THE BIG HIT | High Stakes, Going Home, and the Magic Recipe of the Postseason

by Ken Napzok

What a season the first week of the playoffs was. 

Big time pitching, clutch hitting, and the cream looking like it’s rising to the top. The 2019 postseason has already been a buffet of greatness for even the most discerning baseball aficionado. This is what your childhood baseball dreams are made of.

But what really makes a great postseason? What is the special recipe that sends saps like me racing toward their keyboards to wax poetic about a game of ball? It’s a marvelous (Marv Throneberry) combination of the little things that draw us to the game time and time again. From the spring to the winter. Every year. Every season.

It’s Stephen Strasburg’s 3 innings on an off day that was followed up by 85 of his best pitches. 

The postseason is the place for these outside of the box gambles when it is all on the line. Sometimes it doesn’t work. That’s true. There a lot of Nationals fans questioning why Patrick Corbin was brought in for relief in the sixth inning of game three of their NLDS tussle with the Dodgers. Two thirds of an inning later, the Dodgers had painted six runs on the board to take the lead and put the team on Death’s door. However, when it works it stands up in the memories of fans as a truly heroic feat. 

When Strasburg entered in the sixth inning of the Wild Card game against the Brewers, the Nationals were just hoping their frontline starter could just keep them close. Three innings, two hits allowed, and four Ks later he had done just that. It was reminiscent of Randy Johnson striding in to hold the door for the Mariners or Diamondbacks. As Max Scherzer, the very ace Strasburg replaced, said, “There is no routine in the postseason.” 

Juan Soto made Strasburg’s outing more than a footnote with his clutch hit in the bottom of the eighth, but Strasburg had already made the gamble a good bet. He followed that up with an important game two win against the mighty Dodgers. Keeping the season alive for at least one extra game. Regardless of the final result of the series, they’ll sing songs about this and the tales will be part of Nationals’ lore. 

And what of that Wild Card game. Juan Soto and the Nationals gave us a dramatic start to the postseason, but the Tampa Bay Rays removed the drama early. 

And with that they earned the right to face the Astros.

Gulp.

The One Game Showdown of the Wild Card always gets questioned… and that’s understandable. You fight and fight all season long and earn an invite to the big end of the year party only to find out that you get one shot to get it right before the valet walks up and hands you the car keys. It doesn’t seem fair and right now in Oakland and Milwaukee you’ll have a lot of support for the idea of making these series at least best two out of three. 

Maybe that day will come.

However, for now, we have one game to rule them all and it absolutely adds to the magic. Think of it this way: The postseason starts with big time tension. There is no “we’ll get them tomorrow.” No casual stroll toward dramatics. The curtain opens and there is no tomorrow for two of the teams. Hearts are broken, tears shed, and it’s only the first game. 

Two out of three isn’t a bad proposal, but like a good improv performer will tell you, whenever possible… raise the stakes.

And there is no greater stakes than when a game comes down to the final frames. We mentioned Soto and the Nationals already, but already the Braves and Cardinals have already given us our fair share of late innings fireworks and heartburn. First Marcell Ozuna with his game busting game one double.

Then Carlos Martinez seemed to get so obsessed with respecting the game by blowing kisses to Billy Hamilton that he overlooked Dansby Swanson.

And then apparently Adam Duvall as well.

At least he recovered enough to throw a message pitch at Ronald Acuna Jr. 

Solid point, Carlos. 

But that’s all part of the late inning heroics and game blowing collapses. If there was a way to legally force all playoff games to be decided in the 8th inning or later, I’d sign that petition faster than you can say “Jack Clark steps into the box to face Tom Niedenfuer.” 

Swanson and Duvall just became postseason stars and that is another part of this mix. Whether it is game deciding moments or just simply stepping into the spotlight with a mighty roar, watching new names get to the next level brings an extra amount of that playoff joy. It’s the season on this slow cooking meal.

And so it was in Chavez Ravine, when 21 year-old Gavin Lux, who we later learned barely knows the details of the famous Kirk Gibson home run that propelled the Dodgers to their last title in 1988, stepped in the box for his first at-bat late in game one of the NLDS against the Nationals. He swung at the first pitch he ever saw in the postseason and sent it almost to the same spot the Gibson muscled out at the pitch from The Eck. The only thing missing was the tail lights of all the cars missing history. 

