HOUSTON-- We want to believe. We watch the ace pitcher mow down everyone in sight, and we believe he's got the hot hand, and that he'll go right on dominating. We see the star slugger go into a deep funk, and we yell at the manager to bench his sorry ass.
Streaks. Patterns. Tendencies. We are all prognosticators at heart, looking for anything that might resemble a trend, and making sweeping judgments based on what we see. Even when we only have a few games worth of results to inform our opinions.
Game 4 of the World Series kicked all of those narratives in the teeth. The Dodgers rallied late to beat the Astros 6-2, tying the series at 2-2. And just as Houston got huge turnarounds from previously ice-cold players to win Games 2 and 3, two badly slumping Dodgers led the way in Game 4.
It was tough to be optimistic about Alex Wood heading into Saturday night's contest. Wood's overall numbers this season point to a pitcher who steamrolled everyone in sight all season long: His 2.72 ranked fourth in the National League among pitchers with as many innings pitched, and his 16-3 record topped all NL starters in winning percentage. But a closer look at Wood's season -- as well as his postseason -- suggested potential calamity ahead.
Wood's velocity was the biggest red flag. The 26-year-old lefty stormed out of the gate to start this season, averaging better than 93 mph on his go-to sinker, a career high. He then maintained that level for two months, before the downtrend begun. By June, he was throwing 92; by August, 91; and by season's end, his sinker barely topped 90, completing his shockingly fast in-season decline.
Wood's performance dovetailed with those velocity trends. On July 15, he looked like a Cy Young candidate, racking up 101 strikeouts in 86 ⅔ innings, with a microscopic 1.56 ERA, a tiny opponents' batting line of .173/.240/.228, and somehow, just two(!!!) home runs allowed all season. His final 11 starts of the season looking nothing like that: 65 ⅔ innings, 50 strikeouts, a 4.25 ERA, an opponents' ledger of .270/.315/.486, and 13(!!!) home runs allowed. When Wood served up three more long balls in 4 ⅔ innings in his Game 4 loss against the Cubs in the NLCS, you had to wonder if he'd have anything left in the tank for the World Series.
Turns out he did. Forget all the Dodgers pitching greats who took the mound for postseason games past -- Koufax, Drysdale, Hershiser, Kershaw. Wood did something none of those luminaries, or any other Dodgers pitcher, had ever done in the playoffs: He fired 5 ⅔ no-hit innings, and did so against this season's most potent offense to boot.
Wood's other bugaboo during the past three months -- aside from his nose-diving velocity -- has been his inability to keep the ball down. Fire 93-mph sinkers knee-high and on the corners, and you're going to break a lot of hitters' hearts. Float 'em in at 89-90, and leave them spinning belt-high over the middle of the plate, and you're going to get whiplash watching so many rockets leave the yard.
Not so on this night. Wood's sinker averaged a mere 90.4 mph, and his ability to regain his former heat will be a major question mark heading into next spring. But by absolutely owning the bottom of the strike zone, Wood made his softer stuff work, as this pitch chart shows.
Unfortunately for Wood, his teammates couldn't do anything against his mound counterpart Charlie Morton either. If Wood favored the bottom of the zone, Morton absolutely pounded it. Of the 76 pitches the Astros right-hander hurled on the night, just seven of them landed in the upper third of the zone, and just 20 in the upper half. The result was six innings of two-hit, shutout ball on the other side.
In Game 2 of the World Series, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts pulled starter Rich Hill after the lefty allowed just one run against the first 17 batters he faced. Los Angeles went on to lose that game in extra innings, after usually unhittable closer Kenley Jansen couldn't get through six outs without serving up a game-tying homer in the ninth. Blame it on that desire to steal a few more outs from his starter, on Wood looking unhittable through those 5 ⅔ no-hit innings, or both. Whatever the case, starting a third time through the order by facing dangerous right-handed masher George Springer looked like an iffy strategy...and it backfired when Springer smashed a two-out homer to give the Astros a 1-0 lead.
That's when another Dodgers star stepped to the narrative-smashing podium. Cody Bellinger had gone 0 for 13 heading into his matchup with Morton with one out in the seventh inning. It was as ugly an 0 for 13 as you'll ever see too. Bellinger struck out four times in four at-bats in Game 3, seeing curveballs on nine of the first 10 pitches against him by Lance McCullers; McCullers' three punchouts of Bellinger were the only three the Astros starter registered all game. Bellinger followed that golden sombrero by going 0 for 2 to start Game 4 too, with Morton tying him in knots with his own curveball en route to yet another strikeout in the fifth. All told, Morton chucked six curveballs (out of eight pitches) against Bellinger in their first two matchups of the game.
Then in the seventh, Morton doubled down on his bender-heavy approach, throwing three of them to Bellinger as the soon-to-be 2017 Rookie of the Year worked the count to 3-2. The sequence went like this:
· Fastball for a ball
· Curveball for a called strike
· Curveball fouled off
· Fastball for a ball
· Curveball for a ball
Bellinger's ability to lay off that last curveball set the stage for the big moment to come. On the payoff pitch, Morton tried another curve... and Bellinger roped it into left-center, pocketing a double. When Logan Forsythe followed two batters later with a solid single to right, the Dodgers had tied the game, thanks largely to a hitter who'd looked completely lost, right until the moment when he wasn't.
Bellinger wasn't done either. After Corey Seager and Justin Turner reached base to start the ninth, Bellinger had his chance to strike the decisive blow for the Dodgers against teetering Astros closer Ken Giles. After laying off a slider in the dirt, he got a 96-mph fastball he could handle, and ripped it to center for a run-scoring double. 2-1 Dodgers, another narrative busted. In the process, the suddenly terrifyingly unreliable Giles allowed three baserunners in one outing for the third time this postseason, after doing so just 10 times during the entire regular season.
Still too close for comfort, maybe, against the potent Astros offense. So after Austin Barnes made the score 3-1 with a sacrifice fly, the Dodgers got one more rags-to-riches moment, this time from Joc Pederson. The incredibly erratic Dodgers outfielder has always been highly vulnerable against high fastballs. Again, not this time. On an 0-1 pitch, Astros righty Joe Musgrove tried to go upstairs with heat. Pederson hammered it, high and deep over the wall in right-center. If Bellinger's 0 for 13 looked bad, consider how far Pederson has come with his two World Series home runs, and broader out-of-nowhere October performance.
From July 29 to September 30, Joc Pederson had 4 hits for a .322 OPS. In the NLCS and World Series, he has 4 hits for a 1.190 OPS.— Chad Moriyama (@ChadMoriyama) October 29, 2017
We've seen this play before. Nine innings into Game 2, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa couldn't buy a hit. Then they became the first players ever to launch back-to-back homers in extra innings of a World Series game. Heading into the sixth inning of Game 3, Brad Peacock looked like just another sorry member of a beleaguered Astros bullpen, and seemed like an iffy choice to hold Houston's lead. Then Peacock responded with 3 ⅔ hitless innings, giving the rest of the pen off and securing a 5-3 Astros win.
That's what happens in the playoffs. As soon as you think you've got everything figured out, a previously slumping player hits a 450-foot home run, or breaks out his no-hit stuff.
Granted, we probably wouldn't bet on, say, Giles to pitch the ninth inning of Game 5 and save the day. But the beauty of baseball, now as ever, lies in its unpredictability. Whichever player comes out of nowhere the next game, we'll be almost as fired up as this guy to see it.