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

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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.

David and Goliath face elimination

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“They played beautiful defense, especially in that play right there.”—Jose Altuve, about the relay that nailed him at the plate above.

Sometimes you can’t afford to respect your elders. As in, when they’re on the mound on short rest, their less-than-well-rested arms and bodies refuse their lawful orders, and it’s still now or never until your American League division series is over.

There probably isn’t a Rays player or fan alive who doesn’t have a world of respect for Justin Verlander. There isn’t any baseball person alive lacking in such respect. Even at 36, the man has skills, the man has brains to burn, the man has no fear, the man has class, and the man has heart.

And when he says he wants the ball no matter how much rest it wouldn’t be on, nobody says no to Verlander. Not his manager. Not his front office. And sure as hell not Astroworld. Saying no to Justin Verlander with his cred is like it once was telling Evel Knievel the Snake River Canyon wasn’t going to be his new best friend.

But when even a Hall of Famer elects to take the mound in a bid to kick his team into the League Championship Series no matter how fully rested he isn’t, no matter how obedient his slider isn’t, there isn’t a Ray or anyone else alive either who’d spot him with his command gone AWOL and refuse to get the drop on him before he finds a reserve tank.

These Rays seem like nice guys. So do these Astros. But do you think the Astros would stay nice guys if they faced even a Hall of Famer with his tank down to its final fume? If you do, I have a freshly purchased Taj Mahal I’d like to sell you at cost.

Powerful teams are fun to watch when they dominate as these Astros have done all year long, and the Astros are fun to watch even on their very occasional off days. But there’s nothing like a band of upstarts that nobody else wanted pushing them to the equivalent brink of elimination as the Rays did Tuesday night.

Their 4-1 win over the Astros was as good as blowing almost anyone else out by three times that margin. That’s how tough the Astros are. And that’s how stubborn the Rays are proving to be.

Even if Gerrit Cole takes the mound Thursday back in Houston, delivers just half of what he threw at the Rays in Game Two, and sends the Astros to an American League Championship Series with the Yankees—you want to talk about E.R. vs. St. Elsewhere?—there isn’t a soul to be found who’d say the Rays didn’t prove they could hang with the big boys after it looked at first as though they’d get hanged.

So the Rays got cute sending Diego Castillo out to open, and Castillo got cute striking out the side in the first. And impressing the hell out of Astros manager A.J. Hinch. “Castillo, thank God he was an opener and not a regular starter,” he said after the game. “Having him out there for four, five, six innings would be devastating for anybody.”

The Rays got even more cute after Verlander opened the bottom of the first with a three-pitch strikeout of Austin Meadows. Tommy Pham was cute enough to work Verlander to a 2-2 count including one swing at a pitch missing the low and away corner, then send a slightly hanging changeup into the left center field seats.

A walk (to Ji-Hin Choi) and a single (to Avisail Garcia) later Travis d’Arnaud, whom the Mets thought expendable very early in the regular season, expended a base hit into left center field to send Choi home, and Joey Wendle expended a double down the right field line to send Garcia home. Verlander got rid of Kevin Kiermaier with a swinging strikeout to prevent further disaster but the Astros were in a 3-0 hole.

He’d survive first and second in the second and a man on third in the third, but he couldn’t stop Willy Adames (it almost rhymes with “Adonis”) from hitting the third pitch of the fourth over the center field fence. A strikeout, a line out, and a walk later, Hinch had to admit Verlander’d been had on a night when his spirit was willing but his arm and body demanded the rest of the night off.

For a second night running, the Astros got Rayed.

“A good approach for those guys in the first, and then honestly, I need those infield singles to be caught,” said Verlander after the game, referring to balls the Rays hit just past the Astros’ infielders. “When you don’t have it, you need the balls that are put in play to go your way, and they didn’t. Obviously, not the way you would script it. You know, it sucks.”

Thus the Astros joining up to the Rays bullpenning, which began with two out in the second and Rays manager Kevin Cash lifting Castillo for Ryan Yarborough. Whom he’d lift for Nick Anderson with Jose Altuve on second after maybe the single most important play of the game. Maybe even of the Rays’s season.

Yordan Alvarez, the Astros’ uber-rookie, sent a double to the rear of the yard. Kiermaier picked it off the wall hop and fired a perfect strike in to Adames out from short on the grass behind second, and Adames fired just as perfect a strike home to d’Arnaud at the plate spinning to tag the road-running Altuve about a split second before the Astros’ second baseman’s hand touched the plate.

And pop went the Astros’ best rally while the Rays were at it.

“That,” said Kiermaier of Adames’s strike home, “was probably the most incredible relay throw from an infielder I’ve ever seen. That was such a huge moment for us, huge momentum shift, and it just doesn’t get any better than that.”

