Seven up

2019-10-30 MinuteMaidParkWS

Can Game Seven possibly top Game Six for extraterrestriality?

The number seven means lots of things. Days in the week. Colours in the rainbow. Circles in the Seed of Life signifying six days of creation. A former model of open-top two-seat Lotus car. The best-selling model of vintage Sunbeam Mixmaster. And, jackpot with three in a row on old-school slot machines, in Las Vegas and elsewhere.

It’s also going to mean a lease to the Promised Land for either the Astros or the Nationals in Houston Wednesday night.

The Astros would like to join the ranks of the dynastic in winning their second World Series in three years. The Nats would like to finish the precedent they’ve broken already and win the Series with every one of their wins happening on the road. Even if they had to return from the land of the living dead in Game Six to have a shot at it in the first place.

Broken precedent? The Washington Post‘s Scott Allen points out that no best-of-seven series ever, in any major team sport whose championships are decided that way, featured the road team winning the first six games. And that, Allen says, covers 1,420 baseball, basketball, and hockey games. That’s a lot of trophy hunting, ladies and gentlemen.

There’s big enough game at stake Wednesday night. The Astros had their best home record yet in 2019 . . . and lost Games One, Two, and Six by a combined 24-9. The Nats who laid that one on them lost Games Three through Five by a combined 19-3. The 1987 World Series’s theme song could have been Jr. Walker & the All Stars’s soul classic, “Home Cookin’.” This one threatens to make as its theme a Canned Heat blues classic—“On the Road Again.” 

With the Nats’ surrealistic Game Six win, there’s the promise that this Game Seven may well contribute to a long baseball tradition of Game Sevens that prove the truth in the ancient cliche, anything can happen—and usually does. What I’ve pointed out before, that one John Lennon lyric can apply to baseball (Baseball is what happens when you’re busy making other plans), is liable to apply to Minute Maid Park Wednesday night.

Much will be expected of the Nats and the Astros when you review some of the history of seventh World Series games. Including but certainly not limited to:

* Hall of Famer Ty Cobb’s final World Series appearance, in 1909, on the day Babe Adams chose to throw a six-hit shutout for the Pirates on one day’s rest. (Don’t go there: that was the dead ball era, in which pitchers didn’t have to try throwing like howitzers to get their outs and arms and shoulders weren’t half as likely to be destroyed in the doing.)

* Hall of Famer Walter Johnson going out to pitch the ninth in relief, working four shutout innings, and making it possible for the Senators to win the 1924 Series on a run-scoring bad hop over Hall of Famer Freddie Lindstrom’s head at third base—and, with a bullpen game in the first place.

* Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1926, wheeling in from the pen to strike Yankee Hall of Famer Tony Lazzeri out with the bases loaded to end the seventh and going the rest of the way—right up to the moment Hall of Famer Babe Ruth ended the game in the Cardinals’ favour when he tried and failed (by two country miles) to steal second . . . with Bob Meusel at the plate and a fourth Hall of Famer, Lou Gehrig, on deck.

* Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean defying the laws of orthopedics by throwing a six-hit shutout on one day’s rest in a 1934 Game Seven remembered too much more for the fight between Hall of Fame outfielder Joe Medwick and Tigers third baseman Marv Owen’s brawl over a hard slide at third, prompting fans to shower them with all the love glass bottles and fruit pouring onto the field can show.

* Enos Slaughter’s mad dash home in 1946, abetted by Red Sox center fielder Leon Culberson’s high throw in to cutoff shortstop Johnny Pesky.

* This year was Next Year as Johnny Podres—the number four man in the 1955 Dodgers’ rotation—shut the Yankees out . . . with a lot of help from Sandy Amoros’s running catch off Hall of Famer Yogi Berra and doubling up Gil McDougald at first base by way of Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese.

* Lew Burdette. Seven-hit shutout. Third 1957 Series win for the former Yankee prospect.

* “I was kneeling in the on-deck circle, thinking I was going to be the hero. And all of a sudden, I was out on the field jumping around.”—Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart, about Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski’s Game Seven-winning home run leading off the bottom of the ninth.

* Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax throwing a shutout on two day’s rest following his first shutout of the 1965 Series. The one he began by refusing to pitch Game One because it fell on Yom Kippur.

* Gibby and the Fat Man: A year after pitching and winning a Game Seven, Hall of Famer Bob Gibson picked the wrong Game Seven to suffer a fly lost in the sun turning into a game-changing triple and room for Mickey Lolich to win his third 1968 Series start . . . and the Series.

