A weak pop-up and a strikeout later, the sixth inning was over — two more failures with runners in scoring position to add to Houston’s long, sad ledger — and soon so was any last semblance of the Astros’ invincibility, which had been built up and reinforced over the course of a 107-win regular season and tough playoff victories over the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees.
The Nationals would erupt for six runs in the seventh, three more in the eighth, yet another in the ninth — completing a stunning and thorough 12-3 whipping of the Astros — and the World Series will now move to South Capitol Street this weekend at a most unforeseen juncture: the Nationals leading two games to none. The last team to win the World Series after losing Games 1 and 2 at home? The 1996 New York Yankees.
“We don’t have time to feel bad about ourselves. Reset and get ready to play baseball,” Astros veteran right-hander Justin Verlander said. “They have a great ballclub. We’re not clicking on all cylinders. But I don’t think anybody should go home tonight and feel bad about themselves. We don’t have time for that.”
But the truth is, in two games in Houston, the Nationals did things to the Astros no team had done all year. They beat Gerrit Cole and Verlander, Houston’s twin aces and the likely top two vote-getters in Cy Young voting; no team all year had beaten them back-to-back. The Astros hadn’t lost back-to-back home games of any kind in nearly six weeks. But the Nationals are different than anything the 2019 Astros had seen before. They forced the Astros to throw extra pitches, pressured them into errors and got deep inside their heads.
How else to explain José Altuve’s ill-fated attempt to steal third in the first inning with a left-handed batter at the plate? How else to explain Manager A.J. Hinch choosing to intentionally walk Nationals phenom Juan Soto in the middle of that seventh-inning debacle after having steadfastly refused to issue a single intentional pass all season?
“They’re way better than people think,” Verlander said of the Nationals, who won 93 games during the regular season to secure the top wild-card position in the National League. “Obviously, those guys in the middle [of their lineup] get a lot of headlines, but the rest of that lineup, they can hit. They have good approaches. They change their approach. They adjust through the middle of the game. It’s a grind. You have your work cut out for you when you go out there.”
The Astros now turn to veteran right-hander Zack Greinke to rescue their cratering season Friday night in Game 3 at Nationals Park. They acquired Greinke in a blockbuster deal at the July 31 trade deadline with the vision of him starting in a Game 3 of a postseason series and pointing the Astros in the direction of a clinch. They figured a postseason rotation of Cole, Verlander and Greinke — with two Cy Young Awards, an MVP, four ERA titles and 17 all-star appearances among them — would be nearly unbeatable.
But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. For one thing, Greinke hasn’t been the third co-ace the Astros envisioned this postseason, going 0-2 with a 6.43 ERA, having surrendered five homers in his 14 innings. And for another, Game 3 for the Astros is no longer about moving toward a clinch but simply clinging to survival. In Washington, Greinke will be facing both a hostile environment and a Nationals lineup that has taken down his two more powerful rotation-mates.
It was somehow fitting that the Astros’ final moments of recognizable Astro-ness on Wednesday night came in the bottom of the sixth, with a runner in scoring position and two chances to get him home. This was the sort of pivot point that had spelled the difference between winning and losing for the Astros all month.
At the time, they were working Strasburg over, the same way they had with Max Scherzer the night before, running up his pitch count, making him work for every strike and every out. They had the go-ahead runs on base, first and second, one out, and shortstop Carlos Correa at the plate. But Strasburg bore down, getting Correa to hit a broken-bat pop-up to second, then struck out rookie pinch-hitter Kyle Tucker to end the inning. What followed — the seventh-inning meltdown that blew open the game — was in the view of some in the Astros’ clubhouse the worst inning they had played all year.
“To see it go that way,” Verlander said, “it doesn’t feel great.”
At this point, the Astros’ failures with runners in scoring position are a full-blown crisis: Since the start of the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees, the Astros are hitting just .127 and slugging .317 in those situations. In the regular season, those numbers were .268 and .503.
“It’s not as simple as saying, ‘Hey, man, get a hit with a runner in scoring position,’ ” Hinch said. “These guys are getting pitches, we’re having some long at-bats. But we haven’t found the results. So I think that’s been the frustrating part of this series. I’m not going to drag the ALCS into this. This is about the World Series, but whether you want to credit them or whether you want to put the pressure on us, [the Nationals] are winning these at-bats, and that’s the difference in these games."
If the Astros go on to lose this World Series, the sudden disappearance of one of the most potent offenses of all time might be a mystery that is never solved. Those words, “of all time,” are not used lightly. By one advanced metric — wRC+, or weighted runs created plus, a measure of total offensive value, adjusted for park and league effects — the 2019 Astros rank second only to the famed “Murderer’s Row” 1927 Yankees among the best offenses in history.
The Astros’ .848 OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) this season led the majors. Essentially, that means the Astros’ lineup in 2019 was like nine Reggie Jacksons (career OPS: .846). At home, the Astros’ OPS this season swelled to .878, better than the career marks of Al Kaline, George Brett, Sammy Sosa and Christian Yelich.
And in two games at Minute Maid Park against the Nationals, the Astros have been limited to seven runs and a collective OPS of .516.
You can’t help but wonder whether the Astros are simply worn down by the collective toll of this fall — not only the five-game division series win over the Rays or the six-game ALCS win over the Yankees but also the stretch drive of the regular season. Throughout September, the Astros rode their starters hard to hold off the Yankees and win the most regular season games, thus earning home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Cole and Verlander never missed a start, owing at least in part to their spirited battle for the Cy Young.
And now they look like a team running out of fuel. Cole hadn’t lost a decision since May 22 until the Nationals beat him in Game 1. Verlander had given up two or more runs in the first inning just twice in the 2019 regular season, but he has done it three times this postseason. Third baseman Alex Bregman hadn’t struck out three times in a game since May 27, 2018, until the Nationals did it to him in Game 1.
“Not a lot of teams win 107 games in a year,” Correa said. “This is a special team.”
“We’re going to go to D.C.,” Altuve said, “and win some games.”
“There’s still a lot of baseball left,” Bregman said.
“We really only have one more opportunity to show what we can do,” Verlander said. “And we’re going to D.C. We can’t wait around.”
But somewhere deep down, the Astros understood their clearest path to winning this championship was to hold serve at home behind their twin aces, and give themselves some breathing room when the series shifts to Nationals Park.
Over the past two games, that pathway was obliterated by a Nationals team that must remind the Astros of themselves at their best — relentless, energized and overflowing with confidence — if they can even remember what that felt like anymore.