HOUSTON -- Every bullet, every angle, every idea.
The Nationals used all their options Tuesday night in Texas to wheezingly hang on for a 5-4 win against Houston and claim a 1-0 lead in the World Series. Max Scherzer made it through five innings -- barely. The bullpen did enough -- barely. The lineup found a way --- barely.
Together, it was enough for an upset in Game 1 for a team expected to be pushed swiftly out of the postseason, yet keeps finding new ways to fill the holes they create.
Scherzer walked off the mound following the first in a scenario the Nationals would have pushed toward worst-case. His pitch count was up and they immediately trailed against Cole, who allowed one earned run in 22 ⅔ innings this postseason.
Yuli Gurriel hit a high 1-2 fastball off the wall in left-center field to deliver the Astros an early lead. George Springer and Jose Altuve scored to leverage the game heavily toward the Astros just five batters into it. What was to come beyond the first inning also became a concern.
Houston entered the game with the fewest strikeouts in the league. It also led the league in walk rate. The push-and-pull between the Astros’ hitters and Washington’s starters stood as a central theme for the series. The Nationals need their starters to pitch as long as possible to keep their main flaw, the middle of their bullpen, at bay. Against Cole the concept is all the more crucial.
Scherzer’s 96th pitch produced a dribbler from Jose Altuve with two runners on base in the fourth. He sprinted to first to catch a toss from Ryan Zimmerman and close the inning. Nothing was easy, or clean, or enjoyable for him during the evening, when he was seemingly 10 rounds in shortly after the fight started.
The good news: Ryan Zimmerman hit the second pitch he saw in his first World Series for a sizzling home run to center field in the second. Juan Soto delivered an opposite-field solo home run to tie the game in the fourth. The Nationals had done what multiple teams had not in the postseason. They were getting to Cole.
Kurt Suzuki walked to open the fifth inning. Victor Robles singled. Trea Turner’s flyout pushed a tagging Suzuki to third. An Adam Eaton single brought him in. The Nationals led, 3-2, against a pitcher who was burning through the postseason the way few others had in history. Anthony Rendon’s fielder’s choice led to a second out. Soto arrived again, two on, two out, the spotlight acting more as fuel than inhibitor.
Soto ventured into a 3-0 count. He took a slider then missed a changeup. Opponents hit .141 against Cole in full counts this season. A 3-2 slider sort of down, sort of away came next. Soto drove it to left field off the out-of-town scoreboard which had no out-of-town scores to show on Oct. 22. Eaton scored. Rendon scored. Minute Maid Park went quiet while Soto yelled at second base. His evolution took another step three days before his 21st birthday.
Wrinkles remained for Davey Martinez. How much longer should Scherzer pitch? Who would be next? Did he trust his relievers enough to use four of them, leaving Patrick Corbin rested for Game 3? Or, did “go 1-0” mean firing maximum bullets in the opener?
Scherzer returned for the fifth to produce his first 1-2-3 inning of the night. Done after 112 pitches, he clenched a fist knowing his effort to absorb minor blows from Houston lasted long enough for his team to find a way against Cole.
Corbin came running in from the bullpen to start the sixth. He’s found a postseason niche since the National League Division Series, growing progressively more comfortable as a reliever following his rough run against Los Angeles. Corbin allowed a hit during a 21-pitch sixth. He, like Scherzer, clenched a fist when the final out of his appearance was recorded.
Now, the rub. Corbin finished against the bottom of Houston’s order. Springer, Altuve and Michael Brantley were coming up in the bottom of the seventh. Tanner Rainey came in.
Springer homered on a 99-mph, 2-1 fastball. Fireworks were shot off. The crowd rebounded while Springer circled the bases. The trip moved him into history: Springer is now the only player in MLB postseason history to homer in five consecutive World Series games. He was tied with epic October ghosts Reggie Jackson and Lou Gehrig at four in a row.
Altuve struck out via a rare flailing swing. Brantley walked on four pitches. Alex Bregman walked. Rainey was done.
Eights out remained. Only two pitching options, Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle, were at Martinez’s disposable. He chose Hudson to face Gurriel. His shallow pop out led to a second out. Carlos Correa’s infield single loaded the bases. Yordan Álvarez, an abnormal No. 7 hitter because of his 1.067 OPS this season, struck out on three pitches. Hudson threw eight total. He and Doolittle needed a way to six more outs.
Hudson returned in the eighth. A leadoff single ended up as another run when Springer doubled off the wall in right field. Eaton jumped, the ball hit the side of his glove and bounced off the wall. Washington’s lead dwindled to one. Heart palpitations increased. Houston’s crowd rose. Doolittle’s chance came after Altuve lined out to right field. He needed four outs, starting with Brantley. A liner to left delivered the first. Three outs to go through a thorn-filled group: Bregman, Gurriel and Correa.
Bregman struck out. Gurriel flew out. Correa flew out. The Nationals lined up to celebrate on the Astros’ home field.
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