* Bill (Spaceman) Lee threw Hall of Famer Tony Perez a Game Seven eephus pitch in 1975 . . . and Perez drilled the insult onto Landowne Street behind the Green Monster in the top of the sixth, starting the Big Red Machine’s comeback win.

* The 1985 Cardinals merely blew their stacks over Don Denkinger’s game-changing, errant safe call in the ninth in Game Six. When the ump rotation moved Denkinger behind the plate for Game Seven, the Cardinals imploded completely and the Royals battered them 11-0.

* As if Game Six couldn’t have ended extraterrestrially enough, the 1986 Mets got extra insurance in the Game Seven bottom of the eighth (their first insurance: Darryl Strawberry’s leadoff Mars-shot home run, giving them a two-run lead) thanks to a sneak attack: relief pitcher Jesse Orosco deked the Red Sox infield into the rotation play by showing bunt . . . and swung away for a six-hop RBI single up the abandoned pipe.

* Hall of Famer Jack Morris pitched a ten-inning shutout as the 1991 Series-winning run for the Twins came home on Gene Larkin’s pinch hit RBI single.

* Edgar Renteria. Game and 1997 Series-winning RBI single for the Marlins in the chill of the night and the bottom of the eleventh. Not necessarily in that order.

* Facing Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera in 2001, the Diamondbacks’s Luis Gonzalez dumped an RBI quail and the Yankees in the bottom of the ninth.

* Madison Bumgarner, who’d already started and won a pair of 2014 Series games for the Giants, channeled his inner Joe Page, threw five shutout relief innings, and nailed the longest save in World Series history while he was at it—all protecting a measly one-run lead.

* After losing two 2016 Game Seven leads plus the Indians’ Rajai Davis’s game-tying two run homer in the eighth, then came the rain delay, there came Cub right fielder Jason Heyward’s clubhouse speech, and then came Cub utilityman Ben Zobrist’s tiebreaking double in the top of the tenth. Goodbye actual or alleged billy goat.

The Astros themselves won a charmer of a Game Seven two years ago. They caught then-Dodger starter Yu Darvish tipping his pitches where the Dodgers didn’t (unlike Paul Menhart warning Stephen Strasburg after the bottom of the first Tuesday night), slapped him and them silly, and cranked out a 5-1 win in Dodger Stadium.

Their slogan this year has been, “Take it Back!” The Nats, whose slogan now is “Finish the Fight,” prefer to make it, “Not so fast!”

Based on Game Six, which may or may not prove anti-climactic, there’s nothing stopping either or both teams from a little transdimensional theater, comedy, or both before Game Seven puts the Series into the history books.

It’s in the books before the first pitch, as it is. Game Seven will be the first World Series game to match former Cy Young Award winners (Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke) as starting pitchers. Scherzer will be the second since the Cardinals’ Joe Magrane (in 1987) to start Games One and Seven in a Series in which those were his only gigs.

And, it’ll be the first time since the 1970s that a decade has had five World Series Game Sevens. Not to mention the first World Series Game Seven ever to be played in Houston. Which reminds me that seven of the last eight teams to force a Game Seven on the road lost those games. (The only winner? The 2016 Cubs.)

“If you told me that in the beginning of the year we only had to win one game to be champions,” said Astros shortstop Carlos Correa after Game Six, “I’ll take the chances. Tomorrow we have to go out there and play our best game.”

“It’s going to be fun,” said Nats right fielder Juan Soto, who crunched one into the second deck above right field Tuesday night. “It’s going to be loud. We’re going to be good.”

That’s what happened in the seventh book of the Bible. The book during which Samson brought the temple of the Philistines down upon them and himself. Some think the Nats are this year’s Samsons out to slay the Houston Philistines. Some think it’s the other way around.

But neither side’s fans are coarse or vile about it. As these things go, Nats and Astros fans alike display this year’s greatest example in sports of ear-splitting enthusiasm unsoiled by grotesquery in the ballpark.

This is probably not the best time to mention that number seven also has meaning within the Tower of London: seven people have been beheaded inside the Tower’s walls, privately, on Tower Green. Because one or another World Series team will be beheaded Wednesday night, publicly, across the finely rolled green field of Minute Maid Park.

From chaos to bedlam and Game Seven

2019-10-29 AnthonyRendon

Anthony Rendon knew exactly how to shake off a dubious umpire’s call in Game Six.

