Well, World Series Game Two was a pitching duel after each side hung up a two-spot in their halves of the first inning. Justin Verlander and Stephen Strasburg ground and gritted and got their Houdinis on.
And then came the top of the seventh. A six-run Nationals inning that will live in Astro infamy and Nats legend. Deal with the Astros’ home field advantage? The Nats obliterated it with a little help from their spring training complex friends.
Baby Sharks? On Wednesday night the Astros got swallowed by Jaws. And in the top of the seventh they helped feed the beast that ran them out of their home aquarium, 12-3. And lost back-to-back games at home for only the second time since July.
“Reset, then come into an environment that we know is going to be pretty crazy,” said Verlander about the coming Game Three in Nationals Park, “and be ready to play baseball like we know we can.”
But there’s suddenly the nagging fear that the Astros may be the only ones who still know they can play that kind of baseball. They didn’t play it Game Two, against a team who shares with them both baseball’s best play since 24 May and a taste for making the other guys pay for their mistakes with usurious interest.
“Where would you like me to start?” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said as a reporter at the postgame presser asked about the top of the seventh. The one that only began with Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki’s leadoff home run.
Things actually began near the end of the bottom of the sixth, when the Astros had Yuli Gurriel on second with a double, rookie Yordan Alvarez aboard on an intentional walk, a game still tied at two, and two out.
That’s when Hinch elected to pinch hit for Verlander’s season-long personal catcher Robinson Chirinos, who’d shepherded Verlander through five shutout innings just the way Suzuki shepherded Strasburg through five and two thirds, with escape acts being the order of the hour as often as not no matter how much stronger the pair got after their two-run firsts.
Hinch sent up Kyle Tucker, figuring that his being lefthanded might have a better shot against the righthanded Strasburg. But Tucker helped Strasburg squirm out of the first-and-second chains by fighting his way into a called third strike. Then, Hinch sent Martin Maldonado out to catch Verlander for the seventh and for the first time all year long. And after Verlander served Suzuki an opening ball one a little upstairs, Suzuki served the next pitch richocheting off the edge of a large Lexus sign behind the Crawford Boxes.
“We’ve had our battles,” said Suzuki in a post-game on-field interview, and he took a lifetime 14-for-42 jacket with a pair of doubles against Verlander into Game Two. “He’s gotten me sometimes, sometimes I get him. He’s a great pitcher, and you’ve got to really zone in on one spot. He doesn’t make many mistakes, and when you get a pitch to hit you can’t miss it.”
“First-pitch curveball for a ball, and then fastball that was right there for him,” said Verlander, who more or less denied that being switched to Maldonado threw him off since he’d thrown to Maldonado “a lot” in 2018. “In the regular season, you’re like, ‘OK, here it is, hit it, right down the middle.’ In the World Series, it’s a different story. You can’t really ever do that. You still got to hit your spots.”
And if you don’t, you get hit. For distance, even. By a catcher whose body lately threatens to demand donation to forensic anthropology.
Then Verlander lost Victor Robles to a full count walk and his night was over. Becoming the first in Show to nail 200 career postseason strikeouts, breaking John Smoltz’s record of 199 when he fanned Robles in the top of the second, would have meant a lot more if the Astro bullpen didn’t perform an almost-from-nowhere, note-perfect impersonation of . . . the Nats’ bullpen as it looked for most of the regular season.
Hinch reached for Ryan Pressly and Trea Turner reached on another full count walk. And then the merry-go-round started going round enough that maybe, just maybe, the Astros were caught a little off guard and a lot more off balance.
Adam Eaton dropped a near-perfect bunt in front of the mound to push the runners to second and third, but Anthony Rendon—knowing the Nats wouldn’t pitch around him to get to Juan Soto—flied out to shallow center. Up came Soto. With the Astros having issued not a single intentional walk all year long to that point.
This may or may not qualify as calling the repairman when it isn’t broken, but Hinch ordered Soto walked on the house in favour of pitching to Howie Kendrick, who’s not exactly a simple out but isn’t exactly Juan Soto, his division series-conquering grand slam notwithstanding. The Astros saw more than enough of Soto’s mayhem in Game One. Not a second time.
It turned out to be the most powerful free pass of all time. For the Nats, that is.
Kendrick bounced one toward the hole at shortstop. Astros third baseman Alex Bregman scrambled left. He knocked the ball down to stop it from shooting through, then picked it up. Then, he dropped it. All hands safe and Robles home with a fourth Nats run. Then Asdrubal Cabrera, playing second for the Nats with Kendrick the DH in Houston, lined a two-run single up the pipe.
Up stepped Ryan Zimmerman, the Nats’ first base elder. Ball one hit the dirt and shot past Maldonado behind the plate allowing the runners to move back to second and third. Then Zimmerman on 2-2 bounced one weakly up the third base side and Bregman hustled in, barehanded the ball, but threw wildly down the line allowing Kendrick and Cabrera to come home and Zimmerman to take second.
Minute Maid Park turned into a graveside service. These were the Astros who entered the World Series as the heaviest favourites in history? The 107-game winners who took no prisoners and laid all in front of them to waste? And if the crowd couldn’t believe what they’d just seen, the Astros couldn’t believe it even more.
“They came into our building and played two really good games,” said Hinch at the presser. “We’re going to have to sleep off the latter one-third of the game. I don’t want to lump this into a horrible game. It was a horrible three innings. It wasn’t a horrible game.”
Well, it didn’t start that way, even if Rendon slashed a two-run double off Verlander and the left field wall with one out in the top of the first and Bregman hit a two-run homer off the back wall of the Crawfords in the bottom of the first.
