HOUSTON — Visiting teams entering Minute Maid Park in downtown Houston do so via Congress Street, with their bus making a left turn into a loading dock. The players disembark in a service area, walk through a tunnel and enter the playing field near the right-field foul pole, strolling roughly along the first base line to the visiting dugout and down some steps into the clubhouse. And somewhere along the way, they forget how to play baseball.
At least it has seemed so during the 2017 Major League Baseball postseason, perhaps never more so than Friday night in Game 3 of the World Series, when the Los Angeles Dodgers became the latest team this month to leave a large chunk of its collective baseball knowledge at their downtown Houston hotel.
The sheer greatness of the Houston Astros undoubtedly has something to do with it as well, and we will begin there in describing their 5-3 win over the visiting Dodgers in the first World Series game here since 2005 — a win that gives Houston a two games to one edge in the best-of-seven series, with Game 4 on Saturday night.
The Astros got 5 ⅓ effective innings from starter Lance McCullers Jr., a home run from Yuli Gurriel and 3 ⅔ innings of stellar relief from Brad Peacock to move to 7-0 at home this postseason. When Peacock, on his 53rd and final pitch, retired Yasmani Grandal on a flyball to right for the final out, the orange-clad crowd of 43,282 roared, and Peacock himself pumped his fist gently and let out a sigh.
“It was pretty obvious he was cruising,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said of the unconventional move to use Peacock, a converted starter, for an 11-out save. “There’s no reason to take him out. He was in complete control of every at-bat.”
Over the course of 3 hours 46 minutes, the Astros also happily accepted the bounty of gifts their visitors so graciously handed to them, much as they had when the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees visited earlier this month and staggered out without so much as a win between them.
As soon as the Dodgers set foot on the field Friday night, they began doing very un-Dodgers-like things. They committed a pair of errors, ran themselves into outs on the base paths and saw their prized trade-deadline acquisition, right-hander Yu Darvish, self-immolate on the mound in what became the shortest start of his career.
“We didn’t play a very good game at all,” Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager said. “We threw some balls away, kicked some balls around. They advanced and scored on some. That can’t happen. We’ll figure it out and get back to playing good ball.”
The Dodgers, a 104-win juggernaut that breezed through the first two rounds of the playoffs — are in a predicament unlike any they have faced over their nearly seven-month joyride. They have lefty Alex Wood on the mound Saturday night, making just the second postseason start of his career — against Houston’s Charlie Morton — and a bullpen severely depleted by the aggressive moves made by Manager Dave Roberts in a desperate, failed attempt to steal a win Friday night.
“Alex,” Roberts said, “is going to have to go deep.”
The entire feel and flavor of the World Series was inverted with the shift from Southern California to Southeast Texas. From triple-digit temperatures at Dodger Stadium, it pivoted to an air-conditioned 65 degrees at Minute Maid Park, where the roof was closed. In L.A., a celebrity sighting meant Justin Timberlake, Jessica Biel or John Legend in the stands. Here, it meant injured Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt walking to the mound on crutches to throw out the ceremonial first pitch to a thunderous roar.
But the most important difference contained in the shift to Minute Maid Park is the way the Astros play here, relative to the road. Their unblemished record at home this month comes with a plus-26 run-differential. After the Astros stole a wild, 7-6, 11-inning win in Game 2 at Dodger Stadium, they came home with a chance to eliminate the Dodgers without making a return trip to L.A.
“We’re very comfortable here,” Hinch said.
The Dodgers had acquired Darvish from the Texas Rangers in July, at a cost of three prospects, specifically with nights like Friday in mind — sky-high stakes, a hostile stadium, a tough opponent, a knotted series, an opportunity for greatness. But Darvish not only wasn’t great; he wasn’t even Darvish.
Almost from the start, he seemed uncomfortable, frequently calling his catcher, Austin Barnes, to the mound for a confab and appearing perturbed at times with home-plate umpire Gerry Davis’s strike zone.
The Astros were the best-hitting team in baseball this year on fastballs 94 mph or faster, and they ambushed Darvish’s best heaters, 95 and 96 mph, on Friday night. Gurriel’s blast into the Crawford Boxes in left to lead off the second, came on a 95-mph fastball.
