World Series 2017: This intangible could be X-factor for Dodgers, Astros

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

LOS ANGELES – Well, so, yeah, the bullpen.

The Houston Astros have gotten this far, so they’ve managed to work around it, survive it, duct tape it up and get on to the next day. Doesn’t make it any less inconvenient, that to be dragging a 5.03 postseason ERA from their relievers into, all things considered, the biggest baseball games in their history. They do, generally, believe in the men, however, and the pitchers they’ve been and can be again, so, yeah, open the door and let ‘em fly.

Hell, nobody might’ve even noticed were they not being held up against the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose bullpen went from good to unhittable over a couple weeks. That’s a lie. But, still, in the hours before the first pitch of the first game of this World Series, if one were searching for the difference between Dodgers in 7 and Astros in 7, one would be left with a shut-down, paint-by-numbers bullpen and a here-comes-the-big-one, hold-on-for-your-life bullpen.

You know, so far.

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The next pitch. Sometimes, especially after a few bad ones, it’s what gets them on a plane, into a new town, into a whole new mess to clean up. Even if they really believed in the last one, loved it, wouldn’t have delivered it any other way, sometimes all that’s left then is the next pitch too. A few uneven innings, even in October, wouldn’t change that, even if a good part of the summer was spent the same way, when getting from the starting pitcher to the handshake line was an exercise in patience and faith and willpower.

Houston Astros relief pitcher Ken Giles throws during the ninth inning of Game 6 of baseball’s American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees Friday, Oct. 20, 2017, in Houston. (AP)

Since the Astros left behind their 101 regular-season wins, their closer, Ken Giles, has allowed eight hits, three walks and five runs in six innings. He’s also saved two games. Chris Devenski, an All-Star who once got outs all over games, has allowed five hits, two walks and four runs in three innings. Will Harris, also once an All-Star, has given up four hits and a walk in two innings. Joe Musgrove, whose big stuff made him a natural as a high-leverage reliever, has allowed three runs and gotten eight outs. Luke Gregerson’s ERA: Zero!

But, not a disaster, because on Monday evening, they were here at media day, eager to play for the franchise’s first World Series championship, smiling because, presumably, there would be a next pitch. It would be better than the last. Or, the outcome would be better than the last. For, at some point, one must let go of the thing and live with the result. It’s way easier, it should be noted, when there’s a Champagne bath between those pitches.

Meantime, Astros manager A.J. Hinch has turned to starters Justin Verlander and Lance McCullers Jr. for big innings, in McCullers’ case four big innings at the end of Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

“To get through the regular season, you need a little more defined and a little bit more traditional role of how the bullpen plays out,” Hinch said, “and you spread out your guys and use a bunch of different guys. It’s amazing what you’re willing to do in the postseason.”

It was the reason for McCullers and, before that, Brad Peacock. That is, urgency. And alternatives. And survival. And duct tape.

“You’re willing to do a lot more in a small, short series,” he said. “Speaking of no tomorrow, there’s no more games after this series. So, I’ll do whatever I have to do to get the outs.

“Our hope is that our bullpen can get off to a better start and we’ll be able to get the outs. To be honest with you, I don’t have a preference. As long as we get the outs.”

Well, the regular bullpen guys have noticed, of course. They’re not in the same roles, or not for long. When the pundits sort through the series’ most likely outcome, none of which is anything like fact, by the way, or even punditry, for that matter, the respective bullpens are most often cited. Where Dodgers manager Dave Roberts looks for reasons to pull the chute on his starter and start waving in fresh arms, Hinch, it would appear, seeks opportunity to stick with his starters. Either strategy can win. The former is more comforting, perhaps.

Devenski, a salt-of-the-earth young man and downright nasty right-hander who threw 80 2/3 innings while also being holstered late for October, said he’d noted the observations their bullpen – his bullpen – could be the pivotal element here, and not always in a nice way.

Houston Astros relief pitcher Chris Devenski (47) delivers a pitch against the Boston Red Sox sixth inning in Game 2 of baseball’s American League Division Series, Friday, Oct. 6, 2017, in Houston. (AP)

“I think we have taken it personal,” he said. “We know we’re better than the way we’ve performed. We’ve worked harder than anyone in the league to get to this point. How we performed to this point in the postseason really doesn’t mean anything. Now it’s game on.

“Oh yeah, it stings to hear that kind of stuff. It stings not to perform at your best. But, can’t focus on the past. The past is the past.”

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Harris allowed a three-run home run to Aaron Judge in Game 5 of the ALCS, which can happen. He was the first man up had McCullers faltered in Game 7, and has pitched in three of the Astros’ 11 postseason games.

“I’m not going to shout from the rooftops, ‘Show us some respect,’” Harris said. “It’s not the way I am. But what we can do is be better. Change people’s minds, through performance.

“Who knows what’s going to happen in the next four to seven games. We’ve got talented guys.”

He listed most of them.

“So,” he said, “it’s more than meets the eyes. It’s our opportunity.”

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