Wednesday, October 9, 2019

So Much For a Young Man’s Game

By Jeff Kallman

Once upon a time, a generation insisted you couldn't trust anyone over 30. Even that was pushing it; to hear some of them talk (I know, because it was my generation, even if the words never quite came out of my own mouth) you'd have thought trusting anyone over 25 was begging for trouble.

At times in recent years, it's seemed as though baseball's unspoken but unbreakable mottos include not trusting anyone over 30. Well, now. If 30 is baseball's new 40, then baseball's geriatric generation's been doing a lot of heavy lifting this postseason and beyond. Without walkers, wheelchairs, canes, or portable respirators, even.

It's hard to believe because it seems like yesterday, sometimes, that he was a hot draft, but Stephen Strasburg — in the Nationals' original starters-as-relievers postseason scheme — got credit for the win in the National League wild card game with three spotless relief innings. At the ripe old age of 31.

Strasburg also pitched six with a single earned run against him in division series Game 1 against the Dodgers and takes a lifetime 0.94 postseason ERA into his Game 5 start in Dodger Stadium Wednesday. The Nats aren't exactly a mostly-young team, but they're putting their fate into 30-something hands.

That may be the problem. Even with the professorial beard he wears now, Strasburg doesn't look his age yet. He still looks like a lad on the threshold of sitting for his final exams in freshman year. He isn't even close to being as grizzled as Max Scherzer. Few among even his fellow old Nats do.

If you believe in respecting your elders (never mind how often your elders have betrayed your respect, as often they have), things get better from there. Consider, if you will:

* Two 35-year-old Nats, Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman, delivered the primary goods Monday night to push the Nats/Dodgers division series to a fifth game Wednesday. Max the Knife shook off a first-inning solo homer to go six and two-thirds scoreless including a crazy escape from a seventh-inning, ducks-on-the-pond jam, and Zimmerman jolted Nationals Park with a 3-run homer into the crosswinds in the bottom of the fifth.

In those hours both Scherzer and Zimmerman looked as though they'd done it for the first time in their lives. Maybe there is such a thing as baseball's fountain of youth.

* An ancient Cardinals catcher, Yadier Molina, tied Game 4 of their division series with the Braves with an eighth-inning RBI single, then won the game with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the tenth. And, a followup bat flip the young'uns should envy.

* Another Cardinal ancient, Adam Wainwright, pitched maybe the best exhibition of pressure baseball of his life in Game 3. It went for nothing, unfortunately, since Wainwright left the game with the Cardinals behind 1-0. But Wainwright will tell his eventual grandchildren about the noisy standing O Grandpa got as he tipped his hat to the Busch Stadium faithful.

* On the other hand, if it took a young Braves whippersnapper (Dansby Swanson) to tie the game in the ninth, it took an old fart of 31 (Adam Duvall) to pinch hit immediately after and drive home what proved the winning runs with a single up the pipe. And I didn't notice Duvall carrying a portable oxygen tank with him.

* "We got Verlandered," Rays manager Kevin Cash said memorably after Pops Verlander, all 36-years-old of him, threw 7 shutout innings their way in Game 1 of their division series. And if you think 29 might as well be 30 and therefore on the threshold of dismissibility, be reminded the Rays got Coled the following day. As in, Gerrit Cole's seven and two-thirds, 15-strikeouts shutout innings.

* Abuelo Edwin Encarnacion, like Verlander an ancient 36, tied Game 1 between the Yankees and the Twins with an RBI double in the bottom of the first. A 30-year-old fart named D.J. LaMahieu put the Yankees up by a pair with a bottom-of-the-sixth home run; a 35-year-old creaker named Brett Gardner hit one out one out later, and the Yankees routed the Twins in Game 1 and the division series sweep.

Lest you think the postseason's been the sole triumphant province of the senior citizenry, be reminded sadly that Nelson Cruz — all 39-years-old of him, who had the regular season of a player young enough to be his grandson (41 home runs, 290 total bases, 1.031 OPS, 4.3 wins above a replacement-level player), and who hit one out to make a short-lived 2-0 Twins lead in Game 1 — ended Game 3 on the wrong side when he looked at a third strike from all 31-years-old worth of Yankee closer Aroldis Chapman.

Just as there's a rule in sports that somebody has to lose, there's a parallel rule that says sometimes one old man has to beat another old man to win.

A prehistoric Ray, Charlie Morton, took 35 years to the mound on Monday and threw five innings of 1-run, 3-hit, 9-strikeout baseball at his former Astros mates to keep the Rays alive, barely. And the Rays abused likewise 35-year-old Zack Greinke — who'd pitched like anything except a nursing home denizen since joining the Astros at the new single-season trade deadline — for 6 runs. including 3 home runs in three and two-thirds innings' work.

The Yankees only looked like old men when it seemed you couldn't visit one New York-area hospital this season without finding a group of Yankees among the emergency room patients. The Astros only looked like old men likewise regarding Houston-area clinics this year. Except to their opponents, it's funny how they don't look like old men when they play baseball.

Pops Verlander's getting another crack at the Rays in Game 4. Strasburg the Elder has to tangle with a whippersnapper named Walker Buehler in Game 5. The eyes of us seniors will be upon them.

Unfortunately, there are those elders who behave occasionally like the ancient Alice Cooper lyric: "I've got a baby's brain/and an old man's heart." Molina did after he sent the Cardinals toward Game 5. Hands around his throat in a choke gesture aimed at the Braves. In a series pitting two of baseball's more notorious Fun Police departments, that puts a new twist on police brutality and underscores why respecting your elders is easier said than done often enough.

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