LOS ANGELES – In the middle innings of Game 7 of the World Series, as Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw carved through the Houston Astros lineup, one question emerged from the smoke of the ash pit that was the game’s first hour: Why wasn’t he doing this in the innings that lost the Dodgers the World Series?
Buoyed by a deluge of early runs off Dodgers starter Yu Darvish and their own stellar mishmash of pitchers, the Astros won their first World Series on Wednesday night in a 5-1 victory at Dodger Stadium.
Forced to a decisive seventh game after Los Angeles tied the series with a win Tuesday, the series turned back in Houston’s favor within two minutes of the first pitch. By the time Darvish was taken out, the Astros had scored as many runs as he had recorded outs (five). Though the Dodgers’ fondness for comebacks was evident throughout their first World Series appearance in 29 years, the Astros cobbled together 27 outs from five pitchers, the last of whom, Charlie Morton, went four innings and retired Corey Seager for the final out and the victory.
The desire for Kershaw to start was rooted more in his excellence than in any scenario Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was likely to employ. The facts: Kershaw was throwing on two days’ rest instead of his regular four and was on a 40-pitch limit. The last time he pitched, in Game 5, he blew 4-0 and 7-4 leads. Though Darvish got only five outs in his Game 3 start, the Dodgers traded for him July 31 to pitch vital games. Wonderful though hindsight is, the idea of Kershaw starting gained traction only after he shut the Astros out in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth innings.
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They proved too late, and Houston, which survived a pair of elimination games in the American League Championship Series, won its first championship.
Christened in 1962 the Houston Colt .45’s, the organization waited more than 40 years to make its first World Series, in 2005, representing the National League. Between then and now, the Astros have switched leagues, embraced analytics, torn down a flawed team, booked three 106-loss-plus seasons, developed a core of talented everyday players, built around it with veterans, roared to a 101-win 2017, dispatched Boston in the division series, outlasted the New York Yankees in the ALCS and overpowered a similarly talented Dodgers team for a title.
The 113th World Series was won with a cast of homegrown players, with center fielder George Springer, the series MVP, at the forefront. Springer’s second-inning home run chased Darvish and made him the first player ever to homer in four consecutive World Series games. Along with Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman, Springer made for a potent top four in Houston’s lineup – one made even more special because each was drafted or signed by the Astros.
“As time will go by and we’ll watch the DVDs that are made of this series and the memories that are built from this series,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “There will be a great appreciation of where it fits in the context of history of baseball.”
Was it the best? Probably not. Though Game 2 and Game 5 thrust themselves into the World Series pantheon, the lack of competitiveness in Game 7 – the first between 100-win-plus teams since 1931 – put a slight damper on the enthusiasm that has surrounded the series and did the same to the crowd of 54,124.
For the Astros, there was nothing but excitement, even as Kershaw, pitching in relief, did what Darvish couldn’t and mowed through the middle innings. Though starting Kershaw was unlikely, Roberts could have gone to him after the first inning, when Darvish allowed a pair of runs and generated just one swing and miss among 24 pitches, a sign he lacked the frontline stuff expected to earn him nine figures in free agency this offseason.
Springer, who set the total bases record for a World Series with 29, led off the game with a double. A Bregman groundball to Cody Bellinger ended up in the Astros’ dugout as he threw it behind a covering Darvish. Bregman stole third and scored on a groundout.
Darvish stayed in. He walked the leadoff hitter, Brian McCann. Roberts hung with him. Marwin Gonzalez doubled. No change. After retiring the next two hitters, Darvish left a 96-mph fastball over the heart of the plate and Springer sent it 438 feet away. It was 5-0. Roberts finally got him.
From there, Houston started counting outs. Starter Lance McCullers Jr. didn’t get many. He set a World Series record with four hit-by-pitches – and did so in just 2 1/3 innings, the fewest of any pitcher in history who hit four batters in one game. Hinch lifted him after seven outs and brought in Brad Peacock, who got out of a jam and made McCullers the first starter since Jack Morris and John Smoltz in 1991 to not allow a run in a Game 7.
The Dodgers’ inability to replicate the offensive potency shown at times during the series doomed them. Seven of the first 12 batters reached base. None scored. Their lone run came off Morton – the fifth pitcher behind McCullers, Brad Peacock, Francisco Liriano and Chris Devenski – on a sixth-inning pinch-hit RBI single from Andre Ethier.
With every out, Houston got closer to fulfilling the Sports Illustrated prophecy of 2014 that used a cover to call them 2017 World Series champions. Like the champion Chicago Cubs last season, the Astros spent years tanking to give themselves better access to amateur talent. And though they whiffed on a number of early picks, the Astros were good enough at other facets of talent procurement to load this 2017 team.
Of particular importance: Justin Verlander’s arrival Aug. 31 in a trade from the Detroit Tigers. Though the Astros complemented their young core with winter acquisitions of veterans Brian McCann, Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran, they did next to nothing at the July 31 trade deadline, much to the consternation of the players. The need for another pitcher – possibly a closer, preferably a frontline starter – dogged the Astros until the last day possible to deal for a player who could be eligible for the playoff roster.
The move went against an organizational philosophy that endeavors not to cede the future for the present. The Astros were keen enough to recognize the value of a starter like Verlander, who was named ALCS MVP and helped stabilize the pitching enough to allow the Astros’ offense to spot the cavalry of pitchers an early lead.
All that got them was the 5-0 lead by the second inning that held up. Whatever small amount of healing the Astros have brought to those in Houston affected by Hurricane Harvey now felt a little bigger. The Astros get the last laugh after a St. Louis Cardinals executive hacked into the their computer systems and stole a trove of information. They laid out a plan. They executed it. They won.
And unlike Los Angeles, which forever will debate why Clayton Kershaw wasn’t pitching earlier, Houston gets to ask itself a question with a much easier answer: How good were these Astros?
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