The World Series left Vin Scully Avenue late Wednesday in an unprecedented torrent of home runs. The Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers combined for eight, the most in a World Series game. Another day of searing heat may not have been the reason.
“I think the balls are juiced, 100 percent,” Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel said after his team evened the World Series with a 7-6 victory in 11 rollicking innings of Game 2. “Major League Baseball wants to put on a show. We crushed the home run record this year. Honestly, I think the balls are juiced.”
Keuchel, a former Cy Young Award winner who lost Game 1 on a two-run homer by Justin Turner that barely cleared the left-field fence, said he had no doubt. Keuchel relies on precision, not power, to induce weak contact from hitters. His survival depends on reading their swings. He knows what he sees.
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“Really powerful guys in this league, they’re going to get theirs,” Keuchel said. “Where you can tell the difference is the midrange guy, and he’s hitting 20-plus homers now. That’s not supposed to happen. And it’s happening.”
Keuchel continued: “That’s what Major League Baseball wants. They want that exciting, two home run lead, and then they come back and hit another home run, and everybody’s still watching. That’s what they want. That’s what they’re getting.”
That was basically the story of Game 2, when the Astros and the Dodgers combined for five home runs in extra innings – something that had never been done in major league history, even in the regular season.
Major leaguers combined for a record 6,105 homers in 2017, and the postseason has been no different. The very first batter, Minnesota’s Brian Dozier, went deep to start the first wild-card game. In their National League Championship Series loss to the Dodgers, the Chicago Cubs scored eight runs on homers, and no runs any other way. Of the 17 runs scored in this World Series, 14 have come on homers.
“Everybody’s swinging for the fences,” said a weary Ken Giles, the Astros’ closer, who served up Yasiel Puig’s 10th-inning blast in Game 2. “Home runs this series have been the big play so far. We need to figure out a way to prevent it.”
On Friday, the series shifts to Minute Maid Park, where the Astros are 6-0 this postseason. Jose Altuve began the Astros’ playoff run with three homers there in the division series opener. The Dodgers also got a three-homer game in the playoffs, by Enrique Hernandez in the NLCS clincher.
Teams generally must slug to win. The top eight teams in slugging percentage all reached the playoffs this season; the Astros were first, at .478, and the Dodgers were tied for seventh with the Cubs, at .437. If this World Series becomes one big home run derby, the Astros like their chances.
“If it comes down to a slugfest, my money’s on us,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “We bang. We’re the best-hitting team in baseball. We’ll step in that box ready to go every time. It’s fun to be a part of an offense like this.”
Bregman homered off Clayton Kershaw in Game 1, the only blemish across Kershaw’s seven dazzling innings. It was typical of the way opponents have tried to handle Kershaw this month: With little chance of bunching hits together, they simply try to swing big.
The strategy is failing; while Kershaw has allowed all eight of his runs on homers this postseason, he is 3-0 with a 2.96 ERA. He is scheduled to face Keuchel in Game 5 on Sunday.
As for Keuchel’s assertion – widely shared by other pitchers around the league – that the balls have been altered, Commissioner Rob Manfred has consistently denied it. He reiterated that stance before the American League wild-card game this month.
“We’re using two different labs that have been looking at the ball on a continuous basis all year,” Manfred said. “Balls are within specs; there’s been no movement even within the range of the specifications in terms of the baseball. I’ve said before I think there’s other issues causing the home runs other than the baseball – principally, the way the game’s being played, the tolerance for strikeouts, power pitching, guys changing their swing.”
Manfred added that “fans like home runs,” a point that is hard to argue. Excitement surged through Dodger Stadium with each home run on Wednesday night, and the hitters reacted memorably: The Dodgers’ Joc Pederson joyously gestured to the crowd; Carlos Correa gleefully flipped his bat toward the Astros’ dugout; Puig gently placed his bat on the dirt; Charlie Culberson cavorted as if he were Joe Carter.
“Guys have been superaggressive, trying to get a fastball or attack a first pitch – that’s what I’ve been seeing,” said the Astros’ Chris Devenski, who gave up Culberson’s two-out homer in the 11th but struck out Puig with a changeup to end it. “It’s baseball. It goes in streaks; it goes in spurts at times.”
The last time the World Series came to Southern California, in 2002, home runs were also the big story. The Angels beat the San Francisco Giants in Game 2 in Anaheim, 11-10, with the teams combining for six home runs, out of a record 21 for the Series. Players openly guessed that the ball was juiced then, too.
Al Levine, a nonroster pitcher for the Angels, actually took a Ginsu knife and sliced open a World Series ball and a regular-season ball in the clubhouse during that game. He concluded that the World Series ball was wound tighter.
“When I cut them open, one was easier, definitely,” Levine said then. “The World Series ball was a lot tougher to get through.”
Troy Percival, the Angels closer who had given up a towering homer to Barry Bonds, put it this way: “It’s like throwing a smooth rock.”
Predictably, baseball denied any shenanigans. By then, though, the owners and the players had agreed to implement steroid testing the next season. The program has gradually gotten tougher since then, including a provision that players suspended during the regular season cannot take part in the postseason.
We have been fooled before, of course, but this generation of players seems to want a clean game. A widespread, coordinated cheating epidemic that consistently beats baseball’s testing program seems a little hard to fathom.
In any case, this World Series has so far reflected the game in 2017: dinger after dinger after dinger, breaking records and turning most players into awe-struck fans.
“I don’t know what to tell you, man,” Correa said. “It was so much fun.”
Game 3: Dodgers at Astros, 8:09 p.m. (Fox-56)
Series: Tied 1-1.