Springing to World Series rings

George Springer (right), celebrating after his two-run homer finished the Astros' scoring for Game Seven . . .

George Springer (right), celebrating after his two-run homer finished the Astros’ scoring for Game Seven . . .

When you’re a 56-year-old baseball team blasted inside out in grief for your hurricane-battered home city, and you feel there’s too little you can do to remove your city’s suffering, there’s really only one thing you can do. You can go out and play baseball and give your city a lift that can’t be paid for.

And if you just so happen to win the first World Series championship of your team’s life, your city probably won’t care how much farther they have to go to recuperate from Harvey’s destruction, because they’re waiting for you to head for home so they can give you a massive hug and bubble bath the like of which you only dreamed about until now.

They’ll even let it slide that you showed up for Game Seven while the only Dodgers who didn’t seem to be out of gas were pitchers not named Yu Darvish.

So give it up big for the spunky, funky, fun Astros, Joe and Jane America. In a still-new century when protracted baseball championship droughts are ending promiscuously—last year’s Cubs, 2015′s Royals, the 2010 Giants, the 2005 White Sox, the 2004 Red Sox—these Astros have made it two such endings in as many seasons.

“It’s about the Houston Astros tonight, our city, our fans,” said Willie Mays World Series  MVP George Springer, who started the early 5-1 Astro romp with a leadoff double in the first and secured it with a two-run homer in the second. “That patch on our chests really does mean something. We’re coming home champions.”

But lament while you’re at it that, after all the extraterrestrial insanity of this World Series prior to Wednesday night, the Astros and the Dodgers couldn’t find a way to see and raise. Except for the first two innings, when you were hoped for Ernie Kovacs’s Wild Kingdom you were lucky to get My Mother, the Car.

Two Dodger pitching legends—Don Newcombe and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, the first and last men to win Cy Young Awards when the prize was given to one pitcher across the board and not one in each league—threw out the ceremonial first pitches. Either Newcombe at 91 or Koufax at 81 would have been better starting options.

Darvish picked the wrong night, against the wrong team, and especially against the wrong Willie Mays Award winner to become the first Game Seven starting pitcher not to get out of the second inning alive since Art Ditmar of the 1960 Yankees. 

Send the Dodgers missing persons reports on some of their players, while slapping some of their others with dereliction of duty charges. The evidence includes going 1-for-13 with men in scoring position and only once getting anything to show for putting two or more men on base in five of the first six innings.

Sit back, hoist a tall, cold drink, and acknowledge that, for all the back-and-forth, derring-do, high-wire acting, trapeze swinging, clown cars, magicians, and flying tigers of Ringling Brothers and Dodgers and Astros Circus in Games One through Six, the Dodgers finally ran out of petrol except for four men out of the bullpen Wednesday night. And the Astros just weren’t inclined to run a spare tank out to them on the freeway.

Toast Springer with the best champagne you can exhume. After his game-opening double, he came home when Dodgers first baseman Cody Bellinger, going too far to his right to pick off an Alex Bregman grounder that second baseman Logan Forsythe would have had the easier play on, threw wild and behind the covering Darvish’s back.

In the very next inning, with Marwin Gonzalez on third, Springer wrestled Darvish to a full count before hitting a speedy but flat fastball three or four rows into the left center field bleachers. He drove Darvish out of the game and ushered in a parade of Dodger starters-turned-relievers interrupted only by bona-fide reliever Kenley Jansen—in the eighth.

“I remember swinging and hearing the sound of the bat,” Springer said in the middle of the post-game party. “I knew it was a good sound. Then I saw the flight of the ball. And I got to first base and I rounded third, and got home and that’s a crazy feeling. It’s a very surreal feeling because this is Game Seven.”

The cover boy for a rash prediction. The prediction turned out not so rash, after all . . .

The cover boy for a rash prediction. The prediction turned out not so rash, after all . . .

Springer and his manager A.J. Hinch swore his horrid American League Championship Series and four strikeouts in Game One of the World Series were just another set of frustrations to overcome for a guy who overcame a maddening stutter growing up, one that often left him feeling either isolated or ridiculed.

Springer’s the perfect avatar of perseverance for a city that still has to persevere while recovering from Harvey’s hell.

How does reaching base sixteen times and 29 total bases in the Series grab you? That’s part of Springer’s tally, too. The guy who was the cover boy when Sports Illustrated in 2014 splashed, Houston Astros: Your 2017 World Series Champs. No nicer guy could have defied and demolished the notorious SI cover jinx.

