From early in the season, when the Nationals were left for dead, and their manager left for death row, gallows humour often salved. So has it done though a lot of the now-concluded World Series. Such humour didn’t exactly hurt after their stupefying Game Six win in Houston, either.
Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki, himself hoping for a Game Seven return appearance after an absence due to a hip issue, couldn’t resist, after Max Scherzer showed up alive and throwing Tuesday. “We were all kind of making fun of him,” Suzuki told an interviewer, “saying he was going to rise from the dead.”
You could say that about the Nats themselves. They’ve been rising from the dead since the regular season ended, too. They won the World Series, beating the Astros 6-2 in Game Seven, rising from the dead, too. Inspired in large part by a pitcher who looked for most of his five innings’ work as though his ghost was on the mound clanking in chains.
And, with neither team able to win at home this time around. For the first time in the history of any major team sport whose championship is chosen in a best-of-seven set. The Nats and the Astros burglarised each other’s houses and left nothing behind, not even an old, tarnished butter knife in the silverware drawer. And the Astros’ hard-earned home field advantage proved the Nats’ road to the Promised Land.
Unearth Canned Heat warbling “On the Road Again,” from the opening tamboura drone to the final harmonics and all harmonica-weeping points in between. Crank up the Doors swinging “Roadhouse Blues.” Pay particular attention to the closing couplet: The future’s uncertain/the end is always near.
For five innings Wednesday night the Nats’ future was as uncertain as the Astros’ end was as near and clear as a 2-0 lead could make it. And try to figure out just how Scherzer with less than nothing other than his sheer will kept it 2-0 while getting his . . .
No. Not Houdini, for all his Game Seven escape acts. Scherzer wasn’t even a brief impersonation of Max the Knife, but after Wednesday he ought to think about a stand in Las Vegas. He’d make Penn & Teller resemble a pair of street hustlers. David Copperfield’s a mere practical joker next to this.
“You can’t really call it a miracle,” said Nats right fielder Adam Eaton post-game, “but it will be a reality-TV movie. Come on, how many books are going to be written about this?” Let’s see . . . Bluff, The Magic Dragons? 20,000 Leagues Beneath Belief? Four Innings Before the Mast? The Nats in the Hat Come Back?
Making baseball’s best team on the year take a long walk into winter has all the simplicity of quantum physics. Doing it when you send a pitcher to the Game Seven mound with nothing but his stubborn will is only slightly less complex.
“I don’t think anybody really knew what to expect when he took the ball,” said Nats reliever Sean Doolittle after the game. “After what he went through with his neck, you don’t know how that’s going to hold up with his violent delivery. You don’t know what his stamina is going to be like. But with Max, we’ve come to expect the unexpected. It was gutsy, man . . . He willed us to stay in the game and that was awesome. I know guys fed off it.”
But on a night Astros starter Zack Greinke operated like a disciple of legendary Texas cardiovascular surgeon Michael DeBakey with the Nats practically on life support, that could have been fatal. Until Patrick Corbin, Anthony Rendon, Howie Kendrick, Juan Soto, Daniel Hudson, and—reality check, folks—the lack of Gerrit Cole made sure it wasn’t.
Scherzer pulled rabbits out of his hat and anyplace else he could find them and was almost lucky that only two of the hares treated him like Elmer Fudd. Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel sent a 2-1 slider with as much slide as a piece of sandpaper into the Crawford Boxes in the bottom of the second, and Carlos Correa whacked an RBI single off Anthony Rendon’s glove at third in the bottom of the fifth.
Nats manager Dave Martinez called for a review on that play, ostensibly to determine whether Yordan Alverez’s foot was actually off the pad after he rounded but was held at third on the play, but realistically to give Corbin a little more warmup time. Then Corbin went to work starting in the bottom of the sixth. And the Nats went to work in earnest in the top of the seventh.
With one out and Greinke still looking somewhat like a smooth operator, Rendon caught hold of a changeup reaching toward the floor of the strike zone and drove it midway up the Crawford Boxes. One walk to Soto later, Greinke was out of the game and Will Harris was in. With Cole—who’d paralysed the Nats in Game Five, and who was seen stirring in the Astro bullpen a little earlier Wednesday night—not even a topic.
For which the Astros’ usually clever, always sensitively intelligent manager A.J. Hinch is liable to be second guessed until the end of time or another Astros lease on the Promised Land, whichever comes first. If he thought Greinke at a measly eighty pitches was done, why not reach for Cole who’d hammerlocked the Nats in Game Five and probably had an inning or three in his tank?
“I wasn’t going to pitch him unless we were going to win the World Series and have a lead,” Hinch said matter-of-factly after the game. “He was going to help us win. He was available, and I felt it was a game that he was going to come in had we tied it or taken the lead. He was going to close the game in the ninth after I brought [Roberto] Osuna in had we kept the lead.”
“They got a good lineup, especially the top of the order,” Greinke himself said. “It’s tough to get through no matter one time, two times, three times. All of them are tough. Really good hitters up there.”
Except that Hinch still had a 2-1 lead when he thanked Greinke for a splendid night’s work.”He was absolutely incredible . . . he did everything we could ask for and more,” said Hinch when it was all over. “He was in complete control, he made very few mistakes, in the end the home run to walk was the only threat to him.”
You can bet that even the Nats thought Hinch would reach for Cole in that moment. It’s the Casey Stengel principle, as his biographer Robert W. Creamer once described: if you have an opening, shove with your shoulder. If you think your man is done but you still need a stopper, you reach for him like five minutes ago.
