LOS ANGELES — When the final out of Game 7 of the World Series was in the books, when Dodger Stadium fell silent, except for a few thousand Astros fans screaming to the skies, Houston center fielder George Springer started sprinting toward the infield. Was he looking for teammates to hug or a mosh pit to join with a giant leap?
He had one target in mind — the pitcher's mound. The main Astros mass-hug-and-jump was erupting 10 yards away, but before he joined it, Springer ran to the pitcher's rubber.
The highest point of the field. The center of everything. No other place would be fitting for Springer, who stood the tallest of any player in this first Houston World Series title and, for the past six games of this seven-game battle was, quite literally, at the very center of everything that was best about the Astros.
Let Springer, who won the Willie Mays World Series Most Valuable Player Award with five home runs, 29 total bases, a .379 batting average and ludicrous 1.471 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, stand for all the Astros who beat the Dodgers convincingly, 5-1, on Wednesday night.
Not bad for a guy who hit .115 in the American League Championship Series before striking out in all four of his Game 1 at-bats against the Dodgers.
Granted, Houston will have to rebound far more than any Astro. But the point remains the same: a team set out to exemplify a virtue for the sake of its traumatized city. Because that's what they had to offer, what they could do. Hang tough, keep going, even if it takes 11 innings and a dazzling comeback against super-closer Kenley Jansen to win Game 2 and 5 hours 17 minutes to break the heart of Clayton Kershaw and the will of a 104-win Dodgers team in a 13-12 classic in Game 5.
"This is a dream come true. That 'Houston' on our chests means a lot. They have endured a lot," said Springer, talking about his city and everything it has battled because of Hurricane Harvey. "We're coming home a champion, Houston!"
The 27-year-old Springer personifies this team in so many ways. From his status as a gifted first-round draft pick who will be a core Houston star for years to come, to his resilience in the past month while he battled a horrid hitting slump to his decision long ago to use his baseball notoriety to stand for a larger cause than himself, Springer exemplifies the best in all of them.
The Astros center fielder and leadoff man not only began Game 7 with a double off Yu Darvish, but, one inning later, knocked the Dodgers starter out of the game with a booming home run to center field for a 5-0 Houston lead.
"Oh, we weren't calm," said Astros Manager A.J. Hinch with a laugh. "But George Springer leads off with a double and off we went."
How could Springer go from one of the Astros biggest worries after Game 1 to its Series MVP? Springer has explained it many times; he's had to learn to overcome frustrations that others can't imagine. Just to open his mouth and give a postgame interview constitutes a triumph for a man who still fights a stutter, although if you didn't know it, you could hardly tell.
As a spokesman for Camp SAY (Stuttering Association for the Young), Springer always takes the opportunity to speak up. He even got miked up in the outfield during the All-Star Game to give running commentary on the game in progress.
Just as Springer dedicated himself to that cause for years, he and all his Astros teammates have taken the Houston community to heart after Hurricane Harvey and attempted to exemplify "Houston Strong" on the largest stage they could find. Oh, and how they did it, with two of the most amazing, exhausting indomitable victories in World Series history. With Springer at the center of both.
First, the Astros rallied to win Game 2, a huge victory that allowed them to return to Houston tied at a game apiece. Springer's two-run homer in the 11th inning was the decisive blow, this after he already had a walk, a single and a double in that marathon. Then they captured Game 5 by the insane score of 13-12, in 10 innings with enormous help from, yes, Springer, who walked twice and scored both times, then hit a titanic homer to tie the game at 8 after his own misplay of a line drive in center field had put Los Angeles ahead. Can't let stuff hold you down.
After that homer, Springer wasn't finished in Game 5, getting another hit, then pushing the eventual winning run into scoring position in the 10th inning with a walk off Kenley Jansen.
Other motors have driven the Astro machine in various games. But Springer, who hit 34 homers, scored 112 runs and batted .283, was a constant force.
The fulcrum of this Series, and of Springer's play, was Game 2. After his seven disastrous games against the Yankees, then his four-strikeout start to this Series, a player can hardly fall harder and lower on a bigger baseball stage.
But Hinch refused to move him down in the lineup and gave him a public vote of confidence. "No, he's not [moving down in the lineup]. He'll be leading off," said Hinch. "He had a tough night at work, and a lot of our guys did. George has struggled. But if he hits the first pitch tomorrow into the gap . . . you'd be amazed how good he feels."
Instead, Springer just started hitting balls over walls, joining Reggie Jackson and Chase Utley as the only men ever to hit five homers in a World Series.
After his four-strikeout start, Springer said, "You know it. And you press. And you want to do things that you can't do. For [Hinch] to have my back — hey, you're still going to hit first, and you're still going to set the tone for us — it slowed me down. . . . For him to have my back, it means the world to me. And I'll always have his back."
Springer's speech difficulties, which were severe and made him feel solitary and mocked as a boy, were often caused because he simply couldn't slow down once he started trying to talk. Now, his voice is central to the Astros.
The Astros were so awful for so long that they were able to land a series of high draft picks that panned out. But Springer, who went to the University of Connecticut, was the first prominent talent — the 11th overall pick in '11.
After him came the Astros' magnificent shortstop, Carlos Correa, still only 23, who will probably be a perennial MVP candidate for years. Lance McCullers Jr., who started Game 7 but only lasted 2⅓ scoreless innings, was also a first-round pick. Finally, the Astros landed brilliant third baseman Alex Bregman with the second overall pick in the 2015 draft. Now, a little more than two years later, Bregman has emerged as an all-around star and got the game-winning hit in Game 5.
Perhaps nothing distinguishes the Astros more than their combination of youth, talent and poise. Get used to these names, you'll be hearing them for years. In 2014, Sports Illustrated did one of the most prescient cover stories in its history, proclaiming the Astros as MLB's champions of 2017.
The cover boy? Springer.
"I just think when the lights turn on even brighter you tend to subconsciously press, and you want to succeed so bad that you start to do things that you wouldn't do, or you start to come out of an approach that has worked the whole year," Springer said during the Series. "This is my first experience at playing this far, playing this long and in [games] of this magnitude. So, for me to understand, 'Hey, slow yourself down.' I understand now why some guys struggle in the postseason and some don't."
For more than a half-century the Astros were always the team that was told what it couldn't do, how often it came up short and then, in its only previous World Series appearance in 2005, got swept. Ignoring the negative and believing in yourself despite odds has served Springer and the Astros well. Now they hope it aides their damaged but recovering city in some vague yet valuable way.
"When that last out is made, you finally breathe," said Springer after one of the Astros probability defying wins.
In truth, when that final out was made Wednesday night, the least of the Astros concerns was breathing. Their joy demanded far more than that. They screamed. They went crazy. The moment many said would never come for the Astros, arrived at exactly the moment when their city needed it most.
In that final celebration, everyone congregated, bouncing and back-pounding on the Dodger Stadium mound. None leapt higher than Springer. He was right where he wanted to be — the center of everything. Exactly the place he'd been throughout one of the most thrilling World Series ever played.