Kenley Jansen stewed inside the bullpen as the eighth inning unfolded, waiting to engage with a foe he had not seen in nine months. A distance of 275 days separated Friday and Game 7 of the World Series, when the Houston Astros captured a championship and denied Jansen a chance to atone for his rare lapses earlier in the series.
Jansen remained unsatisfied in the first game of this weekend rematch, kept holstered in the bullpen as his teammates could not solve Justin Verlander in a 2-1 defeat. His offense could not provide him a game to save.
A night after scoring 21 runs, the Dodgers were reminded what an ace looks like. Verlander struck out 14 across 7 2/3 innings.
He gave up a home run to the first batter he faced, Joc Pederson. From there, he overwhelmed his hosts with a cruel blend of overbearing fastballs and deceptive offspeed pitches. The Dodgers (61-50 and tied with Arizona in the NL West) never formulated an answer.
“I think he gets stronger as game goes on,” Cody Bellinger said. “Which is pretty crazy.”
Alex Wood gritted through six innings without much command. He permitted two runs, one earned, on four hits. He exited with cramps in his hamstring after warming up for the seventh. He took the loss because his teammates were muffled by Verlander.
And so this relatively meaningful series in August resembled the heartbreaking classic from last October. The Dodgers played well. The Astros played better.
The reunion did not invite pleasant memories for the Dodgers. The wounds still feel fresh. Houston manager A.J. Hinch is a good friend of Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. Their families are close. They have taken vacations together. They hung out at the All-Star game in Washington last month. Yet Hinch said he and Roberts had never discussed the outcome of the World Series. Maybe when they’re both retired, Hinch reasoned, it might come up.
“It’s another series, but can I say it’s just like all the rest?” Roberts said. “We’re facing the world champions. We’re looking forward to it.”
On Friday, the Dodgers saw a depleted version of the Astros. Houston lacked second baseman Jose Altuve, shortstop Carlos Correa and catcher Brian McCann. The lineup remained solid, featuring so many of the foes who haunted the Dodgers last October: outfielder George Springer, infielder Alex Bregman, utility man Marwin Gonzalez.
On the mound for Houston was Verlander. the 35-year-old horse who was rejuvenated by a late-August trade to the Astros last season. He experienced a jolt in the bottom of the first inning. For the second game in a row, Pederson homered in his team’s first at-bat.
The Astros answered in the second. Wood failed to command the strike zone as former Angel Martin Maldonado walked and outfielder Jake Marisnick singled. Up came Springer with two outs. The World Series MVP knocked a well-placed changeup into center field for a double. Maldonado scored, and so did Marisnick when Bellinger could not corral the baseball while sliding to stop it.
“It unfortunately popped out of the glove,” Bellinger said. “I was just trying to stop it from getting to the wall.”
The initial blow from Pederson did not rock Verlander. He struck out nine through four innings. The Dodgers could not catch up with his fastball, and could not find his curveball or his slider.
To open the bottom of the fifth, Verlander disarmed Max Muncy in characteristic fashion. Muncy fouled off a 95-mph fastball for strike one, missed another 95-mph heater and waved at an 88-mph slider.
Verlander started two World Series games at Dodger Stadium last year. In each, he faltered in the sixth inning, handing the lead back to his hosts. Verlander did better Friday. He issued a two-out walk to Justin Turner, but snapped a 2-2 curveball for a strike against Yasmani Grandal to escape the frame.
“He has great stuff,” Roberts said. “He locates the fastball, and he can strike his breaking ball.”
When the seventh inning began, Wood returned to the mound. He had thrown 105 pitches, his highest total since April 13, 2016. As he warmed up, a trainer visited him. The two left together and Dylan Floro came on in relief.
The team can afford to place Wood on the disabled list. They expect to activate Ross Stripling, who is currently sidelined with a relatively minor toe injury, next week in Colorado. Wood still pronounced himself pleased with his outing.
“With the direction that I’m heading in, the quality of my stuff I feel really good about,” Wood said.
The Dodgers tried to mount an offensive against Verlander in the eighth. Chris Taylor led off with a single. Called off the bench, Brian Dozier flied out. Pederson sent the crowd into a frenzy when he cranked a 3-0 fastball down the right-field line, but the ball flew foul. After Verlander fanned Pederson with a slider, he ceded the stage to reliever Hector Rondon.
Waiting for Rondon was Manny Machado, the most dangerous weapon added to the Dodgers roster since last autumn. Machado fell behind in the count and flied out to strand the tying run.
“They can pitch,” Roberts said. “We can pitch. The margin is so small for both clubs.”