That was it. And now they have a shot to win the World Series in Houston on Wednesday night.
When it was all added up Tuesday and the Nationals kept stretching fate, they beat the Houston Astros, 7-2, to force a Game 7 at Minute Maid Park. Strasburg allowed just two runs, both in the first, in 8⅓ dominant innings. Eaton went yard in the fifth, Soto homered two batters later, and Rendon later hit a homer and a double to collect five RBI and provide breathing room. Washington has now won four elimination games this October and, with that, will fight for as long as the calendar allows.
The Nationals’ season, their comeback from a 19-31 record in May, their sprint through the playoffs and this clash with the Astros, will come down to one game Wednesday night. It will decide everything. And it will start, for the Nationals, with Max Scherzer on the mound.
“This is what you live for,” Scherzer said after the Game 6 victory. “For me, I am in my pregame routine now. That’s where I’m just at mentally. Here we go.”
The Nationals felt they needed just one good bounce — a bloop single, an Astros error, anything — to turn this series back around. They left Houston with a two-game lead last week, closing in on history, carrying belief. Then they returned in a hole, trailing 3-2, trying like mad to slow the Astros and start their engine again. But now they had Strasburg on the mound. They had won all four elimination games he has pitched in, going back to 2016, and it was fitting that he went out and nearly tossed his third career complete game. These Nationals will ride their rotation until the end.
And it was Strasburg who, not two weeks ago, best summed up Washington’s sprint through the postseason. In the clubhouse after Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, after the Nationals had clinched a World Series berth, Strasburg looked at the beer-soaked floor and squinted. He considered why some teams get a title chance and others don’t. That’s when this thought popped into his head: “You have a great year, and you can run into a buzz saw. Maybe this year we are the buzz saw.”
He was right for another two games. He was wrong when the series swung against Washington. Then the Nationals came back to Houston, where they have yet to lose and again looked like the team no one wants to face. He allowed two runs in the first as Houston erased the Nationals’ first lead but quickly settled into an unshakable groove. The Astros were only in his way. Then it was only a matter of time before the Nationals’ offense, the same one that managed just three runs across three home losses, used Strasburg’s effort as a springboard.
“We’ve been groomed for elimination games because we’ve played quite a few of them,” Strasburg said, speaking for his team but sounding as if he were assessing himself. “There were some regular games there, too, that you could consider elimination games.”
They silenced the Astros’ crowd with a pair of fifth-inning swings, first on Eaton’s solo homer and then with Soto’s before he mimicked Alex Bregman by carrying his bat all the way to first base. Then the game went totally sideways in the seventh. Turner hit a dribbler in front of the mound and took off toward first. He was a step from the base, and mid-stride, when Brad Peacock hit him with an offline throw. Turner advanced to second, Yan Gomes to third, and that put two runners in scoring position with no outs.
But Sam Holbrook, the home plate umpire, signaled Turner out for interference. Washington Manager Dave Martinez began screaming, the veins popping from his neck, his fists balled up as he pushed onto his toes for more volume. The call was confirmed after a long discussion. Turner stood at the lip of the dugout, staring at the crew, stepping onto the field before his teammates moved in the way to calm him down. And by the end of the top half of the inning, even after Rendon eased the drama by parking a Will Harris cutter in the seats, Martinez was ejected for continuing to argue Holbrook’s ruling.
But Strasburg smoothed out the rest of Martinez’s pitching plan. He completed a gem at 104 pitches. He handed the ball to Sean Doolittle, to leave no doubt, and the southpaw shut the door. And so the Nationals kept on breathing.
“Sometimes your big guys step up when they need to,” Howie Kendrick said of Strasburg and Rendon. “And tonight our guys stepped up for us.”
This sport, when stripped of its nuances, when whittled down to size, is really just a constant search for one more. Pitchers work for hours, staring at video, leafing through scouting reports, even losing sleep, to throw one more strike. Batters stay in the cage, swinging until their hands sting, swearing they’re almost done, to find one more hit. Teams are no different, once individuals become a whole, once those hours add up to a season, and all that matters is earning one more chance.
So there were the Washington Nationals on Tuesday, in the twilight of October, boiling eight months of work into a final, simple task: They have to win one more game. That’s it.
Anthony Rendon — as he always has throughout the postseason — delivered when the Nationals needed him most. He ballooned the team’s cushion with a two-out double to right in the ninth, pushing the lead to 7-2.
Stephen Strasburg nearly went the distance. After getting one out in the ninth, Sean Doolittle entered to wrap it up.
