If the wild, extra-innings slugfest in the second game of this captivating World Series was unhinged, Game 5 was certifiably insane. It was also an instant classic. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ formidable ace, Clayton Kershaw, was cruising yet let slip a four-run lead. The Houston Astros blasted two game-tying three-run home runs yet had to come from behind again … only to blow a three-run advantage in the ninth inning.
The World Series balls are reportedly a boon for power hitters and a bugbear for finesse pitchers and here was more evidence for that thesis, an evening of big blasts, bad pitching and momentum shifts that twisted from one team to the other in the swing of a bat. This is a series that makes fools out of anyone who makes assumptions. No lead was safe, no matter how big, no matter how late in the game.
At the end of a contest that felt like it might never end, as Sunday night in Texas became Monday morning the Astros grabbed a 13-12 extra-innings victory that put them 3-2 up in the best-of-seven match-up: one win away from their first ever World Series title. Their pitching staffs in smoldering ruins, the teams return to Dodger Stadium for Game 6 on Tuesday and the Astros will deploy their ace, Justin Verlander, against Rich Hill.
“Just when I thought I could describe Game 2 as my favourite game of all time, I think Game 5 exceeded that,” said Astros manager AJ Hinch. “It’s just two really good teams throwing haymakers at each other, trying to outlast each other.”
Astros calls to the bullpen have lately seemed like handing an arsonist a flamethrower and pointing him in the direction of his own house. On Saturday night, his culpability in a 6-2 Dodgers win rendered the Astros’ regular season closer turned postseason disaster, Ken Giles, virtually unusable for the rest of the series. It is hard to know whether Hinch was making bad selections or whether no good ones existed in the circumstances. Either way, woeful relief pitching has hurt the Astros in their roofed-and-rocking ballpark in the past two games, undermining the work of their array of power hitters. It certainly cost them in the ninth inning on Sunday.
It seemed both a practical problem – a dearth of trustworthy relievers – and a psychological one, a loss of confidence after the home bandwagon developed engine trouble on Saturday as the Dodgers became the first visiting team to win at Minute Maid Park this postseason at the eighth attempt. But the Dodgers’ bullpen was also wrecked on Sunday by an Astros line-up that, like the Dodgers’, combined immense talent and a refusal to buckle when headed for a soul-sucking loss.
And to think we expected a pitching duel. But this repeat clash of hirsute, left-handed, 29-year-old former Cy Young winners was short-lived and strange. Kershaw outpitched Dallas Keuchel in Game 1, a 3-1 victory for the Dodgers, and did so again here – until, suddenly, he didn’t.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts struggled to explain Kershaw’s rapid demise. “He was rolling, throwing the ball well, good rhythm,” he said.
It seemed as if the ninth-inning bullpen implosion that saw a 1-1 game finish 6-2 to the visitors still weighed on Houston’s minds when Sunday’s game began. Los Angeles capitalised on poor pitching and slack fielding to build a lead that, with Kershaw imperious, felt like it was unassailable.
Keuchel, normally masterful in Houston, started with a leadoff single for Chris Taylor and a walk to Justin Turner after one out. Another walk, to Enrique Hernandez, loaded the bases. Keuchel struck out Cody Bellinger, LA’s spark on Saturday, but Logan Forsythe drove in two runs, sucking much of the energy out of a crowd that had just given a raucous welcome to the man who was about to be elected US president the last time the Dodgers won the World Series, in 1988, and a former owner of the Texas Rangers.
But Bushes HW and W had little to cheer soon after their roles in the ceremonial first pitch. To make matters worse, a throwing error by Yuli Gurriel allowed Forsythe to reach second as he tried to steal a base. Hernandez crossed home plate to make it 3-0.
The third inning saw the first hit off Kershaw, a hard-hit fly ball to centre by Evan Gattis, but Marwin Gonzalez then grounded into a double play. The Dodgers added another run in the fourth with an RBI single courtesy of Austin Barnes. Keuchel did not make it out of the inning: an early exit to load even more pressure on the beleaguered bullpen.
In the bottom of the fourth there were signs of life as George Springer walked and Carlos Correa delivered a hit, then Alex Correa lifted the crowd with an RBI double to left field.
Kershaw’s vulnerability in this postseason has been the home run, and the volume from the stands reached eardrum-destroying levels as Gurriel cannoned the very next pitch into the Crawford Boxes for a three-run home run that tied the game. Gurriel would not have been on the field but for the decision of the Major League Baseball commissioner, Rob Manfred, to delay the first baseman’s five-game suspension for a racist gesture in Game 3 until next season.
LA’s riposte was immediate, as it was when they went 1-0 behind on Saturday. It was also significantly abetted by feckless pitching, as Collin McHugh walked the first two batters to start the fifth, his first game action in almost two weeks. It was not much of a shock when Bellinger devoured a non-curving curveball, clobbering a 378ft home run that gave LA a three-run lead.
Kershaw’s night was done in the bottom of the fifth when he allowed two men on base with two outs, bringing in Kenta Maeda, who had not given up a run in his past eight appearances and had impressed in Game 3. Here: not so much. With the fans roaring “M-V-P! M-V-P!”, Altuve spanked a three-run, two-out home run towards the petrol pump above the centre field wall. It was the second baseman’s seventh home run of the postseason – one shy of the MLB record.
On to the seventh inning, which began with Turner falling inches short of sending a Brad Peacock pitch over the right field fence. Hernandez laid down a poor bunt and Turner was tagged out going for third base. Then, horror for Houston: Springer, the centre fielder, dived for a bouncing shot from the ever-more influential Bellinger but missed, allowing Hernandez to score from first.
As fate would have it, Springer was first up for Houston in the bottom of the seventh. Brandon Morrow’s first pitch was a 95mph fastball. It was dispatched on to the train track above left field, sending up a puff of smoke as it landed. 8-8. Altuve doubled to deep left centre field, and Alex Bregman, who had singled, beat the throw to home. 9-8.
Up came Correa. Morrow’s first pitch to him was a ball; the second, a 96mph fastball. The shortstop pounced, unfurling a high, high, shot in a languid arc that transfixed everyone in the stadium as it landed just over the left field scoreboard. 11-8. Giddy with joy, Correa pumped the air with his right fist as, in the bedlam, a streaker rushed on to the field.
Of course, this was nowhere near over. Joc Pederson doubled, then Peacock hit Taylor. Hinch terminated Peacock’s night. In came Will Harris, whose first pitch was sent to deep centre field by Corey Seager, scoring Pederson. But Chris Devenski, the sixth Houston pitcher of the game, emerged and preserved a two-run lead that was elongated again when Brian McCann hit a solo home run off Tony Cingrani in the bottom of the eighth. It was Houston’s fifth home run of this astonishing contest.
The Dodgers were not done: Yasiel Puig propelled a two-run home run to left field, then Barnes doubled. Pederson grounded out but Barnes advanced to third. With the clock at midnight and two strikes on Taylor, the centre fielder singled off Devinski and the runner scored from third. Tied game.
Finally, in the tenth inning, a plainly weary Kenley Jansen – who gave up a home run on Saturday – could not quite hold off the Astros. Having relied so much on the long ball, they manufactured the winning run, driven in by Bregman with two outs.
After more than five hours, it was over at last.
“I think this whole series has been an emotional rollercoaster,” Roberts said. “It’s the two best teams playing for a championship.”