LOS ANGELES — When the curators come for the preservation of the first World Series victory in Houston Astros history, they better skip the white gloves and acid-free paper and opt for the hazmat suits and liquid helium. Game 2 on another searing hot night Wednesday at Dodger Stadium presented itself as another tidy 3–1 game until the eighth inning, when it exploded into a mass of superconductive magnetic energy.
In the house were baseball legends Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Sandy Koufax. They could be excused if they wondered if this was the same orderly game they had played.
Everything that baseball has become in 2017—for better, for worse and for the absurd—became as jarringly amplified as what comes out of those massive Dodger Stadium centerfield speakers. The home runs, the pitching changes, the paint-by-numbers game management, the young stars, the no-longer-verboten showmanship, the hours upon hours of play … all of it collided in one thrilling, guilty pleasure of a night that must have soiled the tweed of a baseball purist.
Throw in the absurdity of baseballs going bump in the night—off the brims of caps, off umpires, off gloves—and you had the nuttiest World Series episode since the Blue Jays beat the Phillies, 15–14, in Game 4 of the 1993 series, when someone held up a sign at Veterans Stadium that would have been apropos Wednesday night: “Will Pitch Middle Relief for Food.”
It took four hours, 19 minutes and included 14 pitchers, but pace of action was no more a problem for this game than it was for the Lakers of the Showtime era.
“Was that not the best baseball game ever?” said Houston’s 23-year-old third baseman, Alex Bregman, speaking without prompt on behalf of his fellow millennials.
It helped Bregman’s appreciation that his Astros won the game, 7-6, in 11 innings over the Dodgers, and that Bregman is not a pitcher.
“The ball is 100% percent juiced,” said Houston pitcher Dallas Keuchel. “The big guys will always hit their home runs, but this year you see everybody hitting in the 20s and 30s who never did it before. This is the game they wanted and this is the game they got.”
Eight home runs were hit, the most ever in a World Series, off six different pitchers, the most ever who yielded them in a World Series. All of the homers were hit by players 28 and younger, including one each by 6’ 4”, 23-year-old shortstops who define where baseball is going. Until Carlos Correa and Corey Seager came along, Cal Ripken had been the only shortstop that tall to hit 20 homers in a season. Correa and Seager have done it five times between them already. The players are getting bigger and putting more loft in their swings.
At one point, starting in the ninth inning, of 13 balls hit in the air, five of them flew over the wall for homers. One of them came from Dodgers infielder Charlie Culberson, who hadn’t hit one in more than a year. There were more home runs hit just in Game 2 than in 46 entire World Series, including every one between 2012 and 2014.
Hard to believe, given how the game turned into life imitating PlayStation, but the Astros once were five outs away from being down two well-pitched games to none in the series. They trailed 3–1 and faced a Los Angeles bullpen that had thrown 28 consecutive scoreless innings. These Dodgers were about to win a World Series game with two hits (both home runs, naturally), the first time any team did so since Koufax was on the mound in a 1963 taut win over Whitey Ford and the Yankees.
And then Game 2 turned into the latest offering in the Fast and Furious franchise.
“If we’re in a slugfest, my money is on this team,” Bregman said. “We bang. We’re the best hitting team in baseball. Their bullpen is really good, and I don’t want to sound like a [jerk], but our offense is really good and we’ll go toe-to-toe with anyone and win.
“If you had to describe our team by one game, this is the game.”
The Astros do chaos well. This was baseball’s version of A Night at the Opera, and the Marxian entertainment partly was made possible by the legions of quants who keep the Dodgers humming and whisper in the ear of their manager, Dave Roberts.
No manager had ever pulled his starter from a World Series game after just four innings having allowed only one run while striking out seven batters, but Roberts yanked Hill from such a game. Why? No team let its starters pitched to so few batters the third time around a lineup as did the Dodgers, and the Astros were starting at the top for the third time, with five consecutive righthanded hitters due up.
Los Angeles believes deeply in numbers, such as how relievers are more effective the first time they face hitters than when starters face them a third time. They also believe in how a pitcher’s stuff matches up against particular hitters. In this case, Roberts went into the game eager to match up righthander Kenta Maeda on the top of the Houston lineup—so eager that he told Hill he was done after just 60 pitches.
It’s difficult to argue against the concept. The Dodgers won the most games in baseball this year by pulling pitchers quickly. They had been 98–0 when leading after eight innings, the only such unblemished record in baseball.
The 1996 Yankees received 60 starts of five innings or less, a record low for any team that won the World Series. The Dodgers, with 76 such truncated starts, would blow away that record. (No matter who wins, this series will establish a new record for short starts from a world champion; Houston had 61 starts of no more than five innings).
But this time the plan to start the bullpen carousel so early began to unravel. Roberts curiously pulled Maeda—hitters were 1-for-22 against him this postseason—with two outs in the fifth just to match up lefty Tony Watson against lefty Brian McCann. The plan worked in that Watson extracted a double play grounder, but Roberts was getting into his bullpen early and often.
