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.

D.C. traffic jams don’t jam the Astros

2019-10-26 GeorgeSpringerCarlosCorrea.jpg

George Springer and Carlos Correa celebrate the Astros’ Game Three win Friday night.

The Washington Post‘s nonpareil baseball essayist, Thomas Boswell, couldn’t contain his joy. World Series Game Three loomed in Nationals Park, and Boswell—who never kept quiet about wanting to see baseball back in Washington in all the years it was absent—was almost beside himself.

With every post-season game,” he tweeted, “the Nats crowd arrives earlier & earlier. I just looked up and realized the place is full—FULL—and it’s 30 minutes before first pitch. And I don’t even know how long it’s been that way. Metro stop & Half Street jammed, all red, hours before game.

And well enough before Nats Park jammed full, the word came forth that Donald Trump wouldn’t be invited to throw out a ceremonial first pitch, even though President Tweety planned to attend Game Five if a Game Five proved necessary. The usual suspects on one side hemmed, the usual suspects on the other side hawed, but just because a man is a screwball doesn’t necessarily mean he can throw one.

Finally, both sides came out of their dugouts to line up on the foul lines. The Nats played the gracious hosts and laid the red carpets out from both dugouts for the Astros and the Nats to trod on their way out to the lines. The appropriately named church singer D.C. Washington sang “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Then Astros leadoff hitter George Springer gave Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki a good-luck pat on the chest protector as he checked in at the plate. The two exchanged friendly glances. And from that moment until the final out, we learned that the Astros are less unnerved by Washington traffic jams than Washingtonians are about Dupont Circle rush hours.

It proved easier for the clunkiest SUV to pass through the eye of a pileup than it did for the Nats to cash in all but one of the men they planted on the pillows en route the Astros’ 4-1 Game Three win Friday night. All the adoring home racket in the ballpark couldn’t coax the Nats into cashing in nobody from second base or better all night long, any more than all the adoring racket in Minute Paid Park stopped them from bushwhacking the Astros in Games One and Two.

This time, the Astros’ bats produced a strong enough version of the ones that delivered the American League’s third-most runs in the regular season, even if they weren’t yet total destroyers again. The Astros in the field made it look as though Game Two was just a one-in-a-thousand nightmare. And the Astro bullpen, pressed into service after four and a third innings, actually out-pitched starter Zack Greinke.

In other words, the Astros made this World Series look good, close, and tight all over again, even if the road team is doing the winning so far. And they guaranteed themselves at least a Game Five with Gerrit Cole on the mound. But the better news for the Astros was rediscovering their better selves just in time.

Overcoming 2-0 and now 2-1 posteseason deficits is a lot simpler than being in the hole 3-0. And the Astros have been 2-1 before. They won a World Series two years ago after falling into such a hole. They can afford to get their Alfred E. Neuman on now. What—us worry?

Which is exactly how they came into Game Three after a players’ meeting following the Game Two disaster. But don’t kid yourselves. They didn’t win Game Three because of any sort of rah-rah or black magic, even if they might have been tempted to rock around the cauldron in the clubhouse beforehand. They won Game Three because they’re still one helluva baseball team.

“The key was that we stayed confident,” said Jose Altuve, who wears the sash as the Astros’ true heart and soul, and who continued his own solid hitting pace, told reporters after the game. “We didn’t panic. Yes, the first two games, we didn’t do some things, but we keep believing in us. And guess what? Tonight we went out there and we make it happen.”

They made it happen and the Nats didn’t. The Nats became the first World Series team to go 0-for-10 with men on second or better in a Fall Classic game since the 2008 Phillies and the seventeenth in Series history overall. The good news for the Nats is that those Phillies went on to win the Series, anyway.

They’ve been in worse places this year and lived to tell about them. But they also have to remind themselves that the Astros weren’t going to look like a lost tribe forever. The Astros didn’t put up three straight 100+ win seasons or get to shoot for a second World Series trophy in three years by cowering after any pair of back-to-back losses.

