HOUSTON – Game 7 of the American League Championship Series should be a celebration, everything we love about the sport. It will have it all, from Bruce Bochy vs. Dusty Baker to Max Scherzer vs. Cristian Javier. But what it almost certainly won’t have is Bryan Abreu pitching in relief for the Astros.
Abreu’s absence will cast an unwelcome cloud over the proceedings for Houston, a cloud that, if his suspension is upheld and the Astros advance, could reappear at the start of the World Series.
The situation has created an undercurrent of anger toward Major League Baseball among at least some Houston players and club officials.
The appeal of Abreu’s two-game penalty for intentionally throwing at the Rangers’ Adolis García will take place at a hearing Monday. A decision will be announced by first pitch.
John McHale Jr., MLB’s executive vice-president of administration, will determine whether to uphold the suspension, reduce it to one game or overturn it entirely. The timing leaves little time for either side to build a case. The league effectively is judge and jury. And based on precedent, the chances of McHale essentially overruling the umpires who ejected Abreu from Game 5 and rescinding the suspension are probably slim to none.
The Astros needed to win Game 6 to avoid potentially losing Abreu for Game 7, but they lost 9-2. Now they are virtually certain to be at a disadvantage in their biggest game of the season, playing without their second-best reliever because of an infraction they insist he did not commit. Even if they win, they could be without Abreu for Game 1 of the World Series if his suspension is upheld.
A number of Astros people, speaking on condition of anonymity while Abreu awaits his hearing, are seething over the way the matter unfolded.
Things are getting tense in the #postseason 😲
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For starters, they find the notion that Abreu threw at García intentionally in Game 5 to be absurd. The Astros at the time trailed by two runs in the eighth inning, with none out and a runner already on base. Jose Altuve was scheduled to bat third for the Astros in the ninth. The game, as Altuve proceeded to demonstrate with his go-ahead, three-run homer, was still within reach.
The ejection of Abreu from a postseason game and his subsequent suspension are not the only reasons the Astros are upset. Multiple players believe García also should have received a suspension for making contact with Astros catcher Martín Maldonado and for acting, in the words of crew chief James Hoye, as “the aggressor” in an incident that emptied both the benches and bullpens, but did not lead to an outright brawl.
The league, however, generally acts on precedent in such matters, and suspends a position player only if he commits a truly violent act, such as throwing a punch. An example occurred May 14 in Denver, when the Phillies’ Bryce Harper charged at the Rockies’ dugout and pushed catcher Elias Díaz, sparking a benches-clearing event similar to the one that occurred in Game 5. Like García, Harper was fined, but not suspended.
Some with the Astros suspect the league also is showing favoritism toward the Rangers because their general manager, Chris Young, worked for the league from May 2018 to Dec. 2020. Young, a former major-league pitcher, rose to senior vice president, replacing Joe Torre as the official who decided suspensions and fines for on-field matters, such as intentionally hitting batters.
The league declined comment. Young did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The kind of blatant favoritism the Astros people are suggesting seems highly unlikely. Some in the organization, though, still believe their club was unfairly singled out by the league for electronic sign stealing in 2019 when other teams were engaging in similar misconduct. The Red Sox were the only other team penalized, and for lesser offenses. No team was accused of using a system as elaborate as the Astros’.
Old resentments die hard, but the likely loss of Abreu from at least Game 7 of the ALCS is opening new wounds. The situation is virtually unprecedented. When the league imposed a three-game suspension on the Dodgers’ Jay Howell for having pine tar on his glove during the 1988 NLCS, the late commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti ensured the reliever would miss only Games 4, 5 and 6.
“I do not want to see a championship ultimately decided for fans and teammates — if the LCS goes seven games — by the accident of one man’s mistake,” Giamatti said in a written statement. “Therefore, Mr. Howell would be eligible to pitch should there be a seventh game.” (The Dodgers won in seven games, and did not use Howell in the clincher).
A rule adopted in the 2017 collective-bargaining agreement created the current landscape. Prior to that CBA, a hearing for postseason discipline was required to take place within 14 days of an appeal. But the players and owners agreed to a change after the appeal of Chase Utley’s two-game suspension for breaking the leg of Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada with an aggressive slide in the 2015 NLCS was not resolved until the following March.
Since 2017, a hearing for a postseason incident must take place within 48 hours. Unlike Yuli Gurriel’s five-game suspension for making a racist gesture at Yu Darvish during the 2017 World Series, which was served at the start of the 2018 regular season, Abreu’s suspension would take effect immediately. His infraction is considered an on-field matter. Gurriel’s was not.
The uncertainty surrounding Abreu influenced the decision-making of Astros manager Dusty Baker in Game 6. Baker used Abreu in the eighth inning, with the Astros trailing, 4-2. Abreu allowed a run, but Baker considered sending him out for a second inning, knowing his reliever might miss Game 7. Instead, Baker hedged, wanting to ensure Abreu would be available if he somehow was not suspended.
“You wish you had a decision,” Baker said.
Without one, Baker turned to lesser relievers, Rafael Montero and then Ryne Stanek, in the ninth. The two combined to allow five runs, four on a grand slam by García, who struck out in each of his first four at-bats. And with that, a close game turned into a rout.
Managers in Game 7s traditionally use an “all hands on deck” approach with their pitchers, and that would especially be the case for the Astros without Abreu. Virtually every pitcher is expected to be available, including Justin Verlander, 40, who could come out of the bullpen on two days rest after throwing 82 pitches in Game 5.
The potential for this series ending in bitterness would be much less if the umpires simply warned both clubs instead of ejecting Abreu. If the CBA still allowed room for a player suspended in the postseason to delay his appeal. If the penalty could be pushed into the following regular season.
But no. We’ve got unwanted drama instead.
(Photo of Bryan Abreu: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)