Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 24, 2019

Nationals Defy All Expectations But Their Own

It is the Great Game’s great irony, the baseball gods’ inside joke that they often choose to play on us come October. From the chill days of early spring through the high heat of summer and on into the bright colors and cooler temperatures of autumn, the longest season unwinds in its slow and steady pace. One hundred sixty-two games, each of equal value in the standings; yet their sheer number minimizes the outcome of any one, shrinking it until its importance matches the agate type once used to print daily box scores on the back page of newspapers’ sports sections, back when there were newspapers with sports sections big enough to have a back page. In truth a pennant race is six months long, yet the first appearance of the phrase is far more likely to coincide with Labor Day than Opening Day. Until then it is as if the impact of any single contest is more theoretical than real. The important story is the one being told by the accumulation of all those games into a narrative of the season.

Then the playoffs come along, and all the certainties formed over the preceding months along with the predictions of pundits and fans based upon them, can crack and then crumble in the space of a few plays, a handful of at-bats, sometimes even a single swing. The sedate procession of the regular schedule gives way to the mad dash through short postseason series, and we are all reminded that there really is a reason why our heroes actually play every game.

An important lesson of that reality is that it is far too early for anyone to be planning a parade. The World Series is still best-of-seven, not first team to two. Perhaps, before it is over, the expectations born of Houston’s gaudy 107-win regular season record, the best in the majors, will be met. When the final out is recorded maybe the players leaping into each other’s arms on the infield at Minute Maid Park will be wearing Astros uniforms.

But that sentence is location-specific because it’s an outcome that can now only take place on Houston’s home turf. Through the first two contests the result between the foul lines has brushed aside conventional wisdom like an inside fastball sending a batter to the dirt. Certainty has been no match for the unexpected as the Washington Nationals have claimed a two games to none lead that is even more commanding than the numbers suggest since both victories came in Houston. With the Series shifting to D.C. the Astros will need to extend it to at least six games, and a return trip to Texas, in order to complete a comeback.

As befits the postseason’s pace, in each Washington win the game turned in just a few moments. Tuesday night it was Houston that jumped on top on the strength of a two-run double by Yuli Gurriel in the opening frame. But the Nationals battled back, knotting the score with solo homers by Ryan Zimmerman and Juan Soto. The blasts surely boosted confidence in the visitors’ dugout, proving that Houston starter Gerrit Cole, who had not lost a game since May, was not unhittable. No one seemed more possessed of that self-belief than the 20-year-old Soto, who came to the plate with two on and two out in the top of the 5th. The Nats had already pushed one run across to take a 3-2 lead. But with starter Max Scherzer closing in on a hundred pitches, that margin was unlikely to last across multiple innings of work by Washington’s bullpen.

Soto saw six pitches from Cole. He calmly watched the first four, three of which were out of the strike zone. He finally swung at the fifth, missing to run the count to full. Then on the sixth offering of the at-bat Soto hammered a line drive to left, plating a pair of runs to expand Washington’s margin. In the end the Nationals would need all of that edge in the 5-4 final. The five runs might not have been enough, but in the 8th Houston’s George Springer chose to stand in the box and admire his drive to right field, thinking it would clear the fence. Instead it bounced off the top of the wall and back into play. While Springer’s double scored the Astros’ fourth run, had he been running from the start he would have easily reached third base with just one out in the inning. Two at-bats, both of which produced doubles. But the first felt momentous, the second anticlimactic, and that difference told the outcome of Game 1.

The following night the Astros had runners on first and second with only one out in the last of the 6th. With the score tied 2-2 it was Houston’s best chance to finally break a game open. Instead Stephen Strasburg got Carlos Correa to hit a harmless infield pop, and then set Kyle Tucker down on strikes to quiet the crowd. Astros manager A.J. Hinch then sent Justin Verlander back out to pitch the 7th, after the veteran had needed 98 pitches to navigate the first six innings.   Washington catcher Kurt Suzuki hammered the second pitch he saw over the left field wall for a tie-breaking home run, and center fielder Victor Robles worked a patient at-bat through seven pitches before finally drawing a walk. That was it for Verlander, but the flood gates had opened. By the time Houston batted again the Nationals had scored six runs on the way to a 12-3 thumping of the host squad. In four consecutive at-bats against tiring starters, two by each team, the complexion of the game shifted irrevocably in Washington’s favor.

Casual fans – and there are many this time of year – are likely stunned to see the Astros leave the comfort of home in a deep hole. A desperate Houston squad will surely be geared up for Game 3 Friday night at Nationals Park. But they will also surely find a sea of red-clad Washington faithful, who have waited generations for the World Series to come to town. Those fans know that after a horrible start, the Nationals played as well as any franchise in the Great Game over the final four months of the regular season. Now their team has run off eight straight postseason victories. Two more and they can plan that parade. Those games must still be played, which means anything can happen. But who can blame Washington fans for believing that their team will finish the fight?

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