Eighth inning (Nationals 5, Astros 2)
The Nationals 5-6-7 hitters have done little to advance the team’s cause so far, combining right now for a 1-for-11 clip with one single (Howie Kendrick) and one walk (Ryan Zimmerman). Going down in order in the eighth also means Victor Robles — 0 for 3, five straight strikeouts in the series — will lead off the ninth.
The Nationals needed Stephen Strasburg and he’s delivered. He could keep delivering because, after navigating a quick eighth by retiring the heart of the Astros lineup in order, he’s only at 101 pitches. He could pitch the ninth. There’s nothing left to save him for.
Seventh inning (Nationals 5, Astros 2)
The umpires made one of the most controversial calls of the World Series on Trea Turner. The Nationals shortstop dribbled a ball just in front of the plate and pitcher Brad Peacock got off the mound to field the ball. He threw to first and, just as Turner stepped on first, the ball arrived. Turner hit the glove of first baseman Yuli Gurriel and knocked it off. Umpires ruled the play interference and called Turner out. On review, it looked as though Turner was in the base paths and it was just a bad throw. Umpires reviewed it and still called out Turner, who was livid and needed to be restrained at the top step of the dugout by teammates.
Ball don’t lie. Two batters later, Anthony Rendon mashed a two-run home run to left.
Dave Martinez popped out of the dugout after the last out of the seventh. He yelled at the umpiring crew as bench coach Chip Hale and first base coach Derek Bogar held him back. He kept screaming and, after about 30 seconds, they ejected him. Martinez has perhaps never been that emotional as Nats manager. He continued seething and the coaches continued restraining him until, finally, he went back down into the dugout to the clubhouse.
Stephen Strasburg appeared amid the chaos and walked to the mound. He passed his manager, who was on his way to getting ejected, and didn’t do much more than look over at Martinez as he got tossed. Then the Nationals right-hander refocused and kept shoving. He struck out Robinson Chirinos, flew out Josh Reddick and flew out George Springer to get through the seventh on 97 pitches.
Sixth inning (Nationals 3, Astros 2)
The Astros hooked Justin Verlander after he allowed the two home runs in the fifth, meaning he’s on tap to go 0-6 in the World Series in his career. Houston went to right-hander Brad Peacock, and he mowed through the Nationals lineup in order. He retired Asdrúbal Cabrera, Ryan Zimmerman and Victor Robles — all three of whom have struggled mightily since Game 2.
Zimmerman especially has cooled off this postseason. In an unusual move, he started crushing right-handers early in the playoffs. He hit one against the Dodgers and two doubles against the Cardinals. But since his homer in Game 1 of the World Series, off another right-hander, he’s 3 for 19 with two infield hits and three walks. This could be regression to the mean against right-handed pitching.
Stephen Strasburg, at 77 pitches, faced down the heart of the Astros order in the sixth: Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel and Yordan Alvarez.
Things began auspiciously as Bregman legged out an infield single just ahead of Nationals shortstop Trea Turner’s throw. Gurriel grounded to short, but too slow to be a double play ball, so he and Bregman flipped places. Then Alvarez tapped a ball back up the middle and the Astros exchanged runners on first again with another fielder’s choice. Strasburg handled the last out himself, striking out Carlos Correa for a second straight time.
Fifth inning (Nationals 3, Astros 2)
Adam Eaton crushed his second home run of the postseason into the right-field seats and gave the Nationals a brand new ballgame. They have now had more base-runners in this game (seven) than in all of Game 5 (six).
Justin Verlander made a competitive pitch to Juan Soto, putting a 96-mph fastball up and in to the young left-handed hitter. It didn’t matter. Soto, a feaster on fastballs, a hammerer of homers, crushed the four-seamer into the right-field seats to give the Nationals the lead again. And, for emphasis, he carried his bat to first base, just as Alex Bregman did in the first inning. The Nationals didn’t need to plunk Bregman to get even. They just needed to recapture the lead.
The Minute Maid Park crowd, stunned after the Nationals two homers in the top of the fifth, started to get back into it in the bottom of the inning. Stephen Strasburg struck out Robinson Chirinos to start the inning, but then Josh Reddick lined a single over the shift and the crowd rocked. The PA system commanded “Make some noise!” and the Astros fans obeyed. The fans stamped for George Springer as the team’s leadoff hitter marched to the plate, and they roared when he doubled to left.
