The Astros won 107 games in the regular season. They were supposed to win this World Series. If they don’t win Game 7, they will be piling all their “Take It Back” pins, trinkets and assorted other sundries to garage sales in the greater Houston area this winter.
Suddenly, the awful luck of Scherzer’s stiff neck preventing him from starting Game 5 may be a major good break, not a bad one. Instead of facing Gerrit Cole at his best, he will face Zack Greinke, who has been mediocre in the postseason his whole career, including this October. Next question: How good can Max be 72 hours after a cortisone shot to get his neck out of spasm and with seven days of rest since his start in Game 1?
Get ready, Aníbal Sánchez — who would be on his normal day to start — and Patrick Corbin who, on three days’ rest, should be good for a couple of innings if needed. Also, Sean Doolittle, who got the last two outs Tuesday night, and Daniel Hudson are all in that long Nats line of pitchers.
Now, suddenly, it is the Astros who have burned their two aces — Verlander, who threw 93 pitches in Game 6 and, to a degree, Cole, who would have two days of rest.
Is this all getting magnificently nuts enough for you? Washington waits 86 years for a World Series, then endures three straight defeats at Nationals Park in which Washington scores a total of three runs.
Then what happens? One of the great Game 6s arrives in a sport in which “Game 6” grabs your attention instantly for its long, fabulous controversial history. This one fits right in with the best of them. Baseball and D.C., shake hands. This is the real deal. This is what it feels like. One game, one title.
Let’s not hurry because there are more important people to thank — especially Astros third baseman Alex Bregman, whose blatant show-’em-up hot-dogging, carrying his bat around first base on his first-inning home run trot before finally dropping his club on his way to second base, became a classic don’t-wake-the-sleeping-dogs moment.
“We didn’t like it,” Martinez said in what amounts to a filibuster for him.
If the Astros had won this game, Bregman simply would have added the latest tiny increment in mankind’s trek toward the day that a hitter celebrates himself and his home run by twirling his bat like a baton all the way around the bases while also juggling his shoes.
But now, after the Nats’ silent anger at Bregman and their comeback after he had insulted them, the Astros will have an additional problem. Bregman, perhaps their best player this year and one of the game’s most-liked and brightest ambassadors, has — if the Astros lose — put a dunce cap on his own head that will linger for years.
From that Bregman instant, every Nats at-bat felt like a personal battle — an affront being repaid — as the Nats drove future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander out of the game after just five innings. Eaton’s homer off the 300-strikeout man tied the game at 2. But it was Soto’s homer a moment later, into the second deck, that revealed what was motivating these Nats.
“I didn’t like that, either,” Martinez said of the payback show-up. “I’ll speak to Juan about it. We like to keep our celebrating in our dugout.”
Astros Manager A.J. Hinch summarized the game simply — too simply and conveniently — but a synopsis nonetheless: “They hit the ball out of the ballpark multiple times. And we ran into Strasburg. . . . He’s an incredible pitcher. . . . He’s got a slow heartbeat out there.”
Does Hinch want Bregman carrying his bat past first base? “He shouldn’t carry his bat past first base,” Hinch said. “But Soto shouldn’t carry his bat to first base, either.”
That’s probably true. But who did it first? Somebody find a second-grade teacher to adjudicate this one.
All of these moments, in traditional analysis of a World Series game, would encapsulate the heart of the story. Then you would add that Rendon’s home run was a huge, monumental tension-lifter, giving the Nats a three-run lead with nine outs to go.
But this was no normal home run. Two batters previously, Gary Cederstrom’s umpiring crew made a call that defied common sense, enraged the Nats, eventually led to Martinez’s ejection and precipitated a 4-minute 32-second discussion about the play. In the end, the call stood. Instead of Nats at second and third with no outs in a one-run game, Trea Turner had been called out for interference with the Astros first baseman and the Nats had only one man on base — at first.
On that controversial play, the Astros did everything wrong and were rewarded spectacularly. With Yan Gomes on first, Turner hit a dribbler that pitcher Brad Peacock threw to the inside of first base. A dozen replays showed that Turner would have beaten the play to first by about a foot and that, at the time the off-target throw arrived, first baseman Yuli Gurriel was being pulled into Turner’s path to reach for the ball. The throw hit Turner in the right leg just as Gurriel’s glove collided with Turner’s left leg.
The umpires ruled that Turner had interfered with Gurriel’s attempt at a catch. Turner went berserk. The Houston press box was filled with scribes trying to remember whether a team had ever done so much incorrectly and been rewarded so richly. When Eaton made the second out, it appeared that — even if a thousand rules debates decided the call could not be reviewed or a dozen other whatnots — the sense of the play, any sense of a fair resolution, had been blown up.
What was blown up was this close game when Rendon, who had been in a slump before a first-inning RBI single poked to right, smashed a Will Harris offering high and deep into the Crawford boxes in left field for a 5-2 Nats lead. The emotionally justified Nats erupted in cheers, especially Turner. General Manager Mike Rizzo, who had been screaming from the box seats, could calm down.
After that, all moral, baseball or other lessons in this game pointed in the Nationals’ direction. It seemed that no hurdle was too high. At least not for this night.
Not on the night that the Nationals desperately needed to avoid elimination — for the fourth time in this postseason — to force a Game 7. In ways that baseball will not forget for a long time, they found ways to do it.
All World Series have one key point that sets the direction of momentum — such as the Nats’ wins here in Games 1 and 2. Many battles have a second major shift when the team that once seemed in control suddenly seems behind the eight-ball — as the Nats did coming back here. It is rare, it is almost unheard of, for World Series momentum to have three major shifts — with the third being in the Nats’ direction now.
It has happened. But the more you know and love World Series history, the better you know that the Nats slept well after Game 6.