HOUSTON – At the end of a game measured in miles, a reliever in the left center-field bullpen squatted and put his hands on his knees so he could see under the padded frame that otherwise blocked his vision, and he begged for a few inches.
At the end of a game measured against its own fantastical imprecision, a utility infielder lay his elbows on the dugout rail and hoped, hoped, hoped for accuracy, at last.
At the end of a game that jangled in their heads and tore at their wearied legs, the catcher stared into left field, and he waited, and after five hours of reminding himself to slow it down, to stay in every stinkin’ moment, asked it to hurry. To please hurry.
At the end of the game played on the barrels of every bat in both racks, the left fielder bore in on a baseball that was not hit hard enough, that would not come to him, and he wondered if all those miles, all that imprecision, all those hours might really come to this.
“I knew I had to come up clean, make a perfect throw,” Andre Ethier said. “There wasn’t any thinking. There was no room for error, side to side, up or down. Tough play.”
After the home runs, the leads, the deficits, a few more of both, pinch-runner Derek Fisher scored from second base on a base hit by Alex Bregman. There were two out in the 10th inning, and he carried the last of Astros 13, Dodgers 12, in Game 5 of a World Series that seemed intent on the epic. Sunday night had turned to Monday morning at Minute Maid Park, and the right-hander, Josh Fields, squinted from the bullpen as Bregman’s soft liner fluttered toward left field, and the infielder, Charlie Culberson, leaned a little closer to that rail and bounced his eyes from the ball to Fisher and back to the ball, and the catcher, Austin Barnes, edged his left foot closer to the plate so that he might deflect that run, and Ethier let go a throw Culberson knew he’d have to “throw a million” but leaned further into anyway.
Yeah, the whole thing was going to be measured in miles and torque and decibels, in thrills and scares and Ric Flair woos, in Brent Strom’s trips to the mound, in the density of the cue balls stenciled with red stitches, in the threads of ligaments and tendons expended, in the three-games-to-two advantage the Astros took with them to Los Angeles, and yet at the end of a game that was part tracer and part slog, there was just this baseball Andre Ethier scooped up and heaved toward home, and a seemingly impossible play that was, ultimately, impossible. Seen through the blear of 417 pitches by 14 pitchers, seven more home runs, ties of 4-4, 7-7 and 12-12, they allowed their hearts to believe it would not end on this, on a misguided cutter by Kenley Jansen, on a hit batter, a walk and some wobbly, end-of-the-bat, cloud of feathers descending into left field.
Well into Sunday night, the Dodgers and Astros were six days into this, at the end of seven months of this. A fifth game in. They were in the 10th inning. They were tied in games, two to two. They were tied in score, 12-12. They were landing big swings. There were aces discarded. There were bullpens blown. There were closers undressed. There were men, young and old, finding each other’s gazes, wondering when it would stop.
They were just a bunch of dudes back-legging balls as far as they could. And a bunch of other dudes trying not to groove those balls. And a possibly slightly woozy umpire, or so many players perceived. All in a town that just the other day won its first World Series game ever. It was a little bit of baseball and a little bit of demolition derby, just throwing the dang thing in reverse and ramming whatever was back there.
The decorum of this reliever in this spot, in this role, was gone. Of playing for a run. Except for bunting with your cleanup hitter, a man on second base, in the seventh inning of a game in which there has been no indication one more run would win. To have him bunt a baserunner from scoring position to scoring position. Playing for a run there was like ordering a side salad for your last meal, dressing on the side. They hadn’t yet found separation. Not after 47 innings.
There was that time, remember, back in ’17, when they had the four-run lead and the best pitcher in the world on the mound and all they really needed was nothing crazy. And what followed from there was nothing sane.
So in the end Kenley Jansen threw the cutter that was supposed to be on Alex Bregman’s hands, his 33rd pitch, the 417th pitch, and instead it was a couple feet away from Bregman’s hands, and now being lifted over the shortstop’s head.
“For a second,” said Fields, one of two relievers left in the bullpen, “I thought it was going to be close. I for sure thought bang-bang.”
With two out, Fisher left second about as soon as the ball left Bregman’s bat.
“I mean, that game was crazy,” Culberson said. “So, yeah, whether he trips and falls as he’s rounding third, or Dre throws it a million to home, yeah, you still have hope.”
Fisher made the turn without incident, third-base coach Gary Pettis urging him to go faster, the Astros’ dugout beginning to empty.
“I was hoping there was a chance, sure,” Barnes said. “Just hoping maybe he’d miss the plate or something.”
Fisher’s lead foot unmoored Barnes. Then the ball arrived.
“Course,” Fields said, “when he slid in, obviously it wasn’t that close.”
To a man they of course mourned the loss and the series deficit it came with. They countered with odd grins at the spectacle they’d endured, this baseball game that had gotten somehow unchained and breathed fire and chased the villagers into the moors.
“That,” Fields said, “was honestly one of the most unbelievable games I’ve seen in my life. I literally couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
Barnes seemed to struggle against the weight of his own eyelids.
“There’s a lot to digest there,” he said. “The whole game. What happened.”
And while Yasiel Puig was off in another part of the room, guaranteeing a Game 7, which would entail beating Justin Verlander on Tuesday night, saying, “There’s going to be a Game 7,” Culberson was sighing and looking for the words that would make sense of this, right here, the dragon among them.
“That game stunk,” he said before correcting himself. “The loss stunk. The game was great. That game was great.”
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