by Jesse Dougherty

HOUSTON — By the end of the seventh inning Wednesday night, by the time they had batted around, bullied the Houston Astros and brought themselves within two wins of a title — with five chances to get them — the Washington Nationals could take just a second to look around and breathe.

They were the enemies in a stadium that was slowly emptying out. Enemies with big grins and even bigger reasons to bet on themselves. That’s what happens when you beat the home team, 12-3, in Game 2 of the World Series. That’s what happens when you carry a 2-0 lead onto a plane back to Washington. That’s what happens when you stage a six-run seventh inning that starts against star pitcher Justin Verlander and ends with you capitalizing on every last mistake.

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That’s what the Nationals did at Minute Maid Park. They dismembered the Astros, and in swift fashion, after Stephen Strasburg kept them floating in a tight game. He gave up two runs in six innings of taxing work. He was rewarded once the bats erupted in the seventh. The rally began when Kurt Suzuki rocketed a Verlander fastball out to left. It only finished when the Nationals had marched into Houston and left little doubt.

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Fifty-five teams have taken a 2-0 advantage in the World Series. Forty-four have won it all.

“You know what, I wish I was a betting man,” Manager Dave Martinez said of his club having less than a 1 percent chance to make it here in mid-May. “But I’m not. I don’t really believe in that stuff.”

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Verlander was first tasked with slowing a team that has now won eight games in a row and 18 of its past 20 going back to Sept. 23. But he couldn’t, at least at the start and finish, beginning when Anthony Rendon smacked a two-run double in the first. The fans went quiet, and their orange flags didn’t wave, yet it didn’t take long for the building to fill with noise. Washington’s early 2-0 lead lasted until Alex Bregman hit a towering two-run shot off Strasburg in the bottom of the inning.

He rocked a middle-in change-up, but Strasburg was quick to find a rhythm. Verlander was, too. Strasburg eventually fought through six innings on 114 pitches. He stranded two runners before he exited, giving the Nationals a chance and gutting a spurt of Verlander’s dominance with more of his own. Strasburg capped the outing by getting Kyle Tucker to wave at a full-count curveball. He jogged off the field once he did, leaving nothing behind, and locked hands with first base coach Tim Bogar in a swinging high-five.

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Strasburg typically ducks into the tunnel once he exits. He finds a quiet space. He waits for the pitching coach to tell him he is done. But now Strasburg knew the job was finished. So he walked through a line of teammates, repeated two words — “Come on! Come on!” — then left them to celebrate when Suzuki started the next half-inning with a boom.

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“Those guys are going out there and giving us literally everything they have every single pitch,” right fielder Adam Eaton said of the Nationals’ rotation, “and pitching through some different situations and putting our offense in a good situation. And that’s all we can ask.”

The Nationals put together intricate scouting reports for their hitters to review each series. It’s a joint job for the analytics and video staff. But one member of the organization once joked that Suzuki’s packet is always thinner than the rest. He just looks for the first fastball he sees and tries to pull it as hard as he can. And that’s what he did against Verlander in the seventh, smashing high heat, driving it off the Lexus sign behind the left field seats and down into the stands.

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Verlander was hooked for reliever Ryan Pressly after he walked Victor Robles with no outs. The floodgates soon opened when Turner walked, and with two outs, the Astros issued their first intentional pass of the entire season. It put Juan Soto on first to load the bases. Houston paid for it once Bregman bobbled a Kendrick grounder, allowing a run and the rally to continue, before Asdrúbal Cabrera drove in two with a single. Then Bregman erred again by throwing a ball high and wide of first to allow two more Nationals to score. Big pockets of the crowd headed for the exits. And the ballpark went silent again.

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“We’re getting contributions from guys up and down the roster,” closer Sean Doolittle said. “Our stars are playing like stars, but we’re getting contributions from guys one through nine in the order.”

So when Martinez reflected on the game, and he had some time to do so, it was hard to pick the hero. There was Rendon lifting that two-run double in the first. There was Strasburg keeping the Astros in check for six innings. There was Suzuki’s home run, there was Cabrera pitching in, and there were all the tiny contributions that, when glued together, formed a winning whole. The challenge was that Martinez had to decide.

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Before this season, his second on the job, an idea popped into Martinez’s head. The manager wanted to save a game ball from every one of Washington’s wins. He wanted to put them on a wall outside his office at Nationals Park, set in chronological order, stacked on shelves that grew as the season moved along. Each is signed by the player who led the Nationals to victory. When Martinez can’t pick one, when the effort feels bigger, he has two players scratch their signatures onto the worn leather. Some even have three names. Then Martinez finishes the process by writing the date on a plastic case and putting it in its spot for good.

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When the Nationals left for Houston on Monday, there were 101 game balls stretching from March 31 to Oct. 15. They formed a mural of team success. Players often stand in the hallway to look, remembering the most random days of an eight-month sprint, counting how many they have accounted for. Now Martinez will leave here with a fresh pair to shelve: There is Soto’s ball after he collected three hits and three RBI in Game 1. There will be another signed by Strasburg from Wednesday.

