HOUSTON — It was just a few days ago when the Houston Astros opened up as the biggest World Series favorites since 2007.
Time to recalibrate those odds.
After beating Gerrit Cole in Game 1 and Justin Verlander in Game 2, the Washington Nationals are two wins away from a World Series championship, and it’s clear the Astros are in big trouble. Their big guns didn’t shut down the Nationals’ offense, the Astros haven’t really hit all postseason, manager AJ Hinch did something he hadn’t done all season, and even the usually reliable Houston defense fell apart at exactly the wrong time.
The Nationals broke open a 2-2 game Wednesday with six runs in the seventh inning and then piled it on in a 12-3 victory. The 107-win Astros, looking to establish their legacy as one of baseball’s best teams ever with a second World Series title in three seasons, instead played a game where they more resembled the 108-loss Baltimore Orioles.
“Clearly, the Nats have outplayed us. Bottom line,” Hinch said. “They came into our building and played two really good games. We’re going to have to sleep off the latter one-third of the game. I don’t want to lump this into a horrible game. It was a horrible three innings. It wasn’t a horrible game.”
It all fell apart in a wild and weird seventh inning. Kurt Suzuki led off the frame with a home run off Verlander — the first Hawai’ian-born player to homer in a World Series game. Verlander then walked No. 9 hitter Victor Robles and his night was done in favor of reliever Ryan Pressly.
What followed was something more out of Little League than the big leagues. Trea Turner walked. Adam Eaton sacrificed (yes, bunts still occasionally exist). Anthony Rendon, the majors’ RBI leader, flew out to center field, but too shallow to score the speedy Robles.
It was then that Hinch issued his first intentional walk of the season, to Juan Soto. Not of the postseason. The entire season. And it backfired. In a big way. Worth noting: The Astros do not have a left-handed pitcher on their roster, so even though Pressly held lefties to a .124 average in the regular season, Hinch still elected to put Soto on.
After that? Happiness for the Nats, disaster for the Astros. Third baseman Alex Bregman misplayed a grounder to his left that was ruled a hit. There was soft liner to center that scored two runs. And Bregman threw away a swinging bunt single that allowed another two runs to score. After Suzuki’s home run, the three run-scoring hits came on exit velocities of 83.5 mph, 75.7 mph and 62.8 mph. You can hear all the old-schoolers right now: Put the ball in play, kids!
As for Verlander, he is now 0-5 in six career World Series starts, with a 5.73 ERA. Nobody has made that many World Series starts without a win. On the night Verlander passed John Smoltz for the most strikeouts in postseason history, he once again was slow out of the gate as the Nats tagged him for two runs in the first inning. Verlander didn’t pitch that poorly, but he certainly didn’t have his A-game.
And now the Astros are in very big trouble. Teams that win the first two games of the World Series on the road are 23-3 for the series (including 15 sweeps). The most recent team to lose the first two at home and win the Series: the 1996 Yankees, against the Braves.
Also worth considering: The Nationals have won eight games in a row, tying a postseason record. They’re good, they’re hot and they’re heading home.
“Lot of baseball left in this series,” Bregman said. “We’re going to go to Washington with our heads held high. Ready to go and get after it. We’ve lost two games before. I remember when we lost three in New York and next thing you know we’re in the World Series in ’17. We’ve been here before.”
• Before the Nationals’ big — small? — outburst in the seventh inning, the game’s key sequence came in the bottom of the sixth. The Astros had two runners on with one out after Yuli Gurriel‘s double down the left-field line and an intentional walk to Yordan Alvarez. Stephen Strasburg‘s 106th pitch was a changeup to Carlos Correa — you could call it a hanger, but it was inadvertently in a location where you don’t usually see a changeup, up and in. Correa popped up weakly behind second base.
Rookie Kyle Tucker hit for Robinson Chirinos — an early move for a pinch hitter, but it set up a lefty against Strasburg. Tucker fouled off two 2-2 pitches and took a high fastball, but then Strasburg dropped in a curveball at the top of the strike zone for strike three. Strasburg, not usually one to show emotion on the mound, had pumped his fist after an inning-ending strikeout in the fourth, and this time sprinted off to handshakes and hugs.
For all the hype heading into the postseason about Houston’s big two and Max Scherzer, Strasburg has become the starting pitcher star of October. He’s 3-0 in four starts and one relief appearance with a 1.93 ERA this postseason. Check this out: He has 40 strikeouts and two walks in 28 innings. His career postseason ERA is 1.34. When you talk about the best pitchers in the majors, don’t forget about this guy — and if the series comes back to Houston for Game 6, you have to give the starting pitcher edge to Strasburg and the Nationals.
Alex Bregman admires his two-run home run, which evens the game in the first inning.
• By the end of the game, Bregman’s first-inning home run was an afterthought. He had homered in the second game of the division series against the Rays but had gone homerless in 10 playoff games since then, hitting just .182. So it wasn’t necessarily a surprise when Bregman rather enjoyed his 411-foot blast to left field, sitting on a Strasburg changeup. He took 8.33 seconds to get to first base and 28.47 seconds to round the bases — the slowest home run trot of his career and the slowest postseason trot since Manny Machado‘s 28.53 last year. (As a side note: Bregman’s eight postseason home runs have come off of the following pitchers: Chris Sale twice, Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Blake Snell and now Strasburg. Not exactly the pitching staff of the Orioles.)
The early thought was that this would turn around Bregman’s postseason. Instead, he grounded out to shortstop with two runners on to end the third, grounded out leading off the sixth and then failed to make the two defensive plays in the seventh. “He’s incredibly accountable to himself and he takes a lot of responsibility for our club, for our offense. He’s Alex Bregman, he wants to be perfect, he has high standards for himself,” Hinch had said before the game. “So I love that. … It’s rare to see him kind of mentally frustrated, but yet if anyone is equipped to figure it out, it’s Alex Bregman.” The Astros need their superstar to improve.
• With the Astros’ offense struggling, will Hinch be tempted to play designated hitter Alvarez in the outfield in D.C.? As much as Josh Reddick is a big zero at the plate in the postseason, Alvarez played only 66 innings in left field all season and would be a liability out there. Assuming Alvarez would play left, that would mean shifting Michael Brantley to right field, where he has played 58 innings all season. (In fact, it was the first time he had played right field in the majors in his career.) The more likely scenario: Hinch saves Alvarez for a big pinch-hitting spot for Reddick, his catchers or the pitcher.
• Anibal Sanchez will start Friday’s Game 3 for the Nationals, not having pitched since his brilliant no-hit bid in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Oct. 11 — meaning it will be two weeks between starts. It’s not really a concern, however. He threw a simulated game during the Nationals’ wait for the World Series and got up to 80 pitches. “He’s had this happen before to him and it didn’t seem to affect him,” Washington manager Dave Martinez said before the game. “So he gets it, he’s a professional, he kept himself ready. He’s been engaged this whole time.” The more interesting aspect is, after all, the power pitching from the four starters in the first two games, Sanchez presents a different look, with his steady diet of off-speed stuff. Martinez joked that he throws 27 different pitches. Against St. Louis, Sanchez didn’t throw a lot of fastballs but got a lot of outs with his fastball — which Cardinals hitters said after the game surprised them since he worked differently against the Dodgers. He’s also much better against righties than Patrick Corbin, and Houston will presumably be without Alvarez in the lineup, leaving Brantley and Reddick as the only lefties.