by Jesse Dougherty

When the energy faded inside Nationals Park, then faded again, and then faded some more, it was replaced, in its entirety, by the feeling that comes when the World Series slips out of a firm grasp.

Washington wasn’t used to that before Saturday night. Now it will be, because the Nationals fell to the Houston Astros, 8-1, once their starter faltered and the offense couldn’t pick him up. That evened the series at 2-2, back to square one, with the Astros ready to throw their aces the rest of the way.

Patrick Corbin gave up four earned runs in six innings of grinding work. The Nationals’ bats were cold for a second consecutive game, managing just four hits, putting each of Corbin’s mistakes beneath a microscope.

A Game 3 loss Friday was defined by missed opportunities for the Nationals’ offense. This Game 4 loss was marked by generating few opportunities at all. Washington loaded the bases with one out in the sixth and could score only one run. Juan Soto plated it by chopping out to first. Howie Kendrick followed with an inning-ending strikeout. And in the next half-inning, with everything slipping, Houston’s Alex Bregman crushed a grand slam off Fernando Rodney. Cheers boomed out of three sections dotting the stadium. They were all filled with Astros fans. The rest of the crowd was quiet, stewing, stacking patience against its sinking guts.

And its silence was loud.

“It’s all about perspective,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “Now we have a three-game series against the Astros to win the World Series.”

This weekend began with a line of kids walking through the Navy Yard neighborhood, just a block from the ballpark, chanting, “Go! . . . Nats! . . . Go!” on a cool morning. Nationals banners hung from porches and in storefronts. Nationals talk — lathered in optimism, lacking the restraint of past falls — blared through car radios and restaurant TVs. The city is hosting its first World Series since 1933. That was evident. Then 43,876 people came to see what lies beyond imagination.

But then the Astros took two days to dent the Nationals’ runaway faith. Washington had won eight straight, going back to Oct. 7, before Houston had its way against Aníbal Sánchez and the offense flatlined in Game 3. The Nationals went 0 for 10 with runners in scoring position. They were sloppy in the field, making two errors, and it all made Saturday a pivotal turning point.

The on-paper strategy once favored the Nationals, at least before a pitch was thrown. Corbin is a front-line lefty who signed for $140 million this past winter. The Astros turned to 24-year-old Jose Urquidy to begin a bullpen game. It was always the one contest in which Washington would be favored. The Nationals just had to turn logic into results. They couldn’t.

“So we have these bats,” third baseman Anthony Rendon said, taking one from the top shelf of his locker, talking sarcastically about how the Nationals can improve at the plate. “You try to square it up, and there’s a baseball, and then you hit the outfield grass and usually they are hits.”

Urquidy was dominant, throwing five scoreless innings, while Corbin couldn’t hold the Astros down. Corbin was tagged for two runs in the first, on four straight hits, and his pitch count spiked to 26. The Astros turned two get-me-over sinkers into singles. He couldn’t locate his slider, his best pitch, and slipped again when Robinson Chirinos lifted a two-run shot off him in the fourth.

It was Chirinos who bounced into a double play to help Corbin escape the first. Before that at-bat, with Corbin struggling, pitching coach Paul Menhart walked to the mound for a short conference. Corbin followed by throwing Chirinos two change-ups, a pitch he typically uses just 5 percent of the time, and soon retired him with an inside sinker. So, in their second matchup, Corbin attacked Chirinos with his ninth change-up of the outing. It fluttered into the heart of the zone, like a one-winged bird, looking ready to be swatted. Then it flew high over the stadium and landed deep in the left field seats.

“The location on that pitch wasn’t where I wanted it. It was right down the middle,” Corbin said, adding that he wanted it down and away. “If I locate it better, it’s a different outcome.”

Chirinos slapped his chest while skipping toward home plate. Corbin stood by the mound, some 60 feet away, his shoulders slumped and his face blank. He is known for handling big moments with a personality that doesn’t even quiver. But that has been absent for four of his seven playoff appearances. He is the first player in history to make three starts and four relief appearances in the same postseason. If his arm is tiring, and the workload is too big, he probably would never say. It just lengthens the list of problems Washington has to solve. And fast.

Rotation depth was supposed to separate the Nationals in this series. The offense came up big in Houston. But Corbin wilted, the bats did, too, and the Astros widened the gap when Tanner Rainey and Rodney shrank in the seventh inning. Manager Dave Martinez turned to Rainey, then Rodney, to hold a three-run deficit in place, even though he had Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson sitting in the bullpen after two full days of rest.

The decision backfired when Rainey couldn’t find the strike zone, Rodney couldn’t avoid hard contact, and, after Bregman’s blast and five walks in the inning, the deficit ballooned.

