Their season is on the edge now, but listen to the tales we’ve been told all month, and it has been on the edge since May. After Sunday night’s 7-1 loss to the Houston Astros in the fifth game of the World Series — the Nationals’ third loss in three games here — it would end with a loss Tuesday night in Houston.
Yet these are the 2019 Nats, and they look at external expectations — and, well, expectorate on them. Given that, why not force a Game 7?
The arc of this Nationals season will always be about 19-31 before Memorial Day and a 100-plus-game sprint to the franchise’s first pennant. Whatever happens against the Astros — the absolutely loaded Astros — that won’t change.
But the emotions Sunday night seemed filled with what carried the team, and the fans behind them, through this entire season. Fire the manager? Well, look how he held things together. Trail the New York Mets by six runs in the ninth? Score seven to win. Down to your last six outs in the wild-card game? Plate three runs in the eighth to win. Get pushed to a game from elimination against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the division series? Overcome that deficit — including trailing 3-1 in the eighth inning of Game 5 — to advance in October for the first time.
So when Scherzer woke up with a knot in his neck that made it, he said, “impossible just to do any menial task whatsoever today,” it fit the entirety of 2019. Last home game, and a guy who was banished to the Pacific Coast League has to start it on short notice?
“Just another chapter,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said.
Now, either the story peters out — or Stephen Strasburg pushes it forward Tuesday night in Game 6. The $175 million right-hander may or may not be making his last appearance for the Nats; he can opt out of his contract within 72 hours of the season’s last out. Either way, he’ll need help to extend the season.
In taking the first two games of the World Series last week in Houston, the Nats scored 17 runs. They loaded the plane, but they left their offense in Texas. The 1933 Washington Senators scored seven runs in their four losses to the New York Giants in the most recent World Series to have games staged here. These Nats scored three over the weekend on South Capitol Street. Fail to change that, and there not only won’t be a title, but there won’t be a Game 7 — regardless of how well Strasburg pitches.
Nationally, Game 5 will be framed as the bounce-back of Gerrit Cole, Houston’s ace who was shelled for five runs by the Nats in a stunning series opener. There will be a lot of truth to that, because Cole barely allowed Washington to sniff a rally. Only once — in the second — did the Nats have two runners on base at the same time. Cole’s response: A strikeout of Ryan Zimmerman and a double-play grounder from fleet Victor Robles.
But if you were among the faithful here — those who stood for Ross, those who hoped for a languishing offense to break out, those who wanted to apply the narrative of the season to the final game at this yard — you walked out muttering to yourself about the umpiring. Yourself? Heck, anyone who would listen. You remember Ross’s 0-2 pitch to Houston’s Carlos Correa in the fourth. And you remember Cole’s 3-2 pitch to Robles in the seventh.
Correa first: The Astros had a 2-0 lead on the strength of Yordan Alvarez’s two-run homer in the second, Ross’s only mistake — and one Scherzer could have easily made himself. With two outs and Alvarez on first, Ross was a strike away from extracting himself from the fourth admirably. Given that eight of his starts this year were made for the Class AAA Fresno Grizzlies, one more strike would have meant you could have asked no more.
Ross’s 0-2 pitch was a slider over the outside part of the plate. Look at whatever presentation you want — Fox’s broadcast or MLB.com’s Gamecast or your naked eye. It appears the pitch caught the corner. “I thought it was a strike,” Ross said. Home plate umpire Lance Barksdale called it a ball.
Four pitches later, Correa hit the two-run homer that made it 4-0.
“As far as baseball goes, something small happens, it seems like later that at-bat, always something big follows up,” Ross said. “Unfortunately, that’s how it went.”
Yet here came the crowd, carrying faint hope into the bottom of the seventh. Juan Soto’s solo homer — his second off Cole this series — kept the place lively and loud. When Ryan Zimmerman drew a walk on Cole’s 104th pitch — which Cole will believe was a strike till his dying days — there was still hope. Another base runner, and — whatever the struggles of the weekend — the tying run would get to the plate.
Robles, who walked only 35 times in 617 plate appearances this season, nonetheless worked the count full against a tiring Cole. And here came the pitch an entire fan base could get behind. Scherzer hadn’t pitched at all. The offense hadn’t provided a reason to cheer. Wouldn’t it be so 2019 Nats to rally against the otherworldly Cole?
Cole went up and outside with a fastball. Robles took it — and started to first. Barksdale rang him up. Cole pumped his fist. The crowd lost it.
“I thought it could have been a little bit up and out,” Martinez said, a watered-down version of what he and his coaches said from the dugout.
Martinez, though, would not disparage Barksdale afterward. Leave that to his fans. Whatever the World Series became here over the weekend — three anticipated games, three home losses, the series slipping away — it says here the crowds were spectacular. The boos for Barksdale’s call, well, they outdid the full-throated boos of President Trump four innings earlier, which is saying something.
Not that it matters much. Correa hit his homer. Robles was out on strikes. The umps didn’t lose the game.
The Astros fly to Houston with a 3-2 lead in the series, one win from a second championship in three seasons. No World Series has ever ended with the road team winning all seven games, and that’s exactly what would have to happen for the Nationals to claim the crown. Unlikely, for sure. Impossible? We’re done telling the 2019 Nationals what can and cannot happen. Come back Tuesday for one more game — at least.
Read more on the World Series: