HOUSTON — The Astros’ collapse in Game 2 of the World Series was a multipronged catastrophe.
Justin Verlander tried to throw a runner out from his behind and hit himself in the leg. Jose Altuve was thrown out at third in a possibly ill-conceived attempt to steal the base. There was Alex Bregman‘s throwing error, leading to a run. There was the ongoing postseason struggles of righty Ryan Pressly, and none of the relievers who followed him could stem the Nationals’ tide. There was a passed ball by Martin Maldonado on a strikeout that led to a run. It was not a championship-level performance.
The Nationals batted around two innings in a row, turning a 2-2 game turned into a nine-run rout. It was a Texas-size butt-whupping in Houston, a 12-3 thrashing that sends the Astros off for what they hope will be three games in D.C., but Houston needs to win at least one for that to happen. And if they don’t win two, Wednesday’s debacle will have been the last game of the season at Minute Maid Park. Houston finds itself down 2-0.
“Clearly the Nats have outplayed us,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “Bottom line. They came into our building and played two really good games. We’re going to have to try to sleep off the latter third of this game because I don’t want to lump this into a horrible game. It was a horrible three innings for us.”
A good chunk of the 43,357 on hand didn’t stick around to see the finish. After the game got out of hand, someone from the third deck above the press box threw a bottle, sending the ushers scurrying. Someone shouted up to them, “Y’all must be from New York!”
Then an irony: When Bregman fielded a Kurt Suzuki grounder cleanly and threw him out to lead off the ninth, the fans erupted in a Bronx cheer. When that sarcastic din died down, Washington’s Michael A. Taylor hit a long home run off the facing in left field. It was that kind of night.
“We have a great ballclub,” Verlander said. “We’ve had plenty of ups and downs during the season and obviously it’s magnified in the World Series, when you’re not clicking on all cylinders. I don’t think anyone should go home tonight feeling bad about themselves. We don’t have time to do that.”
It has not been a pleasant World Series week for the Astros, the team that entered the postseason as the consensus choice to win it all. And why not? Houston won 107 games with one of the 15 best run differentials of all time. But instead of chatter about a budding dynasty, or whether the Astros are the best team of the 2010s, the bad news has piled up like rotten garbage.
The troubles started before the World Series began, before the clubhouse celebration following Houston’s American League pennant had even subsided. They started when one of their executives touched off a crisis with behavior that can most charitably be labeled as ill-considered. From the start, that shifted external focus on baseball’s pinnacle event to things no one on the team wanted to be dealing with.
Maybe that didn’t impact the Astros on the field, but it certainly cast a pall over the proceedings. Verlander was asked whether the controversy affected the Astros and said simply, “No. Not in here.”
For evidence of that, you can look at the competitive Game 1: a 5-4 Washington win that was in doubt until the last out. However, there was a dark cloud over that loss. The Astros saw their unflappable ace, Gerrit Cole, give up his most runs (five) since May 22 and lose a decision for the first time since that date.
Then came Game 2, a manure show in every respect, with a lot of possible sources for the postgame stench. Verlander wasn’t bad — four runs over six innings — but he wasn’t lockdown, and in taking the loss, he set a record for most World Series starts without a win (six).
“It’s going to be tough,” Verlander said. “Obviously you don’t wanna be down two games to none, but we are. I think the message to everyone here is don’t hang your head. We didn’t play our best baseball, things didn’t go our way. We’ve got an off day tomorrow, we don’t have time to feel bad about ourselves.”
So the Astros are in an 0-2 hole, which is bad enough, but in reality it’s worse than that. The Astros are in an 0-2 hole despite having Cole and Verlander on the mound for the first two games. There’s all sorts of history with that:
• They became the first teammates to win 20 games during the regular season but then lose Games 1 and 2 of a World Series since Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers in 1965 against the Twins. (The Dodgers won that series.)
• This was the 14th time this season that the Astros started Cole and Verlander in consecutive home games, and the first time they lost them both.
Over two nights, the Nationals extinguished the firewall that Cole and Verlander provided all season. If the series goes long enough, they’ll both get another chance. But for the series to go long enough, the onus is on an Astros offense that has been sporadic the entire month of October, a collective slumber that is on the verge of becoming something more insidious.
“We’ve already talked as a team,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “We’ve got to go out there, keep our heads up and play good baseball. Take care of business. We’re such a great team that we’re not going to let a 2-0 deficit get to us.”
