LOS ANGELES — For two rounds of the postseason and one game of their first World Series in 29 years, every scheme Dave Roberts drew up, his Los Angeles Dodgers executed. Until Game 2.
Game by game, each hitter and each pitcher almost monotonously went about their tasks, like bubbles on a flow chart. Every actionable item was crossed off. Every checkpoint was reached, in time and with as little drama as possible.
That all changed on Wednesday. The Dodgers blew a late two-run lead, then overcame a two-run deficit in the 10th, and then nearly did it again in the 11th. But in the end, Los Angeles fell 7-6 in 11 innings in Game 2 to a jubilant Houston Astros club.
“Guys were playing hard on both sides,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “And unfortunately we came up short. We didn’t expect these guys to lay down. It’s a very good ballclub over there.”
Just like that, after 104 regular-season wins and eight victories in nine games to start the postseason, the Dodgers have lost home-field advantage in the World Series. The Dodgers scored six runs in a game started by red-hot Houston ace Justin Verlander — and lost.
The culprit was a bullpen that until the eighth inning on Wednesday had posted 28 straight scoreless innings to establish a new postseason record. And the guy on the hill for the end of that streak, and the eventual blown save, was perhaps the most unlikely of any Dodger to let a little air out of their championship balloon: Closer Kenley Jansen.
“He’s human,” said Corey Seager, who seemingly put the Dodgers in position for the win with a two-run homer off Verlander in the sixth. “But he’s our guy. That’s the guy you want on the mound. Tomorrow, he’s going right back out there.
“You don’t expect [the blown save] the way he’s been so dominant, but he’s our guy. I’m going to back him.”
The scoreless streak ended when Jansen came on for Brandon Morrow in the eighth in pursuit of a six-out save.
After Alex Bregman‘s double, Jansen retired Jose Altuve. Then Carlos Correa lined a single to score Morrow’s inherited runner, Bregman, to snap the streak. Still, Jansen got out of the inning with the save situation intact.
Jansen had converted the first 12 save opportunities at the start of his postseason career, an MLB record. That all changed in the ninth with one flattened cutter to Marwin Gonzalez, one of the game’s best fastball hitters. You can’t get him with velocity, so the problem had to be location. It was.
“I wanted it to be up and in, and it just flattened out down the middle,” Jansen said. “He got it up and hit a line drive. The ball had been carrying out all night. You can’t do anything about that. I missed a pitch, he got me.”
Gonzalez’s slicing blow just cleared the fence in left-center, a ball that carried well on another hot night at Dodger Stadium, where balls aren’t supposed to carry at night. But they were carrying like crazy in Game 2, resulting in a World Series-record eight homers.
Jansen managed to keep the game tied, giving his team a chance to win in the bottom of the ninth, but the Dodgers couldn’t get anything going, so extra innings it was.
The problem was that because of Jansen’s blown save, the Dodgers were mostly left with the front end of their bullpen to navigate the deciding frames. In the bullpen universe, the front-end guys are the low-leverage guys.
“It just went flat, man,” Jansen said. “I’m human. I’m not going to beat myself up about it. I just have to get rest tonight and look forward to tomorrow. Their two best pitchers aren’t pitching in the next two, so we’ve got to go out there and take advantage of that.”
Roberts had mapped out the game to get the ball to Jansen in quick and efficient fashion. That part of the plan worked well enough. Rich Hill allowed just one run and struck out seven over four innings. Kenta Maeda got four outs. Tony Watson got two outs on one pitch.
But the map started fluttering sometime between Watson and Jansen. Ross Stripling walked the one batter he faced. Maybe that’s all he was lined up for but, then again, if he had gotten one or two outs, Roberts could have held off a bit on using Morrow.
Morrow got three outs but was the victim of the crucial Bregman double that led to Roberts immediately signaling for Jansen. Or maybe he was signaling the sound guy to play “California Love,” but effect was the same. The impenetrable Jansen was trotting into the game and all was blue in Dodger Stadium, where blue is the color of bliss.
