Houston Strong: Title-Starved Astros Deliver First Championship with World Series Game 7 Win Over Dodgers – Sports Illustrated

It was George Springer who graced the cover of the June 30, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated that audaciously touted the Astros as 2017 World Series champions, and in Wednesday night’s Game 7 at Dodger Stadium, it was Springer who made that a reality.

With his first two two trips to the plate, the 27-year-old centerfielder capped a record-setting offensive performance, chased Dodgers starter Yu Darvish and helped the Astros build a 5-0 lead that they rode to their first championship in the franchise’s 56-season history. For his part, Springer was named the Series MVP.

1. Crushing Yu Again

On the heels of his abbreviated Game 3 start—in which he was lit for six hits and four runs while retiring just five batters—the evening couldn’t have begun worse for Darvish, whose first eight pitches put the Dodgers in a 2-0 hole. 

Springer, batting leadoff, lashed Darvish’s third pitch of the game, an 84 mph slider in the middle of the plate, down the leftfield line for a double. Alex Bregman tapped his very next pitch to the right side of the infield, where first baseman Cody Bellinger—who had made several outstanding defensive plays during the series—made a poor decision. Cutting in front of second baseman Logan Forsythe in fielding the ball, he was forced to twist and throw awkwardly to Darvish as the pitcher sprinted to cover the bag. The throw sailed behind him and into foul territory for a two-base error as Springer scored the game’s first run. Bregman then stole third base and scored on a Jose Altuve grounder to first.

Thanks to an epic 13-pitch plate appearance by nemesis Yuli Gurriel—who paused to tip his cap to Darvish as a means of acknowledging the controversy that enveloped the two in Game 3—Darvish needed 24 pitches to escape, and before he was done, Clayton Kershaw began getting loose in the bullpen.

Darvish’s second inning began inauspiciously as well, with an eight-pitch walk to Brian McCann issued after he’d fallen behind 0-2. McCann lumbered to third when Marwin Gonzalez doubled into the right-center gap, and didn’t try to advance on Josh Reddick’s grounder to second. Manager Dave Roberts let Darvish face starter Lance McCullers Jr., who hit a slow grounder to second. McCann got a good enough jump that Forsythe had no play by the time he reached the ball on inner edge of the infield grass. That was the second bad defensive break that Darvish got, and on a night where he wound up getting just two swings and misses from among his 47 pitches, the Dodgers couldn’t afford it.

Now down 3-0, Roberts let Darvish face Springer again. Perhaps it was because he didn’t want  to burn a pitcher or position player with the number nine spot in the lineup due up, but the manager’s lack of urgency felt like a mistake at the time and looked even worse in hindsight. The slugger got ahead 3-1, swung through a hanging slider, and finally mashed a fastball 438 feet to centerfield for a 5-0 lead, his fourth homer in as many games and his fifth of the series (more on Springer below). 

Darvish had entered the World Series on such a roll, with an 0.87 ERA and 35/2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his last five starts totaling 30 ⅔ innings. But between his two starts, the two shortest of his major league career, he got just four swings and misses and retired 10 batters. Was he among those pitchers struggling to grip a slicker baseball, as many from both sides told SI’s Tom Verducci? Did the Astros, who faced him five times in the regular season in 2016-17, spot something that helped them read his pitches? Those are questions the 31-year-old righty will take into free agency this winter. The Dodgers, for all of the tinkering they did with Darvish’s mechanics and repertoire, have to wonder whether that had an impact on the pitcher’s unraveling—and whether they’d have been better off starting Game 4 starter Alex Wood on three days of rest in Game 7 instead of their big deadline acquisition.

2. Squandered chances

Even as they were digging themselves a five-run hole, the Dodgers had several chances to close the gap, particularly as McCullers was so off his game that he exited after 2 ⅓ innings, matching the Yankees’ Don Larsen (1958) for the earliest departure of any Game 7 starter staked to a lead according to Baseball-Reference. The Dodgers’ leadoff hitter reached base in each of the first three innings, but they went 0-for-7 with three strikeouts with runners in scoring position in that span.

