Dusty Baker has lost thousands of baseball games. Some as a player. Some as a manager. They are part of the journey, the one he chose decades ago — he might believe it chose him, and he wouldn’t get an argument — and stayed after.
The losses came and sometimes they’ve worn white and other times gray, and sometimes they’re on a dreary night in June and other times on a sparkly afternoon in October, like Monday in San Diego. After a few decades maybe he learned to live with the losses and maybe he didn’t, and probably it depends on how one defines “live with.” He did want one more shot at this two years into his 70s, so maybe that’s a little insight. He was not going to come back and win them all.
Still, though, he thought back over all that had transpired with the team he’d flat dragged through a diabolical regular season, then watched as it was reborn in postseason series wins against the Minnesota Twins and Oakland A’s, and surmised that on this particular Monday afternoon, “We just got beat by misfortune today.”
Misfortune has a pretty good squad, and has since Dusty was a boy.
After 24 hours of poking at the Tampa Bay Rays and searching for weaknesses, the Houston Astros are down two games to none in the American League Championship Series. The first game they lost by a run. The second, when they hit line drives all over the park and could hardly find a place where a Rays player was not standing, and then when their All-Star and former MVP second baseman, Jose Altuve, made his first throwing error of the season. Then his second.
To have come all this way, too, only to have the season buckle because his second baseman suddenly couldn’t heave a baseball 60 feet on the fly, and his first baseman couldn’t corral a simple short hop, and then two pitches later — with two out, two pitches that never had to have been thrown — Manuel Margot hit a three-run home run. The Rays won, 4-2.
“I mean, we’re very surprised,” Dusty said. “That’s his first throwing error all year. And he had two of them today. You just hope he doesn’t get the yips.”
Nobody talks about the yips unless you’ve seen some stuff, good and bad, and yips are about the least of it. Also, nobody talks about the yips because to say it out loud is to give them lungs and breath and life, to tempt further misfortune. Baker wasn’t going to pretend nobody saw the short, odd mechanics, however, for even if someone missed it the first time they’d have seen it the second. By late in the game, in a shift against a left-handed hitter, shortstop Carlos Correa had replaced Altuve as the rover in short right, which Baker said they’d worked out among themselves.
It happened. It all happened. Said so up there on the scoreboard. Says so in the series summary. Game 3 was comin’, too, and the Astros have some ground to make up.
“Invariably they come in bunches,” Dusty said. “But everything comes in bunches — errors, hits, homers, everything. I just told him to flush it. This guy’s been awesome for us. You know you gotta flush it and move on. Or else it multiplies. I’m sure he’ll do that. We played an outstanding game. Like I said, geez, we got 11 or 12 hits and I don’t know how many men we left on base — 10 or 11 — but we had opportunities.
“It’s very frustrating because all you hear is ‘exit speed’ and, you know, we had a ton of exit speed today. [Joey] Wendle made some great plays at third base. We hit some line drives all over the field. We end it with [Alex Bregman] hittin’ a bullet to right-center. Thought that ball had a chance to get in the gap. Yeah, it’s very frustrating. Especially when Lance [McCullers], he pitched his butt off. He threw better than [Rays starter] Charlie Morton or any of those guys over there. Just nothing to show for it. He was on his A game today. He had it going on. … Yeah, it was very frustrating, because Charlie Morton wasn’t that sharp today. I’ve seen him a lot sharper. But, dang, that hurt. You just know that we keep hitting the ball like that we’re going to get some breaks and get a lot of them.”
Dusty sat down in the reality of what had come and gone. Another loss to throw on the pile. Another day he believed could have gone different. Maybe even should have. That’s the game he’s hounded for these years, for these thousands of losses, for more wins than that, and that has hounded him too.
Near the end of that day he was asked if he could believe the baseball gods would choose Game 2 of the 2020 ALCS as the moment his second baseman would grow distrustful of his own arm.
“No I can,” he said. “Because I’m not one of the gods. And, so, if the gods did answer me, that meant I’m not here on earth anymore.”
Can’t have that. He’d want to see who misfortune was playing next.
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