HOUSTON — There are 50 players between both teams who are eligible to play in the 2017 World Series. In the top of the fifth inning, Cody Bellinger was the saddest one of them all. There are no metrics to quantify this. If you asked him, he would probably deny it. But after striking out yet again, he was 0-for-13 in the World Series, with eight strikeouts. This latest whiff featured him waving through a fastball on the outside edge before he chased a back-foot curveball, and as he walked back to the dugout, it was as if all of his bones were replaced with gummy worms. He was broken. He was defeated.
An hour later, he was the Most Feted Super Baseball Hero of the Wonderful Terrific Baseball World Series. With a double to left field in the seventh, he got Charlie Morton out of the game. With a double to left field in the ninth, he got his whole danged team back to Dodger Stadium. The redemption was swift and it was complete. The violence in Bellinger’s swing was muted, and something had changed. He had ... made adjustments? He was ... reborn? The balls going to the opposite field were a great sign, and I would assume that he’ll carry that confidence into Games 5, 6, and 7.
This was a redemption story, and it’s why the Dodgers won Game 4, 6-2.
On the other side, there was no redemption. There was a smoking crater where the bullpen had once been, months ago. The Astros got one of the best starts they will ever get from a starter in the postseason. Ever, ever, ever. And they wasted it. They dug through crates and crates this offseason, and they found the Beatles album with a bunch of dismembered baby parts for $5. Morton was already one of the best stories of the Astros’ season. This start should have been one of the greatest moments in franchise history. He was scintillating, doing things with baseballs that FOX should have pixelated out of a sense of decency.
But this is 2017. At 76 pitches through 6 ⅓ innings, Morton left to raucous applause, with everyone savoring a job well done. Again, that was 76 pitches, which happens to match his Game Score for the night. It was the second-highest Game Score for a pitcher throwing fewer than 80 pitches since pitch counts have been officially recorded. The record holder is still John Lackey from 2002, but that was when he was a rookie, and the Angels had Francisco Rodriguez and Troy Percival.
You can explain most of the other ones on the list away. Those teams had a great bullpen, a huge lead, or both.
The Astros had neither. But this is 2017. When you say “third time through the order” into the mirror three times, a home run bursts into the room and steals your wallet. And your infant, if you have one. Managers are deathly afraid of that third time through the order now because the suits upstairs provide evidence that they should be. Managers will do drastic things to prevent their starters from going that deep.
It’s worth noting that one of those ultra-high game scores with a low pitch count belonged to Morton just a couple weeks ago, when he was pulled after five brilliant innings (two hits, one walk). That was Game 7 of the ALCS, and it helped get the Astros to the World Series. The strategy worked. Get a few innings and go to the bullpen. It’s how the Astros won the pennant.
But there wasn’t a Lance McCullers and his magic curveball in relief this time. There were the usual suspects. And just about everyone in that Astros bullpen is Cody Bellinger from the fifth inning, with gummy worms instead of bones, and puffs of smoke, cartilage, and ash where the simple carbon dioxide from an exhale should be. They’re gassed. Absolutely gassed, and I’m guessing they aren’t ultra-confident, either. It’s a toxic combination.
There would appear to be a parallel between the Astros’ bullpen and Cody Bellinger. Someone like Ken Giles, with all the talent in the world, could find himself at just the right time in just the right way, like Bellinger. The goat is always that close to being the hero in a short series.
Except, no, that’s not how it works. Bellinger can continue to get at-bats while he’s lost because he’s just an out. Sometimes that out can come at the worst possible time, but he’s just a third of an inning, every single time. The damage is real, but it’s muted.
When Ken Giles is lost, the Astros’ world is burning. It goes like this: single, walk, double, and back to Dodger Stadium. Nothing he did was technically worse than Bellinger waving at back-foot breaking balls over and over again. Both are highly tuned professional athletes. Both are/were messed up, and both weren’t executing the way they wanted to.
The consequences of having a lost super-reliever are absolutely dire compared to the consequences of having a lost slugger, though. You can keep throwing the slugger in the lineup and hope something clicks into place, while having the support of eight other hitters. With the reliever, you have to hide him under a pile of leaves and hope the wind doesn’t pick up.
The wind picked up in Game 4. With the benefit of hindsight, the correct answer was probably to keep Morton in. He’d pitched out of a jam earlier in the game; he could pitch his way out of a jam again.
Without the benefit of hindsight, the bogeyman was obvious and to be avoided. Even if it meant taking out a starter who was wildly successful, it was a proven strategy. And it wasn’t that long ago that Giles and Chris Devenski and Will Harris were a filthy, ungodly troika, right? Before the cracks formed, those three were something to fear. The Astros were a dominant team because of how they could shorten the game, not in spite of it.
That’s not this team right now. And while the Dodgers could continue to keep the faith in Bellinger, the Astros most certainly can’t with Giles, or anyone else, for that matter. Look for Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander to challenge that third time through the order. Look for Lance McCullers to be a traditional starter if the series gets that far.
The Astros bullpen isn’t the only reason the Dodgers won. Alex Wood had a wildly inconsistent yet effective start, but the most important part was that he prevented runs and gave them innings. I can’t imagine what Dave Roberts would have done if Wood had another start like Yu Darvish in Game 3. It probably would have been a sacrificial start, unless he decided to overextend Ross Stripling or Brandon McCarthy. Instead, Wood was effectively wild, and he gave the Dodgers exactly what they were desperate for. The Astros sent 30 batters to the plate, and they didn’t even have a single.
That’s partly on them; that’s partly because of Wood. If the Astros could have hit Wood when he was struggling with his command, we wouldn’t even need to talk about Ken Giles right now.
As is, the Astros don’t have the bullpen to hold a 1-0 lead in the World Series. Sorry. It’s a nice thought, but they aren’t the 2015 Royals or 2016 Indians. They’ll have to figure something else out, except they’ll have to do it with the Dodgers holding home-field advantage.
The Astros just might have the starting rotation to hold a 1-0 lead, you know. But it’s 2017. Whatever that means.