The Nationals’ response? It can’t be printed here. The result, though, can, and it should be placed in bold and in 50-point type: They shrugged off what could have been a World Series-altering controversy and beat the Houston Astros, 7-2. With eyes bulging and ears steaming, they forced a Game 7. They took tumult and beat it back. They rode Stephen Strasburg’s latest defining October start into the ninth inning. And they are now defined by Anthony Rendon’s absolute rebuke — to the Astros, to the umps, to everyone outside that dugout — of a two-run homer, the swing that rendered any quibbling irrelevant.
“That’s part of the character of this team,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Not really let anything get to us.”
The list of potential agitations that were shrugged off from Tuesday is long. Manager Dave Martinez was ejected. Juan Soto upstaged Astros braggart Alex Bregman with a titanic blast off Justin Verlander to take the lead. They seem like footnotes now. In a World Series that meandered through the first five games searching for a signature moment, Tuesday night provided six games’ worth. For the Nats, it was this: a fourth time they faced elimination this fall and a fourth time they responded with a win.
“We’ve been groomed for elimination games because we’ve played through a bunch of them,” Strasburg said. “Probably some regular season games, too.”
Oh, and it leads to this: Max Scherzer vs. Zack Greinke on Wednesday night in Game 7. For the championship.
Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Take your pulse if you need to. Find the blood pressure medicine.
Okay. Let’s review. It’s worth it. Believe me.
The most memorable play of a dizzying evening came with the Nats up 3-2 with no outs and Gomes on first. Turner hit the ball in question, a spinner in front of the mound that Houston reliever Brad Peacock — long ago a Nats draft pick — picked up and gunned to first. The throw led Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel to move his glove to his left, into Turner’s path.
As Turner ran past, Gurriel’s glove popped off. Peacock’s throw hit Turner in the back of the leg. The ball sprayed free. The result seemed obvious: Gomes to third, Turner to second.
And then home plate umpire Sam Holbrook got involved. Holbrook ruled Turner had interfered with Gurriel by running on the inside of the base line. Replays showed this was dubious. Had Peacock’s throw been to the inside of the bag, Gurriel and Turner wouldn’t have been near each other, and Turner probably would have beaten it.
When Holbrook made his call and sent Gomes back to first, the Nats went ballistic — and then tried to protest the game to Major League Baseball. Take all the emotion Turner has shown in his whole career, add it up, and it didn’t match what he spewed in the dugout. The umpires spent eight minutes communicating with MLB officials to determine that because it was a judgment call, the play could not be reviewed on replay.
What’s beautiful about this mess? Rendon and Strasburg made it not matter.
“Everyone was like, ‘Hey, calm down,’ ” Soto said. “ ‘We got to play baseball.’ ”
So they did. With two outs and Gomes still on first, Rendon feasted on a cutter from Houston reliever Will Harris. His two-run shot landed in the Crawford Boxes in left. The 43,384 at Minute Maid Park who came to see their team crowned a champion fell silent. The Nats’ dugout celebrated — emphatically and defiantly. They led 5-2.
Inhale. Exhale. Do it again.
This is now part of a process. It would seem impossible for a team to rewrite its well-earned postseason persona in one month, but these Nationals have done that. It matters now — for what’s to come Wednesday night, not to mention 2020 and beyond — that there is evidence that the Nationals will stride into the spotlight to thrive rather than slither into a closet to hide. Drew Storen vs. Pete Kozma, Clayton Kershaw vs. Daniel Murphy, Matt Wieters melting down — those defining moments are still part of Octobers past for Washington. They just have company with plays that make you do something other than shudder.
In that sense, the fifth inning Tuesday night fits — because the Nationals entered with a deficit against Verlander and exited with a lead. This team can draw from the moments when it flipped things this fall — Soto’s eighth-inning, lead-changing hit against Milwaukee in the wild-card game, homers from Rendon and Soto off Kershaw to force extra innings in Game 5 of the division series in Los Angeles, Howie Kendrick’s grand slam that won that game, the absolute throttling of St. Louis in the championship series sweep.
Collectively, this one trip to the postseason has produced more moments you probably will call up on YouTube over and over than the four previous trips combined. Then, there was Jayson Werth’s shot to win Game 4 against St. Louis in 2012 and Strasburg’s rise-from-the-dead, 12-strikeout performance to stave off elimination in Chicago against the Cubs in 2017. Anything else is kind of a stretch.
So back to the fifth Tuesday night. With one out, Adam Eaton — who curiously (or stupidly) had bunted in the first — came up. What would the bunter do with an 0-1 slider from Verlander? Deposit it in the right field seats to tie the score.
Two batters later, here came Soto. At 3-1, he had to sit fastball.
“All the way,” Soto said. “All the way.”
Play this one on continuous loop. From the release of Verlander’s 96-mph gas to the inside part of the plate to the swing that assaulted the baseball to Soto’s reaction, holding the bat until he had nearly reached first base — a troll of Bregman, who had taunted the Nats with the same braggadocio after his homer off Strasburg in the first.
Oh, Strasburg. Right. Him.
“He has an uncanny ability to slow the game down when he’s under duress,” Houston Manager A.J. Hinch said.
That’s now him, unflappable October hero. He didn’t need another signature moment, but now he has one. No pitcher has finished a postseason with a 5-0 record. That’s what Strasburg is now. The struggles in the first inning — two runs, shaky command — gave way to the dominant pitcher he has become.
“I just gave everything I had,” Strasburg said.
Which was an efficient, 8⅓ -inning, 104-pitch masterpiece in which he gave up just three hits after the first. He is now in such control, he can correct himself midstream. He gave up two runs in the first, then stranded two base runners in both the fourth and the fifth.
“He’s got a slow heartbeat out there,” Hinch said.
How’s yours? Next up: Game 7. Game 7. Scherzer vs. Greinke. Nationals vs. Astros. Relive Tuesday night in a hurry. Sort through all the heroics. Inhale. Exhale. October lives for 24 more hours. Bring it on.