The Astros will still be the 2017 World Series champions | SI.com
LOS ANGELES — The cover—which has become the cover—is dated June 30, 2014, but it appeared several days earlier than that. Issues of Sports Illustrated start to be plunked into mailboxes and displayed on newsstands on Wednesday, though they always bear the date of the following Monday. So it has actually been 1,226 days since the cover, with its bold prediction – first mocked, then grudgingly praised, then back-burnered, now ubiquitous – reached the world. Thanks to the Dodgers’ 3-1 win in Game 6 of this World Series on Tuesday night, the prediction has now lingered without a resolution—right, or wrong—for as long as it possibly could have, when we made it all those years ago. By day 1,227 we will have an answer. The answer will be: we were right.
The Astros will be YOUR 2017 CHAMPS.
Game 6 was a setback for the Astros but, in the grand scheme of things, it was not an unexpected one, or a crushing one. Not in a series that features, in a rare occurrence these days, baseball’s two best teams, opponents whose performances have been synchronized. When one offense has gone nuts, the other has too; when one pitching staff has dominated, the other has too. Five of the six games have been decided by one or two runs. Two of those—Games 2 and 5—have been bloodbaths; two—Games 1 and 6—have been duels; one—Game 3—has been something in between. Game 4 was tied at one run apiece before heading into the ninth inning. In their heart of hearts, everyone on both sides always knew the series would come to this. “I can’t say I’m surprised the baseball gods said, ‘OK, here we go, were going to Game 7,’” said Justin Verlander, Game 6’s hard-luck loser.
“This series was destined to go seven pretty much the whole time,” said Lance McCullers, who will get the ball for the Astros in Game 7.
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For what it’s worth—much less—others imagined this would turn to be a seven-game series, as well.
The Astros, though, will win it. They’ll win it because of their lineup, which outscored the Dodgers’ by 126 runs during the regular season and which provides opposing pitchers no break. Yes, the Dodgers navigated through it from the first inning through the ninth in Game 6, but they were on a swaying tight rope the whole time, liable to be knocked off by the slightest gust of wind. The Dodgers’ runs came thanks to a sixth inning single by Austin Barnes, a hit by pitch sustained by Chase Utley, a blooped double by Chris Taylor, a sac fly by Corey Seager—the only well-struck ball of the inning—and, later, a home run by Joc Pederson that Statcast would only have left the yard 20% of the time, based on how it was hit.
“I beat him to the spot, he hit it off the label,” Verlander said of Taylor’s game-tying double in the sixth. “I went back and looked at it. I’ll take my chances on that ten out of ten times. But tonight, it found the line.”
The Astros’ offense, meanwhile, seemed set to explode at any moment, only to see its fuse somehow snuffed out. Like in the fifth, when Houston had runners at second and third against Rich Hill with no outs but failed to score—thanks in large measure to the good fortune that Verlander’s at-bat came at the key moment.
Or in the seventh, when the Astros put men on first and second with one out, only to have the inning end when Jose Altuve—the presumptive AL MVP—was thrown out at first by half a step thanks to a combination of a stellar play by third baseman Justin Turner and an even more improbable pick by first baseman Cody Bellinger. According to StatCast, the always speedy Altuve busted it down the line in 3.87 seconds, his third-fastest home-to-first time of the season on a non-bunt. If not for Bellinger’s pick, the game would have been tied for the heart of the Astros’ order.
The wind, on Wednesday, is more likely to be blowing than not.
The Astros will win on Wednesday because of the baseballs. SI.com’s Tom Verducci’s report that the balls used for this series are slicker than normal—compromising a pitcher’s ability to throw a slider – is now as undeniable as ever, despite the close game. Verlander rejected several the home plate umpire offered him—“You grab ‘em, and immediately I feel like I’m going to throw it to the backstop,” he said—but he still couldn’t find one that felt entirely normal. In fact, the pitch with which he hit Utley, who would come around to score the winning run, was a slider that he yanked because he was reluctant to leave a spinner over the middle of the plate.
McCullers doesn’t throw a slider. Neither does Charlie Morton, who threw 6.1 innings of one-run ball in Game 4 and will likely be the first man in to relieve McCullers. Dodgers starter Yu Darvish, shelled for four runs on six hits in just 1.2 innings in Game 3? He throws a lot of them—with nearly 25% of his deliveries, during the regular season.
The Astros will win on Wednesday because of balls of a different, seamless sort. “Everyone in this clubhouse has big ones,” third baseman Alex Bregman likes to say, and what GM Jeff Luhnow’s many critics don’t understand about the rebuilding plan he initiated back in 2012 is that this was by design. They accuse him of assembling his team by computer program, one which hunted for high on-base percentages and launch angles and spin rates, and while those things were important, he always factored in a characteristic that only experienced scouts could identify. He wanted players who were never afraid. And that’s what he got.
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His club, in fact, has already proved itself in a Game 7, just ten days ago, when it easily dispatched the Yankees and their stopper, CC Sabathia, 4–0. “We know what it’s like to play in a win or go home game,” Verlander said. “We know what it takes.”
The SI Jinx? It will die tonight, along with the Dodgers’ season. It will be toe-tagged in the Los Angeles County morgue and buried in a potter’s field.
That will be only by coincidence. The Astros won’t win because of anything karmic, or anything related to a proclamation issued 1,226 days ago. They will win because they were built to win games like this, and because they’re set up to take advantage of an equipment malfunction that the league perhaps unintentionally introduced, and because, if only slightly, they are the better team.