HOUSTON — If you think it was fun watching the Houston Astros beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 13-12 in a five-hour, 17-minute October spectacle Sunday night, try to imagine the thrill of being the rookie reserve outfielder who crossed home plate with the winning run on Alex Bregman‘s 10th-inning single off Kenley Jansen.
Derek Fisher, a 24-year-old University of Virginia product, entered Game 5 of the World Series as a pinch runner with one postseason plate appearance on his résumé. Now he’s going to be immortalized every time a highlight show or historical retrospective shows his graceful slide to end one of the greatest World Series games ever played.
Fisher was duly warned. Shortly after his arrival at Minute Maid Park, teammate Cameron Maybin shared his vision for precisely how the game was going to end.
“Maybin told me, ‘I feel like one of us is going to score the winning run today,'” Fisher said. “It was basically just, ‘Run as fast as you can, and hopefully you beat the ball.'”
And at the end of the journey came the most gratifying part, when Fisher jumped into the arms of a stocky, bearded man who was awaiting his arrival like an oasis in the desert.
“The coolest part was Brian McCann waiting on the other side of home plate,” Fisher said. “That was awesome. That meant everything.”
Just when it appeared the 2017 World Series couldn’t get more entertaining or unpredictable, it cranked the volume up to 11 with new and extreme storylines. The Astros and Dodgers have one game minimum and two games maximum to put a cap on the 2017 season. That’s probably a good thing, because the pitching arms are close to shot, the pulses are racing at hyperspeed and the nerve endings are day-to-day.
“I think fans need a day off, we need a day off and the media needs a day off,” Astros pitcher Collin McHugh said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun in L.A.”
It’s instructive to exhale for a moment and reflect on what has transpired since the series shifted from Los Angeles to Houston late last week. After Clayton Kershaw conducted a pitching clinic in the opener and the Astros went homer-happy in extra innings to steal Game 2 in L.A., the Astros returned home and took two of three while dealing with their fair share of weirdness.
Manager A.J. Hinch, a congenial and even-tempered Stanford graduate, opened a news conference at Minute Maid by shooting down a report that he had been involved in a bar altercation with some rowdy Dodgers fans in Pasadena, California. Then commissioner Rob Manfred had to dispense some justice when TV cameras captured Houston first baseman Yuli Gurriel making racially insensitive gestures in the direction of Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish from the dugout.
On the field, Houston closer Ken Giles continued to lose his confidence and, ultimately, his job. Given Giles’ ongoing struggles in the postseason, it’s hard to imagine Hinch using him in anything close to a high-leverage situation once the series shifts to Los Angeles.
Through it all, the Astros keep plugging away with the belief that the next offensive outburst is just another game, inning or at-bat away. They haven’t always made it easy on themselves, but they seem to find a way.
A day after being no-hit by Dodgers left-hander Alex Wood for 5⅔ innings, the Astros scored 13 runs on 14 hits against Kershaw and a parade of relievers. Since the start of the 2012 season — including the playoffs — the Dodgers were 49-1 when Kershaw pitched with at least a four-run lead. Now they’re 49-2.
The Astros already have 13 home runs in this World Series. That’s more homers than were hit by both teams combined in 15 of 23 World Series since the start of the wild-card era.
Want more? From 1974 through 2016, only four players hit game-tying three-run homers in the World Series. That elite group consisted of Bernie Carbo (1975 Red Sox), Dusty Baker (1977 Dodgers), Jim Leyritz (1996 Yankees) and Chuck Knoblauch (1998 Yankees). In Game 5 on Sunday, Gurriel and Jose Altuve hit three-run, game-tying homers in consecutive innings.
“He’s the best player alive right now,” Astros shortstop Carlos Correa said of Altuve, his double-play partner. “And when he steps in the batter’s box, great things are going to happen.”
The Astros wanted desperately to wrap up their first title in franchise history amid a sea of orange here in Houston. Saturday’s 6-2 loss eliminated that possibility. But they return to Los Angeles needing only one victory with a fresh Justin Verlander on tap Tuesday night. Verlander threw only 79 pitches at Chavez Ravine last week, and Hinch resisted the temptation to use him for an inning or two of relief between starts over the weekend.
The question is, who will Hinch go to in the late innings if Verlander is unable to crank it up and go the distance? Hinch went to Chris Devenski for the save Sunday night, and that didn’t work out so well when a Yasiel Puig homer and a Chris Taylor RBI single turned a 12-9 Houston lead into a 12-12 tie in the ninth.
The Los Angeles bullpen, so formidable earlier in the playoffs, is showing some fatigue-related cracks of its own. Brandon Morrow is on fumes after appearing in five straight games, and Jansen, the Dodgers’ closer, threw 33 pitches Sunday in his 76th appearance of the season.
“I think everyone is taxed right now,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “That’s the case when you’re at this point in October. I think the Astros can say the same thing.”
Relievers on both teams continue to suck it up and pitch when called upon because the stakes are so high and the days are short. That’s only natural in the World Series. But in both clubhouses, players are starting to appreciate that they’re in the midst of something special. It was evident in a parade of testimonials from Houston’s winning clubhouse after Bregman’s climactic hit.
From McHugh: “After what we saw in the Boston and New York series, it feels like it just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger. I don’t even know what to expect anymore. You think you’ve seen everything in baseball, until you haven’t.”
From Correa: “These games are hard on me. I feel like I’m going to have a heart attack out there every single time.”
And this from Houston reliever Joe Musgrove: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, ‘This is the craziest game of my life.’ Well, tonight was the craziest game of my life.”
The craziness will end if Verlander can vanquish the Dodgers in Game 6, or things will reach a boiling point if Los Angeles wins to set up a Yu Darvish-Lance McCullers Jr. matchup in Game 7 on Wednesday.
Players on both sides can feel free to collapse once it’s over. Fans who’ve had the privilege of watching this classic World Series on TV or in person probably wish it could go on forever.