Had you made plans for a pitchers’ duel? Were you expecting a breezy repeat of Game 1, when Clayton Kershaw and Dallas Keuchel mowed down hitters in near-record time? Not a chance. The 10-inning rematch featured nothing less than 28 hits, 15 for extra bases, 25 runs, a running time of 5:17… and it sends the Astros, on the strength of their 13-12 win, to Los Angeles needing only one win for their first title in franchise history. A few quick thoughts on one of the strangest games you’ll ever see, before my town car turns back into a pumpkin…
1. BULLPEN NIGHTMARES: The story of relievers in the modern game, prevailingly speaking, is one of cartoonish dominance. The experience of watching a baseball game in 2017 usually entails some no-name righty throwing an unhittable 100 miles per hour in the seventh inning, followed by another no-namer doing the same in the eighth, and maybe a slightly more renowned closer finishing things in the ninth. In 2017, opposing hitters posted a .234/.310/.409 line against the Houston bullpen, and a .222/.287/.373 mark against the Dodgers’. This does not make for many outrageous late-inning happenings.
For better or worse, when it comes to relief pitching, this World Series has looked nothing like baseball in 2017. Between them the bullpens surrendered 15 runs and blew leads left and right. Take Houston’s Chris Devenski. He was a star from the pen in 2017, tossing 80 innings of 2.68 ERA ball, whiffing 11.2 batters per nine. If this postseason were going according to script, he’d be shutting down the Dodgers’ best hitters. Instead he allowed three runs in the ninth to the bottom third of L.A.’s order to blow Houston’s lead. And what about Kenley Jansen? With his cutter, he’s supposed to be unhittable. Hell, forget “supposed to be”—opposing hitters have hit .167 against him the last three seasons. Naturally, he was on the mound in the 10th when Alex Bregman ripped the winning single to left.
Why? Fatigue is a factor—both from the long season and the relievers’ heavy workload within the postseason. The juiced ball is a factor. The fact that these teams can just flat-out rake is a factor.
This game was no closer to the platonic ideal of what baseball should be. No, maybe, compared to the reliever-dominated game of the regular season, it was even further away. But it was a nice change of pace. While we’re on the subject of ineffective relievers…
2. NO TO-MORROW: The last time he allowed a regular-season home run, Dodgers setup man Brandon Morrow was pitching for the last-place San Diego Padres on Sept. 8, 2016. He did surrender one to the Diamondbacks in Game 2 of the Division Series—but even so, entering Sunday night, Morrow had held opposing hitters to a .142 batting average in twelve and a third innings of work this postseason.
On Sunday night, Dave Roberts called upon Morrow to pitch the seventh inning and protect a one-run lead, even though he had worked Games 3 and 4 and hadn’t pitched on back-to-back-to-back days all year. His success evaporated in a six-pitch blink. George Springer, who had bungled a sinking liner in the top of the inning, crushed a flat first-pitch sinker to left to lead off. Bregman followed with a single and Jose Altuve with a double. (This took all of four pitches.) Then Carlos Correa sent a 1-0 flat Morrow sinker (yes, another one) skyward. The ball would likely have landed in an outfielder’s glove anywhere besides Boston or Houston. But the game was played in Houston, and the homer landed in the Crawford boxes. Houston led 11-8, and Morrow had allowed four runs without even recording an out. But as I mentioned, this game was played in Houston, in this World Series, so nothing went according to plan. Then again, that 11-8 lead would in time prove about as worthless as a Texas redback.
3. RUDE WELCOME: The Astros began Game 5 with a bit of pageantry, calling upon Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush, the two most accomplished sons of Connecticut of Texas, to throw out the first pitch. Though 43 didn’t throw from the rubber, his pitch crossed the plate without incident, which is more than Keuchel can say for many of his first-inning offerings. Keuchel needed 32 pitches to get through a first inning in which he allowed three runs. His problem was not velocity but command: After a leadoff Chris Taylor single and a strikeout of Corey Seager, Keuchel walked the next two batters, loading the bases.
Though no pitcher (min. 300 innings) has induced a higher percentage of ground balls over the last four seasons, Keuchel couldn’t get the grounder he needed. He whiffed Cody Bellinger, but Logan Forsythe followed with a hard-hit two-run liner to left. Marwin Gonzalez misplayed the ball, which ensured not only that the hit would score two but that it would put Enrique Hernandez at third. The extra base turned consequential when, during the next at-bat, Forsythe left first early on an attempted steal of second. Yuli Gurriel’s throw sailed wide of second, which allowed Hernandez to swipe home. Keuchel allowed nine runs in the first inning in 23 regular-season starts this year; he allowed three tonight. Before leaving with two out in the fourth inning, he would allow another run. Houston was down 4-0 against Kershaw, who had faced the minimum his first time through the order, and had Luke Gregerson pitching. The Astros were practically readying themselves for Game 6.
4. KERSH-ELLED: One thing about the narrative that Clayton Kershaw can’t pitch in the postseason is that it is just so tacky… it reduces the best pitcher since Pedro Martinez to a dopey sports-talk-radio archetype. Are we media people so lazy and greedy that we can’t appreciate greatness when it’s in a bland package? Do we have to graft the same pseudo-psychological B.S. onto every superstar?
The other thing about that narrative, though, is that it’s true, at least to some extent. It’s not as though Kershaw turns into Rick Ankiel once the calendar turns to October, no—but we have played enough postseason baseball with No. 22 on the hill to know that for whatever reason he isn’t the same pitcher he is during the regular season. His Game 5 outing brings his career ERA in the postseason to an even 4.50, more than two runs worse than his career regular-season number.
Sunday night, he started with three effortless innings, appearing to be on track for another pitching showcase in the spirit of Game 1. But immediately thereafter he lost his way, struggling to find the strike zone, surrendering a mammoth three-run homer to Gurriel. Perhaps hoping his ace could right things, or knowing that his bullpen would be no better, Roberts left him in for additional punishment in the fifth, after L.A. had retaken a three-run lead. Kershaw got two outs and walked two batters before being pulled for Kenta Maeda—who quickly served up a meatball to Jose Altuve. The game was tied again.
5. UGLY FRAME: Like Game 2, this one was an instant classic, with homers and comebacks aplenty. But maybe the footage of the top of the seventh inning oughta be erased before film of this one heads to Cooperstown. Facing Brad Peacock, Justin Turner led off the frame with a double to center field. And Dave Roberts directed the next batter—Hernandez, the cleanup hitter—to… bunt. As a decision it seemed to combine a comprehensive misreading of the game situation (playing for one run in a high-scoring game against a feckless Astros bullpen, with L.A. having a gassed pen of its own) and a misreading of the relevant players’ abilities (Hernandez has just two sacrifice bunts in his career).
He pushed a horrible, hard bunt right back to Peacock. Turner was thrown out at third and it wasn't close. Naturally, though, with this Series serving as a showcase for truly bizarre baseball, the botched bunt entailed no enduring penalty at all. The next batter, Bellinger, smoked a sinking liner to center. With one out and a runner moving from first, centerfielder George Springer would have been well served by keeping the ball in front of him. Instead he dove and Bellinger had an RBI triple, and Roberts had the 8-7 lead he sought. Come the bottom of the seventh (see above), that lead lasted just one pitch… maybe something to keep in mind for Games 6 and (if necessary) 7.