How appropriate it is that the Series MVP should be named after Mays, the greatest center fielder who ever played the game and arguably the game’s greatest player ever, period, could also be known by remembering it wasn’t just Springer’s bat that helped ruin the Dodgers.

He made Maysian highlight reel plays in center field most of the postseason and made it all look like he was still the kid tortured by his verbal disability who made up for it by having fun playing baseball where nobody cared how you said anything except with your bat and your glove.

He was a big stick-swinging acrobat or a high-flying gazelle with a deadly right uppercut, depending on your point of view. The Astros are thrilled to have both in the same fellow on their side.

From the moment he drew a Game Two walk, Springer made those frustrations seem like someone’s short bad dream. Tying a World Series record with five bombs and setting a record with at least one bomb in four straight Series games became just part of the Dodgers’ Game Seven nightmare.

So did Clayton Kershaw working four spotless relief innings, just two days after three brilliant innings starting Game Five ended with him unable to hold a three and then a four-run lead.

He relieved Brandon Morrow and preceded Kenley Jansen, and the way those three plus Alex Wood pitched Wednesday night the second guessers will have a winter wonderland ahead of them. They’ll spend the winter wondering—particularly given Kershaw’s pre-game proclamation that he’d throw 27 outs if needed and his four actual innings pitched—why the Dodgers didn’t ask him for what they asked Koufax the last time they got to a Game Seven.

“There’s only one team that can succeed. There’s only one team that wins the last game, so that’s tough,” Kershaw said. “I think once the dust settles and we go home, we can realize that we had a pretty amazing season and we finished in second place, which nobody cares about or remembers.”

What they’ll remember is how Astros starter Lance McCullers, Jr. was erratic enough in Game Seven to slap silly for two and a third innings, starting with Chris Taylor’s own first inning leadoff double, yet the Dodgers could drive him out of the game with no runs on the board to show for it.

They’ll remember the Dodgers scratching only a single run against Charlie Morton, another Astro pitching hero who came on in relief to open the bottom of the sixth, with a leadoff single, a followup walk, and a one-out single to right by Andre Ethier pinch hitting for Kershaw.

Then they’ll remember Morton going the rest of the distance and picking up the official win, since he was the only Astro pitcher to work more than two and a third despite Brad Peacock, Francisco Liriano, and Chris Devenski dodging bullets of their own to keep the Dodgers off the board.

Springer---who played the Series like its namesake---displaying his Willie Mays World Series MVP award.

Springer—who played the Series like its namesake—displaying his Willie Mays World Series MVP award.

They might even remember the Astros teasing the Dodgers late in the game when both Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel warmed up for short spells in the bullpen, even if Hinch was really going to ride Morton to the finish line.

They’ll remember the slings and arrows as the Astros undertook that painful (some said tanking) rebuild that survived four hundred-loss seasons but produced critical drafts such as McCullers, second baseman Jose Altuve, shortstop Carlos Correa, third baseman Bregman, and delivered such trades as the ones that brought aboard Keuchel, Morton, Peacock, and especially Verlander.

No one questions otherwise. Delivering Verlander on 31 August this year probably meant securing the American League Central. Altuve’s likely MVP season, plus Springers’ and Correa’s All-Star seasons, lined them up for it. Throw in Alex Bregman and you’ve got Astro star power for years to come.

But Springer turned out the real leader of their World Series pack. He was drafted the same year Altuve debuted, and general manager Jeff Luhnow had said from the outset that, when Springer arrived in the Show three years after he was drafted, he knew the Astros were going nowhere but up.

Now they’ve reached the Promised Land. It took them 56 years and a change of leagues (they were the team to be named later in the deal that made a National League team out of the Brewers) to do it. And of all the Astro teams who tried and failed, of all the Astro teams that were great one period and calamitous the next, this one is both great and fun.

Even if this Game Seven, in this World Series, turned out to be a little too sedate by the standards set in the first six games.

“Remember when you were just a kid and you’d skip supper to play ball?” Dick Allen, near the end of his solid but tortured career, told Mike Schmidt at the beginning of his Hall of Fame career. “You were having fun. Hey, with all the talent you’ve got, baseball ought to be fun. Enjoy it. Be a kid again.”

That smiling Astro center fielder who was six parts Willie Mays and half a dozen parts the Say Hey Kid this World Series plays the game as if he doesn’t have to be told to be a kid again. And his team is preparing for a blue and orange parade racket Friday because they played the game the same way, and won big.

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