Pitchers the casualty in World Series with slick balls, punishing hitters

HOUSTON – You could call it one of the greatest games in World Series history and not worry about push-back. Who could argue? For 5 hours and 17 minutes, the Dodgers and Astros threw haymakers, traded leads, destroyed each other’s pitching staffs and otherwise created a night of tension so thick Carlos Correa said, “I felt like I was having a heart attack.”

The shortstop got a good laugh in the interview room, even if he wasn’t really joking.

The Astros’ 13-12 win in 10 innings will be remembered for its relentless onslaught – the most runs scored in a World Series game since 1997, 28 hits and six home runs. Hurlers from both sides were victimized by an outburst that was reminiscent of the early 2000s, when steroids ruled the game.

Not that it wasn’t fun to watch. Heck, the fans at Minute Maid Park spent hours on their feet in anticipation of the next mammoth blow. And remember this was the same night Clayton Kershaw and Dallas Keuchel were supposed to dominate. If there was ever going to be an October pitchers’ clinic, this was it.

Except that Keuchel got knocked out in the fourth inning and Kershaw failed to hold leads of 4-0 and 7-3. By the time it was over at 1:38 a.m. back East, when Alex Bregman punched the game-winner off Dodgers closer Kenley Jensen, it was fair to ask: what just happened?

The Dodgers still don’t know. They shook their heads in amazement at the sheer firepower of the Astros’ lineup.

“We knew going into this series, this is the best offensive ball club that we were going to see all year,” manager Dave Roberts said. “They can slug you. They spoil pitches. They're athletic.”

“We're relentless when we're good,” is how Astros manager A.J. Hinch put it. “There were some pretty good at-bats at the bottom of the order, too. We're hard to beat when we swing the bats like this….I think our guys, again, no matter where we they are in the order, feel pretty confident.”

That’s good news for the Astros, of course, considering they’re just one win away from a world championship and have Justin Verlander ready for Game 6. The American League champs have both momentum and history on their side: of the previous 65 teams that’ve taken a 3-2 lead in the Series, 43 of them (66%) have gone on to win it all.

It’s also true the Astros’ bullpen is utterly unreliable, but the Dodgers’ bullpen is shot. That’s one of two explanations for Sunday’s run-scoring orgy. Roberts’ overuse of his relievers is coming back to haunt him – they’ve allowed nine homers to the Astros. And poor Brandon Morrow, appearing for the third straight game and fifth time in six days, was lit up for four runs in just six pitches in the seventh inning.

Roberts rationalized his relievers’ obvious fatigue by saying, “I think it's the case when you're at this point in October, I think that the Astros can say the same thing. So I think everyone is taxed right now.”

But how would that explain why Kershaw failed, and why Yu Darvish had the worst outing of his career in Game 3? And why Keuchel looked so ordinary, too. All were on full rest, yet none of them were able to effectively throw their signature slider.

Key figures from both teams believe the culprit is the baseball itself – either juiced or manufactured differently for the World Series to make the surface slicker and harder to grip. That was the basis of Tom Verducci’s story in Sports Illustrated, quoting, among others, Verlander, who said, “The World Series ball is slicker. No doubt. I’m telling you, we’re in here signing [World Series] balls before the game, and it’s hard to get the ink on the ball sometimes."

The data seems to back up that theory. Darvish’s Game 3 slider regressed to the point where he was unable to get a single swing-and-miss in the 14 he threw, the first time all year he failed to do so. And the home run Jansen gave up to Bregman in Game 4? You guessed it – a slider, the first time that pitch had been taken deep in 2017.

And on Sunday night, Kershaw tried his slider 39 times and got exactly one swing and miss.

It remains to be seen whether the slicker ball will continue to be a factor in L.A. on Tuesday, where temperatures are supposed to only be in the upper 60s. If it’s a problem, both pitching staffs will burdened. In the meantime, Kershaw’s postseason legacy continues to suffer, as his career playoff ERA soared to 4.50.

The only consolation for the Dodgers is that Kershaw wasn’t alone in his mediocrity. Whether it was because of the altered baseball, across the board exhaustion or just one of those random nights in baseball where hitters rule, pitchers were the Game 5 casualty.

Games like this are a rarity in the post-steroid era, although it does remind everyone how closely baseball resembled slow-pitch softball back then. No leads were ever safe – and certainly not on Sunday – but 25 runs a night can’t serve as an October showcase.

Then again, you couldn’t deny the lead changes made for great television. And when it came down to a final at-bat – Bregman against Jansen, no one in ballpark daring to move or even breathe  – it was Carlos Correa who prepared him for the game-winning hit.

“I told (Bregman), 'This is your moment,”” Correa said, moments before the line drive over the infield that sealed the Astros’ victory and ignited bedlam on the field. It felt like the entire state of Texas was ready for a party.

But not the Dodgers, of course. And certainly not Jansen. That final pitch to Bregman? A slider. Of course.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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