“I had a game plan going into today’s game,” Darvish said. “And then I couldn’t get ahead in the count. And those hitters were battling throughout the at-bats.”
At his best, Darvish possesses some of the top swing-and-miss stuff of any starter in baseball, as evidenced by a career strikeout rate of 11.0 per nine innings, the highest of any pitcher in history with at least 100 big league starts. But on Friday night, in the biggest start of his career, he induced only two swings-and-misses in 49 pitches, and one of those was a botched bunt attempt. By the end, it had become the first start of his career in which he recorded zero strikeouts.
“He just really didn’t have any feel,” Roberts said of Darvish.
McCullers was handed a four-run lead entering the third, then promptly committed the cardinal sin of walking the first three batters of the inning.
But then, the first of many gifts from the Dodgers: Seager swung at a couple of borderline pitches, sending the second of those to Astros first baseman Gurriel, who pivoted and started a 3-6-1 double play. A fully healthy Seager probably beats the throw to first, but coming off a back injury that kept him off the Dodgers’ roster in the first two rounds, he seems to have lost a step. Either way, the Dodgers scored just one run in an inning that could have been a big one.
Another gift came in the fourth: after Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig singled off the glove of Astros third baseman Alex Bregman, the ball caroming off the wall and into shallow left, Puig was slow to recognize where the ball was. By the time he finally saw it and headed toward second, Astros shortstop Carlos Correa had corralled it, throwing to second to nail Puig. For all Puig’s many charms and attributes — including, for this series, hair dyed Dodger-blue — his reputation as a sometimes careless base runner is well-earned.
It was around this time that Roberts faced a critical crossroads, best expressed in a simple question: try to win this game, or punt on it and save his arms for Game 4? The answer came with the names on the backs of the uniforms of the pitchers coming in from the Dodgers’ bullpen: Maeda, Watson, Morrow, Cingrani. Roberts was going for it.
“I thought the way McCullers was throwing, we had a chance to get him,” Roberts said. “There’s a point where you’ve got to . . . try to stay in the game as long as you can without conceding.”
It may have seemed an obvious decision, but it was anything but. Roberts’s choice of relievers would affect not only Game 3, but Games 4 and 5 as well, as the series entered its only stretch of three straight days with games. If Roberts burned up his best arms in a lost cause Friday night, he might not have them for winnable games Saturday and Sunday.
Kenta Maeda, a converted starter deployed as a reliever this month, was first to enter, and he delivered 2 ⅔ scoreless innings to stabilize the Dodgers. But he also threw 42 pitches, which undoubtedly rules him out for Game 4, if not Game 5 as well.
Tony Watson, a lefty, came in for three outs, but gave up an unearned run that stemmed from his own throwing error on Evan Gattis’s chopper to his right, which pushed the Astros’ lead to 5-1.
By the time Brandon Morrow, the Dodgers’ top set-up man, entered in the bottom of the sixth, the Dodgers had gotten two runs back to make it 5-3. Morrow collected two outs and gave way to lefty Tony Cingrani, who got two more. In all, the Dodgers’ relievers combined to throw 6⅓ innings and allowed only a single, unearned run.
But the comeback never came, thanks to Peacock's brilliant outing, itself reminiscent of McCullers's four-inning save in Game 7 of the ALCS. "I've really enjoyed bringing back the three-inning save," Hinch joked. "That's cool."
After the top of the eighth, Hinch met Peacock in the dugout and asked a single question: “Do you feel good?” Peacock’s answer: “Yeah.” Hinch’s response: “Alright. You’re going back out.”
"I'm shocked," Peacock, whose major league debut came with the Washington Nationals in 2011, said later. "I'm just glad he gave me the opportunity."
While Hinch, in leaning heavily on Peacock, had bypassed his entire bullpen for the night — a tacit acknowledgment he doesn’t have the elite pieces to match up with the Dodgers — Roberts had blown through most of his. The Dodgers used four of their five best relievers — everybody but closer Kenley Jansen.
It all left the Dodgers in a strange and unfamiliar place near the end of a spectacular season: holding a dwindling set of options and a narrowing margin for error, and facing two more bus rides on two more afternoons to the loading dock outside this house of horrors.
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