Of course a World Series this thrilling, this fun, this emotionally captivating from first pitch on, would go seven games. The sport of baseball is rife with injustice, but not enough to prevent one of its best title bouts ever from reaching maximum drama. The Dodgers beat Justin Verlander and the Astros 3-1 on Tuesday, surviving an early deficit and some middle-inning trouble to force a seventh game at Dodger Stadium.
It will be the third World Series Game 7 in four years, following 2014’s Madison Bumgarner–in–Relief Game and last year’s Greatest Game Ever candidate. Those two were classics; if the way this whole series has progressed is any indication, baseball fans are in for another treat on Wednesday night.
To get there, the Dodgers needed to beat Verlander, whose team had won all 10 games he’d pitched since joining Houston in a last-minute trade on August 31. Verlander had won the clinching ALDS game in relief, then saved the Astros’ playoff hopes with seven shutout innings in Game 6 of the ALCS. And on Tuesday, with his first World Series ring in sight and George Springer staking him to a lead with a solo homer, the Astro ace started out on that same level. Through five innings, he had allowed just one dinky single off the bat of Yasiel Puig and no other baserunners. He’d struck out eight and deposited 14 of his 16 first pitches for strikes, and no Dodger swing had looked remotely comfortable.
“He brings so much energy and so much aggressiveness to the game,” Houston manager A.J. Hinch said. “And I thought he entered the game with that. He was obviously cruising.”
But Austin Barnes led off the sixth with a liner to left, and the crowd roared for the first time all night with its team at bat. Chase Utley—0-for-29 in his past 29 playoff at-bats and playing only after a double switch—took first on a hit-by-pitch, and Chris Taylor roped a double down the right-field line. Tie game.
An inning earlier, the Astros had squandered a second-and-third-with-no-outs opportunity—not so for the Dodgers. Corey Seager followed Taylor and crushed a slider to right field; Brian McCann immediately slouched and dropped his head, and Verlander twirled and gave an “aw, shucks” hop. At least Houston’s battery thought the ball had enough air to reach the stands. On a warmer day, it would have, giving Seager his second tie-breaking sixth-inning homer against Verlander this series, but in the low-60s weather that constitutes an L.A. cold front, this one ran out of steam on the warning track. For once this month, a well-hit fly ball didn’t turn into a trot around the bases.
Still, Seager’s fly was enough to score Utley from third, and Joc Pederson added an insurance run on an opposite-field blast that did clear the fence an inning later.
On the pitching side, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts stuck to the bullpen approach he had used all month rather than panic in an elimination game, and his patience paid off with a succession of scoreless innings. He essentially adopted his plan from Game 2, which the Dodgers also led 3-1 after solving Verlander in the sixth, only for closer Kenley Jansen to blow a ninth-inning lead—except this time, it worked. The only batter that starter Rich Hill “faced” a third time through the order was Springer, whom he intentionally walked with two outs in the fifth inning before departing for a reliever.
Brandon Morrow entered with the bases loaded, just two days after he allowed four runs in six pitches in Game 5. He had been gassed, throwing on the third day in a row for the first time in his career, but a travel day apparently did his arm wonders: He touched 98 miles an hour on his first fastball and 99 on his second, which induced a soft Alex Bregman groundout to quell Houston’s threat.
“I just felt that was, with Verlander on the mound, that was going to be the game,” Roberts said. “I’ve believed in [Morrow] all year long. And he came through in the biggest spot of the season. … I know that the off day did him well, and talking to him he felt good and wanted the baseball again.”
The Astros weren’t done putting men on base, but Roberts’s relievers escaped every time. In the sixth, lefty Tony Watson lucked out when a Marwin González liner with two men on found Utley’s glove; in the seventh, Kenta Maeda retired both Bregman and José Altuve with two more Astros crowding the bases. Then it was Jansen’s turn, and the Dodgers closer—who had already blown that Game 2 save and lost Game 5—affirmed Roberts’s continued faith in his typically electric right arm by cruising through the last six hitters in Houston’s order.
“We had pressure on them, and they just made pitches or made plays,” Hinch said. “Obviously credit to them, and we wish we would have had a little bit of a breakout. I thought Marwin in the sixth had a line drive with Utley playing right up the middle.”
Overall, the Dodgers bullpen threw 4 ⅓ innings without allowing a run, and with Morrow, Watson, Maeda, and Jansen averaging just 15 pitches each, the full complement of relievers will be available again in Game 7. So, too, will Clayton Kershaw—on two days’ rest with the possibility of securing his own Bumgarner moment and first World Series ring. That possibility alone is enough to make Game 7 magical before the first pitch is thrown.
Kershaw might pitch in relief. Verlander might pitch in relief. A pitcher might hit an unpredictable home run, and a still-unknown Dodgers hero might crush the first Game 7 walk-off homer since Bill Mazeroski’s 57 years ago. The range of possibilities is almost too great to ponder, but credit the Dodgers this much: At the very least, they extended the 2017 baseball season one more night.