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Nationals use everything they have to pull out Game 1, take World Series lead

Nationals use everything they have to pull out Game 1, take World Series lead

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 one which keeps finding a new way to fill the holes they create. Washington has its first World Series win since 1933 and first for this iteration of baseball in the District. Scherzer started it. Sean Doolittle ended it. Juan Soto took a star turn during it.
 
“I think we want to win more,” Trea Turner said. “I think you can celebrate all you want, but we have a bigger goal in mind. If you let up for a second, those guys are going to take advantage of it. We're going to enjoy it, but at the same time, we're ready to go for [Wednesday].”
 
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.
 
“First at-bat to hit a home run and run around the bases, you're kind of almost floating around the bases,” Zimmerman said.
 
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. 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 an 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 games. He was tied with epic October ghosts Reggie Jackson and Lou Gehrig at four in a row. 
“I told them in the dugout we need to play in the World Series more often because he hits homers every single time it feels like,” Houston manager A.J. Hinch said.
 
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. 

“I didn't feel it during my outing, but then it hit me like a ton of bricks after the final out of the game,” Doolittle said. “You're so in the moment when it's happening that you're not thinking about what it might mean in context and then it just hits you when you're done. We just took the first game and won the first World Series game in Nats franchise history and took a lead in the series. It was really cool to be out there for that.”

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Daniel Hudson represents a key offseason question for Nationals

Daniel Hudson represents a key offseason question for Nationals

An intact unit from a championship team is typically positive. Bring back the winners. Try it again. Why not?

The Nationals’ bullpen, such as it was by the end of the season, will again be populated by pieces from the league’s worst ensemble in 2019. Closer Sean Doolittle is back -- that’s good. Washington picked up his $6.5 million option. To do so was a simple decision.

Also still on the 40-man roster are Roenis Elías, Hunter Strickland, Javy Guerra, Tanner Rainey and Wander Suero. Quickly, a bullpen foundation emerges. A left-handed specialist remains a need. Another power arm to pitch late is necessary. And, with the latter, is where the question about Daniel Hudson enters. 

Hudson -- along with Howie Kendrick -- represents a core question for the World Series champions: What is repeatable?

There is a discernible need in Hudson’s case. Washington has to find a way to supplement Doolittle with another closer-level reliever. Free agent options are extremely limited.

Hudson, 33, put together the second-best season of his career in 2019. The only other year which personally rivaled his 2.0-WAR output last season came in 2010. He was a very effective starter across 11 games almost a decade ago. 

His careening 2019 path falls right in line with the Nationals’ own stop-and-go trajectory. Hudson was released by the Anaheim Angels on March 22. Three days later, he signed with Toronto. It traded him for right-handed minor-league pitcher Kyle Johnston, who is in Single-A, at the trade deadline. Suddenly, Hudson was en route to the playoffs as a premier part of a revamped bullpen.

He dominated after arriving: a 1.44 ERA, 0.88 WHIP and a crucial bridge during Doolittle's August injury. Hudson finished Game 7 of the World Series with a slider to strike out Michael Brantley. He pulled off his glove -- though he almost forgets the pledge he made with Doolittle to do so -- then hurled it toward the dugout before he began celebrating.

Real life often intervened for Hudson during the season. The birth of his third daughter became a national hot-take topic for a brief time and yet another embraced opportunity for proving stupidity on social media. Hudson went on the paternity list and missed Game 1 of the National League Championship Series because of the birth. A Google search of “Daniel Hudson paternity list” proves how far the story resonated. The top result is from People magazine. 

Hudson, meanwhile also adjusted to an on-field role he didn’t want: being Washington’s full-time, then part-time, closer put him in position to handle the ninth inning. He said late in the season, “I hate closing.” Turns out he was good at it. Hudson arrived with 11 career saves. He picked up 10 more between the regular season and postseason after joining the Nationals. 

He also struck a positive note with Doolittle. 

“I want Huddy back,” Doolittle told NBC Sports Washington. “I don’t know how that’s going to shake out. I know the market for relievers is relatively set, but I want Huddy back.

“I think it works. It was really a unique situation where you had a couple guys at the end of the day, like, we weren’t super-attached to that role or that title (closer), we just wanted to win.”

That’s a repeatable sentiment. But, at what cost? Hudson’s ERA from 2016-2018: 4.61. His ERA with the Nationals was more than three runs lower. Would Washington be paying for recency bias and sentimentality? Or can it find a price point where Hudson’s return would be in line with his likeliness to revert? 

He’s one player. However, he represents a key question and a key spot.

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Sean Doolittle speaks out against disbanding of several minor league affiliates

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Sean Doolittle speaks out against disbanding of several minor league affiliates

When Sean Doolittle speaks, it's usually a pretty good idea to listen.

The latest piece of news the Nationals' closer has weighed in on? The proposed changes to baseball's minor league system, in which several teams may lose their affiliations and 1,000 players -- not to mention countless local employees -- would lose their jobs.

Doolittle is responding to reports of incoming changes that would drastically alter the shape and, more importantly, scope of minor league baseball. 

In an era with rapidly-declining attendance and fan interest every year, it's confusing to Doolittle and others why Major League Baseball would take actions to limit exposure to thousands of fans.

Doolittle points out in his thread of tweets why this seems counter-intuitive to what baseball is trying to do in winning over young fans. At the end of the day, the decision comes down to money, which will ultimately hurt fans in more remote areas of the country.

The Nationals and Orioles would be impacted too. The Frederick Keys, Baltimore's Single-A affiliate, is on the chopping block despite some of the best attendance numbers and community efforts in their league. The Hagerstown Suns, the Nats' Single-A affiliate, are also potential victims.

Once again, baseball is having the wrong conversations when it comes to improving the sport. Hopefully cooler heads like Doolittle's prevail and local teams across the country can continue to operate, bringing baseball to new fans everywhere.

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