One for the road. And, the ages.

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The road was anything but lonesome for the Nationals this World Series.

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.

WS Game One: Why dream it? Drive it.

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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.

Two from first in the National League

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Thanks large to Max the Knife, it’s “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and two from first in the National League” . . .

Max Scherzer wanted to be a Cardinal when he grew up. That’d teach him. He got to be a Tiger for long enough. Then he got to be a very wealthy National. Earning every last dollar of his delicious contract long enough before this year’s National League Championship Series.

And thanks to himself and Anibal Sanchez making for a little deja vu all over again, the Nats are halfway to their first World Series.

Now, remember, that’s only halfway. But right now the Nats can’t be feeling anything other than that all the way won’t necessarily be the hard way, if not no way.

That was 2013: Sanchez and Scherzer were Tigers who kept the Red Sox hitless through five in back-to-back American League Championship Series games. This is 2019: they  kept the Cardinals hitless through five or more in back-to-back NLCS games. The first teammates to do it once against a single team became the first to do it twice likewise.

They just hope the net result this time isn’t what it was six years ago. In 2013 the Red Sox still went all the way to a World Series triumph. In October 2019 the Nats would prefer that the Cardinals not even think about it.

Sanchez lost his would-be no-no to a pinch hitter with two out in the Game One eighth Friday night. After dueling Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright magnificently, matching him strikeout for strikeout and keeping the Redbirds unbalanced at the plate, Scherzer lost his to Cardinal first baseman Paul Goldschmidt leading off the Game Two seventh Saturday afternoon.

And, after he rid himself of the next three Cardinals swiftly enough to end his afternoon, what was Max the Knife’s reward?

Oh, nothing much except credit for a win and a late spell of hair-raising before Daniel Hudson nailed down the 3-1 final in Busch Stadium. Everything was as succulent as the Nats could ask until reliever Sean Doolittle nailed two outs to open the bottom of the eighth and Paul DeJong rapped a clean single to right center.

Then Jose Martinez pinch hit for Cardinals reliever Andrew Miller, a day after he broke Sanchez’s no-no in the same role. After wrestling Doolittle to a tenth pitch, Martinez hit a nice, neat line drive right at Nats center fielder Michael A. Taylor. All Taylor had to do was stand still, let the ball come right to him, hold his glove up for the catch, and breathe as he threw the ball back in.

But Taylor inexplicably pushed in a few steps, then broke right back realising he’d come in too short, and by the time he was back for a flying leap the ball flew over his outstretched glove and toward the wall. DeJong whipped his horse and galloped home with the Cardinals’ first run since the fourth inning of Game Five in their division series.

Just like that Taylor threatened to negate the first-swing leadoff yank off Wainwright that he sent about six or seven rows into the left field seats in the top of the third. Just like that, it may have felt more than a little that the Nats’ splendid, mostly self-made fortune was about to get waylaid by a tax collector.

Lucky for him and the Nats that Doolittle didn’t give the Cardinals the chance for their mostly dormant bats to awaken any further. He got Dexter Fowler to fly out almost promptly to erase the side.

And then Nats skipper Dave Martinez baffled just about everyone with Natitude except anyone paying attention to the past performance papers. With a lefthander already in the game, Martinez brought in Patrick Corbin, his already-designated Game Four starting lefthander, to open the bottom of the ninth against lefthanded hitting Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong.

Martinez remembered what the Cardinals probably wanted to forget, that Wong came to the plate having gone 0-for-5 with two strikeouts against Corbin previously. The last thing Martinez wanted was Wong reaching base somehow and turning the bases into a track meet. And, sure enough, Wong obeyed the script. On 0-1 Corbin lured him into a simple ground out to second base.

Then Martinez brought Hudson in to finish it off with Goldschmidt flying out to left and Marcell Ozuna popping out to first.

The game actually might have ended 1-0 if Cardinals manager Mike Shildt hadn’t blundered his way into a pair of Nats insurance runs in the top of the eighth. With first and second and one out, and after pitching coach Mike Maddux confabbed with Wainwright on the mound, Shildt elected to let his veteran righthander pitch to lefthanded Adam Eaton.