“And she’s is goooonnnnne.” – Vin Scully

Back in Atlanta, Mike Foltynewicz pitched his way to the next level as well. His game two win that saw him go seven scoreless with no walks and seven strikeouts in a duel with Jack Flaherty, put him right next to two legends of the Braves past: Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine

Great postseasons are built on these great things and more. It’s the grizzled veteran making one last stand like Adam Wainwright, who’s 7 ⅔  scoreless innings were the story of game three until Carlos Martinez took the hill in the ninth. It’s Cory Bellinger carrying the Dodgers through the regular season but struggling now, setting up that one redemptive moment. It’s also his teammates picking him up. Great postseasons are ace pitchers being just that. Cleanup hitters cleaning up. And managers putting their whole careers into one big decision. 

The 2019 Major League Baseball postseason is only one week old and already we’ve had enough of that magical greatness we’ll relive for the rest of our days. Week two has a lot to live up to.


Power Rankings

The baseball week that was

5 – The First Pitch Roar

The 2019 playoffs have already been with us for a week and the highlights have been plentiful, but for all the big moments that have exploded onto our screens – from the most state of the art television to the fanciest of phones — one of the most powerful moments is the one that first took place on Tuesday in Washington, then a few hours later in Oakland and on down the line with the start of each ALDS game. The fifth most powerful thing in baseball this week is The Roar of the First Pitch.

Each game begins with energy coursing through the stadium. The long season has come down to this very moment and no matter what happened in the game before the first pitch of this game brings with it a spiritual-like combination of joy, hope, and even fear. Your team needs this game. Doesn’t matter what game of the series it is. They need it. You need it. 

Playoff games are always such a show — true theatre of the sport’s soul — from the time you get into the stadium or turn on the TV. There is so much pomp and circumstance with the national anthem, pre-game introductions that stretch on and on (“and in the bullpen making sure the team has an unending supply of bubble gum and water… “), and the pundits — usually recently retired players with that twinkle in their eye that says they’re convinced they should be out there right now — pour out insight and predictions that all disappear when the teams cross the white lines. It all builds to that first pitch.

As the starting pitcher for the home team toes the rubber, looks in for the sabermetric approved sign, and starts to wind up his body in an effort to fling that ball across the plate, the crowd collectively inhales. It’s a brief pause before the glorious all or nothing chaos of competition that is about to play out in front of them. Whether it’s a called strike or ball, a hit back up the box, or a mighty swing and miss, the first pitch is accompanied by a mighty roar that proclaims one truth: it has begun. 

4 – Running not watching

This is a weekly column. Which means by the time your eyes have come to this section, you will have read and heard many a hot take on the Ballad of Ronald Acuna Jr and his 325 foot single. Tweets, columns, quotes from teammates, and many, many more reactions to this incident in game one of the Braves-Cardinals series. 

To sum up, the Braves were up 3-1 in the seventh inning when Ronald Acuna Jr — in his first game back after being shut down for the last week of the regular season — launched a pitch to right that he thought was going to go over the fence. He jogged down the line, carrying his bat, before realizing too late that Dexter Fowler had the ball. Acuna Jr was now on first. The Braves lost 7-6. 

He should have run. He should have been on second base. He just might have scored one more run before the Braves bullpen imploded. 

Yes. Yes to all of that. 

Personally, I play sports (badly) and live life with the motto of “act like you’ve been there before.” That works for me. It worked for Barry Sanders. It had worked for many, many others. If I was to ever have hit a major league home run, I would have sprinted around the bases like Mickey Hatcher in the 1988 World Series. It’s a good approach.

However… 

If I may… 

Might I suggest that we all take a step back and don’t work extra hard to burn out the fire of Ronald Acuna Jr’s baseball loving heart. He’s twenty-one. He’s doing extraordinary things on the field. He’s part of the game’s future. Let him play. 

I can recall a time when the smiling face of Ken Griffey Jr was a nightly thing on SportsCenter. With his hat on backwards and eyes bursting with joy, Griffey Jr would shag fly balls and take batting practice with the feel of someone who enjoyed the game. At some point, the old voices around the batting cages started chiming in. 

“He’s ruining the game.”

“He’s not respecting the game.”

“He should be more serious.”

630 home runs later I wonder where those voices went?

Yeah, maybe Griffey never watched a home run become a single. Or maybe he did. I honestly don’t remember, but this has happened before. A young player with immense talent who still needs the rough edges sanded down emerges and the Keepers of the Game act as if he is spitting on the graves of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and all innings of Ken Burns’ Baseball. 

Acuna Jr should have run. He just might have later scored. (I guess he should have also locked down the game from the mound) He will continue to grow. And his teammates and coaches will certainly help — or force — him along the way. 