The second loveliest word pair in baseball is “Game Seven.” (The first, of course, is “Play ball!”) And oh, brother, are we going to get one in this World Series.

I did say going in that this Series, between these two teams, wasn’t likely to end in either a sweep or an extremely short series. But I sure as hell didn’t expect it to get to Game Seven the way it got there.

Oh, I figured that neither wind nor heat nor gloom of potential elimination would stay a courier named Stephen Strasburg from the reasonably swift completion of his appointed Game Six rounds if he could help it. And, they didn’t.

With one cojones-heavy eight-and-a-third innings performance Strasburg pitched his way into legend and his Nationals to a seventh game that looked anything but likely after the way the Astros battered them in all three Washington games.

But I didn’t expect the next best thing to a 21st Century Don Denkinger moment, either, in the top of the seventh or otherwise. And I sure didn’t expect to see this such moment fire a team up instead of deflate them irrevocably at all, never mind with a near-immediate two-run homer once the hoo-ha stopped hoo-ha-ing.

Plate umpire Sam Holbrook decided, in essence, that a long, bad throw from Astros relief pitcher Brad Peacock fielding Nats shortstop Trea Turner’s little squeaker up from the plate, pulling first baseman Yuli Gurriel off the base, enough to let the throw hit Turner on the back of the knee the split second after his foot hit the base, equaled runner interference.

Turner inadvertently brushed Gurriel’s mitt off his hand. If the throw had reached the inside of the base instead of traveling to its front, Gurriel’s mitt wouldn’t even have been near the onrushing Turner. And Turner’s speed still would have beaten the play at first.

“What else do you do? I don’t know,” said Turner after the game. “The batter’s box is in fair territory. First base is in fair territory. I swung, I ran in a straight line, I got hit with the ball and I’m out. I don’t understand it. I can understand if I veered one way or another. I didn’t.”

It amplified this World Series’s being full of questionable, controversial calls, mostly around the strike zone. And if interference is strictly a judgment call, and umpires really are baseball’s equivalent of judges, as the game’s romantics often analogise, there might be cries for impeachment louder than any cried against particular American presidents past or present.

The Nats fumed long enough over the call—which robbed them of second and third and nobody out—that the umpires donned the headsets and called the New York review nerve center. Not for a review, since runner interference isn’t reviewable, but to send the message that the Nats wanted to play the rest of the game under protest.

And, without manager Dave Martinez, who exploded over the call as the sides changed during the seventh inning stretch and finally got ejected despite two Nats coaches managing to move him back toward his dugout, the better to keep his recently-mended heart and blood pressure from blowing like a presidential tweet storm.

The call in question got thatclose to overshadowing Strasburg’s masterpiece and the otherwise staggering 7-2 Nats win. And, the now very real prospect that this could become the first World Series in which the road team wins every game, including the Game Seven clincher.

This also may prove the most famous instance of a World Series team victimised by an umpire’s controversial call not collapsing, fainting, or imploding afterward. Talking about you, 1985 Cardinals.

That team got a Game Six jobbing in the bottom of the ninth when an inning-opening, obvious-to-the-blind infield out was called safe by first base ump Denkinger, who admitted in due course that he blew the call. Which was nothing compared to the Cardinals blowing their stacks before the Royals went on to win Game Six in that ninth or imploding completely and practically from the beginning—and it didn’t help that the ump rotation planted Denkinger behind the plate—in Game Seven.

But these Nats aren’t those Cardinals. “We’re all human,” said Anthony Rendon after the game in a field interview. “Whether we make mistakes or not, nobody’s going to feel sorry for us, so we’ve got to keep going.” Except that Rendon looked superhuman just minutes after the coolest heads finally prevailed.

Nats catcher Yan Gomes returned to first, his leadoff single having started the seventh-inning shebang in the first place. Adam Eaton popped out to third. Then Rendon himself checked in at the plate. And lodged maybe the single most explosive protest associated with Washington baseball since heartsick fans stormed RFK Stadium’s field at the end of the last Senators home game ever.

That protest caused a forfeit to the Yankees in a game the Senators were an out from winning. Rendon’s idea of a protest was to turn on Peacock’s 1-0 meatball and send it right into the Crawford Boxes above the left field wall. In 1985, Denkinger defanged the bear. On Tuesday night Holbrook poked the bear and he roared back.

That plus Rendon’s subsequent two-run double off the top of the bullpen gate in the top of the ninth sealed the Nats’ return from the land of the living dead. Turns out the interference protest didn’t exactly put Rendon in that bad a mood. “I was out here pretty happy about the delay,” he said in a postgame field interview. “I got to sit down awhile.”