And in one or two corners of the Nats dugout the thought of Cole coming in was actually welcome. “When we saw Cole warming up,” coach Kevin Long told reporters after the game, “we were almost like, ‘Please bring him in.’ Because that’s how good Zack Greinke was.”
But Harris it was. He was one of the Astros’ most reliable bullpen bulls on the season, and he’d been mostly likewise through this postseason. But after swinging and missing on a curvaceous enough curve ball, Kendrick found the screws on a cutter off the middle and sent it the other way, down the right field line, and ringing off the foul pole with a bonk! that no one sitting in Minute Maid Park is liable to forget for ages yet to come.
“I made a pretty good pitch,” Harris said after the game. “He made a championship play for a championship team.”
“The pitch he made to Howie—I just don’t understand how he hit that out,” said Carlos Correa, the only Astro somehow to have a base hit with a runner on second or better Wednesday night. “It doesn’t add up. The way he throws his cutter, it’s one of the nastiest cutters in the game. Down and away, on the black, and he hits it off the foul pole. It was meant to be, I guess, for them. I thought we played great, but they played better. It was their year.”
Osuna relieved Harris and settled the Nats after surrendering an almost immediate base hit to Nats second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, but he wouldn’t be that fortunate in the eighth. He walked Eaton with one out, but Eaton stole second with Rendon at the plate and, after Rendon flied out, Soto pulled a line single to right to send Eaton home.
Ryan Pressly ended the inning by getting a line drive out from Cabrera, but another Astro reliever, Joe Smith, wouldn’t be that fortunate in the ninth. Ryan Zimmerman led off with a single up the pipe; Yan Gomes bounced one back to the box enabling Smith to get Zimmerman but not the double play; Victor Robles stroked a soft-punch line single into center; and, Trea Turner fought his way to a walk and ducks on the pond.
Hinch reached for Jose Urquidy, his Game Four opener and five-inning virtuoso back in Washington. But Eaton reached for and lined a hit into shallow enough center with Gomes scoring in a flash and Robles coming in behind him, freed up when Astro center fielder Jake Marisnick, usually one of the surest defensive hands they have, lost the handle on the ball and gave Robles room to move.
And, giving Hudson all the room he needed to pop George Springer out at second and to strike Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley out swinging to pop the corks and blow the lid off 95 years worth of Washington baseball frustration. Which looked impossible in late May, looked improbable just last weekend, but looks just as impossible the morning after.
Believing that Rendon could become only the fifth man to homer in Games Six and Seven of the same Series (behind Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Roberto Clemente, plus Allen Craig and—a mere two years ago—Springer himself) was more plausible. Believing Harris could become the first pitcher hung with a blown save in a Game Seven at home since Boston’s Roger Moret in 1975 wasn’t, necessarily.
But believing no World Series combatant would win even a single game at home in a seven game set defies everything. The Nats outscored the Astros 30-11 in Minute Maid Park; the Astros out-scored the Nats 19-3 in Nationals Park. The Astros played their heads, hearts, and tails off all year long to get the postseason’s home field advantage, and the Nats swooped in to rob them blind.
All game long the world seemed to think Martinez had lost his marble—singular—letting Scherzer stay on the mound despite have nothing to challenge the Astros with except meatballs, snowballs, and grapefruits. The skipper who eluded execution after 23 May now looked as though they’d pull the guillotine with his name on it back out of storage. Then the final three innings made him look like Alfred Hitchcock.
That 19-31 start to the Nats’ season? The worst for any team that went on to win that year’s World Series. From twelve under .500 to the Promised Land? You have company, now, 1914 Miracle Braves. An 8-1 postseason road record including eight straight road wins en route the trophy? Good morning, 1996 Yankees.
The first number one draft overall to end his season as the World Series MVP? Welcome to the party, Stephen Strasburg. The sixth man to hit a go-ahead homer in the seventh or later in a World Series? Roger Peckinpaugh, Hal Smith, Bill Mazeroski, Ray Knight, and Alfonso Soriano, meet Howie Kendrick, who’s now the only man in postseason history with more than one go-ahead homer in the seventh or later in elimination games.
The youngest man to hit the most homers in a single postseason and three in a single World Series? Today you are a man, Juan Soto.
All that courtesy of MLB.com and ESPN’s Stats and Info department. They give you the numbers. But they can’t really account for that old Nats magic. Nobody can, try though they might. The Nats just hope this isn’t the end of it. Which might be tricky if the Nats can’t convince Anthony Rendon to stay rather than play the free agency market or Strasburg not to exercise his contract’s opt-out option.
Cole is also a pending free agent. And he plopped a postgame cap on his head bearing the logo of his agent Scott Boras’s operation. When an Astro spokesman asked him to talk to reporters after the game, he was heard saying, “I’m not an employee of the team.” Then, he said he’d talk “as a representative of myself, I guess.”
Liable to be this year’s American League Cy Young Award winner, and facing maybe the fattest payday ever handed to a prime pitcher, Cole wouldn’t say if the Astros losing the World Series prompted him to declare his free agency that swiftly, that emphatically. He wouldn’t say whether he was mad that Hinch didn’t bring him in.
“We just went over the game plan and he laid out the most advantageous times to use me,” Cole told reporters. “And we didn’t get to that position.”
For Altuve, arguably the heart and soul of the Astros on the field and in the clubhouse alike, the heartbreak was impossible to hide. “I don’t think I can handle this,” he said candidly. “It’s really hard to lose Game Seven of the World Series. What I can tell you is we did everything we could . . . We did everything to make it happen. We couldn’t, but that’s baseball.”
Sometimes it’s even harder to win Game Seven. That’s baseball, too. The Nats stand in the Promised Land as living, breathing, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in Show” proof.