But as the game of baseball struggles to reach the eyes of the new generation of fans that are used to consuming their media in an entirely different way that the grand ole’ game is used to and are more often than not follow personalities before institutions, perhaps we shouldn’t burn him at the stake. 

Play loud, Ronald. Play loud. 

3 – Bob Costas

Are we supposed to like Bob Costas these days? I’m not sure. Hard to remember. From time-to-time the Collective Public decides that a professional broadcaster, a tried and true play-by-play guy, or an anchor are not to be appreciated any more. Sometimes it’s deserved. (Joe Buck) Sometimes it’s not. (Joe Buck) This happens outside baseball as well. To one generation, U2 is that old band that your Uncle loves that once forced an ENTIRE album onto your iPhone. To other generations, they’re groundbreaking artists that defined a generation and may have quite literally saved lives with their music. 

* shrug * It happens.

So, I’m not sure where we stand on Bob Costas. Good chance some of you are composing a pink eye joke right now.

For me, though, and for this week, we should pause to just appreciate the timeless timbre and presence of Bob Costas. Bob has never had the classic hometown radio voice to me. He is not the old friend of a baseball announcer you gather around the radio with. Instead, Bob Costas is the embodiment of prime time sports. When he’s calling a game, you just feel as though you are watching something important. He is simultaneously calling the moment we’re watching and looking back on it from the future knowing its significance. Bob Costas loves baseball and he wants you to love it just as much as him while you watch.

The 2019 baseball playoffs are made even better with Costas calling some of the action. 

2 – Pinstripe Power

The New York Yankee line-up has been living under the Next Man Up mantra all season. It’s all about the collective approach. The idea that there is not one hero on the team but many. It’s about team over personal glory. 

Or maybe it’s just about glory?

Seems legit.

The 2019 Yankees have come out swinging and swinging often in these playoffs. Questions about pitching — particularly starting pitching — remain, but this week it’s all about that classic Coke flavor of Pinstripe Power.

They scored 18 runs in two games and only on three homers. The rest they earned the ole’ fashion way like they were Gil McDougald and Bobby Richardson as opposed to Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. It’s just plain scary at how easy it looked. There is a special crack coming off of their bats.

At the top of it all is DJ LeMahieu. The Machine is 4 of 9 through the first two games of the ALDS with one home run, 4 RBI,  and a 1.500 OPS. (Manny who?) And is playing with the love of the loudest city in the world behind him.  

There are still a lot of at-bats left for this team to have in the postseason, and they still have to get outs on the other side, but for right now everything’s coming up Yankees. LeMahieu, Judge, Gardner, and the next man up is working so far. Right, Didi?

1 – Aces High

We’ve all been watching Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole very close over these last few weeks and for good reason. From no-hitters to 300 strikeouts to throwing pitches that defy both science and fantasy, Verlander and Cole are a bonafide pair aces worthy of a classic catch phrase like Spahn and Sain and pray for rain all the back in 1948. This past week belonged to them.

There are many other great Ace Duos, of course. Koufax and Drysdale. Johnson and Schilling. Clemens and whatever was in his clubhouse coffee. Yet there is something particularly fun about watching Verlander and Cole take their place among those dynamic duos of yesteryear. 

Perhaps it is as simple as these two hurlers doing all of this while baseballs are flying out of stadiums like never before? Perhaps it is because they are doing this in an era where teams employ openers to gobble up the first few innings of games and charts and graphs will tell you that’s just as good as tossing out your best pitcher every four days? Or perhaps it is just because Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole seem to be toying with the very professional hitters digging in against them and we are witnessing history? 

That seems about right. 

Verlander and Cole and go dig a whole?

Verlander and Cole and know your role?

Verlander and Cole — ah, we’ll workshop it, but for now let’s just enjoy the show.


This week in baseball history…

It was the fan interference that helped launch a dynasty.

This week, October 9th, 1996, was the day a twelve year-old boy named Jeffrey Maier reached over the right field fence at Old Yankee Stadium, kept Tony Tarasco from snagging a deep fly ball from that fresh faced rookie Derek Jeter, and changed not just the course of the American League Championship Series but the Yankees themselves. 

It might be hard to remember — or believe — now, but the 1996 Yankees squad was not quite the Evil Empire it became. The Bronx Bombers of that year was a collection of underdogs, future stars, and cast offs led by a manager who had never achieved postseason glory. Not many outside of the Bronx were giving them a chance to get past the Baltimore Orioles let alone win the World Series. Though the Orioles finished second behind the Yankees, they were anchored by Ripken Jr., Palmerio, Bonilla, Alomar, and Mussina. They were a veritable murder’s row of the mid-1990s having set the single season team home run mark in ‘96 after clubbing 257. The previous mark had been 240 by the historic 1961 M & M-led Yankees. 

