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HOUSTON — Man, it’d eat him up, start thinking like this, let the goblins in, the regrets, give those enough light to seed and fester.
Just an inch or two out of — who knows — millions, tens of millions, over those four hours, that might’ve stopped all this, that might’ve given him — them — a chance. Then, who could say after that, maybe none of this happens, the ball stays in his glove and the throw is clean and the inning dies and there’s still life after the seventh. There’s still a ballgame to win.
Alex Bregman sat an hour later in a black leather chair, waiting his turn to explain how the Houston Astros arrived at a two-game deficit 28 hours into this World Series, how a day or two ago they’d been asked if this is the best Astros team ever, how today the same folks are wondering how they’re not even the best team on this baseball field.
He wore clunky glasses, the kind you drive in or wear at home and nothing else, and worked his phone. The chair seemed too big for him, or he too small for it. Ryan Pressly, the relief pitcher, walked up behind him, leaned over, whispered in his ear and then pounded Bregman twice — tap, tap — on the chest. Bregman nodded.
It’d eat him up to fall into that, into people being nice, excusing him for a difficult play that wasn’t made, two long hops followed by one short one, him digging hard to his left, seventh inning, two outs, the bases loaded, his Astros down by one, the game still hanging there, in part because he’d already hit a home run.
In front of him on the coffee table there was a flag that celebrated the Astros as American League champions, which is fine but not near enough, so they’d all come together afterward and a couple of them had spoken, probably something about keeping their heads up and hearts pure and kickin’ some ass out in D.C. come Friday.
Howie Kendrick had already hit this ball to the left side and shortstop Carlos Correa was playing too far up the middle and too deep to have any chance at it. So that ball was Bregman’s or nobody else’s, and the crowd screeched as Bregman closed on it, it all happening fast, his angle shallow as he could make it, baserunner Trea Turner crossing in front of him, the Washington Nationals leading by just a run, threatening more, but only if that ball would stay out of Bregman’s glove.
Over seven months, you know how many things go right that could’ve gone wrong? Countless. Same number as things that go wrong that could’ve gone right, given an inch here or there, given this much more traction, given this much more reach, this much more luck. No sense chewing over the last of those. That’d eat you up.
Victor Robles was scoring (or not) from third on that play and Kendrick was chugging to first base and Juan Soto, heading to second base, was going to have to be Bregman’s play. Catch that ball, throw to Jose Altuve anchored at second, kill this inning, get after the Nationals’ bullpen. Pressly turned from the mound. He’d thrown a good slider, down and away from Kendrick, gotten the mishit, gotten out of this mess.
Afterward, the Astros to a man nodded and said bring it on, said they’d relish at least two more games against a team that hasn’t lost in going on three weeks. They’d spent their two best pitchers, but that was OK, it’d have to be. Wouldn’t be the first time they’d won four of six. Wouldn’t be the first time this month they’d won four of six. They weren’t at their best for two days. They’d have to live with that. A night after Gerrit Cole lost for the first time since May, Justin Verlander had left with grass stains on his right knee, his right back pocket and smeared across the N and D in VERLANDER across his back, the result of a fourth-inning incident involving an infield roller and a brief tussle with his dexterity. He’d handed the ball and a one-run deficit to Pressly, and they’d arrive finally at Kendrick, the bases loaded, the inning teetering, choosing its direction, and Bregman having reached the place on the left side of the infield where he would make that play, the one that had to be made, or he would not.
At that moment, bent at the waist, craning for just a little more, Bregman finally extended his left hand, opening the glove at the end of it to the width of a baseball. He caught it.
“I think I did,” he said.
Then, maybe by not enough.
“I lunged for it. Reached for it,” he said.
As quickly as the ball disappeared, it reappeared at his feet. He skidded to a stop, too late then, but reached for the ball with his bare hand, and it broke free again. A run was in. The Nationals led, 4-2. In a game tied for six innings, two runs seemed like 10. The rally continued. And then the next rally began. Soon, it would be 10. With two out, the Nationals scored four more times in that seventh inning, then three in the eighth, again in the ninth.
By then, in what had been a ballpark packed with Astros fans who’d grown confident in 107 regular-season wins, across five games against the Tampa Bay Rays, in the six-game vanquishing of the New York Yankees, the Astros could hear the Nationals’ moms cheering from the family section, could hear the Nationals themselves celebrating home runs by tom-tomming the tops of Gatorade jugs. The Nationals had put nine runs over two nights on Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander and put the Astros a wobble or two in D.C. from having only that AL championship to celebrate.
This, then, is where they’d find out. From here on. It’s what they have left, what happens after a 12-3 loss, what happens after two bad games.
On his way out, Bregman stopped at the clubhouse door. He’s about the best they have and will be for years. The night before, he’d taken the Game 1 loss as his own, and now he was leaving another quiet clubhouse, the series leaning even harder against them, for the moment out of their reach. Like their best baseball. Just out of their reach.
“I should’ve made the play,” he said. “And I will.”
He smiled. Can’t let that eat at him. Won’t let it. Won’t give it any light at all.
“We’ve got a lot of baseball left,” he said.
And that’s all he’d give it.
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