HOUSTON —Maybe it’s all in their heads, a collective delusion that has swept through both the Astros’ and Dodgers’ clubhouses—even though their inhabitants are now loath to talk about it. Maybe they believed it into existence. There was, in fact, at least a little debate before Game 5 about Sunday morning’s bombshell story by SI.com’s Tom Verducci, in which coaches and players—drawn from both clubs—expressed their certainty that the baseballs being used in this World Series are covered with slicker leather than the regular season variety, making it difficult for pitchers to throw their breaking balls, particularly their sliders.
“I know Mr. Manfred said the balls haven't changed,” said the Astros’ Justin Verlander, referring to league commissioner Rob Manfred, for the prosecution. “But I think there's enough information out there to say that's not true.”
“I think they've been extremely consistent in the World Series, and also in the playoff games, as well,” said the Dodgers’ Rich Hill, on behalf of the besieged defense.
Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch delivered his comments right down the middle. “I don't see a ton difference, but I'm not going to get in a verbal war with coaches and players who think otherwise,” said Hinch. “They're entitled to their opinion, that's my take.”
In truth, the public opinion, with the possible exception of Hill’s dissent, seemed overwhelmingly one-sided before Game 5. And after it, after a 13–12, ten inning bloodbath that lasted five hours and 17 minutes, and put the Astros one win from a championship? Well, it was hard to mount a dissent at all. The baseball, it seems clear, is still juiced—but now it comes with a skin that makes it harder for pitchers to command.
Major League Baseball, for its part, continues to deny that anything is abnormal. In fact, before Game 5, Joe Torre, the league’s chief baseball officer, went down to the umpire’s room to be sure the baseballs were being properly pre-rubbed with mud. They were.
The game’s result, though, told a different story. An Astros source says that the club was instructed not to comment on the baseballs, but some of them couldn’t help themselves. Dallas Keuchel, Houston’s starter on Sunday, typically has an excellent slider. During the regular season, he threw it 18% of the time. Some 61 percent of his regular season sliders ended up as strikes, and batters hit just .167 against it, with three home runs.
On Sunday, though, Keuchel could barely get it over the plate. The 2015 Cy Young winner threw just seven of his 17 sliders for strikes—41%—and they didn’t behave nearly as they usually do. While this season, on average, he’s thrown the pitch with an average of 6.39 inches of horizontal break and 1.19 of vertical break, on Sunday it was just 4.92 inches and 0.51 inches. The two-run single that Logan Forsythe lined to left in the top of the first came on an 81 MPH slider; Keuchel lasted just 3.2 innings, allowing four runs.
“It’s such a sensitive subject,” Keuchel would say. “You never want to make excuses for bad pitching, and I got myself into some trouble in the first place. But yeah, the ball’s flying. I mean, that’s what MLB wants.”
Keuchel’s counterpart, Clayton Kershaw, also throws a superb slider. During the regular season, he threw it even more than Keuchel—34% of the time—and with even better command. It produced a strike 68.3% of the time. While Kershaw’s sliders on Sunday broke more or less as they usually do—perhaps his skill is just so great—he couldn’t find the plate with them with anything near his usual consistency. Just 20 of his 39 attempts were strikes—51%. You probably don’t have to guess the nature of the pitch that Yuli Gurriel drove deep to left, in the bottom of the fourth, to ensure that a 4–0 lead that not long before seemed insurmountable completely evaporated. It was a slider, a pitch with which he’d allowed just three homers all season long. And Kershaw’s 94th and last pitch of the night, which he buried in the dirt to walk Alex Bregman with two outs in the fifth? A slider.
Perhaps the Dodgers, like the Astros, had been commanded not to comment on the baseball. “I don’t really notice that stuff,” Kershaw all but whispered after the game. “I assume both sides are dealing with it, so I don’t worry about it too much.” Not exactly a denial.
Then came a cascade of a dozen relievers, only five of whom escaped without officially allowing a run. “Terrible pitching performances all around,” said Keuchel. “And both offenses were just lighting it up.” The clubs combined for 28 hits, seven of which were home runs. This series has already broken the all-time record for combined homers in a Fall Classic, with 22—topping the `02 Series between the Angels and the Giants, which came at the height of the steroid era, featured Barry Bonds and lasted two more games.
The Dodgers’ Brandon Morrow, previously untouchable, threw six pitches and was charged with four runs. “I try not to have that in my head,” said Morrow, of the baseball.
The Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen, the league’s best closer, allowed the game-winning single by Alex Bregman in the bottom of the tenth—the third straight game this series in which the owner of a 1.32 regular season ERA has allowed a run. Jansen, who threw his slider eight percent of the time during the regular season—and for whom it is generally a devastating complement to his cut fastball—only tried the pitch with just two of his 33 deliveries on Sunday. “Something funny with it,” Jansen said of the baseball. “This is my eighth season in the big leagues. I have my thoughts. I’ll keep them to myself.”
It wasn’t hard to discern what those thoughts might be. If the balls aren’t different, then more or less everyone believes that they are—which might have the same effect. And – after a historically exhilarating five hours and 27 minutes, which featured five lead changes and which everyone, even Keuchel, agreed was “epic” – perhaps the league should answer all questions about its World Series baseballs not with a denial, but with another question.
Are you not entertained?