The Payoff Pitch: Old School Baseball Still Works

Boy, baseball purists sure had a field day during the first couple of weeks of post-season play earlier this month.  Not a single 100-win team made it through to the league championship series, two were ousted in sweeping fashion by teams still playing as we head for their deciding games.  Purists blamed the expanded playoff system, both for the crapshoot-like best two-of-three that the wild card round has become and the fact that the teams that did earn buys may have been disadvantaged by a week’s layoff.  Worse still, audiences were rejecting these games, with ratings in decline even from 2022, where at least half the series played a third game and, due to the spring training lockout, the majority of games were played over a weekend where, in theory, more viewers were available.

Upon further review, and with the excitement of what has gone down in the past week and change, turns out baseball’s still exciting, unpredictable and while the best TEAMS may not have necessarily risen to the occasion, many of the best PLAYERS, with impressive resumes and a hunger for a title, have indeed stepped up.

Texas and Houston have now revealed that the intense rivalry between these same-state, same-division teams, only so aligned since the ‘Stros relocation to the American League in 2015, has the potential to become this century’s Dodgers-Giants.   While the Rangers have been a true feel-good story, it was a familiar face, one not exactly loved in New York and Los Angeles, that rose to the occasion yet again, as BLEACHER REPORT’s Francisco Rosa wrote:

So many times the hero for the Houston Astros over the years, José Altuve had to put his superman cape on once again Friday in the team’s 5-4 win over the Texas Rangers in Game 5 of the ALCS.

Altuve had the crowd at Globe Life Field in a stunned silence as he blasted a three-run homer in the top of the ninth inning off Rangers’ closer José Leclerc to storm back from a 4-2 deficit and giving the Astros a lead that they would never relinquish.

Following a three-run shot by Adolis García in the bottom of the sixth, it looked like Houston had its back on the ropes, in danger of falling into a dangerous 3-2 series hold. Instead, Altuve managed to flip the script, putting his squad on top instead.

And as the always prompt and insightful Sarah Langs of MLB.com added, if that outcome looks familiar, it is:

Altuve’s 3rd go-ahead HR in 9th inning or later in postseason 

that’s the most all-time.

Altuve has won the World Series twice with the Astros (2017 and 2022), just like Bregman. He’s a career .270 playoff hitter with 26 homers and 54 RBI.  This regular season, Altuve hit .311.

Things had gotten really emotional just before that.  Benches cleared after Astros reliever Bryan Abreu threw at Garcia in the first at bat after his homer.  Astros manager Dusty Baker was ejected along with Abreu and Garcia, refusing to leave the bench for several minutes and as angry as I’ve ever seen him in the more than 50 years that I’ve been watching him work.  The sweetest revenge anyone pulling for Baker–and how can anyone not like a wily 74-year-old looking for back-to-back rings–could have hoped for was to see his team answer in the most compelling way–mashing a baseball, not an opponent’s helmet.

While the Rangers may be demoralized, they aren’t dead yet, and tonight they will be sending their own old-school savior, Nathan Eovaldi, to the mound in Houston.  Eovaldi is 3-0 so far in this post-season, and in Game 2 reinforced that he’s pretty darn formidable in October as well, as the NEW YORK POST’s Joel Sherman observed:

Pick your good to really good player … who then became something else in the biggest games.  Nathan Eovaldi has pushed onto the list.  Eovaldi delivered the exact parameters of a quality start Monday — six innings, three runs. Or exactly what was needed for his team.  For him, it was one of the worst of his nine postseason starts; that’s how good he has been at this time of year.

And let’s also keep in mind that the road team has won each of the first five games of this series, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 2019 World Series.  A series Altuve knows about all too well, and one that Bryce Harper missed out on, since he had bolted the Washington Nationals the season before they won their first-ever franchise title.  But Harper is doing his best with some old-school mashing of his own to ensure his current team, the Philadelphia Phillies, get another shot at a ring that still eludes him.  Per ESPN’s Jesse Rogers:

Slugging and running their way to within one victory of a return trip to the World Series, the Philadelphia Phillies beat the Arizona Diamondbacks 6-1 on Saturday night in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series to take a 3-2 series lead.  Philadelphia slugger Bryce Harper set the tone for Game 5, stealing home in the first inning then hitting a 444-foot home run in the sixth. He joined Randy Arozarena as the only players in postseason history to steal home and hit a homer in the same game.

“We’re going to be aggressive right here,” Harper said. “Bryson [Stott] had the green light. He went, and I just tried to make the best decision to get there and make it happen to score that run.”

And he got some help from some other proven veterans last night.  Zack Wheeler came up big once again, per Rogers:

On a night when the Phillies’ bullpen wasn’t fully available, Wheeler pitched seven innings, giving up six hits while striking out eight and yielding one run (a solo shot by Alek Thomas).

Wheeler helped bring down his team’s starter ERA this postseason to 1.48, lowest all time out of a rotation through the first 11 playoff game.

And Kyle Schwarber, who does have a ring thanks to the 2016 Cubs, continued to rise to levels of October power seen by few others (well, Altuve’s on that list too), adding to an already impressive array of accomplishments:

  • Schwarber is just the fifth player to reach 20 career postseason home runs. He got there in 63 games, the fastest in history.
  • Harper and Schwarber have combined for 22 home runs during the past two postseasons (11 each), the most by a duo over a two-year span in playoff history.

Old-school performances–power hitting, power pitching.  Proven veterans who do come through (sorry, Mookie and Freddie, it does happen elsewhere).

And best still, people are watching again, as David Korn of YARDBARKER reported:

Despite not featuring a team from the country’s three largest markets, New York, Chicago or Los Angeles for the first time since 2014, the Major League Baseball postseason is still producing numbers consistent with previous seasons.  According to Nielsen, despite seeing slight declines in the Wild Card and division series, the league championship series drew an average of 5.2 million viewers, which is consistent with previous seasons. Game one of the ALCS featuring the Texas Rangers and the Houston Astros averaged 7.27 million viewers on Fox, Fox Deportes, and streaming. That was the highest-rated LCS game since a 2010 matchup between the Rangers and the New York Yankees averaged 8.11 million.

And that’s before the crucial Game 6s have been played.  And for FOX and Turner Sports, the fact that both LCS will see them is the best news of all.  Historically, it is those games, and Game 7s, that typically fall into pure profit for the carriers.  Lord knows both the Murdochs and Yosemite Zas, a couple of old-school gunslingers in their own right, need the cache.

And if all of this somehow produces a rematch of last year’s World Series, so be it.  We haven’t seen two teams go back-to-back with league titles since 1978.

Old-school baseball.  Old-school players.  Old-school (ish) ratings.

Nice going, MLB.

Courage…

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