HOUSTON—Forty-eight hours ago, the Dodgers were three outs from a 2–0 World Series lead.
Then all-world closer Kenley Jansen grooved a cutter. Cody Bellinger smacked a 369-foot flyout. A baseball bounced off an umpire, keeping Enrique Hernández at second base. The vaunted bullpen, the one that hadn’t let in a run in 28 straight innings, gave up five in three. Justin Turner hit a 402-foot flyout. Deadline prize Yu Darvish allowed as many balls hit 100 mph or harder (five) as he recorded outs. Returning hero Corey Seager, on the roster after a back injury kept him out of the NLCS, grounded into a rally-killing double play. Yasiel Puig, who has mostly channeled his exuberance into excellent play this postseason, ran into a foolish out at second base.
And just like that, the Dodgers are staring at a reality in which they must win at least one of the next two games at Houston’s Minute Maid Park against a team that has so far gone 7–0 at home. And then win another one or two at Dodger Stadium. Oh, and L.A. kept it just close enough—5–3 when it was all over—that manager Dave Roberts had to use nearly all his most trusted relievers, jeopardizing their availability for Games 4 and 5.
“When your starter goes five outs, you’ve got to find a way to cover some innings,” Roberts said after the game. “[Game 4 pitcher Alex Wood] is going to have to go deep. … Just go out and play a good, clean game.”
This was a sloppy game all around. The first five and a half innings took longer than all of the 2-hour, 38-minute Game 1. After Darvish collapsed in the bottom of the second, Astros starter Lance McCullers opened the next frame by walking three straight batters—at which point Seager took him off the hook by rolling into that double play. The Puig play might have been the ugliest of all: He lined a ball off Houston third baseman Alex Bregman’s glove, but did not realize it had gotten away until he was slowing down past first, almost to the outfield grass. He took off for second and belly-flopped into the bag as second baseman José Altuve applied the tag.
Things did not get much prettier as the game went on. Dodgers reliever Tony Watson tried to rush the throw on an Evan Gattis infield chopper and fired it past Bellinger, allowing Josh Reddick to score from first. (Even that was aesthetically displeasing: No one had removed Gattis’s bat, so Reddick barreled through it.) Third baseman Justin Turner scored on a wild pitch in the top of the sixth, then pulled first baseman Bellinger off the bag with a throw in the bottom of the inning. Reddick, who slugged .484 this season, bunt popped out with a man on second in the seventh. Bellinger dove for—and missed—a ball second baseman Chase Utley could have caught, loading the bases. It was a rough night for the 22-year-old rookie, who also struck out four times and twice chased balls at his shins. (He was not alone: The Dodgers’ top four hitters—centerfielder Chris Taylor, Seager, Turner and Bellinger—went 1-for-14.)
“Today was the first time I’ve felt out of place,” Bellinger admitted after the game in a quiet clubhouse.
L.A. reliever Ross Stripling gave up what would have been a grand slam in nearly any other ballpark but instead became a 408-foot out. Houston reliever Brad Peacock, who pitched the last three innings, left at least half a dozen hittable fastballs over the plate that the Dodgers simply missed.
The worst moment came when, after crushing a home run off him, Houston first baseman Yuli Gurriel appeared to mock the Japanese Darvish in the dugout, pulling back the corners of his eyes and laughing. Gurriel apologized after the game.
So there were mistakes all around on Friday. But in general, the Dodgers struggled everywhere they have been so successful all season. A team that obsesses over getting the ball in the air grounded into 10 outs. A team that finished first in the league in turning balls in play into outs could not catch or throw. A team that, already stacked, shocked the industry with the Darvish trade—the rich get richer—used five relievers. These problems seem unsustainable. This was the best team in baseball all season, and ace Clayton Kershaw is set to pitch Game 5. It’s hard to imagine they will continue to look this awful, but Friday’s performance did more than lose them one game.
The real problems will begin to show up Saturday. L.A. lefty Alex Wood, who labored through 4 2/3 innings against the Cubs in the NLCS, will face Houston’s Charlie Morton, who looked nearly unhittable through five in ALCS Game 7. The Astros bullpen is rested; only McCullers and swingman Brad Peacock pitched on Friday. The Dodgers will have to mix and match without using Maeda, who threw 42 pitches, and with the knowledge that fireman Brandon Morrow has worked in 10 of their 11 games thus far. Among the most common words around Chavez Ravine this season was “depth,” but even this roster looks shaky right now. Of course, the Astros would be wise to remember what the Dodgers have just learned: Things can change quickly.