clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Darvish’s Game 3 Whiff Gives Astros Control of the Series

Houston couldn’t miss against the L.A. starter, chasing him early and forcing Dave Roberts to use his bullpen in a way that may prove costly as the weekend unfolds

World Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Houston Astros - Game Three Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Of the 656 World Series games ever played, Wednesday’s instantly legendary Game 2 was the 15th-most exciting (or so the win-expectancy stats said). That was a tough act to follow, and adrenaline-wise, Friday’s Game 3 didn’t come close, ranking 436th in the same century-spanning sample. If the excitement level and setting were different, though, the result was the same: an Astros victory. This time, it took nine innings and no comebacks for Houston to edge the Dodgers, winning 5–3 to take a 2–1 lead in the series and, in the process, set themselves up for late-inning advantages during back-to-back games this weekend at Minute Maid Park, where they haven’t lost in October.

Some games are easy to analyze: a starter doesn’t have his stuff, and a powerful lineup doesn’t miss his mistakes. Heading into Game 3, Yu Darvish had been a different man with the Dodgers than he had with the Rangers prior to the trade deadline: mechanical tweaks, a lower release point, altered pitch locations, and increased cutter usage had helped him record an ERA nearly a run lower in 11 starts for L.A., accompanied by improved peripherals. None of that mattered on Friday, because Darvish didn’t have his slider. Although he kept trying to find it, throwing it 14 times in 49 pitches, the pitch consistently sailed out of the strike zone or stayed up and over the plate.

Pit a pitcher without a working breaking ball (or his usual fastball command) against the best offense in baseball and fireworks will follow. The Astros, who led the majors in contact rate during the regular season, swung and missed only once against Darvish, who had never before failed to induce more than one whiff in an outing. And when Houston’s hitters made contact, the exit velocities routinely touched triple digits.

Of the 10 batted balls off of Darvish that Statcast clocked (one wasn’t tracked), seven left the bat faster than 99 mph. Here’s one way to express how hard Houston hit Darvish: Including the playoffs, there have been 4,977 pitcher appearances this season that included at least 10 batted balls tracked by Statcast. In only 14 of those games did a pitcher allow a higher average exit velocity than Darvish’s 97.2. And aside from issuing one walk, Darvish wasn’t doing anything but allowing batted balls: For the first time in his career, the righty didn’t notch a single strikeout and failed to finish the second inning. Under different scheduling circumstances, he might have exited even earlier.

Darvish’s Astros counterpart, Lance McCullers, was neither quite as curveball-reliant nor nearly as in command as he was in Game 7 of the ALCS. The Dodgers didn’t chase as often as the Yankees had, drawing four walks (three of them to consecutively to start the third inning) and making McCullers throw 87 pitches to get through 5 1/3. But just as he had in Game 7, Astros manager A.J. Hinch got through the game using only two pitchers who spent most of the season as starters. In this case, the pitcher who entered in the sixth for a three-plus-inning save—his first career save of any length, as was McCullers’ in Game 7—was Brad Peacock, who allowed two inherited runners to score on a Yasiel Puig groundout and a wild pitch, but finished off L.A. with three hitless innings marred by only one walk.

Although Peacock spent the last four-plus months of the season (and the ALDS) almost exclusively in the starting rotation, he has experience with this type of appearance; in late July, he picked up a win with a four-inning outing in relief of Dallas Keuchel, although in that game he gave way to more habitual late-inning arms Chris Devenski and Ken Giles. Starting in the latter stages of the ALCS, Hinch—driven to desperation by his regular relievers’ struggles—has used Peacock in short, high-leverage situations for the first time in months, and prior to Friday, Peacock hadn’t been dominant: His first two October relief outings, in ALCS Games 5 and 6, both yielded solo homers, and in World Series Game 1 he faced only two hitters, allowing a walk and a deep fly ball. In his latest opportunity, though, the transition from a starter who threw 61 percent breaking balls to a reliever who threw 89 percent fastballs seemed to faze L.A.