Eaton—who came into Game Two with a lifetime 1.169 OPS (5-for-11) against Wainwright. With the lefthanded Miller ready to go in the bullpen. Shildt paid more attention to Eaton’s so-far game-long struggle to hit in the peculiar Busch Stadium shadows than to Eaton’s history with Wainwright. And the shadows long enough progressed to the point where they weren’t quite so bothersome at the plate.

What was bothersome was Eaton ripping one right past a diving Goldschmidt at first, up the right field line, and off the sidewall, letting Matt Adams (Scherzer’s pinch hitter with a one-out double) score standing up and Trea Turner (following Adams with a shuttlecock single to right center) to follow him, Turner diving across the plate like an Olympic swimmer with the third Nats run.

That’s the way to [fornicate] up anyone getting in your Cardinals’ way, Skip.

Scherzer and Wainwright put on yet another clinic in knocking the balance to one side Saturday afternoon, each righthander leaning at least as much if not more on breaking balls just off-speed enough to keep the hard hit balls down to a minimum and keep their defenses working possible overtime. Even running several deep counts Max the Knife thrust when he absolutely had to.

“I came in and my arm didn’t feel great,” he told reporters after the game. “But around the fourth or fifth inning I felt like everything kind of loosened up in my shoulder. I was able to find my arm slot and I was driving my fastball into locations where I wanted.”

Each struck out eleven batters; each threw first-pitch strikes two-thirds of the time; it was the duel of the masters that Wainwright described before Game Two as the next best thing to an early Christmas present. It sure didn’t hurt that the odd shadows crawling across the field for a little more than half the game made things very conducive to smart, sharp pitching.

Which is exactly what both teams and their fans expect on Monday night when Game Three begins in Nationals Park. When Jack Flaherty, the Cardinals’ boy wonder who all but ruled the National League from the mound in the season’s second half, tangles with Stephen Strasburg, a former boy wonder who carries a 1.32 lifetime postseason ERA on his jacket.

And since the Nats now have three reasonably reliable bullpen bulls to call upon, it won’t be quite as simple as just hoping Flaherty knocks the bats right out of the Nats’ hands. The Nats don’t let their bats get knocked away that way for very long these days.

The Cardinals’ starting players are now 2-for-54 in the NLCS. If they don’t figure out how to recalibrate their bats and hit, and fast, Flaherty can no-hit the Nats himself including strikeouts for every out, and the Nats will still find a way to win.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence in our hitters,” Wainwright said after the game. “I think our hitters are going to do something special in Washington.” With Strasburg looming and Corbin right behind him in Game Four, they’d better.

Right now they’re saying, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and two from first in the National League.” The Nats are too smart, too aware of their past postseason plotzes, to let this thrill knock them off task just yet.

So much for a young man’s game

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Ryan Zimmerman (left) and Max Scherzer looked older at a postgame presser than they looked playing Game Five of the Nats’ division series against the Dodgers Monday night.

Once upon a time, a generation insisted you couldn’t trust anyone over thirty. Even that was pushing it; to hear some of them talk (I know, because it was my generation, even if the words never quite came out of my own mouth) you’d have thought trusting anyone over 25 was begging for trouble.

At times in recent years it’s seemed as though baseball’s unspoken but unbreakable mottos include not trusting anyone over thirty. Well, now. If thirty is baseball’s new forty, then baseball’s geriatric generation’s been doing a lot of heavy lifting this postseason and beyond. Without walkers, wheelchairs, canes, or portable respirators, even.

It’s hard to believe because it seems like yesterday, sometimes, that he was a hot draft, but Stephen Strasburg—in the Nationals’ original starters-as-relievers postseason scheme—got credit for the win in the National League wild card game with three spotless relief innings. At the ripe old age of 31.

Strasburg also pitched six with a single earned run against him in division series Game One against the Dodgers and takes a lifetime 0.94 postseason ERA into his Game Five start in Dodger Stadium Wednesday. The Nats aren’t exactly a mostly-young team but they’re putting their fate into thirtysomething hands.

That may be the problem. Even with the professiorial beard he wears now, Strasburg doesn’t look his age yet. He still looks like a lad on the threshold of sitting for his final exams in freshman year. He isn’t even close to being as grizzled as Max Scherzer. Few among even his fellow old Nats do.

