HOUSTON — With Max Scherzer facing Gerrit Cole in Game 1 of the World Series, we had grand visions of an epic pitchers’ duel between the three-time Cy Young winner and the hottest pitcher on the planet.
We didn’t get that. We got something better: a reminder that as much as we try to script what will happen in a baseball game, you can never predict what will happen in a baseball game.
The Washington Nationals beat the Houston Astros 5-4 in an action-packed thriller as the two starters combined to allow seven runs and 13 hits over their 12 innings. Juan Soto and George Springer performed heroic feats of strength, and the Nationals’ bullpen huffed and puffed to the end but managed to prevent Washington’s lead from being blown, immediately flipping the script in a World Series in which the Astros entered as the biggest betting favorites since 2007.
This game will be remembered for 20-year-old super sophomore Soto twice beating Cole in the matchup of the phenom of phenoms against the ace of aces. Soto crushed a 417-foot home run to the opposite field in the fourth inning, then lined a two-run double with two outs — opposite field again — off the wall below the Crawford Boxes in the fifth inning. The first blow tied the score at 2, and the second capped a three-run rally to give the Nationals a 5-2 lead.
The unbeatable Cole, riding a streak of 19 consecutive winning decisions stretching back to May — the Astros hadn’t lost a game started by Cole since July 12 — proved beatable after all. Soto, who hit .188 with seven strikeouts in the Nationals’ sweep in the NLCS, proved why he’s too good to go into any extended slump. Before the game, Astros manager AJ Hinch discussed facing the Nationals’ lineup with a 12-man pitching staff of all right-handed pitchers. “Soto is going to be a big part of this series,” Hinch said. That’s not particularly prescient — Soto, after all, is Washington’s cleanup hitter — but there is little doubt that the Nationals’ lineup needs Soto to produce. They beat the Cardinals without him doing much, but they’re unlikely to beat the Astros if he hits .188 again.
Soto led off the fourth. He took a slider for a ball and then jumped on a 96 mph fastball up in the zone, hitting the ball into an area of Minute Maid Park where few lefties not named Yordan Alvarez have gone this season.
Solo became the fourth-youngest player to hit a World Series home run:
Andruw Jones, Braves, 1996: 19 years, 180 days
Miguel Cabrera, Marlins, 2003: 20 years, 187 days
Mickey Mantle, Yankees, 1952: 20 years, 352 days
Juan Soto, Nationals, 2019: 20 years, 362 days
That fastball up in the zone was a classic strength versus strength confrontation. Cole (and the Astros) love to throw four-seam fastballs up in the zone. It has become one of their analytical staples. Soto, however, is one of the best high-ball hitters in the majors, with the second-highest OPS in MLB (behind Christian Yelich) on pitches in the upper half of the strike zone.
In the fifth inning, with the Nationals up 3-2 after Kurt Suzuki walked and scored, Soto came up again with runners at first and third and two outs. Cole fell behind 3-0 but elected to go after Soto rather than pitch to the right-handed veteran Howie Kendrick. Soto took a 3-0 slider for a strike, swung through a changeup and then drilled another slider to left field. Michael Brantley initially stood his ground and then, as the ball refused to start sinking, suddenly turned around. Soto’s balls don’t sink like most other hitters’. They keep going. Two runs scored.
Springer tried to rally the Astros. He homered in the seventh off Nationals reliever Tanner Rainey, his record fifth consecutive World Series game with a home run, breaking a mark he had shared with Lou Gehrig and Reggie Jackson. In the eighth, he doubled in another run off Daniel Hudson to make it 5-4 — just missing a game-tying two-run home run. Jose Altuve flied out softly to right field, and Sean Doolittle escaped the inning when Brantley lined out to left field, with Soto in perfect position to make the easy grab.
Doolittle then cruised through the bottom of the ninth, striking out Alex Bregman and getting two routine fly outs. On a night when Scherzer scuffled through five innings while throwing 112 pitches — but managed to limit the damage after a two-run first inning — the Nationals pulled it off: They handed Cole his first loss since May 22.