But in another, later interview, Rendon became far more thoughtful.

“You can’t let any outside elements get into the game,” he told ESPN’s Jeff Passan. “No matter if it’s the crowd. You’ve got 40,000 people cheering against you. Or whether it’s the weather or if we’re in D.C. and it’s 40 degrees, whatever it might be. No one is going to feel sorry for you. They’re going to expect you to go out there and just perform as best as you can, and they’re going to expect the best out of you.

“Because I feel like people put professional athletes on a pedestal, where they say, ‘Oh, who cares, they’re making millions of dollars, they’re playing a game for a living so it’s easy. They should go out there and be successful every day’,” he continued. “We try to just keep our head down and keep playing.”

Nobody was going to feel sorry for the Astros, necessarily, after Game Six ended with catcher Robinson Chirinos, proud possessor of two Series home runs, popping out behind second base on a full count with Carlos Correa aboard on a two-out double.

Nobody was going to feel sorry for them, either, just because future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander didn’t have more than three shutout innings in him after Rendon’s first-inning RBI single. And, just because Verlander’s needle finally reached below E in the fifth, when Eaton pulled one down the right field line into the stands and, one out later, Juan Soto saw and raised with a skyrocket into the middle of the second deck past right.

“I didn’t really have great feel for the off-speed stuff,” Verlander, always a stand-up man, told interviewers after the game. “The last inning just a poorly executed slider and then really just kind of a fastball up and in.”

Nobody feels terribly sorry for a 107 regular-season winning team that raided Nationals Park like a S.W.A.T. team gone rogue in Games Three through Five after getting bastinadoed at home, then took an early 2-1 Game Six lead on George Springer’s hefty leadoff double ringing the top of the left field scoreboard, Jose Altuve’s sacrifice fly, and Alex Bregman’s solo bomb halfway up the Crawfords.

Nobody felt particularly sorry for the Nats, either, except perhaps in might-have-been terms, as the game went on and it looked again, too often, as though they’d forgotten how to hit with two strikes or otherwise, and how to see their men on base and in scoring position as wanderers to be invited home, not terminal patients allowed to die in peace.

Surely nobody would feel sorry for Strasburg, on the biggest night of his major league life, opening the game by tipping his pitches, as he subsequently admitted after pitching coach Paul Menhart pointed it out to him after the first inning ended.

He wouldn’t have let them, anyway. He pitched in and out of trouble like a sculptor resolving a particularly knotty chunk of stone midway through the game, then smoothed the knot into oblivion and nailed ten straight outs before he was lifted with one out in the bottom of the ninth.

“I saw an incredible pitcher,” said A.J. Hinch, the Astros’s equally thoughtful manager, after the game. “I mean he was really good, and as I said before the game, he has an uncanny ability to slow the game down when he is under any duress.”

Thus do we get a neck pain-relieved Max Scherzer versus Zack Greinke for Game Seven. With all hands on deck for both sides, very likely, including Gerrit Cole and Patrick Corbin and maybe even Anibal Sanchez. Ready to throw whatever kitchen sinks the Astros and the Nats can throw at each other without pulling their arms right out of their sockets.

Thus did we see Max the Knife throwing on flat ground before Game Six and a little in the bullpen during the game, as if to say the Sunday afternoon shot did what it was supposed to do, though certainly not without risk, and he was going to take the mound come hell, high water, or other pain in the neck.

Remember: this is the guy who pitched when he was black-and-blue in the face a day or so after he got hit by an errant batting practise foul bunt in June. A Sunday cortisone shot, and a little chiropractic, and Scherzer was back in the picture. The Nats thank God and His servant Bucky Harris that the game wasn’t dicey enough to compel Martinez to bring Scherzer in Tuesday night, as the skipper admitted crossed his mind while Scherzer threw just to loosen up at mound height.

As if these Nats are rookies at ducking disaster. Not a team that was 19-31 as of 23 May before doing exactly as the Astros did from that date through the end of Game Six: produce the same won-lost record since. And the Astros’ dominant season belies that they spent too much of it looking like an episode of E.R. If they win the Series you won’t know if they should get rings or medical board certification.

But all of a sudden the worst break of the Series for the Nats—Scherzer’s neck locking him up so severely Sunday morning his wife had to help him just wash and dress and he was a Game Five scratch—turned into maybe the greatest break in their history. Because Greinke has a postseason resume described best as modest. And Scherzer even in questionable health is Max the Knife.