If you believe in respecting your elders (never mind how often your elders have betrayed your respect, as often they have), things get better from there. Consider, if you will:

* Two 35-year-old Nats, Max Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman, delivered the primary goods Monday night to push the Nats-Dodgers division series to a fifth game Wednesday. Max the Knife shook off a first-inning solo homer to go six and two-thirds scoreless including a crazy escape from a seventh-inning, ducks-on-the-pond jam, and Zimmerman jolted Nationals Park with a three-run homer into the crosswinds in the bottom of the fifth.

In those hours both Scherzer and Zimmerman looked as though they’d done it for the first time in their lives. Maybe there is such a thing as baseball’s fountain of youth.

* An ancient Cardinals catcher, Yadier Molina, tied Game Four of their division series with the Braves with an eighth-inning RBI single, then won the game with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the tenth. And, a followup bat flip the young’uns should envy.

* Another Cardinal ancient, Adam Wainwright, pitched maybe the best exhibition of pressure baseball of his life in Game Three. It went for nothing, unfortunately, since Wainwright left the game with the Cardinals behind 1-0. But Wainwright will tell his eventual grandchildren about the noisy standing O Grandpa got as he tipped his hat to the Busch Stadium faithful.

* On the other hand, if it took a young Braves whippersnapper (Dansby Swanson) to tie the game in the ninth, it took an old fart of 31 (Adam Duvall) to pinch hit immediately after and drive home what proved the winning runs with a single up the pipe. And I didn’t notice Duvall carrying a portable oxygen tank with him.

* “We got Verlandered,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said memorably after Pops Verlander, all 36 years old of him, threw seven shutout innings their way in Game One of their division series. And if you think 29 might as well be 30 and therefore on the threshold of dismissability, be reminded the Rays got Coled the following day. As in, Gerrit Cole’s seven and two-thirds, fifteen-strikeouts shutout innings.

* Abuelo Edwin Encarnacion, like Verlander an ancient 36, tied Game One between the Yankees and the Twins with an RBI double in the bottom of the first. A 30-year-old fart named D.J. LaMahieu put the Yankees up by a pair with a bottom-of-the-sixth home run; a 35-year-old creaker named Brett Gardner hit one out one out later, and the Yankees routed the Twins in Game One and the division series sweep.

Lest you think the postseason’s been the sole triumphant province of the senior citizenry, be reminded sadly that Nelson Cruz—all 39 years old of him, who had the regular season of a player young enough to be his grandson (41 home runs, 290 total bases, 1.031 OPS, 4.3 wins above a replacement-level player), and who hit one out to make a short-lived 2-0 Twins lead in Game One—ended Game Three on the wrong side when he looked at a third strike from all 31 years old worth of Yankee closer Aroldis Chapman.

Just as there’s a rule in sports that somebody has to lose, there’s a parallel rule that says sometimes one old man has to beat another old man to win.

A prehistoric Ray, Charlie Morton, took 35 years to the mound on Monday and threw five innings of one-run, three-hit, nine-strikeout baseball at his former Astros mates to keep the Rays alive, barely. And the Rays abused likewise 35-year-old Zack Greinke—who’d pitched like anything except a nursing home denizen since joining the Astros at the new single-season trade deadline—for six runs including three home runs in three and two-thirds innings’ work.

The Yankees only looked like old men when it seemed you couldn’t visit one New York-area hospital this season without finding a group of Yankees among the emergency room patients. The Astros only looked like old men likewise regarding Houston-area clinics this year. Except to their opponents, it’s funny how they don’t look like old men when they play baseball.

Pops Verlander’s getting another crack at the Rays in Game Four. Strasburg the Elder has to tangle with a whippersnapper named Walker Buehler in Game Five. The eyes of us seniors will be upon them.

Unfortunately, there are those elders who behave occasionally like the ancient Alice Cooper lyric: “I’ve got a baby’s brain/and an old man’s heart.” Molina did after he sent the Cardinals toward Game Five. Hands around his throat in a choke gesture aimed at the Braves. In a series pitting two of baseball’s more notorious Fun Police departments, that puts a new twist on police brutality and underscores why respecting your elders is  easier said than done often enough.

Music from the Elders

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Not even Mother Nature could rain on Max the Knife’s parade Monday night.

Forget the starters-as-relievers plan that imploded with whatever impostor crawled into Patrick Corbin’s uniform Sunday. Come Monday, the Nationals wanted, needed, and all but demanded one thing.

On a day the Nats were one of four teams facing postseason elimination they needed Max Scherzer to be as close to Max Scherzer as possible. In the worst way possible. In the rain, even.

