Gutsy Justin Verlander Propels Astros, But What Happened to Vaunted Phillies Offense?

Gutsy Justin Verlander Propels Astros, But What Happened to Vaunted Phillies Offense?

AP Photo/Matt Slocum

It wasn’t another no-hitter. Or even all that pretty, really. But what mattered by the end of Thursday’s game was that Justin Verlander and the Houston Astros both got a World Series win.

For the pitcher, it’s a long-awaited first. For the team, it means they now need just one more to secure the Commissioner’s Trophy for the second time in six years.

After ending up on the wrong side of the second no-no in World Series history in Game 4 on Wednesday, the Philadelphia Phillies at least managed to get on the board for six hits and two runs in Game 5. But the Astros did them one better in the latter category to win 3-2.

It was a “there goes that man again” affair for the Astros offense. Still fresh off winning the MVP for the American League Championship Series, Jeremy Peña became the first rookie shortstop to hit a World Series home run in the process of going 3-for-4 with two RBI.

Houston Astros @astrosThor: Love and Thunder 🫶⛈ pic.twitter.com/1WZwZl1fxQ

Verlander had to work hard to limit the Phillies to a lone run through five innings, and Houston’s vaunted bullpen even had some trials of its own in the final four frames. To wit, Jean Segura’s run-scoring single off Rafael Montero in the eighth was the first hit off an Astros reliever with a runner in scoring position all postseason.

Yet with help from clutch defensive plays by Trey Mancini and especially a Superman-like Chas McCormick, the Astros were able to escape Philadelphia with a 3-2 series lead.

“It’s symbolic for me that my first [World Series] win was such a great team win,” Verlander said afterward, via Ryan Fagan of the Sporting News.

According to MLB.com’s Sarah Langs, 19 of the 24 teams that have ever been in the same position Houston is in now held on to win the series.

Verlander’s Leash Was Just Long Enough

AP Photo/Matt Slocum

Who’s to say exactly how many people were wondering about what kind of leash Dusty Baker was going to have on Verlander in Game 5, but their numbers were apparently great enough for the veteran manager to feel compelled to answer the question.

“Everyone is wondering if he has a short leash,” Baker said, per Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle. “He doesn’t have a leash at all. He’s Justin Verlander.”

Verlander’s reputation obviously demanded as such. He is, after all, a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer who’s in line to win his third Cy Young Award after leading the majors with a 1.75 ERA in the regular season.

Reality, however, had been painting a different sort of picture for the 39-year-old in the playoffs.

Verlander got lit up for five-plus runs in two of his three postseason starts, including the one he made in Game 1 of the this World Series last Friday. That performance pushed his career World Series ERA to a record-high 6.07, and likewise extended what was already the longest Fall Classic winless streak to eight starts.

It took all of two pitches for Verlander to achieve still more World Series infamy on Thursday, as Kyle Schwarber made it a record 10 home runs off the right-hander in the World Series when he connected on a high fastball leading off the first inning.

Philadelphia Phillies @PhilliesGREAT JOB, KYLE pic.twitter.com/VeFn9BFJPM

The tone set by that blast didn’t really let up through the first three innings. Verlander was able to keep further runs off the board, but barely as he issued four walks and got tagged for four hard-hit balls.

The leash, it seemed, needed shortening.

Baker nonetheless went with his heart and stuck with his ace, even letting him begin a third trip through the Phillies order after he retired the eighth and ninth hitters to lead off the fourth. The gambit worked, as Verlander struck out Schwarber, Rhys Hoskins and J.T. Realmuto in succession and then retired Nick Castellanos after a hard double by Bryce Harper.

One could posit that the baseball gods did Baker a solid by covering a bad decision with good results, but that would be to deny Verlander the credit for adjusting as needed.

He was leaning heavily on his fastball through the first three innings, going to it for 39 of his first 55 pitches. He shifted away from it to get the next six outs in the fourth and fifth, throwing it just 15 times out of 39 total offerings. Effectively, his slider and curveball saved the day.

