The Washington bury-go-round

World Series - Houston Astros v Washington Nationals - Game Five

In his potentially final appearance as an Astro, Gerrit Cole pitched a Game Five masterpiece.

Hours before Game Five, the World Series weight on Nationals manager Dave Martinez’s shoulders went from that of the world to that of the universe. Scheduled starting pitcher Max Scherzer’s Saturday night neck spasms turned into a Sunday wakeup with his neck locked so tight he couldn’t lift his right arm and needed his wife’s help just to wash and dress.

Putting the Game Five fate of the Nats into the hands of Joe Ross. Who pitched a gutsy turn ruined only by a pair of two-run homers en route a 7-1 Astro win. On yet a third straight night in Washington that suggested the Nats left their offense behind in Houston after Games One and Two.

Hadn’t they manhandled Gerrit Cole in Game One? Hadn’t they out-scored the Astros 17-7 in Houston? That was then, this was Sunday night, and the Nats’ futility at the plate since the Series moved to Washington remained chronic enough to consider fitting them with GPSs to find their directions home when they did get men on in Game Five.

Now three games worth of the Astros outscoring the Nats 19-3 in Nationals Park suggests this World Series still has a chance of being only the second Series ever in which no home team wins a single game. Maybe an outside chance, but a chance nevertheless.

Ross brought the house down just walking out of the dugout for a pre-game round of stretches and limberings-up in the outfield. He sent it nuclear when he shook off George Springer’s leadoff walk to lure Jose Altuve into dialing Area Code 6-4-3 in the top of the first.

But after Yuli Gurriel bounced one high off Ross’s own glove for an infield hit leading off the second, Ross couldn’t stop Yordan Alvarez—getting his first start in the Washington leg after sitting two out due to the lack of designated hitter in the National League park—from hitting a 2-1 pitch almost into the middle of the left center field seats.

It was something Alvarez only waited for all Series long. “All my teammates were saying: ‘Today’s your day. Today’s your day’, ” he told reporters after Game Five. “And it happened.” Nobody ever accused his teammates of being dummies.

And in the fourth, with Alvarez aboard on a two-out single, home plate umpire Lance Barksdale called ball on what should have been strike three, outside corner, side retired with Carlos Correa at the plate. Two fouls and a wild pitch later, Correa hammered one into the left field seats.

Barksdale has a reputation as one of the better plate umpires in the business, but on Sunday night he called enough balls strikes and enough strikes balls against both the Nats and the Astros that calls began ringing out of the park and aboard Twitter for everything short of a federal investigation.

Postgame, the calls began ringing forth all over the Web to get the robots perfected, calibrated, and into service as soon as feasible. Who knows whether the Astros will get jobbed on critical calls in Houston? Who wants to take that chance too much longer?

“Just because the game itself is full of errors shouldn’t give leeway to its arbiters to be judged by that standard,” writes ESPN’s Jeff Passan. “Baseball is an extraordinarily fast game—so fast that umpires should have assistance. Technology has made their jobs even more difficult, exposing them when they miss a call and airing their conversations about those missed calls. Automated balls and strikes are their savior, not their enemy.”

With Donald Trump himself in the ballpark watching the game, it was tough to miss the irony when fans began chanting, “Lock him up! Lock him up!” in the bottom of the seventh. Not at President Tweety but at Barksdale.

Juan Soto, the Nats’ young star who’d found the home leg of the Series as trying as he’d found Game One a personal party in Houston, caught hold of enough of a 2-2 Cole service with one out to launch it just past a leaping Jake Marisnick’s reach and over the center field fence in the bottom of the seventh. A ground out later, Ryan Zimmerman worked a walk on a ball four that looked like it should have been an inning-ending strike.

Up stepped Victor Robles, heretofore one of the Nats most prominently seen in Washington with an invisible bat. In a Series full of full counts as it was, Cole and Robles wrestled to yet another full count with Anthony Rendon on deck. Then Cole threw Robles a nasty looking slider. The ball clearly crossed out of the zone off the low outside corner. Barksdale decided ball four was strike three, side retired.

If you were watching the game on television you could hear an extremely audible, “Come on, Lance! It’s the World Series! Wake up!” That was a miked Martinez. Even Astro fans in the stands—and there were many, including one wearing a Nolan Ryan jersey from his tour with the 1980s Astros, when their jerseys looked like striped orange-shaded pajama tops more than baseball uniforms—joined the calls to lock him up.

There wasn’t a Nat in the house who’d accuse Barksdale of costing them Game Five; Cole especially, but with just a little help from his friends Joe Smith and Ryan Pressley in the final two innings, did a splendid enough job of that. The third highest-scoring team in the Show on the regular season looked so lost at the plate in Game Five, with or without men on, that the GPS couldn’t help.

