodgers eventually won. Had Garcia’s efforts, which permitted the same two runs over the same six innings as Kershaw’s, gone suitably rewarded, then Mattingly would’ve faced a Game Five and not had his best pitcher available. That’s the drawback to my druthers.
But it all worked out in the end at Dodger Stadium. The Braves’ 3-2 lead transformed itself into a 4-3 loss while I dozed and Craig Kimbrel stood by not pitching. And though I have no affinity for the Dodgers, I was as giddy as could be through the fog of my 1 AM drowsiness. The Braves lost! HA! How can you not love that? Never mind the ancient Metsian brooding and think about their self-appointed roles as chiefs of MLB protocol in telling phenomenal Jose Fernandez and lovable Carlos Gomez what they were doing wrong after homering against Atlanta. If the 2013 Braves had played the 2001 Mets, they probably would’ve whined about wearing the first-responder caps so much that Bud Selig would’ve told them to cool it already.
The only downside of the Dodgers clinching in L.A. is they couldn’t continue their celebration by jumping into McCann’s swimming pool afterwards. Then again, they’ve got a couple of days before their next game and probably plenty of frequent flyer mileage.
The Braves’ next game is March 31, same day as ours.