HOUSTON (TNS) — Built like an airplane hangar, named after orange juice, the contours of Minute Maid Park scream of camp. The foul poles are sponsored by Chick-fil-A. A conductor runs a train beyond the left-field fence, high above the Crawford Boxes, which beckon for home runs only 315 feet from the plate. The retractable roof creates a cauldron of noise.
On Friday evening, in the second inning of Game 3 of the World Series, the quirks of this ballpark taunted Dodgers starter Yu Darvish as the Houston Astros battered him en route to a 5-3 victory to capture a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. The Crawford Boxes swallowed up a homer smashed by Houston first baseman Yuli Gurriel. The building rattled with so much noise that Darvish had to duck his head so catcher Austin Barnes could shout instructions in his ear. The advice wasn't enough.
The Astros sizzled line drives through the air, enough for four runs, building a lead that the Dodgers offense could not overcome and creating a mess for manager Dave Roberts with implications beyond Friday's loss. Houston remains unbeaten at home in the postseason. The Dodgers now understand why.
The crowd serenaded Darvish with jeers when Roberts exited the dugout with two outs in the second inning. The abbreviated outing forced Roberts to ride Kenta Maeda for 2 2/3 innings, which effectively removes him from appearing in Game 4 and possibly Game 5. Maeda kept the Dodgers within sight of the Astros, but the offense bumbled away early opportunities and could not convert against Houston's bullpen.
The details of Darvish's outing elucidate the pain. It was the shortest outing of his career. He generated only one swinging strike in 49 pitches. In the second inning, the Astros hit five balls with an exit velocity of 99 mph or more. Darvish looked miserable in the moment, the television cameras capturing his unraveling.
As Darvish crumbled, his teammates picked an inopportune time to play sloppy baseball. They ran into outs on the bases. They made two errors in the field. The quartet of Chris Taylor, Corey Seager, Justin Turner and Cody Bellinger went 1 for 13. Bellinger struck out four times, including three time against Astros starter Lance McCullers.
Losing Maeda could have grave consequences. Roberts refused to concede the game, hoping that his offense could close the gap. Except expending Maeda removes a weapon from Roberts' arsenal and adds pressure on Game 4 starter Alex Wood, who could not finish the fifth inning against the Chicago Cubs in the National League Championship Series. Houston presents a much thornier challenge.
As the Astros prepared to hit in the bottom of the first inning, the massive scoreboard in right field replayed the highlights from Game 2. There was Yasiel Puig diving and missing a crucial double by third baseman Alex Bregman. There was outfielder Marwin Gonzalez taking Kenley Jansen deep. There was outfielder George Springer launching the game-winning homer off Brandon McCarthy.
In the aftermath of Wednesday's bullpen collapse, Roberts weathered a hail of denunciations for his management of the team's pitching staff. He intended to follow a similar process on Friday.
"When you do things that aren't reactive, and you do things that we do as an organization to get ahead of things, you open yourself up to criticism," Roberts said.
Darvish had thrived inside this strange space. In six starts at Minute Maid Park, all made while he pitched for Texas, Darvish owned a 4-1 record with a 2.16 earned-run average. Most of those outings occurred against an Astros team tanking to rebuild and reach this stage.
The unit he faced on Friday is far different. He escaped the first inning after allowing a leadoff double to Springer. The second inning was a horror show.
Darvish lacked the feel for his cutter and his slider, the weapons he utilized to handcuff the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Cubs. His cutter kept riding high in the strike zone. His slider hung over the plate. He would pay for his pitiable command.
A 95-mph fastball got walloped on a swing from first baseman Yuli Gurriel. His leadoff homer soared over the Crawford Boxes and set the crowd afire. The noise would only increase.
In the next at-bat, former Dodger Josh Reddick stroked an opposite-field double. Darvish missed with sliders and fastballs to walk designated hitter Evan Gattis. The skittishness caused Roberts to visit the mound. He counseled Darvish for a few moments before departing.
The message did not land. Gonzalez lifted a hanging slider into left-center field. The baseball carried until it banged off the wall for a well-struck RBI single. Brian McCann fouled off four pitches, underscoring Darvish's inability to get the ball past the Astros' batters, before lacing a 94-mph fastball for an RBI single.
The hit turned over the Astros lineup and subjected Darvish to more danger. Springer lined out to second base, with an exit velocity of 105 mph. Bregman hit a 103-mph liner to center field for a sacrifice fly.
Roberts allowed Darvish to face one more batter. It was Jose Altuve, Houston's undersized MVP candidate. Altuve smashed a cutter off the wall for a double. The Dodgers benefited from McCann's lack of speed. He could only reach third base, and Roberts sent Maeda to replace Darvish.
Maeda defused the threat by inducing a flyout from shortstop Carlos Correa. Betrayed by one starting pitcher, Roberts leaned on another. Maeda had excelled as a converted reliever this postseason. Now he provided length, soaking up eight outs without permitting a run.
For the Dodgers offense, a four-run deficit in this ballpark was far from insurmountable. Yet the hitters squandered a series of openings. McCullers gifted the first. He walked the first three batters he saw in the third inning, loading the bases for Seager.
Seager had no interest in walking. He swung through a 1-0 curveball. McCullers followed up with another. Seager chopped it to the right side of the infield, where Gurriel, Correa and McCullers combined for a double play. A run scored, but the rally withered when Turner grounded out.
An inning later, Puig rolled a single past Bregman, The baseball clattered along the wall in shallow left field. Puig ran through the bag, then spotted the baseball in the grass. He chugged toward second, where he was thrown out. In the fifth, the Dodgers wasted a one-out double by Joc Pederson.
A throwing error by reliever Tony Watson handed Houston another run in the bottom of the fifth inning. After a single by Reddick, Watson made an errant throw on a swinging bunt by Gattis, who bowled over Bellinger at first base. Reddick raced home.
The Dodgers crept closer in the sixth inning. A leadoff walk by Seager and a double by Turner eased McCullers off the stage. Puig brought Seager home with a groundout. Turner scored on a wild pitch from Astros reliever Brad Peacock to cut the deficit to two. They would get no closer.