WASHINGTON — It’s not the way you want a World Series game to be decided. You want Gerrit Cole, maybe the best pitcher in the game in 2019, battling Max Scherzer, maybe the best pitcher over the past several seasons, in an epic duel for the ages.
Instead we got Gerrit Cole versus Joe Ross in Game 5 when Scherzer had to be scratched due to spasms in his neck and upper right trapezius and it played out exactly like you might expect a Gerrit Cole-Joe Ross game to go. Cole was brilliant and the Astros took full advantage of not facing Scherzer, jumping on Ross for hard-hit balls throughout his five innings, including a pair of two-run home runs that carried them to a 7-1 victory. The Astros are now one win away from their second World Series title in three seasons, the potential exclamation point on a dominant three-year run of baseball.
The loss capped a disappointing three home games for the Nationals, the first World Series games in the nation’s capital since 1933. The fans were loud and enthusiastic but had little to cheer for as the Nats scored just three runs in three games. Now the Nationals will have to pull off something that’s never been done before: Win the World Series without winning a game at home. They’ll have to win Games 6 and 7 at Minute Maid Field.
Cole allowed just one run and three hits in seven innings and his only trouble early came in the bottom of the second when Juan Soto and Howie Kendrick laced back-to-back singles to put runners at first and third with no outs. But Cole struck out Ryan Zimmerman on a curveball and got Victor Robles to ground into a 6-4-3 double play on an 0-2 slider. Cole retired 15 of the next 16 batters — Anthony Rendon walked in the fourth — before Juan Soto finally homered in the seventh to finally put the Nats on the board.
“I hope I go home with nothing left in the tank,” Cole had said on Saturday. “So whether tomorrow is the last time I pitch or I get the opportunity to pitch another time after that, I just hope I’m just absolutely dog tired by the time I get home.”
He got early support from Yordan Alvarez, the supremely talented rookie slugger who started his first game in the field this postseason, starting in left field after making just nine starts in left in the regular season. In the second inning, Álvarez lasered a 95 mph sinker on a 2-1 count from Joe Ross to left-center. Álvarez’s balls do not travel like normal balls. They come attached with Saturn rockets and this ball kept carrying until it cleared the fence in left-center — drilling a spectator in a Nationals T-shirt who had Bud Lights in both hands right in his gut. A literal gut-punch to the Nats. It was Álvarez’s first postseason home run and it was impressive.
In the fourth inning, Álvarez fouled off a 3-2 slider and then drilled another slider through the shift for a base hit. He scored six pitches later when Carlos Correa homered to left field off a hanging slider. Álvarez completed a 3-for-3 day when singled again in the seventh and was removed for a pinch-runner. His three hits: 106.4 mph, 100.5 mph, 106.9 mph.
AJ Hinch had earmarked this game for Álvarez all along. Of course, he thought he would need the extra bat in the lineup because Scherzer was starting. He had explained his thinking before the game. “I targeted this day for two reasons,” Hinch said. “One, I’ve usually started Álvarez in the outfield when Gerrit Cole is pitching or when Wade Miley was pitching. One, because Gerrit would get so many strikeouts, there’s less balls in play and less opportunity for something crazy to happen in the outfield. Factor in Gerrit being on the mound and then when Max was going to start, he put up two really good at-bats against Scherzer in Game 1. So there was a dual reason for that.”
Hinch refused to call Álvarez a defensive liability, although he admitted that Álvarez doesn’t have the most range out there. But his summary was this: “That would be a great advantage to get two or three at-bats of his.”
Indeed it was. Probably helped that they didn’t come against Max Scherzer as well.
• One big moment of controversy came with two outs in the seventh after a tiring Cole had given up the home run and walked Zimmerman with two outs. The score was still 4-1 at the time. Robles worked the count full and Cole’s 110th pitch was a 98 mph fastball up and away — a pitch that normally has a 14 percent strike probability, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Instead, home-plate umpire Lance Barksdale rung up Robles, who had taken a step towards first base. Dave Martinez and the Nationals kept yelling at Barksdale more than a minute after the inning and the fans lustily booed with chants of “Ump, you suck” as the eighth inning began.
• Following up on that, before Correa’s home run, Ross had just missed on a 0-2 slider off the plate. Or maybe just caught the corner. That pitch had a 76 percent strike probability. Needless to say, the Nationals were not happy with Barksdale’s strike zone. Did it change the game? Most likely not, but it’s hard enough to beat Cole and the Astros without a few critical calls not going your way.
• All that said, Ross was not effective at all and was lucky the Astros didn’t score more run off him. They hit seven balls off him at 100-plus mph in his five innings and two more classified as hard-hit balls (95-plus). That’s a lot of hard-hit balls in a relatively short stint. Ross has a good arm and a power two-seam fastball and pitched fairly well in August and September after joining the rotation, but this was still a guy who had the fifth-highest ERA ever for a World Series starter. He lacks a good put-away pitch, and that’s death against a team like the Astros that had the lowest strikeout rate in the majors.
• In fact, overall in the World Series, the Astros have had more hard-hit balls than the Nationals. The last two games they hit into a ton of hard-hit outs and have 23 hard outs compared to 14 for the Nationals. This lineup is tough. And now Álvarez will be back in the thick of things as the DH in Games 6 and (if necessary) 7.
• Behind the plate, give credit to Martin Maldonado, who has become Cole’s personal catcher. He caught Cole 10 times in the regular season and Cole posted a 1.57 ERA in those games with 114 strikeouts in 68 ⅔ innings.
• We haven’t talked much about the defense in this series, but it’s mostly been wonderful on both sides (Alex Bregman’s one bad inning in Game 2 being the exception). Rendon has made several highlight-reel plays and Yuri Gurriel has made a couple outstanding plays at first base for the Astros, including a nice play in the sixth on the speedy Trea Turner when he had to dive glove-first into first base to just get Turner. When you watch good teams day after day in the postseason, you see how important defense becomes — and how many bad or mediocre teams fail miserably in that area.