by Jesse Dougherty

HOUSTON — The calculations began days ago, inside Dave Martinez’s crowded brain, on any scraps of paper the Washington Nationals manager could find, but now they were kicked straight into overdrive.

It was, after all, Game 1 of the World Series. There was very little room for error. There was just a three-run lead to protect, and Max Scherzer running on fumes by the fifth inning, and then only the biggest decisions Martinez has ever made on a baseball field. And after he did, carefully stacking one move on top of another, the Nationals had pushed ahead of the Houston Astros for a 5-4 win at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday night.

They did it by handing Astros starter Gerrit Cole his first loss in five months. They did it, really, despite ditching their weeks-long strategy of going all in and leaving the consequences for later. Scherzer exited after throwing 114 pitches in five innings. That led Martinez to Patrick Corbin, one of his four starters, for three outs in relief. But next came Tanner Rainey, in the biggest spot of his young career, and he yielded a solo homer to George Springer before issuing back-to-back walks.

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Daniel Hudson then stranded the bases that were loaded in the seventh, gave up a run in the eighth and handed the mess to Sean Doolittle. But Doolittle recorded a four-out save to sidestep a collapse. Juan Soto’s three-hit, three-RBI effort was not wasted. The bullpen tested fate and, for the first time in 86 years, a Washington baseball team took a World Series game.

“It’s a huge win for us no matter who we were facing,” Corbin said. “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.”

In the days between the National League Championship Series and World Series — Washington had six of them — Martinez often plotted Game 1 in his head. The Nationals had a long layoff after sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS. That gave Martinez time to think, then think some more, about who could account for 27 outs against the Astros’ dynamic lineup. It would begin with Scherzer, that was sure, but there was intricate planning beyond that. Martinez had spent all postseason avoiding his middle relievers, Rainey included, and that was the ideal approach against the Astros.

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Martinez didn’t say that when asked how he pictured the beginning of the series. He didn’t have to.

“I imagined it could be really good,” Martinez said with a laugh Tuesday afternoon. “What do you want me to imagine?”

By 7:10 p.m. in Houston, when Cole fired a first-pitch ball to Trea Turner, imagination turned into reality. That went for Martinez, who had been this far as a bench coach in 2008 and again eight years later, yet never as a manager. That went for his players, most of whom hadn’t been this deep into October, who had only dreamed about it in backyards and on boring afternoons. And that went for Washington, and the fans who lost baseball for decades, and a city that hadn’t had a World Series team since 1933.

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That’s who arrived here Tuesday, all together, all washing past heartache with newfound hope. But the Astros had sprinted through the regular season and finished with a major league-best 107 wins. They were the heavy favorites in this series, according to Las Vegas, and are looking for their second title in the past three falls. They also had not lost a game started by Cole since July­ 12.

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That trend seemed likely to continue once Scherzer allowed two runs in the first. Cole, on the other hand, had allowed just one earned run in 22⅔ innings so far this postseason. But no one told that to Washington.

Ryan Zimmerman revved the Nationals with a solo shot off Cole in the second. He was the first pick in club history, way back in the spring of 2005, and now scored its first ever World Series run. Zimmerman later described himself as “kind of floating around the bases.” He’d put a crack, however slight, in Cole’s unshakable dominance.

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Then, two frames later, Soto became just the fourth player to hit a World Series homer before his 21st birthday. He joined Andruw Jones, Miguel Cabrera and Mickey Mantle on that list. The blast came on almost the same pitch Soto struck out on in the first, a high-and-away fastball, and he parked it on the steel tracks well beyond the left field wall. Soto was comfortable with Cole’s velocity because of his experience facing the righty at the teams’ shared spring training facility in West Palm Beach, Fla. A makeshift train up there moves whenever the Astros score. It’s not used to having baseballs fly into its path.

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“It starts off with breaking the ice,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said of beating Cole. “And Zim hit a really good pitch really far, and really hard. That got us going. That kind of broke the ice.”

The Nationals stretched out a lead in the fifth, first on Adam Eaton’s RBI single, then when Soto ripped a two-run double off the left field wall. Soto looked into the dugout before tangling his fists in celebration. And the immediate question inside it, where Martinez sat among his coaches, was who could get the final 15 outs?

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Scherzer handled the first three. Corbin needed 21 pitches to get through a scoreless sixth. Martinez could have pushed him, and taxed his arm on what was a typical throw day, but one inning was always the plan with a possible Game 3 start in mind. Then Rainey yielded that homer to Springer, recorded just one out and, for an encore, walked two before Martinez hooked him. Then Hudson avoided further damage in that inning, covering for Rainey, before yielding an RBI double to Springer in the eighth.