“We’ve been doing this all season,” Corbin said. “We’ve had losses, big losses, and bounced back fine. Guys will be ready to go tomorrow.”

The Nationals have scored just twice through 18 innings in their own ballpark. They are 1 for 19 with runners in scoring position across those two games. The lone hit did not even plate a run. They are picking the worst time to dig up old habits — a lifeless bullpen, poor situational hitting, caving in October — and will now face Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander and, maybe, Zack Greinke with their title shot back in the balance.

Their saving grace is that Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg will be on the mound for the next two games. The only way to swallow Saturday was to remember, somehow, that the Astros did all this to catch up.

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Inning-by-inning recap

by Sam Fortier

Ninth inning (Astros 8, Nationals 1)

One of the loudest cheers of the night from Nationals Park after the first inning came in the ninth. It wasn’t a dramatic comeback or a big home run. But Juan Soto looked, for the first time this series, like the Gold Glove-nominated left fielder he is. He lasered a throw home to beat Robinson Chirinos, who was trying to score from second on a liner into left. He made the catch to end the inning in foul ground too. It was a bright spot on what was mostly a dreary day.

Eighth inning (Astros 8, Nationals 1)

The eighth belonged to Javy Guerra. This should tell you all you need to know about the state of Nationals Park. Guerra pitched mop-up in the ninth inning of Game 2, allowing a solo home run, but the lead was too large for it too matter. Now you could say the same about the deficit.

Nationals Park wanted so desperately to cheer about something. When second baseman José Altuve made a high throw which pulled Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel off the bag and allowed Anthony Rendon to reach, what was left of the crowd — soaking in the rain — exploded. They waved their towels. They shouted. They tried to inject some life into a game their team played without any.

Nothing came of it. Juan Soto walked but he was just another stranded base runner. Howie Kendrick struck out and Ryan Zimmerman flied out to end the threat which didn’t feel like much of one in the first place.

Seventh inning (Astros 8, Nationals 1)

Hopefully you bottled some of that energy when the Nationals were crushing the Astros during that six-run seventh inning in Houston. The Astros have completely taken hold of this series, the latest example a grand slam by Alex Bregman down the left-field line that pushed the Astros’ advantage to 8-1 and sent some of Nationals Park headed toward the exits.

The inning started auspiciously with back-to-back walks from Tanner Rainey. Then Manager Dave Martinez doubled down on the chaotic energy by relieving him with Fernando Rodney, his second-most inconsistent pitcher. Rodney allowed a quick single, then the big fly to Bregman.

The chaos didn’t end after Bregman. Rodney walked the bases loaded. Dave Martinez came out to get Rodney and replaced him with Wander Suero who finally, mercifully, ended the seventh.

This game crawled into its third hour as the Astros made the third substitution of the inning, bringing in Brad Peacock to pitch. He navigated out of a two-on, two-out jam and not even a full-out, diving try by Trea Turner at first base to beat the tag could make a difference.

Sixth inning (Astros 4, Nationals 1)

Patrick Corbin proved he really could settle in by retiring the side in order for the second straight inning, giving him eight straight outs. He even got Robinson Chirinos, who crushed a monster home run off him to left the at-bat before. The Nationals left-hander has cruised on this last trip through the order, but the question is whether it’s too little, too late.

We’re left to forever wonder what would have happened if the Astros stuck with José Urquidy. The rookie right-hander was cruising through the best start of his career when, at 67 pitches, the Astros lifted him for Josh James.

The hard-throwing right-hander, the one who buzzed Ryan Zimmerman in Game 3, walked leadoff pinch-hitter Gerardo Parra. (“Baby Shark” was more restrained this time.) He struck out Trea Turner but walked Adam Eaton, so the Astros went to right-hander Will Harris.

Anthony Rendon singled off Harris and loaded the bases with one out. The Nationals needed a breakthrough — bad. Juan Soto grounded out to first to drive one run home, but it didn’t seem like enough. The Nationals lineup, facing someone other than Urquidy, needed to come through.

They didn’t. Howie Kendrick struck out. Inning over.

Fifth inning (Astros 4, Nationals 0)

Patrick Corbin matched Jose Urquidy by retiring the 3-4-5 hitters in order. That is a sentence which seemed impossible before the game. But the Astros rookie bullpen arm is outdueling the Nationals’ six-year, $140 million ace through 4 ½ innings.