They also loved getting to play what their future Hall of Fame pitcher Justin Verlander called old-time baseball. “Tension, traffic, strategy, decisions,” Verlander told reporters Friday night. “People were standing up most of the time. These are the two best teams in baseball at putting the ball into play. It should be like this.”

Give the Astros gifts, though, and they will say, “Thank you, sir,” before either doing what Astros usually do or making sure the other guys don’t. And Nats manager Dave Martinez gave them a carnation wrapped in a big red bow almost halfway through the game.

The Nats’ Game Three starter Anibal Sanchez gritted and ground his way through four innings, three runs, and no small volume of Astro peskiness, then got a small reward when Ryan Zimmerman led off the bottom of the fourth with a full-count walk and, a strikeout later, Victor Robles shot one fair past third baseman Alex Bregman and down the left field line for an RBI triple.

But Sanchez was due up next with the absence of a designated hitter in the National League park. Perhaps even the Astros couldn’t believe Martinez elected to let Sanchez hit rather than pinch hit for him despite having five serviceable-at-minimum bats on the Game Three bench, namely Matt Adams, Brian Dozier, Yan Gomes, Howie Kendrick, and Mr. Baby Shark himself, Gerardo Parra.

And, despite the fact that, unlike Greinke, who handles a bat very well, Sanchez with a bat is tantamount to having Lucky Luciano heading a task force to battle organised crime. And for all Sanchez’s heroics to open the National League Championship Series, he looked only too human Friday night with the Astros hitting his pitches firmly enough and knowing opponents hit .288 against him the third time around the order all year.

Yet with rookie Tanner Rainey warming in the pen all inning, Martinez let Sanchez hit. Then, he bunted foul for a strikeout and Trea Turner couldn’t push Robles home. And then Sanchez went out to work the top of the fifth, surrendering a run. Then, he went out for the sixth.

With one out Astros catcher Robinson Chirinos swung for the history books with a high liner off the left field foul pole net for what proved the Astros’ insurance run. It made number three in the first World Series ever to feature three catchers hitting bombs while in games as catchers. Suzuki and the Astros’ Martin Maldonado also did it, both in Game Two, and Maldonado after he replaced Chirinos behind the dish late in the game.

For just about the first time in the Series it left Martinez looking foolish. He had a chance to let bigger men do the clutch hitting in the bottom of the fourth, but he may have let his edginess about most of his bullpen not named Fernando Rodney, Daniel Hudson, or Sean Doolittle overcome his need in the moment.

When Grandpa Rodney, forgotten man Joe Ross, and apparent former arsonist Wander Suero pitched three and two thirds’ shutout ball following Sanchez’s evening-ending walk to pinch hitter Kyle Tucker (right after Chirinos’s net shot), it only amplified Martinez’s temporary brain vapor.

Now it almost seemed like a too-distant memory that Robles stole a first-inning run from the Astros when, after Springer opened the game beating out a nubber toward the mound, Altuve sent him to the rear end of the field where he reached up and back and made a twist-and-shout one-handed catch on the track just in front of the fence.

And it wasn’t as though the Astros battered the Nats into submission, Chirinos’s blast to one side. With Carlos Correa aboard on a one-out double down the left field line in the top of the second, Josh Reddick dumped a quail into shallow left that neither Turner out from shortstop nor Juan Soto coming in from left could reach as Correa alertly got his Road Runner on. It didn’t hurt him that Soto’s throw home took off like an airplane and sailed above both his catcher and his pitcher backing the play.

Altuve tore a double down the left field line leading off the top of the third that gave Soto trouble and an error when the ball rolled under the pads on the walls and Soto couldn’t find the handle soon enough to stop Altuve from making third. Then Brantley whacked a grounder that took a classic ricochet off the mound, upside Sanchez’s right side, and let Altuve practically cruise home.

And in the fifth, after Springer opened first pitch, first out on a smash to shortstop, Altuve hit a liner that bounced into left near the line for another double, and Brantley settled for old-fashioned through-the-infield hitting instead of playing Ricochet Rabbit, shooting a clean single through the right side to score the third Astro run.

