HOUSTON — The first game of any World Series is bound to be overblown in the reaction it engenders.
The winning team is well on its way to a title and the losing team might as well pack it in.
Seldom does Game 1 — with rare exceptions over the years — have that kind of impact.
But when the Nationals built a three-run lead midgame Tuesday night against Astros uber stud Gerrit Cole, a pitcher who hadn’t lost since May 22, it suddenly became a game they absolutely had to get.
And though it was a walk through fire, get it they did, edging the Astros, 5-4, a dramatic Game 1 victory in front of 43,339 at Minute Maid Park.
“I thought it would be a 2-1 ballgame,” Nationals rightfielder Adam Eaton said of the matchup of aces, Cole versus three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer. “But that’s why you play the games. That’s the beauty of baseball.”
Cole, 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA this season, allowed five runs and eight hits in seven innings. The righthander, a free agent at season’s end, departed with the Astros, who topped the Yankees in six games in the ALCS, trailing 5-2.
Juan Soto, who debuted last season and doesn’t turn 21 until Friday — when Game 3 is scheduled in Washington — was not intimidated by Cole or the biggest stage the sport has to offer. The smooth-swinging lefty-hitting leftfielder, went 3-for-4, including a solo homer and two-run double, the latter of which made it 5-2 in the fifth.
“No moment’s too big for that guy,” said lefty starter Patrick Corbin, who pitched a scoreless sixth inning of relief after replacing Scherzer. “Pretty impressive what he did today.”
Part of an impressive night overall for the Nationals, who beat an Astros team that went an MLB-best 60-21 at home this season.
Predictably, Houston didn’t go away.
George Springer, whose homer off Tanner Rainey in the seventh made it 5-3, hit a one-out RBI double an inning later off Daniel Hudson to make it 5-4. Hudson retired Jose Altuve, whose walk-off two-run homer against Aroldis Chapman in Game 6 of the ALCS sent the Yankees home, and lefthander Sean Doolittle got the lefty-swinging Michael Brantley to line to left.
Doolittle then worked a stress-free 1-2-3 ninth, striking out Alex Bregman, getting Yuli Gurriel and Carlos Correa to fly to center.
The game was billed, and not without cause, as an old-school duel between aces.
Cole went 11-0 with a 1.51 ERA in his last 13 regular-season starts, striking out 143 and walking 16 in 89 2/3 innings in that stretch, and had not lost a game since May 22.
The 35-year-old Scherzer, though not quite at the standard of some of his best seasons, still went 11-7 with a 2.92 ERA, striking out 243 batters in 172 1/3 innings.
Tuesday was a grind for the veteran, though he still departed with the lead after allowing two runs and five hits over five innings. Scherzer, who threw 112 pitches, walked three and struck out seven.
The Astros took an early lead on a two-run double in the first by Yuli Gurriel, who tagged Chad Green with a three-run homer in the first inning of Game 6 of the ALCS. Opponents had been 0-for-17 against Scherzer with runners in scoring position to that point of the postseason. Scherzer struck out Correa to end the 26-pitch inning.
The Nationals got one back with two outs in the second when Ryan Zimmerman, taking the first World Series swing of his 15-year career with Washington, hammered a 1-and-0 fastball, which came in at 97 mph, and launched it to left-center.
And it was that hit, Soto said, that put the Nationals' successful night in motion.
“Everything changed,” said Soto, who became the fourth player younger than 21 to homer in a World Series game. “After they (scored the) two runs and then we came back and get (one), it felt like everybody’s happy again. Everybody was a little bit down. But after we hit the homer against a guy like that (Cole), everybody thinks we've got a chance now. He's been doing really well, but he made a mistake, so he's going to make (one) again and we'll get it.”