Strasburg needed to wriggle away. He couldn’t cough up the lead a second time. He jumped ahead of José Altuve 0-2 and struck him out on a curve in the dirt. He faced Michael Brantley, one of the hottest hitters in the World Series. Brantley smoked a ball but right at shortstop Trea Turner, shifted just beyond second base. Turner made a backhand scoop and threw to first in time. Strasburg averted the crisis.
The Nationals worked against Justin Verlander, ratcheting his pitch count up to 75 after four innings, but they wasted another great opportunity. Howie Kendrick singled and Ryan Zimmerman worked a walk, so they had two on and one out with a chance to capitalize. They didn’t. Victor Robles continued a World Series-long slump by striking out and Yan Gomes flew out to left. It was another chapter in the RISP struggles the Nationals have had all series and seemed briefly ready to snap out of in the first.
Stephen Strasburg is still not settled in. We’ve seen this Strasburg before, in Game 2 of the World Series as well as Game 5 of the NLDS. He gives up a couple runs and/or rockets in the first two innings and then becomes the dominant Strasburg he was most of this season for the Nationals.
But despite starting the fourth as though he was becoming that Strasburg again, using his fastball, change-up and curve to collect two outs, he then lost his feel. He threw 10 balls in 11 pitches and issued two-out walks to Yuli Gurriel and Yordan Alvarez. Then he stepped off the back of the mound, worked the ball in both hands and cleated the rubber. He threw a strike, and then another one, and finally a third one that got him out of the inning via a Carlos Correa strikeout.
Third inning (Astros 2, Nationals 1)
Justin Verlander almost matched Stephen Strasburg’s dominant second with one of his own. Then Adam Eaton worked a seven-pitch walk. Anthony Rendon followed that up with a 10-pitch walk and ensured that, no matter what happened, Verlander would leave the frame dinged. When he finally got Juan Soto to bounce out, escaping the two-on, two out jam, he was at 56 pitches through three innings.
One of the most concerning parts of Stephen Strasburg’s outing so far — besides the missed fastball location — were the exit velocities of hits off him. Before the third, he’d allowed five balls hit at 95 mph, and even the outs got smoked. Yordan Alvarez grounded out to second in the second but smacked the ball at 104.3 mph. Things changed in the third. Strasburg struck out Josh Reddick, grounded out Springer and popped out José Altuve. All were softly hit balls that might have assuaged some concern for Strasburg.
Second inning (Astros 2, Nationals 1)
Justin Verlander made some of the same mistake pitches Stephen Strasburg did in the first — 94ish-mph fastballs over the middle — but the Nationals couldn’t take advantage. Asdrúbal Cabrera fouled the first one off, and he foul-tipped the second one into the catcher’s mitt for strike three. Ryan Zimmerman flew out to left and Victor Robles didn’t even make contact on his strike three.
Stephen Strasburg sailed through the second with the help of some aggressive Astros hitters. He dispatched Yordan Alvarez on a groundball to second after two pitches. He got Carlos Correa to ground to third after three. He retired Robinson Chirinos with a grounder to second after two. Strasburg delivered the settle-down inning he needed and sat at just 20 pitches after two innings.
First inning (Astros 2, Nationals 1)
Trea Turner singled on a soft groundball to third base and, just like that, the Nationals had the lead runner on for the first time since Game 2. Adam Eaton sacrifice bunted, of course, and Anthony Rendon inside-outed a slider outside with two strikes to knock it the other way into right field. Turner scampered to the plate. The Nationals had equaled their number of runs in each of their three home games three batters into this one.
The Nationals’ lead lasted approximately eight minutes. George Springer ambushed a first-pitch, middle-middle fastball for a leadoff double. Then Stephen Strasburg threw a wild pitch that sent him to third. José Altuve lifted a high-enough, deep-enough flyball to left that Springer sprinted home well ahead of the throw by left fielder Juan Soto. The game was tied again.
If Springer scoring sparked a fuse in Minute Maid Park, Alex Bregman detonated it. The crowd exploded when the third baseman smashed another middle-middle fastball into the Crawford Boxes in left field. Bregman, after mashing the home run, carried his bat all the way to first. This is a rare, bat-flip-esque move and it likely caught the attention of the Nationals. Yuli Gurriel nearly followed it up with a back-to-backer, but Nationals left fielder Juan Soto caught it at the bullpen wall. The Nationals narrowly escaped with a one-run deficit.
Home vs. road comparison.
Phi Slama Jama in the house.
Meanwhile, back in Washington.
World Series overview
· Game 7 at Houston — Wednesday, Oct. 30, 8:08 p.m.