For the third time in the last four World Series, the final out was recorded by someone other than the winning team’s closer. This time, though, it was different.
In 2014, Madison Bumgarner pitched the final five innings of the San Francisco Giants’ Game 7 win in Kansas City. Capping a remarkable run through that postseason, Bumgarner entered with the idea that he would go as far as he could, and it turned out that he never needed any help from traditional relievers to close out San Francisco’s third title in five years.
In 2015, Wade Davis struck out the side, working around a two-out single in the 12th inning, as the Royals finished off the Mets in Game 5.
In 2016, the Chicago Cubs tried to win the World Series with Aroldis Chapman finishing Game 7, but he gave up a tying homer to Rajai Davis and Chicago eventually prevailed in Cleveland with Mike Montgomery getting the save.
Then, on Wednesday night, the Astros took a five-run lead behind starter Lance McCullers Jr., who lasted only into the third inning of Game 7. Following McCullers were Brad Peacock, Francisco Liriano, and Chris Devenski – a starter, a starter for most of his career until going into the Houston bullpen after a midseason trade, and an All-Star reliever. For the final four innings, the Astros used Charlie Morton on something of a Bumgarner plan, but with more margin for error given that Houston’s lead was five runs and wound up finishing at 5-1.
It wasn’t crazy or unusual that the Astros would ride Morton as far as they could, given both their big lead in Game 7 against the Dodgers and the fact that Morton, as a starter, had similarly tag-teamed Game 7 of the ALCS against the Yankees with McCullers. The astounding thing – if unsurprising, given everything leading up to it – was that as Morton started to tire, the pitchers warming up in the Houston bullpen were Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander.
At no point was there so much as a hint that Ken Giles, who saved 34 games during the regular season, would appear in Game 7 of the World Series.
It was nearly two years ago that the Astros acquired Giles from the Phillies for Mark Appel, Harold Arauz, Thomas Eshelman, Brett Oberholtzer, and Vince Velasquez. After a rough first year in Houston, Giles was tremendous in 2017, with only four blown saves while posting a 2.30 ERA with 83 strikeouts in 62 2/3 innings. Then the playoffs happened.
Giles was 2-for-3 in saves in seven postseason appearances, but that tells almost none of the story. He gave up runs in six of seven appearances, the only exception being the final inning of a 7-1 win in Game 6 of the ALCS.
As the playoffs went on, Giles stumbled more severely. He had a 6.00 ERA in the division series, 9.00 in the ALCS, and 27.00 in the World Series. Small sample sizes, of course, but in 7 2/3 playoff innings, Giles gave up five walks and 12 hits, including three home runs. In his final appearance of 2017, Game 4 of the Fall Classic, the right-hander entered a tie game in the ninth inning in Houston and gave up a single to Corey Seager, a walk to Justin Turner, and an RBI double to Cody Bellinger. The Dodgers wound up scoring four more runs in the frame, and Giles took the loss.
The question for the Astros now is what they do with Giles. Houston gave up a lot to obtain him, and while he will get a raise this winter in arbitration, he remains under team control through 2020. It would be odd to chalk up Giles’ struggles in this postseason to fatigue, given that he pitched less this year than either of the previous two seasons. That leaves the possibility that Giles ran into the same problems throwing sliders with questionable baseballs that turned Yu Darvish into a shell of himself, or that there’s a mechanical flaw that needs to be addressed, or that Giles broke mentally, something that’s been seen with relievers for decades but is hardly as obvious as it may seem to outside observers.
The Astros will have the best idea of what went wrong. Their best bet, analytically, is to hold on to Giles this winter. His postseason was bad enough to lower his trade value, because other teams won’t have as good a read on his deficiencies, and see only the performance. The difference is if Houston’s brain trust has lost faith in Giles and does not believe he can bounce back from this.
It’s a much easier question to deal with when you’re getting fitted for World Series rings rather than pondering failure on a beach somewhere. But the Astros have to figure out not only what happened to Giles, but why it did, before they can move on and go about the business of trying to win another World Series with their closer on the mound at the end of it.