Game Two: The nuts hunt the squirrels

Gonzalez runs out the bomb into which he turned Jansen's mistake. Game Two's insanity wasn't even close to finished, though . . .

Gonzalez runs out the bomb into which he turned Jansen’s mistake. Game Two’s insanity wasn’t even close to finished, though . . .

Was the second game of this World Series played in Dodger Stadium—or Bellevue? Were those baseball players we watched—or the inmates becoming the asylum?

World Series heroes past had nothing on Wednesday night’s, and no past Series goat ever got as much time to redeem himself as Wednesday’s, or proclaimed it with such becalmed near-defiance.

Bill Mazeroski, Carlton Fisk, Dave Henderson, Mookie Wilson, Tino Martinez and Derek Jeter, Scott Spiezio and Darin Erstad, Miguel Cabrera, Dave Roberts and David Ortiz, Lance Berkman and David Freese, David Ross and Rajai Davis? Who they?

Taken strictly alphabetically, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Charlie Culberson, Marwin Gonzalez, Enrique Hernandez, Joc Pederson, Yasiel Puig, and George Springer did their level best to turn those past movers and shakers into pretenders for insanity Wednesday night. The 7-6 final score was almost incidental.

For eight innings it was Dodger Stadium. Even when Alex Bregman lined one to the gap in left center in the third to score Josh Reddick and the ball caromed off the cap of Dodger center fielder Chris Taylor, toward left fielder Pederson, which probably kept the ball from turning into a triple. At minimum.

After Gonzalez belted a very unlikely home run off Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen to tie the game at three leading off the top of the ninth, the morphing into Bellevue looked almost complete. Between them, the Astros and the Dodgers went from that to back and forth helpings of you-ain’t-seen-nothing-yet. And the Astros picked one hell of a way to get their first-ever win in a World Series game.

With the Dodgers forced to use their low-leverage bullpen arms after expending the higher arms before and including the shock of Gonzalez’s bomb, Altuve and Correa greeted home run-prone former Astro Josh Field with back-to-back bombs to the same region beyond the center field fence in the top of the tenth.

Puig returned the favour in the bottom off Astros closer Ken Giles, working a second inning after keeping things tied in the bottom of the ninth, by driving a 2-1 meatball into the left field bleachers, before Hernandez drove Logan Forsythe (two-out walk) home with a single.

Correa channeled his inner Jose Bautista when he flipped his bat. Puig, ever the puckish one, simply laid his bat near the plate. Both almost figured. Normalcy left the building long before the Astros, the Dodgers, and the audience in the joint did.

About the only thing missing from Game Two’s mayhem was the ancient Dodgers Sym-Phony Band, who once regaled Ebbets Field with some of the most cheerfully off-key, off-beat, off-the-wall musical punctuations ever heard in a ballpark. They’d have been right at home in the madhouse Wednesday night.

All Brandon McCarthy had to do for the Dodgers in the top of the eleventh was keep things tied at five. All late-game Astros insertion Cameron Maybin did was lead off with a liner that floated over the outstretched glove of shortstop Corey Seager for a single. And all Springer did after that was drop one over the right field fence.

With two out in the bottom and Chris Devenski the last man standing for the Astros on the mound, Culberson hit one into the left field bleachers and up came Puig. Puig fought an epic back from 0-2. He fouled one off, then waited out three straight balls, and fouled off another pair. Then he swung mightily on a Devenski changeup and missed by a hair enough to end the insanity at long enough last.

You could hear the dearly departed, original Sym-Phony Band lineup blowing a chorus (if that’s the proper word for it) of the theme from Dragnet. Or maybe St. Elsewhere.

It’s not that anything really went according to plan. The Astros no further expected Justin Verlander to prove only human, after all, than the Dodgers expected their heretofore shutdown bullpen to fall under the thunder of three of the Astros’ most visibly struggling hitters. And Dodger manager Dave Roberts plotted and executed the way he should have done.

Verlander looked like he’d be the story yet again at first. He even took a no-hitter into the fifth inning and had two out when Pederson—who’d had a down regular season and wasn’t exactly striking fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers in the postseason until now—tore a hanging 2-1 slider over the right field fence to tie things at one.

Altuve (center) and Springer (right), with Maybin behind them, broke out of their slumps and then some Wednesday night . . .

Altuve (center) and Springer (right), with Maybin behind them, broke out of their slumps and then some Wednesday night . . .

So the venerable righthander settled for the next best thing. As the game went to its eleventh inning, Verlander could be seen in the Astros dugout, looking to the naked eye as though bawling his teammates out. He was doing anything but. As had Jason Heyward to his Cubs mates during last year’s Game Seven rain delay, Verlander wanted to brace them up.

