HOUSTON — Do you remember May 22? It was only five months ago. The NBA was in its conference finals. The NHL had just moved to the Stanley Cup Final. The Twitterverse was up in arms about the “Game of Thrones” finale that aired three days before. And Gerrit Cole, Houston Astros pitcher, lost a game.
A lot of stuff has happened during the five months since then. The NBA and NHL have started new seasons. There’s a “Game of Thrones” spin-off filming somewhere. Summer has come and gone. And Gerrit Cole, Houston Astros pitcher, finally lost another game.
The timing was not good.
“He’s been so good for so long that it builds this thought of invincibility, that it’s impossible to beat him,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “When it happens, it is a surprise to all us because we’ve watched for months this guy completely dominate the opposition. Which is why I want to give credit to the Nats.”
The opponent definitely earned some props. Cole gave up five runs in seven innings and took the loss in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday, a 5-4 nail-biter against the only baseball entity as hot as Cole right now — the Washington Nationals. He had gone an unbelievable 25 straight starts without a loss, a span during which he went 19-0 with a 1.59 ERA and 258 strikeouts in 169⅓ innings.
For five months, from the time your kid was finishing his or her last grade in school to the time they began another one, Cole was unbeatable. Now, in the World Series, he is 0-1.
“He’s human,” Astros center fielder George Springer said. “He was bound to lose one eventually.”
There is no panic in Houston. A one-game deficit isn’t going to faze this bunch, which won 107 games in the regular season, a winner-take-all contest in the division series and took the pennant on a game-ending homer by Jose Altuve. For the Astros, a loss is a kind of quietus — a short pause until their next moment of exaltation. It’s the way it has been for them all season, so why would now be any different?
The Astros’ winning percentage before Cole started his streak was .673. Their record after he started it was .644. Sure, they won nearly all of Cole’s starts over that 25-game span, though they lost twice when he drew a no-decision. But overall including the playoffs, Houston has a .620 winning percentage when Cole doesn’t start — a 100-win pace.
In other words, as great as Cole has been, the Astros have had a lot more than him going on.
“He’s one of the reasons we’re here right now and I know he’s going to start a new [streak] tomorrow,” Altuve said. “Whenever he plays a game he’s focused. This one was just one game. We’ve been in this situation before and he’s going to keep helping us. I know.”
Still, Cole was not at his best. He knows that.
“It wasn’t my sharpest game,” Cole said. “We had to get creative. I thought the fastball was leaking a little bit off the corner a couple times. I struggled with the curveball command, kind of buried us in some bad counts.”
The five runs Cole gave up were a postseason career high. They were the most he has given up since, you guessed it, May 22. He faced budding Nationals superstar Juan Soto for the first time and it did not turn out well for Cole: Soto tagged the game’s hottest pitcher with two ringing opposite-field drives, one a homer and one a two-run double. Sure, Soto is good but so are a lot of hitters Cole has sent packing for the past five months.
“He’s facing All-Stars and really good players,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said. “In this game, anything can happen any day. I have complete confidence in him, 100 percent.”
This is how sports works. There really is no such thing as invincible, no matter how transcendent a player seems to be at any given moment in time. Gerrit Cole lost a game. It was going to happen sometime and unfortunately for the Astros, it happened in Game 1 of the World Series.
If there is an element of disappointment in the outcome, it’s not all on Cole. On his off night, he still gave Houston seven innings and a chance to win. The Astros chipped away late and came one clutch hit short of evening the game. But they kind of let Washington’s Max Scherzer off the hook — that’s the part that stings.
Scherzer’s pitch total soared early and he was out after five innings. But the Astros couldn’t add to their two quick runs to start the game — a recurring pattern for them this postseason. When Cole faltered, the buffer he needed and that was there to be had did not exist.
“Anytime you’re up against a really good starting pitcher, you want to take advantage of every single opportunity,” Hinch said. “You know that’s going to be a tall task. But I liked our at-bats.”
There were good signs for Houston. Springer had four terrific at-bats, drawing two walks, homering and hitting a double to right-center that just missed going out. Springer now has an Astros record 14 postseason homers and since he’s a bit streaky, the big first game might portend well. He has homered in a record five straight World Series games.
Even better news came further down the lineup, where probable AL Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez had his best night of the playoffs and it almost turned into a huge night. Alvarez went 1-for-22 during the AL Championship Series against New York, resulting in a daily dose of questions for Hinch about whether he would replace his star rookie in the lineup. Without batting an eye, each time Hinch replied, “He’ll be in the lineup tomorrow.”