From the moment after Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner belted a two-out solo homer in the top of the first until he finally ran out of fuel while squirming out of a seventh-inning jam, Scherzer was a little bit more. For six and two-thirds to follow he was Max the Knife.

“It was amazing just playing behind him,” said third baseman Anthony Rendon after the Nats locked down the 6-1 Game Four win. “Max did what Max does.”

Elder Ryan Zimmerman, who wielded the heavy tenderiser in the bottom of the fifth, was a lot more succinct. “That’s the guy,” he said almost deadpan. Except that Zimmerman was also the guy. This was the night the Nats played sweet music from the elders. Above and beyond what they demanded going in.

Scherzer slew the Dodgers with what seemed like a thousand off-speed cuts mixed in with a few hundred speed slices and the Dodgers left unable to decide whether he’d dismantled them or out-thought them. Maybe both at once. Zimmerman was the third among division series teams’ oldest or longest-serving players Monday to do the major non-pitching damage keeping them alive without respirators to play another day.

An hour or so earlier, ancient Yadier Molina tied (with an eighth-inning single) and won (with a sacrifice fly) to get the Cardinals to a fifth game against the Braves. Great job, Yadi. Could the Nats top that? Zimmerman’s electrifying three-run homer answered, “Don’t make us laugh.”

All of a sudden the Dodgers’ stupefying sixth-inning assault in Game Three seemed like little more than a somewhat distant nightmare. Just as swiftly the Dodgers looked like the doddering old men on the field. Their average age is a year younger than the Nats’ but suddenly they looked in need of walkers and wheelchairs.

Scherzer and Zimmerman did their jobs so thoroughly that manager Dave Martinez didn’t even have to think about risking his or his club’s survival with a call into the Nats’ too-well-chronicled arson squad. If he had anything to say about it, the last thing he wanted was anyone not named Sean Doolittle or Daniel Hudson on call.

“I knew I needed to make a full-on start,” said Max the Knife after the game. “I know there’s times in the regular season where you’re not fresh, where you come into a game and you got to conserve where you’re at—try to almost pitch more—and today was one of those days.”

At first it seemed the Nats were trying to conserve . . . who know precisely what. Especially when it didn’t seem as thought they had that many solutions for Dodger starter Rich Hill’s effective enough breaking balls the first two innings. Or, for figuring out ways to avoid loading the bases twice, as they did on Hill and his relief Kenta Maeda in the third, and getting nothing but Rendon’s game-tying sacrifice fly to show for it.

But with that one-all tie holding into the bottom of the fifth, and Julio Urias in relief of Maeda, Trea Turner led off with a bullet single to left and Adam Eaton sacrificed him to second. Rendon singled Turner home to break the tie, Howie Kendrick lined a single to left center, and it looked like the Nats would content themselves with doing things the small ball way.

Then Dodger manager Dave Roberts lifted Urias for Pedro Baez. Zimmerman—the elder into whom enough were ready to stick a fork, though he’d said often enough he’d like to play one more year even as a role player—checked in next. Despite losing the platoon advantage. After he looked at a slider for a strike on the floor of the zone, he turned somewhat crazily on a fastball practically up in his face.

And, he sent it through the outfield crosswinds and onto the green batting eye past the center field fence.

“That’s what you play for, that’s what you work for all season and off season,” said Zimmerman, who hasn’t has as many such moments recently as he’d prefer but who’s still a much loved figure in his clubhouse and among the Nats’ audience. “Stay positive, the guys rallied around me, it’s nice to be back at all.”

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Let the old men be kids again: Zimmerman after his crosswind-splitting three-run bomb.

The Nats went on to tack their sixth run of the night on when Rendon hit another sac fly, this time to the rear end of center field, this time enabling Turner to come home. Greater love hath no Nat than to sacrifice himself twice for the dance. Unless it was Scherzer graduating from his tank next to E to living on pure fumes pitching the top of the seventh.

He got Corey Seager to fly out to right but surrendered a base hit through the right side to rookie Matt Beaty. Rookie Dodger second baseman Gavin Lux wrestled his way to an eight-pitch walk, and rookie catcher Will Smith looked at one strike between four balls for ducks on the pond, but pinch hitter Chris Taylor (for reliever Ross Stripling) threatened to walk the second Dodger run home until Scherzer struck him out swinging on the eighth pitch of the segment.