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That pulled Houston to within a run. That made it easy to recall every single time the Nationals’ bullpen faltered this season. Hudson recovered for one more out, a liner that found Eaton’s mitt, and that’s when Martinez made one last walk to the mound. In came Doolittle, who lost the closer role in August, who needed two weeks for his arm and right knee to heal, and whose whole career had been building to a moment such as this. So he retired all four batters he faced and, with that, gave Washington control of the World Series.

Imagine that.

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Inning-by-inning analysis

by Sam Fortier

Ninth inning (Nationals 5, Astros 4)

Joe Smith, whose submarine-style delivery might be called a “hoagie” in Philadelphia, delivered a 1-2-3 ninth to provide a stopgap.

Then, Sean Doolittle did it. He secured a four-out to save with a one-run by striking out Alex Bergman, flying out Yuli Gurriel and flying out Carlos Correa.

He delivered the Nationals a stunning victory over the Astros in the first World Series game in team history. They did it by beating Gerrit Cole, who hadn’t lost in five months to the day. They did it by getting through four innings with their bullpen. They did it with a few scares, but they did it, and that’s all that matters.

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Eighth inning (Nationals 5, Astros 4)

The Astros went to their bullpen in the eighth. Will Smith allowed a one-out single to Juan Soto — who is perhaps as locked-in as a hitter can get right now — but otherwise navigated around it with two fly outs and a strikeout. Soto also stole second, bringing the 20-year-old’s line in his first World Series game to 3-for-4, one double, one home run, three RBI, one stolen base.

Adam Eaton lunged and, just barely, making the catch of the Nationals’ season in right-center field. Instead, George Springer’s blast deflected off the side of Eaton’s glove, and off the wall, and Kyle Tucker raced home to chip away at the Nationals lead. They trailed, 5-4, and Springer stood at second as the tying run.

Daniel Hudson got Jose Altuve to fly out to right but the danger was not over. Manager Dave Martinez called on Sean Doolittle to face Astros’ left-handed hitter Michael Brantley and, he hopes, record a four-out save.

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Doolittle got Brantley to line out to left.

Seventh inning (Nationals 5, Astros 3)

Gerrit Cole settled in, retiring his last five hitters. The Astros’ right-hander was done at 104 pitches.

Next came the biggest spot of Tanner Rainey’s career. He got two hitters against the Dodgers in the seventh of Game 5, but that was with them trailing. This was protecting a three-run lead in the World Series against the top of the Astros lineup. Rainey allowed a solo home run to his first hitter, George Springer, but bounced back to strike out Jose Altuve. Then Rainey did what hamstrung him earlier this season — he lost control. He issued back-to-back walks to bring the go-ahead run to the plate in Yuli Gurriel, the Astros’ hottest hitter, and Martinez went to the bullpen for closer Daniel Hudson.

Hudson popped out Yuli Gurriel but, just when it looked like the crisis was averted, Carlos Correa smacked a ball just deep enough in the hole at shortstop that it went for an infield single. The bases were loaded with two out in the seventh. Hudson finally came through with that swing-and-miss stuff he said he didn’t have and struck out Yordan Alvarez to escape.

Sixth inning (Nationals 5, Astros 2)

One inning after Max Scherzer delivered his calmest inning of his outing, Gerrit Cole did the same. He allowed a leadoff single to Asdrúbal Cabrera but then got out of it with a double play. Kurt Suzuki popped out and the Nationals headed back out to the field.

The Nationals began their bullpen plan with Patrick Corbin in the sixth. This was his fourth relief appearance of the postseason and, since the six-run blow up in Game 3 of the NLDS, he’s been lights out. He allowed a one-out single to Yordan Alvarez, who’s coming out of his slump, but otherwise navigated around the bottom of the Astros order.

This scoreless inning made it 2 ⅔ without allowing a run and gave the Nationals options with nine outs to go. Manager Dave Martinez could have leaned on Corbin for another inning — he threw 21 in the sixth — but chose to call on Tanner Rainey with a three-run lead.

Fifth inning (Nationals 5, Astros 2)

Adam Eaton, not bunting for his second at-bat in a row, lined a single into right field and, suddenly, the Nationals had a 3-2 lead against Gerrit Cole and the Astros. It was a remarkable turn of events for a pitcher who threw 22 ⅔ innings this postseason and allowed one run, against some of the best lineups in baseball.

Juan Soto went opposite-field again and, though he didn’t homer, this ball clanged off the left-field wall as Victor Robles jogged in from third and Anthony Rendon scampered all the way around from first. The Nationals seized a 5-2 lead which, at this point, felt much, much bigger. Minute Maid Park was hushed.

