None of it mattered because, in the end, the Nationals still aren’t hitting. They fell to the Astros, 7-1, after Gerrit Cole gave up one run in seven innings. They fell after Ross, a late fill-in for Max Scherzer because of neck spasms and nerve irritation, allowed four runs in five frames. They fell after Juan Soto’s solo homer in the seventh, a towering shot, was the only way they could scratch the scoreboard.
The Nationals collected just four hits against 11 strikeouts. Their 2-0 series lead evaporated in their ballpark, then became a 3-2 deficit because they scored three runs across three contests in Washington. No team has taken the World Series with four victories on the road. Now the Nationals’ only remaining chance is to become the first.
“What’s new? That’s kind of our feeling. What’s new?” right fielder Adam Eaton said. “Backs against the wall. Winners come to play when their backs are against the wall.”
Scherzer knew in the early afternoon, before even leaving for the ballpark, that there was no way he could pitch. He couldn’t move his right arm when he woke up. He needed his wife, Erica, to help him get dressed. The hope is that he could pitch Game 7 on Wednesday if the Nationals make it there. That will hinge on his neck responding to a cortisone shot, injected Sunday, that’s supposed to alleviate the nerve irritation in 48 hours.
“I’m as disappointed as I possibly can be not to be able to pitch tonight,” Scherzer said in the afternoon, about two hours before the first pitch, as Ross was down the hall preparing for the biggest start of his life. “It’s Game 5 of the World Series.”
The show had to go on. It always does. Ross spent the season bouncing between the majors and minors, between the rotation and bullpen, between being injured and in the Nationals’ plans. Now he walked into a sold-out stadium at 7:39 p.m., his eyes fixed straight ahead, while the crowd gave him a long, loud standing ovation. Fans chanted “Let’s go, Joe!” as game time neared. This was Ross’s third postseason performance — a short start in 2016, then a two-inning relief appearance Friday — and the crowd was ready for him.
The problem was that the Astros were, too. And the even bigger problem, eventually, was that the offense never showed up.
“That’s one of the best lineups in baseball,” Ross said of his uneven performance. “I’m not going to expect myself to strike out 20 like Max does, you know? Just stick to my game.”
It’s not that Houston was all over Ross. It was just that his final line was stained, forever, by two decisive swings. The first was by Yordan Alvarez, the Astros’ 22-year-old slugger, a tall lefty who had yet to find his power stroke in the postseason. That changed when he lined a low-and-away fastball over the wall in left-center to score Yuli Gurriel and himself. It was his first homer since Sept. 21. The second cut was Carlos Correa’s, in the fourth, when Ross was one pitch away from escaping another inning.
He worked Correa to 0-2 and threw him a biting slider at the knees. It looked like a strike until, at the last nanosecond, it dived out of the zone. Yet Correa didn’t flinch. Instead, four pitches later, the shortstop smacked a hanging slider for a two-run blast. Correa stared at the ball before lightly dropping his bat into the dirt. Ross gave it a glance, as if he didn’t want to see, and held up his glove to get another ball from catcher Yan Gomes.
“As far as baseball goes, something small happens, and it seems like, later that at-bat, always something big follows up,” Ross said of not getting a close call on that outside slider. “So unfortunate that’s how it went, but nothing I can do about it now.”
Ross, in the end, couldn’t do enough to give this flatlined offense a chance. It would be hard for any pitcher to, really, given how little run support there has been since the Nationals got back to Washington. It is tough to blame a team for wilting against Cole, maybe baseball’s best pitcher, the most dominant ace in a matchup chock-full of them. The Nationals beat him in Game 1. But the Astros have not lost back-to-back Cole starts since April 20 and 25. They are since 28-4 when he pitches, counting this game, yet the issue was what the Nationals did at the plate — or didn’t do — across the 27 innings here.
They managed just 17 total hits in Games 3, 4 and 5. They combined to go 1 for 21 with runners in scoring position. Soto’s homer, his second off Cole in the series, was too little, too late, and soon their last threat ended with Victor Robles leaping out of the batter’s box in frustration.
Robles was Cole’s final batter, and they wrestled into a full count with two down in the seventh. Cole came with a high fastball, and thinking it was ball four, Robles started toward first. It was off the outside corner. But umpire Lance Barksdale signaled for a strikeout, and close to 44,000 people couldn’t believe it. The whole stadium booed. There were screams from the dugout. Robles backpedaled halfway up the first base line, yelling at Barksdale, then lobbed his helmet and batting gloves back toward the plate.
It was that kind of night for the Nationals. It was that kind of weekend. And it will soon become clear whether a bad three days — a really bad three days — are what will finally do this team in.
