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Mudville: May 17, 2024 4:36 pm PDT

Purpose Pitch

BY KEVIN KERNAN

The chorus is singing loudly on the hit by pitch heard ‘round the world:

“It makes no sense. Why would the Astros hit Adolis Garcia in that situation, already trailing 4-2, and a runner on first with nobody out in the eighth inning?’’

Let me answer. As play-by-play guys love to scream: “Are you kidding me?’’

These are the Astros, a team that once used centerfield cameras and trash cans to steal signs that enabled them win the 2017 World Series. Don’t put anything past them.

On Saturday, MLB made that clear when it suspended Astros reliever Bryan Abreu for two games for hitting Garcia with that well-aimed pitch.

This was the same Garcia who just pimped a three-run home run with a ferocious bat slam, a slow walk to first and a stomping of home plate against Hall of Fame pitcher Justin Verlander –  a home run that put the Rangers up 4-2 in the sixth at Globe Life Field.

Then Garcia gets “smoked’’ with the next pitch to him by Bryan Abreu in the upper left arm and arm pad in the bottom of the eighth.

The Astros hate losing and they are led by Dusty Baker, a manager who is as old school as you can get. This is a team that has regularly beat the Yankees in October; in part, because their will to win has dwarfed the Yankees will to win – and remember the last time this team faced the Yankees they humiliated them, sweeping them away in four games in the 2022 ALCS, sending the Yankees into a death spiral they could not climb out of in 2023.

The Yankees hit .162 in that series. They were limp.

Garcia reacted to the hit by pitch, lost his cool, and the Rangers wound up paying a heavy price.

Add to all this the incredible magic of future Hall of Famer Jose Altuve. The 5’6” Altuve makes miracles happen. His signing was a miracle. Altuve blasted a three-run, ninth-inning home run off a terrible changeup from Jose Leclerc to give the Astros a 5-4 win over the stunned Rangers, in Friday night’s Game 5 of the ALCS.

One more win and the Astros will be going to their fifth World Series in seven years and have the opportunity to become the first team to win back-to-back World Series since Joe Torre’s Yankees did that in 1998, 1999, and 2000.

The Astros have a belief in themselves and are together like no other team; they are baseball outlaws – so, again, don’t put anything past them.

In the top of the eighth, let me remind you, especially those of you who have never played the game (yes, I’m speaking to you MLB Nerds), Astros slugger Yordan Alvarez led off and, on the first pitch to him from Aroldis Chapman, who has been known to hit batters, Chapman buzzed Alvarez with a 101 mph fastball high and extremely tight.

So, not only were the Rangers beating the Astros, 4-2, and on the verge of going up 3-2 in the ALCS, now they were taking 101 mph potshots at Yordan.

Please take notice of Chapman’s body language on the pitch. He immediately walked menacingly toward home plate. There was no “My bad’’ tap of the chest.

This was a purpose pitch and the proud Astros were watching and were not happy. They countered.

In Game 2 Alvarez had hit a home run off Chapman on a first pitch, get-me-over slider.  Chapman was clearly sending a message down Highway 101 – and he went on to strike out Alvarez in this at-bat on Friday.

But the fuse was lit. The Astros were already upset with Garcia. This added fuel to their fire. And all it takes is one player, the pitcher, to be upset. Bryan Abreu let it fly and nailed Garcia.

Teams like the Astros don’t sit around and stew all winter and wait to take their shot the next season. They act, and when Garcia came to bat in the eighth inning, it was go time – come hell or high water. In a worst case scenario the Rangers get a hit with runners on first and second and add to their lead, but the Astros had turf to protect.

“Alvarez is our guy, don’t be doing that.’’

The Astros had a feeling Garcia would explode emotionally, and he did just that.

Did you hear what catcher Martin Maldonado said immediately after the game about Garcia being hit with a 99 mph fastball, up and in – a pitch well off the plate?

“The worst thing he did was wake up the Houston Astros.’’

That comment says it all. Garcia woke up the Houston Astros. This is how competitive athletes think in the heat of the moment.

Let me add, Garcia put to sleep his own team by going ballistic and having the umpires huddle for a 12-minute delay. Leclerc, who got the last out in the eighth because Aroldis Chapman couldn’t retire left-handed hitting Kyle Tucker, who doubled to left, had to get the final out of that inning. And then sit down and do it all over again in the ninth.

I also noticed when he came into the game in the eighth, Leclerc peeled off a support sleeve that he was wearing on his right arm. Rangers’ manager Bruce Bochy has had to over-employ Leclerc because of the shakiness of the team’s bullpen.

Dusty Baker’s Astros don’t give a crap. They are not here to make friends. They are here to beat you.

Yes, on the surface it seems strange the Astros would put a second man on base in the eighth, but this is baseball. Tempers and temperatures rise. And look at it this way, no way were the Astros going to let Garcia hit another home run.

There are players on both sides who were ticked off; they don’t like the opponent. And that is a good thing. In this series, there is no Francisco Lindor at shortstop with a welcome wagon greeting to every opponent who reaches second base.

These teams genuinely don’t like each other – like the way the Yankees and Red Sox did not like one another. Like the way the Royals and Yankees did not like each other. Like the way the Mets and Reds long ago did not like one another.

It truly is the Battle of Texas, and there are skirmishes in a battle.

The delay was a huge advantage for the Astros.

“I was concerned about that delay. I really was,’’ Bruce Bochy said afterward. “It was a long one. It was taking too long, to be honest. The whole thing is a bunch of crap, to be honest, what happened there. Who knows what intentions are, but it’s not the first time it’s happened, and (they) couldn’t get the game going again.’’