The Nats went back to Houston with their heads squarely in Astro-fashioned nooses. On Tuesday night they threw the nooses off. “It had to be this way, right?” said Nats reliever Sean Doolittle, who shook off Correa’s ninth-inning double to finish what Strasburg and company started. “It’s the most 2019 Nats thing ever for this to go to a Game Seven.”

Some of us think just about the entire world otherwise might be surprised. But maybe Doolittle’s onto something. Why, Soto couldn’t resist getting his Bregman on in the fifth, carrying his bat to his first base coach after hitting his blast a la Bregman doing likewise after hitting his in the first.

Now for the stupid part. Bregman actually apologised after the game for his bat carry. The Sacred Unwritten Rules, you know. “I let my emotions get the best of me,” he told a reporter. “I’m sorry for doing that.”

No few grouses crawled all over him for doing it. Soto wasn’t one of them. “I just thought it was pretty cool,” he said of Bregman’s carry. “I wanted to do it.” Bregman, for his part, said he deserved Soto’s response.

Some Nats might have thought Bregman was being a little bit of an ass; Martinez said after the game, simply, “We didn’t like it.” Doolittle, who’s said in the past that he doesn’t care if those bombing him flip bats or mimick bazooka shootings, wasn’t one of those Nats.

“Knowing Soto, I don’t think there was any malice behind it,” Doolittle told a reporter. “And playing against Bregman for a long time, I don’t think there was any malice behind what he did, either. There’s just a lot of emotion in the game . . . Those are two exciting young players. I thought it was fun.”

Holster your weapons, Fun Police. A little mad fun even in Game Six isn’t a terrible thing. Let Bregman have his when he hits one out; let Soto have his when he hits one out. Especially compared to when it was just plain mad in the seventh inning. Especially when the umpire gives the bear a nastier poke than any big bopper carrying his club to his coach after his big bop.

Especially when we get a Game Seven during which we can expect the Nats and the Astros alike to bop till they drop. The only thing we can’t expect is a Washington or Houston legend like Walter Johnson or J.R. Richard coming in to pitch the ninth, then taking it hammer and tongs through extra innings’ shutout relief, until someone finally bends, breaks, gives, or growls.

Well, nobody said you could have everything. Both the Nats and the Astros will just have to settle for a very prospective kitchen sink Game Seven, and one will just have to settle for hoisting the World Series trophy after it. The lease to the Promised Land. The first such lease for any Washington major league team since the birth of IBM; the second such lease in three years for an Astro team that would secure dynastic status with it.

Game Six proved the viability of an old baseball cliche: Anything can happen—and usually does. Game Seven promises a banquet full of you ain’t seen nothing yet. Let’s hope the promise is kept. For Nats fans, for Astros fans, and for baseball itself.

The Washington bury-go-round

World Series - Houston Astros v Washington Nationals - Game Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future’s coming in by helicopter

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Nationals manager Dave Martinez faces the press and the music after Game Four.

“This ain’t football. We do this every day.” So said the late Earl Weaver. Unfortunately, every day doesn’t last forever. And even with the World Series tied at two games each, it feels a little as though the Nationals are running out of every day.

The truest cliche ever attached to Billy Martin is that he managed a season as though the future didn’t exist. In the regular season that meant pitchers left in ruin before their times. In a short series, though, especially when “World” precedes “Series,” it means the future is now.

Nats manager Dave Martinez’s let’s-go-1-and-0 today philosophy got the Nats to the World Series in the first place. It also got him two devastating wins, outscoring the Astros 17-7, in the Astros’ playpen. But when he needed it the most in Games Three and Four, it didn’t show up.

His batting grinders suddenly forgot how to hit with men on second or better and also with two outs while they were at it. And Martinez forgot the urgency when he needed a stopper like five minutes ago.

Granted Martinez doesn’t have the greatest overall bullpen, but when he needed a stopper drastically in Game Four he was more concerned about having two available for Game Five with Max Scherzer due to start than in stopping the bleeding with a mere three-run deficit on Saturday night.

And Astros manager A.J. Hinch, down 2-0 in the Series, wasn’t afraid to play and think in the absolute moment. Zack Greinke headed for Game Three trouble? Get him out of there before he gets humiliated. The Nats looking ornery at the plate? Wheel in Will Harris, Hinch’s absolute best relief pitcher, and wipe the ornery off their faces before it means disaster. Can’t afford to hold him just for the late hold.

