After the game had been over for roughly 45 minutes, Alex Bregman passed the time in the wee hours of Monday morning by doing waves of interviews. He relived the biggest hit of his career and ruminated on the 10 most thrilling innings of his life.
Yet the young third baseman didn’t grasp the full magnitude of what the Houston Astros had done — not until he spoke 10 simple words.
“We’ve got Justin Verlander going for us in two days.”
Bregman paused, with a smile creeping across his face. Sure, the Astros overcame 4-0, 7-4 and 8-7 deficits in an unforgettable 13-12 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 5 of the World Series. Yes, they are one win away from clinching the first world championship in the history of a franchise that was born in 1962 as the Houston Colt .45s.
But the reality that they will give the ball to Verlander, of all pitchers, in Game 6 Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium made Bregman realize how close the Astros are. It’s within their grasp now, so long as Verlander can deliver on what the Astros brought him here to do.
“It’s an unbelievable moment,” Bregman said. “You dream about it as a little kid. To be living a dream, one win away from [winning] the World Series, it’s really special.”
The most important thing of the day: For the Dodgers, it’s all about survival. That means figuring out how to get Verlander out of the game and going to work against the Astros’ tottering bullpen.
Given the lack of trustworthy late-inning options, including benched closer Ken Giles, and the fact that starter-turned-reliever Brad Peacock threw a combined total of 92 pitches in a three-day span between Games 3 and 5, Astros manager A.J. Hinch would prefer to let Verlander finish what he starts, even if it means him throwing 130 pitches. But in a National League-style game, that’s unlikely to happen, especially if the Dodgers can get a lead.
In Game 2, the Dodgers actually had a fairly solid approach. Although they got only two hits off Verlander, they made them count, with Joc Pederson and Corey Seager taking him deep. By grabbing a 3-1 lead in the sixth inning, they forced Hinch to hit for Verlander in the top of the seventh.
It didn’t work out, as the Astros came back against the Dodgers’ bullpen for an epic, 10-inning victory. But give him a two-run lead through six innings against Verlander again, and Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts will take his chances.
World Series Game 6: Astros at Dodgers (Astros lead 3-2)
The stakes: It’s more than a World Series crown that will be on the line in Los Angeles. Legacies are shaped in these moments, too. Through five appearances (four starts) in this postseason, Verlander is 4-0 with a 2.05 ERA. He has struck out 29 batters and walked only eight in 30 2/3 innings, and opponents are hitting .183 against him. But the Astros ace needs one more vintage performance to stamp this the “October of Verlander.”
If the Astros win: Get the party started in H-Town! Over the past 55 years, Houston’s baseball experience has included the opening of the wondrous Astrodome in 1965, 12 postseason appearances, a pennant in both the National and American leagues and a list of stars that includes Nolan Ryan, Jose Cruz, Cesar Cedeno, J.R. Richard, Mike Scott, Roy Oswalt and the Killer B’s: Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman. One thing Houstonians have never seen: a World Series championship. And there wouldn’t be a more appropriate time for it than in the aftermath of the devastation from Hurricane Harvey.
If the Dodgers win: Yasiel Puig will become a prophet. After the crushing loss in Game 5, the flashy right fielder guaranteed that the Dodgers will push an already epic World Series to a winner-take-all Game 7 on Wednesday night. If that happens, well, all bets are off. Yu Darvish would be lined up to start for the Dodgers, but after he got only five outs in Game 3 in Houston, he won’t get much rope from Roberts. And there’s always the possibility of a relief appearance on short rest by Clayton Kershaw, who threw 94 pitches in his Game 5 flop Sunday night.
One key stat to know: 10-0. That’s the Astros’ record in games where Verlander appeared since they acquired him in a last-second trade with the Detroit Tigers on Aug. 31. Between his five regular-season starts and five postseason appearances, his ERA for Houston is 1.53.
Postseason success is nothing new for Verlander. Dating to 2012, he’s 8-2 with a 1.82 ERA in his past 13 playoff games. There’s ample proof that he ratchets things up to a different level in October. In Game 2, he struck out Seager on a 98 mph heater, the fastest pitch he had thrown in a first inning since July.
“The level of focus and intensity does go up in the playoffs,” Verlander said. “I think that that’s something that you just can’t sustain that over a full season. You’d be burnt out. You can’t focus that much mental energy and physical drain on hanging on every single pitch that way and the crowd and the intensity that it all encompasses. You just can’t do that every single day out for 34, 35 starts. But as soon as the postseason starts, you’re living or dying on every single pitch, and your whole team is living or dying on every single pitch. It changes everything.”
The matchup that matters most: If the Dodgers had won Game 5, we would likely be talking about Cody Bellinger as the leading candidate for World Series MVP, a stunning development considering that he was hitless in 13 at-bats to begin the series. Since then, though, the rookie first baseman has been the Dodgers’ best hitter. In his past seven at-bats, he has four hits, all for extra bases (two doubles, one triple, one homer), and five RBIs. But Bellinger was 0-for-2 with two strikeouts in Game 2 against Verlander. As a left-handed bat in the middle of the order, the Dodgers will need him to deliver if they are to have much chance of knocking Verlander out relatively early.
The prediction: A series this good deserves a Game 7. It’s difficult to see it happening, though, especially given the magnitude of the gut punch the Dodgers took in Game 5 and the way Verlander has rolled through the postseason. The Astros wrap this thing up with a taut 3-1 victory and head home for a Texas-sized celebration.