HOUSTON—Here are three thoughts from Saturday night at Minute Maid Park, where the Dodgers beat the Astros, 6-2, in Game 4 of the World Series to tie the series at two games apiece.
1. CODY BELLINGER’S SLUMP ENDED. KEN GILES’S DID NOT.
When Cody Bellinger stepped to the plate against Ken Giles in the top of the ninth inning, with Game 4 tied at 1-1, it amounted to a matchup of struggling stars. Bellinger, who is certain to be named the National League’s Rookie of the Year next month, blasted 39 home runs in just 132 regular season games but was hitless in his first 11 World Series plate appearances, striking out in seven of them. Giles saved 34 games in 38 chances this year while striking out nearly 12 batters per nine innings, but he had allowed at least one run in five of his six playoff outings. His skipper, A.J. Hinch, had given him the night off on Friday, allowing Brad Peacock to close out a win with a 3 2/3-innings save. Officially, Hinch said, “There's no reason to take him out. He was in complete control of every at-bat. So why not leave him in?” Unofficially, he probably hoped the break would allow Giles to clear his head.
It didn’t. Although Chris Devenski had easily skated through the Dodgers’ lineup in the top of the eighth, Hinch gave the ball to Giles. Giles promptly allowed a single to leadoff man Corey Seager, then walked Justin Turner. The second pitch he threw to Bellinger was a 95 mph fastball that he left more or less over the middle of the plate. Bellinger easily drove it to left for a double and the game-winning RBI.
Righthander Joe Musgrove came in to clean up the mess, but he couldn’t. Austin Barnes drove in Reddick with a sacrifice fly, and Joc Pederson followed by crushing a three-run homer to right. All three batters Giles faced ended up scoring in the Dodgers' five-run ninth.
It took the 27-year-old Giles a long time to appear in the clubhouse. It didn’t happen until all of the rest of his teammates had already dressed and dispersed. When it did, though, Giles was admirably forthright, after another failure under baseball’s brightest klieg lights.
Did you make good pitches, a reporter asked him, that the Dodgers—Bellinger in particular—just happened to hit?
“No,” Giles said, in quiet and measured tones. “They were all crappy pitches, not where I want them. I need to do better. I need to pick up this team. I need to carry my weight.”
Still, Giles repeated several times, his next appearance would be the one on which he would get back on track—just as Bellinger seemed to require only one at-bat to regain his form. “He was one hit away, he was one pitch away,” he said of the rookie. “I’m on the same path right now. And I’m going to be ready. It’s going to come tomorrow. I’m going to be ready to go.”
Giles said he expected that Hinch would continue to use him in the closer’s role, but the manager stopped short of confirming that—as well he should. “You’ve got to keep trying to encourage them to do their part and come in and do well,” Hinch said. A little later, he added, “We’ve got to get to 27 outs and we’re going to keep trying to piece it together.”
Piece it together—instead, perhaps, of following a roadmap with Giles as the terminus. In fact, going forward, Hinch finds himself in a familiar position: that of requiring significant length from his starters, as he again seems to have no reliable relief arms—outside of perhaps Peacock and maybe Devenski, who has recently struggled himself—to which to turn. At least he’s got two starters coming up who can pitch a long way, Dallas Keuchel in Game 5 and Justin Verlander in Game 6.
2. A MATCHUP OF NO. 4 STARTERS LOOKED LIKE A BATTLE OF ACES
Still, it’s not as if Hinch’s Game 4 starter pitched badly—and neither did his counterpart. You could have correctly anticipated that Game 1, featuring Clayton Kershaw and Dallas Keuchel, would have been a pitchers’ duel, and it was: the two allowed a combined four earned runs in a quick, tidy ballgame. But Saturday’s starters, Charlie Morton for the Astros and Alex Wood for the Dodgers, outdid them.
Morton, a much better pitcher at home than on the road, flashed devastating stuff from the start, mostly a blazing fastball that sat at 96 and a curveball that arrived at 81. That 15 mph difference flummoxed the Dodgers, and usually in short order: Morton required 10 or fewer pitches to put them away in four of his six full innings.
Wood’s command wasn’t nearly the same, and while he had to work harder to deal with the Astros, his results were similar. The southpaw complemented a 91 mph heater with a changeup and knuckle-curve that he threw in equal measure (23 times apiece), and which came in at similar speeds (around 84), but moved entirely differently. In fact, Wood made it through his first 5 2/3 innings with a no-hitter intact. Then Roberts made a questionable managerial decision.
There is little question that the Dodgers—particularly their front office—did not want Wood to face Astros’ hitters for a third time. All but the very best pitchers, and even them, experience a decay in performance during a third go-round through a lineup. A diminishing of their stamina coincides with an increase in the familiarity of opposing hitters with their stuff that night. This season, Wood’s third time through resulted in an increased propensity for allowing homers. While he allowed six in 224 first plate appearances, and three in 224 second plate appearances, he allowed six in just 143 third looks.
Wood completed his second run through the Astros’ lineup by striking out Brian McCann for the second out in the bottom of the sixth inning. Brandon Morrow, the Dodgers’ top setup man, was warmed in the bullpen. It was time. But Roberts didn’t emerge from the dugout. Wood, to that point, was throwing a no-hitter, and his bullpen was tired. Surely, he could get one more out?
He couldn’t. Wood threw his pitch to Springer, a knuckle curve low but over the middle of the plate. Springer drove it on a line to left, and into the Crawford Boxes. Wood immediately departed, having allowed one hit. Roberts’ risk seemed to have a low upside, particularly given that bringing in Morrow would have given him a right-on-right matchup, and though it wouldn’t ultimately cost him, it didn’t pay off.
In the end, Morton and Wood combined to work 12 innings in which they allowed two earned runs, four hits and two walks, while walking two and striking out ten. As Jon Shestakofsky of the Hall of Fame noted:
All this is to say that neither side could have asked for more from its No. 4 starter. Of course, neither would factor into the result.
3) THIS IS KERSHAW’S MOMENT
Clayton Kershaw seems to have exorcised his postseason demons, with a 2.96 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning over his four starts so far, all of them wins. Here’s the issue: he’s been treated with white gloves by Roberts. The three-time Cy Young winner averaged 98 pitches during his 25 full starts this year (not counting one in which he got injured and a season-concluding half-day). So far during the playoffs, however, he’s reached 90 pitches in just one of his outings, and has yet to make a single delivery in the eighth inning or later.
The half-full view is that he’ll be well rested, having thrown just 24 1/3 innings and 359 pitches all month. The half-empty view is that Roberts has been protecting him from stress—which he’s very likely to face with a bullpen that’s been taxed in what's shaping up to be a long series, and against an Astros lineup that is deeper than any in the National League and is now at least a little familiar with him. “Well, yeah, I mean I think everybody wants to be that guy to right the ship, I guess,” he said—perhaps not that emphatically—on Saturday afternoon. The Dodgers’ ship was righted on Saturday, but now it’s on Kershaw to put them in what might be a nearly unbeatable position: a three games to two lead, with two shots at home to win it all.