Then, after scaring the Nats and the Nationals Park crowd audibly with a hard liner down the right field line and foul by about a hair (every known replay showed how close it missed), Joc Pederson grounded one to second base, where late-game fill-in Brian Dozier picked it and threw him out. Launching Scherzer into one of his own patented mania dances into the dugout in triumph.

“My arm is hanging right now,” Max the Knife said after it was all over but the flight back to Los Angeles and a Game Five showdown between Stephen Strasburg and Walker Buehler. “That pushed me all the way to the edge—and then some.” Good thing Doolittle had four outs to deliver and Hudson, two, to close Game Four out with a flourish of their own.

In a game culture so heavily youth-oriented over the past few years Scherzer and Zimmerman must seem anomalous. “We’re a bunch of viejos,” Scherzer told a postgame presser about themselves and their fourteen teammates over the age an earlier generation considered the cutoff for trust. “We’re old guys. Old guys can still do it.”

That wasn’t easy or necessarily guaranteed. Scherzer’s season was compromised by an attack of bursitis and an upper-back rhomboid muscle, forcing him to miss the last of July and most of August. When he returned, after a couple of short but effective enough starts, he almost looked older than his actual 34 years.

He still kept his ERA to 2.92 and still led the Show with a 2.45 fielding-independent pitching rate, but entering the postseason there were legitimate questions about how much he might still actually have left past this year. Like Zimmerman, Scherzer would far rather let himself decide when he’s ready for his baseball sunset.

Max the Knife proved Exhibit A in favour of Martinez’s original starter-as-reliever division series scheme, striking out the side swinging in the eighth in Game Two. And Corbin’s Game Three implosion put the S-A-R idea to bed for the rest of the series, if not the postseason.

Zimmerman is, of course, the one Nat remaining who’s worn their colours since they were reborn in 2005, after long and often painful life as the Montreal Expos. They picked him fourth overall that year; he had an impressive cup of coffee with them down that year’s stretch and stuck but good.

His hope to age gracefully in baseball terms has been thwarted too often by his body telling him where to shove it when he least wants to hear it. He refuses to go gently into that good gray night just yet; he accepts his half-time or part-time status with uncommon grace.

“I really don’t think these are his last games,” Scherzer told the reporters with Zimmerman sitting at his right. “Only you think this is his last games.”

“The last home game [of the regular season], they tried to give me a standing ovation,” Zimmerman said. “I mean, I feel good. I think we’ve got plenty to go.”

“I feel young,” Scherzer said, turning to Zimmerman, “and I’m older than you.”

Scherzer is older than Zimmerman—by two months. But they looked as though they’d told Father Time to step back a hundred paces when they pitched and swung Monday night. Only after the game did they creak like old men.

Zimmerman started only because Martinez wanted to use the platoon advantage against the lefthanded Hill, and he struck out twice. But when he came to the plate as Roberts sent him the righthanded Baez in the fifth, Martinez had a decision: let Zimmerman swing anyway or counter with lefthanded Matt Adams off the bench.

Martinez stayed with Zimmerman. And in that moment Zimmerman became Washington’s King of Swing, leaving Scherzer to settle for being Washington’s King of Sling. Enabling the Nats to live at least one more day. And the way they grunted, growled, and ground Monday night, the Dodgers may yet have a fight on their hands in Los Angeles come Wednesday.

Just don’t expect to see Scherzer out of the pen Wednesday. Even he’s not crazy enough to even think about that scenario. The next time Max the Knife wants to be on the mound it’ll be to pitch for a pennant.

Martinez surprises with Max the Knife

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Could that someone out of the pen be Max the Knife?

Bet on it: it doesn’t happen if Matt Williams was still the Nationals’ manager. Bet a little on it: it might not even happen if Dusty Baker was still the manager. Davey Johnson, maybe. But it happened through the courtesy of incumbent Dave Martinez.

And it got him a return to Nationals Park with their National League division series against the Dodgers tied at one apiece. The Nats ain’t ready for the last dance just yet. And if they keep this up, they just might get one in the World Series in due course. Might.

Williams was too wedded to The Book, whatever he thought it was, to have even thought about bringing Max Scherzer in from the bullpen in National League division series Game Two. Compared to Williams, Baker was John Coltrane, but I’m not sure even Baker might have gone there, either.

