World Series Game 6: The defensive play that helped force a Game 7

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

LOS ANGELES – A Game 6 becomes a Game 7, and a baseball season teeters over into November, and when the lights go out an old ballpark up on a hill seems to shiver and sigh. After all that’s come before it, and before the little bit that still remains, the subtleties of the games drift away, lost in the months past and the one last game ahead, except this is different but for a wave of Cody Bellinger’s mitt.

And maybe that’s why they’re here to begin with, and maybe that’s what will separate the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros, because, so far, between the two, there’s no light evident. Only ballgames, played to exhaustion, played to Carlos Correa bounding with glee or Joc Pederson practically doing jumping jacks down the third-base line, played to Justin Verlander on the black at 97, to Kenley Jansen whipping one last chin-high cutter, to three-games-apiece, and finally back to a 22-year-old man deft enough and calm enough to make it so.

Amid four more strikeouts from a feast-or-famine swing, in the seventh inning of a game that until then had mostly played itself around him, Bellinger held his mitt steady and his heart to a healthy patter and made the play that just flat-out had to be made. Yes, Rich Hill had gotten them started, and the bullpen composed itself again, and then the Dodgers sorted out Verlander, because it seemed for a very long time he wasn’t giving the ball back until he was done or they were. There are no pitch counts on Halloween night.

The Dodgers beat the Astros, 3-1, because of all the stuff that mattered. For the two runs against Verlander in the sixth inning, Austin Barnes barreling a fastball, Chase Utley taking an overthrown slider on his foot (“Yeah, we got ice,” Charlie Culberson deadpanned), Chris Taylor getting just enough of a one-and-two fastball, Corey Seager lifting a fly ball. Then, an inning later, for Pederson firing an outside fastball into the left-field bleachers, his opposite field, and spiraling around the bases like a tire flung from its axle on the freeway. Then, for the 13 outs gathered by their relievers, the last six, in order, from Jansen, one Astro at a time, until what was left was Game 7.

The Dodgers, like the Astros, had been very good for the better part of seven months at winning today, just today, and adding those up at the end. And, now, like the Astros, have only one today remaining.

And so, instead of counting up the home runs and the ERAs and all those wins, instead of charting the innings and adding up all the columns to somehow make sense of it all, what really echoes is a ground ball off Jose Altuve’s bat in the seventh inning and what came of that. Because without that which happened next, the conversation about this particular today could be very different, to the extent the Astros could be halfway home by now and the Dodgers could be clean out of todays.

The Dodgers celebrate after their win against the Astros in Game 6 Tuesday. (AP)

Here’s what happened. The Dodgers scored twice in the sixth inning to overtake the home run George Springer had hit in the third inning. They’d wrestled by then with going on 90 of Verlander’s pitches, and they’d all been an unreasonable effort, and still they’d gotten two players across 360 feet of dirt, and oddly enough Verlander was going to have pitched 12 innings of this World Series and allowed five hits and struck out 14 batters and have walked off the field twice behind on the scoreboard. The Dodgers had their lead, you may even call it an unlikely lead, 2-1. They had nine outs to get. They had what appeared to be a vulnerable bullpen to get them. So vulnerable, even, Clayton Kershaw stood out there with them, never really getting warm, but in a position to get warm if the situation arose. “I threw against the wall probably 700 times tonight,” he said. And asked how that went, he smiled and said, “Good.”

So, in the top of the seventh inning, Tony Watson walked the first batter, fellow left-hander Josh Reddick. Kenta Maeda replaced Watson. The next batter, Evan Gattis batting for Verlander, topped a two-hopper to shortstop. Shortstop Corey Seager went to second base for the force. Gattis, a big ol’ fella, beat the throw to first base. Then, George Springer knocked a grounder toward the left-side hole, which Seager got a glove on but had no play. With runners at first and second base, Alex Bregman, who’d ruined their Sunday night in Game 5, flied to center field and Derek Fisher, running for Gattis, went to third base. Astros were at first and third, two were out, Maeda had Altuve, the likely American League MVP, in the batter’s box. He had that one-run lead. He had those 90 feet to protect.

Maeda threw a cutter and a couple fastballs, and Altuve just missed a couple, fouling them back, and Maeda came back with the cutter, which Altuve bounced to the left side of the infield. Justin Turner, the Dodgers’ third baseman, snared the ball to his left. Altuve dug for first base. Turner released the ball. The crowd, which had roared at what appeared to be the third out, went quiet as Altuve raced the ball near even. Fisher already was near home plate. Springer, from first base, turned on the bag at second. He looked over his shoulder. Fisher turned to watch.

The ball never seemed to have quite enough altitude. It began to dive. Bellinger, who is 6-foot-4, edged his lead foot to his right, extended his gloved hand low. Behind him, maybe 20 yards to the short wall. The ball struck the dirt in front of his mitt, not so far in front there’d be a long even hop, not so close there’d be a short predictable skip, but in that in-between area that would require a big mitt and a million repetitions and a steady hand and a stable pulse and a little bit of luck.

“I always pretend the ball’s going to be in the dirt,” Bellinger said later. “So that way I’m not surprised.”

Across the diamond, Turner said, he did not consider the consequences of a ball that skittered past Bellinger, and Bellinger and right fielder Yasiel Puig giving it chase, and Fisher scoring and maybe Springer too, of the score not 2-1 anymore but 3-2.

“Nah,” he said. “I know if you get it in the area he catches it most of the time.”

Bellinger, elegantly, picked it clean, just ahead of Altuve passing behind him. The crowd breathed. Bellinger put his head down, jogged across the field, on the eve of November, like it was another day in March at Camelback Ranch and he’d just called off a coach banging away at fungoes.

“I thought I had it,” he said. “That was …”

He paused. He wasn’t sure.

“It was all right,” he said. “It wasn’t easy. But it wasn’t hard.”

Maybe it was nothing. Maybe it ends the way it ends anyway, somehow. Different, but the same. But, then, maybe it doesn’t. And Game 7 never comes. And the Astros are halfway home by now. But for a wave of Cody Bellinger’s mitt.

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