If the Nats couldn’t cash in their few chances against Verlander over the following five innings, the Astros weren’t exactly doing much more to Strasburg other than periodically pinning him to the wall those same five innings only to discover he had more than a few escape routes to travel.
“You know it’s going to be a storm out there,” said Strasburg during one post-game interview, the man whose younger self might have fumed the rest of the game over Bregman’s first-inning bomb but whose mature self just shakes it off. “You’re going to weather it.”
And to think that the whole seventh-inning disaster was launched by a catcher who’d been 2-for-25 this postseason and 5-for-his-last-39 overall. The Nats generally don’t care who gets it started as long as it gets started, but Los Viejos, as Max Scherzer calls their veterans, have as much fun as the young’uns at it.
“Just trying to go out there and play for the guy next to you,” Strasburg eventually told MLB Network’s MLB Tonight after the game. “It was a hard-fought battle there. And they made me work every single inning.”
Maybe so, but the Astros are hitting .176 (3-for-17) with men on second or better so far in the Series, while the Nats are hitting .333 (7-for-21) with them. The Nats have out-scored the Astros 16-7 and hit a collective .307/.366/.547 slash line to the Astros’ .257/.321/.432 slash.
Both sides’ pitching is missing bats—eighteen strikeouts for the Nats, twenty for the Astros so far—but the Astros’ biggest two starters, Verlander and Gerrit Cole, pack a 6.22 Series ERA so far to the Nats’ big two’s (Scherzer, Strasburg) 3.30 Series ERA. It was June when the Astros last lost back-to-back Verlander and Cole starts, and those two pitchers hadn’t been saddled with losses on their ledgers back-to-back since August . . . 2018.
And thanks to STATS, LLC, we know that Verlander and Cole have done something no pair of same-season, same-team 20-game winners has done in 55 years: lost the first two games in a World Series. The last to do that: Hall of Famers Don Drysdale (Game One) and Sandy Koufax (Game Two) in 1965.
Since those Dodgers went on to win in seven, with Koufax throwing a pair of shutouts, you don’t need me to tell you the Astros would like to do likewise and the Nats would prefer they not. Right now, the odds of the Astros doing it have fallen to the basement and the Nats’ odds of stopping them have hit the observation deck.
Some might have thought the Nats blew the Astros the loudest raspberry in the southwest, when they sent Fernando Rodney out to pitch the bottom of the seventh Wednesday night, and he navigated a leadoff walk into a force at second, a pop out behind the infield, and a ground out to first. Rodney, after all, is the only active player in the Show who may have been an eyewitness to the Red Sea crossing.
Nah. Even with their by-now-too-famous dugout dancings after home runs big and small, the Nats aren’t that crass. But you could forgive Astroworld if it believes the Dancing Nats—whose theme song by now ought to be the Archie Bell & the Drells soul classic, “I Can’t Stop Dancing”—have a merciless streak of their own when their sharks smell blood in or on the Astro waters.
With reliever Josh James held over to open the top of the eighth, Maldonado couldn’t hold onto strike three to Robles leading off. A strikeout to Turner later, Eaton couldn’t hold off sending James’s first-pitch fastball right down the middle right onto a high line ending in the right field seats.
And after making his way through the Nats’ now-customary dugout dance, he plopped onto the bench next to Kendrick, where the pair of them began thrusting their arms out and barking like seals beating their flippers after being thrown particularly succulent fish.
Then Michael A. Taylor, inserted into center field in the bottom of the eighth, stood in to hit against Astros reliever Chris Devenski with one out in the top of the ninth. One pitch. One Game Two at-bat. One launch into the Crawford Boxes. One 12-2 Nats lead that became 12-3 when Maldonado sent spare Nats reliever Javy Guerra’s one-out, 1-0 fastball into a balcony past the Crawfords. It’s ok if you want to believe Guerra wanted to show just a little mercy.
But only a little. Rendon fielded but threw George Springer’s grounder to third just off enough that Zimmerman couldn’t dig it out. Then Jose Altuve lined a base hit up the pipe, ninth-inning center field insertion Jake Marisnick grounded one to third that Rendon threw cleanly to first, and the game finally ended.
And the Astros were clean where they didn’t expect to be. Home field advantage swallowed alive. Facing a trip to Washington where they’d prefer to nuke the Nats in kind, or at least get past them for once. Their theme song after Game Two could be Alice Cooper’s chestnut, “Welcome to My Nightmare.”
The last thing the Astros want to know is that only three teams in baseball history have gone on to win the World Series after losing the first two games at home: the 1985 Royals, the 1986 Mets, and the 1996 Yankees. Or, that among the last eighteen teams who won the first two Series games only one didn’t go on to win the rings—the 1996 Braves.
Don’t tell the Nats, either. They haven’t surrendered their May-forward mentality of hoping to go 1-0 each day. “The truth is, winning these games here does nothing for us on Friday,” Zimmerman said thoughtfully after Game Two. “Zack Greinke’s pitching. And Zack Greinke is pretty good, too. So believe me, we know there’s no let-up with that team over there. So we’ve just got to keep going and keep playing like we’ve been playing.”
“I think the message is, don’t hang your head,” Verlander said just as thoughtfully. “We didn’t play our best baseball, things didn’t go our way, we have an off day tomorrow but we don’t have time to feel bad about ourselves.”
The Nats probably have no interest in giving them that time, either. The Baby Sharks are halfway to swimming in the Promised Land. The second half won’t necessarily be easy. But they’ve beaten the best Astro arms, gotten the Astros to help beat themselves, and discovered the Astros aren’t exactly Moby Dick.