The best two teams from the start of the regular season through the end of the playoffs met in the World Series: the 104 win Los Angeles Dodgers and the 101 win Houston Astros. The series was extremely competitive throughout with a lot of twists and turns. In Game 2, the Dodgers were poised to take a commanding 2-0 lead but the Astros rallied against the virtually invincible Dodger closer Kenley Jansen. Afterwards, madness ensued in extra innings as homeruns flew everywhere. The Astros eventually prevailed to tie the series at 1-1. After the Astros won Game 3 to take a 2-1 lead, pitching dominated in Game 4 before Astros Ken Giles imploded in the ninth and was removed as closer for the rest of the series. The pivotal Game 5 matched two former Cy Young Award winners, Clayton Kershaw and Dallas Keuchel. Kerhsaw has been the best pitcher of his generation. Despite his postseason struggles, he looked poised to take his Dodgers to the promise land. It looked like it early in the game too as he cruised through the first three innings. Then, he coughed up a 4 run lead in the 4th inning and then another 3 run lead in the 5th inning. Ironically, a legendary slugfest broke out in a game started by Kershaw and Keuchel. It ended with the Astros beating super closer Kenley Jansen again in the series. With the Dodgers facing elimination against Justin Verlander, the big right handed ace appeared destined to clinch the World Series for the Astros. Nevertheless, the Dodgers scratched just enough runs to squeak out the game to force a Game 7. It seemed only fitting that a back and forth World Series would culminate in a Game 7. The final and ironic twist was an anti-climactic and boring Game 7. The Astros jumped on Dodgers starter Yu Darvish early for 5 runs and knocked him out in the second inning for a second time in the series. The Astros starter Lance McCullers was completely wild and hit 4 batters. He was also pulled in the early innings. With the Astros compromised bullpen, the Dodgers had the opportunity to rally and provide one last dramatic game in the series. They should have made the night a living hell for the beleaguered Astros pen. As I watched the game, I waited for a couple of rallies that would narrow the lead and set up an epic finish. Unfortunately, they left runners on base all game and could never get the big hits to close the gap. As I watched out after out, I thought “Can this really be it? A ho-hum finish to an exciting series? There must be more.” There was no more. The writers in L.A. must have taken the night off because there was no Hollywood ending… at least not for the Dodgers. In the end, the gritty, gutty, and young Astros captured their first World Series title in franchise history. Fittingly, the final out was made with a groundout to Jose Altuve, who has been a cornerstone of the Astros and lived through three straight 100 loss seasons at the beginning of the decade. It was also a feel good story for the city of Houston after getting ravaged by Hurricane Harvey.
Astros Championship Grit
The Astros showed championship resilience throughout the last two rounds of the playoffs. Their first test came in the ALCS. After jumping out to an early 2-0 series lead against the upstart New York Yankees, the Astros were overwhelmed by the play of the Yankees and the ruckus atmosphere of the Bronx. In those three games in New York, the Yankees clobbered the Astros bullpen. It was completely compromised and there were few to no options for manager A.J. Hinch to turn for big outs in a close game. Moreover, the Yankees finally beat Dallas Keuchel who had owned them in his career. The Astros body language was terrible after Game 5 in New York. They looked like they were ready to fold. Faced with elimination and returning home, the Astros turned to Justin Verlander who had completely dominated the Yankees in a complete game win in Game 2. They traded for him hoping to rejuvenate his career and provide them the ace who would put them over the top. In Game 6, he delivered another legendary performance in his postseason career with 7 shutout innings leaving the game with a 3-0 lead. In the 7th inning, Verlander was running on fumes. The Yankees had two runners on and Todd Frazier launched a bomb to centerfield. If he doubled to score a run and put the tying runs at 2nd and 3rd, Verlander would have likely been knocked out of the game. The Yankee hitters would have smelled red meat with the Astros pen coming in as they had constantly rallied against it the previous three games. Instead, George Springer made an incredible catch at the wall and Verlander gutted out the rest of the inning. In Game 7, the Astros blanked the Yankees. Charlie Morton delivered the biggest start of his career in 5 shutout innings. Lance McCullers came out of the bullpen for the final four innings. In my opinion, Game 6 of the ALCS was the moment the Astros found their championship character. Again, the Astros showed that same resolve and determination in the World Series. Usually, a team is done if they cannot rely on their bullpen in the postseason. They won despite it and A.J. Hinch squeezed just enough out of his relievers by bypassing them with starters at key points. Even though the Dodgers beat Verlander in Game 6 and thought they were unbeatable at home in Game 7, the Astros did not blink for a second and quickly took a commanding and decisive lead early in Game 7. The World Series MVP, George Springer, was another prime example of the resilience of the Astros. He was totally lost in the ALCS against the Yankees. He is a streaky hitter regardless. He got on an unbelievable hot streak in the World Series. He tied the record for homeruns in the World Series with 5 and broke the record for total bases for any playoff series.
