Jeremy Pena’s HR propels Astros past Phillies in Game 5, 1 win from World Series title

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PHILADELPHIA — In the 16 years between Game 1 of the 2006 World Series and Game 5 of the 2022 World Series, Justin Verlander had lived a career that few could even dream of. He made nine All-Star teams and won an MVP trophy. He’s won two American League Cy Young Awards, and a third is likely on the way. He married a movie star and came back from elbow reconstruction as dominant as ever. He even won a ring with the Houston Astros in 2017.

What he hadn’t done, between that night in 2006 when he pitched as the Detroit Tiger and the Astros’ 3-2 Thursday night win over the Philadelphia Phillies, was record the win in a World Series game. It took nine tries, from 2006-2012 to 2017-2019 to Game 1 in that same series, but Verlander scored the last remaining item on his Hall of Fame resume. He recorded five one-run baseball innings, avoiding disaster in the opening frames before giving the lead to the Astros’ famous bullpen. He faced heavy traffic in a hostile environment but did not give in.

A night after the group completed a no-hitter, Houston relievers pushed the team to the brink of a championship. With a 3-2 lead, the Astros will now have two chances to finish the Phillies. Houston blew a similar advantage at Minute Maid Park against Washington in 2019. No team has clinched a title on their home turf since 2013.

For three nights at Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphians stomped and shouted and soaked up the joy of seeing the Fall Classic return to this stadium. The first day is the one that will be remembered best. Game 3 was a party. Game 4 presented the bitter taste of an unwanted story. And Game 5 served as a crowning achievement for Verlander and a cotillion for Jeremy Peña. The rookie shortstop paced Houston’s offense. He hit an RBI single in the first inning and smashed the home run in the fourth against Phillies starter Noah Syndergaard. He cut a hit-and-run single that led to an insurance run in the eighth.

In all, Peña had three hits. The Phillies only managed six as a group and left 12 men on base. The offense squandered chances against Verlander and couldn’t complete a rally in the eighth inning. An RBI single with one out by second baseman Jean Segura cut Houston’s lead to one and put runners in the corners. Houston closer Ryan Pressly kept them there. Pressly hit outfielder Brandon Marsh on three pitches and first baseman Trey Mancini sucked up a hard-hit ground from outfielder Kyle Schwarber to defuse the threat. In the ninth, Astros outfielder Chas McCormick scaled the center field wall to steal extra bases from catcher JT Realmuto and protect Pressly’s five-out backup.

After Astros starter Cristian Javier led a four-man squad in Game 4, Phillies manager Rob Thomson rounded up his players. He reminded them that they hadn’t been touched earlier in the season by the Mets. The next day, the team won. He was short and direct. There was no reason for the embarrassment to persist.

“I really don’t care,” Schwarber said later that night.

The club maintained this atmosphere on Thursday. Schwarber led a group of hitters through their pre-game hitting against a pitching machine calibrated to throw curveballs. Syndergaard walked barefoot around the outfield. Jose Alvarado, one night after burning with relief, pedaled a bicycle behind the batting cage. “I don’t know if I want one of our main relievers to cycle around the ballpark,” Thomson said. “But nevertheless, it shows that they are cowards.”

The Astros staggered Syndergaard initially. Jose Altuve greeted him by throwing a fastball over the center field wall. Outfielder Brandon Marsh hit the double on a three-base hit. In an earlier incarnation, Syndergaard intimidated hitters with a superior 90s fastball. The pitch had run out of steam when he returned from Tommy John surgery. Peña tackled Altuve with an RBI single down the middle on a 95.4 mph fastball.

At that time, it looked like Syndergaard might crumble. He hadn’t started a game since October 15. He hadn’t pitched since October 22. His last appearance lasted six batters. Thomson wouldn’t hesitate to hang it. As Syndergaard searched for his position, his receiver provided stability.

Syndergaard refused to attempt Houston slugger Yordan Alvarez with a lot in the zone, but Alvarez still couldn’t resist. When Syndergaard passed him a full number fastball, Peña broke for second base. Realmuto skipped a pitch to shortstop Bryson Stott. Stott used his foot to block Peña’s lunge to the bag and dropped the tag. The double play let Syndergaard breathe and slowed Houston’s offense.

Schwarber led the bottom of the first. He had insisted that he wouldn’t lose sleep over the non-hitter. He only needed two throws to make sure history wouldn’t repeat itself. Schwarber blasted an elevated fastball from Verlander and watched it land in the right field seats. Schwarber flipped his bat and strutted around the bases.

After Peña’s first inning single, Syndergaard sat eight batters in a row. Then Peña opened the fourth. Syndergaard hooked a 2-2 curveball. Peña sent a drive to left field. Schwarber followed him to the wall before giving up. It was on, a dead-end solo homer, Peña’s fourth in the playoffs. Syndergaard was done for the evening.

Verlander was still going. His exit required the trust of manager Dusty Baker. Prior to the match, Baker was asked how keen his eye would be on Verlander. “Everyone is like, ‘Is he on a short leash?'” Baker said. “No, he doesn’t have a leash at all. I mean, it’s Justin Verlander.

The rhetoric didn’t go that far. Verlander fired a pair of walks around a single in the second inning to load the bases. As Verlander struggled with first baseman Rhys Hoskins, Baker gave him a helping hand: Ryne Stanek started throwing into the bullpen. Verlander wriggled out of harm’s way by hitting Hoskins with a tightly curled slider. In the fourth, after Verlander grounded two more runners in the previous end, Bryan Abreu warmed up as Verlander completed his first 1-2-3 frame of the night.

For the fifth, a potential new replacement has emerged. Hector Neris took the bullpen mound as Verlander floundered through the heart of the Philadelphia order. Neris stayed there, even as Verlander let the equalizer reach the goalscoring position. Bryce Harper smashed a two-out double that brought outfielder Nick Castellanos home. A 10-pitch rock fight ensued. Castellanos fouled a slider and another slider and a fastball and a third slider and a switch and a curveball before eventually flying out on a full-count slider.

Verlander pumped his fist and hammered his glove as the third out went down into Alvarez’s glove in left field. He had thrown 94 pitches. He was in line for a win. He had done the minimum to put an end to the slippage of 16 years. It was still enough.

GO FURTHER

Rosenthal: How Justin Verlander, after 516 starts, earned his first World Series victory – ‘I can say I have one’

(Photo: Bill Streicher/USA Today)

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