2019-07-29 04:09:03

Game 7 (* if necessary).

Of course it’s necessary. The greatest sporting events do not come with caveats, and it feels right that a as evenly-matched yet helter-skelter as this one should end with the built-in drama of a title-decider at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday.

This series already had everything else: a record number of home runs, sinewy fielding, some solid pitching, much more shaky pitching, and two teams swapping the lead so frequently that only the reckless dare make predictions. All of which makes it captivating for neutrals and sweet agony for partisans.

, which got us here. It came two days after for the Houston Astros over the Los Angeles Dodgers that was even better . In comparison, Tuesday’s was a conventional baseball game – which in the context of this series, made it weird. It will be remembered in future years not for its aesthetic or entertainment value but as utilitarian: a necessary bridge so we could cross to the promised land of a Game 7, where a winner-takes-all, one-off finale has a special piquancy in a sport with 162 regular season games.

This will be the Astros’ 180th game of the year. Yet their 179th, even though it lacked lunacy, invited head-scratching and eye-rubbing. One win from their first World Series title in their 56th season of existence, the Astros sent their masterful ace, Justin Verlander, to the mound. Verlander was unbeaten since joining the team from the Detroit Tigers seconds before a midnight trade deadline on 31 August. He was confounding Dodgers hitters into the sixth inning, protecting a 1-0 lead with the tender vigilance of a parent guarding a toddler by a busy road.

Naturally, he lost.

So that 3-1 Dodgers victory brings us here – to where this rivalry needed to be if the chatter about it meriting a place among the pantheon of is to be taken seriously.

Setting the latest-is-greatest hype of the media-marketing machine aside, ahead of Game 7 it’s an open question as to whether this is even the greatest World Series of the past 12 months. It’s only a year since the Chicago Cubs with an 8-7 victory over the Cleveland Indians in the tenth inning of their Game 7. That, lest we forget, was pretty exciting. But with a Game 7 ahead in Chavez Ravine, this series has the potential to exceed even 2016’s beguiling combination of rich storylines and see-saw scorelines.

George Springer has been an offensive force for the Astros this World Series. Photograph: Eugene Garcia/EPA

Records? We’ve got records. These teams broke the World Series record for home runs – after only five games. Game 5 on Sunday night (and Monday morning local time) was the second-longest game in World Series history, a five hour, 17 minutes, 25-run spectacular that was supposed to be a pitching duel.

Narratives? We’ve got narratives. Like whether, the steroid era behind us, we are now in – some claim balls this season are more tightly wound and therefore easier to hit for home runs, while others say balls in this World Series are “slicker” making it harder to throw certain types of pitches. And then there’s the debate over whether Astros first baseman Yuri Gurriel should have been suspended in this series towards Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish. He starts tonight against Lance McCullers Jr, who was mediocre in the regular season but overachieving in October.

There’s the intake-of-breath, fist-in-mouth phenomenon that is the Astros relief pitching. Every time Astros manager AJ Hinch strolls to the mound and gestures to the bullpen for a replacement, he calls to mind a bank robber in a Hollywood movie strolling along a line of quaking hostages, choosing which of them to pull from the crowd.

Logic indicates that, having dropped their Verlander talisman down a drain on Tuesday, the momentum and confidence lies with Los Angeles. And while the Astros are an undoubted offensive force, the team scored two runs or fewer in three of the six World Series games so far. The Dodgers have not scored fewer than three runs per game. In fact, added together, the Dodgers have mustered 33 runs to the Astros’ 29. Their unreliable pitching invites the conclusion that the Astros can only win if their hitters have a monster night – and that is a 50-50 proposition. Maybe less, if the cool weather expected in southern California on Tuesday evening prompts would-be home runs to drop short of the outfield walls.

But the above paragraph contains numbers, and this is the 2017 World Series, unofficially subtitled: Screw Your Stupid Database. Strange that two organisations so that the front office staff ought to wear lab coats instead of suits should have delivered such a wacky and irrational set of games; here is human nature, enigmatic, flawed and fascinating, fighting back against data-driven strategies that, in the Astros’ case, started years ago.

This is the franchise that won 101 games this year yet lost 111 in 2013. The following year (a mere 70 wins) marked their sixth successive losing season, as ownership tolerated – or embraced, if you want to be cynical about it – losing in order to restack their system with high draft picks.

Logan Forsythe slides into home despite the best efforts of Brian McCann. Photograph: Sean M Haffey/Getty Images

The Dodgers, meanwhile, are by far the most expensive team in baseball, with – a fair chunk of the money going on injured or outcast players. The New York Yankees were second, with $202m; the Astros down in 18th, at $124m, before their splurge on Verlander.

But who are the postseason stars of this big-budget production? A cast of relative unknowns and young talents earning at or close to the league’s minimum wage of $535,000. Corey Seager, Joc Pederson, Charlie Culberson, Austin Barnes, Chris Taylor, Cody Bellinger: . Put another way, that’s about as much as Los Angeles’ top pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, earns in a month. Yet, for all their wealth and despite the size of the city and the fame of their brand, the Dodgers last won the World Series in 1988.

The Astros’ only prior appearance came in 2005, when they were dismissed in the minimum four games by the Chicago White Sox. But these are heady times for sport in the Texas city. The NFL’s Houston Texans, the NBA’s Houston Rockets and MLS’s Houston Dynamo all reached the playoffs in 2017, while in February the city hosted .

Whatever happens in Game 7, it’s not too glib to say that the Astros’ success has raised the spirits of many people in and provided a welcome diversion from the challenges of rebuilding. That, after all, is the kind of thing that sport is designed to do: it is escapism flavoured with civic pride, among the most important trivialities that life has to offer.