“Lance didn’t lose us the game tonight,” Zimmerman said. “Gerrit Cole beat us.”

The Nats’ bullpen did a splendid job of holding the fort after Martinez decided Ross had had it for the night. In a slightly surprising move, after Tanner Rainey all but zipped through the sixth with three fly outs, Martinez reached for Sean Doolittle, one of his only two reliable back-of-the-game men, for the seventh. And Doolittle coaxed Correa into dialing Area Code 5-4-3 after a leadoff single before shaking off a walk to get the side without damage.

Then Martinez decided Daniel Hudson was good to go for a second inning’s work after Springer’s leadoff double led to taking third on a ground out, an intentional walk to Michael Brantley, and Gurriel punching him home with a single through the right side of the infield. Despite having Wander Suero warm and ready.

A four-run deficit is still manageable after seven and a half. Except that the Nats once again couldn’t do anything with a man on base, this time Yan Gomes leading the bottom of the eighth off with a single. But it’s still manageable in the ninth. Until Martinez sent Hudson back out for the top of that inning.

And after a one-out single and a swinging strikeout, Hudson threw Springer a fastball with plenty of speed but no movement down the middle of the plate. Springer practically had no choice but to send it into the left field seats. Leaving even gimpy-kneed Astro reliever Ryan Pressly to put the Nats out of their miseries in order in the bottom of the ninth.

Forget the home run for a moment. The Nats would surely need Hudson in Games Six and (if the Series gets there) Seven. Suero took over after Springer’s launch and coaxed Altuve into an inning-ending lineout on a measly two pitches. They’d better hope they find their bats in Houston and make Hudson unneeded too soon in Game Six even with Monday’s travel day.

For Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who’s one of the more thoughtful men in his job today, it was simply a question of keeping his and his players’ wits about them no matter how badly they’d been bopped until they dropped in Houston last week.

“We feel like we’re in every game,” Hinch said. “We’ve had games where we’ve come from behind. We’ve had games where we’ve stretched the lead. We’ve had games like today where we just methodically kept going with big swings and we look up and we have a comfortable win.

“We took a pretty heavy punch in the gut when it came to the first two games,” he continued. “The Nats came out hot . . . And when you take a step back, and you’re like, ‘We’re still in the World Series and it’s still a race to four wins.’ You win that first win.” And the second. And the third.

It’s even easier when you have an Altuve hitting .360 in the Series and still threatening to break Darin Erstad’s record for hits in a single postseason. And, when you have Brantley hitting .400. And, when you have super-rook Alvarez and cagey veteran Springer re-discovering their previously missing batting strokes.

And, when you have a Cole—in what was his final performance as an Astro, potentially—who tightens up his case for the largest free-agency contract for a pitcher in the game’s history yet with a masterpiece of a Sunday night soiree.

But it still ain’t that easy, Clyde. “When we won in 2017, and then didn’t win last year, you remember how it feels,” Springer told The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark. “You remember the goodness that comes. The fun. The honor. To celebrate with your teammates and your friends and all that stuff. Once you get a taste of that, you never want it to go away.”

The Astros yanked themselves back to within a game of their second such taste in three years on Sunday night. And there went Martinez’s likely pre-Game Five hope that Ross and/or someone else could or would prove as surprise a World Series hero as had such previous until-then obscurities as Howard Ehmke (1929), Johnny Podres (1955), Don Larsen (1956), and Moe Drabowsky (1966).

No Series record-setting strikeout performance for Ross, as the end-of-the-line Ehmke did in Game One of the 1929 Series for the Philadelphia Athletics. No shutout heroics, as Podres, the number four man in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ rotation, did in Game Seven of the 1955 Series. Don’t even think about a perfect game such as Larsen delivered for the Yankees in Game Five, 1956.

And don’t even think about a Nat reliever, any Nat reliever, delivering what Drabowsky—until that point a veteran relief rat and superior prankster—delivered for the Orioles in relief of Dave McNally: eleven strikeouts, including striking out the side back-to-back in the fourth and fifth innings, in Game One, 1966.

Martinez wasn’t destined to be that fortunate. But now a World Series that went into Game Five at Defcon Three, before Scherzer’s literal pain in the neck bumped it up to Defcon Two-Five, goes to Houston with the Nats at straight Defcon Two. Even with Strasburg, taking a lifetime 1.34 postseason ERA into Game Six, starting the first of two potential elimination games.

