HOUSTON – A look ahead to Friday’s Game 3 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park, with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros tied at a victory apiece. The Game 3 winner of a deadlocked series has gone on to claim the championship 64% of the time.
For starters: Yu Darvish answered some of the late-season questions about his playoff readiness by tossing 11 1/3 innings of two-run ball in his two starts, both wins. This one will be the biggest outing of his career, with the series’ direction probably hinging on the outcome.
As opposed to other Dodgers starters like Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill and Alex Wood, who did not face Houston this season, Darvish is a known commodity to the Astros. He spent the last five seasons in the same division with them as a member of the Texas Rangers and has a career mark of 5-5 with a 3.44 ERA in 14 starts against Houston, including 1-1 with a 3.00 ERA this year.
“We've had history with him. It doesn't really guarantee anything,’’ Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “There's no more comfort facing Darvish on Friday than there was three months ago in Texas or last year or three years ago, when I think we ended a perfect game or no-hitter before I got here in the ninth inning.
“We'll have some more information on him, but the game will have to be played on the field. It's not a simple comfort exercise. It's a results exercise.’’
Hinch had to decide in which order to align Lance McCullers and Charlie Morton for the first two games in Houston, and McCullers’ sensational pitching in the ALCS earned him the nod. The right-hander with the nasty curveball bounced back from a tired arm late in the season to make a terrific start against the New York Yankees in Game 4 – six innings, two hits, one run – and tag-teamed with Morton in the clincher, throwing four shutout innings. There’s no questioning his talent, only his durability.
Who’s hot: Astros shortstop Carlos Correa has lived up to his advance billing by batting .302 with four home runs in the postseason while going 3-for-9 in the series, in addition to delivering an epic bat flip after his 10th-inning homer in Game 2.
At 23, Correa is participating in his second postseason and has shown the ability to rise to the occasion. He drove in the winning run in a walkoff victory in the ALCS and, two years ago, belted two home runs in a division series game.
For the Dodgers, Corey Seager has evidenced not rust after sitting out the NLCS because of a back strain. The lefty-swinging shortstop has gone 3-for-8, including a two-run homer off Justin Verlander that put L.A. ahead 3-1 in Game 2.
However, Seager and Kike Hernandez are the only Dodgers with more than one hit in the series, as the club is batting just .172.
Who’s cold: Marwin Gonzalez finally got off the schneid with his tying home run off tough closer Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning of Game 2, after going 3-for-22 with no RBI in the ALCS and starting the World Series 0-for-5.
But Brian McCann has looked overmatched, taking an 0-for-8 for the series after batting just .188 in the ALCS, although he did come through with two big doubles in the final two games.
Cody Bellinger came close to deciding Game 2 in the ninth inning with a drive that sent center fielder George Springer to the warning track before dying in his glove. That might have been Bellinger’s best swing in this series, in which he’s 0-for-7 with three strikeouts. Keep in mind, though, that the NL rookie of the year favorite batted .318 with a home run in the NLCS, so it doesn’t appear he’s overwhelmed by the moment.
In the bullpen: Dodgers relievers are not perfect. It only seemed that way until Brandon Morrow and Jansen combined to give up a Game 2 run that ended a record streak of 28 scoreless innings. That might have broken the dike, as Houston scored six runs in the final four innings to pull out the victory.
Josh Fields and former starter Brandon Morrow were particularly vulnerable, giving up two runs each.
L.A.’s bullpen still looms as a major advantage in this series, but now the Astros have gained confidence they can break through, especially after saddling Jansen with a blown save.
On the other side, Houston’s relievers still don’t inspire much faith. Closer Ken Giles coughed up a two-run lead in the 10th inning Wednesday. And while the beleaguered Chris Devenski earned the save that night, closing out the game by striking out Yasiel Puig, he also yielded a Charlie Culberson home run that trimmed the margin to 7-6.
The X-factor: Even in a sport like baseball where the home-field advantage tends to have less effect, it’s hard to ignore how much better the Astros have performed at Minute Maid Park this October.
They have gone 6-0 at home in the postseason and the difference in their offensive numbers is dramatic: The Astros are averaging 5.17 runs with an .841 OPS in Houston, compared to 3.0 runs and a .654 OPS elsewhere.
If the Minute Maid Park roof is closed, which seems likely with temperatures cooling down this weekend, the noise from the sellout crowd will reverberate in the stadium, giving the local nine an extra boost.
In the end: The Astros’ chances of capturing the first championship in franchise history looked dim Wednesday when they were three outs away from falling behind 2-0 in the series and had the bottom of the order lined up to face Jansen.
But Gonzalez’s leadoff homer in the ninth may have turned not just that game but the series around. Houston is now bursting with confidence, especially with its imposing offense putting on such a forceful display in the last three innings of Game 2.
That’s not to say the Dodgers are doomed. They went 47-34 on the road during the regular season, won two games at Wrigley Field in the NLCS and seem to have the matchup advantage in all three games in Houston.
But the momentum has clearly shifted the Astros’ way.