HOUSTON — What started as a quiet drumbeat during the American League Championship Series had built into something much louder after Game 1 of the World Series.
George Springer had just struck out four times in four at-bats against the Dodgers. When, Astros manager A.J. Hinch kept getting asked, would he drop his struggling leadoff man in the order?
Hinch, first asked the question during the ALCS against the Yankees, never budged. In fact, he barely acknowledged that the outfielder — who was 3-for-26 in the ALCS — was even slumping.
When Hinch was asked before Game 2 what seemed “off” with Springer’s swing, he replied, “Nothing. I haven’t seen it today. It can be a really good swing today. I think that baseball is really hard, how you deal with failure and how you deal with some tough days. But you start fresh today. If [Rich] Hill wants to throw him a pitch right over the plate, let’s test him. Let’s see if he can bounce back.”
Springer did, emphatically, in the Astros’ wild 7-6, 11-inning victory in World Series Game 2. He rewarded his manager’s confidence by going 3-for-5, including a two-run homer in the 11th inning that put the Astros ahead 7-5.
Afterward Hinch, though entitled to do so, refrained from going the “I told you so” route.
“He’s an incredible player,” he said of sticking with Springer, who doubled against Yu Darvish to lead off the first inning of Game 3 on Friday night. “I don’t really ride the roller coaster with players. You have to believe in what they can do, not what they’re doing.”
And what Springer had done during the season made him a peripheral AL MVP candidate, in the next group behind the Yankees’ Aaron Judge, the Astros’ Jose Altuve and the Indians’ Jose Ramirez. He hit .283 with 34 homers, 85 RBIs and an .889 OPS in 140 games.
“If you respond to every bad game or tough game, you’ll bounce these guys around and ruin their confidence in a heartbeat,” Hinch said. “This is one of our best players. And there’s no need to panic over a bad night against Clayton Kershaw. I don’t care if it’s a bad game against any pitcher, this game is really, really hard. Our guys and the Dodgers make it look really easy, but it’s a hard game. And there’s a ton of failure involved.”
Springer went 7-for-17 in the Astros’ four-game victory over the Red Sox in the Division Series before going 3-for-30 in the next eight games.
“I believe in players, and I specifically believe in George, and tonight is an example why,” Hinch said after the Game 2 victory. “He wasn’t broken, his swing is not bad, he’s not gone for the series. He had a bad night and came back with one of the best nights.”
Springer called Hinch’s unending confidence in him “huge.” In a big-picture sense, it was a window into why the manager is so popular in the clubhouse.
“Obviously didn’t have the best game [in Game 1],” Springer said. “And as a player, you tend to know it. And you press. And you want to do things that you can’t do. And for him to have my back and to say that ‘hey, you’re still going to hit first, and you’re still going to set the tone for us,’ it slowed me down. I was doing things that I don’t normally do. And for him to have my back, it means the world to me. And I’ll always have his back. And that just shows who he is.’’
Springer acknowledged that as the games got bigger in the postseason, he might have applied more pressure on himself.
“I just think when the lights turn on even brighter, you tend to subconsciously press, and you want to succeed so bad that you start to do things that you wouldn’t do,” Springer said. “And this is my first experience at playing this far, playing this long. So for me to kind of experience it and to kind of understand, hey, slow yourself down. I understand now why guys struggle in the postseason and some don’t.”
From Hinch’s perspective, keeping Springer where he was simply made the most sense.
“George Springer,” Hinch said, “has way more good days than bad days, and way more good stretches than bad stretches. He’s going to lead off.”