As always, history doesn’t always favour one or the other going to Game Six. Ten teams have lost the first two World Series games before winning the next three, and three—the Cardinals (1987), the Braves (1991), and the Yankees (2001)—lost those Series, anyway. The Cardinals’ loss remains unique in World Series lore: every game won by the home team.

But so far so does this Series: it’s only the third time the road team has won the first five games. It last happened in the 1996 Series that the Yankees eventually won in Game Six, when the set moved back to New York. Now, for the fun part, or at least the part the Nats hope to make fun: they’d like to be the first to win a World Series entirely on the road.

The real road. The 1906 Series between the 116 game-winning Cubs and the “Hitless Wonders” White Sox was not only one of the greatest Series upsets of all time, the White Sox winning in six, but almost every game in that Series was won by the visiting team. (The White Sox won Game Six at home.) But let’s be real: it’s not as though the White Sox had to jump anything traveling farther than a crosstown trolley car to get from one ballpark to the other.

So if the Nats find a way to pillage and plunder the Astros in Games Six and Seven the way they did in Games One and Two, they’ll become the first team ever to win a World Series entirely on the bona fide road, with miles and miles between Nationals Park and Minute Maid Field. It ain’t just a trolley hop, kiddies.

But if Strasburg proves too human and the Nats don’t find the bats they left behind on Tuesday night, forget the trolley hop. They’ll go home for the winter in hearses.

The Carlos Correa Show

2019-10-14 CarlosCorrea

Carlos Correa wants to feel and hear the noise after winning Game Two with one pitch and one swing in the bottom of the eleventh Sunday night.

Under most circumstances these days it takes something dramatic to upstage Justin Verlander even on a modestly effective night for him. And on a night the Astros needed it, in Game Two of the American League Championship Series, they got something dramatic—from a guy whose season was rudely interrupted by two trips to the injured list.

Carlos Correa wasn’t even cleared to play coming off back soreness that began in August until just about the last minute before the Astros’ arduous division series against the Rays. And earlier in the season the rib fracture he incurred undergoing a home massage made him an unfortunate butt of some rather unfortunate tacky jokes.

But they’re not joking after Correa’s Game Two performances. First, he stopped the Yankees from a third run in the top of the sixth with some shortstop acrobatics. Then, he hit a leadoff home run off reliever J.A. Happ in the bottom of the eleventh to win the game, 3-2. Thirteen times on the season the Astros won by walkoff. This one was the most important. Certainly the most satisfying.

“Going into that last inning, I thought, ‘I got this’,” Correa told a reporter after the game. “I felt like I got this. And I had the right approach against him. I’ve been successful against him going the other way. And that’s what I tried to do. I saw a good pitch down the middle, and I drove the other way.”

He had this, all right. The Carlos Correa Show was practically responsible all by itself for sending the ALCS to Yankee Stadium even up.

Don’t get me wrong, Verlander was as handy and dandy as the evening was long, even if he wasn’t the virtuoso he’d been in the first division series game. And the Astros matched the Yankees grind for grind again.

The future Hall of Famer endured five Yankee hits including a mammoth two-run homer by Aaron Judge in the top of the fourth that put the Yankees ahead briefly, while striking out seven against two walks in six and two-thirds innings’ work. It wasn’t vintage Verlander but it was enough to keep the Astros alive and split.

Even though he and they needed Correa to channel his inner Karl Wallenda two innings after Judge got the gift that usually fails to stop giving, a hanging slider that hung just enough for the Leaning Tower of the South Bronx to hang it far over the center field fence.

Yankee outfielder Brett Gardner fired a liner toward second base that took a tweener hop as Astros second baseman Jose Altuve took a stab at it. Correa from shortstop saw in a split second that Altuve had no chance on a play that tough with the ball squirting off from Altuve’s right, and with D.J. LaMahieu hitting the afterburners around third.

Correa ran over and grabbed the ball with his throwing hand and threw as perfect a strike home as you could pray to see—and Astroworld prayed hard for it. Prayers answered. LaMahieu was a dead pigeon by several feet despite his slide home. One step or inch off on either end of that play and a third Yankee run would have scored and Correa’s eleventh-hour, eleventh-inning bomb wouldn’t have happened in the first place.

The tall shortstop whose second-inning double sent Alex Bregman home with the first Astro run of the game in the first place knew only too well what that odd hop away from Altuve meant.

“As an infielder, I know how tough it is to catch a ball that’s a line drive right at you in between,” he said. “So as soon as I knew that it was going to crash in between, I was creeping over. When it hit him, and I saw the ball go my way, I just went after it. And I grabbed it, and when I looked up and I saw he was sending the runner, I thought, ‘Oh, I got this guy.’ So I threw him out. I don’t know why he sent him, but thank you.”

