PHILADELPHIA -- An amazing catch at the wall. A perfect pick at first base. A strikeout in a key spot on a pitch that hadn’t produced a whiff just a few games earlier.
A night earlier, the Astros had tied this World Series with history. But in a 3-2 victory over the Phillies in Game 5 on Thursday night at Citizens Bank Park, they won with mystery. They didn’t need another no-hitter to put themselves on the precipice of their second crown in six seasons, just deft maneuvers and sneaky vanishing acts every time the home club threatened to seize the momentum.
Following the lead of Justin Verlander, who was shaky yet successful in five effective innings to finally get his first Fall Classic victory in nine attempts, the Astros’ pitching staff bent but never broke.
“It was,” Verlander said, “a heck of a grind.”
Contrary to the unmistakable mastery displayed by Cristian Javier and his buddies in the bullpen in the first combined no-hitter in World Series history a night earlier, this win did not come easily or breezily for Verlander and the Astros. But it came -- and established a 3-2 edge that 31 of 47 (65.9%) previous Game 5 winners have converted into a title -- because for every jam there was a lam, for every obstacle there was, literally, an out.
The frustrated Phillies stranded 12 baserunners along the way.
“You got to give them credit,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “We just didn't get many hits with runners in scoring position, and we had a lot of opportunities.”
Two early RBIs from Jeremy Peña, who singled home a run in the first inning and became the first rookie shortstop to homer in the World Series with a solo shot off Noah Syndergaard in the fourth, were enough to stake Verlander to a 2-1 lead. In five hard-fought innings, Verlander allowed just one run -- a Kyle Schwarber leadoff blast on the second pitch he threw.
Other than that, Verlander’s outing was characterized by his ability to grind through uncharacteristic early command woes (a season-high four walks) and several instances in which the Phillies were one swing away from prolonging his bizarre World Series struggles.
Verlander entered with an unsightly 0-6 record and a 6.07 ERA in Fall Classic play -- the worst performance for any starting pitcher with as much experience as Verlander has on this stage.
But in the eighth month of his 17th season, the 39-year-old future Hall of Famer with the surgically repaired right elbow shook off the growing narrative about his nightmares, including the 5-0 lead he had squandered in Game 1.
“Kind of went back to the drawing board a little bit between starts and got back to work after Game 1,” Verlander said. “Honestly the extra rest helped me. I was able to throw an extra bullpen. We got rained out [Monday], and I threw two bullpens in a row and had a lot of work to do. It wasn’t an easy adjustment, and I needed as many reps as I could. Honestly after the first few sliders tonight, I was like, ‘Thank goodness.’”
Verlander’s slider, which strangely didn’t yield a single swing and miss last Friday at Minute Maid Park, induced a big one to strike out Rhys Hoskins with the bases loaded and two out in the second inning. It was also the pitch Verlander went to in retiring Nick Castellanos on an inning-ending flyout with a runner at second on the final pitch he threw in the game and in an exhausting 10-pitch at-bat.
“Just missed it,” Castellanos said. “It’s a game of centimeters or whatever. If I’m on top of that ball a little bit more, we’re in a different situation for the rest of the game. But he made his pitch, and I got out.”
All told, the Phillies left seven men on base in Verlander’s five effective frames.
The escape act continued in the sixth, when Astros reliever Bryan Abreu replaced Hector Néris with one on and two out, only to plunk Brandon Marsh with the first pitch he threw. Abreu, who had contributed to the combined no-no in Game 4, recovered to retire Schwarber on an inning-ending groundout.
That made the insurance run the Astros manufactured in the top of the eighth feel huge, and indeed it was. In the bottom of the inning, Rafael Montero walked a pair and allowed a run-scoring single, exiting with two Phillies aboard with one out. Houston manager Dusty Baker summoned Ryan Pressly to attempt his first five-out save of the season, and the closer struck out Marsh and retired Schwarber on a scorched grounder to first that Trey Mancini played perfectly.
Pressly finished the job in the ninth, thanks in no small part to center fielder Chas McCormick’s leaping grab at the wall in right-center to rob J.T. Realmuto of extra bases for the second out.
“I think I owe him more than a dinner, my goodness,” Pressly said of McCormick. “That was a hell of a play, man.”
“It’s a tough one. It’s one of my better catches. One of the most important games of my life," McCormick said. "It’s a tough one. But playing center field for this team, you’ve got to make tough catches at all times. You’ve got to be ready to play defense "
After Bryce Harper was hit by a pitch to put the tying run on base, it was one more escape, with Castellanos grounding out to short.
This was the mystifying means by which the Astros slowly crushed the confidence of a typically intense CBP crowd that had been eager to witness a win in the Phillies’ final home game.
“We were close, but we could talk about would have, could have, should have,” Castellanos said. “We put together good at-bats, we gave ourselves a lot of opportunities, but we didn’t capitalize on them tonight. So now we’ve just got our work cut out for us when we go to Houston.”
Now, the Astros, who overcame 1-0 and 2-1 deficits in this Series, head home with Framber Valdez on the hill for Game 6 on Saturday night, their first lead in hand and, they hope, more magic to come.