LOS ANGELES -- Here they were in the biggest baseball game imaginable, two unlikely stars, one a player who started the year in the Minor Leagues and finished it as the youngest cleanup hitter in World Series Game 7 history, the other a once-tiny kid who felt alienated from the world because of the stutter that made him feel frozen.
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Cody Bellinger and George Springer came into the biggest game of their young lives so hopeful. In this wild World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros, each one had been the hero. And each had been the goat. Each one had led his team to victory by making a stunning play or two. And each had struggled so savagely that his manager was asked to remove him from the lineup.
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In so many ways, this tense, emotional, unpredictable, sometimes surreal, sometimes edgy, often joyful World Series surrounded Bellinger and Springer. They were at the heart of it all game after game.
And now, it was the last game, the biggest game, the one every kid with a baseball bat in his hand dreams about. One would be the hero. One would not.
* * *
Springer was the first batter of Game 7. More than a week earlier, in Game 1 of the World Series, he struck out four times. He looked about as lost as a hitter can look in that game. Worse, that four-strikeout game was a continuation of a remorseless postseason slump; Springer had hit just .115 against the Yankees in the American League Championship Series.
The Astros lost that Game 1, and Springer took the brunt of the criticism. When the game ended, reporters asked Houston manager A.J. Hinch more than once if he considered moving Springer out of the leadoff spot or, perhaps even more judiciously, out of the lineup altogether. Hinch was defiant.
"George Springer has more good days than bad," Hinch insisted. "And he has way more good stretches than bad stretches. So I'm going to continue to encourage him. He's going to lead off."
Springer did lead off in Game 2, and in the 11th inning of one of the wildest games in World Series history, he crushed a long home run off Brandon McCarthy to give the Astros the victory.
"It's crazy," Springer would say. "I think as a player, when things don't start to go well, you tend to press. You tend to do things that you wouldn't normally do. And after the first game, I had a talk with Carlos Beltran, and he told me to just go out and kind of enjoy the moment. ... He told me to go out and be who you are."
What did Springer learn? He learned to breathe slower. He learned to enjoy the moment more.
As Game 7 began, Springer got a slider from Yu Darvish that, as the saying goes, did not slide. The ball just laid there, flat, over the heart of the plate.
"It wasn't as sharp as I'm used to," Darvish admitted.
Springer crushed it down the left-field line for a leadoff double. And the sound at Dodger Stadium, which was so overwhelming the structure seemed to shake, dropped an octave.
* * *
Bellinger was a defensive star before he ever started hitting home runs. He is the son of a Major Leaguer, Clay Bellinger, who played in two World Series. Cody grew up around the game, learned how to play it the Major League way. Yes, of course, father and son spent hours and hours in the batting cage, where they crafted a long and beautiful left-handed swing.
But it was the kid's defense -- the smooth way he could range around the bag, the ease with which he plucked erratic throws out of the dirt, the dancer's balance he showed as he fielded ground balls and started 3-6-3 double plays -- that captured the imagination.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts talks often about Bellinger's defense. Roberts might talk more about his defense than his offense, which is astounding considering that Bellinger set the National League rookie record with 39 home runs this season.
But it's the defense that has the manager's attention. Bellinger struck out four times in Game 3, a crushing Dodgers loss, and like Springer, he took much of the blame for the defeat. Bellinger was so cold -- he began the World Series 0-for-13 -- that Roberts too was asked about pulling his star from the lineup.
Roberts said he wouldn't even consider it because of his defense.
"I talked to Cody a little bit and saw the boyish smile," Roberts said. "He still brings it defensively. ... It's just getting him to slow down. The defense, though, is obviously a premium."
Wednesday night, in Game 7, the second batter was Houston's Alex Bregman. He hit a ground ball to the right side. Belligner ranged four or five steps to his right to get to the ball, perhaps too far even for him, and maybe he should have left it for second baseman John Forsythe. He then turned to make the throw to Darvish, who was racing over to cover the bag.
To say it simply, Bellinger threw the ball away. Springer scored. The Astros led. The Dodgers' crowd dropped another octave.
"What do you think separated the two teams?" Springer was asked after the game. "What put the Astros on top?"
"Us scoring early," Springer said.
* * *
Springer will tell you that before every game, he likes to look up to the stands and find a mother or father talking to their child. This image reminds him why he loves being a baseball player. This is the romantic notion he has about this wonderful game. It was baseball that made Springer feel whole when he was a child. He was so small, and some other kids bullied him, and the stutter left him feeling powerless.
