PHILADELPHIA – Forget the starting pitchers, the offensive stars that have been alternately celebrated and vilified over the last six years and pause your sentimental feelings over their 73-year-old manager for just a moment.
The Houston Astros are one win away from the second World Series title in their history because of the greatest bullpen in postseason history. And they showed no better time to prove their mettle than a taut, gut-wrenching and possibly Series-turning Game 5 on Thursday night.
One night after covering the final three innings of the first combined no-hitter in World Series history, the Astros’ relief corps took up for their 39-year-old ace who was good for just five innings, stared down a fearsome group of Philadelphia Phillies sluggers and survived until their offense could provide just enough wriggle room.
And while Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly may not find their names engraved on an MVP trophy, for the second consecutive night, they dominated when it mattered most as the Astros gutted out a 3-2 victory and seized a 3-2 Series lead heading back to Houston.
Citizens Bank Park emptied out for the final time this year in the wee hours, but the famously raucous facility found itself silenced all night, first by Justin Verlander, who recorded his first career World Series victory in his seventh attempt, and then by a bullpen quartet that wobbled but never wavered against the roaring pleas of the 45,693 on hand.
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Why would they start now?
After covering the final four innings, striking out six and giving up one run, the postseason numbers look like this: Just five earned runs allowed in 51 ⅓ innings, 67 strikeouts and just 21 hits. Their 0.88 ERA is the best in postseason history for any bullpen with at least 45 innings pitched, bettering the 2013 Red Sox’s 1.28 mark.
And in Game 5, the Astros needed them more than ever.
The final dose of dominance came from closer Pressly, who stranded two runners in the eighth inning and then retired the heart of the order in the ninth, getting a wall-scraping, leaping catch from center fielder on Chas McCormick on J.T. Realmuto’s fly ball to deep right center field.
Pressly then hit Bryce Harper with a two-out pitch before retiring Nick Castellanos to end it.
After winning 106 games and easily capturing the AL West, after sweeping aside the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees to win their first seven playoff games to reach yet another World Series, and after big innings led to simpler victories in World Series Games 2 and 4, the Astros found themselves in a game tense enough to churn stomachs.
The culmination came in the bottom of the eighth inning, after Hector Neris and Abreu covered the first six outs but Rafael Montero, part of the combined no-hit magic a night earlier, finally faltered, walking two and giving up Jean Segura’s RBI single that cut the deficit to 3-2 and parked the tying run at third and go-ahead run at first. A moribund Citizens Bank Park thrummed with anticipation.
But manager Dusty Baker sensed the game was in front of him and did not hesitate, summoning Pressly for a five-out save.
The execution was swift.
Pressly, a right-hander facing two lefties in the biggest spot of the year, simply snapped off a series of nasty curveballs, punching out Brandon Marsh with three consecutive sliders, with the dangerous Kyle Schwarber next.
He induced a foul ball on yet another slider before leaning on his curve to get Schwarber off balance. Finally, he clubbed a slider over to first base, where reserve Trey Mancini short-hopped the ball and simply stepped on the bag.
The biggest threat – the tensest inning in this Series since the 10-inning Game 1 – was over. And Pressly continued the magic in the ninth, attacking the heart of the order to notch his fifth save this postseason. It was just his second five-out save this season, and it came one night after Pressly threw 19 pitches in Game 4.
A well-deserved off day awaits.
It capped a never-relaxing game in which rookie Jeremy Peña drove in both runs, with a fourth-inning home run and an RBI double in the first, all the support their 39-year-old ace would receive.
Verlander, roasted badly in his final two innings of work in Game 1, gave up a home run to Schwarber on the first pitch he threw. That would be the final run he’d allow, but to say the rest of the night went smoothly is like saying the Blues Brothers made it to City Hall without a hitch.
No sequence was bigger than the second inning, when walks to No. 9 batter Brandon Marsh and Schwarber loaded the bases for Rhys Hoskins. Verlander, after throwing eight balls in his previous 10 pitches, somehow found himself, jumping ahead of Hoskins 0-and-2 before striking him out with a slider.
The Phillies would place just one more runner in scoring position until the fifth, when Bryce Harper hit a two-out double. Verlander was at 84 pitches. Castellanos would be his final batter.
And as Verlander emptied the tank, Castellanos refused to let him go easily, staying alive with emergency hacks and working Verlander for 10 pitches, including five foul balls. But Verlander won the battle, getting Castellanos to fly to right.
His night was done. He was in line for the win. And the bullpen, again, would be asked to work its magic.
Story Credit: usatoday.com