PHILADELPHIA — This is the golden era of the Houston Astros. Since the start of the 2017 season, they have won 541 regular-season games, appeared in six straight American League Championship Series and reached four World Series.
But calling them a dynasty, as some have, feels incomplete. Their lone title in that span was in 2017, a season during which they were later revealed to have employed an illicit sign-stealing operation that relayed the upcoming pitch to their hitters. The franchise was punished in various ways, but the Astros never faltered, coming close to untainted titles in 2019 and 2021.
By eking out a 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday in Game 5 of the 2022 World Series, the Astros took a three-games-to-two advantage in this best-of-seven series and sat one win away from adding the championship that may rightfully earn them the dynasty distinction. They now have two shots at home to claim one more victory and the ultimate prize.
“It would mean everything in the world,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “We want this so bad for ourselves, for our family, for our coaches, for the city, for the people, for everyone. We go out every single day to try and play our tails off to win a championship. Being one win away and being able to do it at home would be awesome.”
Although unsteady at times on Thursday, the Astros’ ace right-hander Justin Verlander tossed five solid innings and finally earned the first World Series win of his decorated career. Fresh off its dominant performance in Game 4’s combined no-hitter, Houston’s bullpen, led by right-handed relievers Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly, preserved the slim margin.
Most of the Astros’ offense came from their unflappable rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña, the Most Valuable Player in the A.L.C.S., who delivered with a run-scoring single and a solo home run. Trey Mancini — a replacement at first base for Yuli Gurriel, who injured his right knee in a rundown in the seventh inning — saved at least one run and the game with his glove with runners on the corners in the eighth.
And in the ninth inning of a one-run game, Astros center fielder Chas McCormick made a jumping catch at the wall to rob Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto of an extra-base hit.
After the game, Verlander said his teammates gave him the rookie treatment by putting him in a laundry cart, rolling him into the shower and dousing him with “all kinds of stuff.” He added, “Beer, wine, shampoo, ketchup. It was amazing.”
The World Series now shifts to Houston, where it will end for the third time in four years. In 2019, Washington toppled the Astros in Game 7 at Minute Maid Park. Two years later, Atlanta did the same in Game 6.
Game 6 this year will be on Saturday with a starting pitching matchup that is a rematch of Game 2: Houston’s left-hander Framber Valdez, who tossed a gem in the win, will go up against Philadelphia’s right-hander Zack Wheeler, who was given extra rest because his velocity dipped in the loss.
Entering Thursday, Verlander, who is likely to win his third A.L. Cy Young Award this season, was winless with an 0-6 record and 6.07 E.R.A. in eight career starts over five World Series.
Given how powerful Verlander was during the regular season, it is easy to forget that he is 39 and missed almost all of 2020 and 2021 because of Tommy John surgery. Even for a younger player, playing deep into the year after spring training, a 162-game regular season and a month of the postseason is a lot.
Staked to a 1-0 lead in the first inning, Verlander was initially shaky on Thursday. He is known for attacking batters with high fastballs and Kyle Schwarber, the Phillies’ slugging leadoff hitter, was ready. He slammed Verlander’s second pitch into the right field seats for his fifth home run this postseason.
Verlander said the feeling stunk because “of the moment and obviously all the questions and weight.” He added, “But you have to rely on the hundreds of starts and the thousands of pitches I’ve thrown before and just kind of say, ‘OK, I’ve given up leadoff home runs before. Let me bear down.’”
In the second inning, Verlander got himself into a jam. With two outs, he coughed up a single to second baseman Jean Segura and walked the light-hitting center fielder Brandon Marsh. Verlander then walked Schwarber on five pitches, most of them not near the strike zone, to load the bases. After a mound visit from the Astros pitching coach Josh Miller, Verlander regrouped and flung sliders at first baseman Rhys Hoskins for the threat-ending strikeout.
When Verlander walked Phillies designated hitter Bryce Harper in the third inning, it was his fourth free pass of the game. In his previous 31 regular-season and postseason starts in 2022, the most walks Verlander issued in a game was three.
“I remember my teammate Tommy John always told me,” Astros Manager Dusty Baker said, “that a good pitcher can get out of trouble twice and a great pitcher three times and a so-so pitcher maybe one time.”
With less pitching depth than the Astros, the Phillies turned to right-hander Noah Syndergaard as their starter for Game 5. Syndergaard, a former Mets standout who was also returning from Tommy John surgery this season, had pitched out of the bullpen a few times down the stretch. But starting Syndergaard on Thursday allowed the Phillies to buy more time for Wheeler, who returned in late September from right elbow inflammation.
Expected to be the first of many pitchers in a bullpen game, Syndergaard coughed up a run in just four pitches after Astros second baseman Jose Altuve doubled and Peña singled him home. When he hung a curveball to Peña to start the fourth inning, Peña took advantage, hitting the ball 350 feet and just over the left field wall for a go-ahead solo blast. It was his fourth homer this postseason.
“Boy, he’s really carried us for awhile here through this postseason, and that’s especially tough for a young player, a young shortstop,” Baker said. “And I’m just glad we have him.”
With a 2-1 lead, Verlander allowed Harper to reach base for a third time in the fifth inning. Baker stuck with Verlander, who escaped unscathed and the Phillies again failed to convert a scoring opportunity.
So with Verlander at 94 pitches, Baker turned the game over to the Astros’ stout bullpen. Abreu delivered one and one-thirds powerhouse innings, carving through the heart of the Phillies’ order with 98-mile-per-hour fastballs and wicked sliders.
“It’s so symbolic that so many people were a part of this win, and they rallied around me and they were almost just as happy that I got the win as I was,” Verlander said afterward, pointing to the bullpen’s work. “Just an incredible feeling.”
The Phillies injected life into Citizens Bank Park and drama into the game when Astros reliever Rafael Montero walked two batters in the eighth inning and coughed up a run-scoring single to Segura. It was the Phillies’ first hit with a runner in scoring position since Game 1, snapping an 0-for-20 skid in those situations.
Baker called on Pressly, the Astros closer, to clean up the mess and secure a five-out save. He struck out Marsh and then got Schwarber to slap a ball down the first base line. That is when Mancini — usually known more for his hitting, which has been a struggle this postseason — made a lunging stab on the ball and reached back for the bag with his feet.
And after Pressley fired a scoreless ninth inning, with help from McCormick, the Astros celebrated and packed up. On Friday, they planned to fly home, where a title that could redefine this era was within reach.
Scott Miller contributed reporting.