In the first inning, Chris Taylor roped McCullers’ third pitch, a hanging curveball, into right centerfield for a leadoff double. McCullers then sandwiched strikeouts of Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger—both down and in with the hook, as the Astros had successfully done all series long—around a hit-by-pitch of Justin Turner, who took one on the wrist. McCullers fell behind Yasiel Puig 3-1, then hit him on the left elbow with a pitch to load the bases for Joc Pederson, the team’s hottest hitter in the series, with three home runs and five extra-base hits. Alas, the slugger fell behind 0-2, then hit a sharp grounder right at Altuve on McCullers’ 25th pitch of the frame, ending a 31-minute first inning.

Forsythe led off the home half of the second with a single, took second on a grounder and was joined on the bases by Kiké Hernandez, who in pinch-hitting for reliever Brandon Morrow drew a five-pitch walk. Taylor hit McCullers’ next pitch, a 93 mph fastball, hard, but lined it right to shortstop Carlos Correa, who doubled Forsythe off second to end the threat.

(Morrow, incidentally, tied the A’s Darold Knowles’ 1973 record with seven Series appearances, and the Indians Paul Assenmacher’s 1997 record with 14 appearances in a single postseason.)

After giving up a leadoff single to Seager to start the third, McCullers hit Turner again, this time in the left shoulder. He struck out Bellinger, again down and in with a curve, and that was his night. Brad Peacock, the hero of Game 3 for his 3 ⅔-inning scoreless save, arrived and retired Puig on a long fly ball and Pederson via strikeout. Had the Dodger hitters deviated from their swing-for-the-fences approach, focusing on keeping the line moving, they could have shaved a run here or there off the Astros’ lead with plenty of outs still to go, but they did not.

With Kershaw taking over in the third inning and throwing four scoreless frames, the Dodgers remained within striking distance, but they still couldn’t get the job done. In the fifth, Seager drew a one-out walk and Turner singled through the left side, the first two baserunners Peacock allowed in his two-inning stint. He departed in favor of lefty Francisco Liriano, who induced Bellinger to hit into a forceout at second. RIghty Chris Devenski then retired Puig via a scorching liner to Gurriel.

The Dodgers did finally break through in the sixth against Charlie Morton, albeit for just one run. A Pederson leadoff single, a Forsythe walk, and, one out later, an Andre Ethier pinch-single trimmed the lead to 5-1 and ended the Dodgers’ 10-at-bat string of futility with runners in  scoring position.

Morton, who pitched 6⅓ brilliant innings in Game 4 while allowing just one run, retired the final 11 Dodgers after Ethier, the last of them, Seager, on a grounder to Altuve. His four-inning performance matched McCullers’ four-inning closeout of the Yankees in Game 7 of the ALCS, but where McCullers was credited with a save in that one, with Morton getting the win, this time earned Morton the win at the discretion of the official scorer, since the starter (McCullers) didn’t go at least five innings.

Credit manager A.J. Hinch, who worked around a rickety bullpen whose top two relievers, Devenski and closer Ken Giles, struggled too often for him to give them the ball in the late innings of close games. Instead he deployed starters capable of multiple innings, and didn’t worry about sticking to a formula. It worked well enough for the Astros to overcome the on-paper edge of the Dodgers’ bullpen coming into the series, and was one of the deciding factors.

3. Springer Dingers

Springer’s fifth home run tied the Yankees’ Reggie Jackson (1977) and the Phillies’ Chase Utley (2009) for the World Series record, and set a record for homers out of the leadoff spot in the batting order. His eight extra-base hits broke the record of the Pirates’ Willie Stargell, set in 1979, while his 29 total bases broke the record of 25 shared by Jackson and Stargell. He also set series records with homers in four straight games and extra-base hits in sixth straight games.

Despite beginning the series with an 0-for-4, four-strikeout performance in Game 1, Springer finished the series 11-for 28 with three doubles, five homers, five walks and seven RBI, good for a .379/.471/1.000 line that earn him what’s now called the Willie Mays World Series Most Valuable Player award.

 

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