Johnson’s the man who once inserted one relief pitcher into right field and the other on the mound (Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco, or was it Jesse Orosco and Roger McDowell), then rotated them between the positions until his Mets won the damn game. Johnson just might have reached for Scherzer Friday night.

But Martinez did, in the eighth inning. “We weren’t expecting that,” lamented Dodgers manager Dave Roberts after the Nats finished the 4-2 win they’d started. The Dodgers and just about everyone else in the solar system.

After a long season that only began with the distinct appearance of Martinez awaiting his call to the guillotine as its victim, not its operator, who the hell did he think he was Friday night, Casey Stengel?

The good news was Scherzer striking out the side in the eighth. The bad news was, the Nats still have an honest to God bullpen, and they’re still one of the shakiest bunches this side of the old Soul Train dancers. Daniel Hudson got the ninth inning gig and got himself the bases loaded—partly because Martinez took the gamble of putting the winning run aboard with two out to set up a possible force—before swishing Corey Seager out to end it.

And before Max the Knife came in for the eighth, Sean Doolittle, usually the Nats’ closer, relieved Stephen Strasburg for the seventh and, after striking out MVP candidate Cody Bellinger to open, threw Max Muncy a dead center meatball that Muncy drove dead over the right field fence to close the Nats’ lead to a single run.

Good thing Doolittle’s pinch hitter Asdrubal Cabrera smacked Dodger reliever Dustin May’s first service into right center field with second and third for the fourth Nats’ run. Better thing that Martinez was only too willing to say screw the protocols and reach for Scherzer for the eighth. Best thing that Scherzer got Gavin Lux, pinch hitter Chris Taylor, and Joc Pederson on three straight Duke Ellingtons: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

It’s one thing to go all-hands-on-deck in a win-or-be-gone play-in like a wild card game. It’s something else, seemingly, to load your bullpen with your grand starting pitchers in a division series. If you still want Scherzer to start Game Three for you in Washington, it’s entirely doable after Scherzer worked only the one inning without even thinking about asking what the hell he was doing strolling in from among the arson squad.

“All the chips are on the table,” Scherzer said after the game.

Except that Martinez hinted powerfully enough that it’d be Anibal Sanchez likely to start Game Three—with Patrick Corbin available in the bullpen. Nobody around the Nats thinks it’s such a beyond-sane idea. Certainly not Scherzer.

“I’ve been in these situations before where you’re pitching on two days’ rest in all-star games and different times in the postseason,” he told reporters after Game Two. “I know that on two days’ rest, you’ve got one inning in you. So, I said whatever the situation is, I’m ready to pitch.”

Remember: that’s the man who refused to let something so trivial as a black eye and a swollen face stop him from taking his next turn and throwing a ten punchout, four-hit gem in a doubleheader nightcap in late June. A man who’ll pitch when, never mind until he’s black and blue in the face isn’t going to flinch over coming out of a postseason bullpen for a quick round.

Oh, goody (not), the Dodgers must be thinking. Remember last year. They were undone in a World Series when the Red Sox started David Price twice and closed with him once, started Chris Sale once and closed with him once (the Series winner, as it happens), and started Eduardo Rodriguez once and drew him in from the pen twice. Hello, Yogi, wherever you are around the Elysian Fields, it’s threatening to get late early out there again.

Strasburg didn’t seem to mind that Max the Knife stole some of his thunder on a night when he needed to be a little beyond his best himself. You can afford to be sanguine when your mates pry three runs out of a Clayton Kershaw who still can’t seem to find and sustain the best of his best in postseason play, while you’re busy punching out ten in six innings, surrendering three measly hits, and one measly earned run.

And it helps even more when you now have a postseason career 0.64 ERA while allowing but one run so far this October. This keeps up, we’re going to be saying Strasburg’s name in the same postseason sentences as those of Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Mickey Lolich, Orel Hershiser, Curt Schilling, Madison Bumgarner, and Justin Verlander.

You may also be saying other names to refer to the Nats before long. Ringling Brothers and Scherzer and Strasburg Circus. Brother Martinez’s Traveling Salvation Show. The Mothers of Inversion. The Dodgers could be describing them with the last of those with “of Inversion” replaced by a twelve-letter compound euphemism for “maternal fornicator” before long.