Max Scherzer, at 96 pitches, faced down the heart of the Astros’ juggernaut lineup. He got Michael Brantley to line out to center. He got Alex Bregman to ground to third. He struck out Yuli Gurriel, the first time he’d been retired in Game 1. It was a clinic and, as he walked off at 112 pitches, the Nationals needed 12 more outs to secure a stunning Game 1 win.

Fourth inning (Astros 2, Nationals 2)

Juan Soto struck out on a high, 96-mph fastball from Gerrit Cole in the first inning. Juan Soto got almost the exact same pitch in the fourth and he did not miss. Soto crushed the ball opposite field to tie the game.

Max Scherzer escaped another jam in the fourth, with two on and two out, and his pitch count reached a critical number (96).

Astros Manager A.J. Hinch expected Scherzer to go 120 or 130 pitches, if necessary, and the situation was trending that way.

Third inning (Astros 2, Nationals 1)

Adam Eaton slapped a two-out single the other way in the third and, though it didn’t mean anything after Anthony Rendon flew out to center, it conjured up an alternate reality. What if, in the first, Eaton hit away instead of trying to bunt again? What if he singled then and Trea Turner advanced to third, or maybe even scored? It’s impossible to know, and it’s easy to second-guess. Eaton’s bunt, if it works, gives the Nationals a runner on third with one out. But it was curious to think about what could have been when every run means so much.

Little was coming easy for Max Scherzer. The right-hander allowed a one-out single to right and, one batter later, Victor Robles couldn’t make a tough diving catch in center field. Scherzer found himself trying to escape a two-on, two-out jam in the third. He did eventually, with his sixth strikeout, but it came at a cost. His pitch count climbed to 69.

Second inning (Astros 2, Nationals 1)

Ryan Zimmerman has sat many times throughout his life against right-handed pitching. He’s struggled against them his whole career. Then, with his team down 2-0 in their first World Series game, he rocked a solo home run to center field on a fastball down the pipe off the best one in the game right now in Gerrit Cole. The original National delivered again.

For the second time in Max Scherzer’s 373 career starts, he issued a leadoff walk in both of the first two innings (the other was May 27, 2016 against the Cardinals). Scherzer struggled to locate the strike zone for the rest of the inning but escaped unscathed — even though he didn’t have the luxury of a pitcher batting ninth. He struck out George Springer to end the frame but sat at 48 pitches through two.

First inning (Astros 2, Nationals 0)

Trea Turner, the first batter in Nationals World Series history, reached on a single that Astros shortstop Carlos Correa bobbled. He swiped second and put the Nationals in position to score the second run of the postseason off starter Gerrit Cole. They couldn’t.

Adam Eaton popped a bunt to third — a continuation of a controversial strategy this season — and Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto both fanned on fastballs which touched 99 mph. The Nationals squandered their first chance against Cole.

Max Scherzer found trouble early. He walked leadoff hitter George Springer and let Jose Altuve, stalking a first-pitch fastball, smack one into left field for a single. He struck out the next two hitters — Michael Brantley and Alex Bregman — and looked as though he’d escape the jam when he jumped ahead of Yuli Gurriel 0-2. Then Gurriel rocketed a four-seam fastball off the left field wall and it was the Astros who jumped on a 2-0 lead — the first one of the World Series.

Pregame

The pregame introductions at Minute Maid Park included several notable cheers for the stars, and two such roars which seemed slightly out of place.

The first came when the Astros announced Roberto Osuna, the closer the team acquired last season while he was suspended for domestic-violence accusations. The cheer might have come because, within the last 24 hours, a controversy emerged when Sports Illustrated detailed a postgame celebration when a member of the Astros front office targeted female reporters and cheered at how happy he was the team traded for Osuna.

The second came for Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon. The Houston native went to Lamar High School, about a 15-minute drive from here, and will be a free agent this offseason.

Also, just FYI: The Nationals indeed wore their good luck navy blues.

Series overview

All games on Fox

  • Game 1 at HoustonNationals 5, Astros 4
  • Game 2 at Houston — Wednesday, Oct. 23, 8:07 p.m.
  • Game 3 at Washington — Friday, Oct. 25, 8:07 p.m.
  • Game 4 at Washington — Saturday, Oct. 26, 8:07 p.m.
  • Game 5 at Washington — Sunday, Oct. 27, 8:07 p.m. (if necessary)
  • Game 6 at Houston — Tuesday, Oct. 29, 8:07 p.m. (if necessary)
  • Game 7 at Houston — Wednesday, Oct. 30, 8:08 p.m. (if necessary)

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