In a World Series of big moments, it was the little things that got us to Game 7
The Astros and Dodgers played an eventful Game 6 that was different than the others
LOS ANGELES -- The second-highest-scoring World Series game ever. The most home runs in a World Series, ever. In a Fall Classic that's given is so many huge, screaming highlights, the game that pushed us to a Game 7 had something else: a passel of tiny, little moments that reminded us of all the different ways that baseball can be great.
The first such moment didn't, though. With two outs in the top of the third, George Springer strode to the plate. The Astros center fielder was a complete non-factor in the ALCS, batting .115 with no extra-base hits. He'd turned back into a star in the World Series, though, batting .333/.440/.857 in the first five games, with three home runs.
His fourth homer of the World Series was a thing of beauty, and a nod to some impressively honed instincts. Hill started the at-bat by missing up and in on a fastball. The lefty's fastball location needs to be precise for it to succeed, since he hovers around 90-91. Under normal circumstances, Hill's second pitch would've met that criterion. It was another heater down and away, exactly what every pitching coach would suggest when teach the art of pitch sequencing. Somehow, Springer was looking for it. After getting brushed back to start the at-bat, he anticipated low and away, got what he wanted, and launched the pitch 389 feet over the wall in right. 1-0 Astros, and another huge moment for Houston's do-it-all leadoff hitter. Whatever happens next, Springer has already done something that only Lou Gehrig had previously accomplished: smashed a game-tying or go-ahead home run in three straight World Series games.
Justin Verlander looked poised to take it from there, and bring the Astros their first World Series in franchise history. Heading into Game 6, Houston had gone 10-0 in games pitched by Verlander, making the case for their deal with the Tigers becoming known as the best August 31 trade in baseball history. If Verlander could close out the World Series Tuesday night, the Dodgers just missing in their own dogged effort to acquire the big ace would go down as one of the biggest trade whiffs in baseball history.
We could pick so many Verlander high points in this game; his two strikeouts to end the fourth jumped out. First came his tormenting of Justin Turner. Showing no signs of fatigue as the calendar stood hours away from flipping to November, Verlander fired multiple high-90s fastballs in this game, topping 97 in his showdown with Turner. The first four pitches he fired against Turner, in fact, were all fastballs. Verlander changed course on 2-2, this time hurling a vicious cutter/slider hybrid at 91 that Turner laid off to run the count full. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Verlander came back with another cutter/slider, even further off the plate. Turner, thinking like Springer earlier in the game that his opponent might try to mix things up, had no chance.
Verlander's approach against the next batter Cody Bellinger, on the other hand, was totally different. His first offering was a 96-mph fastball, up and just a couple inches too far insider. Verlander then changed Bellinger's eye level, tossing another fastball closer to the knees and on the outside third of the plate for strike one. With Bellinger thoroughly confused, Verlander's 1-1 middle-middle fastball caused no harm, as Bellinger merely managed to foul it off for strike two. Now absolutely befuddled, Bellinger watched Verlander's 97 mph bearing down on him at the exact same spot as the at-bat's first pitch...and swung through it helplessly.
That was the second of four Bellinger strikeouts on the night, upping his total to 14 for the series -- a new World Series record. As for Verlander, he spent those first five innings combining mid-season velocity and command with an advanced game plan that kept nearly every Dodger off balance. He was winning the battle of the little things, and doing so in decisive fashion.
Problem was, the Astros couldn't take advantage of their own opportunities. Their struggles started with Jose Altuve. The American League's likely MVP this season and the author of many thrilling moments for Houston this season, Altuve never hit the ball out of the infield in Game 6. Credit a perfectly executed game plan, with stellar Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt's fingerprints all over it. Seeing Altuve's recent success against straight pitches, the Dodgers bamboozled him with every manner of pitch that moved, slid, and cut. The final pitch of Altuve's four at-bats went like this.
Dare we say it? After so many big moments in this postseason, Altuve came up small.
He wasn't alone. Two of the slowest baserunners in the game both toil for the Astros, and that lack of speed proved costly.