So when Jansen failed to convert and the game got into the 10th, Roberts was pinched. Righty Josh Fields came on and gave up back-to-back homers to Altuve and Correa. Tony Cingrani — one of the back-end guys, or at least middle-end — cleaned up that inning.
Roberts was asked if Hill might have been asked to go longer, which might have given him more late-game options.
“I just felt that right there at the top of their order coming up, and with the way our bullpen has been throwing, you look back behind that, we had three scoreless innings after that,” Roberts said. “So just trust the guys behind him, and the bottom line is I’ll take Kenley any day of the week with a one-run lead going into the ninth inning.”
Even after Jansen’s blown save and Houston’s two 10th-inning runs, the Dodgers were unfazed, battling back with two runs of their own in the bottom of the 10th. Yasiel Puig went deep. Enrique Hernandez rolled a game-tying RBI single to score Logan Forsythe and hustled to second base on the throw home. But Chris Taylor flied out to end the threat.
“Honestly it was an exciting baseball game,” Roberts said. “It’s two teams that competed for 27 outs. It was an emotional roller coaster. There were some big plays defensively. Some big pitches made. Obviously some big hits and big homers. And the focus was there. Guys were playing hard on both sides. And unfortunately we came up short.”
With the game suddenly looking like it might go long, Roberts turned to veteran Brandon McCarthy, a surprise addition to the World Series roster. McCarthy, normally a starter, hadn’t pitched in a real game since Oct. 1 and just five games overall since the All-Star break.
It was a tough situation for McCarthy, who allowed the game-deciding two-run homer to George Springer. The Dodgers battled to the last out, getting a solo homer from Charlie Culberson in the bottom of the 11th, but that turned out to be L.A.’s final charge of the evening.
“There’s a lot of ways we can take this,” said Joc Pederson, who homered in the fifth for L.A. first hit. “Sometimes you’ve just got to tip your cap and give the other team some credit. They’ve got a really good ballclub and a really good lineup.”
The bullpen, which entered the game having allowed three runs the entire postseason, gave up six in Game 2.
What could Roberts have done differently? It’s hard to say, but whatever it might have been, it would have had to have happened earlier in the game. By the time McCarthy took the hill, Roberts was out of relievers.
Perhaps Hill could have been asked to throw more than 60 pitches. Perhaps Maeda, who was throwing well, could have been allowed to face a lefty and go two to three innings. Maybe the hook could have been slower with Stripling or Morrow.
Or maybe the plan was sound, but the results were bad because, well, it’s baseball and the Astros are the American League champions who 101 games with the best offense in the game.
“We’ve played a lot of tough games,” Jansen said. “Give credit to Houston. Today was their day.”
The Dodgers had a two-run lead with the game’s best closer on the mound. What more can you ask for? Before Wednesday, the Dodgers were 98-0 when leading after eight innings this season. So now it’s 98-1.
“After everything we’ve done this year, it becomes a best of five,” Pederson said. “We fought to the end. Nobody was expecting us to come from behind after we fell behind by two runs, and we tied the game. That’s what this team is all about.”
Now, for the first time, the Dodgers are facing a bit of pressure. As mentioned, the home-field advantage is poof, but they can snatch it right back with one win in Houston. The Astros are throwing Lance McCullers Jr. and Charlie Morton, respectively, the next two games.
“I’m not going to beat myself up about it,” Jansen said. “I just have to get rest tonight and look forward to tomorrow. Their two best pitchers aren’t pitching in the next two, so we’ve got to go out there and take advantage of that.”
Maybe McCullers and Morton aren’t Houston’s top two, but they’re good pitchers. They are also the kind of hurlers the Dodgers can wait out in order to get into a Houston bullpen that still is searching for its old reliability. But if you don’t get those two games, or at least one, then you’re looking at another bout of Dallas Keuchel and Verlander.
As for Roberts, he was as unconcerned, as you’d expect him to be.
“If you look at the season, we sort of gave ourselves some breathing room out of the gate, and throughout the postseason won games early,” Roberts said. “But I still think that the preparation, the focus on each day to win each day, I think that will be there. Whether we’re up 2-0 or tied 1-1 going into Houston, I don’t think that’s going to change our mindset.”