LOS ANGELES -- The Houston Astros spent the bulk of World Series Game 2 taking the same futile swings and looking as out of sync as they did in Game 1 against Clayton Kershaw. Manager A.J. Hinch and his players have expressed a not-so-quiet confidence that there's an outburst around every corner. But the assurances and conspiratorial winks began to ring more hollow with every weak fly ball and routine groundout.
And then it happened. In the span of a few innings, everything clicked, and the Astros gave the Los Angeles Dodgers and 54,293 fans at this iconic ballpark a lesson in how star power, conviction and quick-strike ability can turn a garden variety postseason pitchers' duel into an offensive classic.
By the time Chris Devenski struck out Yasiel Puig to seal Houston's 7-6, 11-inning victory over the Dodgers, the two teams had shown that reality beats fiction when baseball loses its mind in October. As the Astros trooped into the cramped visiting clubhouse, dripping sweat and emotionally spent, they knew they had been part of something extraordinary.
"That's the craziest game I've ever played in," Astros catcher Brian McCann said. "It was awesome. That's the beauty of baseball. That's why it's the best sport in the world. You don't see drama go on as long as this anywhere else. That's why it's America's pastime. It was back and forth. It had everything you could possibly want coming to a baseball game or watching it."
Houston's comeback victory -- powered by late-game home runs from the foursome of Marwin Gonzalez, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer -- raises the suspense in the series to a whole new level. The Dodgers and Astros head to Minute Maid Park for Game 3 on Friday, and Los Angeles will try to rebound against an Astros team that has gone 6-0 with a 31-7 run differential, 10 home runs and a 1.17 team ERA at home during the postseason.
And now the Astros have an emotional boost from a late rally against Kenley Jansen and a Dodgers bullpen that had been close to untouchable in October.
"It's the best game I ever played in," Altuve said. "It was crazy. But at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is that we won. Let's go to Houston 1-1. It's gonna be fun."
The Astros and Dodgers packed about a month's worth of plot twists into four innings Wednesday. According to Elias Sports Bureau research, Houston was the first team to score in the eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th innings of any game since the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals did it against the Texas Rangers in Game 6 of the World Series -- in the classic David Freese home run game.
The Astros dug deep on a 93-degree night and crafted an ending so entertaining (for everyone but Dodgers fans) it surpassed the beginning, when the great Vin Scully summoned Fernando Valenzuela from the dugout to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
For much of the evening, it appeared that the offensive woes that made life so difficult for Houston in the American League Championship Series were destined to continue. Astros starter Justin Verlander allowed only two hits in six innings of work. But one was a solo shot by Joc Pederson and the other a two-run blast by Corey Seager, and Verlander left the game trailing 3-1.
As the late innings approached and the Astros stayed close, Verlander assumed the role of $180 million cheerleader. He told his teammates they had it in them to rally, even against a Dodgers team that was 98-0 this year when leading after eight innings.
"We have the TV on before the games," Verlander said. "You see everyone saying how great this Dodger bullpen is and how our offense hasn't been going. It's so easy to say, ‘Man, we're probably not going to win this game, down two against one of the best bullpens in baseball.' I just wanted to remind these guys how great they are. I've pitched against them, so I know how good they are."
Subsequent events showed that when Verlander is finished as a player, he might have a career awaiting him as a motivational speaker.
• With the Dodgers up 3-2, Gonzalez tied it with a solo shot off the indomitable Jansen. That's the same Marwin Gonzalez who started at least 14 games at five positions, logged a .907 OPS and does something extraordinary every now and then just to remind people he's around. In the ALCS, Gonzalez made a game-saving throw, then rushed to the hospital to be with his wife, Noel, just in time for her to give birth to a son they named Blake.
"I told Marwin the inning before that he was going to win the ballgame for us," Verlander said. "I didn't think it was going to be a game-tying home run. I thought it was going to be a game-winning home run. That's what I told him."
Said Correa: "Marwin has a flair for the dramatic."
• Altuve had an emotional day at the yard that must have felt like an out-of-body experience. At 4 p.m., he plopped down at a table next to the great Hank Aaron at a news conference to announce him as the American League winner of the Hank Aaron Award. And then there was Aaron, looking him in the face and telling him, "I would pay money to see you play."
Several hours later, Altuve crushed a Josh Fields pitch into the seats to turn a 3-3 tie into a 4-3 lead in the 10th inning and inject the Houston dugout with an instant shot of euphoria.
"What Altuve does on the field doesn't even impress me anymore," Correa said. "I kind of expect him to do stuff like that. That homer he hit was a game-changer right there, even for me. I was so focused and pumped, it changed my at-bat completely."
• Correa, Altuve's double-play partner and good pal, followed with a solo shot to make it 5-3, then went full Jose Bautista with a bat flip for the ages. Correa, 23, is so mature and respectful that the old-time scouts love him as much as the statistical crowd. But his emotions and the circumstances coalesced into a single, let-your-hair-down moment, and he had no intention to apologize for it.
"Like a friend of mine once said, ‘I don't know why my bats are so slippery,'" Correa said, smiling. "I was just caught up in the emotion of the game. I think I only did that once before, in the World Baseball Classic. I don't think I flipped the bat in the regular season once. I respect the game too much. But this is the World Series, and I don't think I'm going to play in the World Series every single year."
How strange was this game? When Puig went deep off Houston closer Ken Giles in the 10th, he gently laid the bat on the ground as if it were as fragile as a glass table top. And then he gave a positive critique of the flipping technique employed by Correa, the color-within-the-lines guy.
"I loved it," Puig said. "It was a little bit higher than the bat flips I normally do. He was happy. That's the way you should play in the World Series. Not everybody gets in a place like this. It's good that he plays like that and it's good that Latino players are able to contribute that way. He wasn't hitting that well, and when he hit the home run, it was a moment for him to be happy."
• Springer, who struck out four times in the leadoff spot during the Series opener, provided the exclamation point with a two-run shot off Brandon McCarthy in the 11th to make it 7-5 and give the Astros enough of a cushion to withstand Charlie Culberson's solo shot off Devenski in the bottom of the inning. Springer had looked so lost in Game 1, Hinch fielded multiple questions about the flaws in his center fielder's swing and the potential source of his struggles.
Hinch held firm, deftly parried the inquiries and said he expected Springer to contribute in a big way soon enough. It was a classic case of a manager knowing what makes a player tick, refusing to panic and reaping the rewards.
"Obviously I didn't have the best game last night [in Game 1]," Springer said. "As a player, you know it. And you press, and you want to do things that you can't do. For him to have my back and say, ‘Hey, you're still going to hit first, and you're still going to set the tone for us,' it slowed me down. For him to have my back like that, it means the world to me. And I'll always have his back. That just shows who he is."
The Astros, for all their well-roundedness, ultimately lean hard on Altuve, Correa and Springer, three players who rank among the elite all-around talents in the game and are capable of doing something spectacular with their arms, legs, gloves or bats at any moment.
But the presence of all that talent in the dugout couldn't ease the late-game tension in Game 2. Before the Astros celebrated the first World Series win in franchise history late Wednesday night, they did a lot of sweating and agonizing as a team.
"I almost fainted three times," said Verlander, who watched Springer's home run on a TV in the video room. "I'm not joking. I was cheering so loudly I had to take a minute to recompose myself so I didn't pass out."
"I almost had a heart attack in the last inning," Correa said.
The Astros have a day to reflect, rest and bask in the afterglow before play resumes Friday in Houston. There can be no doubt: We have ourselves a series.