Early in Game 5 of the World Series on Sunday night, when Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw was still hanging zeroes on the Houston Astros and before the home runs started flying out of Minute Maid Park like they were attached to some NASA solid rocket boosters, ESPN Radio analyst and former big-leaguer Aaron Boone was taking stock of the Astros’ young talent.
He spoke of course of Jose Altuve. And Carlos Correa and George Springer. But he also took time to mention former LSU shortstop and Astros third baseman Alex Bregman.
“I think,” Boone said, “he’s going to have a breakout season next year.”
Boone is likely on the right track, though his timing may be a little off.
It appears Bregman’s breakout is happening right now.
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Bottom of the 10th inning Sunday night — Monday morning, actually. Game tied 12-12. Dodgers relief ace Kenley Jansen gets two quick outs, then hits Astros catcher Brian McCann and walks Springer as Bregman watches from the on-deck circle.
“I looked to Correa. Correa said, ‘It's your time,’" Bregman told reporters after the game.
Time enough to put his baseball calculator brain to work and figure out what Jansen was likely to throw him.
“I thought, ‘What's your approach going to be?’” Bregman said. “And I said, ‘I saw him (Saturday) night and he threw me a slider, and (I) was fortunate enough to put a good swing on it and hit it out of the yard.’ I basically eliminated the slider, and I said, ‘I need to get a pitch that I can stay on top of, because he's a guy that throws high cutters, and a guy that gets a lot of fly-ball outs.’
“So I was looking for something down in the zone that I could stay on top of it.”
Jansen’s 92 mph cutter dove over the outer half of the plate, a tough pitch but not so tough Bregman couldn’t get the barrel of his black Marucci bat on it. He lined a single to left field, over the head of Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager. With swift pinch-runner Derek Fisher churning from second, Bregman thought as he rounded first there was no way left fielder Andre Ethier could throw him out.
“As soon as it left the bat, I knew Fisher would score,” Bregman said. “He's probably the fastest guy in baseball.”
Astros 13, Dodgers 12. It’s now a 3-2 series lead Bregman’s team takes with it to Los Angeles for Game 6 on Tuesday (7 p.m., Fox) in search of the 55-year-old franchise's first championship.
How did the biggest hit of his life feel, even after his fellow Astros mugged him and nearly ripped his jersey?
“Pure joy,” said Bregman, just 23. “It's an unbelievable moment. You dream about it as a little kid. To be living a dream, one win away from the World Series, is really special.”
For LSU coach Paul Mainieri, watching with delight at his Baton Rouge home, Bregman’s colossal base knock was the intersection of talent, opportunity, desire and dedication. He knew the moment wouldn’t be too big for his former All-American shortstop, who has gone from being the Astros No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft to batting second in the World Series for one of the most talented teams in the game.
“I would have been more surprised if he wasn’t ready for the moment,” Mainieri said Monday as he prepared to direct a fall practice session at Alex Box Stadium. “When McCann got hit (and) Springer came up, I said, ‘If only Springer could walk and give Alex a chance to win the game.’
“The moment is never too big for Alex. He wants to be in that situation. Some players are afraid of that situation. They don’t want to let the team down, the fans down. Alex wants it. He’s like Michael Jordan. He wants that last shot of the game.”
Fighting off the smothering pressure takes confidence, confidence born out of preparation.
“He knows the guy standing at the plate and what their tendencies are and knows the pitcher on the mound,” said Mike Foote, co-owner of a baseball academy in Bregman’s hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, for a 2015 feature in The Advocate. “(As a fielder), he’s looking in to see what pitch is being called, and then he studies the hitter to see what their body movements are. You hear football players watching film all of the time and learning from film. For baseball players, it’s knowing every hitter, knowing the pitches going to be called.”
Former LSU assistant Will Davis, now head coach at Lamar, said in that story Bregman was the smartest college player he’d ever seen.
“I don’t expect to see another — no matter how long I’m in this,” Davis said. “He’s so in tune with the game, it’s ridiculous. Most people that have the intelligence level of a coach aren’t good. He has the intelligence level, baseball IQ of a coach, and he’s really good.”
Former LSU pitcher Kurt Ainsworth, CEO and co-founder of Marucci Sports, has experienced Bregman’s preparation and attention to detail firsthand because the company signed him shortly after his LSU career ended.
Bregman not only swings a Marucci bat — 33½ inches, 31 ounces — but wears Marucci batting and fielding gloves, all designed to his own specifications.
“He loves the game,” Ainsworth said. “You can see it. When we have dinner, he’s always talking about baseball. He outworks a lot of people. He’s made himself into a really good player, even a better pro than he was in college. We’re super-happy to have him.”
When he was a boy, turning an unassisted triple play at age 4 or throwing so many balls against a cinder block wall in his yard he knocked a hole in it, Bregman was pretending to be former New York Yankees great shortstop Derek Jeter.
“One of the reasons I wear No. 2 is because of him,” Bregman said. “He was the ultimate team guy. He was a winner.”
Sounds like Alex Bregman. Sounds like someone a baseball-obsessed kid somewhere may be patterning his game after.