The exorcism of Game 2 of the World Series, a punishing 7-6 defeat that cost the Dodgers a chance to seize a two-game advantage over the Houston Astros, began a half hour after Yasiel Puig struck out to end the night.
In the center of the Dodgers’ clubhouse stood Kenley Jansen, the indomitable closer who could not suppress the Astros, a feisty group which overcame a two-run deficit heading into the eighth inning to outlast the Dodgers in 11 innings. A strange expression covered Jansen’s face. He was smiling.
A procession of Dodgers officials visited Jansen. He greeted owner Mark Walter and president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. Manager Dave Roberts led Sandy Koufax toward Jansen. The duo climbed over equipment bags bound for Houston to reach the closer. Koufax offered a hug. Roberts did likewise.
“That’s right!” Roberts said. “That’s what I’m talking about!”
After cruising through the first two rounds of the playoffs, inserting and removing his pitchers with a deft hand and pristine timing, Roberts saw his process break down at the hands of the Astros. As part of his daily ritual, he went over the game with members of the front office afterward. Roberts insisted he did not lose sleep.
“That’s the way we’ve done things all year long,” Roberts said. “I know our players understand it, believe in it. I know I believe in it. You just can’t really get caught up in chasing results. You have to really believe in the process. I know I do.”
In the Astros, the Dodgers have found an opponent worthy of challenging their process, the bullpen machinery that quieted the Diamondbacks and the Cubs. Arizona and Chicago featured talented lineups powered by one or two starts: Paul Goldschmidt and J.D. Martinez for Arizona, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo for Chicago.
Houston offers a more formidable task. The Astros led the major leagues in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. No team scored more runs. The lineup features seven players who hit 18 homers or more and eight players who hit 25 doubles or more. There are few dead spots in the batting order. The Dodgers felt the force of that group on Wednesday.
“Nobody said it was going to be easy,” Jansen said.
As Roberts conducted his postgame postmortem, a few inflection points arose: Did he remove starting pitcher Rich Hill too early? Could he have built a sturdier bridge to Brandon Morrow and Jansen? Did Morrow depart too soon?
In making this decision, Roberts confronted two conflicting sets of data. Hill limited opposing hitters to a .408 on-base plus slugging percentage on his third time through the order. Despite that information, Hill only went twice through the batting order in his first two starts this postseason.
Roberts also considered the platoon advantage Houston held against Hill. The first five batters in Houston’s lineup batted from the right side. George Springer posted a .972 OPS against left-handed pitchers in the regular season. Alex Bregman’s OPS against left-handers was .974. Jose Altuve’s was .977.
So Roberts went with Maeda. He pitched a scoreless fifth inning, allowed a single to start the sixth and departed with one out. Roberts chose left-handed reliever Tony Watson to face Brian McCann, a left-handed hitter. Roberts did not want to execute a double-switch, because he would have had to remove Joc Pederson, and Pederson had just tied the score with a home run an inning earlier.
At this point, Roberts’ touch still drew comparisons to Midas. Watson threw one pitch, and McCann rolled into an inning-ending double play.
The pitcher’s spot was due up second in the bottom of the sixth. Watson exited for a pinch-hitter. A two-run homer by Corey Seager gave the Dodgers the lead. Another inflection point loomed: Roberts chose Ross Stripling, a right-handed pitcher, to face Gonzalez, a switch-hitter who does well against right-handed pitchers.
Stripling let his manager down. He threw four pitches, all of them balls. At that point, with the tying run in the batter’s box, Roberts turned to Morrow, the reliever he trusts more than any outside of Jansen. Morrow induced a double play and escaped the inning.
Roberts acknowledge he could have sent Jansen to start the eighth. But he did not want to overextend his closer, and hoped to limit his save opportunity to four or five outs. Instead Bregman smoked a leadoff double. Roberts wanted Jansen to face Altuve, Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel.
Correa plated a run with an RBI single. Yet as the Dodgers prepared for the ninth inning, Jansen held a one-run lead and prepared to face Gonzalez, the No. 7 hitter in the Astros’ lineup. The process, it appeared, had worked.
Until it didn’t.
The homer by Gonzalez tied the score. Forced to use his less reliable relievers, Roberts watched Josh Fields serve up a pair of homers in the 10th. A furious comeback in the bottom of the inning proved for naught when Brandon McCarthy gave up a two-run shot to Springer.
“Last night hurt,” Roberts said. “We turned the page.”
Follow Andy McCullough on Twitter @McCulloughTimes