The Houston Astros tasked Dusty Baker with a near-impossible job. Shepherd a vilified yet supremely talented team through a season where the target on their backs was visible from space and sympathy would be polling in the negative integers (with the exception of Buster Olney). He inherited a team fresh off losing Game 7 of the World Series in painful fashion that wanted nothing more than to take it all this year in what would be the least appreciated and respected title of all time.
Through it all, the team has painted themselves as the victim and tried to construct a revisionist's history. More directly: it sure is hard to root for them, even if one respects their passion and vigor and steely resolve. But Baker remains cool.
All of those positive attributes needed to be on display Wednesday night as the Astros stared deeply into possible elimination in the form of a four-game Tampa Bay ALCS sweep. Zack Greinke, who was on the hill for that fateful Game 7 last fall, did yeoman's work through five innings. In the sixth, up 4-2, he stepped into hot water. Randy Arozarena strode to the plate representing the go-ahead run and with the memory of a fourth-inning dinger still fresh.
Baker loped out to the mound, presumably to pull his starter. But his finger never pulled the trigger. The 71-year-old stuck with Greinke. In a war of gut and analytics, the primal instinct won out — as it so often has for Baker. Grienke fanned Arozarena, then surrendered a single, then got the final out of the frame with another punchout.
Scientifically speaking, it was badass.
"My plan was to take him out, but I wasn't really convinced of my plan," Baker said. "Sometimes you look in the guy's eyes, sometimes you listen to the catcher, and you do what you gotta do."
Never one to be boring, Grienke put a finer point on it.
“It was nice having someone have confidence in me,” he said. “Since I’ve been here, they haven’t seemed to have confidence in my ability. It was nice having that happen in an important time like that.”
This biting quote is an allusion to the final game of last year, when then-manager AJ Hinch yanked Greinke after only 80 pitches with a 2-1 lead in favor of Will Harris, who surrendered the World Series-winning homer to Howie Kendrick. And while it's easy to second-guess situations with the benefit of hindsight and results, pulling a future Hall of Famer with plenty left in the tank seemed dubious in the moment.
Baker decided on a human level to trust his battery and it paid off. He later decided to ride Christian Javier into a third inning of relief, which ultimately turned out to be scary. Ryan Pressly managed to get the 27th out in nerve-wracking fashion to force a Game 5 and make Baker look like a genius.
There's no real reason to have another unproductive old vs. new school argument this blessed morning. We can all appreciate that there's room for both camps and seeing Baker, who has seen it all, dip into his bag of guts and be rewarded was another data point for the greatness of baseball.
It's a game obsessed with numbers played by human beings, who cannot be completely quantified.
Baker and Houston are playing with house money at this point and have the freedom of having nothing left to lose. If the baseball lifer somehow manages to manage three more inspiring games and shock the world, it'll be ... uh ... a feel-good story involving the Astros?
Never bet against this weird year getting weirder.