Daniel Hudson was inexplicably left in for a second inning in a four-run game, and the wear showed. The Nationals’ ace reliever allowed a deep home run to George Springer on his 36th pitch of the night and the Astros broke the game open. It was a puzzling decision by Manager Dave Martinez, especially considering the Nationals will need him if they are to pull of a historic victory.
Eighth inning (Astros 5, Nationals 1)
Daniel Hudson allowed a leadoff double and Alex Bregman ensured he couldn’t pitch around it. The Astros third baseman smacked a single up the middle to drive in George Springer from third and countered the run the Nationals had gotten back in the seventh.
Yan Gomes led off the eighth with a single up the middle. The Nationals, as is by now standard operating procedure, did not advance him as pinch-hitter Asdrúbal Cabrera struck out swinging, Trea Turner lined out to right field and Adam Eaton popped out to first.
Seventh inning (Astros 4, Nationals 1)
Yordan Alvarez has buoyed the Astros offense tonight. He smacked a two-run home run in the second and a single in the fourth that preceded Carlos Correa’s two-run homer. He singled again in the seventh off Sean Doolittle and finally Astros Manager A.J. Hinch removed him. Alvarez’s bat bolsters him but his defense in left field is so concerning Hinch finally replaced him with Jake Marisnick.
Doolittle navigated around Alvarez’s single by getting Carlos Correa to bounce into a double play and, after walking Martin Maldonaldo, striking out Gerrit Cole. None of it will matter unless the bats wake up.
Cole missed with a 99-mph fastball over the middle of the plate. Juan Soto did not. The 21-year-old phenom crushed his second home run to center field off Cole in as many games and finally stirred a Nationals offense which has been dormant for the lion’s share of these three home games of the World Series.
The Nationals got something going with Gerrit Cole’s command slipping. He walked Ryan Zimmerman and got the count loaded against Victor Robles. Then he called a fastball which was on the outside edge a strike and Victor Robles, already walking to first, jumped up and flung his bat in surprise. He threw the batting gloves and his helmet back at the plate in disgust. That was the Nationals’ night.
Sixth inning (Astros 4, Nationals 0)
Tanner Rainey, one night after throwing four strikes in 13 pitches, rebounded to retire the Astros’ 3-4-5 hitters in order. The hard-throwing right-hander hit his spots, including one low fastball in the strike zone Nationals Park couldn’t believe was called a ball. Catcher Yan Gomes turned to argue with home-plate umpire Lance Barksdale. Rainey overcame it and got Michael Brantley to fly out to left, the first of three quick outs.
This is the Gerrit Cole we thought we’d see in Game 1. The Cy Young Award candidate continued dominating in the sixth, mowing through the lineup that started with pinch-hitter Gerardo Parra. The final “Baby Shark” of 2019 brought no magic to the Nationals as Parra struck out on a slider. Trea Turner grounded out and Adam Eaton struck out. Cole marched back to the dugout at only 84 pitches.
Fifth inning (Astros 4, Nationals 0)
Manager Dave Martinez made a risky bet in the fifth. He left Joe Ross at 66 pitches, near his limit, to face the top of the Astros order for the third time down 4-0. But Ross escaped unscathed despite a walk of George Springer. He got José Altuve to ground into another double play, escaping the inning and probably bookending his start with twin killings. Tanner Rainey would take the ball in the sixth. Ross’s final line in an emergency start: Five innings, five hits, two walks, one strikeout, four runs.
Gerrit Cole pounded the strike zone against the Nationals’ 6-7-8 hitters and they had no chance. Ryan Zimmerman popped out. Victor Robles struck out on almost the same slider he grounded into a double play in the second. Yan Gomes flew out to right, a similar sequence to what he popped out to first in the second. Time is a flat circle against Cole.
Fourth inning (Astros 4, Nationals 0)
Joe Ross has struggled to throw strike one, but it didn’t hurt him. The right-hander fell behind five of his last six hitters, but he only allowed two hits. Then he threw a first-pitch strike to Carlos Correa and the Astros shortstop battled him back to 2-2 and got a slider over the middle of the plate that he crushed into the left-field seats for another two-run home run.
Gerrit Cole’s command slipped a bit in the fourth. He threw first-pitch strikes to nine of his 11 hitters before missing against his last three hitters. He lost Rendon on a five-pitch walk, but it didn’t matter. He got Juan Soto to fly out to center and Howie Kendrick to ground into an inning-ending fielder’s choice.
Third inning (Astros 2, Nationals 0)
Joe Ross dispatched his first two hitters of the inning with quick groundouts to third. José Altuve, who bounced into a double play last time up, flicked a sinker into right for a base hit. But Ross got Michael Brantley to fly out to center and averted what could have become a jam. He’s at 40 pitches — half of what Manager Dave Martinez projected for him before the game.
