SportsPulse: This may be the most energetic World Series we’ve seen in a long time. For both teams, their exuberance on and off the field has been propelled by the joy often seen in Latin baseball culture.
HOUSTON — In their quest to regain their dignity, and then get on even ground, and then think about maybe making the postseason, the Washington Nationals rolled out 50 players this season. Some were well-paid superstars, a few more were journeymen on short-term commitments, and others still merely a hope and a prayer in the form of a waiver-wire claim.
Wednesday night, with a championship perhaps hanging in the balance, the Nationals leaned on every last resource they had to once again hold off the Houston Astros until they could deliver a punishing, decisive blow.
Stephen Strasburg battled Justin Verlander and the exhausting Astros lineup to a standstill for six innings and 114 pitches, long enough for one of the Nationals’ itinerant heroes to come to the fore.
This time, it was Kurt Suzuki, a veteran catcher of 13 seasons and three playoff runs, who manhandled a Justin Verlander fastball for a seventh-inning, go-ahead home run that may one day be remembered as a championship blow.
Suzuki’s blast unleashed a seventh-inning cavalcade of runs – six in all – as they finished Verlander and then watched the Astros self-implode. Two innings later, Minute Maid Park largely emptied, they claimed a 12-3 victory that sends them back to the nation’s capital with a commanding 2-0 World Series lead.
Win two of three at Nationals Park, and D.C. will have its first World Series champion since the 1924 Washington Senators survived a seven-game fight against the New York Giants.
That was two franchises ago in Washington’s largely checkered baseball history. And perhaps that’s what’s most stunning about this Nationals run: For much of October, save for two harrowing elimination games, they’ve made it look easy.
They’re now on an 18-2 run counting the final days of the regular season and are 10-2 in these playoffs.
History may record this Game 2 as the Series-deciding win, one that will look like a blowout to future generations.
Until the seventh, it was a standoff that eventually devolved as the Nationals imposed their will.
The postseason is filled with forks in the road that pass unremarkably or become the site of a season-crushing pileup.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, Nationals manager Dave Martinez opted to intentionally walk Astros rookie Yordan Alvarez after a fading Strasburg threw him a pair of balls. He’d yielded a double to Yuli Gurriel after a seven-pitch battle, and after Alvarez’s walk, Carlos Correa worked a full count off him.
But Straburg induced a popout from Correa for a crucial second out, and Astros manager A.J. Hinch tossed rookie Kyle Tucker to pinch hit.
While Tucker worked an eight-pitch at-bat, it was Strasburg who seemed in control of the moment, all the way through the final pitch, a curveball Tucker half-heartedly waved at for the final out.
After Suzuki’s home run, Hinch tried a similar gambit. It failed spectacularly.
Verlander issued a walk to Victor Robles, finishing his night, and after reliever Ryan Pressly issued a walk and got a sacrifice bunt, the great Juan Soto loomed at the plate.
Hinch wanted no part of the rookie who’d already laced four hits in two games, so he opted to load the base. It was the first intentional walk the Astros have issued all year.
And it fired up the merry-go-around.
Howie Kendrick followed with a two-out smash off Alex Bregman’s glove at third for an infield single Then, one of those forgettable waiver claims, Asdrubal Cabrera, lashed a Pressly pitch for a two-run single.
Suddenly, 2-2 became 6-2. And the Astros still weren’t out of the nightmare.
“Clearly I think there’s a lot of downside given that I haven’t done it all year,” Hinch said of the intentional pass. “But ironically I thought it was our best chance to limit their scoring, and instead it poured gasoline on a fire that was already burning.”
After a grim Game 1 performance that included a ninth-inning strikeout in a 5-4 loss, Bregman said he had to turn things around, “ASAP.” He literally did, crushing a Strasburg mistake changeup to tie the game 2-2 in the bottom of the first.
But his blue period was not yet done.
Bregman wasted yet another Astros scoring chance by grounding out with two outs in the third. And in that neverending seventh inning, he couldn’t corral Kendrick’s ground ball, allowing the crucial fourth run to score.
Two batters later, it become an utter circus, when he charged a Ryan Zimmerman grounder and threw wildly to first base. Zimmerman had an RBI single and another run scored on Bregman’s error.
Both teams will fly to Washington on Thursday morning. The flight may feel longest to Bregman.
State of the series
The stage now shifts to Nationals Park for Games 3, 4 and – if necessary – 5, with Anibal Sanchez facing Zack Greinke on Friday night. Given their deficit, the Astros may consider bringing ace Gerrit Cole back on early rest in Game 4 – or regular rest if forecasted rains pelt the area Saturday.
“It’s gonna be lit,” Eaton said after the game. “I think it’s going to be quite ridiculous.”