Ross Stripling was like most Dodgers fans on that dreary first night of November.
Moments after his team’s Game 7 World Series loss, the Dodgers pitcher couldn’t get home fast enough.
He had to catch a flight to get there, so he rushed from the stadium, confirmed his reservation, and the next morning was sitting in an economy window seat preparing to leave a nightmare.
Only, for him, as for surely many Dodgers this offseason, there would be no escape.
Stripling lives in Houston, and shortly before takeoff he realized he would be flying home in a plane full of rowdy Astros fans.
“I was like, ‘Oh hell,’ ’’ he said.
They cheered. They partied. And, even though nobody recognized the Dodgers reliever, they unwittingly taunted.
“The whole aisle in front of us, all the people were wearing Astros caps and whenever they turned their heads, that World Series insignia was right in my face,’’ Stripling said. “That’s when it sunk in.’’
After Stripling landed, it was worse. When he and fiancee Shelby went to the courthouse to pick up a marriage license, the clerks were wearing Astros gear and asking him about the Series. When they were finalizing the plans for the Nov. 11 wedding, everyone from the photographer to the florist was talking or wearing Astros.
And, of course, a couple of days after his return, he had to avoid the traffic jam caused by the Astros celebration parade.
“It was good for the city, but really hard for a Dodger living there,’’ Stripling said in an interview this week at Dodger Stadium. “I just couldn’t get away from it.’’
Even when Stripling tried to close his eyes he saw Astros, staying awake replaying the previous two weeks, wondering how something so great could have ended so dreadfully.
“You’re so tired, so mentally and physically drained, you obviously want to sleep, but you’re so upset at what happened,’’ he said. “To play into November and lose, and how it ended … it’s something I don’t want to feel again.’’
As the only active Dodgers player who lives in the town whose team beat the Dodgers for the World Series championship, Stripling’s offseason story is extreme, but parts of it are also shared.
Every Dodger surely has endured moments of offseason regret and remorse. Every Dodger has surely wondered, what could they have done different?
In this manner, Stripling’s offseason story has also been extreme. Because, despite having a World Series in which he had three scoreless appearances, including retiring George Springer on a fly ball with two out and the bases loaded in Game 3, Stripling said he has been haunted by four pitches.
They did no damage on the scoreboard. They did not occur late in a crucial game. But while those four pitches officially changed nothing, he feels they could have changed everything.
Remember? It was Game 2, top of the seventh inning, the Dodgers leading 3-1 and rolling toward a two-games-to-none Series lead. Stripling, a dependable middle guy, was seemingly brought into the game to turn around the Astros lineup and set it up for Brandon Morrow to have a clean eighth inning and Kenley Jansen to finish in the ninth.
It was a formula that had worked for the Dodgers throughout the summer. Except this time, the plan went as haywire as Stripling’s first four pitches. Facing Marwin Gonzalez, Stripling threw four consecutive balls, none of them close. The second-year guy who had walked only 19 hitters in 74 1/3 innings during the regular season — and none in the previous postseason round — had just walked the first batter he faced in his first World Series appearance.
His first four pitches were his last four pitches. He was immediately pulled from the game, Morrow was hustled to the mound an inning earlier than expected, and thus began a chain of events that led to a devastating Dodgers loss.
Morrow survived the seventh, but gave up a leadoff ground-rule double to Alex Bregman to start the eighth. Jansen was then brought in early. He surrendered a run-scoring single to Carlos Correa, then gave up the tying homer to Gonzalez leading off the ninth, setting the stage for the Astros’ 7-5, 11th iinning victory against out-of-place Brandon McCarthy.
For some, it might be hard to believe that a single seventh inning could lead to a stunning defeat four innings later. But Stripling wonders. That’s the thing about losing a World Series like the Dodgers lost it. Everyone wonders about everything.
“Yea, that does haunt me,’’ Stripling said. “I get the out there, I may go the inning, I get through that inning, Morrow gets a clean eighth, Kenley gets clean ninth, game over, we win.”
Stripling said nobody on the Dodgers blamed him for anything. But, true to a Dodgers career marked by accountability — Stripling is one of those stand-up guys — he’s not afraid to look in the mirror.
“It’s crazy to think that such a small thing could be so big,’’ he said. “But I know that what I did placed such a burden on our bullpen.’’
That’s another thing that happens when you are nine innings short of a World Series championship. Even a guy who throws four bad pitches in two weeks loses sleep over those pitches.
“My heart was just racing, it felt like my debut,’’ he said of his appearance. “The first one I yanked and I’m like, ‘Oh crap, I’ve got to adjust.’ Then you adjust too much and four pitches later, you’re sitting in the dugout like, what just happened?”
Stripling said he carried his perceived burden deep into the night.
“I went back to the hotel and just laid there, kind of numb, played it over and over in my head,’’ he said. “I’ve always prided myself on being a guy where the moment never gets too big for me. This is not something I’m used to. This is hopefully something I’ll never feel again.’’
This is the same Stripling who, two seasons ago, calmly handled being pulled in the eighth inning while throwing a no-hitter in San Francisco in his major league debut. This is the same Stripling who finished the second half of last season with a 0.962 WHIP out of the bullpen and will be considered for a spot in this season’s Dodgers rotation
Like all the Dodgers, he will learn and grow from his World Series experience. He says the Dodgers owe it not only to themselves, but their fans.
“It’s been tough on us, it stinks, but we know it’s also been really tough on our great fan base,’’ he said. “We want to do it for them. They deserve it.’’
The two words that have chased Ross Stripling all offseason — Houston Astros — will soon be replaced by two words that will fuel the Dodgers for all of next summer.
“Unfinished business,’’ he said.