The closer lumbered down the stairs away from the diamond, three outs down, three more to go. Dodger Stadium trembled in his wake, aware of the responsibility that hung across his broad shoulders. As Kenley Jansen entered the dugout midway through Tuesday’s eighth inning, he met the most concerned spectator inside a ballpark containing 54,128 fans in the sixth game of the World Series.
“You got this?” manager Dave Roberts asked.
Jansen stared at his manager. He had blown one save and lost one game to these Houston Astros. He understood that the Dodgers resided on the brink of elimination because of it. His gaze was firm. His answer was brief, biting and unequivocal.
“Yes,” Jansen replied, and he walked away. Roberts needed to hear no more. Jansen climbed the stairs for the ninth. He refused to relinquish the baseball. And he refused to wilt, slamming the door shut in a 3-1 victory that guaranteed something that has never happened at Dodger Stadium.
World Series, Game 7.
Could you expect any less? Could you ask for any more? The baseball gods might not answer letters, but they do allow dreams to flourish.
The Dodgers kept theirs alive Tuesday, 48 hours after an excruciating Game 5 defeat, by playing like the team that ran away with the National League West and bulldozed the other contenders for the pennant. Humbled for five innings, the offense awakened in time. Chris Taylor helped conquer Astros ace Justin Verlander with a tying double in the sixth. Corey Seager gave the Dodgers the lead with a sacrifice fly. Joc Pederson unleashed his third homer of the World Series in the seventh.
The offense provided enough cushion for the pitchers. Rich Hill made a gesture to protest the delayed suspension of Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel, then gave up one run before exiting with two outs in the fifth. The Dodgers relied upon the bullpen strategy that propelled them this far — and the strategy that had backfired earlier in this series.
Earlier in the day, Roberts insisted Jansen would record only three outs. Jansen faced the heart of the Astros order in the eighth inning. Loosening up in the bullpen was Clayton Kershaw, in case Jansen experienced a long inning. Jansen completed the eighth in seven pitches. It was brief enough to convince Roberts. Jansen retired the side with fury in the ninth.
And so both Kershaw and Alex Wood will be available in relief as Yu Darvish duels with Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr. on Wednesday. Kershaw intends to erase the sting from Game 5, when he failed to protect seven runs of support.
“I can give 27 innings,” Kershaw said. “Whatever they need.”
The outcome on Tuesday vindicated the process utilized by Roberts for almost the entirety of the season. Roberts guided his team to the most regular-season victories since the franchise left Brooklyn and to the World Series for the first time since 1988. Once there, the Dodgers met an opponent capable of combusting any strategy. The buttons Roberts pushed did not produce the familiar results.
Roberts prides himself on being proactive. He aims to anticipate when crises will arise, rather than intercede after the crisis becomes apparent. This leaves him open to criticism, he acknowledges. As the players took batting practice Tuesday, general manager Farhan Zaidi stressed that Roberts “has done a great job this series.”
“From a strategic standpoint, he’s proved himself to be one of the best in baseball,” Zaidi said. “We have complete faith in him.”
Early in the evening, Hill intended to make a point.
To begin the second inning, he faced Gurriel, who received a five-game suspension, to be served in 2018, for his offensive gesture toward Darvish in Game 3. The incident infuriated Hill, and so did the punishment. Hill felt baseball missed an opportunity to “make a statement” by suspending Gurriel for World Series games.
As Gurriel came to bat, Hill made what he called “my silent gesture.” He stepped off the mound to let fans boo. The jeering was thunderous, and it continued until Gurriel popped up. Hill subjected Gurriel to similar treatment in the fourth.
“The one thing was just to let the crowd speak their mind,” Hill said. “I didn’t think anything else would be as loud as that.”
Hill permitted only one hit on his first turn through the Astros batting order. The reverie ended when Houston outfielder George Springer cranked a solo homer, his fourth in six games. Against Verlander, a one-run lead felt like much more.
In the fifth inning, Roberts faced a familiar, painful choice. He had taken out Hill after only four innings in Game 2, rather than letting the Astros hitters face Hill for a third time. The decision backfired when Brandon Morrow and Jansen blew a two-run lead.
Now a similar situation arose. Hill gave up a leadoff single to catcher Brian McCann and a double to outfielder Marwin Gonzalez. McCann stopped at third base, where he remained as Hill struck out former Dodger Josh Reddick and Verlander.
Springer stepped to the plate. As Hill navigated through traffic, Morrow warmed up. Morrow had appeared in the first five games of this series, and he combusted in Game 5, giving up four runs on only six pitches. Roberts still believed in him. After Hill intentionally walked Springer, Roberts walked to the mound.
The crowd held its breath as Roberts conferred with Hill. Roberts extended his hand. Hill gave up the baseball, and in essence, responsibility for the evening to his manager. The fans howled at Roberts as he returned to the dugout. Hill hurled a fleet of cups off the water cooler.
The atmosphere improved a moment later. Morrow disarmed Astros third baseman Alex Bregman with a 99-mph fastball as Bregman rolled a grounder into Corey Seager’s glove at shortstop. Morrow vindicated his manager.
“I’ve believed in him all year long,” Roberts said. “And he came through in the biggest spot of the season.”
Verlander tired in the sixth. Austin Barnes singled. Verlander hit Chase Utley on the foot with a breaking ball. Facing Taylor, Verlander fired a 1-2 fastball at the top of the zone. Taylor swung late, but with enough strength to punch the baseball down the right-field line for an RBI double. Seager padded the lead with a fly ball to the wall.
Handed a lead, the Dodgers required nine outs from the bullpen.
Kenta Maeda recorded three in the seventh. After Pederson went deep in the bottom of the inning, in came Jansen. He left no doubt, as his cutter jumped to 97 mph in the ninth.
After the chaos of this series, in which homers soared in record numbers and bullpen decisions endured unceasing scrutiny, a winner will be crowned Wednesday. The Dodgers couldn’t wait.
“We never stopped believing in ourselves, that we can win a championship,” Jansen said. “So here we are.”