Getty Images

Bryce Harper powers massive comeback as Nationals win 6-3 to even NLDS

9 Comments

After the Nationals landed on the wrong end of a two-hitter on Friday night, they were ready to rebound and even the series. Enter Bryce Harper, who tied the game with a mammoth eighth-inning home run and set up Ryan Zimmerman to clinch the game with another two-run homer later in the inning. The 6-3 win helped the Nats fend off the Cubs for the first time in the National League Division Series, tying the series 1-1 in advance of Game 3 on Monday.

Jon Lester took the mound for Chicago, firing six innings of two-hit, one run ball to stifle the Nationals’ attempts to build on an early lead. His biggest mistake was a 1-1 fastball to Anthony Rendon, who hooked it fair down in the right field corner to put the Nats on the board in the first inning.

In the fifth, he found himself in trouble again. Zimmerman roped a single up the middle, then advanced to third base on a stolen base and wild pitch. Back-to-back walks to Michael A. Taylor and Howie Kendrick set the table for Trea Turner, but Lester kept his cool, working a full count before his sinker caught Turner swinging for a big inning-ending strikeout.

Gio Gonzalez wasn’t as lucky against the Cubs’ offense, who posted a two-run lead after Willson Contreras struck a second-inning solo homer and Anthony Rizzo put up a two-RBI shot in the fourth. Contreras’ home run set a new Statcast mark for the club, too, launching at a 45-degree angle for the highest angle on a home run by any Cubs’ player in Statcast history.

It looked like things were settling in the Cubs’ favor after Lester stepped off the mound, leaving Pedro Strop to set down a scoreless seventh. Carl Edwards Jr. took things in a different direction, however. He served up a leadoff base hit to Adam Lind, then watched Bryce Harper mash a game-tying home run to bring the Nats back into the competition. Harper being Harper, the homer landed him in the record books:

The deciding blast was still to come. With one out and the bases clear, Edwards walked Rendon on eight pitches. That prompted a pitching change, but Mike Montgomery was no luckier than his predecessor. He permitted a line drive single to Daniel Murphy, then was caught on an 0-1 changeup as Zimmerman belted the three-run, go-ahead homer:

Sean Doolittle shut the door for the Nats, erasing an Addison Russell single with a game-clinching double play in the ninth. With the win, the Nationals no longer have to win Game 3 to stay in the series, though they’ll certainly try to do so when Max Scherzer faces off against Jose Quintana on Monday at 4:00 PM ET.

Whitewash: Rob Manfred says he doesn’t think sign stealing extends beyond the Astros

Getty Images
25 Comments

Rob Manfred said today that he believes the sign-stealing scandal which has taken over the news in the past week does not extend beyond the Houston Astros. His exact words, via Jeff Passan of ESPN:

“Right now, we are focused on the information that we have with respect to the Astros. I’m not going to speculate on whether other people are going to be involved. We’ll deal with that if it happens, but I’m not going to speculate about that. I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.”

This is simply incredible. As in literally not credible.

It’s not credible because, just last week, in the original story in The Athletic, it was reported that the Astros system was set up by two players, one of whom was “a hitter who was struggling at the plate and had benefited from sign stealing with a previous team, according to club sources . . . they were said to strongly believe that some opposing teams were already up to no good. They wanted to devise their own system in Houston. And they did.”

The very next day Passan reported that Major League Baseball would not limit its focus to the Astros. Rather, the league’s probe was also include members of the 2019 Astros and would extend to other teams as well. Passan specifically mentioned the 2018 Red Sox which, of course, were managed by Alex Cora one year after he left Houston, where he was A.J. Hinch’s bench coach.

Add into this the Red Sox’ pre-Cora sign-stealing with Apple Watches and widespread, informed speculation on the part of players and people around the game that many teams do this sort of thing, and one can’t reasonably suggest that only the Houston Astros are doing this.

Which, as I noted at the time, made perfect sense. These schemes cannot, logically, operate in isolation because players and coaches change teams constantly. In light of this, players have to know that their sign-stealing would be found out by other teams eventually. They continue to do it, however, because they know other teams do it too. As is the case with pitchers using pine tar or what have you, they don’t rat out the other team so they, themselves, will not be ratted out. It’s a mutually-assured destruction that only exists and only works if, in fact, other teams are also stealing signs.

So why is Major League Baseball content to only hang the Astros here? I can think of two reasons.

One is practical. They had the Astros fall in their lap via former Astro Mike Fiers — obviously not himself concerned with his current team being busted for whatever reason — going on the record with his accusation. That’s not likely to repeat itself across baseball and thus it’d be quite difficult for Major League Baseball to easily conduct a wide investigation. Who is going to talk? How can baseball make them talk? It’d be a pretty big undertaking.

But there’s also the optics. Major League Baseball has had a week to think about the report of the Astros sign-stealing and, I suspect, they’ve realized, like everyone else has realized, that this is a major scandal in the making. Do they really want to spend the entire offseason — and longer, I suspect, if they want a thorough investigation — digging up unflattering news about cheating in the sport? Do they really want to be in the bad news creation business? I doubt they do, so they decided to fence off the Astros, hit them hard with penalties, declare victory and move on.

Which is to say, it’s a whitewash.

It’s something the league has tried to do before. They did it with steroids and it didn’t work particularly well.

In 1998 Mark McGwire, that game’s biggest star at the time, was found to have the PED androstenedione in his locker. It was a big freakin’ deal. Except . . . nothing happened. Major League Baseball planned to “study” the drug but most of the fallout was visited upon the reporter who made it public. It was accompanied by some shameful conduct by both Major League Baseball and the baseball press corps who eagerly went after the messenger rather than cover the story properly.

Four years later Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco went public with their PED use and said drug use was widespread. MLB’s response was slow and, again, sought to isolated the known offenders, singling out Caminiti as a troubled figure — which he was — and Canseco as a kook — which he kind of is — but doing them and the story a disservice all the same.

The league eventually created a rather toothless testing and penalty regime. Congress and outside investigative reporters filled the void created by the league’s inaction, calling hearings and publishing damning stories about how wide PED use was in the game. Eventually Bud Selig commissioned the Mitchell Report. Some ten years after the McGwire incident baseball had at least the beginnings of a sane approach to PEDs and a more effective testing plan, but it was pulled to it kicking and screaming, mostly because doing anything about it was too hard and not very appetizing from a business and P.R. perspective.

And so here we are again. Baseball has a major scandal on its hands. After some initially promising words about how serious it planned to take it, the league seems content to cordon off the known crime scene and refuses to canvass the neighborhood. Sure, if someone gratuitously hands them evidence they’ll look into it, but it sure sounds like Rob Manfred plans to react rather than act here.

That should work. At least until the next time evidence of cheating comes up and they have to start this all over again.