HOUSTON — In a World Series largely devoid of drama — there had been but a single lead change in the first five games, way back in Game 1 — we got plenty of it in Game 6. We had dueling epic home run trots, the first manager ejection in a World Series game since 1996, a stadium-quieting home run from Anthony Rendon, a valiant Stephen Strasburg effort and a remarkable sixth straight win from the road team as the Nationals beat the Astros 7-2.
Oh, we also get Game 7 on Wednesday at Minute Maid Park, a matchup that will feature the improbable return of Max Scherzer, three days after he was barely able to move his neck and had to pull out of his Game 5 start, against Zack Greinke.
The game turned in the top of the fifth inning when the Nationals finally got to Justin Verlander — the old third time through the batting order. That’s not normally an issue for Verlander as he held opponents to a .579 OPS the third time through in the regular season, the same as his overall season total, but in making his 40th start of the season, the tank was perhaps low on fuel and he had clearly been laboring throughout the first four innings.
With the Astros up 2-1 — all the runs coming in the first inning — Adam Eaton fouled back a slider and then Verlander threw another one — middle of the plate, a little up — that Eaton crushed to right field for his second home run of the series. If Eaton crushed his home run, then Juan Soto annihilated his two batters later. He turned on a 3-1 fastball in the top of the zone and belted it deep into the second deck in right for the go-ahead home run — officially measured at 416 feet and 111.4 mph — his third of the World Series and fifth of the postseason. Soto, who turned 21 on Friday, is now the youngest player with three home runs in one World Series.
The Astros have been going strength against strength all series against Soto — high fastballs against one of the best high-ball hitters in the business. Soto had the second-highest OPS in the majors on pitches in the upper half of the strike zone.
Soto also shoved it back in the faces of the Astros with his home run trot. He didn’t drop his bat until he was nearly to first base — copying Alex Bregman‘s trot from the first inning, when Bregman drilled a Strasburg 2-0 fastball into the Crawford Boxes in left field. Bregman didn’t drop his bat until after he had reached first base, his second monumental pimp job of the World Series, following his grand slam off Fernando Rodney in Game 4 in which he took 28.71 seconds to round the bases.
If that wasn’t enough fun, Nationals manager Dave Martinez became the first manager ejected from a World Series since Bobby Cox in 1996 after a controversial runner interference call on Trea Turner in the top of the seventh. With the Nationals leading the Astros 3-2 and a runner on first base with no outs, Turner hit a little dribbler in front of pitcher Brad Peacock. His throw to first base hit Turner as first baseman Yuli Gurriel stretched for the ball right as Turner made his final step for first base.
Turner moved to second and Yan Gomes to third as the ball rolled away from Gurriel, but Turner was ruled out, and after a replay review of 4 minutes, 32 seconds, the call was upheld. That led to Martinez getting ejected — he had to be restrained by two of his coaches as he went after the umpires.
Momentum seemed to momentarily go back to the Astros even though they were trailing, but two batters later, Rendon quieted the stadium with a two-run home run to left field off Will Harris — the first run Harris had allowed all postseason and Rendon’s first home run of the series.
From there, Strasburg took over, going 8 1/3 innings and throwing 104 pitches. It was a brilliant effort considering the way he started, giving up two runs in the first as the Astros hit three lasers off him, including a George Springer leadoff double and Bregman’s home run. He was leaving too many pitches over the middle of the plate and other than a foul tip strike three on Josh Reddick he didn’t register a single swing and miss until his 53rd pitch of the game.
He was efficient, however, which allowed him to pitch into the ninth inning and he improved to 5-0 with a 1.98 ERA this postseason. One of those wins came in relief in the wild-card game, but the Nationals have won all five of his postseason starts and he’s the first pitcher to go 5-0 in a single postseason (even Madison Bumgarner lost a game during his historic run in the 2014 playoffs).
• For Verlander, it was a crushing defeat. He has now started seven games in his World Series career without a win — nobody else has more than five. He’s 0-6 with a 5.68 ERA in the World Series.
• Scherzer actually started warming up at one point when the score was 3-2 — even though Martinez had said he wouldn’t pitch in the game. Scherzer had thrown on flat ground in the outfield — when he gave up a thumb’s up to Martinez that he was feeling better — so it was a surprise to see him getting ready. Once Rendon hit the home run and the Nationals tacked on a couple insurance runs in the ninth, Scherzer was no longer needed.
• Great sequence in the top of the third inning. Eaton walked on a 3-2 fastball up and out of the zone and then Rendon battled Verlander for 10 pitches, Verlander throwing five straight fastballs, four of them fouled off, before finally throwing a slider Rendon took low and away for the walk. That set up a crucial confrontation against Soto, who fouled off a fastball, took a curveball off the plate, and then hit a 95-mph pitch hard on the ground — 103.3 mph — but right at Jose Altuve for a 4-3 out. Good contact, unlucky placement (or, more accurately, excellent positioning by the Astros, as always).
• Verlander faced another two-on, two-out situation in the fourth inning, but got Gomes to fly out on a first-pitch slider deep into the left-field corner — where there’s very little foul territory — as Michael Brantley caught the ball while straddling the foul line.
• Strasburg had his own two-on, two-out moment in the bottom of the fourth when he issued back-to-back walks to Gurriel and Yordan Alvarez — he had just one unintentional walk the entire postseason before then — to bring up Carlos Correa. He fell behind 2-0, but Correa swung through a fastball, took a two-seamer at the knees and then missed a curveball. He had another big strikeout of Correa in the sixth inning with two outs and a runner on first, getting Correa to chase a beautiful changeup below the knees.
• Game 7, everyone. All hands on deck, other than (most likely) Verlander and Strasburg. Martinez will have both Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez (Sanchez on full rest) in case something crops up with Scherzer. The Astros used Harris for just five pitches in Game 6 so A.J. Hinch will have all of his top relievers available, plus possibly Gerrit Cole on two days’ rest and Jose Urquidy as a long man.
• No team has won a World Series without winning a home game, but several teams have won Games 6 and 7 on the road: the 1926 Cardinals, 1934 Cardinals, 1952 Yankees, 1958 Yankees, 1968 Tigers, 1979 Pirates and 2016 Cubs. The Nationals will look to make a unique kind of history in Game 7 while the Astros will try to cement their legacy as an all-time great team. Let’s all tune in.