The atmosphere at Minute Maid Park for the Dodgers’ two-game series against the Houston Astros this week lived up to the hype. Dodgers fans, refusing to neglect the history between the clubs, poured into the ballpark, cleared for full capacity for the first time Tuesday, in blue to defend their team. Signs were made and chants were orchestrated to remind the Astros that their cheating tainted their 2017 World Series title.
On the field, the teams sensed a playoff environment. Tension escalated beyond typical late-May interleague games.
Unlike the Dodgers’ two-game visit last season, though, emotions didn’t spill over. Pitchers didn’t send hitters any 98-mph messages. The benches didn’t clear. In the end, Luis Garcia outpitched Trevor Bauer in the Astros’ 5-2 win Wednesday to split a series without any flared tempers.
The Dodgers (30-19) mustered just three hits — two off Garcia over six innings — and had their eight-game winning streak end. The Astros (27-22) snapped their four-game losing streak.
“We just couldn’t really put anything together,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.
Bauer wasn’t on the 2017 Dodgers, but he has his own extensive history with the Astros. He called the organization cheaters and hypocrites when their sign-stealing scheme was revealed in November 2019. He has worn a T-shirt with “TrasH-town” on it. Last season, he wore cleats with trash cans during a start for the Cincinnati Reds even though he wasn’t pitching against them.
But his criticism preceded the sign-stealing scheme’s exposure. In May 2018, he insinuated on Twitter that the Astros have pitchers doctor baseballs to increase spin rates. Later that year, Bauer tweeted that he knew he could increase the spin rate on his four-seam fastball by 400 rpm if he used pine tar.
Coincidentally, his four-seam fastball’s average spin rate of 2,779 last season was about 400 rpm higher than previous seasons. It was the four-seam fastball with the highest average spin rate in the major leagues.
His average four-seam fastball spin rate entering Wednesday had increased further this season to 2,844 rpm, tops in the majors. It’s been an ingredient in Bauer’s success and ability to assume a heavy workload, which the Dodgers have extensively relied upon.
For nearly a month, since Dustin May tore his ulnar collateral ligament and was lost for the season, the Dodgers have navigated their schedule with a four-man starting rotation. Instead of adding a fifth starter, they’ve voluntarily used bullpen games. That’s the plan until Tony Gonsolin can return from the injured list after May 31. It’s risky but they believe, without a healthy major league-ready starter in the minors, it’s the best strategy.
To best safeguard against a bullpen shortage, the Dodgers have lined up bullpen games either before or after Bauer’s start because they trust him most to cover innings. This week, they scheduled one Thursday against the San Francisco Giants — after Bauer’s start Wednesday against the Houston Astros.
Consequently, Bauer’s 37-pitch first inning was a concern beyond their fate Wednesday.
“For whatever reason, in the first there, I was in a little bit of a funk,” Bauer said. “Was yanking some pitches. Didn’t have great feel. Not really sure why.”
Bauer rebounded to throw 63 pitches over the next five innings. He exited the game after 100 pitches in six innings. He wasn’t sharp. He gave up solo home runs to José Altuve and Carlos Correa. He recorded more walks (four) than strikeouts (three). But the Dodgers were in the game, down 2-1, when he departed.
“I don’t worry about Trevor trying to control his emotions,” Roberts said. “I think he is as good as anybody that I’ve seen at channeling them.”
The hole grew deeper, however, with Nate Jones on the mound in the seventh inning. First, Gavin Lux committed a throwing error that allowed Martín Maldonado to reach and advance to second base with one out. Next, Altuve directed a groundball through the right side against the shift. Mookie Betts gloved the ball in shallow right field, but his throw short and up the third-base line — bounced away from catcher Will Smith and Maldonado scored.
Aldemys Díaz followed with a two-run homer to left to extend Houston’s lead to 5-1. Sheldon Neuse hit a solo homer in the eighth before Albert Pujols, noted Astros nemesis, stepped into the batter’s box representing the tying run in the ninth. The 21-year veteran has slugged 62 home runs — about 10% of his career total — against the Astros.
But Pujols struck out swinging against Bryan Abreu, ending a tension-filled at-bat and a tension-filled two-day spectacle without a spat.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.