Two teams, both with everything to play for, both certain that their seasons will be over the next day, whatever the result. A loss of any kind in Game 7 of the World Series carries with it emotional devastation and public embarrassment.
So, if you’re going to lose, you want to know that it isn’t because there’s some tactic you haven’t tried, some reserve of effort you’ve left untapped, some risk you weren’t courageous enough to take. The six-month regular season and the four weeks of playoffs are a test not only of skill but endurance—there’s always something to save your energy for, and that’s typically what sets baseball apart from other sports. But not in Game 7. You fill the tank in February so you can empty it here.
Not that it will be at all comforting, but both the Astros and Dodgers can head into the season’s final game secure in the knowledge that they’ve tried everything.
Of the 50 players who dressed in this series, 49—all of them except the Astros’ third catcher, Juan Centeno—have appeared in at least one game. And both of those maxed-out postseason rosters have improved as the season progressed. Despite leading their respective divisions by more than 20 games at some point this season, both the Houston and Los Angeles front offices looked at their unbeatable teams in the waning hours of the league’s various trade deadlines and added another ace starting pitcher.
In Game 6, Astros manager A.J. Hinch sent his projected Game 7 starter, Lance McCullers, to the bullpen to protect a late lead if one ever materialized. Over in the Dodgers’ bullpen, Clayton Kershaw sat ready to pitch on one day’s rest, and if Game 7 is close at all, he’s a lock to make the fifth playoff relief appearance of his career. It’s in keeping with the all-hands-on-deck approach Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has taken with his bullpen all series long.
Clayton Kershaw in Game 7: “I can go 27 innings. Whatever they need.”— Andy McCullough (@McCulloughTimes) November 1, 2017
While Astros ace Justin Verlander stood ready to throw 130 pitches or more if need be, no Dodgers starter has thrown even 100 this series, and only Clayton Kershaw in Game 1 and Alex Wood in Game 4 have gone five innings. Brandon Morrow’s pitched in every game this series, and Tony Watson’s pitched in five of six games. So has Kenley Jansen, who’s thrown 7 2/3 innings, more than anyone on the Dodgers staff except Kershaw and Rich Hill. Kenta Maeda has appeared in four games, but thrown 106 pitches in those four appearances.
The Dodgers’ and Astros’ position players haven’t left anything in the clubhouse, either: 21 of the 26 position players on these two rosters have gotten a hit in this series, and two of the other five—Derek Fisher and Chase Utley—have scored a run.
It’s good that so many different players have contributed, considering the stakes: A loss in this series means waiting another year to get this close to a title, and likely much longer than that. Even though so many of the biggest stars in this series—Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Alex Bregman—are 23 or younger, this is the first World Series action for Kershaw, Jansen, Yu Darvish, and Dallas Keuchel, all of whom will all be at least 30 by next Opening Day. The 37-year-old Hill has waited 13 seasons for his first World Series action, as has 33-year-old Astros catcher Brian McCann.
Only three players in this series had played in a World Series before: Utley, Verlander, and Carlos Beltrán, who at age 40 is still looking for his first ring in seven trips to the postseason with five teams. Those three had combined to appear in five World Series before this year, with only Utley—nine years ago, as a 29-year-old in his first trip to the Fall Classic—ever coming out of it with a ring.
Everyone involved knows opportunities like this don’t come around very often, and the series has been played with a desperate intensity that reflects not only that knowledge, but how evenly matched the Astros and Dodgers are. Two of the six games so far have gone into extra innings after a team erased a ninth-inning deficit. Five of the six were decided by two runs or fewer, and the lone exception, Game 4, was tied in the ninth inning.
Game 7 should be no less intense, as it pits the excitable McCullers and his space probe–bending-around-a-planet curveball against Darvish, who has the highest strikeout rate in MLB history for a starting pitcher with at least 600 career innings pitched. With Keuchel, Chris Devenski, and Brad Peacock all on two days’ rest, and Charlie Morton, who pitched well in Game 4, on three days’ rest, Hinch likely won’t hesitate to pinch hit for McCullers early, even if he’s shutting down the Dodgers. Likewise Roberts with Darvish. Even though the Dodgers’ best relievers have been worked harder (perhaps only by virtue of Roberts, unlike Hinch, knowing who his best relievers are at the moment), Kershaw will probably pitch unless Darvish goes seven or more innings or the game gets out of hand early.
Both teams have, at one point or another in this series, looked either totally lost or totally unbeatable, and with the added pressure and intensity of Game 7, that uncertainty only increases. The bullpen is unfamiliar territory for Kershaw, Keuchel, and Morton—and for that matter Hill and Verlander, who can’t be ruled out entirely, even after having pitched the day before. Those guys aren’t often asked to pitch in relief on short rest, and maybe they wouldn’t do it if there were actually no tomorrow, as the saying goes. But win or lose, tomorrow is coming, and tonight’s task is to give the last full measure of effort, or spend every tomorrow of the next year wishing you had.