And the Nationals need just two more.

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Inning-by-inning analysis

by Sam Fortier

Ninth inning (Nationals 12, Astros 3)

Michael A. Taylor was sent down in June because he couldn’t make contact. His struck out rate nosed north of 42 percent. He returned for September, played a meaningful role when Victor Robles got hurt in the NLDS, but this was still the most surprising moment of his season. Taylor went deep to left field for a home run in Game 2 of the World Series.

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The Astros got one back. But then the game ended.

Eighth inning (Nationals 11, Astros 2)

Adam Eaton, again not bunting, roped a two-run home run into the right-field seats at the rapidly emptying Minute Maid Park.

Asdrúbal Cabrera singled into right-center field and Juan Soto trotted in to plate the Nationals’ 11th run of the night.

The Nationals adopted the strategy of mercy-ruling high school teams and went to their reserves in eighth inning. They brought to the mound Tanner Rainey, who nearly imploded in Game 1, and put Michael A. Taylor in center field for Victor Robles. Rainey worked through an efficient inning, getting Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel to fly out to center. He struck out Yordan Alvarez and, just like that, the Nationals had three outs left.

Seventh inning (Nationals 8, Astros 2)

Kurt Suzuki was the first batter this season Justin Verlander faced without catcher Robinson Chirinos behind the plate. Suzuki homered to left and clanged a metal sign above the bleachers. The blast gave the Nationals a 3-2 lead and put an interesting question to Manager Dave Martinez: Who should pitch the seventh inning?

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Justin Verlander’s second batter faced without Chirinos this season wasn’t retired either. Victor Robles battled a seven-pitch walk out of the ace and the Astros went to the bullpen for right-hander Ryan Pressly.

Pressly walked the leadoff hitter, Trea Turner, and Adam Eaton sacrifice bunted them over. The Astros, who had not issued an intentional walk all season, finally did against Juan Soto — adopting the same move the Los Angeles Dodgers did in the 10th inning of Game 5 of the NLDS. Howie Kendrick delivered again. He went shorter this time, a grounder to third baseman Alex Bregman, but it plated a run and boosted the Nationals lead.

Please don’t read anything from earlier this game about Asdrúbal Cabrera. The Nationals utility infielder snapped out of a 1-for-7 slump start to the World Series and slapped a single up the middle off Pressly to drive in two more runs. The Nationals’ lead expanded to 6-2 and Minute Maid Park got as quiet as it’d been in the two games here.

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Ryan Zimmerman dribbled another ball short down the third-base line and Alex Bregman threw it away. Howie Kendrick and Asdrúbal Cabrera scampered home.

The Nationals’ lead ballooned again in the most preposterous inning of the Astros’ season.

When it was finally, mercifully over for the home crowd, Minute Maid Park gave a sarcastic cheer.

The seventh inning in Game 2 of the World Series in the year of our lord 2019 belonged to Fernando Rodney. The 42-year-old, the oldest player in baseball, the pitcher who first met Astros Manager A.J. Hinch as his catcher in Detroit, was on. The Fernando Rodney Experience throughout this season has often meant Rodney enters in a high-leverage spot, quickly gets into trouble and then suddenly Houdinis out of it in a way which defies proper explanation.

Rodney started as though he’d follow that rubric. He walked the leadoff hitter, Josh Reddick, but got George Springer to bounce into a fielder’s choice. He popped up José Altuve. He got Michael Brantley to ground out. He’d made it.

Sixth inning (Nationals 2, Astros 2)

Asdrúbal Cabrera has reached a concerning-level cold start to the World Series. The former everyday second baseman lost his starting job in the NLCS, when Ryan Zimmerman’s resurgence pushed Howie Kendrick to second, and he hadn’t played for 13 days until he started in Game 1. Game 2 has provided much of the same, though, and he’s looked out of rhythm so far. He’s now 0 for 7 with five strikeouts. Dave Martinez likes the versatility of the switch-hitter, as well as the defense, but the Nationals need him to start putting better at-bats together quickly.

Stephen Strasburg hit the stickiest spot either starter had faced since the first inning. Yuli Gurriel smoked a liner down the left for a one-out double and Strasburg found himself in a jam. He missed with his first pitch to designated hitter Yordan Alvarez and the Nationals issued an intentional walk.

The nightlong buildup of frustration with home-plate umpire Doug Eddings boiled over too because, after Strasburg popped up Carlos Correa for the second out, Strasburg screamed something at Eddings. The Astros pinch-hit Kyle Tucker, a left-hander, for catcher Robinson Chirinos, who had struck out twice earlier flailing through Strasburg’s change-up. It would mean Astros starter Justin Verlander would be throwing to a catcher other than Chirinos for the first time this season, but the Astros thought the gamble worth it. They had a chance to break through against Strasburg.