The bottom line is that over their first 13 postseason games, the Astros’ offense has scored 48 runs, an average of 3.7 per game, and Houston has been outscored overall. The Astros averaged 5.7 runs per game during the regular season. Sure, they have faced good pitching. It’s the playoffs. That will happen. The Rays came at them with a machine-like pitching staff operating with a collective hive mind and vicious stuff to boot. The Yankees presented them with one of baseball’s hardest-throwing staffs. In the first two games against Washington, they’ve seen Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and a resurgent bullpen.
You know what? The Nats have seen good pitching as well. And after averaging 5.4 runs during the regular season, they’ve put up 5.2 during the playoffs. With Cole and Verlander down for the next couple of games, the Astros’ bats had better show up, or their return trip to Houston will be to begin the offseason.
“I feel like we haven’t been good at all, throughout the whole playoffs,” Correa said. “That’s got to change. We’re running out of time. That’s got to change now and we’ve got to go out there a score a lot of runs.”
The Astros’ collective slash line this postseason is .216/.292/.370 over 489 plate appearances. That number of plate appearances is roughly what a semi-regular player would compile over the course of a regular season. Only he wouldn’t — with those numbers, he’d probably hit the waiver wire before he was allowed to play that much. That is the Houston playoff offense, circa 2019.
There is some evidence the bad luck has played into this. According to Baseball Savant, after Game 1, the quality of the balls Houston had hit into play should have resulted in a .248 batting average, which would be the best of the 10 playoff teams. Instead, the actual average was .213. The shortfall of 35 batting points was more than twice that of any other playoff team.
It didn’t get better on Wednesday. Baseball Savant recorded an expected batting average of .360 for Houston. Instead, the Astros went 9-for-37 — a .243 average. On the flip side, the Nationals had a .225 expected average in Game 2, but went 14-for-40 — a sparkling .350. Through Game 1, Washington’s real average (.244) was 12 points better than their expected average (.232)
When asked what has surprised him about the Nationals, Astros catcher Martin Maldonado said, “I would say everything that they’ve hit is a hit.”
The Astros can’t dismiss this all to luck, though, and hope things even out in the end. They are one more ill-fated game from falling into an 0-3 pit of despair. There are things that have gone astray that are under Houston’s collective control. Their chase rate is 5% higher than it was during the regular season. They are swinging and missing 5% more often as well.
“First and foremost, this is baseball,” Astros outfielder Michael Brantley said. “You take the highs with the lows. We’ve got to get focused on Game 3. I have faith in my teammates, and we’ll be ready to go.”
Whether it’s pitching, a collective funk or a result of a baseball version of hero ball, the Houston offense has not answered the bell. Actually, at times it has — only to fall back into slumber. The Astros have hit .309/.397/.600 during first innings in October. In the other innings, it’s .203/.277/.338.
“There’s no frustration,” Brantley said. “We’ve just got to put better at-bats together, one game at a time, one pitch at a time. We’ve got to put better at-bats together as a unit and we’ll do that together.”
Part of the problem may be an over-reliance on home runs. What happened to the well-balanced Houston offense that can do everything? Twenty-six of Houston’s 48 runs (54%) have come via homers; the comparable figure for Washington is 32%.
We’ve seen the Houston attack in fleeting glimpses, just often enough for the Astros to squeak by the Tampa Bay Rays in the division series and to knock out the New York Yankees in the ALCS. But through it all, the offense gets further and further from its regular-season excellence. And now that they’ve run into October’s hottest team, with Cole and Verlander vanquished, Houston’s hitters have to regress to form. Not soon, but immediately, as in Game 3 at Nationals Park on Friday.
“We haven’t been in this situation before, but we have to find a way to win,” Altuve said. “We have no choice. We’re just gonna go out there, one game at a time. We’re not gonna think we’re 0-2. We’re just gonna play one game at a time, one inning at a time, and I think things are gonna turn around for us.”
The history of teams that start a World Series with two home losses is dire. Only three times has a club come back from such circumstances: the 1985 Royals, the 1986 Mets and the 1996 Yankees. Yet there is one thing you can say about the Astros. They are confident, even cocky, and rather than a funereal atmosphere in the home clubhouse after the Game 2 thrashing, there was nothing but complete belief that the wins and runs will start rolling on Friday.
“Not a lot of teams win 107 games in a year,” Correa said. “This is a special team. It’s not just a random team. If there is a team that can do it, it’s us.”