This was supposed to be a duel of the lancers on the mound to open the World Series. Right? It was going to be ace vs.ace, right? Gerrit Cole, baseball’s almost-Invincible Man, vs. Max Scherzer, going tooth, fang, claw, and anything else they could think of against each other, right?
That’ll teach me to forget the modified Lennon’s Law: Baseball is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. Especially when an initially jittery Juan Soto learns a lesson from Cole in the first inning but takes the A train his next time up.
And, when enough other Nationals prove even this year’s model Cole is only human, after all, at least on a single night. And, when Scherzer for five grinding innings out-pitches Cole for seven despite not having his best night. And, when the Nats bullpen bends but doesn’t break.
And, when the Astros’ vaunted enough home field advantage proves no less intimidating to the Nats than it proved to the Yankees in the opener of their American League Championship Series. We know how that worked out for the Yankees in the end. The Nats know bloody well they still have a none-too-simple road to follow even winning World Series Game One, 5-4, Monday night.
“Why dream it? Drive it,” said a 1941 advertisement for the DeSoto car. “This baby can flick its tail at anything on the road,” said a 1957 DeSoto ad. The Soto in a Nats uniform and still two days from the legal drinking age must have dreamed it entering. Then, he drove it twice.
A mammoth solo home run in the fourth, a long two-run double in the fifth. This baby can flick his tail at anything coming down from the mound. So it sure seemed to the Astros after Game One. “I feel like, in the last twenty-four hours, I’ve seen Soto more than my wife,” cracked Astros catcher Martin Maldonado after the game. “You have to prepared, you have to do scouting reports on it. That guy’s good. He’s very good.”
On Monday night that was like saying the Washington Monument was very tall.
The sharks bit and the Astros bit back. Even if Scherzer vs. Cole transpired the way pitching’s closest observers might have expected things to go until the bullpens were opened, nobody—not the Astros and certainly not the Nats—thought either team would win the easy way.
The Astros came into Game One on a 26-0 winning streak in games during which they scored two or more runs in the first inning, and 2-0 in such postseason games. And Cole came into Game One not having been hung with a loss since 22 May or thrown even one pitch when his team was trailing in a game since 2 September.
According to STATS, LLC., he’d also struck out 258 batters between 22 May and Game One. Not to mention pitching 175 innings from his previous three-run inning until the top of the fifth Monday night. STATS also notes that during the previous 22 starts of his winning string Cole threw 150.2 innings and was behind in only four.
There went those streaks. And, for Game One at least, the mystique of invincibility Cole constructed since the White Sox pried six runs out of him that 22 May in Minute Maid Park. Not to mention the second straight start in which he didn’t roll double-digit strikeouts after an eleven-game such streak to end the season and carry into his first two postseason starts.
But the Nats don’t kid themselves. They know Cole’s liable to get another crack at them before this Series is done. They also know Justin Verlander awaits in Game Two and, while he, too, has shown his vulnerability of late, he’s still Justin Verlander, he’s still a future Hall of Famer, and he still has miles to go yet before his limousine, not to mention his right arm, sleeps.
Just ask Patrick Corbin, who got pressed into relief service in the Game One sixth and dealt with nothing more severe than Astro rookie Yordan Alvarez’s one-out single. “It’s a huge win for us no matter who we were facing,” Corbin said after the game. “But [Cole] has been one of their guys all year and they have a great pitcher going tomorrow. All these games seem like they are going to be like this. It’s two good teams fighting.”
Scherzer fought his way through five innings with seven strikeouts, a first-inning two-run double from Yuli Gurriel, and stranding second and third in the top of the third. He got onto the winning side of the pitching ledger thanks to Adam Eaton singling Kurt Suzuki home with a broken bat and Soto swatting his deep two-run double in the top of the fifth. And, thanks to the Nats’ pen shaking away some testy moments until the ninth.
“Tonight,” Max the Knife admitted after the game, “was a grind. Take my hat off to the Astros offense. I was never able to get in the rhythm tonight. I was having to make all my pitches out of the stretch tonight, it felt like.”
But oh did it feel sweet for the Nats when Ryan Zimmerman, Mr. Nat, the true Original Nat, their first draft in 2005, the year they landed in Washington in the first place, got to hit the first World Series home run in Nationals history.
Zimmerman caught hold of every inch of a Cole fastball traveling 97 miles and hour and arriving right down the chute and drove it high over the center field fence to cut the early 2-0 Astro lead in half in the top of the second. “I’ll be honest with you,” said Nats manager Dave Martinez to former Nats beat writer Chelsea Janes. “I got a little teary eyed for him. “He waited a long time to be in this position.”
“You’re kind of almost floating around the bases,” said Zimmerman, who’s bent on enjoying every last World Series moment now that he and his Nats are here, after a season rudely interrupted by plantar fasciitis in his right foot, and with the knowledge his current deal expires after the Series and his future isn’t exactly written.
And as sweet and sentimental as Zimmerman’s blast was for the Nats even that was nothing compared to Soto leading off the top of the fourth.
