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.

WS Game One: Why dream it? Drive it.

2019-10-23 WashingtonNationalsWSGM01

Juan Soto (22) stole the World Series-opening show Monday night; Ryan Zimmerman (11) opened it by hitting the Nats’ first Series homer ever and the first by any Washington team since . . . 1933.

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.

World Series Nationals Astros Baseball

Soto catching the train in the fourth . . .

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.

“They threw the first punch”

ALCS Yankees Astros Baseball

Gleyber Torres, making Zack Greinke’s and the Astros’ Game One life miserable . . .

It was supposed to be a treat watching the Astros and the Yankees, mostly recovered from their regular season’s medical challenges. If you could say a pair of 100+ game winners were lucky to be there after they fought injury bugs as arduously as they fought field opponents, the Astros and the Yankees were just that.

Didn’t the Astros fight like six parts street gang and half a dozen parts cheetahs on speed to get their postseason home field advantage, going 12-2 to finish the season to nail down the point? Didn’t they look just that much better than the 6-8 finishing Yankees when the postseason began?

And hadn’t they survived an unexpectedly arduous division series with the upstart Rays—forcing them to open with Zack Greinke instead of Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole—to get to the American League Championship Series in the first place? While the Yankees turned out to have it so painfully simple sweeping the suddenly somnambulent Twins to get there that you could be forgiven for suggesting the Yankees might be just a little vulnerable?

There went those ideas in Game One Saturday night.

The Yankees were good on the road this year(.568 winning percentage) but they weren’t supposed to be able to handle the Astros there. They played each other seven times on the regular season with the Astros sweeping the Yankees in three in Minute Maid Park. But somebody forgot to remind the Yankees as they opened the ALCS.

At least, somebody forgot to remind Yankee second baseman Gleyber Torres. The Yankees shut the Astros out 7-0 in Game One and Torres was practically their one-man demolition operation. The Astros’ long term survival may now depend on how well they can keep Torres from even thinking about seeing and raising from Game Two forward.

Nobody’s going to accuse the Astros of being on the ropes after a Game One loss. The Yankees won’t be foolish enough to level that charge. Not even when they punctured the Astros’s hard won, hard desired home field advantage.

“We’ve been in the situation before,” said Astros second baseman Jose Altuve after the game, referring to 2017, when the Astros were down 3-2 in that ALCS but won. “Tomorrow we have Justin, we all know how good we feel about him, so it’s just one game, it’s a seven game series, so we still have a lot of baseball to play.”

With Verlander to start Game Two and Cole to start Game Three, everyone in Astroworld should be feeling good again. No matter how good these Yankees are at finding and exploiting even the tiniest rupture in the other guys’ armour.

“They played a great game,” said Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, “a near perfect game.”

But who the hell is Gleyber Torres? Oh, yeah—he’s the guy who became a Yankee when they traded Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs in the middle of 2016. But now he’s the youngest Yankee ever to drive in five in a single postseason game. And his clutch hit reputation is beginning to fan out beyond the Bronx.

You expected trouble going in with the Aaron Judges, Giancarlo Stantons, D.J. LaMahieus, Edwin Encarnacions, and Brett Gardners. The last one from whom you expected any pinstriped lip, never mind bat, is a kid middle infielder who may have hit the most quiet 38 regular season home runs of the year.

Outside New York, Torres isn’t exactly the Yankees’ biggest star yet. But on a night when Yankee starter Masahiro Tanaka was as untouchable as he was very touchable in the regular season, and Greinke proved vulnerable enough if not quite the pinata the Rays made out of him in the division series, Torres became the last guy the Astros wanted to see at the plate. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

“Man, they’re going to be telling stories about that kid for a while,” said Judge after the game. “He’s going to be a Yankee great, I know it. He just comes to work every single day. He’s always got a smile on his face. No situation is too big. I’ll see him in the box, bases loaded, big situation and he’ll give us a little smile in the dugout like he knows he’s going to go up there and do his job.”

At first it looked as though Tanaka and Greinke would turn Game One into a pitching clinic, if not quite the ones put on by Nationals pitchers Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer in the first two National League Championship Series games. Tanaka looked as untouchable as he normally does against the postseason Astros, and Greinke looked nothing like the guy who’d been humiliated at the hands and tails of the Rays.

“I thought Zack did a good job giving us a chance to win,” said Astros third baseman Alex Bregman, “and we just didn’t do anything offensively.”

“When you’re facing really good pitching, it makes hitting even harder,” said mostly struggling Astros center fielder George Springer, their 2017 World Series MVP but hitting a buck twenty in this postseason to date. “Hitting’s hard. But that being said, we’re a good team, and we understand that, so we’ve got to grind and string together some at-bats and we’ll see what happens.”

