HOUSTON — In their darkest nightmares this winter, if not the rest of their lives, the Los Angeles Dodgers will see rockets and hear train whistles. They will feel the walls of Minute Maid Park creeping slowly in on them and catch ghostly glimpses of Houston Astros circling the bases, one after another. The Dodgers may see themselves closing in on victory, over and over, but they will forever be one run short and one out away, always one too few. And then the rockets and the whistles will return.
A had-to-see-it-to-believe-it Game 5 of the World Series featured massive and incomprehensible swings of both lumber and momentum. But the last of each belonged to the Astros, giving them an impossibly rich and harrowing 13-12 win, one that tested the hearts and stomachs of everyone in the building until the final swing of Alex Bregman's bat in the bottom of the 10th. And it leaves this upstart franchise, born in 1962 as the Colt .45's, one victory away from its first World Series title.
"Back and forth, the two best teams in baseball duking it out," said Bregman, the Astros' precocious, 23-year-old third baseman. "And we came out on top."
After a much-needed day off — for the teams' respective arms, if not their blood pressures — the World Series heads back to Dodger Stadium for Game 6 on Tuesday night, when the Dodgers, behind left-handed starter Rich Hill, must defeat Astros ace Justin Verlander, who is 4-0 with a 2.05 ERA this postseason, just to force a Game 7 the following night.
"They've got to beat us again," Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen said, boiling the math down to its essence. "Ain't gonna be easy."
At some point, on either Tuesday or Wednesday, the 2017 baseball season will come to an end, but not before leaving us this classic on the final night of baseball this year in Houston — a game that didn't end until the bottom of the 10th inning, 5 hours 17 minutes after it started, when Bregman singled off Jansen to score pinch runner Derek Fisher from second with the winning run and end the second-longest game in World Series history.
"I don't even know what to expect anymore," said Astros reliever Collin McHugh. "You think you've seen everything in baseball, until you haven't."
It was the most amazing, astounding, incredible — and yes, bonkers — World Series game since ... oh, four days earlier.
Jansen, who blew the save in the classic that was Game 2, was in his second inning of work Sunday at the end of a long, taxing and gruesome night for the Dodgers' bullpen. With two outs in the 10th, he hit Brian McCann with a pitch. After George Springer walked, the Astros sent Fisher in to pinch-run for McCann at second, and Bregman delivered a line-drive single to left, with Fisher sliding home ahead of the throw.
"This was the craziest atmosphere and the craziest outcome I've ever seen," Springer said. "Big pitch after big pitch, big play after big play.
The Astros rallied from deficits of 4-0, 7-4 and 8-7. They squandered leads of 11-8 and 12-9. The Dodgers were down to their last strike in the ninth, only to tie it — and lose it again. Both teams blew through the best arms in their bullpen — and a few of the ones they had hoped never to have to use.
"I don't think I've ever seen guys put such good swings on pretty good pitches all night long in big situations than I did tonight," McHugh said.
This rollicking, entertaining all-timer of a series has had controversies, feats of brilliance, extra-inning slugfests and topsy-turvy outcomes — but mostly what it has featured is home runs, 22 of them to be exact by the end of Sunday's proceedings, setting a new World Series record with at least one more game to go. Fifteen of those homers have either tied the game or put one team ahead.
In Sunday night's thriller, there were three three-run homers in a span of 14 batters, two of which tied the game. There was the greatest pitcher of his generation blowing two big leads and failing to make it out of the fifth inning. There was a go-ahead blast by the probable NL rookie of the year, and an answer by the probable AL most valuable player. There were starters pitching in relief.
And that was just the first five innings.
By the end of the seventh, when the Astros blitzed the dead-armed remnants of the Dodgers' overtaxed bullpen for four runs, the game had entered a bizarro realm where literally anything might happen — including a man, naked except for some American flag shorts, sprinting onto the field and heading toward second base, which briefly delayed the otherwise incessant action.
After pulling ahead 11-8 with four runs in the seventh, the Astros still had six outs to get. Good luck with that. Entering the ninth, they were up 12-9 and needed three more outs. Good luck with that, too.
