HOUSTON — When his starting pitcher gave up four runs in the second inning Friday night, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts had a decision to make: Bring in Kenta Maeda for a long relief appearance in the hopes of trying to mount a comeback, or concede the game and save Maeda for later in the World Series.
In choosing option A, Roberts effectively put the Dodgers’ Game 4 fate in the hands of Alex Wood.
During the first half of the season, that would have been a strong proposition. Through the middle of July, Wood was a revelation, going 11-0 with a 1.56 ERA and making the All-Star team. But the 26-year-old lefty went 5-3 with a 4.25 ERA thereafter. And in his lone start in the past month, he allowed three homers in only 4⅔ innings in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs.
Yet with the Dodgers trailing two games to one, they will rely on Wood to not only stifle the highest-scoring offense in baseball but to do so for six or seven innings Saturday night at Minute Maid Park, where the Houston Astros haven’t lost in seven games this postseason.
“Alex is going to have to go deep,” Roberts said. “I think we’ve just got to go out there and pitch well out of the gate. Obviously, the crowd is into it, very educated, very enthusiastic. They’ve got some confidence over there, that team. And it’s up to Alex to go out there and set the tone.”
The most important thing of the day: It’s possible the Astros will be without one of their hottest hitters in Game 4.
MLB officials, led by commissioner Rob Manfred, will meet before the game with first baseman Yuli Gurriel about his racially insensitive gesture after homering against Dodgers starter Yu Darvish in the second inning of Game 3. A suspension is not out of the question.
Gurriel will surely need to come up with a better explanation than he gave reporters Friday night. He said he motioned to his own eyes in a mocking gesture that is offensive to people of Asian descent and appeared to mouth a derogatory term in Spanish because he hasn’t had success against Japanese pitchers.
If Gurriel isn’t allowed to play, the Astros could move utilityman Marwin Gonzalez to first base and give Cameron Maybin a start in left field. But they will miss Gurriel’s bat. He has hit the ball hard throughout the postseason and is 3-for-12 with two doubles and a homer in the World Series.
World Series Game 4: Dodgers at Astros (Houston leads 2-1)
The stakes: Win, and the Dodgers square the series with Clayton Kershaw looming in Game 5. Lose, and they move on the verge of bowing out of their first World Series since 1988. So, yes, for the love of Orel Hershiser, it’s fair to consider this the fulcrum game of the series.
If the Dodgers win: In addition to turning the World Series into a best-of-three sprint, they will burst the Astros’ air of invincibility at home. Also, the Dodgers would assure the series will return to Chavez Ravine.
If the Astros win: Hold on to your retractable roof. After going 54 years without winning a single World Series game, the Astros will have won three in a row and climbed to within one victory of their first world championship.
One key stat to know: It has been a season to remember for Cody Bellinger, who is expected to be crowned NL Rookie of the Year in a little more than two weeks. So far, though, the Dodgers first baseman has had a forgettable World Series. After going 0-for-4 with four strikeouts in Game 3, he’s 0-for-11, the fourth-longest hitless streak to start a World Series in franchise history behind Gil Hodges (0-for-21 in 1952), Davey Lopes (0-for-13 in 1977) and Ed Konetchy (0-for-12 in 1920), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
But Roberts isn’t about to bench Bellinger over a few rough games.
“I don’t see giving him a day off,” Roberts said. “I think he’s just in that funk right now where he’s chasing balls out of the strike zone.”
The matchup that matters most: The Astros’ late-inning strategy versus modern bullpen usage. In Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, Lance McCullers Jr. picked up a four-inning save. On Friday night, it was Brad Peacock going 3⅔ scoreless innings, tied for the second-longest save in World Series history after only Madison Bumgarner‘s five-inning closeout in Game 7 in 2014.
It’s almost as though Goose Gossage has inhabited manager A.J. Hinch’s body.
“I’ve really enjoyed bringing back the three-inning save,” Hinch said with a smile. “That’s cool.”
Hinch hasn’t had much choice. With closer Ken Giles prone to implosions and Chris Devenski and Will Harris looking gassed after taxing seasons, the Astros’ best bet to safeguard a lead is to replace the starter with another starter. And they’re fortunate to have several pitchers who are able to provide multi-inning relief.
It won’t be Peacock in Game 4. Hinch insists it won’t be Game 6 starter Justin Verlander either, although it’s worth remembering that the ace did make his first career relief appearance with the Astros up a run and a game in the division series against the Boston Red Sox. But if Morton can get through five innings with a lead, it might be Collin McHugh‘s turn to take it as far as he can go.
The prediction: Maybe it’s the whistle of the choo-choo train high above the Crawford Boxes in left field, or the noise that gets trapped by the roof, but it feels like the Astros are unbeatable at home. Game 4 also has the makings of a slugfest, and we have not yet seen a team that can stand toe-to-toe with the Sluggin’ Stros. The Astros will win another one at Minute Maid, 9-8, and set up a chance to clinch in H-Town on Sunday night.