Disciplined beyond his years at the plate, as announcers have purred all postseason long and almost to a fare-thee-well, Soto looked at first at a Cole slider that hung up over the top of the zone and inside. Then Soto remembered what he’d learned when Cole struck him out swinging in the first: “He likes the fastball, so I go to the next at-bat ready to hit it.”
Sure enough, here came the fastball considered Cole’s favourite, climbing to the top of the zone. And there went the fastball, the lefthanded Soto driving it high and far enough to land in front of the Minute Maid Park train’s locomotive and bounce between the track rails, tying the game at two. “[He] again used the whole field and he stayed back and stayed within himself,” Cole told reporters after the game. “So you know, good hitters do that.”
Cole knew only two things Monday night. He knew on contact that Soto lit a rocket charge in that 1-0 fastball, and he knew he wasn’t having the sharpest night of a year in which his regular season left him the American League’s Cy Young Award favourite.
“I thought the fastball was leaking a little off the corner a couple times,” he said. “I struggled with the curveball command, kind of buried us in some bad counts and then just a poor pitch to Soto and not being able to finish that inning off without a crooked number.”
For the deep history minded, Zimmerman’s was the first World Series home run by any Washington player since Senators center fielder Fred Schulte smashed a sixth-inning three-run homer in Game Five of the 1933 Series. Providing the only three runs the Ancien Nats got that 5 October. Hall of Famers Heinie Manush and Joe Cronin were on board when he launched.
“Just to get us on the board,” Zimmerman told Sports Illustrated writer/Fox Sports reporter Tom Verducci. “For them to come out and Max grinding it out tonight. He had a lot of guys on base, he made pitches when he needed to, they did a good job not swinging at balls and got his pitch count up. Against a guy like Gerrit it’s not an easy task. So I was just trying to get the ball in the strike zone and, luckily, he made a mistake.
It’s not that any Astros were allergic to making any history themselves. George Springer became first in Show to hit one out in five straight World Series games. Until he sent a 2-1 service from Nats reliever Tanner Rainey over the center field fence to lead off the bottom of the seventh, he’d been tied at four with Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson and Lou Gehrig.
Springer appreciated the feat only to a small extent. “I’d rather win,” he said earnestly after the game. “I mean, cool. Great. It’s an honor . . . But no doubt about it. I’d rather win.”
He did his part to try to make that happen, too, when he doubled in the eighth with Kyle Tucker on second and Daniel Hudson—who’d managed to strand the bases loaded ending the seventh—on the mound for the Nats. And if it hadn’t been for Nats center fielder Victor Robles misreading Tucker at first following his pinch single leading off, and throwing in to first off Aledmys Diaz’s fly out when he might have had a play on Tucker at second, Springer might not have driven in the fourth Astro run of the night.
Springer lingered at first thinking his drive had a shot at going out. Tucker waited to tag thinking the ball might be caught. Then, postgame, Springer fielded questions about why he didn’t end up on third with Tucker scoring. “I can’t go to third right there,” he told reporters. “Because the guy on second had gone back to tag. If I had gone to third, I’m out.”
If not for that, Jose Altuve’s followup high liner to right might have tied the game. But it gave the Nats just enough of a re-awakening for Martinez to reach for Sean Doolittle and ask him for a four-out save. Ask and you shall receive. First, Doolittle ended the eighth by getting Michael Brantley to fly out. Then, he struck Alex Bregman out, got Gurriel to fly out to not-too-deep center, and got Carlos Correa to line the first pitch out to left where Soto snapped it into his glove to end it.
“Welcome to the World Series, baby,” Doolittle replied when asked what he thought about coming in with a man on second. “One-run game, facing Brantley, such a good hitter, such a professional hitter. In the World Series? You know, that’s what you live for, coming into those big moments, in these big games. I’ve tried to change the way that I think about them and embrace them and try to enjoy it.”
Soto surely won’t complain about making a little history of his own. As in, the youngest player to homer and steal a base in the same postseason series, nudging Derek Jeter (Game one, 1996 ALCS) to one side. And, the third youngest to hit cleanup in a World Series game, behind Ty Cobb (1907) and Miguel Cabrera (2003).
Never mind that he’s made an impressions the Astros won’t be able to forget too readily.
“He was the key guy we couldn’t control tonight,” acknowledged Astros manager A.J. Hinch. “His bat-speed is electric . . . He’s calm in the moment. Clearly, this is not too big a stage for him. He was the difference in the game. He’s got that ‘it’ factor. He’s got fast hands. He’s got no fear.”
Springer couldn’t get over Soto’s homer. “I’ve never seen a left-handed hitter hit a ball there against [Cole],” he said of the track job. “Just an incredible swing.”
“He’s a special player,” Zimmerman said. “Really since the day he came up. You can tell the special ones when they come up because they can slow the game down.”
About the only thing the Nats don’t like regarding Soto slowing them down is that, as of Wednesday morning, they’re still two days away from being able to celebrate with Soto in the adult fashion. Come Friday, Soto can have a stiff drink legally.
“That’s why we need to win this,’’ said Nats second baseman Brian Dozier to USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale. “We’ve done all of this celebrating with him, and it sucks, because he’s not old enough to drink. We need to win this so we can do this thing right. This guy is 20 winning a World Series game for us.”
Why dream it? Drive it.