When you win the first two games of a best-of-seven series in the other team’s park, baseball history says that you have about an 88 percent of finishing the job. Since postseason play began in 1903, teams in the Nats’ current position have won 22 of 25 times — only the 1985 Cardinals, 1986 Red Sox and 1996 Braves faltered.
However, it is not just the nine-run margin of Game 2 that bodes well for the Nationals. It was the work of Stephen Strasburg, who got the win and outdueled future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander, that defined this game.
Strasburg shook off a game-tying two-run homer by Houston’s Alex Bregman in the first inning, then kept the game tied at 2 into the seventh inning, giving the Nats the opportunity to tire out and decipher Verlander.
Finally, Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki, leading off the seventh, blasted the go-ahead homer deep to left. The dam broke.
After a walk to Victor Robles, Verlander departed, and the Astros’ bullpen imploded as if the jerseys on the two teams had been reversed.
Bregman, perhaps the Astros’ most praised and poised young star, had a horror of a seventh inning at third base, failing to field a potential inning-ending grounder off the bat of Howie Kendrick that became a run-scoring infield hit. Instead of 3-2, the score before the grounder trickled off the end of Bregman’s glove, the game became 4-2 and soon unraveled.
Asdrúbal Cabrera followed with a two-run single for a 6-2 lead, then Ryan Zimmerman reached on an infield single, a play that scored two more runs when Bregman’s throw went up the first base line.
Adam Eaton and Michael A. Taylor added just-for-fun dance party homers as Astros Manager A.J. Hinch tried to convince himself that what he was watching was just a blowout fluke — no big deal.
All that was needed for this to be a perfect night for the Nats’ motivation was for Hinch to take the standard superior-sounding Astros road by saying, “We’ll be fine. We have Game 3 in a couple of days. We’ll be fine,” then discuss all the “soft contact” in the Nats’ six-run seventh.
Hinch also made a couple of gracious points. But you had to dig through the rubble for them. It has been a tough week for the Astros’ image.
Houston is the latest team to grossly underestimate these Nationals, totally healthy and suddenly a steamroller with sublime timing. And they have been this way for five full months, taking off on their run May 24, posting an 84-40 mark since that fateful sweep in New York before Memorial Day. They have won 18 of their past 20 and are 10-2 in this postseason.
Nonetheless, Nats Manager Dave Martinez said, wryly, “I wish I was a betting man — but I’m not.”
Martinez has long been in need of a nickname, even wavering on whether he cared whether he was called Davey or Dave. It’s two wins too soon for Miracle Martinez. But creative minds may be forced to get to work soon.
“It was great to steal two from them here,” Houston native Anthony Rendon said. “But we still have a job to do.”
For those who have watched all of this unfold, seen the pieces come together, the big innings that blew apart this game were not a surprise. But the man who set the stage for it with his championship grit and determination was Strasburg, the perfect man for the job.
Moments arrive early in the World Series, and key players along with them, which everyone on both teams realizes are essential to deciding which team will win. Or sometimes, as is the case with these Nationals, those moments and men let everyone know whether it’s suddenly feasible, nay, probable, for the underdog to pull off its mini-miracle.
After Max Scherzer needed 112 pitches to battle through just five innings in Game 1, the large hurdle for the Nats to have a serious chance to win this World Series was whether Strasburg could use his fabulous curveball and change-up to dominate, not merely survive, the Astros’ attack and give promise that, if he was needed twice in this World Series, he could provide the Nats with a total of at least 12 innings.
If Strasburg could “go deep,” which by modern standards is at least six innings, then the Nats probably have enough bullpen, limited as it is, to find a way to win four games.
However, if the Astros could wear down Strasburg, as they did Scherzer, then the Nats’ weak bullpen depth would immediately become the central focus of this World Series.
However, like most coins that spin and flip in the air during the World Series, there is a “tails” for every “heads,” and the implications, between two almost indistinguishably powerful teams, are huge.
In a blink, Houston’s weaknesses — flaws that so many experts have been able to ignore in their silly lopsided predictions — now jump up in the Astros’ faces.
The Astros not only lack a fifth starter, they don’t have a fourth starter — a big problem! Lefty Wade Miley was so awful in September, with a 16.67 ERA in five starts, that he’s not even on the roster. Houston is committed to a “bullpen game” in D.C. in Game 4.
Not only is Game 4 a potential problem for the Astros, but Game 3 starter Zack Greinke, who doesn’t enjoy the spotlight if he’s in an empty room, has a 3-6, 4.44 ERA postseason record that accurately reflects his October inconsistency.
In his early years, Strasburg might have been upset for an inning — or the rest of a game — for the change-up he left near the middle of the plate for Bregman’s two-run homer in the first inning. But the mature Strasburg is a much different creature now. The day before his start, Strasburg said, “You just learn over the years that you go out there and compete with what you have . . .
“You’re going to get the butterflies. Done it enough times that the more you try and settle in, the more it gets,” Strasburg said. “It’s beneficial to just play wherever you’re at.
“You know it’s going to be a storm out there. You’re going to weather it.”
Those 15 words epitomized Strasburg’s night — the Astros tried to start a storm, but just as Verlander found his form and started putting up zeros, Strasburg matched him and weathered both the Astros and their crowd. After Bregman’s home run, he allowed only three singles to the next 17 Astros hitters. And the score stayed 2-2.
Entering the sixth inning and more storms, he still had enough ammunition to compete — and, just as important, to keep the game close without bringing the Nats’ toxic middle relievers into a close game.
After a double by Yuli Gurriel into the left field corner and an intentional walk, Strasburg thought he had gotten star Astros shortstop Carlos Correa on a called third-strike fastball and let out a scream on the mound when home plate umpire Doug Eddings said, “Ball three.”
Strasburg composed himself and, with his 107th pitch, popped up Correa with a change-up on his fists. To end his night, Strasburg dialed up a rainbow curveball on a full-count pitch — his 114th — to fan pinch hitter Kyle Tucker.
An animated Strasburg bounced off the mound and rushed into the dugout to exchange fired-up high fives with teammates.
No sooner had Strasburg taken his seat in the dugout than Suzuki crushed a 1-0 Verlander fastball high and deep to left. Suzuki’s blow cleared the Crawford Boxes, home to cheap homers, and smashed off a sign high above the bleacher seats.
In that lizard-quick snap of Suzuki’s bat, on Verlander’s 100th pitch, the Nats not only took a 3-2 lead, but Strasburg had officially outdueled Verlander.
World Series pivot on duels like this. In two days, Scherzer has bested Cole, although he strained to do it, and Strasburg, in a must-win for Houston, stood to his full 6-foot-5 all night.
In the end, it was Strasburg, the symbol of Washington’s promise for 10 years and now the emblem of this team’s polished maturity, who was still standing. And at least for now, it was the flattened Astros who must search for a way to get back on their feet.