Gerrit Cole continued to carve up the Nationals lineup. He got Yan Gomes to pop up, Joe Ross to strikeout looking and Trea Turner to fly out to left. The most effective thing Cole has done is jump ahead of hitters by throwing a first-pitch strike, which he’s done against eight of 10 hitters so far. It’s why he’s able to put so many hitters, like Anthony Rendon or Ryan Zimmerman in innings before, on the defensive early.
Second inning (Astros 2, Nationals 0)
Joe Ross started the second shaky. He fell behind 2-0 to Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel, but both bailed him out by swinging at the third pitch. Bregman lined into an easy out in left, and Gurriel’s hit deflected off Ross’s glove and went for a hit. Then the left-handed bat Astros Manager A.J. Hinch has hidden since they’ve been in an NL park — Yordan Alvarez, sitting because of his limited range — crushed a sinker into the center field seats. The “Let’s go, Joe!” chant got a little quieter.
The Nationals quickly put together a rally with back-to-back singles. Ryan Zimmerman, to the crowd’s dismay, couldn’t come through with a base hit — instead striking out on a knuckle-curve low and away. Victor Robles then killed the rally by falling behind 0-2 and tapping a slider away to shortstop for an inning-ending double play. The Nationals are now 1 for 20 with runners in scoring position in World Series games at Nationals Park.
First inning (Nationals 0, Astros 0)
Nationals Park was ready for Joe Ross. They stood and roared as he walked to the bullpen. They did when he took the mound. They did when he threw a first-pitch strike.
The fans held their breath when the Astros leadoff hitter, George Springer, fought back from an 0-2 count to work a walk. But then Ross got José Altuve to swing at the first pitch and bounce into an easy double play and Nationals Park exploded as it hasn’t all series. The stadium rocked.
They did again when the third hitter, Michael Brantley, grounded out to second. It’s unclear what will come next, if Ross can sustain this success, but one thing was obvious: This crowd was the most fired-up of any this World Series.
The Nationals responded with their own tough leadoff at-bat. Shortstop Trea Turner battled Gerrit Cole and, though the shortstop struck out, he made Cole throw nine pitches to get it done. Adam Eaton and Anthony Rendon, a little more aggressive, both flew out to center to end the inning.
José Andrés, the chef and humanitarian, threw out the ceremonial first pitch to rousing applause from Nationals Park before Game 5. He received a lengthy ovation and is seen as a contrasting character to President Donald Tump, who will arrive for the game after it starts. He threw a strike to Ryan Zimmerman behind home plate and put on a pair of shades popularized by Gerardo Parra and Aníbal Sánchez this season. It went over very well.
Also, “Calma” vibes at Nationals Park.
Stephen, not sure you were supposed to pet the other dogs either.
Max Scherzer scratched; Joe Ross starts
Joe Ross is on the World Series roster for situations exactly like this. The Nationals didn’t have him on their postseason roster for the previous two rounds, preferring a pitcher with a similar skill set in Austin Voth. But they chose Ross for the World Series roster because they thought he, unlike Voth, would be able to pitch back-to-back games.
Now, with Max Scherzer scratched from his Game 4 start due to muscle spasms in his neck, that length will be tested. Ross threw 19 pitches in Game 3 on Friday night, and Manager Dave Martinez told reporters he expected Ross to throw 75 to 80 pitches as the Game 4 starter.
Scherzer, Martinez and other Nationals expressed confidence in Ross because the team has so far overcome everything in a season of unexpected twists. No one embodies that more than Ross. The 26-year-old endured an up-and-down season in which he ping-ponged back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation, and the majors and Class AAA Fresno, a couple times throughout the year. He attributed unfamiliarity to his struggles as a reliever early in the season, and he had to lower his ERA to 9.22 before the team demoted him in late May.
Ross returned to the Nationals for a brief stint in late June and later stuck in late July. He competed for the fifth-starter role with Erick Fedde and Voth, though none stuck. He finished this season 4-4 with a 5.48 ERA in 27 appearances, nine of which came as a starter. On Friday night in Game 3, Ross fired two scoreless innings of relief against the Astros and allowed one hit.
Ross relies on two pitches, a sinker and slider, and will almost exclusively use his curveball, change-up and four-seam fastball against left-handed hitters. The Astros shifted their lineup from the first two games in Nationals Park and started Yordan Alvarez despite his limited mobility in left field. Ross has struggled against left-handed hitters overall this season, and especially against left-handed sluggers like Alvarez.
World Series overview
· Game 6 at Houston — Tuesday, 8:07 p.m.
· Game 7 at Houston — Wednesday, Oct. 30, 8:08 p.m. (if necessary)