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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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The Capitals are a perfect 2-0 to start their five-game road trip after a 5-3 win over the Calgary Flames on Tuesday. It was a sleepy game for the Caps who were largely outplayed through the first two periods. A few short bursts of brilliance, however, were enough to ensure Washington never trailed.
Here is how the Caps won.
A gift for Carlson
John Carlson entered the game as the NHL’s leader in points. He is arguably the hottest player in the league. He doesn’t need gifts, but he was gifted a goal by Calgary goalie Cam Talbot early in the second.
After a sleepy first period, the Caps’ came out swinging in the second and Alex Ovechkin nearly connected with Nicklas Backstrom on a pretty passing play on the backdoor. The puck curled around the boards and Carlson stepped up and just fired a hopeful shot on net that seemed to catch Talbot by surprise as it hit the short-side for the goal.
That is a horrific goal that Talbot just should not have given up. If you watch, he actually shifts a little backward after the initial play missed. Perhaps Talbot misjudged where he was in net, but that is an angle he should have been able to easily cut off based on the position of the puck. Instead, he backed up, left the near-side open and Carlson hit it.
The goal extended Carlson’s point streak to a career-high eight games. He would add an empty-net goal to give him 20 points on the season.
Just over two minutes after Carlson put the Caps on the board, Chandler Stephenson extended the lead to 2-0 with a great play behind the net to pickpocket Talbot.
Talbot went behind the net to corral a dump-in from Brendan Leipsic, but Stephenson never gave up on the play and zipped in behind the net after Talbot. He stole the puck away from Talbot. He was boxed in by the Flames’ netminder and two more Flames skaters so he attempted to center the puck, but it bounced off of defenseman Rasmus Andersson and into the net.
A 10-second response
Overall, this was not a great game for the Caps. They looked sleepy and out of sync, missing numerous easy passes in the offensive zone that ended their offensive opportunities. Two early goals in the second spotted them a 2-0 lead, but Calgary took control and Austin Czarnik tied the game at 2 late in the period. That briefly woke up the Caps and Ovechkin put Washington back on top just 10 seconds after the game was tied.
Calgary won the faceoff after the goal, but Radko Gudas forced a turnover that Backstrom picked up. Two forwards had gone past him in anticipation of entering the offensive zone, a third player was on the ice after getting hit by Gudas, one defenseman stepped to the boards to give T.J. Oshie a shove, but could not recover to stop Backstrom and suddenly Backstrom was in behind four players for a 2-on-1 with Ovechkin. He made the simple backhand pass on the rush and Ovechkin fired the one-timer into the net.
Jakub Vrana’s drive to the net
Michal Kempny fired a stretch pass to launch a breakout. It looked like Travis Hamonic could have grabbed the puck, but he couldn’t control it and left it out for Lars Eller to continue the attack. As Eller took the puck, Jakub Vrana drove hard to the net bringing Noah Hanifin with him and that left Tom Wilson wide open. Eller passed to Wilson who netted the knockout punch.
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