Chris Devenski, the last useful piece left in an Astros bullpen full of spent arms and wrecked nerves, was tabbed to try to cobble together the final three outs from some stray nails and rusty scrap metal someone must have found in the stadium's basement. He walked the leadoff batter in the ninth, then surrendered a two-run homer to Yasiel Puig that drew the Dodgers to within one. Finally, with two outs, two strikes and the tying run at second, Chris Taylor singled up the middle to tie it at 12.
"You're not going to expect [the Astros] to lay down," Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said. "And obviously, you saw what our guys did tonight, and competed to the last out."
With the score tied at 7 in the seventh, Springer, the Astros' center fielder, had gifted the Dodgers the go-ahead run in the top half, making an ill-advised, charging, diving try on a sinking liner off the bat of Cody Bellinger with one out and a runner on first. Keep the ball in front of him, and the Dodgers probably have runners on first and second. Instead, it got past Springer and almost to the wall, and the Dodgers had an 8-7 lead.
But in the bottom half, Springer greeted Dodgers reliever Brandon Morrow with a towering homer to left on Morrow's first pitch, tying the game at 8. The train that sits high above the left-field wall, and rumbles and whistles after each Astros homer, was having a busy night.
"That," Springer said, "was an angry swing."
Morrow was supposed to have been off-limits for the Dodgers after pitching in both Games 3 and 4 the previous two nights and in all but one of the Dodgers' previous 12 games this postseason. But he grabbed the bullpen phone and called Roberts in the dugout to tell him he felt good.
"If we take the lead," Morrow told him, "I want the ball."
"In the seventh inning," Roberts said later, "you can't turn him down."
After Springer tied the game, Roberts quickly got lefty Tony Cingrani warmed up, but before he could get Cingrani in the game, Bregman had singled and scored on Jose Altuve's double to left-center — and Carlos Correa had driven himself and Altuve in with a towering homer to left.
"It's a credit to him to be used like he has been," Roberts said, "and still want the baseball."
It is an ironclad rule of baseball, not reviewable by replay or open to interpretation, that to win a game in regulation a team must secure 27 outs. At some point Sunday, that began to look impossible. And as the game headed into extra innings, asking either of these teams to secure 30 or more seemed insane.
At some point, what felt like eons ago, the Dodgers and Astros started this game with Clayton Kershaw and Dallas Keuchel on the mound — both lefties with Cy Young awards on their mantles and brilliant performances under their belts earlier this postseason, including Kershaw just four nights earlier in Game 1.
But Kershaw managed to secure just 14 outs, and Keuchel just 11. Despite the generous strike zone of home plate umpire Bill Miller, which had hitters protesting called strikes with sharp words and shaking heads all night, this decorated duo would give up a combined nine earned runs, six of them charged to Kershaw. Together, they issued five walks, and all five eventually scored.
Few things in baseball are as automatic as Kershaw with a four-run lead. This season, when the Dodgers have given him four-plus runs of support, they were 19-0. Over his career, 100-1. But here, he coughed up a 4-0 in the fourth, the last three of them coming on a homer by Yuli Gurriel — the Astros first baseman who, when last heard from in this series, was making a racially insensitive gesture in his dugout during Game 3 that earned him a five-game suspension at the start of 2018.
An inning later, the Astros, trailing 7-4, chased Kershaw after a pair of two-out walks, and Kenta Maeda entered and surrendered a three-run homer to Altuve, tying the game again.
The pertinent question at 4-4 was: Where in heaven's creation was either team going to find enough outs to win this game? It was the same question asked at 7-7 and 12-12.
When Springer reached first base after drawing his walk off Jansen in the 10th — the fifth time he had reached base in the game — he turned to Dodgers first baseman Cody Bellinger and said, "I need a sandwich." The next batter was Bregman, who ripped Jansen's first pitch, one of his signature cutters, into left to drive home the winning run.
The train whistle was blowing. Fireworks were going off beyond the fence. The Dodgers, their nightmare now upon them, were trudging off the field, and the Astros were spilling onto it. The crowd of 43,300, drunk on pure, 200-proof baseball and satiated by a year's worth of drama in one night, stood and roared one last time in 2017 at Minute Maid Park.
When this city sees its baseball team again, it will be for a championship parade a few days from now, or for Opening Day 2018 next spring.
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