LOS ANGELES -- As they prepared for Justin Verlander, they prepared for the "run and ride."
That's the phrase Dodgers hitting coach Turner Ward uses to describe the movement and the seeming "rising" action that accompanies the elite spin Verlander puts on his fiery four-seam fastball. There were two swings on that fastball that changed Game 6 of the World Series, two swings that allowed the Dodgers to erase their early deficit and Verlander's early dominance to pave the way to a 3-1 victory on Tuesday that forced tonight's Game 7 at Dodger Stadium.
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"Verlander's got nine inches of run with ride," Ward said. "So you try to stay above the ball, and it's hard."
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For five innings, Verlander was awful hard on the Dodgers. Yasiel Puig's single in the second gave them their only baserunner in that span, and George Springer's solo shot in the third seemed as if it might stand as the only run the Astros would need.
But then came Austin Barnes' at-bat to start the sixth. When he worked the count to 2-0, it was just the fifth time all night that a Dodgers hitter had been in an advantageous count. And Barnes took advantage by anticipating that run and ride, staying on top of the 94-mph four-seamer that came his way and smacking it to left for a leadoff single.
"I shortened up a little bit," Barnes said. "He's got a good fastball, everybody knows that. His fastball obviously gets on you and it's got some good ride on it. I was just trying to get on top of it and really get on base anyway I could."
That was the first big swing on the fastball. Before the second would arrive, the Dodgers would get another baserunner when Chase Utley, who had entered the game earlier in the inning in a double-switch and was 0-for-14 in October, was pegged in the foot by a 1-2 slider.
"I was not going to get beat on a slider that just spun middle," said Verlander, "so I tried to bury it down and in, and it hit him."
With runners at first and second, Chris Taylor stepped to the plate. Taylor's improved plate coverage that resulted from his offseason overhaul of his swing has gotten a lot of ink this year and especially this October. And it served him well here.
Verlander has featured the highest spin rate on four-seam fastballs of any starting pitcher in baseball this season and postseason. It's been particularly effective when paired with his velocity up at the top of the strike zone -- so much so that batters had gone 0-for-17 against Verlander's four-seam fastball in the upper-third, upper edge of the zone and above this postseason. But Taylor snapped that streak when he swung on a 97-mph four-seamer up in the zone and lined it down the right-field line for the double that brought Barnes home with the tying run.
"Just shorten up and put a ball in play," Taylor said. "He's really tough, he's got that fastball up in the zone, a good slider. I was just trying to get the barrel on the ball and hope for something good."
Ward called Taylor's double "the biggest play of the night."
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"For him to be able to stay on the ball and keep it in fair territory like that," said Ward, "was of course huge."
One more huge swing would come off Verlander. It wasn't on the elite fastball but on the elite slider. Corey Seager said facing Verlander is what hitters call a "grind at-bat," a matter of mind as much as mechanics. And in his at-bat that followed Taylor's huge hit, Seager fouled off consecutive four-seamers before getting good wood on a slider and sending it deep to right. In other conditions -- say, Minute Maid Park or the triple-digit temperatures these two teams played in at Dodger Stadium at the start of this Series -- the ball likely would have carried over the wall.
"I needed the heat back," Seager said with a smile.
But in this case, a sacrifice fly still got the job done. Seager brought Utley home with the go-ahead run. And though the Dodgers wouldn't be able to break the game open further against Verlander from there (Justin Turner popped out and Cody Bellinger struck out to end the inning), they had done enough damage to send Verlander to his first loss as a member of the Astros. It took a while, but they had executed their game plan against the man with run and ride.
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"Trying to stay above the ball is so hard," Ward said. "Let's say you're facing a sinkerball guy or a curveball guy. You're looking to hit the ball where you think it's going to be. But when a guy has some run and ride like that, to think above the ball, it's hard. It's easier when the ball is coming down and you're trying to hit a spot. But when he has that type of velo with that type of run and ride, it's tough."
Against Verlander, the Dodgers got their runs. And they rode them to Game 7.