So rookie Tanner Rainey, with the live fastball and the deadly slider but still-lingering command issues, opened the Game Four seventh with back-to-back walks before getting Jose Altuve to fly out? Where was Daniel Hudson? Where was Sean Doolittle? Not like they were overworked; they didn’t even get to poke their noses out of their holes in Game Three.

Where, even, was Wander Suero, who shook away his arson tendencies enough this postseason and who’d gotten rid of Michael Brantley coming up in the only time he’d ever faced the Astro left fielder?

This time, Martinez had to be Santa Claus and send Fernando Rodney out to deal with Brantley, who’d hit .468 lifetime off the old man prior to Game Four. And after Brantley lined a single into short center to load the ducks on the pond, Martinez stuck with the old man anyway. Experience counts, right?

This is Rodney’s lifetime World Series experience: 6.00 ERA. This was Rodney’s 2019 Series experience before Game Four: one clean shutout inning in Game Two; two thirds shutout inning in Game Three, except that it was about as clean as a corpse attacked by rats: entering with a man on, then stolen base and a throwing error, walk, stolen base, rundown force at the plate, intentional walk, inning-ending force out.

That‘s what Martinez sent to the Game Four mound in the top of the seventh with Brantley checking in and first and third. With the game a still-manageable three-run difference. With neither Hudson nor Doolittle anywhere to be seen.

Then Brantley behaved just the way you’d expect as a .468 hitter against that pitcher and lined a bases-loading single up the pipe. And Alex Bregman, going in knowing Rodney still has stuff and it’s best approached prudently, drew a bead on the fastball that didn’t sink the way the MVP candidate usually expects it to sink.

With one swing Bregman sank the Nats into a two-all Series tie and Nationals Park into the Tomb of the Saturday Soldiers Who Wish They Were Unknown.

A Nats fan would love to go back to the end of the sixth and whisper in Martinez’s ear, “Think ahead, Dave. You need a stopper right now. Hudson and Doolittle haven’t had to work since Game One. They ain’t H-D-H of the 2014-15 Royals but they’re as close as you’ve got. And Hudson’s just as much hell on lefties as righties this year if you got Tucker leading off to pinch hit.”

Then, when he or she had Martinez’s ear locked in tight, continue: “You bring in Hudson and you might be out of the inning with nothing more than maybe an excuse-us base hit along the way. Then you bring the old man in since he’s better in a clean inning but when he joins up with men on it’s disaster. And if your bats remember how not to just make traffic but get it home without a pileup, especially with two outs like during that magnificent run from May forward, you still got Doolittle.”

And then, when Martinez really perked up, drive it home straight, no chaser: “You can still go to either one in Game Five if Max the Knife needs help or gets through six or even seven without the sky falling in on him. And you got a travel day back to Houston for Game Six. They won’t be wrung like mops. They’ll be there for the asking and you know you’d better ask if needed. Remember all that and live.”

An Astros fan, of course, would prefer Martinez let himself get out-generaled by Hinch a couple of more times. Preferably in Game Five if the Astros find their way past Max the Knife and send the Series back to Houston needing just one more win to return to the  Promised Land.

Except that Martinez just lost his Knife. On Sunday afternoon the word broke that Scherzer suffered neck spasms late Saturday night and the discomfort was too much worse Sunday to send him to the mound. “For Max to miss a game, especially a significant game like this, he’s got to be really hurting,” Martinez said Sunday.

Indeed it does. And it looks like the Nats now have to try the unthinkable: a bullpen game to open, with righthander Joe Ross. Unless Martinez wants to roll some real dice and hand the ball to Stephen Strasburg in the pinch, since Strasburg would be on regular rest Sunday night.

The time for Martinez to get himself and his Nats back to that go 1-0 today philosophy is now. The future isn’t waiting for Dupont Circle traffic to lighten up. It’s coming in by helicopter.

Santa serves early Christmas salami

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Santa showed up early for Alex Bregman and the Astros Saturday night.

Did we say World Series Game Four was going to be a bullpen game? Didn’t quite turn out that way. Did we say the Astro pen wasn’t guaranteed to equal bona fide Nationals fourth starter Patrick Corbin? Boy did we get that one wrong.

Not only did the Astros’ rookie designated opener Jose Urquidy pitch the quality start of his young baseball life, he out-pitched both Corbin and his own team’s still formidable but lately vulnerable Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole.