Legacy Defining Postseason for Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander
For the Dodgers, they are left thinking about what could have been. The biggest culprit is Clayton Kershaw. Game 5 was a legacy defining moment for him. In the regular season, he has a career 2.36 ERA in over 1,900 innings. In 118 postseason innings, his ERA is 4.50. It is almost double. Kershaw is a brilliant pitcher and a likeable person who has carried himself like a gentleman. He was having a good postseason and dominated Game 1 of the World Series. In addition, it was the first time he was on a great team that matched his greatness. He carried mediocre teams to the playoffs in the past. If he pitched like an average pitcher in Game 5, we could have given him the proper tribute he deserves as the best pitcher of this generation. Like a lot of other baseball fans, I was rooting hard for him to pull it off. Unfortunately, he wilted when it mattered the most again. He pitched great in relief in Game 7. If his team rallied, he would have got some redemption but not totally erase what transpired in Game 5. In his earlier postseason struggles, I thought it might have been a matchup issue with the St. Louis Cardinals. Nevertheless, his struggles have happened over and over again against other teams. I can also not argue that it has been a small sample size. 118 innings is a large enough sample size. When his ERA is almost double in the postseason, it is fair to label him as a choker. Even without postseason success, Kershaw’s regular season success has already put him as the best pitcher of his generation and first ballot Hall of Famer. That same success burdens him with the expectations of performing as well or better as the other all-time great pitchers. As a Dodger, he also lives in the shadow of the great Sandy Koufax, who was the best regular season and postseason starter in his incomparable career. For all those reasons, Kershaw’s failure in Game 5 was a significant black eye on his legacy. Instead of erasing his ghosts of postseasons pasts, he amplified them and validated the only criticism of his career. Of course, Kershaw still has time to change his legacy. I hope he does [as long as it is not against my team]. In this moment, he was the greatest pitcher of his generation who had the World Series in his left hand. He failed and all the reasons above are why the weight of this World Series loss mainly falls on his shoulders.
On the other hand, this postseason has stamped Justin Verlander’s career. He was on the path to the Hall of Fame before hitting a lull in his career on a terrible Detroit Tigers team in recent years. The trade to the Astros rejuvenated his career. He did not lose as an Astro until Game 6 of the World Series. Even then, he only gave up 2 runs and pitched great. He was brilliant throughout the entire postseason. For his career, he is now 11-6 with a 3.07 ERA. As the FOX graphic throughout the series showed, he also currently holds the lowest career ERA in potential series clinching games in postseason history. He has elevated his game in the playoffs. Outside of Madison Bumgarner, Verlander has emerged as the second best postseason pitcher to go along with being one of the best regular season pitchers in his generation. He will likely be a Hall of Famer now anyway. If he has a couple more big seasons on a loaded Houston Astros team, he will definitely cement his ticket to Cooperstown. This playoffs served as a contrast of two great pitchers. Kershaw hurt his legacy while Verlander dramatically improved his greatness.
Other Los Angeles Dodgers Goats
If you ignore the Kershaw’s pre-existing conditions and expectations going into the series, Yu Darvish was actually the biggest culprit in the Dodgers loss. He was brought in to be a second ace and the final piece in the Dodgers championship puzzle. He also had a great track record and big performances against the Houston Astros. Before Game 7, I actually thought he was going to pitch well and was rooting for him. However, he was absolutely terrible in the series. He failed to make it out of the second inning twice. On the other hand, I want to give him credit for handling the Yuli Gurriel situation with tremendous grace and class. Gurriel’s offensive and racial gestures and remarks were inexcusable. Nevertheless, Darvish forgave Gurriel. He chose to be positive and make it a learning experience for others going forward. However, the World Series was a bad time for Darvish to come up so short going into free agency. He will still get paid handsomely but likely cost himself a lot of money.
