LOS ANGELES—Carlos Correa’s favorite t-shirt, the one he often wears under his uniform, honors Marwin Gonzalez, the teammate Correa calls the Astros’ most valuable player. The shirt reads, ALL WE DO IS MAR-WIN. On Wednesday night, though, at the start of the ninth inning of Game 2 of the World Series, the Astros seemed certain of disproving that message for the second night in a row, which would probably mean disproving it as far as the whole series.
Statistically, their chance of losing Game 2 stood at 85%, according to FanGraphs’ Win Expectancy metric. But it certainly seemed lower, and felt lower to the Astros too. They had already done what almost everyone believed they mustn’t, which was allow Justin Verlander to leave a game with a deficit. Now it was 3-2, and they were facing Kenley Jansen, who all the Astros agree is the best closer in the game. That’s not something up for debate: the Dodgers had been 98-0 this year when leading after eight innings, as they were now.
Another factor in Houston’s disfavor was that Gonzalez, who became a star at the plate this year—he batted .303 with 23 homers and 90 RBIs while playing six different positions—had struggled badly this postseason even while playing almost exclusively leftfield. He was hitting just .150, with two walks in 12 games, for an on-base percentage of .227.
Hinch had written his name in the fifth, seventh or eighth spot of the Astros’ lineup every day this October, and promised not to stop. “He’s huge,” Hinch said. “He gets overlooked a lot because we have big names on our team and guys that have performed very well. But he’s carried us in a lot of different portions of the season, offensively and defensively."
Jansen appears to be Mariano Rivera’s heir, and he possesses something close to Mariano Rivera’s cut fastball. He threw three to Gonzalez to lead off the ninth. The first was low, but a strike. The second was low, but also a strike. Jansen threw the third faster by two miles an hour—it came in at 94—but there was a difference: it was waist high.
“He’s the best closer in the game,” Gonzalez emphasized. “But it was a mistake.”
Gonzalez drove the ball over the centerfield wall and Game 2 was tied at three. “At some point his bat was going to come back,” said Correa. “He’s too good of a hitter to be in a slump for that long. He’s back, man. And he gets really scary when he’s back.”
The Astros award a pro wrestling-style belt to the MVP of every game, and it went to Gonzalez. But, after two extra innings that won’t be forgotten, and after the Astros emerged with a 7-6 win to knot the series at one-one, there was another contender.
George Springer had struggled almost as badly as Gonzalez throughout his first postseason. He entered Wednesday batting .213, with 15 strikeouts—four of those the night before—in 47 at-bats, and walking just once every two games. Those are not at all the type of numbers a manager wants from his leadoff hitter, and 12 games isn’t a particularly small sample size. But Hinch didn’t consider moving Springer down the order, let alone benching him, just as he hadn’t considered it with Gonzalez.
“George Springer has way more good days than bad days, and way more good stretches than bad stretches,” Hinch had said. “So I’m going to continue to encourage him. He’s going to lead off.”
Springer had already had a better night by the time he stepped to the plate with no outs in the top of the 11th against Brandon McCarthy; he’d gone 2-for-4. His teammates had already done the heavy lifting required to tie the game, and then keep them in it—Jose Altuve and Correa homered back-to-back in the top of the tenth, to give the Astros a short-lived 5-3 lead. But Altuve and Correa always hit. Now, it was Springer’s turn. McCarthy threw him a slider low, and Springer hit it into the rightfield bleachers for a two-run home run that turned out to be the game winner.
“I was yelling to give the belt to Springer,” Gonzalez said. “He got the last homer. But they gave it to me.”
It was the right choice. Game 2 will mostly be remembered for its extra innings, in which the clubs combined to hit five home runs—not just the most extra-innings home runs ever struck in a World Series game, but in any Major League Baseball game, ever. But its biggest moment was delivered by its most versatile player, a breakout star at 28, and it came because his manager stuck him in the lineup every day even though his performance had almost demanded otherwise.
Even though they are right about it, they Astros call Jansen the best closer in the game mostly due to his reputation and highlights. Few of them have faced him in person. Gonzalez had seen him twice. He walked in 2012, and he had an RBI single in 2015.
So Jansen had never gotten him out. And, after Wednesday night, he still hasn’t.