HOUSTON — So, about that narrative that the “real” World Series took place in the American League Championship Series between the Astros and Yankees?
The Nationals, behind five laborious innings by ace Max Scherzer, gutted out a one-run victory in Game 1 over the previous unbeatable Gerrit Cole as a somewhat emphatic rejoinder.
Then they completely annihilated the Astros in Game 2, a 12-3 victory in front of a stunned sellout crowd of 43,357 at Minute Maid Park that suddenly has the Nationals two wins away from a title no one saw coming.
The Nationals, playing in the franchise’s first World Series, took a two-games-to-none lead, with Games 3-5, starting Friday night, in D.C. They’ve won eight straight postseason games dating to Game 4 of the NLDS vs. the Dodgers.
“I think it’s going to be quite ridiculous,” rightfielder Adam Eaton said of the atmosphere Friday at Nationals Park. “The fans have been wanting this for a long time.”
Stephen Strasburg, though his pitch count soared relatively early, still grinded his way through six innings and 114 pitches. The righthander allowed two runs, both coming on an Alex Bregman two-run homer in the first that tied it at 2, seven hits and a walk. Strasburg struck out seven.
Verlander, who allowed four first-inning runs in a loss to the Yankees in Game 5 of the ALCS at the Stadium, allowed four runs — two in the first inning on an Anthony Rendon two-run double that made it 2-0 — and seven hits over six innings. To review: that’s two victories in two games started by the co-favorites to win the AL Cy Young, Cole and Verlander.
“If you had said at the beginning of the series, what’s the best-case scenario and I said, ‘we win two games,’ there would have been a bunch of people saying, ‘whoa, be realistic here, these are two of the best guys [Cole and Verlander] in all of baseball,’” said lefty closer Sean Doolittle, who earned the save in Game 1. “Give Max and Stras credit, they went toe-to-toe with those guys.”
The Astros, who won an MLB-best 107 games and were 61-20 at home, also tops in the majors, saw the game come apart in a six-run seventh by the Nationals, with Kurt Suzuki untying it with a leadoff homer off Verlander to make it 3-2. A hailstorm of hits, walks and misplays helped the Nationals push five more across, making it 8-2 by inning’s end and sending many of the fans streaming quietly out. The Nationals got a two-run homer by Adam Eaton in the eighth and an RBI single by Asdrubal Cabrera, who drove in two in the seventh, in the eighth made it 11-2. Washington had 14 hits overall compared with nine for Houston.
“They have to look around the room,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said of his club. “We have a really good team. Clearly, the Nats have outplayed us, bottom line. They came into our building and played two really good games. We're going to have to try to sleep off the latter third of this game. I don't want to lump this into a horrible game; it was a horrible three innings for us.”
And, overall, more frustration for the Astros, who came into the night hitting .185/.248/.348 with RISP this postseason and went 0-for-5 and stranded nine runners Wednesday.
“Making pitches,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “We talked about coming into this series knowing that these guys don't chase. They see a lot of pitches. But we have to continue to pound the strike zone and they're doing that.”
Nine pitches into the game, the Nationals had the lead. Leadoff man Trea Turner walked on four pitches and Eaton, who drove in a run off Cole with a single in Game 1, lashed a 0-and-1 fastball opposite-field to left. Rendon, a Houston native, fell behind 0-and-2 but sent a changeup opposite-field off the wall in left-center for a two-run double.
Alex Bregman, 9-for-39 in the playoffs entering the night, hit a two-run shot off Strasburg in the bottom half but that was it for Houston until Martin Maldonado’s homer in the ninth that made it … 12-3.
“They're halfway to a race to four wins,” Hinch said. “Clearly, Game 3 becomes critical for us. We're going to get on a plane, we're going to go to Washington. I doubt the Nats are going to feel too confident that they have this sewed up and they can start planning the parade. We're going to give them a fight for it.”