LOS ANGELES — The four-seam fastball of Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander is the unicorn of major league pitches.
“Nine inches of ride and run!” exclaimed Dodgers hitting coach Turner Ward, in a manner usually badociated with witnesses of UFOs, Loch Ness monsters and traffic-free L.A. freeways.
“A dead true four-seam, high-spinning fastball in every sense of the pitch,” said Los Angeles shortstop Corey Seager. “It’s almost impossible to get on top of it. You tell yourself you have to get on top of it, but it’s still so hard. You almost have to convince yourself to swing over it, which is crazy. But then he’s also got that slider to go under your bat. All you can do is hope you can an okay pitch and do something with it. You’ve got to hit the rare okay pitch.”
No fastball in baseball spins as fast as Verlander’s angry heater (minimum 1,000 fastballs)—and that was before he somehow imbued it with even more irascibility in the postseason. His spin rate on the pitch jumped from 2,541 rpms in the regular season to 2,615 in the postseason.
In World Series Game 6 Tuesday night, Verlander and his unicorn pushed the Dodgers to the brink of elimination and the Astros to within 12 outs of the franchise’s first championship. The Houston lead was just 1–0 in the sixth inning, but in the hands of Verlander, who had allowed one soft single, punched out eight and had a look in his eye not seen around these parts since Gary Cooper was on the Columbia lot in Burbank shooting High Noon, it looked as secure as block chain.
That’s when this World Series, whose plot has pivoted more than Inception, took its sharpest, head-snapping turn yet, a pivot that made possible Wednesday night the two most beautiful words in baseball: Game 7.
The Dodgers are an embarrbadment of riches. So bloated is their record $265 million payroll that they are paying $106 million to 14 players not to be on their World Series roster, which means Los Angeles’ dead money alone would rank above the actual payrolls of five teams this year. But the Scrooge McDuck money the Dodgers have distracts from the scrappiness that actually helps them win games. So it was in the fateful sixth, when unicorns and grinders collided. The grinders won.
The Dodgers made possible Game 7 because catcher Austin Barnes, a former ninth-round pick making $540,000, and Chris Taylor, a former fifth-round pick making $535,000, did the impossible and got on top of Verlander’s four-seam fastball for hits. Of course, neither Barnes nor Taylor was drafted by the Dodgers, but were acquired in trades only because their original teams, the Marlins and Mariners, respectively, gave up on them.
“It’s so hard to get on top of it,” Barnes said of Verlander’s fastball. “It’s like it has rise to it. You know he’s coming right at you.”
Los Angeles had done next to nothing against Verlander’s heater throughout the World Series when Barnes came to the plate. In two games the Dodgers were batting .091 against it (2-for-22), with only a heat-aided opposite field homer by Seager in Game 2 and a soft single by Yasiel Puig in Game 6 keeping it from being unhittable. Throughout the postseason, it was unhittable whenever Verlander threw his fastball at the top of the zone: 0-for-17.
Verlander missed with one fastball away to Barnes and another one down. Then he made a rare mistake with his fastball: not high enough, and over the middle of the plate. Barnes rapped it for a single to leftfield.
“Those two guys are the best guys we have at getting on top of fastballs,” Ward said about Barnes and Taylor. “We have a few guys with loft in their swings, like Belly [Clay Bellinger] and Joc [Pederson]. With Barnes that’s something that we’ve talked about with him since spring training. He’s worked hard at it.”
Still, Verlander seemed to regain equilibrium when he worked ahead of Chase Utley, 1–2. He had never hit a batter all year with a 1–2 pitch. He chose to throw a slider, a pitch that bedeviled him, Yu Darvish, Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen and others in this series because of what they considered to be the extreme slickness of the World Series baseball.
(The worry over the skin of the World Series baseball continued last night. Verlander and Jansen each threw several balls out of the game based on their feel, with Jansen once firing the ball toward his dugout with visible anger. “Yes, I fired it,” he said. “I’ll keep my thoughts [on the ball] to myself for now, but I’ll just say anybody with common sense can see what is going on.”)
Worried that he might leave one of those sliders over the plate—which he did in Game 2 when Pederson smashed it for a homer—an anxious Verlander overcooked it, pulling it into the ground in front of Utley, after which it bounced and hit him in the leg. Verlander had thrown 871 sliders all year. This was only the second time one of them hit a batter.
Now the Dodgers had an honest to goodness rally against Verlander. Two on and nobody out. Imagine that. They had sent 39 batters to the plate against him in the World Series and Taylor, the next batter, would be the first one to face him with a runner in scoring position.
Again, Verlander worked ahead, 1–2. This time he chose not the slider, but the unicorn. Good choice. Batters hit .065 when he threw his fastball on 1-and-2 counts. Better still for him, he threw it at the top of the strike zone, the Bermuda Triangle of hitting in which no batter had escaped this October. And yet … Taylor somehow flattened his stroke and, while slightly beaten to the spot by the pitch, fought it off well enough to dump it softly just inside the rightfield line for a game-tying double. The pitch was clocked at 97.1 mph.
