Richard Justice: In a season of answering every challenge, the Astros suddenly face a huge one.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by John Angelillo/UPI/Shutterstock (13522326f) Houston Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander walks off the field after giving up a two-rbi double to Philadelphia Phillies J.T. Realmuto which tied the game 5-5 in the fifth inning in game one of the 2022 World Series at Minute Maid Park in Houston on Friday, October 28, 2022. 2022 World Series, Houston, Texas, United States – 28 Oct 2022

Richard Justice: In a season of answering every challenge, the Astros suddenly face a huge one.

   This is the game the Astros win almost every single time. One of the greatest pitchers of his generation makes a 5-0 lead stand-up. When it doesn’t, relievers throw zeroes on the board, leather is flashed, and when the tension is appropriately thick, a hero steps into the batter’s box and delivers.

    In opening this postseason with seven straight victories, the Astros have won four games by a single run and twice by two runs. They scored the winning run in the sixth inning or later four times.

   When a team’s margin of error is that microscopic, it’s insanely thrilling to win game after game after game. This is how the Astros have lived for the last three weeks, dancing in and around trouble, doing just enough to win every single game.

   Never mind all those black holes in the lineup. That Yordan Alvarez and Jose Altuve look lost. That the DH position is a black hole. Until now, it hasn’t mattered.

   This time, though, it was the other team that delivered the knockout punch. It was the other manager that choreographed the game with more urgency. It was the other bullpen that got the job done.

   Maybe that’s why 42,903 at Minute Maid Park went from roaring joyously to so stone-cold silent so quickly during Game 1 of the World Series on Friday. Maybe they sensed where things were headed after the Phillies erased that 5-0 lead.

   Finally, Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto struck an opposite-field home run in the top of the tenth inning for a 6-5 victory. That one came after Phillies right fielder Nick Castellanos made a sliding catch of a Jeremy Peña liner with the winning run on second base in the bottom of the ninth.

    If you like high stakes and tension, you may love Game 2 on Saturday. All of a sudden, the Astros are in danger of falling in an 0-2 hole as the World Series shifts to Philadelphia for Games 3, 4, and 5.

   If the Astros awaken offensively, it’s going to be against Phillies ace Zack Wheeler, who has a 1.78 ERA in four postseason starts. Matching him is the challenge for Astros lefty Framber Valdez.

    On the other hand, ain’t it fun? Baseball fans in 28 other cities would love to be playing these nail-biting games in which our hearts and emotions are riding on every pitch.

   When Kyle Tucker hit his second home run in as many innings to make it 5-0 in the third inning, Game 1 felt like a cakewalk with Verlander on the mound.

   The Phillies thumped him for three runs in the third and two in the fourth, and suddenly, it was tied.

   “I feel really confident that 99 percent of the time that, I’m able to hold that lead,” Justin Verlander said.

   He had blown through the Phillies at the start, retiring 10 straight hitters, and with a 5-0 lead, history was on the Astros side: 29-0 in their postseason history when leading by 5+ runs.

   They hadn’t lost a regular-season lead of at least five runs since July 26, 2021, a stretch of 65 in a row.

   But it has happened in World Series history. Six times in 130 years! Before Friday, the last time was Game 6 in 2002, when the Angels rallied to beat the Giants.

    Looking for a common thread? Dusty Baker was the losing manager in both those contests. Only don’t blame this one on him.

   He might have stayed with Verlander too long, especially since this postseason has not been a good one for him. But if you’re going to err, it’s smart to err on the side of a future Hall of Famer coming off a Cy Young Award season.

   “It’s hard to take Justin out,” Baker said, “because he can struggle for a while, but he usually gets it back together. You don’t want to just go through your whole bullpen that early in the game.”

   (Verlander has long since punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame, but the World Series hasn’t been kind to him. In eight winless starts, his 6.07 ERA is the highest among pitchers with 30+ innings.)

   “I need to do better. No excuses,” Verlander said. “(I) just need to execute pitches better. I felt like I had some guys in good situations and just wasn’t able to quite make the pitches that I wanted to.”

   Baker’s move to Luis Garcia instead of Ryne Stank in the 10th inning didn’t pay off, either. That doesn’t mean it was the wrong move. It just means it’s a results-oriented business.

   Tucker’s home runs are a good sign. So was Altuve’s bloop single in the ninth inning that brought his postseason batting average to .108.

   As for Yordan Alvarez, he looks lost at the plate. At first, pitchers were exploiting his inability to lay off high fastballs. Now, he’s a complete mess. Since winning Games 1 and 2 of the Seattle series with home runs, he’s 3 for 25 with 10 strikeouts.

   Were you going to ask about the Designated Hitters? They’re hitting .067 with two singles, one walk, and nine strikeouts.

   Baker finally pulled the plug on Trey Mancini (0 for 16) and sent Aledmys Diaz up to hit in the bottom of the 10th with the tying run on third base. He grounded out softly to third. He’s 1 for 15.

   Baker has toyed with using rookie David Hensley as his DH. It’s difficult to see the downside, considering how little he has gotten from his veterans.

   Or maybe Game 1’s aren’t the Astros thing. They’re 0-5 in Game 1 in the World Series.

   As for the friendly confines, the Astros are 3-10 in home World Series games and have been outscored 80-50. So in a season when they answered every challenge, they’re staring at a huge on Saturday night.

   “This team, we have an ability when our backs (are) against the wall to play our best baseball,” Verlander said. “And I expect nothing different moving forward from everybody in this locker room, including myself. And hopefully, I get another opportunity to pitch and can do better.”

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  • I think he needs to try Hensley in at dh

  • Don’t be so hard on yourselves! The Astros are the best of the best and you will come back with a vengeance! God bless all of you and good luck! 🍀

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