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LOS ANGELES – The 2,468th and final game of the Major League Baseball season will be played here Wednesday at 8:20 p.m. ET. It will cap a 2017 that witnessed more home runs than ever hit in a calendar year, weathered the whir of the black helicopters that soundtracked a juiced-ball narrative, offered a postseason packed with powerhouse teams and gifted a World Series that deserves nothing less than the winner-takes-all, championship-or-bust Game 7 it will get.
Wait. Step back for a second. If baseball shares any lesson on a daily basis, it’s that the sport cares not for who deserves what. Clayton Kershaw deserves peace from the incessant screeching about his playoff foibles. Baseball gave him no such thing. Justin Verlander deserves a coup-de-grâce moment for his Hall of Fame career, a domineering, dominating, World Series-clinching victory. Baseball chuckled. Deserve doesn’t matter.
Fifty men will take the field at Dodger Stadium in uniform Wednesday, 25 Los Angeles Dodgers, 25 Houston Astros. The Dodgers will try to win a World Series for the first time in 29 years. The Astros will try to win a World Series for the first time in their 55-year history. Hundreds of pitches will be thrown, dozens of swings taken, countless feints and parries weighed by the managers, and in the end, after however many outs it takes, baseball will award its 113th championship to the team that deserves it for one reason only: Not because either deserved it more than the other but because it played better.
Game 6, then, served as a mere appetizer, a 3-1 Dodgers victory that denied Verlander his moment two days after the Astros had denied Kershaw his in a raucous 13-12 affair. Game 4 presented a staggering meltdown of a bullpen following Game 3’s staggering meltdown of a starting pitcher. Game 2 was, like Game 5, a Pollock painting, the incongruity a stand-in for genius or madness or something in between or both. And Game 1, eight days or an eternity ago, finished in 2 hours, 28 minutes, a tidy bit of foreshadowing that this was not going to be a typical series.
Instead of normalcy, or whatever passes for it in October, the 2017 World Series has bestowed a feeling of constant nausea – the good kind, if there’s such a thing, one that turns stomachs sour because the body is ill-equipped to handle a baseball game’s unique ability to rollick back and forth. Leads came in a flash and vanished in an instant, a record flurry of home runs treating them like a storm does a satellite dish. Games were won until they were lost, lost until they were won. If there has been a defining characteristic of the first six games of the 2017 World Series, it’s a raw unpredictability, the kind that carves a path to a seventh game.
“No matter what, this series is going down in the history books as one of the best series of all-time,” Verlander said. “I think tomorrow is going to be nothing short of spectacular either way.”
Do not fit him for an orange jumpsuit; Verlander is no prisoner of the moment. Game 7 ensures this series fits among past classics. Prior to this year, MLB went to a Game 7 to decide a World Series 37 times, not counting 1912, which actually needed an eighth game after the second in the series ended in a tie. Game 7s exist for historic moments. Bill Mazeroski’s championship-winning home run in 1960. Jack Morris’ 10-inning shutout. Sandy Koufax’s three-hitter. Luis Gonzalez vanquishing Mariano Rivera. Mickey Mantle beating the Dodgers as a 20-year-old. Madison Bumgarner going five innings for the save three days after pitching a shutout. Edgar Renteria walking off the Indians. The Cubs and Indians beating up one another in a 10-inning street fight. Game 7 of the World Series is the best six words in sports for a reason.
“You don’t ever think of playing in Game 3 or 4 or 5,” said Astros outfielder George Springer, whose fourth home run of the series accounted for Houston’s lone Game 6 run. “As a kid, you’re always playing in Game 7.”
They play Game 7 because its mysticism matches its glory. Of those 37 games, 14 ended with a one-run win and seven apiece with a two- or three-run margin. More than 75 percent of Game 7s have been a grand slam away from concluding with a different champion. They live to be taut, to present baseball in its purest and most concentrated form, and these two teams – the first to finish with 100-plus regular-season wins and face off in a Game 7 since the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia A’s in 1931 – have proven themselves plenty capable of doing so over the series’ first six games.
The lagniappe of Game 7 is an opportunity to bore deep inside the mind of the managers. Los Angeles’ Dave Roberts and Houston’s A.J. Hinch, only 45 and 43 years old, are considered nonetheless two of the best in the game, not just on their ability to act as the bridge between their analytical front offices and clubhouses of millionaire millennials but because each has acquitted himself as at least a better-than-average strategist.
So with Yu Darvish set to start coming off his 1 2/3-inning debacle, Roberts understands he may need to optimize the time he calls upon starter Alex Wood in relief duty and to inspect every pitch thrown by Kenley Jansen, whom he used for a two-inning save in Game 6, and pick the exact right moment for Kershaw, who will be available, to avenge a Game 5 in which he blew 4-0 and 7-4 leads.
And while Hinch gets to go with Lance McCullers Jr., whose four brilliant innings cinched Game 7 of the ALCS, he too needs to pick and choose whom he deploys wisely. There is Charlie Morton, who won Game 7 of the ALCS and shut down the Dodgers in Game 4 of the World Series. Hinch can go to Brad Peacock, a starter who earned his first career save picking up McCullers in Game 3, or Dallas Keuchel, who failed to win Game 1 or 5. If his arm feels good enough when he throws Wednesday, even Verlander might declare himself available and go all Randy Johnson 2.0.
Already, in the afterglow of a game during which the Dodgers pieced together a pair of runs against Verlander following five innings of offensive ineptitude, the focus had left the previous 3 hours, 22 minutes in the dustbin. Game 6 was done. Game 7 was imminent. And in front of reporters, the 90-year-old Tommy Lasorda, the last Dodgers manager to win a championship, told Roberts: “You haven’t won [expletive] ‘til you win tomorrow.”
For the fourth time this decade, a baseball team will win [expletive] via a seventh game. There will be heroes. There will be goats. There will be memories imprinted deep into the recesses of minds. There will be moments that beg to be forgotten, only to find themselves replayed on the loop of time.
There will be people who say Houston deserves to win a championship because never has it experienced a parade for the Astros and because in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey it may help the healing in the smallest of ways. There will be people who say Los Angeles deserves a championship because nearly three decades in an ambered state of disillusionment is plenty and because getting to celebrate one at home is the ultimate in sports fandom.
Deserve doesn’t matter. All that does is the 25 men in Dodgers uniforms and 25 men in Astros uniforms, the managers trying to process what’s going on in front of them in real time and how the decisions of all dictate where the ball bounces. That is Game 7 at its core, baseball at its finest, every bit of excess evaporated so only the essence survives: two teams playing one game and seeing who does it better.
More World Series coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Lasorda to L.A. manager: ‘You haven’t done [expletive] … ’
• Dodgers’ Kershaw: ‘I can go 27 innings’ in Game 7
• Report: Vegas gambler risking $14 million on Game 7
• Dodgers pitcher makes Astros star pay for racist gesture
• The defensive play that helped force a Game 7