And then there was one. After running a gauntlet which was perhaps the beau idéal of historic baseball behemoths in the Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers, the Houston Astros clinched their first World Series victory since their inception in 1962. In contrast to the collective insanity we experienced earlier in the series, last night's Game 7 of the World Series turned out to be a relatively mundane affair. This is confirmed by the win probability graph, which shows a slow but steady creep towards victory after the Astros claimed first blood in the top of the first. Compared to Game 2, which was already one of the craziest games in World Series history, and Game 5, which politely asked Game 2 to hold its beer, Game 7 almost seemed like normal baseball.
Lest we forget, however: there was still some weird thrown in the mix, even if it pales in comparison to what we experienced earlier in the series. Astros starter Lance McCullers set one of many World Series records (and one that is likely to stand for bit) after he hit four batters in a single game. Perhaps in retribution for McCullers' sins, a Corey Seager broken-bat grounder nearly impaled Charlie Morton. Dodgers starter Yu Darvish, the former Cy Young runner up who had a 0.87 ERA over his last five starts for the Dodgers before the World Series, couldn't make it out of the second inning for the second time in the series.
But there was also plenty of the new normal. Houston's Game 5 and 6 starters, Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander (after throwing 93 pitches the day before, no less), warming up in the bullpen. Dodgers reliever Brandon Morrow, who had been one of the best and most trusted relievers in their ridiculous bullpen, coming in to face a solitary batter. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts relying on three starters, Darvish, Clayton Kershaw and Alex Wood, in addition to his bullpen, to get through nine innings. Astros manager A.J. Hinch giving the ball to one of his starters in Charlie Morton for the final four innings.
While World Series MVP George Springer homering in his fourth straight game (setting another one of those records) certainly fits into the home-run-happy era we now live in, there was even a glimpse of ye olde small ball in homage to the baseball of the Greatest Generation. After all, the slow march to victory by the Astros began with two runs in the first, which came on a leadoff double, a throwing error forced by a speedy runner who subsequently stole third and a groundout to bring the second runner home.
Ultimately, the series was decided in large part by the Dodgers' inability to do the things that they had been able to do with aplomb when they were winning. Some were simply bad luck, as Los Angeles went 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position and left 10 men on base as hard-hit balls kept finding gloves. In the right spot, a single dinger or bloop that dropped could have instantly changed the game in ways that we will never know. Presumed NL Rookie of the Year Cody Bellinger had chances enough, but struck out three times (for a total of 17 times in the series, yet another World Series record).
Moving from the final game to the big picture, there are narratives aplenty to be juxtaposed on the Astros' victory. First and foremost, there's all that Houston has been through with Hurricane Harvey and what a welcome distraction it was for the city to be able to rally around a group of players as fun to watch as this one. Winning a championship won't bring back homes, but it's certainly an extraordinary escape and a worthy rallying point for a town that's seen some tough times as of late.
It wasn't just a Houston thing, though. The prominent Puerto Rican contingent of the Astros, with the new guard represented by Carlos Correa and the old by Carlos Beltran, gave the people impacted by Hurricane Maria something to cheer for as they recover from their own horrific disaster.
There's also the fact that (the Yuli Gurriel-Darvish controversy aside), this was a supremely likeable group of players. Stories like that of Alex Bregman and his Spanish speaking provide a window into the nature of the team, but I recommend SBNation.com's Grant Brisbee's take on why this team is such a beautiful fit for Houston if you want more details on the clubhouse chemistry (and lots more, just read it).
In terms of how they got here, it all seems so simple at first glance. The Astros came up with a blueprint to field a competitive team. Lose lots of games. Get yourself a top draft pick. Rinse and repeat. But it's just not that easy. They lost enough games to draft Springer before the tank began in earnest. After they went full tank, they ended up with Correa, Lance McCullers and Bregman (even if he wasn't their original plan). None of those players was guaranteed to turn into the player they are today. And they had misses, too. After all, they passed on Kris Bryant (which, could you even imagine…).
There was also plenty of roster-building that wasn't as high-profile as their homegrown core, but was just as important to this year's run. Morton was there for any team that was willing to take a flyer on him after the Phillies declined to pick up his option last year. He closed out the series and didn't even allow a baserunner in the final three innings. Altuve was signed out of Venezuela for a paltry $15,000 signing bonus. He remained with the team through the darkest hours of its rebuild and took the unlikeliest route to being the likely MVP. Brad Peacock was a footnote in a 2013 trade with the A's. Marwin Gonzalez was another afterthought, a Rule 5 draft pick made on the same day that Jeff Luhnow became the Astros' GM. And so on.
The Astros are a smart team, like any team who is going to win the World Series these days, but they still needed a lot of things to go right. This was far from preordained, despite what Sports Illustrated would have had you believe (although Springer on the cover makes you wonder…). The Dodgers were (and are) an excellent team, and were every bit as likely to take the series going into it. There were certainly some managerial decisions that weighed heavy in the Dodgers' loss. The line between "aggressive use" and "overuse" of the bullpen is extremely fine, and the Dodgers' relievers were clearly gassed by the end of Game 5. And there were, as always, some "what ifs", like the decision by Roberts to leave a clearly struggling Darvish in the game to cede the aforementioned home run to Springer before bringing in Morrow.
One of the continuing refrains from broadcasters Joe Buck and John Smoltz was how we're going to see Houston and Los Angeles back here again soon. That's likely true, until it's not. Just last year, the Cubs were poised for continuous success until they were battling with the Brewers to even win their division. And actually winning the World Series is a game of russian roulette with only one empty chamber. If the rumored expansion (which we'll surely be discussing during the dark days of the offseason) is true, it's probably only going to get harder. The Dodgers and Astros both have young, enviable cores and should be back in the postseason next year. But there's certainly no guarantee.
If this sounds cynical, it isn't meant to be. As a native Houstonian who fondly recalls birthday parties in the Astrodome (and has a seemingly irrevocable distaste for Dodgers victory thanks to twelve years in San Francisco), there was a cathartic element to this conclusion that escapes transcription. It would be a lie if I said my eyes were were dry after the game and that I didn't long to be home with an urgency that is usually reserved for the onset of a tragedy or, perhaps, the birth of a new family member.
Rather, this is to say that we should appreciate the Astros emerging victorious from the melee that is MLB's postseason for what it is: a glorious convergence of luck and design that was a very long time in the making, and one that couldn't have happened to a better city at a better time.