Next, I was not a big fan of Dave Roberts’s managing in the series. Last year, Terry Francona revolutionized postseason play with his use of relievers, especially his best in Andrew Miller, in high leverage situations earlier in the game. In my opinion, there has been an overreaction to that success. I still agree with the strategy. However, managers might be overcorrecting. They appear to be going to relievers earlier than they need to now. John Smoltz made a great point during the series. If you use a parade of pitchers, you become reliant on everyone having their best stuff every night. The best example in this World Series was Game 2. Rich Hill was pitching very well for the Dodgers. However, Roberts opted to pull him after 4 innings. He stretched out his bullpen. Specifically, he asked Kenley Jansen for a 6 out save that he rarely attempts. After Jansen gave up one run to blow the save, Roberts had already exhausted and used up all other reliable options he had in the pen. He paid dearly in extra innings as the Astros scored two runs in the 10th and 11th innings. If Jansen only had to pitch one inning, I also believe he nails down that save. If the Astros were down 0-2 in the series, it would have been much more difficult for them to win the series. To be fair, I also did not like Roberts pulling Rich Hill with 2 outs in the 5th inning of Game 6. It was 2nd and 3rd with no one out. Hill struck out the next two batters before intentionally walking Springer and being pulled for Brandon Morrow. At the time, I thought Roberts prematurely lifted Hill again. In retrospect, he made the correct move. It was bases loaded against the right handed hitting Bregman, who delivered big hits in the series. Accordingly, it made total sense to go with his right handed stud setup man against Bregman instead of a left handed pitcher with the Dodgers’ season on the line. With Verlander pitching for the Astros, he could not afford to give up another run. Despite my view on the issue, it will be interesting to watch and debate how this strategy plays out and evolves in the future.
Despite the failures of the Dodgers, both teams were obviously evenly matched. The Astros won because they were slightly more resilient and made a slightly less number of mistakes.
Bright Future of Baseball
Baseball had stellar television ratings in an exhilarating postseason. For the World Series participants, they are going nowhere. The Houston Astros have a great young core highlighted by the four of Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Alex Bregman. They also have other promising young players (e.g. first basemen AJ Reed and outfielder Derek Fisher). Yuli Gurriel was a great signing. He might have been their best clutch hitter. He is an older rookie because of his time playing in Cuba but he will be part of the core in the foreseeable future. Justin Verlander probably still has a couple of big years left. The young Astros have rejuvenated him. Verlander and Keuchel form the 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. Lance McCullers has top end stuff too. He was an All-Star and ace with Keuchel at the beginning of the season. He faded during the season but showed flashes of his potential at certain points in the playoffs, especially in the ALCS against the Yankees who could not hit him. Of course, they will want to fix closer Ken Giles and try to find a couple of additional power arms to rebuild their bullpen. The Dodgers are also loaded and young. They are already a complete team with a top closer supported by a deep and talented bullpen. They will probably let Yu Darvish walk but they have plenty of money to find a replacement. They also have a great farm system with more youngsters on the way.
The surprise Yankees have a loaded young core. They were a game from eliminating the Astros and reaching the World Series. They have more top prospects on the way to promote or package in trades as they try to put the finishing touches on a championship team the next two years. The Red Sox are another young and loaded team. They need to find more power in their lineup but they will be title contenders. Of course, the Cleveland Indians was the best team in baseball at the end of the regular season after winning 22 games. Do not forget about them despite an early postseason exit. They are another complete team and last year’s AL Champions. They will be legit title contenders again. Last year’s champions, the Cubs suffered from a World Series hangover but they will be perennial contenders too. Their young core of positional players are going nowhere. However, they will need to fix their pitching. It was mediocre this year. The Washington Nationals are as loaded and talented as any team in the league. Of course, they were picked off in the first round again and need to get past that hurdle.
One of the most interesting stories this offseason will be who wins the bidding for the Japanese Babe Ruth, Shohei Otani. In his last full season in Japan in 2016, he was 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA and 174 strikeouts in 140 innings. He also batted .322 with a .416 OBP, 22 homeruns, and a 1.004 OPS. He could tip the balance of power in the league.
Overall, the future is bright and exciting for baseball.