LOS ANGELES — Spring training doesn’t start with a pep talk that goes, “Let’s make it to the World Series and lose the first game on the road to the best pitcher in baseball.”
There were bright spots for the Astros, sure. Dallas Keuchel pitched pretty well, aside from a couple of pitches he’d love to have back. Kershaw just pitched better. Alex Bregman hit a big homer for Houston. Chris Taylor and Justin Turner just hit two big homers for LA.
And despite those things, the Astros remain one more dominant Justin Verlander start away from going back to Houston in what would be, all things considered, a just-fine situation. Going back home with an even series? To the stadium where they play their best? The Astros would most certainly take that.
“It’s the best scenario now,” Bregman said. “We’re looking completely forward. I’m glad everybody got a taste of their first World Series. Let’s go win a game tomorrow.”
So as much as losing Game 1 sucks — and it does, let’s not lie — the Astros aren’t in the worst place. They lost to Clayton Kershaw. Hey, it happens. Clayton Kershaw beats a lot of good teams. That’s kind of his thing.
On Tuesday, that meant seven innings of one-run ball, 11 strikeouts, no walks and just three hits. This wasn’t really the Astros team we’ve seen all year long. All those strikeouts, but they had the fewest of any team in the regular season. No walks, but they had the highest on-base percentage of any team in MLB this year.
Say as much as you want about the Astros’ struggles with hitting on the road this postseason, but this is Clayton Kershaw. You don’t just walk into the World Series against a three-time Cy Young winner who a majority of your team has never faced before and expect to have your way with him. Doesn’t matter how many Altuves are on your club.
“Video doesn’t do it justice,” said Astros center fielder George Springer, one of the Houston batters who’d never faced Kershaw before. “You tip your cap and move on to the next.”
That, mostly, was the mood in the Astros’ clubhouse after Game 1. Not even 10 minutes after the final out, they were all talking about Game 2. And everywhere you went, you heard the same two words: Justin Verlander. He’ll start Game 2 on Wednesday, hoping to look as unstoppable as ever.
He’s pitched in an Astros uniform nine times since being traded to Houston from the Detroit Tigers. The Astros have won every single one of those games — even that ALDS relief appearance of his that wasn’t ideal. He hasn’t given up more than two runs in any outing with Houston.
Verlander attributed that to his mental game, which he said is off the charts in the postseason.
“I think the mental focus is just another level,” Verlander said. “It’s just another level. I don’t know how to really explain it. There are times throughout the course of the game where I lose track of where we’re at in the game and don’t really know what’s going on. It’s just my sole focus even between innings is thinking about what I can do to execute and thinking about what pitches I should throw and what I’ve seen and what my instincts are telling me, you’re just that much more focused on the task at hand.”
The Astros will need that even more than they have any other time this postseason. This is a team that plays so much better at home, whose offense revs up to a different level. Remember, they didn’t win a single road game in their seven-game ALCS with the New York Yankees. They can’t win the World Series that way, but winning one game in LA then going home for three games could be the key to them eventually winning this series.
“This is a time that always moves on really quick,” says star second baseman Jose Altuve, who had one Houston’s three hits against Kershaw. “We’re coming from losing three straight games against the Yankees. Then we went home, we won two in a row and now we’re here. If we win or we lose, we move on, start over again and that’s what we’re going to do tomorrow.”
And the most important part of moving on is Justin Verlander. He needs to give the Astros a Kershaw-like outing in Game 2. This will be why the Astros made that last-minute trade to get him in August. This game. This moment.
If he wins, the Astros go home in a good spot. If he loses, this series gets a lot more dire.
“He’s gonna be Justin Verlander,” Bregman said. “The guy that you’ve seen all postseason. The guy that brings it every time he takes the mound. We’ve got his back tomorrow.”
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More World Series coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Jeff Passan: How Sandy Koufax and a pair of cleats helped Dodgers
• Tim Brown: World Series Game 1 belongs to Kershaw
• 5 biggest moments from World Series Game 1