World Series 2017: Astros in unfamiliar territory in trek to abolish playoff heartbreak

HOUSTON — The baseball franchise that has known nothing but postseason heartbreak was six outs away from being down in the World Series, two games to none. The only other time the Astros reached the World Series, in 2005, they fell behind the White Sox, two games to none, and Chicago finished off a sweep that left a bitter taste in the mouths of Houston baseball fans.

Instead, a rally. A spark of hope. The Astros tied Game 2 on Wednesday in the ninth inning. They won in the 11th. Everything in the 2017 World Series changed. In Game 3 on Friday night in front of a raucous crowd at Minute Maid Park, this eternally snakebitten team scored four times in the second inning and rolled to a 5-3 victory against the Dodgers.

For a town that’s long been the base of the United States’ space exploration, a baseball team was exploring new territory.

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“It’s really hard to not think about that,” superstar Jose Altuve said after the victory, with his uniform still on and a big smile on his face. “We’re talking about World Series champion. But like I’ve said before, we’re trying to stay humble. We’re trying to go a game at a time. That’s what made us so good during the season.”

This World Series was always going to end in heartbreak. That was unavoidable.

The Astros have never won the World Series. Their franchise joined the majors in 1962, and this is the 11th playoff experience in team history.

The Dodgers have a postseason history eclipsed only by the Yankees and Cardinals, the sport’s standard-bearers when it comes to World Series success. But they haven’t won the World Series since 1988. This is their 11th playoff experience since that championship, and while 29 years doesn’t compare to 55 years — or 108 years, like the Cubs last year, or 88 years when the White Sox beat the Astros in that 2005 Fall Classic — it’s still a big gap. A generation of Dodgers fans have only heard stories.

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So, yeah, being up 2-1 is a big deal.

“We have guys here like Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann, that they help us to do that, to stay humble, to stay quiet, don’t panic and keep playing baseball,” Altuve said.

Eighty-nine times in World Series history, a team has taken a 2-1 series lead. And that team has gone on to win the title 57 times (64.8 percent). That’s far from a guarantee, obviously. The 2013 Cardinals had a 2-1 lead on the Red Sox and lost. The 2014 Royals had a 2-1 lead on the Giants and lost. In 2016, Cleveland had a 2-1 lead on the Cubs (3-1, even) and lost.

That’s where the “don’t panic” preached by veterans like Beltran and McCann comes into play. World Series tensions are a whole different animal, and even though the Astros aren’t really a young team, they don’t have much experience in the final contests of the baseball season.

The Astros played a superior game on Friday, in almost every aspect. After starter Lance McCullers pitched into the sixth, Brad Peacock came on in relief and pitched 3 2/3 hitless innings to close out the victory — and earn his first career save — while the vaunted LA bullpen was pushed to the limit after starter Yu Darvish failed to make it out of that four-run second inning.

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That second inning was an offensive clinic.

“Four runs in any game is big. Four runs in the World Series is huge,” Houston manager A.J. Hinch said. “To get that kind of momentum started, get the crowd into it, have a lead, puts a ton of pressure on the other dugout.”

Yuli Gurriel started the hit parade with a home run that took about a half-second to reach the Crawford boxes in left field. Then Josh Reddick followed with a double and Evan Gattis walked. Marwin Gonzalez smashed a ball off the center-field wall; Reddick scored easily, but Gattis had to hold at second because he wasn’t sure whether the ball would be caught at the wall. McCann followed with a single that chased Gattis home.

Even the outs were hard-hit. George Springer lined out to Logan Forsythe at second, and Alex Bregman smoked a line drive to center field that Chris Taylor caught, but he had no real chance to throw out Gonzalez, who had tagged up at third and scored.

Just like that, boom — Houston led, 4-0.

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“The fastball command wasn’t there, and the slider was backing up,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of starter Darvish. “So he just really didn’t have the feel and couldn’t get any type of rhythm going. So right there you find yourself after five outs, down 4-0.”

The defense was night-and-day better. The Dodgers committed two errors and had a couple other plays that should have been made, but weren’t. Houston, though, saved runs with plus defense.

In the third inning, Astros starter Lance McCullers walked the first three batters he faced, bringing up the heart of the Los Angeles lineup. Corey Seager hit a sharp liner, but Yuli Gurriel fielded it on one hop, threw to Carlos Correa at second base for one out, then Correa fired to McCullers covering at first base for the second out.

“In that inning, bases loaded and no outs, that was the key of the game right there,” Altuve said.

Just your standard 3-6-1 double play in a potentially pivotal third inning of a World Series contest.

“It’s fun,” center fielder George Springer, who has made his share of highlight-reel plays this postseason, said. “To watch our infielders do what they do is fun.”

Astros fans certainly agree. In Game 3, it was fun for them to watch the infielders. It was fun for them to watch the pitchers. It was fun for them to watch the hitters.

It was fun for them to watch their team take the lead in the World Series for the first time in franchise history. And it was fun for the Astros players to give that gift to their fans.

“This city’s been through a lot this year, and for us to win this championship for them, would be like a dream come true,” Altuve said. “… This is the time for us to repay them back.”

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