To counter this power the Yankees were throwing crafty ace Jimmy Ace, Dwight Gooden — but not the one from 1986, Kenny Rogers — but not the one that knew when to fold ‘em,  a still recovering David Cone, and a young upstart who surprised the world with 21 wins, Andy Pettitte. 

Yeah, it was looking good for the Orioles. 

In the bottom of the eighth inning, Armando Benitez was dealing heat for the Birds and protecting a 4-3 lead. If you watch the clip, Bob Costas reminds you the Yankees had left ten men on base to this point in the game. Derek Jeter was in the box and, though he had just registered a great rookie season, he was not yet THAT Derek Jeter. The Yankee shortstop launched a fly ball to right. Tarasco pressed his back up against the wall, but calmly put his glove up. A  twelve year-old fan from Old Tappen, New Jersey reached his glove over the fence and pulled the ball back into the stands. A moment forever locked in time thanks to replay after replay. 

Derek Jeter was credited with a home run. Umpire Rich Garcia, working the right field foul lines, ruled it so. Tarasco went understandably ballistic. Manager Davey Johnson screamed out his case until he has ejected. But it stood. The game was tied. 4-4. Bernie Williams later won it in extra innings with a blast of of Randy Myers and would go on to unseat the Braves as champions while the country cheered for them. We didn’t know it, but the Yankee Dynasty was born that night. 

This would never happen now, of course. Replays then — even with the VCR-like technology of the day — clearly showed that at best this was an extra base hit. This would have been overturned. Maier would not have even been able to get that close to the wall now. Jeter would have been ruled out. The Yankees would have had to have found another way to try and win. Yet perhaps the biggest reason a Jeffrey Maier-like incident would not happen to today is because of the Jeffrey Maier incident. It was too much of a series changing gaffee to let slide. Even in a game that has human error baked into its very DNA. This is, in a way, was one of the more influential moments in baseball and it took place 23 years ago today. 

And, look, I’m not saying that God loves the Yankees — but that maybe God once dreamed of being the center fielder of the Yankees at one point in time?

Remember when… 

… Roy Halladay threw a no-hitter in his long awaited postseason debut? 

October 6th, 2010 was the date that the future Hall of Famer took his place in history by striking out 8, walking 1, and befuddling the Cincinnati Reds to join Don Larsen as the only pitchers to date that have tossed a no-hitter in postseason play. Read that again. There have been 303 recognized no-hitters/ perfect games in baseball history. That includes the 1800s when some teams probably had livestock manning at least one position, the dead ball era in which the baseball literally transformed into a lump of goal by the sixth inning, and Sandy Koufax. 

Yet on only two occasions has a pitcher pulled off this feat in the postseason — when some of the best pitchers are taking the bump. Two times. The modern postseason began in 1903. 

It just sometimes seems that Halladay’s no-no gets lost in the shuffle of the sport’s history. 

Don Larsen’s perfect game in game five of the 1956 World Series is part of the building blocks of the game’s history. The grainy footage of Larson getting Dale Mitchell on a checked swing third strike while a young Vin Scully calls the action is high up there in the annals of time.

If you grew up trying to be a student of baseball history you don’t just have Larsen’s game on the top shelf — you’re told to put it there. The moment IS legendary. Let’s be clear. It was only the second perfect game in baseball at the time, took place place in the World Series — a Dodger-Yankee one to boot, and happened 63 seasons ago. I think Thomas Jefferson had the game playing on the radio at Monticello. 

But none of that should be used against Halladay’s moment. Sure it was in National League Division Series. It was “just” a no-hitter. The footage is clear. Not 4K clear, but clear. Once again, modern day baseball history doesn’t seem like history. 

But it is. 

The late Roy Halladay completely shut down a major league lineup in the playoffs, kept them from getting even one hit, and so many legends before and so many legends to come, will never get the chance to say they did the same. 

Walk Off Quote

“I don’t just think regular season. I think playoffs. World Series. That’s how I think.” – Mariano Rivera, 42 saves and a 0.70 ERA in his postseason career

***

Ken Napzok tried a bat flip the other day and it didn’t flip, but is the author of Why We Love Star Wars and host of The Napzok Files podcast feed. 

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