The umpires should have moved quickly, but they’re running scared in Rob Manfred’s world.

Bochy has been around a long time and was asked if he thought hitting Garcia was intentional.

“Who knows? The guy hits a three-run homer; the next time up he gets smoked there. It doesn’t really matter. I’d be upset, too, if I was Doli. But like I said, it just took too long to get things back in order, that’s what was frustrating me.’’

Totally agree.

Dusty Baker’s Astros don’t give a crap. They are not here to make friends. They are here to beat you. That’s how, in this age of baseball Nerd mediocrity, they have gone to the ALCS for seven straight seasons. That, and talent, and in 2017, state of the art cheating.

I understand that many will not understand what I’m saying. They live in a cupcake and ice cream world where they see no bad intentions. That’s fine. Just chalk it all up to coincidence, all this happening.

We all live now in a world of wild coincidences.

Those who don’t understand are thinking somewhat rationally, but not realistically.

Sometimes you don’t think rationally on the field of play.

Sometimes it’s an eye for an eye. And sometimes, you just want to offer payback for a team peacocking around the bases as a newbie playoff group, an in-state rival showing up a team that has been here seven straight times – and your slugger was thrown at, up and in, on the first pitch in the top of the inning.

Funny how these things happen on the first pitch.

Now Mr. Garcia, you’re getting 99 right at you on that first pitch. Wear it.

Just look how far Abreu missed with that pitch; not inches, feet.

Again, Martin Maldonado, one of the smartest catchers to ever play the game, knew what was going on; and isn’t it funny he set up low and in the middle of the plate, the perfect alibi setup. Abreu missed that target. Yet after the game Abreu said he was trying to go up and in and the pitch just got away from him.

Yeah, sure, and a lot of people bought that sales pitch. Oh yeah, it just happened to get away and just happened to hit the opposing team’s slugger, who just happened to have done a look-at-me trip around the bases, even though the catcher was set up low in the middle of the plate.

Just all a coincidence from a team that wants to annihilate you. Just a coincidence that the game stops, and Leclerc gets iced, and gets out of sync. Dusty, who was truly upset with Abreu being ejected, then milked his ejection to further freeze Leclerc.

Justin Verlander said the Astros were not trying to hit Garcia, but added this telling comment about Garcia’s mindset: “He thought something might happen, though, because it was a pretty quick reaction.’’

Yes it was – and these teams, and these players, Garcia and Maldonado, have a history.

Did you know Abreu organized all his bullpen mates into buying and wearing cowboy hats and western wear on their trip from Houston to Dallas and Globe Life Field? Cowboy up! The Astros went there down 2-0 and needed to win three in a row, and they did just that.

And did you happen to see the video of Baker with his jersey untucked, wildly celebrating with his players after the win when he made his way back to the dugout? That was a hard core celebration, the same kind of celebration you see at your local community park when two mutually hated men’s slow pitch softball teams meet in a championship game and one wins in dramatic fashion.

This was not a celebration of millionaires who happen to play baseball. This was an in your face, “bleep you’’ celebration. And I have no problem with that. Remember when Jason Varitek Doordashed a catcher’s mitt sandwich into Alex Rodriguez’ face. I was there and that was a game changer.

Things happen in this game.

Because of the Altuve miracle, and because of the hit by pitch, Minute Maid Park will be delirious come Sunday night when the Astros have the chance to close out the Rangers who have ace Nate Eovaldi on the mound. No team has won at home in this series, and the Astros, for some reason, have not been able to hit at home; but all that is now out the window because of what happened in Game 5.

The Astros are coming home to make it back to the World Series.

The benches clear at Globe Life Field on October 20, 2023 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

The Rangers are going to have to find a way to survive, not once, but twice at Minute Maid Park. That is a tall task. Everything is bigger in Texas, and the Rangers have only themselves to blame. After Garcia was hit, Abreu was ejected and replaced by closer Ryan Pressly, and a ground out put runners at first and third. Josh Jung could not put the ball in play to score the speedy Evan Carter and struck out swinging. Strikeouts matter.

Then Pressly ended the threat with a called third strike to Nathaniel Lowe. In the bottom of the ninth the Rangers got two singles to open the inning, but Pressly got the next three batters – essentially the heart of the order – to end the game. He did not wilt.

The Rangers did not take care of business. The Astros did. The Astros have their share of analytics, but not as much as in the past and they also now have proven winners like Jeff Bagwell and Reggie Jackson offering true baseball wisdom to owner Jim Crane. And it just so happens that a 37-years-in-the-business baseball man, a hitting guy, told me earlier this week how much Bagwell has helped the Astros. This was on Wednesday.

The Astros’ hitters were ready for their ninth-inning comeback.

Somehow Leclerc walked pinch-hitter Jon Singleton on a changeup, Leclerc’s fourth best pitch. Singleton had not had an at-bat in 19 days. Leclerc then threw an 0-1 changeup to right-handed hitting Altuve, which made no sense, and Altuve blasted another memorable postseason home run.

A lot of things happened in this game that did not make sense.

Already trailing 4-2, why in the world would the Astros hit Garcia to put runners on first and second with no outs in the eighth inning? But it happened. Garcia lost his cool. Leclerc lost his ninth-inning mojo, threw his worst pitch in two key situations, and the 5’-6” Jose Altuve proved once again he is the biggest man on the field.

Notice there were no theatrics in Altuve’s home run trip around the bases. He’s been there before. Don’t wake up the opponent. The Astros know the best revenge is winning the ballgame. That’s is why they are once again one win away from the World Series.

Yes, you can hate the Astros; but you must respect what they have done, no matter how they got it done.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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