“I just wanted to really remind these guys how great they are,” Verlander said after the game. “I’ve pitched against them, I know how good they are. It doesn’t matter how good a pitcher you are, this lineup can hurt you so quickly. And I guess maybe that was just my message, is stay positive. Remember how good you are.”

“They’re always one swing away from getting back into a game,” Springer said after the game. But in the right moment so are these Astros, after all. Don’t be shocked if it turns out the biggest morale boost for them is the re-awakening of Springer’s, Altuve’s, Correa’s, and Gonzalez’s bats.

Neither the Astros nor the Dodgers expected Jansen to prove only human, either, which is what he was when, with an 0-2 count on Gonzalez and the Dodgers three defensive outs from banking Game Two, he threw Gonzalez a cutter that flattened unexpectedly, and Gonzalez drove it over the center field fence.

“I wanted it to be up and in,” Jansen said after the lunacy ended at last, “and it just flattened out down the middle. 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.” His conqueror agrees. “He’s the best closer in the game,” said Gonzalez, one of the Astros’ offensive flops until then, “but he made a mistake.”

“Believe it or not,” said Springer, “I was actually in the tunnel. And I heard everyone start going crazy. And the ball—I heard them scream.”

Until that moment, Jansen was as automatic as closers get and then some. Automatic enough that Roberts felt entirely comfortable with his earlier decision to lift starter Rich Hill after four innings. Retrospectively, a look at the box score alone will cause you to wonder whether Roberts had finally lost his marble: Hill struck out seven and surrendered only one run when Bregman singled home Reddick.

But practically every inning Hill threw was a dance on the high wire with a band of hungry lions beneath him ready to make dinner out of him, including and especially leaving multiple men on base to end the third and the fourth. Escaping the lions with the prospect of dancing over a trio of righthanded panthers in the fifth, Hill’s night was done despite the measly 1-0 deficit.

The Dodgers weren't the only ones who couldn't believe Game Two . . .

The Dodgers weren’t the only ones who couldn’t believe Game Two . . .

So Roberts went to Kenta Maeda, a starter during the season but a bullpen bull in the postseason, and Maeda got four outs until Correa singled to left to open the Houston sixth and Yuli Gurriel fouled out on a popup around the plate. Out came Maeda, in came Tony Watson, and Brian McCann dialed Area Code 5-6-3 on the first pitch.

Maybe the only real mistake Roberts made was sending Ross Stripling out to open the top of the seventh. Stripling walked Gonzalez on four pitches. Then Roberts went to fellow righthander Brandon Morrow, who got a prompt Area Code 5-6-3 from Josh Reddick and shook off pinch hitter Evan Gattis beating out a tough play from third for an infield single to get Springer to force Gattis for the side.

But Bregman opened the Houston eighth driving one toward the right field line on which Puig drew a bead and dove to catch. He missed by a measly inch, the ball bounding off the web of Puig’s glove and over the wall for a ground rule double. That’s when Roberts decided to take no chances and go to Jansen.

Allowing an inherited runner to score is one thing, especially when it closes your lead to a single run, even if it ended the Dodger bullpen’s 28-inning scoreless streak. Throwing the cutter you don’t want to stay near the middle is something else. Which gave Gonzalez his chance to be something else again at last.

“The bottom line is I’ll take Kenley any day of the week with a one-run lead going into the ninth inning,” Roberts said after the game. The bottom line was really that even Jansen, like the best of those who preceded him, is only human.

Ask Hall of Famers Goose Gossage and Dennis Eckersley, both of whom were ruined in World Series games by Kirk Gibson. Ask The Mariano, Hall of Famer-in-waiting, whose greatness was rudely interrupted in more than one postseason, by the likes of Sandy Alomar, Jr., Luis Gonzalez, and Roberts himself.

“I’ll be back for Game Three,” Jansen said without flinching. Dallas Keuchel surely said much the same about his next Series start, and Game One was a mere 3-1 score. As for the nervous systems of both teams and the fans in Houston? Good question.

“That game was probably as nerve wracking for every player on both teams as it was for the people in the stands,” Springer said. “That’s the craziest back-and-forth game I’ve ever been in, and it’s only Game Two.”

Just wait until he, and everyone in Astros and Dodgers silks Wednesday night, shows the game to their grandchildren. Don’t be shocked if someone dubbed onto its soundtrack the ancient stomping comic rap, “The Place Where the Nuts Hunt the Squirrels.”

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