WS Game 2: The Maplegate That Wasn’t

Let's see. Framber Valdez manhandled the Phillies for six and a third Saturday night, and the only run charged to his ledger was surrendered by his relief. The Astros jumped Zack Wheeler for a very early lead and made it stick, this time, for a 5-2 win in World Series Game 2.

The Phillies had a couple of close calls in the batter's box, but not close enough to overthrow the Astros a second straight game. The Series still goes to Philadelphia tied at a game each, and the Phillies now have a home-field advantage until or unless the Astros snatch it from them.

But enough of the paranoiac crowd harped on Astro catcher Martín Maldonado's illegal Game 1 bat, most likely after hearing it discussed by FOX Sports announcers Joe Davis and Tom Verducci during the Game 2 telecast.

The bat in question was a gift from Maldonado's one-time Angels teammate, Hall of Famer-in-waiting Albert Pujols. The reason the bat was made illegal — pay very close attention, ladies, gentlemen, and miscellaneous — has nothing to do with any contraband thunder inside it and everything to do with safety.

Maple bats have been around since 1993 World Series hero Joe Carter hipped Barry Bonds to their virtues, and Bonds helped forge his controversial third act swinging them. The type Pujols used and passed on to Maldonado — a Marucci A5 model with a 2.75-inch diameter — was banned starting in 2011. The ban included a grandfather clause allowing those like Pujols who'd used them in the Show before that to continue using them.

"I don't think it's strange," the 36-year-old veteran catcher told reporters postgame. "It's a rule, and I'll follow it." Translation: this isn't exactly something to call Maplegate.

Maldonado drove the second Astros run home in Game One with the Pujols poker. It was his only hit in the game. He wasn't aware of the bat's status until MLB officials let him know prior to Game 2. (Maldonado's MLB career began after the ban took effect.) He went back to his normal bat supply posthaste and went 0-for-3 Saturday night.

He was far more effective shepherding Valdez through a start that more than atoned for the bushwhackings the smooth left-hander took from last year's World Series-winning Braves. In a series or Series between any two other teams, the Maldonado bat would be a nothingburger, medium rare.

But because it involves the Astros, of course, and the Astros have a tainted World Series championship that still lingers, even this nothingburger's going to be elevated to a chateaubriand of prospective chicanery.

Even if it involves a player who wasn't anywhere near the Astrogate team until the Angels traded him at the 2018 non-waiver deadline for pitcher Patrick Sandoval. Not to mention the same player leaving as a free agent after 2018 but returning to Houston in a July 2019 trade from the Cubs.

So let's forget the Astros battering Wheeler for three straight doubles delivering two runs without an out in the bottom of the first Saturday night. Let's forget the inning's third run coming when Phillies shortstop Edmundo Sosa threw Yuli Gurriel's bouncer low and on the short hop to first baseman Rhys Hoskins who couldn't hold the short hop, enabling Yordan Alvarez (the third straight double) to come home.

Let's forget Valdez unbalancing the Phillie lineup with murderous breaking balls going over, under, sideways, down, anywhere but face-to-face meetings with Phillie bats that managed a mere four scattered hits before the Astros turned to their bullpen.

Let's forget Alex Bregman — following a double play that needed review because it didn't look clear at first that Sosa's toe brushed second base as he took the throw from third baseman Alec Bohm in the overshift — blasting a 2-run homer into the Planet Fitness arch behind left center field for what proved the Astros' 2 insurance runs in the bottom of the fifth.

Let's forget the bullpens continuing to keep each other throttled except for Jean Segura's seventh-inning sacrifice fly in the seventh and Bohm scoring on an error at third off Brandon Marsh's grounder in the ninth, before Astros closer Ryan Pressly induced the game-ending ground out.

Let's forget Kyle Schwarber missing a tremendous 2-run homer in the top of the eighth, that would have pulled the Phillies back to within a mere pair. The Schwarbinator's 2-2 blast off Astros reliever Rafael Montero looked like a bomb until it wasn't, passing the right field pole by a hair on the foul side. Then he blasted another one, on the next pitch, deep enough to push Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker up against the fence ... to catch it.

No, let's just talk about the Maldonado bat switch for Game 2. Let's just talk about how the Astrogate taint still holds deep enough that something for which any other team would have received a shrug receives red flags and white heat.

Maple bats have their own controversy for their tougher densities. The softer ash bat may be going the way of the canvas base bag thanks to a pestiferous pest that treats ash like dinner with all the trimmings. When maple bats splinter they're believed more dangerous, even to the guy who swung it.

So let's have a concurrent reality check. A none-too-well-hitting catcher whose presence is more for his pitchers' benefit than his lineup's isn't going to provoke deep investigations for making the mistake of accepting as a gift and using a bat he didn't know he wasn't in the league long enough to ride a grandfather clause.

But a team that operated an illegal, above and beyond mere replay room reconnaissance and other sign-stealing sneakiness, electronically-based, unlawfully-camera'd, front-office-abetted (via the in-house-developed Codebreaker algorithm) sign-stealing intelligence agency?

A team still owned by the man who has never shown fealty to the ancient maxim that when you lead (or own) you take responsibility for what's done by your subordinates?

The original Astrogate revelations' shocks hadn't even hinted at wearing away when Jim Crane faced a very inquisitive followup press at the 2019 winter meetings and said, "If you want to talk about baseball, I'll talk about baseball." As if Astrogate had nothing to do with baseball. When the team held its infamous February 2020 non-apologetically apologetic presser, Crane said he "doesn't think" he should have been held accountable.

On the threshold of the World Series there came credible speculation that Crane is thinking seriously about cashiering his general manager, James Click. Click's done nothing since stepping in for the disgraced Jeff Luhnow but remake/remodel the Astros on the fly — especially building this year's hammers-down Astros bullpen — to keep a great team on the field while simultaneously working his can off to leave Astrogate as far in the rear view mirror as possible.

Click plus manager Dusty Baker did the heaviest lifting to pull the Astros away from Astrogate. And this is the thanks Click may yet receive? It's one thing to acknowledge Crane felt as though Luhnow had torched him. It's something else to seek more trustworthy advisors and operators yet fail to appreciate one of the key men pulling his team as far past that disgrace as possible while continuing to rule the American League.

Even Click can't entirely negate the point that the Astros won't cease to be suspect until or unless they win a World Series without even the merest suspicion of subterfuge. That's as unfair as what the former Astros regime sanctioned in 2017-18. Suggesting Martín Maldonado was up to no good, using a gifted bat he had no knowledge was illegal for him to use, is likewise unfair.

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