HOUSTON -- An unraveling is rare in Houston, ugly baseball and bad pitching and plays left unmade. The 107-win Astros rarely, if ever, put together such an inning throughout the season.
But, pressure can cause unusual fissures. When Stephen Strasburg figures his way out of the bottom of the sixth, when Kurt Suzuki pops a solo homer for the lead, when Houston takes an out-of-character gamble to load the bases. Eventually, a wide gap can appear, created by pushes from within and out.
The seventh inning Wednesday night in Minute Maid Park became an all-around failure for the Astros and a boon for Washington. Six runs scored via a combination of Houston mistakes, Washington hits and general grind from the Nationals. A 2-2 game morphed into an 8-2 Washington lead. As a result, the Nationals swept the first two games of the World Series in Houston via an eventual 12-3 win. They go back to Washington on Thursday morning for a day off, perhaps not needing the plane for transport, the wind behind them during this postseason run likely enough to cover the journey.
Aníbal Sánchez will pitch Game 3 on Friday. Patrick Corbin, unused Wednesday in a relief role, is lined up for Game 4. Washington has the cat by the tail for now. It came to Houston expansive underdogs. It leaves Texas with this history framing its series lead: Teams with a 2-0 World Series lead have won 44 of 55 times. Road teams with a 2-0 series lead are 22-3. The odds, for one of the rare times this season, are unexpectedly with them.
The defining seventh began with Suzuki’s home run. He entered the game 1-for-23 in the postseason, and the blow at the time appeared massive. It pushed Justin Verlander on his heels and the Nationals into the lead. Victor Robles walked and Verlander departed in favor of Ryan Pressly. Trea Turner walked. Adam Eaton pushed them over with a bunt. Anthony Rendon flew out to shallow center, putting the Nationals on the cusp of squander and tension. A one-run lead heading to the bottom of the seventh would be a challenging prospect.
Houston intentionally walked Juan Soto to load the bases, issuing its first intentional walk of the 2019 season. Alex Bregman couldn’t quite corral a Howie Kendrick infield grounder to his left. A run scored. Asdrúbal Cabrera singled. Two more scored. Ryan Zimmerman’s dribbler to Bregman led to an infield single and a throwing error. Two more scored. Suzuki’s groundout closed the lead-building half-inning.
Eaton’s two-run homer and Cabrera’s single in the eighth resulted in three more runs. Michael A. Taylor tacked on a homer. Washington inserted Tanner Rainey for the eighth and Javy Guerra for the ninth. Houston fans were busy leaving during this portion of the game, the clock moving toward 11 p.m. local time on a weeknight and the lead too gargantuan, even for a juggernaut.
Early strikes came for both sides. Rendon’s first-inning double scored Turner and Eaton to give Washington a 2-0 lead. Bregman, frustrated by his personal lack of production, tied the game with a two-run homer to left field in the bottom of the first.
Both Verlander and Strasburg took a breath, then reminded everyone who they are.
Strasburg worked a 1-2-3 second inning with two strikeouts. A Turner error and Michael Brantley single promoted problems in the third before Strasburg retired Bregman on one pitch. Verlander shooed away a Suzuki single in the second and Soto double in the third, largely working behind his four-seam fastball and slider. A benign Zimmerman infield single produced the lone baserunner in an otherwise quiet fourth. Strasburg came back with his own quality half of the inning.
But, Strasburg’s pitch count was building. Houston was again working to drill into Washington’s woebegone gap, the center of the bullpen, by pushing one of its upper-tier starters out of the game before the seventh inning. He started the bottom of the fifth at 72 pitches. Five pitches into it, he gained two outs, then Altuve singled and a seven-pitch at-bat by Brantley drove Strasburg to 86 pitches before the inning ended. His strenuous times were just beginning.
By the time pinch-hitter Kyle Tucker came to the plate with two out in the bottom of the sixth, Strasburg’s body language coupled with the radar gun to show his state. He took deep breaths, fiddled with his jersey, slowed his tempo. He was tired. Strasburg's pitch count crept to 105, then 110, then, with two on and Tucker in a 3-2 count, Strasburg again reset for his 114th pitch. He threw two curveballs, two changeups and three fastballs to Tucker at that point. A final curveball came across for strike three.
Strasburg was done and elated. He jogged into the dugout, momentarily using adrenaline to drive his prior fatigue.
What has become a standard move followed. Sánchez and Gerardo Parra sandwiched Strasburg -- “El Caballo (The Horse)” to some of the Latin players in the clubhouse -- for an uncomfortable, slow-rocking, a-bit-too-long hug.
The game was well in doubt there. The series could have moved to 1-1, still a successful, if not luxurious trip to Houston for Washington to open the World Series. Instead, the Nationals have a 2-0, white-knuckle grip on the situation. The underdogs are now the favored, just two wins from a World Series title with five chances to obtain them.
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