By BILLY WITZ
LOS ANGELES – If the Houston Astros had plenty on their minds – and the weight of history on their backs – it hardly seemed like a burden when they arrived at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday.
A franchise that had never won a championship in its 55 previous seasons faced the daunting task of playing Game 7 of the World Series in front of a boisterous crowd supporting the Dodgers.
But the Astros appeared oddly at ease. Manager A.J. Hinch kept his pregame news conference light, shortstop Carlos Correa and second baseman Jose Altuve lounged on the grass as they awaited batting practice, and catcher Brian McCann shared a laugh with outfielder Cameron Maybin.
It turned out not to be an act.
The Astros, playing coolly and confidently from the first pitch, got some big early offense from their leadoff hitter, George Springer. And once they were ahead, they used five pitchers to hold off the Dodgers the rest of the way. When it was over, in a 5-1 victory that had little of the drama of the earlier games in the Series, the Astros had their first title.
Springer, who ended up being named the most valuable player in the Series, began Game 7 with a double and then hit a two-run homer in his next at-bat to help stake the Astros to a 5-0 lead. It was Springer’s fifth home run of the Series, tying a record, and he also became the first player to hit homers in four consecutive games in the same World Series.
Lance McCullers Jr., Brad Peacock, Francisco Liriano and Chris Devenski then combined to thwart the Dodgers’ hitters through the first five innings, before Charlie Morton, normally a starter, pitched the final four.
When Morton retired Corey Seager on a grounder to second for the final out, the Astros sprinted out of the dugout and the bullpen to mob one another on the infield as McCann jumped into Morton’s arms.
If the Astros played with such a collective calm Wednesday night, perhaps it was because their resolve had been tested so frequently – not just on the field but off it as well. In late August, they returned home from a road trip to find Houston devastated by flooding from Hurricane Harvey.
In the postseason, they had to win Games 6 and 7 at home to survive the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees.
All of that was part of their journey to Game 7 on Wednesday night, and once there they prevailed the way they often did this year – with solid pitching, sufficient hitting and airtight baseball.
The Astros’ defense, with few exceptions, was bold and brilliant during the postseason. They threw out four runners at home plate and forced out another. And Game 7 was no exception, with third baseman Alex Bregman diving to take a hit from Austin Barnes, and Springer racing into the right-center gap and wheeling and firing to second to force Seager to retreat to first.
The Dodgers, by contrast, were not as decisive or on point.
Cody Bellinger threw behind Yu Darvish as he was covering first base, allowing Springer to score the game’s first run. And the Astros pushed two more runs home on groundouts to the right side that the Dodgers played conservatively. The plays put the Dodgers in a 3-0 hole before Springer belted his home run.
The Astros’ triumph will also serve as a crowning moment for the analytics movement, which began to transform baseball after the 2003 publication of “Moneyball,” the best-selling book that chronicled the low-budget Oakland Athletics’ use of data to compete with baseball’s big-money behemoths.
While every team in baseball – and most in professional sports – now utilize advanced data, no team in baseball has embraced it as heartily as the Astros have.
General manager Jeff Luhnow has degrees in economics, engineering and business, and founded a data-solutions company before his emergence in major league baseball. The Astros were among the first to adopt tanking, stripping their roster down for several years to acquire high draft picks. They fired eight scouts in August as part of a restructuring that is expected to lean even more heavily on data and video analysis.
The Astros’ reliance on data came to the fore when Morton and McCullers combined to shut out the Yankees in Game 7 of the ALCS by turning overwhelmingly to curveballs to foil a lineup that was one of the best in baseball at hitting fastballs.
“You have to be yourself in this game,” said Hinch, who has a psychology degree from Stanford. “I tell it to our players. You’ve got to run your own team, manage your own team, govern your own players because we’re all chasing that goal of being called a champion.”
The embodiment of the resilient Astros in this Series was Springer, who has worked through a severe stutter since his childhood.
Springer struck out four times in Game 1, then hit the winning home run in the 11th inning of Game 2. After he misplayed Bellinger’s liner into a run-scoring triple in Game 5 that put the Dodgers ahead, 8-7, Springer led off the next inning with a game-tying home run and the Astros won in 10 innings.
Springer ensured the Astros got off to a good start Wednesday night. He rifled the third pitch of the game from Darvish – a slider over the heart of the plate – just inside the left-field line and coasted into second with a double.
Bregman pushed a grounder to the right side against the overloaded Dodgers defense, which was enough to advance Springer to third. But when Bellinger threw behind Darvish covering first, the ball bounced into the Astros’ dugout and Springer was sent home and Bregman was awarded second.
Bregman, with a walking lead, then stole third on the unsuspecting Darvish. From there, he scored when Altuve followed Bregman’s lead and pushed a grounder to the right side. Eight pitches into the game, the Astros had a 2-0 lead.
It was not as if the Dodgers did not have their chances. McCullers hit four batters and allowed three hits in just 2 1/3 innings. But Joc Pederson, who had three homers in the Series, grounded out to leave the bases loaded in the first and struck out against Peacock with two on to end the third. Logan Forsythe was doubled off second to end the second. And Yasiel Puig lined out to first to end the fifth with runners at the corners.
The Dodgers finally broke through in the sixth inning when Andre Ethier’s ground ball sneaked through to right field, scoring Pederson. But Morton struck out Chris Taylor and shattered Seager’s bat for a groundout that allowed him to escape.
In all, the Dodgers left 10 runners on base.
The Dodgers’ season of regret will not end with Game 7. Their closer Kenley Jansen, dominant throughout the season, could not hold a 3-1 lead in Game 2 and was beaten in Game 5. Clayton Kershaw, considered the best pitcher in baseball, throttled the Astros in Game 1 and threw four scoreless innings of relief Wednesday, but he could not hold 4-0 and 7-4 leads in Game 5.
Darvish also had an opportunity to bounce back from a dreadful start in Game 3 and take his retribution against Yuli Gurriel, the Astros’ first baseman, who had mocked him by making an offensive gesture after hitting a home run off Darvish.
When Gurriel reached the batter’s box in the first inning, he kicked at the dirt, then doffed his batting helmet toward Darvish. The pitcher acknowledged in kind, tipping his cap to Gurriel.
The detente between the two players did little to quiet the crowd, which for the second consecutive night robustly booed Gurriel. But Gurriel took some of the venom out of the crowd by fouling off seven two-strike pitches before flying out to culminate a 13-pitch at-bat.
Darvish, who lasted just 1 2/3 innings in Game 3, was only able to get five outs in Game 7. When Springer belted a 3-2 fastball deep into the left-field pavilion, it spelled the end for Darvish.
And, as it would turn out, the end of a half century of futility for the Astros.