This is the eighth start of Jose Urquidy’s career, and it’s close to his best ever. Urquidy threw six shutout innings against the Los Angeles Angels in late September, but to do what he’s done against this lineup — which continued with a 1-2-3 fifth — is remarkable. The rookie right-hander blew a fastball down the pipe by Ryan Zimmerman, and he popped out Victor Robles and Yan Gomes to right.

Fourth inning (Astros 4, Nationals 0)

Robinson Chirinos crushes left-handers. His .915 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against them is an elite rate. He showed why when Patrick Corbin missed with a change-up right over the middle. Chirinos put it in the left-field seats and handed the Astros a commanding 4-0 lead.

Time is a flat circle. The Nationals scored no runs. This time, the starter who was supposed to be temporary sailed through the fourth inning against the heart of the Nationals order. Jose Urquidy is dealing and at just 52 pitches.

Third inning (Astros 2, Nationals 0)

Other than Michael Brantley, who’s off to a scorching start at the World Series, Patrick Corbin raced through the middle of the Astros lineup the second time through. José Altuve grounded out (on an impressive Anthony Rendon grab). Alex Bregman popped out. Yuli Gurriel struck out on Corbin’s signature slider.

Yan Gomes smacked a leadoff double down the left-field line and dared the Nationals, who stranded 13 runners in Game 3, to strand another. They seemed as though they might as the next batter, Patrick Corbin, pushed a bunt back to the pitcher which didn’t allow Gomes to advance. Trea Turner’s groundout to first did, but it gave the Nationals a runner on third with two outs. Adam Eaton lined out to Carlos Correa in short center. RISP-y BIZNESS struck again.

Second inning (Astros 2, Nationals 0)

Patrick Corbin soothed any anxiety which might have built during his rough first inning with a 1-2-3 second. He retired the 8-9-1 hitters on weak groundballs by using his change-up more than he normally does. Corbin started using the pitch more after pitching coach Paul Menhart visited him after loading the bases in the first. That’s the pitch to watch with Corbin.

Perhaps the most impressive thing Jose Urquidy has done so far in his short start was get Nationals second baseman Howie Kendrick to expand the zone up and strike him out to lead off the inning. Kendrick is the Nationals’ third-best hitter, and he’s known for being selective in his approach at the plate. But Urquidy worked him up, got Kendrick to swing at several balls out of the strike zone and beat him by scaling the ladder on his last 95-mph fastball. Soft contact from Ryan Zimmerman and no contact at all from Victor Robles finished off the second at just 24 pitches.

First inning (Astros 2, Nationals 0)

Max Scherzer praised Patrick Corbin for his ability to control the edges of the plate. The left-hander’s slider has excelled at that all season, looking like a fastball all the way to the plate until it dives off the table. But the Astros ambushed Corbin early and they smacked all three pitches on the edges of the plate, all outside to each hitter, for singles. Alex Bregman delivered the game’s first run and an infield single by Yuli Gurriel drove in the second.

Corbin got into serious, bases-loaded, one-out trouble by walking Carlos Correa. Then he pitched Robinson Chirinos backward (change-up, slider, change-up, fastball) and got a groundball that third baseman Anthony Rendon turned into a desperately needed double play.

Anthony Rendon punched a two-out single into left field but, despite that, the Nationals didn’t get many good looks at Astros “starter” Jose Urquidy. The rookie right-hander is the beginning of what the Astros will call “a bullpen game,” meaning Urquidy will yield to relievers sooner rather than later. The Astros hope for him to go about 75 pitches, which Friday night’s starter Zack Greinke reached in the fourth inning, or five innings total. The Nationals didn’t make much headway into denting his pitch count in the first, as he needed 11 pitches to navigate the first four batters.

Pregame

A good sign for Washington?

This, too.

The Nationals also received a bit of good news on catcher Kurt Suzuki, who injured his right hip flexor on Friday night. MRI results on Saturday revealed that Suzuki is good to go, so he will remain on the roster. Yan Gomes will catch Patrick Corbin in Game 4.

Also, get a load of Brian Dozier’s shirt.

Janyia Freeman of the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy threw the first pitch at Game 4. The academy is the Nationals’ signature philanthropic effort, and it uses baseball and softball to promote healthy character and community development for youth from underserved communities in the city.

World Series overview

All games on Fox

· Game 1 at HoustonNationals 5, Astros 4

· Game 2 at HoustonNationals 12, Astros 3

· Game 3 at WashingtonAstros 4, Nationals 1

· Game 4 at WashingtonAstros 8, Nationals 1

· Game 5 at Washington — Sunday, 8:07 p.m.

· Game 6 at Houston — Tuesday, 8:07 p.m.

· Game 7 at Houston — Wednesday, Oct. 30, 8:08 p.m. (if necessary)

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