But his father was a baseball player. His grandfather was a baseball player. They didn't play professionally, but they played the game with love, and so did George. He could remember being 8 years old, chasing fly balls in the backyard, pretending to be ... Willie Mays? Willie Mays! What 8-year-old in 1998, a quarter century after Mays said goodbye, would pretend to be the Say Hey Kid? It had to be someone playing purely, for the history and the wonder and for how good it made him feel.
When Springer came up the second time in Game 7, his Astros already led 3-0. This might sound like a big lead, but nobody thought this was a particularly safe lead, certainly not in this crazy Series. In Game 5, L.A. had led by four runs. Houston came back. The Dodgers led by three runs. The Astros came back. Then came a quirky play. With a runner on first, Bellinger ripped a line drive to center field and Springer thought he had a chance to make the catch. Springer dove for the ball the way Mays might have, but he did not get there ... and the ball skipped by.
Bellinger ended up with a triple. The Dodgers scored a run to take the lead again.
The next inning, Springer hit a massive home run up to that place in Minute Maid Park where the celebration cannon fires. On replay, it looked like Springer's home run actually set off the cannon.
Then Houston blew that three-run lead, too. So, no, three-run leads were not safe.
Springer came up a second time against Darvish with a runner on base. Pitcher and hitter battled for six pitches. Darvish made Springer look bad on a slider to load the count. Then Darvish remembered how hard Springer had hit his slider in the first inning and decided to attack with the fastball. It was a mistake.
Well, the location was a mistake: Middle-middle again. Springer did not miss. He mashed a long home run, his fifth of this World Series. Only Reggie Jackson and Chase Utley have hit five home runs in a single World Series.
When the game ended, Springer barely even remembered running around the bases, it felt so much like a dream.
* * *
Bellinger had a huge Game 5 -- in addition to that triple, he also banged a three-run home run. But the Astros won anyway.
And then came Bellinger's bizarre Game 6. He struck out four times again, becoming the first player to have multiple four-strikeout games in the World Series. Before Game 6 ended, he already set the record for most strikeouts in a single World Series.
Somehow, though, Bellinger was still a hero of the Dodgers' 3-1 victory. His scoop of third baseman Justin Turner's errant throw saved the Dodgers. Once again, it was his wonderful defense that proved triumphant.
Then, in Game 7, Bellinger made a crucial error. He wanted to make up for it at the plate. It was not meant to be. In the bottom of the first, Bellinger came up with runners on first and second. Houston starter Lance McCullers threw him knuckle curveballs. Bellinger fouled off the first one. He swung and missed at the last two.
In the third, Bellinger came up in a crucial situation again, runners on first and second again, the Dodgers in desperate need of a lift again. Again McCullers threw him nothing but curveballs. Bellinger swung and missed at three of them.
It was agonizing to watch, like watching Roy Hobbs during his long slump in "The Natural." Bellinger was, as mentioned, the youngest cleanup hitter in the history of World Series Game 7. He was the spark that turned the Dodgers from a good team into a great one; everyone thinks so. It wasn't just his defense. It wasn't just his power. Bellinger brought a youthful exuberance to the team. He never seemed to get down. He never seemed to get overwhelmed. Roberts talked about it often. The kid just made everybody feel good.
Even when Bellinger started this World Series 0-for-13, he made it clear that he felt fine and fully expected to hit his way out of it. He did for a game or two. But in Game 7, he struck out three more times and didn't manage a hit.
"I didn't make the proper in-game adjustments like I usually do," Bellinger said. "And, yeah, it just kind of happened."
* * *
In the end, the Astros won Game 7 by a score of 5-1 and Springer was the World Series MVP. In addition to tying the World Series home run record (four of his five home runs tied the game or put the Astros ahead), he became the only player to homer in four straight games in a single Fall Classic. Springer became the only player to get an extra-base hit in six straight World Series games. His eight extra-base hits is a record. His 29 total bases is a record.
"It's kind of hard to believe," Springer would say as he lifted the World Series MVP trophy, which is now named after -- who else? -- Mays.
In the end, Bellinger struck out 17 times in the World Series, far and away the record. He struck out at least once in each game. He set a record for most strikeouts in a postseason with 29. Bellinger's magical rookie season ended with a painful jolt of reality. He's only 22. There will be other seasons.
This is the finality of a World Series Game 7. The margin can be impossibly thin but it is undeniable. The Houston Astros return home to celebrate with a city that has been through so much; their future is about trophies and parades.
"I don't know when it will feel real," Springer said.
And the Dodgers head into the offseason with regrets; they will think hard about not nailing down Games 2 and 5, they will ponder all that might have been.
"When do you put this behind you and start thinking about next year?" Bellinger was asked.
"I don't know," he said. "This is my first time losing in the World Series."