They didn’t. Eddings gave Strasburg what he wanted and, on a 3-2 curveball, rung up Tucker. Strasburg jogged off the mound, his night likely done. The question now is who the Nationals will lean on in the seventh.

Fifth inning (Nationals 2, Astros 2)

Justin Verlander hasn’t gotten a ton of double plays this year — nine in 37 starts — but he picked a good time for his 10th one. The Astros’ right-hander got Adam Eaton to ground right at shortstop Carlos Correa, who stepped on second and fired to first. He walked Anthony Rendon but escaped with a groundball to first. Verlander is through five on 82 pitches.

The most pressing question for the Nationals now is how long can Stephen Strasburg go. He finished the fifth at 86 pitches and could theoretically get through at least the sixth. The Nationals would prefer he navigate the seventh as well because it would mean they could rely solely on their two trustworthy relievers, Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle. Strasburg will face the heart of the order, starting with cleanup hitter Alex Bregman, in the sixth.

Fourth inning (Nationals 2, Astros 2)

The only notable moment from Justin Verlander’s otherwise ho-hum fourth was a funny play with one out. Ryan Zimmerman dribbled a ball to the right of the mound and Verlander gave chase. He dove, grabbed the ball and then, in trying to throw to first, spiked the ball off his shin.

Stephen Strasburg is officially not tipping his change-up. Or, he’s still tipping it and the Astros can’t hit. Either way, he struck out Astros catcher Robinson Chirinos with it for the second time — his third change-up strikeout overall since the second inning. Strasburg has cruised since that rocky first inning, with the exception of Trea Turner’s error, and finished the fourth at 72 pitches. He should be able to get the Nationals through the crucial sixth inning.

Third inning (Nationals 2, Astros 2)

Juan Soto ripped a double down the right-field line, but the Nationals couldn’t do much with it. Howie Kendrick’s World Series cold start stretched to 0-for-6 as he flew out to right. Stephen Strasburg marched back to the mound no doubt by now informed that he was tipping pitches.

Strasburg should have gotten out of the inning with 51 pitches. He’d struck out Josh Reddick and gotten George Springer to pop out. Then José Altuve sent a groundball to short and Trea Turner bobbled it for the Nationals’ first error this postseason from the left side of their infield. It could have ended worse for the Nationals — Michael Brantley singled Altuve to third — but then Strasburg got Alex Bregman to ground out on a fastball. He departed with 58 pitches, a modest increase but still significant.

Second inning (Nationals 2, Astros 2)

Justin Verlander settled in during the second in hopes of salvaging what was billed as the battle of the aces. He struck out Ryan Zimmerman and Victor Robles, and he got Trea Turner to fly out to right to work around a one-out single by Kurt Suzuki. Verlander is at 36 pitches through two innings.

Stephen Strasburg sailed through his second inning, but the conversation of the frame wasn’t about his two strikeouts or return to form. It was about a video which surfaced after the first inning which appeared to show Astros third baseman Alex Bregman explaining to his teammates after he homered how Strasburg was tipping his pitches. The Astros excel at picking up on cues — that’s how they got to Tampa Bay Rays starter Charlie Morton in the ALDS — and it appears they found another. But, if they did, it looked like Strasburg might have countered.

Strasburg has tipped his pitches in the past. The Arizona Diamondbacks shelled him twice this season — 15 runs in a combined 9 ⅔ innings — and he attributed it to pitch-tipping, which he later corrected.

First inning (Nationals 2, Astros 2)

The Nationals stunned Minute Maid Park by coming out firing in Game 2. Justin Verlander issued a four-pitch walk to Trea Turner and Adam Eaton, not bunting, singled the other way. Anthony Rendon doubled off the wall in left and suddenly the Nationals had seized a 2-0 lead before they recorded an out. Verlander then settled in to stop the bleeding.

José Altuve made one of the most perplexing decisions of the World Series so far in the first when he followed a one-out double by trying to steal third base. He might have thought he could beat third baseman Anthony Rendon, in the shift, to the bag. He might have missed a sign or not considered there was a left-handed hitter at the plate. He might have been pressing because of the Game 1 loss.

Whatever it was, it got him thrown out by Kurt Suzuki, the catcher who couldn’t throw anyone out this season. It looked bad when Michael Brantley later singled. It looked worse when Alex Bregman rocketed a home run to left field to tie the game at 2-2. The Nationals gave up a home run in the first, but without Altuve, it could have been much worse.

Pregame

Simone Biles threw out the first pitch at Minute Maid Park. The gold medalist Olympian casually backflipped and tossed a strike over the plate in front of 40,000 people. It was a summit of success in Houston on Wednesday as, minutes earlier, legendary slugger Hank Aaron presented an award on the field.

Back in Nationals Park, things were lit. For Wednesday’s viewing party, 9,600 people had filed into the ballpark before first pitch, according to a team spokesperson, and the crowd grew to nearly 12,500 by time Houston’s Alex Bregman crushed a two-run homer to tie the game in the bottom of the first.