The Moment That Swung Game 6 for the Dodgers Is Rooted in a Decision Made Months Ago

The Dodgers elected months ago to shoot for baseball's record instead of cruise into the playoff spot that awaited them. In a year where World Series home-field advantage is decided by team records, it paid off to have no DH in Game 6.
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LOS ANGELES—It rained in Southern California on Tuesday night. Only two baseball players hit home runs. And the Dodgers won Game 6 of the World Series 3–1, because of a decision they made months ago.

At times this had seemed an unlikely outcome—in August because surely they’d have swept the Fall Classic by now; in September when they were in the midst of a historically bad 1–16 stretch; two days ago when they lost a heartbreaking Game 5 in 10 innings and found themselves without answers. But their chances might have been worst around 6:40 p.m. Pacific Time on Tuesday, when Astros rightfielder Josh Reddick dug into the lefthanded batter’s box for the fourth pitch.

In the fifth inning, with Houston up one and men on second and third with no out, all Reddick had to do was put a ball in play to score a run. He had already worked a 3–0 count, so he knew he would get a pitch to hit. A 2–0 lead might seal the Series for the Astros, with starter Justin Verlander looking completely unhittable and a heavy marine layer dampening flyballs. Staring at him from the mound was a tiring Rich Hill.

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Eighty percent of the time, Hill looks like he wouldn’t say anything if you cut him in line at the DMV. Then his start day arrives, and he becomes a monster. He shouts and swears and poses a real risk to coolers, the gum tray, cups of water: anything he can violently knock over.

“He's absolutely crazy,” says manager Dave Roberts. “He sees red. He's bordering on psychotic—but in the best possible way.”

On Tuesday Hill was livid after allowing a leadoff single to Brian McCann and a double to Marwin González. Hill was rapidly approaching a third trip through the Astros’ order, and he knew as well anyone that his day would likely be over when he got there.

Pitchers tend to do dramatically worse the third time they face a hitter, both due to fatigue and the batters’ familiarity with them. The league as a whole saw a 13% decline in hurler performance the third time through the order this year, a figure that likely understates the drop, because only dealing pitchers are allowed to stay in even that long. The Dodgers are especially wary of the penalty: They let starters face opponents more than twice just 746 times, the fewest such plate appearances in baseball. Hill had already become a victim of that philosophy. He had been pitching a three-hitter through four innings in Game 2 when he was pulled after four innings and 60 pitches as the lineup turned over for the third time. (He destroyed a tray of water cups.)

So every baserunner in Game 6 mattered. When Reddick strode to the plate, Hill and catcher Austin Barnes had one plan in mind: Strike him out.

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This is it, thought first baseman Cody Bellinger, crouching by the bag. If we get Reddick here, we get out of it.

He was right, thanks to L.A.’s choice late in the season to play for best record in the game rather than coasting into a long-since-determined playoff spot. This World Series is the first in which home-field advantage is decided by regular-season record rather than awarded to the leagues on an alternating basis—as was the case until 2002—or based on who won the All-Star Game. Los Angeles won 104 games. Houston won 101. And that’s why Game 6 was at Dodger Stadium, without the DH rule in effect. That’s why Verlander was on deck. That’s why Hill really only had to get one more out before González would need a hit to score.

“I knew with the pitcher coming up next that was their opportunity to add on runs,” says Hill, who has since transformed back into the unassuming guy in the blue button-down shirt. “I was looking to get fastballs away and get ahead and make him swing the bat. Unfortunately I was just missing—little bit, little bit, little bit.”

Reddick laid off. Hill pumped a fastball on the outside corner, which Reddick took, then another, which he fouled off. Then Hill gritted his teeth and adjusted his grip. He felt that Reddick was looking to swing, so he tried to angle a curveball to start at him and then sweep across the plate.

The rest went more or less as it should have. Reddick flailed at the pitch. The dugout, well aware of the stakes, went nuts. Verlander went down looking. Roberts called for an intentional walk to centerfielder George Springer, who has four home runs in the series, including the one that put his team up 1–0 on Tuesday to begin with.

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Roberts then removed Hill—who smashed a few more water cups—and pieced together the final 13 outs with his exhausted bullpen. The Dodgers scored two a frame later, then tacked on an insurance run on a seventh-inning Joc Pederson home run to left. Closer Kenley Jansen put the game away with a six-out save. Los Angeles bought itself the last tomorrow of the year.

“That might have been the game,” says infielder Charlie Culberson of the Reddick at bat.

That out, which the Dodgers began setting up with their 51–9 midsummer run, will also resonate into tomorrow. If Hill had let in a run there, Roberts would likely have pulled him immediately, forcing a relief corps that has already pitched 28 innings—an out more than the starters—into the game even earlier. With Yu Darvish, who lasted only five outs in Game 3, scheduled to start tomorrow, L.A.’s arms will need all the rest they can get.

Wednesday will bring Game 7, the first in Dodger Stadium’s 55-year history. Hill will not be available. He’s already done all he could.