Not even Choi turning Michael Brantley’s line drive into a single-handed double play in the sixth, bagging George Springer returning to the pillow while he was at it. That was child’s play compared to The Kiermaier-Adames Show.

And Kiermaier gets no argument from Altuve himself. “We’ve been playing aggressive all year long. I don’t see why we shouldn’t do it right now. But sometimes you have to give credit to the other team,” the Astros’ impish second baseman said after the game. “They played beautiful defense, especially in that play right there.”

“You have to tip your cap to those guys,” said Astros catcher Robinson Chirinos, whose just-passing-by solo home run off Chris Poche in the top of the eighth provided the lone Astros scoring. “The relay was perfect. It was textbook. They needed a perfect relay and they did it to throw Jose out at home plate. That was a big difference in the game tonight.”

When Jose Altuve himself gives you a five-star review, you’re being more than—what’s that overcooked word deployed about the Rays?—resilient.

Face it. On one postseason day when the Rays and the Astros had the nation’s baseball stage to themselves, the un-glamorous, un-beautiful, un-sexy, un-bankable Rays stole the show all for themselves. The Beatles themselves couldn’t have upstaged these No-Rays Tuesday night.

They were supposed to be about as deadly as babies in strollers at the plate. They were supposed to be a pitching staff full of anonymous relief pitchers with the occasional token starter and even Cy Young Award winner who couldn’t possibly keep getting away with all that bullpenning jazz.

Never mind that said Cy Young winner, Blake Snell, had Altuve on third and MVP candidate Alex Bregman on first with one out in the ninth when he went in from the pen Tuesday night, then struck Alvarez out swinging before coaxing Yuli Gurriel into the game-ending ground out right up the pipe, where Wendle just happened to be waiting to throw him out.

They have a manager named Cash for a team whose overseers seem allergic to spending any. They play their home games in a toxic waste dump that looks like a warped pressure cooker on the outside and an abandoned landfill on the inside, playing baseball on the last of the sliding-boxed zippered-billiards table surfaces.

And they are resilient, these No-Rays, even if the word “resilient” may turn into something less than a compliment before too long. “We’re good. Everybody uses the word resilient and that’s great but we’re also very good,” Cash told a reporter. “You can use that word resilient over and over and in a way it’s kind of knocking us. The truth is this is a very good team.”

The truth is also that the Astros are finding that out profoundly. The Rays may have finished with the American League’s fifth-best regular season record and the Show’s seventh best, but somehow, some way, the Rays have out-scored the Astros 17-13 in the division series so far. Somehow, some way, they’ve out-homered the Astros six to four. Somehow, some way, they have a better on-base percentage, a better slugging percentage, an OPS slightly over a hundred points higher, and more walks.

The Rays may not survive Game Five, after all, but they won’t leave the Astros thinking it wasn’t a battle royal even if Cole does go second-verse-same-as-the-first. Even if Cole will pitch on regular rest as opposed to Verlander asking to go on three days for the first time in his life and Zack Greinke getting nuked on eleven days’ rest.

“We have a great pitching staff, we play great defence and our bats are starting to come together,” said Pham, with all due modesty.

“People before this series started talking about David and Goliath,” Kiermaier. “I understand they are really good on paper and we might be the team that is not as appealing, but don’t ever count us out. We got guys feeling really good about themselves and we are clicking as a team all year. That is a dangerous recipe for success.”

Sounds a lot like what they once said about the Astros, doesn’t it?

After shoving the similar but slightly less obscure Athletics to one side in the wild card game to get their chance with the Astros—who have all the reputation and intimidation you could ask for in pushing 107 regular season winning chips to the middle of the division series table—the No-Rays and the Astros are equals for standing on the brink of elimination in Game Five.

Even with the Astros holding what they hope is the home field advantage trump. Not that the Astros are worried, necessarily, even if almost to a man they can’t wait to escape the Trop. (The Rays may not necessarily love the joint, either, but their 2019 season record shows ambivalence at best: they were the same on the road as they were at home, 48-33.)

The Astros opened the regular season against the Rays in the Trop and beat them once before losing three straight more. Aside from Games One and Two, they tangled in Minute Maid Park for three in late August. The Astros won the first two of that set; the Rays won the third. It’s not unheard of for the Rays to win in Minute Maid.

“We have done it years ago, when we have the home field. We win at home, then we lost on the road, then we come back home and make it happen,” Altuve said after the game. “So we’ve been here before. There’s no pressure right now.”

Altuve, one of the most intelligent as well as talented players the Astros have ever yielded up, also needs nobody to remind him there was no pressure on the original David, either.