HOUSTON — The baseballs are too slick, or maybe they are juiced, or maybe it’s both. The strikeouts happen too often and the home runs never stop falling and the umpire is always wrong. The sport of baseball is broken in 2017, or it’s rejuvenated, or it’s somewhere on the spectrum in between: still perfect for all its imperfections, still timeless for all its radical modernity, still agonizing for what it can do to the lungs and the brain and the spleen.
Because nowhere else can you find theater like this, like the 10th inning of Game 5 of the World Series, with life’s rich pageant displayed in one tableau in the final moments of a depth-defying 13-12 Los Angeles Dodgers defeat on Sunday night in Houston. Near third base, a mob of Astros moshed around third baseman Alex Bregman, who had delivered the game-winning hit to topple the game’s best closer for the second time in five games. Fireworks rocketed toward the roof of Minute Maid Park. The noise felt loud enough to open the building.
His head down, his body exhausted, Kenley Jansen walked off the mound, unable to tame the remorseless beast that is the Astros offense. No one on his team could, not on Sunday, in a game that lasted 5 hours and 18 minutes, before pushing the Dodgers one defeat away from winter, down 3-2 in the best-of-seven series. The outcome felt cruel, for the Dodgers did not wilt. They just could not hold back their opponents.
Down three runs in the ninth, the Dodgers refused to fade. Yasiel Puig rocked a two-run homer, setting a new World Series record as the two clubs combined for 22 in these five games. At the stroke of midnight in Houston, a single by Chris Taylor sprayed through the center of the diamond. The hit tied the score at 12 runs each. It gave the Dodgers life when it felt like they had been turned into dust.
Attempting to protect a one-run lead in the seventh inning, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts broke his pregame pledge to avoid using reliever Brandon Morrow for the third day in a row and the fifth time in six days. The Astros pilloried Morrow. George Springer atoned for a defensive gaffe which led to the Dodgers advantage by launching a redemptive, game-tying homer on the first pitch he saw to spark a four-run pounding.
Let down by Clayton Kershaw, unsure who to trust in his bullpen, Roberts permitted Morrow to face three more batters. He threw six pitches in all. After a single and an RBI double, Morrow watched a towering parabola rise off the bat of shortstop Carlos Correa. At last, the ball landed in the left-field Crawford Boxes, a shot that felt like an exclamation point for the 43,300 fans at Minute Maid Park.
As the baseball fell, a shirtless man wearing stars and stripes shorts jumped a railing into the outfield. He evaded security for 30 seconds or so, long enough to froth up the crowd and force the Dodgers to simmer inside a righteous mess.
Masterful for so much of October, Roberts saw his bullpen decisions backfire before the relentless pressure of Houston’s offense. The Astros boast the best lineup in the sport. In 2017, that sort of firepower can feel inexorable. On Sunday, the group launched five home runs as they broke Kershaw and broke Roberts’ in-game strategizing. The fusillade may have broken the Dodgers. They will try to save their season on Tuesday in Game 6 at Dodger Stadium.
You can forgive the Dodgers for spending the early portion of the day daydreaming about a parade. The offense flattened Dallas Keuchel by the fourth inning and handed Kershaw a four-run lead. He could not hold it.
Kershaw coughed it up in a fourth-inning flurry which ended in a three-run homer by Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel. After Cody Bellinger unleashed a three-homer of his own in the fifth, Kershaw walked a pair of batters and watched from the dugout as Houston second baseman Jose Altuve tied the game once more with yet another three-run blast.
After a masterful performance in Game 1, in which he swallowed any lingering anxiety and struck out 11 Astros, Kershaw wilted on Sunday. Houston mauled him for six runs. The debacle negated an offensive outburst.
In Game 1, Keuchel completed the first three innings with 31 pitches. On Sunday, the Dodgers stressed him for 32 pitches in the first. A two-run single by Logan Forsythe and a throwing error by Gurriel led to three runs. Forsythe doubled and came around to score in the fourth.
Handed a four-run lead, Kershaw collapsed in the bottom of the fourth.
His command did not accompany him when he returned to the mound. Astros outfielder George Springer took a leadoff walk. A series of sliders to second baseman Altuve fluttered over the plate until Altuve singled.
Kershaw attacked Correa with a pair of inside fastballs. Correa swung through the first. He whacked the second into left for an RBI double. The volume beneath the dome started to rise.
The next pitch from Kershaw detonated the crowd. It was an 89-mph slider, spinning helplessly toward the center of the plate. Gurriel unloaded on it. The baseball raced over the left-field Crawford Boxes and crashed into a Lexus advertisement. Kershaw crumpled on the mound as the lead evaporated.
The offense did not lay down. Bellinger greeted reliever Collin McHugh with a three-run shot, and raised his right arm in triumph as he rounded first base. Running back to his dugout, he held his left index finger over his lips, encouraging a shell-shocked crowd to stay that way.
The gesture was not enough. Roberts tried to figure out his pitching decisions. He did not want to use Morrow, who had pitched in four games across five days. Roberts attempted to squeeze another inning out of Kershaw, hopeful that the three-run lead would offer some cushion. The gambit appeared safe, until Springer took a two-out walk. Bregman outlasted Kershaw with a 10-pitch walk.
In seven previous outings this October, Kenta Maeda yielded only two hits. His earned-run average was 0.00. He collected eight outs to save the bullpen after Yu Darvish’s Game 3 meltdown. He could not replicate that feat on Sunday.
Maeda tempted Altuve with cutters and sliders outside the zone. Altuve held back. Maeda tried a couple more cutters. Altuve fouled them away. At last, Maeda flung a 94-mph fastball over the heart of the plate. Altuve left no doubt. His three-run homer landed on a porch overhanging the 404-foot sign in center field.
The tie lasted into the seventh. With a runner at first, Bellinger sizzled a 100.3-mph liner into center field. Springer went for it all. He got nothing. The ball bounced past him for an RBI triple. The Dodgers were ecstatic. But the drama had only begun.