Rob Friedman @PitchingNinjaJustin Verlander, Bowel Locking 80mph Curveball. 💩 pic.twitter.com/Kl1LydxAGM

The final line on Verlander: five innings, four hits, one run, four walks and six strikeouts.

That’s not going to join, say, any one of his three career no-hitters as one of his best performances. Heck, it’s not even his best World Series performance by the numbers.

The sheer grit of it, though, makes it worthy of a place in the general lore of Justin Verlander. He’s pushing 40 and he’s up over 190 innings after Tommy John surgery cost him basically all of 2020 and 2021. It’s therefore hard to fault him for looking gassed throughout the playoffs, up to and including in Game 5.

Yet he got the job done anyway, and it only took everything he had.

Whither the Phillies Offense?

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Let’s wind the clock back to Tuesday, at which time the Phillies offense couldn’t have been any hotter.

Said offense produced five or more runs in eight of the 14 games that the club had played to that point in the postseason. That day’s performance was a culmination of sorts, as the Phillies won a 7-0 rout in Game 3 with the help of a World Series record-tying five home runs.

Since the fifth inning of that game, however, the Phillies have all of seven hits and two runs.

The Phillies largely have themselves to blame for this. After striking out 33 times in the first three games of the series, they’ve fanned 26 times in the last two. And by the time Segura finally broke through in Game 5, they had gone 20 straight at-bats without a hit with a runner in scoring position:

Matt Gelb @MattGelbPhillies are 0 for their last 20 with RISP. Haven’t had a hit with runners in scoring position since Game 1.

There’s more than one Phillies hitter who’s just not hitting right now, but much of the blame has to come down on Hoskins and Realmuto.

They haven’t been much of a bridge between Schwarber in the leadoff spot and Harper in the cleanup spot, as they’re a combined 6-for-42 in the series. Though it should be noted that he was the victim of McCormick’s brilliant catch in the ninth inning on Thursday, Realmuto has just one hit in 17 at-bats since he almost single-handedly won Game 1.

The Astros have had to work harder to keep Harper in check, but what they’re doing is largely working on the two-time MVP. He has two hits in 12 at-bats since the start of Game 2, largely in the face of a diet of inside heat that was especially pronounced in Game 5:

Codify @CodifyBaseballHow the Astros attacked Bryce Harper tonight 😮 pic.twitter.com/cPahxBonhN

But if two things can be true at once, this is as much a case of brilliant pitching as bad hitting.

Even if he didn’t quite follow up the six no-hit innings that Cristian Javier provided for the Astros in Game 4, Verlander obviously did what he had to do to get through five innings in Game 5. Houston’s bullpen, meanwhile, continues to be lights out. Its 0.88 ERA for the postseason is very much on-brand with the MLB-best 2.80 ERA it had in the regular season.

To boot, there’s a reason that the music that Astros pitchers are playing right now might sound familiar.

You might recall last year’s American League Championship Series, in which the Astros fell into a 2-1 hole to a Boston Red Sox squad that outscored them 21-8 in Games 2 and 3. But as hot as Boston’s bats were then, they suddenly became ice-cold as Houston’s arms permitted just three more runs in the last three games of the series.

It’s now the Phillies who seem to be under this same spell, and it’s hard to imagine them so much as forcing a Game 7 if they can’t find ways to break it.

What’s Next for the Astros and Phillies?

Following an off day for travel on Friday, the World Series will resume for Game 6 at Minute Maid Park on Saturday.

Zack Wheeler will take the ball for Philadelphia, opposing Framber Valdez for Houston. The same two hurlers first squared off in Game 2, wherein Wheeler struggled with his velocity in giving up five runs in five innings while Valdez permitted one run over 6.1 innings.

First pitch is scheduled for 8:03 p.m. ET.

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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