And he did it on a night the regular season version of the Astros finally, once and for all, turned up. Big. 8-1 big. They finished what they started in Game Three and obliterated any chance of the short series nobody with a brain really thought was likely to happen in the first place.

Michael Brantley with two hits thus far on the night, plus Alex Bregman still trying to shake away an overall postseason hitting funk despite one launch earlier in the set, remembered especially what Nationals manager Dave Martinez forgot in the seventh inning.

He forgot that these Astros are the greediest little suckers in the American League when handed gifts. They don’t stop at “Thank you.” They demand more, help themselves, and make you look like a battered fool before they’re done. Turning the seventh inning stretch into a visit to the urgent care clinic.

Bad enough rookie Nats reliever Tanner Rainey handed the Astros the gifts of back-to-back inning-opening walks before closing the giveaway with Jose Altuve flying out to right. Martinez put on his Santa suit and gave the Astros an extra early merry Christmas.

He reached for ancient Fernando Rodney. Against whom Brantley took a lifetime .462 batting average and 1.038 OPS to the plate. Instead of Wander Suero, who’s almost young enough to be Rodney’s son, and against whom Brantley before Game Four only ever batted once and had nothing to show for it but a measly out.

Respecting your elders goes only so far with a World Series game on the line and the other guys in one of the highest leverages of the night. Brantley’s respect went only far enough to line a base hit up the pipe into short center field that wasn’t quite deep enough for leadoff pinch hitter Kyle Tucker to score.

So the Astros settled for ducks on the pond. And Martinez, who’d managed mostly to turn his infamously shaky bullpen into something resembling a respectable postseason crew, re-learned the hard way about generosity’s limits. Bregman delivered that hard re-education and duck dinner when he sent an 0-1 pitch on a high parabola into the left field seats.

That one re-ignited Bregman’s fire and put the game so far out of reach the Nats couldn’t bring it back with a search party and a band of bloodhounds.

Not on a night when they sent less traffic to the bases than they’d wasted in Game Three and got their only run of the night in the sixth with the bases loaded, one out, and Juan Soto—who doesn’t quite looking so superhuman anymore—grounding out in almost slow motion to Astro first baseman Yuli Gurriel, enough to score Gerardo Parra, before Astro reliever Will Harris struck Howie Kendrick out swinging for the side.

The Nats picked the wrong time to get their shark off. And they may have picked the wrong time to even think about walking Brantley to get to Bregman’s then still-cold postseason bat in Game Three. That proves to have been poking the barracuda.

“In Game Three, we stopped the bleeding,” Bregman told reporters after Game Four. “Then we played well tonight. We want to keep rolling. We’re fired up. It’s really exciting. It’s a great atmosphere here. The fans are into the game, [and] it’s good to know we’re going home.”

Now  Cole and Max Scherzer have a rematch in Game Five to look forward to. And Max the Knife won’t be pitching just to beat the Astros, he’ll be pitching to help save the Nats’ very skins and fins.

Ordinarily, you might be tempted to stop right there and pull out your history book. It would tell you that the 1986 World Series began with the first four games being won in the road ballpark, too. The Red Sox won Games One and Two in Shea Stadium, the Mets won Games Three and Four in Fenway Park.

But those Red Sox won Game Five in the Fens before returning to Shea Stadium, losing Game Six in the second most heartbreaking way in Red Sox history before getting bopped until they dropped by the Mets in Game Seven.

Then in 1996, the Braves won the first pair in Yankee Stadium and the Yankees won the next three in Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. The set moved back to the Bronx and the Yankees won Game Six. Nope, that’s not a reference to encourage the Nats, either. But it sure should have the Astros feeling like early Christmas.

Corbin picked the wrong night to spot the Astros a pair of first inning runs. And, to spot them another pair when Astro catcher Robinson Chirinos, who’d rung the left field foul pole net in Game Three, hit a no-doubt two-run homer halfway up the seats in the top of the fourth.

And Urqiudy picked the right night to take advantage of the Nats’ sudden inability to do what they’d done most of the postseason to date, adjust on the fly to pitchers dialing up the Mixmasters.

“When you go in with a game plan of kind of working off his scouting report and he goes the complete opposite with it,” said Nats right fielder Adam Eaton, whom Urquidy kept to a pair of measly popup outs, “by the time you kind of make the adjustment, it’s too late.”

The husky righthander also picked the perfect night to display a changeup that may yet qualify for designation as a weapon of mass destruction. It’s not that his fastball or his slider were necessarily weakfish, but that changeup was the perfect setup pitch for him on a night the Nats couldn’t and didn’t adjust, kind-of or otherwise.