Peacock aside, the on-field hero for Houston on both sides of the ball was first baseman Yuli Gurriel, who homered, doubled, and started a slick double-play in the third that helped McCullers escape a bases-loaded, no-outs situation with only one run allowed.

But Gurriel made it impossible to praise his performance by being caught on camera after his home run appearing to pair a racist gesture with a spoken slur. PSA for players who think the dugout is a safe space for terrible behavior: In October, there are eyes everywhere.

The 33-year-old infielder is a few months short of being the oldest member of the Astros’ lineup, so age is no excuse; neither is cultural ignorance, given that Gurriel spent part of the 2014 season playing in Japan. After the game, Darvish called Gurriel’s display “disrespectful,” although he also sounded prepared to turn the other cheek.

Under normal circumstances, Gurriel’s gesture would almost certainly lead to a suspension: In the past two seasons alone, Steve Clevenger, Kevin Pillar, and Matt Joyce have all earned suspensions for uttering or tweeting racist or homophobic slurs. Gurriel’s transgression is no less severe, and his punishment shouldn’t be, either.

With the World Series at stake, it’s possible that MLB will fine Gurriel instead of suspending him, or attempt to drag out its investigation and defer a suspension until 2018.

If Gurriel isn’t suspended, though, the decision would be difficult to defend, sending one of two reprehensible signals: either that slurs against some groups are more acceptable than others, or that racism is only intolerable when a team’s season isn’t on the line. If Gurriel is suspended, the Astros—who could move Marwin González to first and start Cameron Maybin in the outfield—would lose a hitter who’s produced a .340/.386/.547 slash line this postseason, generating the highest average exit velocity (93.6) of any player with at least five balls put in play.

Although Gurriel, Peacock, and Darvish put the Dodgers in a deep hole in Game 3, they could have done more to escape it. A throwing error (one of two by the team in the game) by reliever Tony Watson gave the Astros an insurance run in the fifth, Puig’s boldness backfired when he was thrown out in the fourth trying to stretch a single into a double while trailing by three runs, and the lineup collectively went 0-for-7 (including some uncharacteristically undisciplined swings) with runners in scoring position. As Corey Seager said after the game, “We didn’t play a really good game at all.” The final score was a few feet from looking more lopsided, as Game 2 standout George Springer’s based-loaded blow with two outs in the seventh fell into Chris Taylor’s glove just in front of the fence. Springer’s warning-track drive, which left the bat at 108.2 mph and traveled 408 feet, was hit harder than all but one of the eight home runs in Game 2, and flew farther than five of them. What a difference a climate-controlled 65-degree temperature (and a ballpark that, despite Puig’s opinion, suppresses scoring) can make.

For the Dodgers, this is a loss that could linger, not because of “momentum” but because their bullpen was depleted in the first of three games with no reliever-restoring off days between them. Knocking Darvish out early will keep helping Houston: Because Darvish earned only five outs, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was forced to use five relievers to get through the game. As they had throughout October prior to Game 2, those relievers largely delivered, holding Houston to one run, but Kenta Maeda threw 42 pitches, which will rule him out for Game 4 and would subject him to a previously unexperienced stress if he were to appear in Game 5. Because the game never got out of hand, Roberts had to do what he did to stay within striking distance. As it turned out, though, the Dodgers may have been better off if Houston (which has its whole non-Peacock pen rested) had broken the game open and given Roberts the freedom to deploy his lower-leverage arms.

During the regular season, Dodgers starters were the least likely to face opposing hitters for the third time in a game, even though their rotation was far more effective than the closest staffs on that list. Given the circumstances, though, Saturday starter Alex Wood may see a slower hook than usual. If he doesn’t deliver length, the Dodgers may find themselves in need of another Clayton Kershaw gem on Sunday to send the series back to L.A.