As the top of the fourth began each side had one base hit apiece and they’d both been negated by inning-ending double plays. Then LaMahieu opened the Yankee fourth with a base hit and swiped second while Judge struck out swinging on one of Grienke’s nastier sliders of the night. Up stepped Torres, whom Greinke struck out swinging to end the first. And he drove one to the back of left center bounding off the fence to score LaMahieu with the game’s first run.

Torres and Greinke squared off again in the sixth after Judge led off flying out to Astros center fielder George Springer. Once again Greinke’s first service looked just too good to Torres. This one got hammered into the middle of the Crawford Boxes.

And after a six-pitch, full count, wrestling strikeout to Encarnacion, Greinke battled Giancarlo Stanton—who’d only gotten to play eighteen regular season games thanks to two trips to the injured list—and, after wriggling his way to a full count after opening 0-2, Stanton nailed a fastball just under the middle of the plate and sent it into the Astros’ bullpen behind the right center field fence.

An inning later, Torres was in the middle of it yet again. With two outs, Yankee shortstop Didi Gregorius, LaMahieu, and Judge singled back-to-back-to-back, all into right field, off Astros reliever Ryan Pressly, before Torres sent the first pair home with a bloop single to center and helped himself to second when Springer threw in futilely toward the plate.

It was the kind of night on which Torres even making an out proved productive enough. With reliever Bryan Abreu on the mound for the top of the ninth Yankee third baseman Gio Urshela hit the first pitch of the inning, a slightly hanging slider, into the right field seats. Then with one out LaMahieu walked, Judge singled him to third, and—with the Astro infield drawn in just enough—Torres whacked a grounder to an oncoming shortstop Carlos Correa.

The good news: Correa pounced on the run to throw Torres out handily enough. The bad news: LaMahieu got such an excellent jump off third he could score the seventh Yankee run without fear even with Correa all over the Torres grounder well onto the infield grass.

The Astros hurt themselves when it was still a one-run game, though. In the bottom of the fifth, Bregman, their no-questions-asked MVP candidate, worked Tanaka for a leadoff walk and Yordan Alvarez, their probable no-questions-asked Rookie of the Year, slashed a line drive to right.

As Bregman led a little too far off first, as in more than half way to second, obviously thinking of third base as his immediate destination, Judge ran to snare Alvarez’s rope. Then the tall Yankee with the toothy grin of a kid a third his age fired in to first. Bregman slipped running back to the pillow but it almost wouldn’t have mattered since he’d had a bigger lead than the law allowed in the first place.

Was Judge catching Alvarez’s liner a guarantee? Fifty-fifty at best. But he has one of the better throwing arms among American League right fielders and with Bregman that far off the pillow, slip back or no, Bregman was dead meat.

It negated the spectacular theft Bregman committed in the top of the third, when he took a spinning leap behind third with his glove arm up like the Statue of Liberty to turn Urshela’s nasty line drive, which probably would have gone further up the line for extra bases, into a nasty out.

Tanaka can’t beat the Astros in the regular season, but in the postseason he looks like an ogre against them, taking a 2.00 lifetime postseason ERA against them into Game Two. He worked the corners like a craftsman and left the usually smart hitting Astros looking half lost at the plate.

“He was throwing the ball really good today,” said Altuve. “He was hitting spots with the slider, split, and fastball. He makes it out pretty good. You have to tip your hat to that. He got a late break, normally you can see the spin, but we couldn’t see anything.”

When they got into the Yankees’ effective bullpen, they actually pried a couple of base hits out of Adam Ottavino, back-to-back singles by Michael Brantley and Altuve, but Ottavino lured Bregman into dialing an inning-ending Area Code 6-4-3.

The Astros bullpen is usually one of the league’s best, too, but Pressly didn’t look comfortable in his turn and Abreu’s inexperience was exploited a little too readily. Especially against a Yankee team who—knowing Verlander and Cole awaited them in Games Two and Three—treated Game One like a must-win contest.

“They threw the first punch in Game One,” said Astros manager A.J. Hinch. “We get to the next day. We can punch right back tomorrow. I don’t think they’re going to be too comfortable tomorrow coming to the ballpark thinking they’ve got an easy game ahead of themselves.”

Verlander gives the Astros a far above average chance to punch back in Game Two. The last thing they want is going to the south Bronx in the hole. The Yankees have ways of burying people once they’re in holes against them. One of them is a 22-year-old second baseman who prefers hitting with men on base and has the numbers to prove it so far.

“The way he’s able to get to all kinds of pitches on different planes is impressive,” said Yankee relief pitcher Zach Britton, who worked a near-spotless eighth (one walk, two punchouts) Saturday night.

“As a pitcher, you know you have to executive every single pitch throughout an at-bat or you know he’s going to beat you,” Britton continued. “That’s where the bat-to-ball skill comes in. It’s crazy. You just don’t see it in such a young player.”

You do now.