LOS ANGELES — Dusty Baker has a way of looking at things that makes it all seem so simple. Comes with the gray, probably. The miles. Maybe when you’ve seen it all, or enough, separating the trash from the recyclables gets easy. Maybe you’re just more willing to live with the consequences if you get it a little wrong.
Anyway, there’ll almost always be another game, even when it seems there’ll never be another.
“Who you tellin’, man?” he said Wednesday afternoon. “I didn’t think I’d ever get another chance.”
“Back to Cali,” he said with a grin that tweaked the corners of his mask.
His Houston Astros were the first to play into the American League Division Series, half of which will be here.
The eastbound Santa Monica Freeway in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon isn’t much to look at. One long gray conveyor belt, it smells of coolant and sags in spots, presumably under the weight of the souls it consumes. That’s too bad, considering how long it takes to cover a few miles. In that way, in all ways, it merely serves its purpose, 10 or 15 feet at a time, downtown in view and almost infinitely out of reach.
There, right there, is a good place to think.
Seven playoff games had passed in 28 hours. By the end of Wednesday another five would be done, assuming the weather held in Cleveland. Already, before the first batting practice was over here, the Minnesota Twins and Toronto Blue Jays were out. The Tampa Bay Rays and Baker’s Houston Astros were in. The rain passed in Cleveland and the Indians were teetering.
After a season in which the Dodgers won more games than anyone, not a single person in a single car on this five-lane road was headed to Dodger Stadium for a playoff game. The Dodgers would host the Milwaukee Brewers in the first game of a best-of-three series in a ballpark that feels emptier by the day. Fall had been here for a week, the Dodgers were going to take another shot at this thing now 32 years tired, and the nearest thing to intimacy was manager Dave Roberts pregame elbow-bumping six umpires and an opposing manager. The rest echoed off the hills beyond the palms.
Something Dusty Baker had said earlier about winning a playoff series in 2020 had stayed in the air, however. By the time they’d taken away the tarp in Cleveland (again), 10 playoff games had been played to conclusion over two days and 69 runs had been scored. Thirty-six of those runs had come in on home runs. Meantime, 198 batters had struck out.
This is not that new. Entire baseball games — entire baseball seasons — are being played out inside batter’s boxes all over America and Canada. You’d know it as three-true-outcome baseball — home runs, walks and strikeouts — and it’s getting truer by the day, and in the final two days of September fielders were largely wasting perfectly good pairs of spikes.
In the middle of that, Baker looked back over two games, at a play that wasn’t made by the other guys, at some slashed survival hits, at a full-count walk, at a tracer of a throw by his shortstop, at a dangerous runner picked off first base when it was starting to feel wobbly, yeah at a big home run, and remembered how you have to win these things sometimes.
“It’s a game of stacking pennies,” he said. “You know, you get one here, one there, one here, one there, one great play and the next thing you know you got a dollar. So, at the end of this day we got a dollar.”
Thing is, it seems, well it has seemed for some years now, everybody plays for a fiver. Every swing. And, OK, somebody decided that’s how you win baseball games and 29 more followed along. It played well on the scoreboard, in arbitration, in free agency, the baseballs cooperated for a while, and then on a Wednesday afternoon at the end of September you get 13 innings of 1-0 and 37 strikeouts in Atlanta, where, in part because of elite pitching and in part because it’s just the game anymore, there was hardly a choked-up, situational, take-one-for-the-greater-good at-bat, which is why before the game found Freddie Freeman it was 0-0 with 37 strikeouts.
How about 14 total runs in the Rays-Blue Jays series, 10 of those as a result of home runs, and 43 strikeouts? Or 13 runs in Oakland over two days, nine by home run, and 36 strikeouts?
Is that a good time? Maybe. Sure. The Dodgers just hit 118 home runs in 60 games and didn’t break a sweat. They also were granted eight baserunners in the first two innings Wednesday night, kept swinging, did not hit a home run, and led just 3-2 in the fourth inning because … well because the Brewers did hit a home run. Because home runs are great. Right up until you chase them into an early offseason.
Earlier, see, Dusty Baker had spent a couple sentences on Carlos Correa’s home run in Game 2 and seemingly could’ve spent hours on the thought that went into picking off Byron Buxton in the eighth inning with the Astros ahead by just a run, the mechanics of it and all that might’ve gone wrong with it. Somebody scouted that and somebody briefed the coaching staff on it and somebody coached up 23-year-old right-hander Cristian Javier on it and somebody signaled it in to catcher Martin Maldonado, who relayed it to Cristian Javier, and then in the eighth inning the series basically died for the Twins somewhere between first and second base, Byron Buxton face down in the dirt.
It sort of felt like baseball.
“That was a hold-and-pick play,” Baker said.
That’s where the pitcher holds the ball in his stretch until everyone grows impatient or distracted or drowsy, then lays his best move to first on the man.
“We knew he was going to run at some point in time,” Baker said of Buxton. “That’s what he was out there for. A lot of times you put the hold-and-pick play on and the young pitchers don’t really hold the ball. But you have to let him kind of hold the ball, commit, don’t balk, step off, and they executed that perfectly. And the rundown. That was big. That’s a rally killer that they executed very well.”
Meantime, at the other end of the Santa Monica Freeway, the Dodgers of 118 regular-season home runs, the No. 1 seed in the National League, ace Walker Buehler against the Brewers’ bullpen, a year after they hit .220 in a division series flameout, two years after hitting .180 in the World Series, and .223 against the Brewers in the NLCS before that, and we can keep going on the Dodgers’ postseason offensive issues, were searching for their batter’s box legs.
Then Corey Seager homered, dead center, back-legged it 447 feet, and it was honestly spectacular. And the Brewers struck out 15 times. True outcomes all. And, apparently, they’ll do it all again tomorrow. Not Dusty though. He has a day off with a dollar burning a hole in his pocket.
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