Sanchez’s grit didn’t stop him from looking nothing like the same junkyard dog who somehow got thatclose to no-hitting the Cardinals in the NLCS. Greinke’s outing wasn’t a lot prettier despite him limiting the Nats to one run, and times enough he looked to be running on wings and prayers.

So let’s count the ways the Nats made a guy who wasn’t having the easiest night of his life, plus the Astro bullpen, feel as though they were just taking leisurely strolls through an overcrowded Union Station:

* Anthony Rendon fought to a seventh pitch and banged a two-out double to left in the bottom of the first, but birthday boy Juan Soto grounded out for the side.

* Asdrubal Cabrera and Zimmerman opened the bottom of the second with back-to-back singles . . . but Suzuki looked at an eighth-pitch third strike after three fouls on 2-2, and Robles dialed Area Code 5-4-3.

* Turner and Adam Eaton with one out in the bottom of the third walked and nailed a base hit to left, respectively, and one out later Soto worked out a walk for ducks on the pond. Then Cabrera struck out on maybe the single filthiest breaking ball Greinke’s thrown all year long.

* Eaton led off the bottom of the fifth with a single and, two outs later, Cabrera lined a double toward the right field corner. That’s when Greinke’s night ended and Astro reliever Josh James’s would begin and end by putting Zimmerman into the 0-2 hole—not to mention spinning hard into a face plant when a fastball up and in got a little too far in, a pitch that wasn’t even close to intentional—letting Zimmerman escape to a full count, then striking him out swinging.

“Sometimes you just have to tip your cap,” Zimmerman said after the game. “3-2 changeup. That’s a pretty good pitch right there.” When Chirinos asked Zimmerman if he was all right after the unexpected spinout, Zimmerman still on the ground simply replied, “Man, that was a close one.”

* Parra pinch hit for Suzuki in the bottom of the sixth—to a rousing chorus of “Baby Shark” and the stands doing the shark clap ravenously—and struck out so furiously he walked back to the dugout fuming. But Astro reliever Brad Peacock walked Robles, and then Martinez sent Adams, a power hitter, up to hit . . . for Rodney. Adams walked, pushing Peacock out and Will Harris into the game. And Harris dispatched Turner—who fouled one off the family jewels and spent a few moments on the ground in less than a fine mood—with a swinging strikeout, before Eaton grounded out for the side.

* And Kendrick finally appeared in the bottom of the eighth to pinch hit . . . for Ross. He shot a one-out single into right center. But Astro reliever Joe Smith caught Robles looking at strike three and got Yan Gomes, who’d taken over for Suzuki in the seventh, to ground out to Bregman on the dead run.

That’s what the Astros call navigating Washington traffic jams. It’s what the Nats ought to call jaywalking. Not the way to see an eight-game postseason winning streak end. Not the most advisable way of transit when the Astros finally get something even mildly resembling their normal Astros on.

The only real Game Three nuisance other than the Nats’ inability to cash in their chips was plate umpire Gary Cederstrom. This was one issue on which both the Astros and the Nats could agree. Cederstrom called too many balls strikes and too many strikes balls against both sides, enough to make them wonder whether the strike zone would finally shrink to the size of a guitar pick before the game ended.

Astro manager A.J. Hinch looked like a genius for setting his table in order that the Nats’ best bats wouldn’t see much more than Greinke and the two best Astro relievers, Harris and closer Roberto Osuna. He’s going to have to look like Casey Stengel in Game Four.

Lacking the viable fourth starter the Nats happen to have in their Game Four starter Patrick Corbin, Hinch is going bullpen Saturday night with Jose Urquidy, a promising rookie, to open. And as solid as the pen was, the Nats did make most of them work a little harder even if they couldn’t get anyone home with a Secret Service escort Friday night.

But yes, folks, we have an honest-to-God World Series again. Anxious enough to prove falling short of the Series last year was a mere aberration, the Astros made sure of it.

They didn’t have to play like their regular-season juggernaut to do it. All they had to do was what anyone who’s ever lived in Washington for any length of time (I have) can tell you has all the simplicity of a spider web—navigate a traffic jam.