Wednesday, October 30, 2019

World Series Game Six (Continued)

In retrospect, the Nationals are quite fortunate that they drew the Astros instead of the Yankees -- not because the Astros are worse than the Yankees (they are clearly better), but because the Astros play in a little bandbox of a stadium where it's relatively easy to hit home runs.  The Phillies play in the same type of stadium, and the Nats have feasted on the Phillies in recent years.  You see, the Nats' biggest problem is that almost none of their players can hit for average -- so it's very difficult for them to string together a series of hits.  They basically have to wait for you to make a mistake and then hit it a long way.  In a normal stadium -- like Nationals' Park -- against pitchers who know what they are doing, the Nats' offense can look pretty bad.  But put them in the playpen in Houston, and they look very different.

Of course, the other big difference for Washington last night was the return of Stephen Strasburg.  Strasburg was 4-0 in the post-season going into last night's game.  In his last appearance, in Game Two of the World Series, he held the Astros in check, and the Nats jumped all over the Houston bullpen, winning the game 12 to 3.  So unlike Game Five, which featured Gerrit Cole going up against Joe Ross, the Nats could see a path to victory in Game Six.

From the beginning, the Nats showed new life.  Trea Turner beat out an infield hit (once the umpires reviewed the film and reversed their bad call).  Then he scooted to second on a bunt by Adam Eaton.  And when Houston put on the shift for Anthony Rendon, he coolly poked a ball exactly where the second baseman would have been in a normal defense.  Turner raced home, and the Nats had a 1-0 lead on Justin Verlander.

It didn't last long.  In the bottom of the first, George Springer hit the first pitch for a booming double off the high wall in right.  He went to third on a wild pitch, and scored on a sacrifice fly by Jose Altuve.  Two batters later, Alex Bregman blasted a home run into the left field seats, and carried his bat all the way to first base in celebration.

So Houston led 2-1 after one inning, and then Strasburg and Verlander settled down.  This was very good news for Nats' fans, as Strasburg has been excellent all year once he settles down.  Meanwhile, the Nats kept swinging for the fences, and in the top of the fifth Adam Eaton lined a shot into the right field bleachers.  Tie game.  Two batters later, Verlander went to a 3-1 count on Soto, with all four pitches very high in the strike zone.  I thought he was working around Soto, but the next pitch caught the top of the zone, and Soto blasted a titanic homer to right.  It would have been gone in any major league stadium, and finished well up in the second deck.  The Nats were up 3-2, and Soto carried his own bat to first to remind Houston that the Nats weren't happy with Bregman.

Strasburg was now 15 outs from victory, but got in trouble almost at once.  In the bottom of the 5th, Josh Reddick hit a one-out single, and then Springer laced a second double to left.  The Astros had men on second and third with one out, and Jose Altuve -- the Joe Morgan of our time -- coming to bat.  I thought for sure that Altuve would at least tie the game, but Strasburg fanned him on three strikes -- the last one a lunging swing at a low outside pitch that Altuve couldn't possibly reach.  Then Michael Brantley whacked a hard grounder up the middle that looked to score two runs -- until you saw that the Nats had the shift on, and the ball went straight to Trea Turner.  He threw out Brantley, and the Nats still led 3-2.

It stayed that way until the seventh, when Yan Gomes led off for the Nats with a single.  Turner, who has struggled throughout the Series, hit a soft grounder to third.  He apparently beat the throw -- which skipped away, allowing the Nats to put men on second and third.  But the umpires concluded that Turner had interfered with the first baseman's ability to catch the ball.  Given that Turner had beaten the throw and was actually touching the bag when the first baseman reached for the ball, this was a ludicrous call, and the Nats went berserk.  Somehow -- and I don't know how these things happen -- the Nats have been transformed into one of those feisty, emotional teams, like the ones they always have at Louisville.  I'm a feisty, emotional type myself, and the stoicism of prior Nats' teams used to get on my nerves.  I have enjoyed seeing this year's Nats wear their hearts on their sleeves.

Finally, after a long and painful review, Turner was declared out and Gomes was sent back to first.  Eaton popped up, and the Astros appeared to have dodged a bullet.  But then Rendon, who had not homered in the whole World Series, blooped a fly into those enticing left field seats, and the Nats were up 5-2.  I was thrilled -- but Nats' manager Davey Martinez was so angry about Turner that he was ejected during the Seventh-Inning Stretch, the first manager to be ejected since Bobby Cox of the Braves was ejected back in 1996.

With two out in the bottom of the seventh, Springer worked the count to 3-1, and I was afraid he and Altuve would work another rally.  But Springer flied out to left to end the eighth.  (On TV, you could see that he was angry with himself as soon as he hit the ball.)  Altuve led off the 8th with a tiny grounder that Rendon scooped up, firing to Ryan Zimmerman to nip Altuve by less than a step.

And that was pretty much it.  Rendon blasted a two-run double in the top of the ninth for the final margin of 7-2, and the Nats removed Strasburg after 104 pitches and 8 1/3 innings.  Strasburg was the difference in this game -- he held the Astros long enough for the Nats' sporadic offense to get going.  For that matter, Strasburg carried the Nats pretty much the whole season.  After years of being criticized for softness, Strasburg went 18-6 in the regular season and 5-0 in the post-season.  He is the main reason the Nats are still alive.

And so, for the fifth time in this decade, we will have a Game Seven of the World Series.  I think that Game Seven of the World Series is the best event in American sports, followed closely by the final of the NCAA Basketball Tournament.  But they play the NCAA Final every year, and you never know if you will get a Game Seven until the night before it happens.  The Nats will be sending out Max Scherzer (lifetime record of 170-89, ERA of 3.20, Cy Young Award Winner in 2013, 2016, and 2017).  The Astros will counter with Zach Greinke (lifetime record of 205-123, ERA of 3.35, Cy Young Award Winner in 2009).  I think they are both Hall of Famers.  I'm pretty sure that Altuve is also going to the Hall of Fame, and I wouldn't be surprised to some other Astros get there as well.  Meanwhile, the Nats will be hoping that Scherzer can hold Houston long enough for them to get a few balls into those very inviting seats.

This will be the last game of the 2019 season, which has lasted slightly more than seven months.  It hasn't been a great season for neutral fans -- although it has come down to a final showdown between the only two teams that went the whole season without losing a game that they really needed to win.  Of course, for those of us in Washington it's the most exciting season in a very long time, and we will be very sorry to see it end.

7:08 P.M. Central:  Washington at Houston (series tied 3-3)

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