When he deigned to throw it at all, that is. If the Nats did their homework on Urquidy, knowing he was changeup reliant, Urquidy had them figured almost the way Nimitz had the Japanese navy figured during the Pacific branch of World War II. He was the Astros’ one-man can of shark repellant Saturday night.

If you thought the Nats coming home to bathe in the Washington love became too great a weight to bear in Games Three and Four, a possibility not exactly out of bounds, Urquidy—who’d gone from nothing special up and down the minors before getting his callup to never better as a bona-fide Astro late in the season and now Saturday night—only let the magnitude hit him once.

“Yes, a couple moments, a couple moments I was thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I’m in the World Series pitching’.” the 24-year-old who’s only the third Mexican (behind Jaime Garcia and Fernando Valenzuela) to start a World Series game said after Game Four. “It was awesome.” “It” was nothing compared to him.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch went in hoping Urquidy could give him two, maybe three, please-please-please four innings. He got a performance Verlander and Cole themselves just might have envied. And if Game Four was To Tell the Truth, Hinch’s Bud Collyer got the best surprise of his life when he asked, “Will the real Alex Bregman please stand up?”

Oh, brother, did Bregman stand up. Only nineteen previous players ever hit grand salamis in World Series games. Only three of them were hit by Hall of Famers: Tony Lazzeri (Game Two, 1936), Mickey Mantle (Game Five, 1953), and Yogi Berra (Game Two, 1956). And only two were ever hit in a Game Four: Chuck Hiller (1962) and Ken Boyer (1964).

Boyer hit his two games before talented but troubled young Yankee first baseman Joe Pepitone nailed a salami in the ’64 Series. The Astros actually got gifted a shot at only the second salami in the same inning, when Grandpa Rodney was left in after Bregman launched and re-loaded the bases on a trio of walks interrupted only by a ground ball force out.

Then Martinez reached for Suero, with Tucker coming up for a encore. And Suero struck Tucker out swinging to end the nightmare at last. The rest of the game seemed like a mere formality.

Even when the Nats put first and second aboard in the bottom of the eighth, abetted by a throwing error when Altuve fielded Rendon’s hopper on the far side of second but threw off line. Soto worked out a walk immediately following, but Astro reliever Brad Peacock struck Kendrick out and got Ryan Zimmerman to pop out to George Springer playing right field for the night.

Bregman was rather gracious after the game about his confrontation with Rodney. “He’s really tough to face,” the third baseman told reporters. “He’s got an incredible change-up. His fastball is dirty, has a lot of sink to it. He has another fastball he throws, a four-seamer, that has some jump to it. He’s not an easy at-bat all.”

“He got him 0-1 and the ball just didn’t sink where he wanted it to be,” said Martinez after the game. “But he’s come in two innings and done really well for us.” That he had. “I like Rodney in that spot,” Martinez added. Unfortunately, Bregman liked Rodney in that spot even more.

Indeed, Rodney started Bregman with a changeup that dove right into the low inside corner. Even Bregman wouldn’t have been able to hit it with a five-iron. The next pitch was the four-seamer and it forgot to jump. Bregman didn’t. He jumped it for maybe the single most world-shattering hit of his life.

Did it shatter the world of the Nats who’d gone from the living dead in late May to the live-and-very-well the rest of the season and all the way through Game Two? Who hadn’t lost back-to-back games since 13-14 September? Who had to be taught the hard way all over again how unwise it is to stake the Astros to an early Christmas?

“We’re tied after four games,” shortstop Trea Turner told reporters. “It’s all about perspective and how you perceive it.”

“At this point in time, you literally just live and breathe each and every day,” said Scherzer, into whose hands the Nats place the live-and-breathe ball Sunday night.

“I’ll take it,” said Eaton. “We don’t mind where we’re at—a best-of-three with Scherzer and Stras going the next two days.” Not to mention the Nats’ absolute two best relief options, Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle, untroubled in Game Four and well enough rested if needed in Five and Six. If.

On paper that looks like advantage, Nats. Psychologically, this is exactly what Nats fans signed up for. Max the Knife and Not-So-Stoic-Stephen. Just plunge the blade in before it goes back to Houston, Max the Knife. If you do, two nights in hell will be worth it.

There’s just one problem. Namely, an Astro team that knows the differences between paper and performance but marries them effectively until death do they part. And for these Astros, the wedding night is never enough. Maybe even in spite of Scherzer and Stras. Maybe.