Exactly a year ago, as the Houston Astros battled through an American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees, George Springer started to slump, at the worst possible time, in a way so noticeable that it became fair to question whether he should remain in the lineup.
John Smoltz, a Hall of Fame pitcher and now an in-game analyst with Fox Sports, did just that when the broadcast crew met with Astros Manager A.J. Hinch. Would Hinch move Springer out of the leadoff spot? Would he sit him for a day or two? In an eight-game stretch, from Oct. 13 to 24, from Game 1 of the ALCS to Game 1 of the World Series, Springer had just three hits in 30 at-bats and struck out 11 times.
What was up?
“And when we asked Hinch, all he said is, it’s going to take one good at-bat, one hit, one walk, to show he has his swing back and get him locked back in,” Smoltz remembered this week. “And man was Hinch right.”
In the next six games, the six games that earned the franchise its first world championship, Springer crushed five home runs and collected seven RBI. That also earned World Series MVP honors for the 29-year-old outfielder. In this postseason, as the Astros look to repeat and start an ALCS matchup with the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on Saturday, Springer has three home runs in three games. That totals eight homers in his last nine postseason appearances.
What makes players dial up their play when the crowds are loudest and the stakes highest is difficult to explain.
“I just think it's one of those times where the lights get brighter, the stage gets a little bit bigger, and I think guys tend to concentrate more,” Springer said after the Astros swept the Cleveland Indians in the American League Division Series last Monday. “You hone in on stuff, and, again, I don't know. I'm not going to complain about it. I'm happy that it happened.”
Smoltz was one of the best pitchers in postseason history, compiling a 15-4 record and 2.67 ERA in 41 playoff appearances as a starter or reliever with the Atlanta Braves throughout the ’90s and 2000s.
He details his postseason success in stages, starting long before he ever stepped onto a mound in October, back to when he was growing up in Detroit and dreamed of pitching on such a big stage. A player has to want the big moment, and he has to have always wanted it, Smoltz said. That has to drive a heightened attention to detail, and Smoltz believes that if he prepared for each regular season start as if it were a playoff game — if he studied the same way, pored over each hitter’s tendencies for hours, stressed so much about each pitch — he would have had a fraction of the career and not been so successful for 21 seasons.
The hardest part is taking all of that emotion and energy and channeling it into a measured approach. He can’t try to do something outside of his ability or what a pitcher or hitter offers. He can’t try to be the hero. He has to treat a game like any other game, or an at-bat like any other at-bat, even if it feels like anything but.
“It is still just baseball,” said David Freese, now a platooning first baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers and once the MVP of the 2011 World Series after he and the St. Louis Cardinals were down to the last strike of the season in Game 6 against the Texas Rangers, then he tripled in two runs to tie the score, then he hit a walk-off home run in extra innings.
But Freese smiled inside the visiting clubhouse at Miller Park on Thursday night, a day before the Dodgers faced the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. He knew he had just told a lie.
“Okay, it’s not just baseball,” Freese relented with a laugh. “It’s really not. It’s unlike everything you have ever experienced, and you just can’t be afraid to fail.”
“I really believe personality has something to do with it,” Smoltz said. “But I also believe the willingness to be successful more than not is something that is innately in some people and not in others. You see that in George Springer.”
Springer’s latest postseason surge comes after a quiet end to his regular season.
He went on the 10-day disabled list in August because of a sprained left thumb, and when he returned, his pop was missing. He hit just three home runs in his last 30 starts to finish with 22 homers, 71 RBI and a .265 batting average, all notably lower than his 2017 numbers. But then there he was at the start of the ALDS against the Indians, atop the Astros order as always, hitting a homer in Game 1 and two more in Game 3 as his team sprinted into the next round.
“Postseason, man. Same thing last year. Surprised?” Astros outfield Marwin Gonzalez asked after Game 3 in Cleveland.
“We are expecting a lot when he goes up to the plate in the postseason,” Gonzalez continued. “Not that we don’t expect it during the season, but you guys know what he did last year in the postseason. … He’s a Super Springer.”
Only one of the four remaining teams has that. Springer may not be able to describe why this time of year works for him, why he can’t stop hitting home runs, why his dominance in last year’s playoffs carried into this fall. But the results still count all the same.
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