He’ll have Verlander’s eternal gratitude for the play. “The second I saw him come over and make a clean catch of the ball and come up and ready to throw, honestly, I thought he was out,” Verlander said after the game. “It went from ‘Crap!’ to ‘We got this guy. We got an extra out!’ It was just incredible.”

“That’s not going to get talked about,” said Astros center fielder George Springer, “but that’s an unbelievable play.”

Why did Yankee third base coach Phil Nevin send LaMahieu even knowing Correa has a shotgun arm, throwing angles be damned? Yankee manager Aaron Boone answered: “I thought it skipped off [Altuve] further . . . I was an absolute send from where I was standing. Great heads up play by Correa, to be in that position . . . I had no issue with the play at all.”

No arguing with that thinking. Boone saw the chance to re-take the lead after Springer, perhaps beginning to re-awaken from a postseason slumber, greeted Yankee reliever Adam Ottavino in fresh relief of Chad Green by hitting Ottavino’s first pitch of the gig, a hanging slider, over the left center field fence in the bottom of the fifth

Yankee third baseman Gio Urshela almost equaled Correa in the Wallenda department in the bottom of the sixth, when Yuli Gurriel ripped a leadoff liner up the third base line that had extra bases stamped on the meat of the ball. Urshela leaped like an elevator to catch it before hitting the dirt like the elevator’s cables were snapped.

“Complete grind from both teams,” Springer said in a postgame field interview. “It’s fun, but it’s a little nerve-wracking. That’s a great team over there. And they play really, really well at home. So for us to get this one after a tough game [Saturday] night was obviously big for us.”

The Yankees had to turn Game Two into a bullpen game when starting pitcher James Paxton began well but ran into command issues too early for the Yankees’ comfort. He’d shaken off a leadoff walk to Springer in the first by luring Michael Brantley into dialing Area Code 4-6-3 before Altuve lined out sharply to Yankee shortstop Didi Gregorius.

But Correa punctured him in the second and—after striking Springer out swinging to open—Brantly and Altuve singled back-to-back.

Green came in and rid himself of Bregman (line out to left) and Yordan Alvarez (pop out to shortstop) quickly enough, then zipped through a 1-2-3 fourth including striking Correa out on a slightly elevated fastball. He opened the fourth striking out pinch-hitter Kyle Tucker before Boone reached for Ottavino and Springer finally reached for the stars, or at least the rear end of the park.

From there Ottavino and six Yankee relievers—including CC Sabathia, of all people, getting Brantley to ground out to short to open the tenth before yielding to Jonathan Loaisiga—kept the Astros hitless and scoreless through five and two-thirds innings. The Astro bullpen was no slouch department, either, keeping the Yankees scoreless and limited to one measly hit and a quartet of walks that proved harmless, after all.

“Our bullpen was nasty,” Correa said. “Gave us a chance to win the game.”

“It was a struggle tonight,” said Boone. “They’re tough to score runs off, especially on a night when Verlander is out there.”

Happ saved Loaisiga’s bacon after two one-out walks in the bottom of the tenth with a swinging strikeout (Altuve) and a fly out to left (Gurriel). Then, opening the bottom of the eleventh, he threw Correa a first-pitch fastball. What Correa called down the middle actually sailed in a little up and a little away.

And just like that it sailed a lot out, about eight rows or so into the right field seats. Sending him, too, past Lance Berkman as the Astros’ all-time post-season RBI man with 27 while he was at it.

“Just back and forth—the two best ballclubs in the game,” said Judge. “I wish we could have come away with two here, but now time to regroup and get ready for Tuesday.”

Correa was 3-for-22 in the postseason until he teed off, but he said he felt confident enough before the game over feeling his swing return that he was sure he’d hit one out in Game Two. The only thing he couldn’t or wouldn’t predict was when. But his newly-returned timing couldn’t have picked better timing.

Neither could his reaction after he hit the final blast. Put this into the next “Let the Kids Play!” promo post haste. And, eat your heart out, Jose Bautista.

Correa stepped out of the box quietly. He dropped his bat almost like he was dropping a toothpick, as Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez accepted fate and began walking away just as quietly. Then Correa brought his hand to his ear, holding it there a few steps up the first base line, as though asking the crowd to let him come on and feel the noise.

And as he made his way down the third base line, he hoisted his batting helmet in his hands like a basketballer about to make the three-point shot. Except no three-point shot—not even Robert Horry’s buzzer-beater to win Game Four of the NBA’s Western Conference finals for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2002—was ever quite this emphatic.

“It’s been a tough road this year but I’m finally here,” said Correa. Astroworld probably said “Thank God!”