LOS ANGELES—It all started so innocently. Dodgers rightfielder Yasiel Puig dove for a ball he should have let drop in for a single. Instead it bounced off his glove and into the stands for a ground-rule double. The best closer in the world right now, Kenley Jansen, came into Game 2 of the World Series and allowed a little groundball single to bring the game within one. But this was the eighth inning of a 3–2 game, and the crowd and the dugout were quiet. A brushfire raged nearby, and helicopters circled overheard through the smoke, but there was no emergency at Dodger Stadium.
Even when Jansen allowed a home run to the Astros’ Marwin González to lead off the ninth and tie the game, Los Angeles did not doubt. Jansen returned to the dugout screaming and pumping his arms, encouraging his teammates. They are used to winning; they’ve lost one game all postseason.
Then things got weird.
“We’re all on a weird high right now,” says Charlie Culberson, who entered it in the top of the 11th and hit a home run a few minutes later to bring it to 7–6, where it would stay. “That was a tough loss, but a hell of a game.”
On a night when the hot, thin air—99 degrees at first pitch—helped carry a World Series–record eight balls out of the park, the NL rookie home run king watched a fastball die off his bat. “I thought it was gone,” says Cody Bellinger, holding his thumb and index finger half an inch apart. “I just missed it.” That flyout to center ended the ninth instead of the game. The best bullpen in baseball—one that hadn’t allowed a run since the NLDS and hadn’t lost a game all postseason—continued to implode. Josh Fields allowed consecutive home runs in the 10th to nearly the same spot in left-centerfield. With their catcher playing second and their second baseman playing first, the Dodgers got out of it.
Puig hit a mammoth shot to leftfield to leadoff the bottom of the 10th, then gently laid his bat on the ground in what seemed to be a response to Houston shortstop Carlos Correa’s majestic bat flip in the top half of the inning. Leftfielder Enrique Hernández then drove in the tying run with two outs; Astros righty Chris Devenski’s next throw was a pickoff attempt that sailed past second baseman José Altuve—and straight into umpire Laz Diaz’s midsection. Altuve gobbled it up and kept Hernández at second. “Laz was perfectly positioned, right where we wanted him,” joked Houston manager A.J. Hinch after the game.
Righty Brandon McCarthy, the last pitcher in the bullpen, gave up a two-run shot to George Springer in the top of the 11th, and even then it wasn’t quite over. Culberson hit that home run and circled the bases with his arms extended like it was a walk-off. On deck was—of course—Puig, who had already been the goat and the hero. He made Devenski throw nine pitches, but the last one was a changeup for strike three.
After the game they seemed more defiant than anything else. “I’m human,” said Jansen, standing beneath a KENLEYFORNIA REPUBLIC flag. When a reporter began to ask a question about short memories, he interrupted. “I’m ready to play Game 3!” he said. “What did you want to ask me?” He referred to González as “whatever his name is.” His teammates were similarly unintimidated. “That’s the game they should have won,” grumbled reliever Tony Cingrani to Bellinger. “I have full confidence if we see [Houston ace Justin] Verlander again,” Bellinger answered. Culberson declared that he would take those same pitchers in those situations on any day.
They will have to. These recent L.A. teams, the ones that have lost four NLCSes, have always hit. They have always scattered good outings from their starting pitchers. Their bullpens have largely been the deciding factor. On Wednesday night, the team got another glimpse of that past. The six runs the relievers allowed in seven innings matched their worst performance in six weeks, but they’ve done this three times in the past two years. The difference this time is that they believe this was an aberration.
“It happens,” Culberson says. “They’ve been so, so good—and they still are.”