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MLB

The Astros Have Seized The Juice

Jeremy Peña shrugs after socking a dinger.
Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images

It has felt throughout these playoffs as if the Philadelphia Phillies are powered by cosmic forces. Obviously there is not, like, spell-casting in baseball, but there is more going on than can be described by a box score, and some of that fascinating margin is yet to be captured satisfactorily by even the most granular of analytics. Like the way an entire stadium and both teams in it and everyone watching on television can know, beyond all doubt, that the next man up will find some way to keep the rally alive, no matter if he is a sculpted god like Bryce Harper or an oily hobo like Brandon Marsh. Or the inevitability of fate circling back to deliver redemption to a hard-luck guy who screwed up on the biggest stage of his career, as it did for Jean Segura in the NLCS. Maybe it’s just talent, doggedness, and belief, combined in outrageous quantities, offsetting some very well-established weaknesses in some very big moments, that gives the whole thing an uncanny quality. Whatever it is, it rules.

The Astros, as an organization, are easy enough to root against without also seeming to be thwarting The Force, one dispassionately executed scheme at a time. As Lauren described it, the Astros present “a grim conviction in proven superiority,” which is a difficult thing to write a folk ballad about, particularly as it stands against Philadelphia’s massively more charming harnessing of chaos. It’s no wonder that the cosmos seemed to have preferred the Phillies, picking them early on, hauling them out of a painful September swoon, and earmarking them as the eminently human challenger to rise up and dash the cold machinery of Houston’s whole deal.

But something has happened. Maybe Philadelphia’s Game 3 dinger parade was a tad too vulgar for a fickle universe to abide. Or maybe Cristian Javier stoically firing one fastball after another over the plate against such a fearsome lineup in Game 4 was a kind of long-odds heroism that deserves a reward greater than one measly win. Or maybe the Astros are just really goddamn good, and eventually regression to the mean would swing a few of the more narratively stirring highlights Houston’s way, for a change. Whatever! Whatever the case, in the pivotal Game 5, the slow, trickling redistribution of juice that started with Javier’s gutsy six innings became a big sloshing tidal wave. Following their 3–2 win Thursday night, headed back to Houston with all the momentum and two chances to seal the deal, the Astros have the juice, in alarming quantities.

A problem, for a juice-dependent team like the Phillies, is Houston rookie sensation Jeremy Peña. He’s handsome and cool and makes many cool plays, enough even to warm the hearts of those who will never forget that the Astros are big fat cheaters forever. Peña drove in Houston’s first run Thursday with a hard single up the middle off of an inside fastball from Phillies starter Noah Syndergaard. In the third, Peña—the first rookie shortstop in history to win a Gold Gloveskied to rob a base hit on a rare well-struck ball off the bat of poor Nick Castellanos, one of his several highlight defensive plays on the night. In the fourth, with the score tied at a run apiece and Syndergaard determined to befuddle him with breaking stuff, Peña stayed back on a 2–2 curveball and socked it over the wall in left for his fourth dinger of the postseason, becoming in the process the first rookie shortstop in baseball history to hit a homer in the World Series.

Magic continued to heavily favor the Astros. In the bottom of the eighth, with runners on the corners and the Astros clinging to a one-run lead, Kyle Schwarber ripped a hard grounder just inside the first baseline. Under normal circumstances, the player stationed over there would’ve been Yuli Gurriel, but an inning earlier Gurriel had taken a knee to the head after getting caught in a rundown along the third baseline, and was eventually removed from the game by Dusty Baker. Gurriel’s replacement, Trey Mancini, made all of 10 appearances at first base this season for the Astros, and had not yet played in the field during this postseason. Houston’s infielders were a few steps in, and the ball got down the line in the blink of an eye. “I just tackled it, basically,” recalled Mancini after the game, of going into a fugue state and emerging with the ball, the defensive play of his life, and a game-saving out.

The final slurp of Philadelphia’s juice milkshake—work with me, people—came in the bottom of the ninth inning, and may well go down as the defining play of the series. J.T. Realmuto clobbered a hanging slider into the alley in right-center, a ball that looked for all the world like it would go for extra bases and set the Phillies up for an iconic Bryce Harper game-tying or -winning knock. And then, of all people, Chas damn McCormick threw himself at the fence and plucked the ball out of the sky:

A universe that any longer had any preference for the Phillies would simply not have sent this ball into the glove of a kid who grew up in Philadelphia, who played high school and college ball in Philadelphia, and who has been a Philadelphia sports fan his entire life. That is just rude and deliberately hurtful behavior, by the stars themselves. “Yes. Yes. At home? Yes,” said a dazed but emphatic McCormick, when asked after the game if it was extra special to make such a play in that stadium, in that town, in front of his people. “It is sweeter. It’s amazing. It’s like a dream.” Ah yes, the dream of every Philly kid: To reach into the chests of your fellow Philadelphia sports fans, wrap your fingers around their hearts, and squeeze, until the last twinkle of life behind their eyes is extinguished in the agony of betrayal.

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