Brian McCann ranked as the second-slowest baserunner in the majors this year, trailing only the rapidly deteriorating Albert Pujols. When McCann led off the fifth with a shot to deep right, you might have expected the result to be a double. But with 12 pianos on his back, McCann had to settle for a single. Mashin' Marwin Gonzalez, whose number-eight perch in the lineup at Minute Maid Park and number-seven position at Dodger Stadium will be studied by perplexed baseball archeologists a thousand years from now, quickly followed with a double. But McCann had added another dozen pianos to his burden, and was forced to stop at third. That would prove to an enormously frustrating wasted opportunity, as a Josh Reddick strikeout, a Justin Verlander strikeout, and an Alex Bregman groundout
You might ask why Josh Reddick was ever batting in that spot in the first place. Great question! For his career, Reddick's an awful .226 hitter against left-handed pitchers, his .365 slugging average highlighting his scant power against them. He'd fared better against southpaws this season in limited playing time against them, to be fair. But he'd also hit worse than a one-legged Rich Garces since the start of the ALCS, batting .211/.250/.263 in the first five games of the World Series, following a .040(!)/.077(!!)/.040(!!!) effort in the ALCS. Cameron Maybin is apparently on the roster as nothing more than the second-best pinch-runner on the roster, because A.J. Hinch shows no signs of playing anyone other than Reddick in any situation. His reward for that in Game 6? A sickly 0-for-3, with a walk that didn't end up mattering.
The Dodgers defense authored two more little moments that went their way. With two on and two outs in the top of the sixth, Gonzalez slapped a line drive that looked like it was ticketed for center field, which would have put Houston up 2-0. The Dodgers giant analytics machine kiboshed those plans. Rather than playing Gonzalez in his regular spot, second baseman Chase Utley shaded way over toward the middle. When the line drive spun off Gonzalez's bat, Utley had to offer no more than a 38-year-old's vertical leap to make the inning-ending catch.
That set the stage for the Dodgers' key rally in the bottom of the sixth. After an Austin Barnes leadoff single, Verlander made his one little mistake of the game, one that would have big consequences. With Utley set up 1-2, Verlander tried to get him to chase a hard slider down and in. Unfortunately he yanked the pitch, bonking Utley in the foot.
It also set up one final defensive coup. Up 2-1 but staring at a first-and-third, two-out pickle in the seventh, the Dodgers looked like they might relinquish their just-earned lead. Altuve bounced a hard grounder to third, forcing Turner to back up and make a long, difficult throw across the diamond. World Series strikeout record or not, Bellinger made a potentially Series-saving play, stretching and breaking out an enormous scoop when the Dodgers needed it most.
If you were betting on how the Dodgers might add an insurance run, Joc Pederson going oppo would rank far down on your list of likely candidates. Pederson wields plenty of power, having blasted two homers in the first five games of the World Series alone. But he's one of the least likely hitters in baseball to hit a ball out the other way. Of his 65 career home runs (including playoffs) heading into Game 6, only three had gone to the opposite field.
Except we are officially in #Joctober. Make it four for 66.
All of that led to the biggest little thing of the game, and perhaps of this series: bullpen rest. By now we have a clear read on the two teams' pens. In simple terms, the Astros have been bad, while the Dodgers have been bad too...but only when they're gassed. The same bullpen that fired 28 straight scoreless innings earlier in the playoffs broke down in Game 5. We saw it when Brandon Morrow went from stingy relief hero to giving up four straight hits, and we saw it when normally unhittable closer Kenley Jansen failed for the second time this postseason in his attempt to record six straight outs.
We saw none of that in Game 6. With Rich Hill's two-times-through-the-order quota exhausted after just 58 pitches, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts turned to Morrow in a bases loaded, two-out jam in the fifth. Morrow had pitched in five straight World Series games, and 12 of the Dodgers' 13 contests during these playoffs. But Roberts figured that Morrow would revert to his excellent self after a day of rest. He was so right. Morrow induced a gargantuan inning-ending groundout by Alex Bregman, then got two more big outs to start the sixth. Tony Watson and Kenta Maeda teamed up to record four more valuable outs in relief.
All that remained was Jansen's shot at redemption. The big closer responded with the most dominant outing of his phenomenal career. First, he absolutely filleted the middle of the Astros order, overpowering Carlos Correa, Gurriel, and McCann on seven pitches. Houston never even got a ball out of the infield in the ninth; Gonzalez popped out to Bellinger, then Jansen blew up Reddick and pinch-hitter Carlos Beltran on swinging strikeouts to end the game with an exclamation point. All told, Jansen delivered 19 helpings of California Love in his two innings of work, with 18 of those going for strikes.
So here we go, Game 7. We've seen absolutely everything in this series, from epic slugfests to contests like Game 6 that showed how much fun even the subtlest baseball plays can be. Given all the twists, turns, and joy this World Series has brought us, and the unlimited potential that Game 7 offers, how many of the 50 players who suit up tomorrow will actually get any sleep tonight?
Thanks to CBS Sports Director of Research John Fisher and ace pitcher correspondent Nick Pollack of PitcherList.com for their huge contributions to this article.
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