“I had been trying all night to get on top of it,” said Taylor, who had flied out and struck out in his previous two at-bats.
Seager followed with a long sacrifice fly off a slider to drive in Utley, putting Los Angeles ahead for good.
Whether it was supreme confidence in his fastball or a lack of faith in his breaking pitches because of the slick baseballs, Verlander was a different pitcher in this World Series. In his two starts he poured in fastballs at extreme rates—67% in Game 2, and 68% in Game 5, more than in any of his previous 77 games dating to September of 2015. He pitched splendidly, but not enough to withstand his teammates scoring just two runs during his 12 innings on the mound.
Los Angeles made the lead stand up because four relievers secured 13 outs without allowing another run. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was vilified in Game 2 for pulling starter Rich Hill after four innings, but he used the same formula—as he has all year—in Game 6, and yet because the results were different no one even questioned him this time. While critics like to point out that Hill is tough on hitters the third time around (.158), the fallacy of that defense is that Hill so rarely is put in those spots. It’s based on a small sample. Hill averaged 22 batters faced per game—that’s two times around plus only four batters—and in the postseason he faced 18 or 19 batters, no more, no less, in all four starts.
When Roberts absolutely needed an out in the fifth inning—down 1-0, Verlander dealing, bases loaded, two outs—there was no way he was going to press his luck with Hill against the righthanded-hitting, lefty-mashing Alex Bregman. No, the right move was to deploy his best righthanded setup reliever, Brandon Morrow, as his deus ex machina.
Morrow had provided one of those many series pivots in Game 5, for all the wrong reasons. Copperfield style, he made a one-run lead in the seventh disappear before you could say abracadabra. It took him only six pitches, four of which were pounded for hits, to put his team down by three. Morrow was gbaded from pitching in 12 of 13 games.
“Off days,” he said, “are golden.”
The Dodgers’ charter plane landed at five in the morning Monday. Morrow went home and slept until one, awoke, went for a walk with his family “just to get the blood flowing,” and hooked up an electrical stimulator to his arm to promote even more blood flow and restoration. Mostly, he rested.
It worked. In Game 5, Morrow averaged 96.3 mph on his fastball, topping out at 97. In Game 6, the restored Morrow averaged 98.4 on his heater, and hit 99 with it. One day off brought the life back to his arm.
“The difference,” he said, “is that last couple percentage of bad in your arm.”
So now we have arrived at the point we should have expected in the first place, when two 100-plus win teams get together in the World Series for the first time in the 42 years of the free agent era. It’s just that how we got here has been as circuitous, and yes, sometimes as clumsy, as one of those minor league bat races—you know, where some guy with plumber’s cleavage spins three times around a bat and then tries to run to first base with his internal gyroscope all fouled up.
In six games we have seen 60 pitchers, 13 tied scores and 10 blown leads. In 57 innings of play, 56 of them have ended with the Dodgers and Astros separated by no more than three runs. Four Cy Young Award winners or runners-up—Kershaw, Verlander, Darvish and Dallas Keuchel—have combined for seven of the 12 starts in the World Series, and yet those celebrity starters are 1–3 with a 5.55 ERA.
All aces but Verlander figure to be factors in Game 7, especially Kershaw, who incredibly could not hold four- and three-run leads in back-to-back innings in Game 5. He figures to either set up Jansen or close behind him, the way he did in NLDS Game 5 last year. Imagine, given his failure in Game 5, the pressure on Kershaw not to let Game 7 get away.
That’s why Game 7s are the best drama sport can ever offer. All the usual rules of engagement no longer apply. After the Dodgers have played 176 games and the Astros have played 179 games, an entire season seven months in the making is distilled into one winner-take-all game. Game 7 mints infamy and legend with random approbation. The bounce of a ball, the slip of a pitch, the switch of a pitcher … every detail of the game is played on a razor’s edge of posterity.
Momentum is as fickle as the wind. The Astros had it in Game 6—Verlander on the mound with a lead—until Barnes and Taylor turned it around with the persistence of their at-bats.
This was the outcome the Dodgers imagined when they showed up for work at Dodger Stadium Tuesday. As with every home game for them, a hand-written message on the clubhouse whiteboard greeted them—author unknown—including infielder/outfielder Enrique Hernandez, who reported for duty on this Halloween night wearing a Chewbacca costume. Facing elimination, it was time to invoke a Game of Thrones mentality.
“The night is dark and full of terror,” the message went. “We are that [expletive] terror. Leave it on the field today.”
Game 7 is the only ending properly befitting the drama of this serial. To be possible, it needed two players barely making minimum salary to beat a Cy Young Award legend. If they can stand up to the unicorn, what great mythology awaits us tonight?