HOUSTON -- A joke certainly helped bring some amusement to a gloomy moment. When asked about his 0-6 career record in the World Series, Astros right-hander Justin Verlander used it as a chance to remind reporters, in jest, of the importance of such a stat in new-age baseball.
“I thought we didn’t talk about record anymore,” he quipped.
In a season in which he reached several remarkable milestones -- including 3,000 career strikeouts, 300 strikeouts for the season and his third no-hitter en route to a possible second Cy Young Award -- Verlander remains winless in the Fall Classic after the Nationals got him for three runs, including two homers, over five innings in a 7-2 loss on Tuesday night that pushed the Series to a decisive Game 7 on Wednesday night at Minute Maid Park.
The Astros, seeking their second World Series championship in three seasons, will now have to buck the most unusual of odds and somehow win a game at home. For the first time in any of the four major sports (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL), the road team has won the first six games.
“If I had told you the Series was going to be 3-3 going to a Game 7, I don't think there's a person in the building that would have assumed that all road teams were going to win,” Houston manager AJ Hinch said. “We've just got to make sure that last one is not the same.”
In Game 6, Verlander was not the same as he was in Game 2, although the result was. He didn’t have a great feel for his offspeed pitches, and the Nationals were able to capitalize. Verlander gave up a tough-luck run in the first inning before Adam Eaton and Juan Soto blasted solo homers in the fifth inning. Verlander needed 93 pitches to get through five innings.
Verlander managed only 10 swinging strikes (10.7 percent) in Game 6 after 21 swinging strikes in 107 pitches (19.6 percent) in his Game 2 start, also a loss. Only three of the swings and misses on Tuesday came on his breaking pitches.
“I thought he ran out of gas at the end,” Hinch said. “And he had a lot of hard innings. They got a couple of baserunners in virtually every inning except for the second. He had to work through 18-, 19-plus pitches, 20 pitches, high-stress pitches. So it was an easy decision for me. I thought he left it all out on the field.”
Verlander, who had allowed nine runs in the first inning of his previous five starts this postseason, gave up a run in the first, but not because of any hard hits. Trea Turner reached on an infield single and scored from second when Anthony Rendon rolled a single to right field through the shift for a 1-0 lead. Rendon would do his most damage later against the Astros' bullpen, with a two-run homer and a two-run double.
“Really, kind of a tough-luck run there in the first,” Verlander said. “Good piece of hitting by Rendon to kind of slap it to the right side with the shift on. I was able to kind of fight and claw, and the last inning just a poorly executed slider and really just kind of a fastball in, because I wasn’t really trusting my offspeed stuff there.”
Verlander threw at least 18 pitches in each inning, except for a 1-2-3 second in which he threw 12. The third inning, though he didn’t give up a run, proved to take the most out of him. With two outs, Verlander walked Eaton on seven pitches and then Rendon on 10 pitches, driving up his pitch count to 56 through three innings.
“I think their whole lineup in general does such a great job working pitches and working counts and giving you tough at-bats,” Verlander said. “That was definitely an inning that was pretty taxing.”
Clinging to a 2-1 lead entering the fifth, a tiring Verlander gave up a solo homer to Eaton on an 0-1 slider before Soto hit a mammoth 413-foot blast into the upper deck in right field one out later to put Washington ahead, 3-2.
“I think we were just trying to be aggressive in the zone, kind of the same approach that we've tried to have all season,” Rendon said. “Try not to fish too much at baseballs, at sliders in the dirt, offspeeds or whatever it might be. If we try to stay within ourselves and try to swing at pitches that we can put a good swing on and not give in, not give in any strikes, I think that we could try to knock around any pitcher. And we just happened to get to him a little bit today.”
Verlander, who threw 258 1/3 innings combined in the regular season and postseason this year, fell to 0-6 with a 5.68 ERA in seven career starts in the World Series, four of which have come with Houston. Winning a game in the Fall Classic is perhaps the one career achievement that continues to elude him.
“Hey, there’s been some good games mixed in and some not-so-good ones,” Verlander said. “I can’t point a finger to anything in particular. I’m going out there and trying my best. Just wasn’t able to come up with a win.”