Defeat from the jaws of victory! The Astros melt down, the Royals force Game 5

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Someplace in the bowels of Minute Maid Park there is a clubhouse attendant who knows whether or not the carts full of champagne and beer were already wheeled into the Astros’ clubhouse. Whether or not the plastic was taped above the Astros’ lockers. He’s likely been sworn to secrecy — there’s a code of discretion to which these professionals ascribe — but he knows.

And who would’ve blamed him? The Astros were up by four runs and were only six outs away from advancing to the ALCS. They were on their way there thanks to a hero-making turn from Carlos Correa, who hit his second homer of the day in the bottom of the seventh. It was a two-run shot, followed immediately by Colby Rasmus‘ solo homer to make it 6-2. Between that and the deflating, inning-ending replay review in the top half of the inning, the Royals could’ve pretty easily packed it in.

But they didn’t. Not by a long shot. It wasn’t a Chernobyl-level thing and maybe not even Three-Mile Island. But what happened to the Astros in the eighth inning this afternoon may rank somewhere near the Saint-Laurent disaster in the meltdown pantheon.

Will Harris was on the mound for Houston, having taken the ball from Lance McCullers the previous inning. McCullers was great and Harris helped stop the would-be seventh-inning rally, but he was peppered in the eighth. Death by a thousand cuts, really. Alex Rios singled. Alcides Escobar singled. Ben Zobrist singled. Lorenzo Cain singled to drive in Rios. In came Tony Sipp for Harris and nothing changed. Eric Hosmer singled in Escobar, Kendrys Morales hit into a fielder’s choice that was booted to score two more runs and just like that it was tied.

Tony Sipp eventually got an out but he had two men on by then. Luke Gregerson came in to relieve Sipp to face Drew Butera, who has a career .241 on-base percentage and may be one of the worst hitters in baseball. Butera drew a walk because of course he did and the bases were loaded. Alex Gordon grounded out to score one more and by the time the very, very long top of the eighth ended it was 7-6 Royals. The air had been taken out of Minute Maid Park. The champagne, if it was in place, had been taken out of the Astros’ clubhouse.

The Royals weren’t done yet. After Wade Davis came in and got the first three quick outs of a potential six-out save, Eric Hosmer hit a two-run homer in the top of the ninth. 9-6 Royals. Wade Davis had a couple of bumps in the ninth but he shut it down for that six-out save. Ryan Madson — the Royals’ pitcher of record during that long top of the eighth — got the win despite giving up two homers and handing the Astros a big lead back in the seventh. He’ll take it.

As I write these words, the Astros are back in that clubhouse. They’re no doubt as quiet as church mice. They’re showering and dressing and getting ready to head to the airport for a long, tense flight to Kansas City and a Game Five that, an hour or two ago, they never would’ve guessed they’d have to play.

As they walk out of the clubhouse, I wonder if, in the event they happen to look down, they’ll see the wheel marks of those champagne and beer carts in the thick major league carpet. Wheeled in with confidence, wheeled out with haste.

The Astros continue to refuse to take responsibility for the Taubman Affair

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I’m calling it the “Taubman Affair” because writing “the incident in which a top front office executive — Astros Assistant General Manager Brandon Taubman — taunted a reporter for her past opposition to the team acquiring a domestic abuser, after which the team lied, aggressively about it, accusing another reporter of fabricating a story, then admitted that they lied but made no apology for smearing the reporter” is too unwieldy for a headline.

If you need catching up on it, though, you can read this, this or this.

The latest on it all: yesterday, after walking back their angry denial that the incident ever occurred and admitting that, yes, Taubman did in fact gleefully and profanely target a reporter for taunting, the team basically went silent and let Game 1 unfold.

Today General Manager Jeff Luhnow went on a team-friendly radio station (i.e. the station that broadcasts Astros games). In the entire segment he was asked only one question about it: “Your thoughts on the SI article, Jeff.” Luhnow said that he would withhold comment, but apologized to “everybody involved,” including the fans and the players, saying “this situation should have never happened.” You can listen to the entire segment here.

He did not, however, make any specific mention of what “this situation” was. Nor did he acknowledge that, actually, it’s at least two “situations:” (1) the initial behavior of Taubman; and (2) Monday night’s team-sanctioned attack of Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein, who reported it. Indeed, at no time in the team’s now multiple comments has anyone acknowledged that, as an organization, the Houston Astros’s first impulse in all of this was to attempt to bully and discredit a reporter for what has now been established as a truthful report to which the Astros have admitted. And they certainly have not voiced any specific regret or offered any form of accountability for it.

Major League Baseball is apparently investigating Taubman’s conduct. But it is not, presumably, investigating the Astros’ disingenuous smear of Apstein. A smear that the Astros likely undertook because they figured they could intimidate Apstein and, what may even be worse, because they assumed that the rest of the press — many of whom were witnesses to Taubman’s act — would go along or remain silent. If they did not think that, of course, releasing the statement they did would’ve been nonsensical. It speaks of an organization that believes it can either bully or manipulate the media into doing its bidding or covering for the teams’ transgressions. That part of this has gone wholly uncommented on by the Astros and apparently will for the foreseeable future. No matter how this shakes out for Taubman, if the Astros do not talk about how and why they decided to baselessly attack Apstein on Monday night, nothing they ever say should be trusted again.

More broadly, everything the Astros are doing now is the same as when they traded for Roberto Osuna in the first place.

In 2018 they wanted to do an unpopular thing — arbitrage a player’s domestic violence suspension into the acquisition of cheap relief help — while wanting to appear as though they were good actors who had a “zero tolerance for domestic violence” policy. To solve that problem they shoveled a lot of malarkey about how “zero tolerance” actually includes a fair amount of tolerance and hoped that everyone would go along. When not everyone did — when fans brought signs of protest to the ballpark or expressed their displeasure with Osuna’s presence on the roster — they confiscated them then hoped it’d all blow over and, eventually, via Taubman’s rant on Saturday night, lashed out at their critics.

Here, again, they want to do something unpopular: retain a boorish and insensitive executive in Taubman without him or the team suffering any consequences for it, be they actual consequences or mere P.R. fallout. Again, it’s kind of hard to pull that off, so to do so they falsely accused a reporter of lying and then circled the wagons when they caught heat for it.

I have no idea how long they plan to keep this up. Maybe they are calculating that people will forget and that forgetting is the same as forgiveness. Maybe they simply don’t care. All I do know is that folks will be teaching the Astros’ response to all of this as a counterexample in crisis management courses for years.