LOS ANGELES — The door to the Los Angeles Dodgers' bullpen — pale blue frame, plexiglass windows, undoubtedly close to falling off its hinges — opened one last time Tuesday night, and to the accompanying bounce and Auto-Tuned hook of "California Love" over the sound system, Kenley Jansen jogged in to the mound at Dodger Stadium. It was the top of the eighth inning of Game 6 of the World Series, and anybody who said they knew what was about to happen was lying.
This World Series had defied predictions, upended convention and left nothing that could be counted upon — aces crumbling, relievers burned to a crisp, no lead safe. The great Jansen, big, burly and bearded, had himself blown a save, taken a loss and, in the face of a relentless Houston Astros offense, generally appeared a shell of his dominating 2017 self. He needed six outs to carry home a two-run Dodgers lead. A crowd of 54,128 had the same thought: Was it too much to ask?
But the outs came with the sort of ease with which they came in those languid days of April and June. One, two, three, four, five, six — with nary a stumble. Jansen had a six-out save, the Dodgers had a taut 3-1 win, and the World Series — this crazy, inspired, never-ending World Series — will have a Game 7. After all the madness that has transpired over these past six games, it was only fitting.
"You have to dig deeper and deeper," Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said of the prospect of a Game 7. "We're into November now. You have to be tough."
Game 7 of the World Series will be Wednesday night, the first day of November, with the Dodgers' Yu Darvish set to face Houston's Lance McCullers Jr., and everyone but Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan available for at least a batter or two. That means ace Clayton Kershaw, at a bare minimum, will be in the Dodgers' bullpen. With both teams 27 outs from a championship, each will be parceled out with a care unlike any other game.
"It's been such a great series because these teams are so evenly matched," Astros ace Justin Verlander said, after absorbing a tough loss in Game 6. "It's great baseball. It's fun to be a part of. No matter what, this series is going down in the history books as one of the best of all time. I think [Wednesday] is going to be nothing short of spectacular either way."
A baseball season that has pushed the sport into new territory, with more home runs and strikeouts and longer games than any in its history, will for the second straight year get the ultimate payoff — a World Series Game 7. This one may have a difficult time topping last year's 10-inning, curse-breaking victory by the Chicago Cubs over the Cleveland Indians, but it will be historic in its own right.
It will be the first Game 7 matchup of 100-win teams — the 104-win Dodgers and 101-win Astros — in a World Series since 1931, and the first World Series Game 7 to be played at Dodger Stadium, which has witnessed many other compelling bits of history in its life span, but never this.
We are here, on the doorstep of Game 7, because Verlander, acquired by the Astros in late August to pitch in games such as this, could not finish off the Dodgers, failing to protect a slim 1-0 lead through the middle innings Tuesday night. The Dodgers put two on the board against him in the sixth, on Chris Taylor's RBI double and Corey Seager's long sacrifice fly, and the Astros pinch-hit for him in the next half-inning.
"When you have a great team with your backs against the wall — and both of ours are — it's hard to beat them," Verlander said. "That's what makes Game 7 so special. Especially in the World Series. You have the two best teams from both sides, American League and National League. Its win or go home. Win, you're a champion. Lose, and you're not."
And we are here, also, because the Astros, desperate for a rally, couldn't push across a single run against a Dodgers bullpen that, two nights earlier in Houston, seemed to be simultaneously running out of fuel. After starter Rich Hill, who had allowed only a solo homer to George Springer, was pulled after 4⅔ innings — a decision that had the veteran lefty in a rage, turning over a tray of filled water-cups in the dugout — Roberts used only his best set-up men, overtaxed though they have been, to get the game to Jansen: Brandon Morrow, Tony Watson and Kenta Maeda.
"The pivotal point right there," Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said of the decision to yank Hill. "And Rich just gave us what he got and gave us a chance to win. And for me, I just felt that in that one particular spot, Brandon gave us the best chance to get out the hitter, Bregman. So that was kind of my gut."
In each of those innings, the fifth, sixth and seventh, the Astros had multiple runners on base but failed to score. Morrow, last seen giving up four runs in six pitches in Houston two nights earlier, appeared for the 13th time in the Dodgers' 14 postseason games. The most perilous escape Tuesday night, in the seventh, was Maeda's. Facing first-and-third with one out, he induced a flyout by Bregman and a grounder to third by Jose Altuve, and descended the mound screaming and pumping his fist.
The Dodgers' bullpen was bulging at the seams, but it was not bursting.
And in the meantime, the Dodgers tacked on an insurance run in the seventh on Joc Pederson's homer off Astros reliever Joe Musgrove. Pederson capably channeled the emotions of every Dodgers fan in the building, punctuating his rowdy trip around the bases with a fist in the air, a chest-thump, a get-on-your-feet gesture to the crowd and a double-barreled finger-point to his dugout.
"You kind of blackout in a situation like that," Pederson said. "I'm going to have to re-watch it to see what I did."
Roberts had hoped to limit Jansen to just one inning of work Tuesday, but the way the Astros' lineup fell, the eighth inning — with the fourth, fifth and sixth spots due to bat — was more critical than the ninth. So Roberts brought his closer in then, and only decided to leave him in for the ninth when he saw how good he looked.
Verlander's fateful stretch in the sixth, which wound up saddling him with the loss, pivoted around a 59-foot slider that bounced and hit Chase Utley in the leg. The Dodgers had double-switched Utley into the game at second base in the sixth to avoid having the pitcher's spot come up in the bottom half — but Utley is more or less a pitcher at the plate these days. His last hit was Sept. 30, and since then he had gone 0 for 29 before Tuesday night. But his specialty is the hit-by-pitch, of which he has more than any active player in the game.
When Verlander clipped him, the Dodgers had runners on first and second with nobody out. Verlander acknowledged his concerns about the slickness of the World Series baseballs — which he had voiced over the weekend in Houston — were on his mind as he threw the slider in question. Only moments before, he had rejected a couple of baseballs home-plate umpire Dan Iassogna had tried to put into play.
"They were slippery. You grab and it immediately, I feel like I'm going to throw it to the backstop," he said. "I wouldn't say any of the balls are great, but some are better than others. . . . I'm not going to throw a slider that's going to be just kind of spinning in the middle of plate for him to hit a double on. So I yanked it and hit him."
The long slog of an inning, and the two runs he had given up, ended any talk of Verlander going the distance.
"Absolutely not. No chance," Verlander said when asked if he was thinking complete game. "Not the way the series has gone. Not the way those guys' lineup is. If we could have squeaked together one or two more [runs], I maybe would have changed my mentality a little bit."
In the somber Astros clubhouse, Verlander spoke to teammate Dallas Keuchel about the unimaginable tension and pressure.
"At no point is there ever a letup or a deep breath," Verlander said. "The only time that happens is when the inning is over. And then it's reset, and go back out. Dallas said, 'When there's a guy on first base and two outs, it feels like there's a guy on third base and no outs.' It's just that type of feel. The intensity level is second to none."
At the end of another grueling night of work, both teams headed out into a cool Los Angeles night, with thoughts of what had just occurred, and what is still to come. There will be a Game 7 on Wednesday, but here on Tuesday night, it was Halloween.
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