WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Yes, yes, yes, that ball drops and maybe everything’s different.
That ball drops and maybe the cold and drizzly morning in December is unchallenged, and the last rep goes undone, and then in the middle of March when everybody else has had enough swings he doesn’t ask for five more pitches. And then five more. And doesn’t hit that last one to the horizon.
That ball drops and when he wakes up from surgery maybe he doesn’t shout “Goggins!” into the phone, Goggins being David, the Navy SEAL who writes about “taking souls” and being “willing to suffer,” the guy on the other end of the phone being the bemused Houston Astros trainer.
Yes, yes, yes, what if.
The clubhouse Tuesday afternoon is clogged with people and loud. The Houston Astros have made some cuts, so seven of them are packing to go. The roster of the team that won 103 games last season, that lost Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton and Marwin Gonzalez to free agency, that then added Michael Brantley and Wade Miley, had been pretty well set since camp opened. The seven were likely to know the day was coming, so the traditional grieving period was waived, giving itself over to the loudest card game ever played, to the thump-thump-thump of the boombox, to Gerrit Cole and George Springer giving hell to Josh Reddick, flattened the day before by New York Mets first baseman Peter Alonso. That Reddick had given away 60 pounds in the collision softened the chiding not at all.
Cole: “How’s your ribcage?!”
Reddick: Waves him away.
Springer: “He ate sternum.”
Cole: “Did he eat sternum?”
Springer: “Ate sternum.”
They are two weeks and a couple days from starting over, done forever with the five-games-and-out American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox, all that disappointment. Twice they’d had the Red Sox and their closer, Craig Kimbrel, on the ropes and twice they left runs and wins and, maybe, a return to the World Series on the basepaths or in the batter’s box.
So what you do about that is come back and turn up the music and try again, start over, win a ballgame.
“Bwegmun! Bwegmun!” the little boys and girls yell at him from behind the fence, and Alex Bregman waves and veers over for a fist bump or a smile, but he’s gotta work, gotta hit, gotta figure out a way to get that ball to drop, hit it farther or harder or something.
“Mmm-hmmm,” he says. “Unbelievable catch.”
Game 4, bases loaded, two out in the bottom of the ninth. Astros down two. Bregman up. Dude hit .388 with runners in scoring position all season, .538 with the bases loaded. He’d just missed one against Kimbrel in Game 2, a big one that would’ve tied it, and who knows what then. Now Kimbrel had walked the joint and thrown 34 pitches and looked off.
You remember. He remembers.
“I knew he was coming in,” Bregman says. “And I know his ball rises so I’m trying to hit a low line drive and … I thought it was down.”
Kimbrel came with the fastball, first pitch, a little in on the hands, a little up in the zone, the pitch that made a hero out of left fielder Andrew Benintendi.
“Well, I faced him in Game 2 with the same opportunity to tie the game if I hit a homer,” Bregman says, “and I was thinking a little bit like, more of, I wasn’t thinking as much on top of the baseball. And I flew out to the warning track. I just hit it too high. So I tried to overcorrect that and hit a line drive there just to score the run.”
He thought it was down. You thought it was down. Yes, that ball drops and maybe everything is different. Maybe.
“I rewatched it a few times,” Bregman says. “Off the bat I thought it was down. And Benintendi made an unbelievable play. And he’s an unbelievable baseball player. We played against each other in college and then now in the big leagues. It’s been amazing to watch his career and now I root for him.”
The series ended the next day. And Bregman, who at 24 years old would finish fifth in the MVP vote, who’d hit 31 home runs and led the league in doubles, who’d hit .556 against the Cleveland Indians in the division series, who’d emerged as a legitimate star, would be two for 15 against the Red Sox.
So, yeah, maybe it crossed his mind, that ball and the million tiny things that led to it, maybe on those mornings it may have been easier to stay in bed.
“My thing is, I’ve failed in those situations a lot,” he says. “Succeeded in them too. Um, but, at the end of the day it’s about, like, I put a good swing on a good pitch. He made an unbelievable play. You tip your hat. And the next time you try to hit it out of the ballpark.
“It’s fun. It’s fun to watch that and be driven by it. And be like, hey, they capitalized on it and won the World Series and now we’re chasing the World Series.”
Driven by it, he said.
“A hundred percent,” he says. “But, at the same time, you just add little pieces to the fire as you go. And when you’re on your 15th set in the weight room and you’re like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’ you think about, ‘Do one more and that ball will fall.’”
One more. Then one more. Then one more. That’s how it never ends. And that’s the point. One more and maybe everything’s different.
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