Such danger grew when his next reliever, Ross Stripling, walked his first and only batter on four pitches. Out went Stripling. Roberts kept changing relievers to find better matchups. At one point he used five relievers in a span of eight batters.
“They used so many pitchers early,” Houston starter Justin Verlander said, “late in the game we were able to take advantage of that situation.”
True enough, but even after all the machinations the Dodgers were able to put the lead in the hands of the best reliever in baseball, Kenley Jansen.
Roberts had used Jansen for the only six-out save of his career in the NLCS last year, in what was the postseason in which pundits applauded the aggressive use of closers. The same cheers would have washed over Roberts this time if Jansen, who inherited a runner with no outs in the eighth, closed the door again.
Instead, an eighth-inning single by Carlos Correa off Jansen made it 3–2, and then Marwin Gonzalez opened the ninth with a stunning, game-tying home run off an 0-and-2 cutter. Jansen had not allowed a home run in his last 82 at-bats decided on an 0-and-2 pitch. He had permitted just six hits on that count in that span for a .073 batting average.
Everywhere you looked, this game kept defying odds and challenging belief. The madness included:
— A single by Bregman that hit the brim of the cap of a diving centerfielder Chris Taylor as the cap dislodged from his head, upon which the ball ricocheted directly into the hands of leftfielder Joc Pederson. Without such Rube Goldberg nonsense, Bregman has a triple or inside-the-park home run.
— Yasiel Puig, in the finest tradition of Jerry Lewis, Robin Williams, Adam Sandler or perhaps even Thespis, completely stole scenes with his over-the-top, energetic playing to the crowd. He licked, smelled and chewed his bat for three hitless at-bats, switched to another bat for a fourth turn, whereupon he smote a home run, prompting him to gently place the new bat on the ground as if it were a Ming vase. He also dove gallantly for a fly ball hit by Bregman that began the eighth inning, and when the ball bounced off his Dodger blue glove and into the stands for a double, he ripped said glove from his hand and spiked it violently and childishly into the ground.
— In a bizarro world in which Puig gently dropped his bat upon homering, the normally reserved Correa in the 10th gave an epic bat flip—actually, it more resembled the caber toss from Scottish Highland Games—that called to mind the bat flip of Tom Lawless in the 1985 World Series. Jose Altuve and Correa hit the first back-to-back home runs in extra innings in Fall Classic history.
— Houston reliever Chris Devenski nearly threw in the winning run when he badly misfired while trying to pick off Kiki Hernandez from second base in the 10th inning. With centerfielder Cameron Maybin shaded toward right-center, Devenksi’s scattershot throw was headed for the gap in left-center, an invitation for Hernandez to advance to third and possibly home. But the throw smacked flush against second base umpire Laz Diaz, keeping Hernandez at second and, as Diaz hit the ground, soiling his pant knees.
“Are you okay?” a thankful Correa told Diaz as he wiped dirt from the umpire’s pant leg. “You know it’s the World Series. Got to look good, Laz. Got to make sure you stay clean.”
— The game had to be stopped briefly when a fan jumped into the Astros bullpen and a scuffle ensured; Houston pitcher Brad Peacock said the fan appeared to lunge at a security guard there. It recalled a fight in the visiting bullpen at Fenway Park during the 2003 ALCS between a grounds crew member and two Yankees.
By the time the game reached the 11th inning, Roberts was down to the last of his nine relievers, Brandon McCarthy, who hadn’t pitched in 24 days. He gave up a single to Maybin, who stole second base, and then a home run to George Springer that put Houston ahead, 7–5.
With two outs in the bottom of the inning, Culberson dinged Devenski for the game’s eighth homer, and gave the most ebullient, vaudevillian home run trot ever seen for a homer with his team still down a run.
After a season with a record 6,105 home runs—about 463 miles worth of long balls—you should know how the modern game is played by now. Batter after batter tries to launch the ball in the air, and managers summon pitcher after pitcher for the best chance at keeping the ball in the yard. In the two games in this World Series, the Astros and Dodgers have combined to hit 11 home runs that have accounted for 82% of the scoring (14 of the 17 runs).
So, of course, the game had to come down to Thespis himself trying to go deep one more time.
“I almost had a heart attack,” Correa said of the last at-bat between Devenski and Puig. “Every single pitch matters in games like this. You’ve got to be on the balls of your feet all the time, through 11 or 12 innings or whatever it was. I lost track.”
Devenski threw Puig nine pitches—eight of them changeups, including the last five. At one point in the sequence catcher Brian McCann walked out to Devenski and said, “We’re not getting beat with anything other than your best pitch. And we’re not giving in.”
Puig swung and missed at the last one, the last of 332 pitches on the night.
Only then did the madness finally stop. Everybody needed a moment or two to process what they had just seen, as if they had just screened The Usual Suspects for the first time. Imagine the consternation of Koufax, for instance. The man who faced 213 batters in the World Series in his career and allowed only two home runs had just watched eight homers fly out of the yard in a span of 54 batters—one home run every six or seven batters. It was unlike anything seen in the 651 World Series games that preceded this one, and, in its own very 2017 kind of way, one great big thrilling, unforgettable mess of a baseball game.