Corey Seager kept yanking the ball into the shift. Sometimes he’d line one into center, sometimes he’d pop an opposite-field fly ball over the fence, sometimes he’d swing and miss altogether. In the top of the ninth inning of Game 4, he yanked the ball into the shift for the fourth time in two games. Once it had wound up in Yuli Gurriel’s glove for a double play, and the previous two times it had rolled out to José Altuve, who’d moved from second base to a position that looked more like free safety. While neither play had been easy, both resulted in an out. The fourth grounder scampered between a diving Altuve and second base, like the last pass through an offside trap in soccer, and Seager reached.
It was the first pitch Ken Giles threw, and things only got worse from there. Before he exited the game, the Astros closer walked Justin Turner then gave up a double to Cody Bellinger, who’d started his first World Series 0-for-13 with eight strikeouts, plating Seager.
Giles would ultimately be charged with the loss in Houston’s 6-2 defeat, the Astros’ first of the postseason in Minute Maid Park. Giles faced three batters—all of whom scored or were replaced by pinch runners who scored—and threw just three strikes in eight pitches, two of which ended up as base hits.
This game, which was tied 1-1 through eight innings, was precisely the situation Astros GM Jeff Luhnow must have envisioned for Giles when he acquired the hard-throwing closer from Philadelphia in a seven-player trade in December 2015. For Giles, who’d posted a 1.56 ERA and 151 strikeouts in 115 ⅔ innings with the Phillies, Luhnow gave up talented, young right-hander Vince Velasquez and former no. 1 overall pick Mark Appel, among other pieces. And even though Velasquez has struggled to stay healthy and Appel has just about washed out, that price tag has stuck with him throughout an up-and-down Astros tenure.
Heading into the playoffs, Giles was trending up: Since the All-Star break, he’d posted a 1.19 ERA with 44 strikeouts in 30 ⅓ innings. But once the postseason rolled around, Giles—because of fatigue or undisclosed injury or some other reason—has been terrible. He’s allowed a hit in all seven of his postseason appearances and at least one run in six of them.
“Clearly he’s trying to push through the adversity that he’s had,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “But to be a back-end reliever you’ve got to live on that edge of not carrying too long of a memory because of the things that can happen at the back of the game. But you have the ball in your hands at the most critical times because you have the best stuff. He can get outs, and he’ll continue to get outs, but it’s been tough on him.”
The problem is that Giles’s stuff isn’t what it was a month ago. The 27-year-old righty might be the least subtle pitcher in baseball: He’s all power, with a stereotypical closer’s fastball-slider repertoire. There’s no guile, no deception, no finesse to Giles’s game, just flamethrowers and electric guitars; and when his fastball is sitting at 95 to 97 miles per hour (as it was in Game 4) as opposed to its normal 99, he can be had—and easily.
If it’s curious that Giles turned into a pile of peanut shells when the Astros needed him most, the pitching performances that put a 1-1 game into his hands were equally intriguing. This World Series is as heavy on big-name pitchers as they get: Clayton Kershaw, who might be the best pitcher ever; Justin Verlander, who’s on a Hall of Fame track; Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel; Cy Young runner-up Yu Darvish; charismatic and talented former first-rounder Lance McCullers.
On that marquee, Game 4, which pitted Alex Wood against Charlie Morton, was the least interesting matchup. Morton, a journeyman whose career has been defined by periodic reinvention, and Wood, a talented former second-rounder out of UGA with a funky delivery, both pitched well this year, but they have had a hard time staying healthy throughout their careers, and both have pitched into October with the baseball world waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Wood in particular had a difficult task: The Dodgers were not only down in the series, but also gassed their bullpen trying to crawl back into Game 3 after falling down 4-0 in the second inning. Wood didn’t have his best stuff or his best command. His sinker, which topped out at almost 96 miles an hour this year, sat around 90 for most of the night, and he threw only 49 of his 84 pitches for strikes. But Wood held the Astros hitless for 5 ⅔ innings, the longest a Dodger pitcher—and there have been a few good ones—had ever taken a no-hitter into a playoff game.
“Wood is different in general—different arm angle, different mechanics—and we hadn’t seen him before or a ton,” Hinch said. “But it looked like he was teasing the strike zone a bit. We were a little aggressive. He pitches very well down in the zone—he threw a couple of high fastballs, but for the most part he really settles in the bottom of the zone with pitches that move.”
Morton, meanwhile, was even more dominant, pounding the bottom of the zone and averaging 97.5 mph with 9.35 inches of arm-side break on his four-seamer. He struck out seven in 6 ⅓ innings without walking a batter. Wood said the two fed off each other as they traded scoreless innings.
“The innings were rolling pretty quickly there the first four, five, six innings,” Wood said. “It kept both of us locked in, a little bit of a groove. He was special too—they don’t get much better stuff than that, watching him zing 97, 98 [mile-an-hour] sinkers in there with his curveball. It was a lot of fun to watch.”
Wood’s only run came on his last pitch of the night, a flat knuckle-curve over the middle of the plate to George Springer, who banked it off the Halliburton sign in left field for a home run. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts took Wood out immediately, in spite of how well he’d pitched.
“At that point in time after the homer, I just felt that was good enough,” Roberts said. “That was [what Wood] needed to give us, and to go right to the pen right there, I felt we can keep them there, we win the game.”
Given how Morton was pitching, and with the Dodger bullpen in such a state, it looked like the Astros were about to put the best team in baseball on the brink of elimination. But as Los Angeles fought back for a tying run in the seventh, Brandon Morrow held the Astros scoreless for 1 ⅓ innings. Morrow, a converted starter with a track record of injury himself, has now appeared in 11 of the Dodgers’ 12 playoff games. Nine of those appearances have been scoreless, nine have come in wins, and nine have earned him a positive WPA.
The scoreless innings thrown by Morrow and Tony Watson were the difference. In keeping with the theme of great pitchers struggling while surprising pitchers came up big, Dodger closer Kenley Jansen, on the night he accepted his NL Reliever of the Year award, gave up a garbage-time homer to Alex Bregman to cut the lead to four with two outs in the ninth. But the inning before, the Dodgers had scored not just the three runs off Giles, but two more off Joe Musgrove thanks to a Joc Pederson home run.
Jansen wasn’t perfect, but a five-run lead in his hands is about as safe as leads come.
The series, therefore, is now a best-of-three. It will definitely return to Los Angeles and it will definitely feature one last start from each of the three Cy Young winners—Keuchel, Verlander, and Kershaw. In the past two games, we’ve seen signs of life from a dormant Astros offense, and now from Bellinger, who doubled in his last two at-bats. The Astros have had success when Verlander, Keuchel, and a tandem starter arrangement involving McCullers has pitched well. But now even getting two innings of high-leverage output from their traditional relievers looks like too much to ask.
What will Hinch do about his bullpen if Giles can no longer be trusted? The outcome of the series lies in that mystery.