‘Houston Strong’ indeed: A city put to the test has an Astros team up to the task

HOUSTON — The huge sign beside the highway as you come from the airport into this city says, “Houston Strong.” Those two words apply to the willpower of millions here who strive every day, and will have to continue that effort for months and years, to repair the damage done by flooding from Hurricane Harvey.

Measured on that scale, a baseball team is a smallish thing. Yet, in their way, the Houston Astros exemplify “Houston Strong,” or, at the least, live up to the standard of grit and resilience that has distinguished and dignified this city in its worst times.

On Wednesday in Los Angeles, the Astros came from behind to win the first World Series game in the history of this Houston franchise. Then, on Friday night here at Minute Maid Park, to double the pleasure and move halfway to a baseball title, the Astros did it again, beating the Dodgers 5-3 in Game 3 to take a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven World Series.

After ripping a Dodgers victory from the grip of the great closer Kenley Jansen in Game 2, the Astros bashed another symbol of this Dodgers season — right-hander Yu Darvish, the expensive trade-deadline acquisition who was supposed to be some kind of final title piece, nearly overkill in a rotation that already had Clayton Kershaw. Yet Darvish got only five outs while giving up four loud runs.

Many wondered if there would be aftershocks following the home run bonanza in Game 2. Would the Astros, who won that 11-inning nerve-shredder, carry momentum into the next game?

Houston Manager A.J. Hinch, following the ancient canons of the baseball faith, reaffirmed before Game 3 that “momentum is the next game’s pitcher.”

How right he was. Luckily for his Astros, that pitcher was Darvish. You can be bad. Or you can be awful. Darvish was both.

The 6-foot-5 Dodgers right-hander, one of the most talented pitchers in the sport, got only five outs, surrendered four runs on six hits and fanned no one. In fact, on 49 pitches, he got only one swinging strike. To find a comparably bad World Series start you need to go back 15 years.

Normally, Darvish has 10 different pitches and strikes out tons of hitters. In 2013, he fanned 277 batters. This season, after injuries in recent years have taken a bit of edge off his best stuff, Darvish struck out 209.

But there are nights when for little reason, perhaps a glitch in mechanics, maybe the pressure of a first World Series start, a man takes the mound and discovers that he has nothing on the ball but his naked fingers. From the first two hitters, Darvish could not find the release point for his breaking balls, leaving some head-high and merely spinning.

By the second inning, the Astros were waiting for fastballs. After what appeared to be a brushback pitch inside at the stomach level to Yuli Gurriel, the Astros first baseman retaliated by lashing the next pitch into the left field Crawford boxes for a solo homer.

A kind of Houston feeding frenzy followed as Josh Reddick slapped a shift-beating double down the left field line and Evan Gattis walked. Marvin Gonzalez smashed a ball off the wall in left-center but settled for merely an RBI single when Gattis, one of the world’s slowest mammals, only advanced one base. A Brian McCann single, an Alex Bregman sacrifice fly on a blistered liner to center and a double crashed off the left-center field wall by MVP candidate Jose Altuve left the score at 4-0.

Even with two outs, McCann could not score from first on Altuve’s long double, costing the Astros a fifth run off Darvish. How the Astros led the majors in scoring with Gattis and McCann in the same lineup is a marvel. I don’t want to say that Gattis and McCann are slow, but their shadows get ahead of them and yell for them to hurry up.

“Yu had a hard time landing his slider. From the start he was out of sorts,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “His fastball command was off.”

Though Darvish had helped them to a 4-0 lead, the Astros were far from safe. Their bullpen has been something of a nightmare this October. In Game 2, closer Ken Giles blew a two-run lead in the 10th inning and winner Kevin Devenski gave up a solo homer in the 11th.

In Game 3, for the second time in a week, Hinch found a novel solution. He erased his bullpen entirely. In Game 7 of the ALCS, Lance McCullers Jr., normally a starter, pitched the last four innings in relief for the save.

Hinch had anticipated this, or perhaps feared his own pen so much, that he’d sought out McCullers the night before to explain that, even though he wouldn’t start that Game 7, “you may finish it.”

“I wanted him to go to sleep in a positive frame of mind,” Hinch said.

In Game 3, the script was flipped. This time McCullers started and pitched credibly. But he had periods of wildness, including walking the first three Dodgers of the third inning. By the sixth inning, he was running on empty.

With two men on base, one out and the Astros ahead 5-1, Hinch called for Brad Peacock, who, for parts of the season, was the Astros’ best starting pitcher. Packed Minute Maid Park could almost be heard murmuring, “How are we going to get 11 more outs?”

To the surprise of almost everyone, Peacock allowed the two inherited McCullers runners to score, but got all of the remaining Dodgers outs — an 11-out save, just one out less than McCullers in his shutdown of the Yanks.

“I’m not trying to bring back the three-inning save,” Hinch said, chuckling. “But (Peacock) was cruising. He was in complete control of every at-bat.”

Brad Peacock fires 3.2 no-hit frames to finish Game 3 for @Astros – longest hitless #WorldSeries relief outing since 1964 (Ron Taylor, STL). pic.twitter.com/xchRQdmfJu

— MLB Stat of the Day (@MLBStatoftheDay) October 28, 2017

McCullers got the win. Perhaps this was appropriate, part of the whole scene and mood here, since he did perhaps the best job among the Astros of trying to express how much they have been impacted by the destruction that Hurricane Harvey inflicted on their city. And how much they hope to offer whatever distraction, “Houston Strong” pride or any other good feeling whatsoever through their wild baseball ride.

“Very tough. A lot of guys, their wives were here, their families, kids. … In those difficult days, everyone genuinely just wanted to do what they could to help the city,” McCullers said. “Going to see people, trying to lift their spirits. … We just wanted to get back here and show the city how much we love them.

“It became something we rallied around. We still have pictures hanging in our lockers. People here are hard-working and they went through something that a lot of people can’t understand,” added McCullers, the son of a big leaguer. “A lot of people lost everything. So, for us to be able to play baseball for a couple of hours for those people to have a little bit of joy, to get away from what they were having to go through – we wanted to give that to them.”

And, so they have.

In the AL Division Series they bashed Boston’s Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel in crucial situations in Game 4. In Game 2 of the ALCS, Altuve and Correa rocked the Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman. Then, Game 2 of this series lifted the spirits, at least of baseball fans, to the highest point in the franchise’s 56-season history with its first World Series win.

As 43,282 stood and roared for the first World Series win on their home field, they might as well have all been peacocks, spreading their orange plumage in delight. Houston, for a night, was bonded, whole, strong – and just two more wins away from winning a World Series.

“I never experienced anything like that in my life.”- Brad Peacock to @Ken_Rosenthal #WorldSeries https://t.co/KoayBP1gU7

— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 28, 2017

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