HOUSTON — Last week, after the highest-scoring team in baseball in the past eight years produced a grand total of five runs in three games at Yankee Stadium, Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch diagnosed the problem thusly: “We’ve lost a little bit of our offensive mojo.”
Let it be said, then, after three games of the 113th World Series, that the Astros’ mojo has returned.
Following up on a Game 2 outburst in which they bashed four home runs in the final three innings of an 11-inning victory at Dodger Stadium, the Astros erupted again, scoring four runs in the second inning of Game 3. They knocked out Los Angeles Dodgers starter Yu Darvish after only 1 2/3 innings — the shortest outing of his five-year major-league career — and rolled to a 5-3 victory and a two-games-to-one lead in the series.
As powerful as the Astros’ bats have been over these past seven months, they are never quite so prolific as when they play at home. In the postseason, in particular, the Astros have gone 7-0 and outscored opponents by a 36-10 margin at Minute Maid Park.
And so, before the first World Series game in Houston since 2005, Hinch sounded an almost anticipatory tone about the capability of the offense to continue what it started when Marwin Gonzalez homered against Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning Wednesday night in Los Angeles.
“I’d love to say it’s going to spill over, and it might,” Hinch said. “We’ve gone on some incredible offensive explosions this season. We have the best offensive team in the league for a reason. I think it can be that way.”
The Astros’ lineup is deep, their offensive approach both relentless and diversified. They can punish pitchers for making mistakes by hitting the ball over the fence just as easily as they can manufacture runs by stringing together hits and running the bases aggressively.
And in a four-run second inning against Darvish, the Astros did a little of everything.
The onslaught began in a familiar fashion for this World Series. Yulieski Gurriel, who has hit right-handed pitching all season, led off the inning by launching a 94-mph fastball into the Crawford Boxes beyond the left-field fence for a 1-0 lead.
Josh Reddick, whose struggles against the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series came to symbolize the Astros’ futility, lined a cutter into left field for a double. Evan Gattis, the bearded slugger, worked a seven-pitch walk. Marwin Gonzalez, a former utility infielder-turned-RBI machine, drove home a run by knocking a single off the wall in left-center field. Veteran Brian McCann punched an RBI single to right field.
Two batters later, young third baseman Alex Bregman hit a low line drive to center field. Gonzalez tagged up and scored from third base to stretch the margin to 4-0. And after AL MVP frontrunner Jose Altuve lined a double, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts made the slow walk to the mound to replace Darvish with Kenta Maeda.
It was a vintage Astros rally. Nine batters came to the plate. Five batters got hits. Six batters reached base. Darvish was made to throw 29 pitches to eight batters before being lifted.
Most importantly, on a night when the Astros didn’t send either of their co-aces, Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander, to the mound, they gave starter Lance McCullers Jr. a hefty cushion. McCullers was mostly solid, allowing three runs on four hits in 5 1/3 innings. But it helped that when he got in trouble, walking the bases loaded in the third inning, he could look up at the scoreboard and see that second-inning four-spot.
That was the formula the Astros used to win 101 games during the regular season and seven more against the Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the playoffs. The Astros scored 896 runs in the regular season, more than any team since the 2009 Yankees. They scored early, often and played from in front, literally spending all but a handful of days in April in first place in the AL Central.
In 2017, that’s the Astros Way. And now, after a three-game hiccup in New York — and even though they 3-for-14 with runners in scoring position and left 12 on base in Game 3 — the best offense in baseball is cranking again, halfway to the first World Series championship in franchise history.