How the Astros dominated Yu Darvish (again) to put Game 7 away early

LOS ANGELES -- The 2017 season ended with Charlie Morton throwing a 96 mph fastball to Corey Seager, Seager hitting a ground ball to Jose Altuve, Altuve throwing the ball to Yuli Gurriel and then all the Houston Astros charging in from the bullpen and the dugout, their orange jerseys swarming the field at Dodger Stadium. It was a beautiful thing to see -- a baseball celebration.

The story of Game 7 and the Astros' 5-1 clinching victory, however, begins in the top of the first inning and with the first batter. George Springer walked up to the plate, said a few words to Austin Barnes as he put a hand on the catcher's shoulder -- words about good luck and admiration for what had been an exhilarating first six games -- and then dug in to face Yu Darvish, the hired arm acquired by the Los Angeles Dodgers to help them win the World Series.

Eight pitches later, it was a 2-0 game. Springer doubled into the left-field corner on a 1-1 slider and scored when first baseman Cody Bellinger threw away Alex Bregman's little bouncer. Bregman would steal third and score on another grounder.

When Springer stepped in again in the top of the second, it was 3-0 and Darvish was on the ropes. There were two outs, a runner on, Brandon Morrow warming up in the bullpen. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts let Darvish face Springer.

Springer got ahead in the count with two balls ... or Darvish fell behind in the count: I guess the wording depends on how you want this story to read. Springer took a fastball for a strike, a curveball inside and missed at a slider.

The next pitch was Darvish's 47th of the game -- his 96th of the World Series -- and almost certainly the last one he'll throw as a Dodger. It was a 96 mph fastball, low in the zone and middle of the plate. Springer absolutely unloaded, belting a 438-foot laser out to left-center, his record-tying fifth home run of the World Series.

"I remember swinging and hearing the sound of the bat. I knew it was a good sound," Springer said. "Then I saw the flight of the ball. And I got to first base and I rounded third, and got home and that's a crazy feeling. It's a very surreal feeling because this is Game 7."

It was 5-0 and the Dodgers never recovered. Springer had one of the greatest individual performances in World Series history. He set a record with 29 total bases, and his previous four home runs had either tied the score or put the Astros ahead. He hit the go-ahead home run in the 11th inning of Game 2 and he finished with a batting line of .379/.471/1.000, with eight runs and seven RBIs. He was an easy choice for World Series MVP.

Darvish sits on the other side. There's no other way to put it: He was a disaster. Between his two starts, he lasted just 3⅓ innings. He threw 96 pitches, induced only four swings and misses, and gave up nine runs.

"From the last outing I learned and I tried to make adjustments going toward today's outing," Darvish said through an interpreter. "The last outing my breaking ball, especially slider, wasn't that good or sharp. So I was trying to make adjustments between outings. And today I was able to throw it for strikes, but it didn't get to the level that I wanted it to be, which is dominating."

Now Darvish heads into free agency with this World Series cloud now hanging over his reputation as one of the game's elite starters.

"I know he wanted the baseball. I know he was prepared. I just can't explain the results. I really can't," Roberts said after the game.

In this age of social media experts, the criticism that Roberts should have pulled Darvish for Morrow when Springer came up wasn't completely unreasonable. The fact that Darvish couldn't put away Gurriel during a 13-pitch at-bat in the first inning was perhaps a sign that he didn’t bring his A-game, and the Astros are going to punish you if that's the case.

Still, Springer's ball was the only hard hit of the first inning. Marwin Gonzalez lined a double in the gap in the second.

Roberts said he had no regrets leaving Darvish in the game.

"You look up to that point, there were two balls that were hit hard. There was the first ball off Springer's bat, the double, and then Gonzalez -- outside of that we made an error, the stolen base, and then some soft grounders. I think anything but the homer you've got to kind of let the game [unfold] -- I understand it's Game 7, but I just felt his stuff was good," Roberts said.

Roberts also could have been thinking that the pitcher's spot was due up third in the bottom of the second inning, so he wanted Darvish to get that final out and then maybe lift him for a pinch hitter with the Dodgers down. It was the first time all postseason that Roberts left a starter in one batter too long. Instead, he ended up burning Morrow for just one batter anyway.

It's also true that Roberts had a quick hook all postseason with his starters. He had removed them before they got into trouble, a plan that worked to perfection in Game 6 when the bullpen tossed 4⅓ scoreless innings.

The other popular critique, that Roberts should have simply started Clayton Kershaw (or Alex Wood), sounds a lot like second-guessing after the fact, although there were some suggestions before the game to start Kershaw. Darvish is a good pitcher. He'd had a bad Game 3.

"Yu has been one of our top three starters all year or since we acquired him," Roberts said. "He had a bad one in Houston. But to think that we would start Alex on short rest, something he's never done, you don't know what you're going to get in either one of those two guys, and to think they're going to start the game, I think it's unfair to Yu."

Yes, Kershaw came in and delivered four scoreless innings in a gallant effort that history will forget, but he wasn't going to pitch all nine innings. Even if Kershaw starts, you probably need Darvish at some point. In the end, Darvish didn't get the job done and the Astros hitters did.

"When you're going to face a high-end pitcher, and even though we beat him up a little bit twice this series, it is not going to take away how good he is," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "We've seen him a lot in Texas and obviously he's a difficult pitcher. You have to pick a pitch. You have to find an area of the zone that you feel comfortable with and stay in the strike zone the most you can.

"If he gets you to chase, it's advantage Darvish. If he gets you to hit his off-speed pitches, it's advantage Darvish. So you have to be very disciplined. And we did that two games in a row where we got hittable pitches and did damage."

Blaming Darvish as the goat of the series isn't completely fair, either. Kenley Jansen, the best closer in the game, blew a save in Game 2 and picked up the loss in Game 5. The Dodgers hit just .205. Even in Game 7, they had their chances, leaving 10 runners on base as they went 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position. The much-maligned Astros bullpen pitched 6⅔ innings of one-run relief, although it was Morton, the Game 4 starter, who went the final four.

One guy didn't lose this World Series. Twenty-five won it.