“He’s given me a vote of confidence and it’s helped to keep me strong mentally,” Alvarez said through an interpreter. “I just don’t worry about anything. Just keep playing and let the next day be.”
Alvarez walked and stroked two solid singles, including one that nearly knocked Scherzer out of the box. He then struck out in a high-leverage spot in the seventh, with Houston down by two runs. With the bases loaded and two outs, Alvarez went down on three pitches against Washington righty Daniel Hudson. Hudson climbed the ladder on him with three fastballs, and Alvarez just missed the 0-1 pitch letter-high, fouling it back.
Still, it was an encouraging outing — especially if it portends a well-timed breakout. Alvarez’s quiet October has denied fans across the country, who perhaps haven’t seen him play, the chance to see one of baseball’s most dynamic young hitters do his thing. Let’s remember that Alvarez hit .325 with 50 homers and 149 RBIs across Triple-A and the majors this season. That’s the guy the Astros would love to see show up for the rest of the World Series.
“Definitely felt more comfortable at bat today,” Alvarez said. “I made some adjustments the last couple of days and was able to put those adjustments into the game today, and the results were there. Obviously I wanted to do more with that last at-bat than I did, but I took a good swing at it.”
The other good news ought to be Houston’s Game 2 starter. It’s a guy named Justin Verlander, who happens to be the co-favorite with Cole to win this year’s AL Cy Young Award. He led the AL this season in wins (21), innings (223) and WHIP (0.803). And now that CC Sabathia has retired, he’s the active leader in career wins (225) and strikeouts (3,006).
He also has 14 postseason wins, a total that is tied for third all time. None of those wins have come in the World Series. He has started five times in the Fall Classic, losing four times, drawing a no-decision and posting a 5.67 ERA. However, his last World Series loss was actually a good start. In 2017, he lost Game 6 against the Dodgers despite giving up just two hits in six innings.
As Verlander tries to avoid becoming the first pitcher to lose his first five World Series decisions, he needs a line similar to the one he posted at Dodger Stadium two years ago. For one thing, the Astros desperately want to avoid an 0-2 hole with three games looming in D.C. before a city that hasn’t seen a World Series game in 86 years. And Houston needs Verlander to be sharp because his opponent is a tough one: Nats righty Stephen Strasburg taking the mound with a lineup behind him that has been providing big hits all postseason.
“I think they have a really good mix,” Verlander said. “They have speed. They have power. They have patience. They have plate coverage.”
Washington is the momentum team now. It’s funny how quickly that designation can change. The Astros seemed to be that team just three days ago, when Minute Maid Park erupted into bedlam when Altuve rocketed an Aroldis Chapman slider over the yellow line in left field to give Houston its third pennant in franchise history.
After that game, and again before Game 1, a common question was this: Does momentum carry over?
“I don’t know that momentum is necessarily going to be at the top of the list of the excitement when we take the field or we get the announcement of the national anthem and the lineups and we’re on the big stage,” Hinch said before the game. “I think you can probably put that one to bed when you’re dealing with two teams that are getting to this stage.”
Well, the Nationals have more momentum than one game. They’ve won seven straight, across three series. Four of those wins have come on the road — in Los Angeles, St. Louis and now Houston. The momentum god is clearly in Washington’s camp.
Thus it is obviously imperative for the Astros to jump out to a quick start against Strasburg, to give Verlander a comfort zone and to sap some of that ballooning confidence swelling in the Nationals’ clubhouse. Or, maybe, if you’re on the other side, it really is just about the Astros.
“We have a had a game plan since Day 1,” Altuve said. “We have to keep caring about us. The moment that we stop thinking about us and start thinking about the other team, we change what we’re doing. We don’t really want that. We’re playing great baseball right now.”
For five months, the Astros could pretty much count on winning when Gerrit Cole was on the mound. Suddenly, at the pinnacle time of the season, it didn’t happen. The challenge for any team facing the Astros in a seven-game series is knowing that you’re going to have to beat Verlander or Cole at least once to get to four wins. The Nationals already have that item crossed off the to-do list.
Now, the Astros’ World Series mettle is about to be tested.
“We’ve done it before,” Springer said. “Losing at home, and then for some reason come back the next day and we win and start playing really good.”