But now it is! Different, right? Really, really different.
More like this are probably on the way, more heart-attack matchups like this thrilling, tormenting and late-inning-agonizing battle called Game 1 that the Nats ultimately won, 5-4, over the mighty — and now mighty frustrated — Houston Astros.
This time, the final portion of the shared glory went to Sean Doolittle after a four-out save — retiring the Nos. 3-4-5-6 hitters in the fearsome Houston order. His work made a winner out of Max Scherzer and a hero out of three-hit, three-RBI Juan Soto, the 20-year-old without a pulse or, apparently, any awareness that he might fail.
“[Soto] is completely in charge of the joy of the moment,” said Astros Manager A.J. Hinch, who has a pitching staff with no left-handers — a roster flaw that should help Soto sleep with a smile.
The Astros’ other serious worry coming out of this game, aside from losing home field advantage, is that the Nats consistently made hard contact against ace Gerrit Cole, who has 364 strikeouts this year, including the postseason.
Ryan Zimmerman pounded a 412-foot solo home run, and Soto added an even more stunning, towering, opposite-field solo bomb — a 417-foot shot to left-center. In theory, the Cole conundrum was the question the Nats were not supposed to have an answer for. But once Soto took the Cole Train to the tracks — the railroad tracks far above the left field wall — the burden of mystique in this series subtly shifted.
Doolittle’s walk through the fire against the heart of the Astros’ batting order will lead to endless discussions of the tightrope-walking win by Manager Dave Martinez, who used four relievers, including Patrick Corbin, for the last 12 outs. Oh, that’s right — who has time for discussion of Game 1, fabulously complex as it was? Game 2 arrives Wednesday night, with Stephen Strasburg against Cooperstown-bound Justin Verlander.
There’s worrisome news from this game, too. If the Nats walk out to the end of the gangplank — game after game — in this World Series, will you still be around to see who wins the final game? Or will you have to be informed by seance?
The strategic crux of this game — and this entire postseason — is the way the Nats have used a radical, piratical strategy throughout October to try to grab what few in baseball, besides the Nats themselves, seem to believe they deserve. That prize would be the World Series title.
Don’t look now, but the make-their-own-rules Nats pulled it off again in Game 1, using a high-priced starting pitcher in the humblest and usually lowest-paid role in baseball: middle relief.
Before this World Series, some people close to the Astros heard that Houston’s main worry in Game 1 or 2 would be that the Nats get an early lead, then turn to Corbin, their $140 million left-hander, to be their middle-inning reliever for multiple innings. That and perhaps that alone might thwart the Astros’ plan to drive up Scherzer’s pitch count and mulch the Nats’ notorious middle relievers.
If the Nats could pull off such a coup, they could start Corbin in Game 4 with sufficient rest, assuming he did not throw too many pitches here in Houston.
“Corbin had a bunch of days off,” Martinez said. “It was his bullpen day again, so I was just going to try to utilize him if we had to … Max gave us everything he had … [but] I knew that there was going to be an inning that we need to use Corbin … All I wanted to do was pitch him an inning.”
If the Nats had squandered their lead and lost, then that one Corbin inning might have been one inning too little. But Daniel Hudson and Doolittle, pushed to the very edge of the plank, survived in a game with almost petrifying late-inning tension. Because they saved the game, Corbin was utilized but not overworked. And Martinez’s decision — neither “right” nor “wrong” but simply difficult, dicey and dangerous — worked out.
Everybody thinks they would love to manage. On nights like this, perhaps 99 percent of fan-managers would withdraw their applications.
Martinez remained slightly mysterious about his rotation plans after the victory, saying, “I’ll sit down and talk with [Corbin and pitching coach Paul Menhart] and see where we are.” So let the Astros wonder whether they will see Corbin again for a start in Game 3 or Game 4.
If Corbin is pushed back to Game 4, the Nats simply would move right-hander Aníbal Sánchez forward to start Game 3 and (if necessary) Game 7. The Astros, top-heavy with right-handed hitters, might actually be more vulnerable to Sánchez than Corbin — at least you could hope. And as an extra twist, Corbin might follow Sánchez out of the bullpen in Game 7. All of this is a bit exotic, but it is also all interlocking — and totally dependent for its logic on using Corbin to win one vital game here in Houston. It turned out to be Game 1.
The Nats pulled the trigger Tuesday, calling for Corbin to pitch the sixth inning with a 5-2 lead and Scherzer out of the game after 112 pitches.
Corbin pitched a scoreless inning, fanned two Astros, had his normal nasty stuff and needed 21 pitches. Would the Nats bring him back for the seventh — improving their chances to win Game 1 but also increasing Corbin’s workload and perhaps decreasing his effectiveness in a Game 4 start?
The Nats doubled down on their daring — and also their risk-taking. They yanked Corbin and called in 100-mph, straight-down-slider rookie Tanner Rainey, who has high-strikeout stuff but is also wild and, with his straight fastball, prone to long home runs.
The first man Rainey faced, George Springer, blasted a 428-foot solo homer, underlining the danger in trusting anyone except back-end stalwarts Hudson and Doolittle. Rainey got one out but also walked two Astros.
Sometimes, pirates swing from the rigging, knives between their teeth, to board a rich frigate loaded with treasure — but simply fall into the sea. So long, pirates. See you next time ’round the world.
Martinez — in for a dime, in for a dollar — hadn’t gotten the three outs he had wanted from Rainey. So he went to Plan B — or perhaps Plan Z because there are no options beyond Hudson and Doolittle. Hudson got the job of cleaning up Rainey’s mess.
After an infield single by Carlos Correa loaded the bases for rookie slugger Yordan Álvarez, this looked like a horrid night for desperados, even in Nats gear. After an awful 1-for-22, wild-swinging slump in the American League Championship Series, Álvarez began this game with a walk and two solid singles.
But Hudson used the game’s oldest tactic — a good fastball in a fine location. Fastball low and away, fastball a bit in on the hands, then a high chase fastball, and Álvarez had fanned on three pitches.
In the eighth, the Nats were back in hot water again after Hudson allowed a single and an RBI double by Springer that Adam Eaton almost caught with a leap at the 373-foot sign in right field. The ball appeared to have grazed Eaton’s glove, but that’s a blur.
What is certain is that Springer spent too much time watching his blast, rooting for it to be his second homer of the night and his seventh homer in his past six World Series games.
Astros fans will be left to wonder whether his double might have been a triple had he sprinted immediately. Would he have scored on José Altuve’s subsequent fly to right? Would he have dared to run? We will never know. But we do know that Doolittle entered and got Michael Brantley to line out — hard — to Soto in left.
That only left the ninth inning in Doolittle’s hands. So what’s left of your shredded nervous system as you gaze blankly at the wall and think, “And you’re telling me there is another game tomorrow?”
Yes, there is.
Breathe … (good) … breathe …