HOUSTON -- There seemed to be no visible panic in the Astros when they arrived in Washington after dropping the first two games of the World Series at home and losing the home-field advantage they had worked so hard over the previous six months to achieve.
The first World Series game in the nation’s capitol in 86 years awaited them, and it was being treated as pretty much a must-win. All-Star third baseman Alex Bregman said the Astros had to “stop the bleeding,” an all-encompassing term that simply meant they had to find a way to win. They did so in convincing fashion, outscoring the Nationals, 19-3, to sweep the three games in D.C. and seize control of a Series in which the road team has won every game.
Justin Verlander will start for the Astros in Game 6 on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park with a chance to send his team to its second World Series championship in three years. Stephen Strasburg -- unbeaten in the playoffs -- will start for the Nationals. Houston has turned the World Series around and needs just one win in two possible home games to hoist another trophy.
“It’s a pretty good spot to be in,” Astros relief pitcher Joe Smith said on Monday.
Even after falling into an 0-2 hole in the World Series, Houston’s confidence never left. Shortstop Carlos Correa said the Astros simply needed to get their swagger back, a message he conveyed to teammate José Altuve on the flight to Washington.
“We're getting hits and we're not even getting hyped up, we're scoring runs and it feels like a regular game,” Correa told Altuve. “This is the World Series. This is the last series of the season. We need to play like it. We need to give everything we've got. Then after the Series is over, we're going to be exhausted, but we got three months to rest and then show up to Spring Training. Let's get our swagger back. Let's play hard. Let's play with passion. Let's play like we want it.”
Here are the keys to the Astros’ surprising World Series turnaround:
Offense has returned to form
The Astros posted the highest single-season slugging percentage in history (.495) this year, but they trudged through the American League Division Series against the Rays and the AL Championship Series against the Yankees without their offense playing up to its potential. That continued in Games 1 and 2 of the World Series.
Nowhere was that more evident than in the clutch. The Astros went 2-for-17 (.118) with runners in scoring position in the first two games of the World Series before going 11-for-28 (.393) in Games 3-5. The biggest hit may have been a second-inning bloop RBI single by Josh Reddick in Game 3 that got the offense rolling. Suddenly, the Astros relaxed and clutch hits abounded.
The Astros are slashing .290/.363/.486 (.849 OPS) in the World Series, which is pretty close to their regular season slash line of .274/.352/.495 (.847 OPS). They averaged 1.78 home runs per game in the regular season and have averaged 1.8 per game in the World Series. Water finds its level, and it was only a matter of time before the Astros hit like the Astros.
“I feel like this last three games we really played like we want this championship,” Correa said. “We've got to win one more game. Obviously, they've got a great team on the other side. We have a lot of respect for them and the group of guys they have over there. But we've got to go out there and take care of business in Houston.”
Stellar pitching on the road
Losing two games at home started by Gerrit Cole and Verlander in Games 1 and 2 was as disastrous a start as Astros the could have imagined. Astros pitchers posted a 7.00 ERA (14 earned runs in 18 innings) in the first two games of the Fall Classic, allowing five homers and striking out 18 batters with seven walks.
Lo and behold, it was the bullpen -- and starter Zack Greinke, to some extent -- that helped the Astros get back on track in Game 3. Jose Urquidy came out of nowhere and threw five scoreless innings in Game 4, and Cole bounced back from his first loss in five months by dominating the Nats in Game 5.
Houston’s bullpen, which was its biggest question mark entering the playoffs, has risen to the challenge, even with relievers like Joe Smith performing in unexpected roles. Astros relievers allowed five earned runs in Game 2 before giving up one earned run and five hits in 10 1/3 innings with 13 strikeouts in Games 3-5.
They didn’t face Scherzer or Strasburg
The Nats have won all eight games in the playoffs started by Max Scherzer or Strasburg this postseason, as the pair of right-handed aces combined to go 7-0 with a 2.04 ERA. That included Games 1 and 2 of the World Series, and now Strasburg is lined up to pitch in Game 6 and Scherzer, who was scratched from his Game 5 start with a neck strain, is possibly set to go in Game 7, if necessary.
Pitchers who have faced the Astros in consecutive starts this season are 1-5 with a 4.71 ERA in eight starts, with the Astros winning five of those games. Three of those came in the postseason, with the opposing pitcher going 1-2 with a 5.27 ERA the second time around.
In the ALDS, Rays right-hander Tyler Glasnow held the Astros to two earned runs in 4 1/3 innings in Game 1 before giving up four earned runs in 2 2/3 innings in Game 5. In the ALCS, Yankees lefty James Paxton rebounded from allowing one earned run in 2 1/3 innings in Game 2 to hold Houston to one earned run in six innings in Game 5. Also in the ALCS, righty Masahiro Tanaka threw six scoreless innings in Game 1 before allowing three earned runs in five innings in Game 4.
Team meeting, or nah?
Several Astros players spoke up following the Game 2 loss to the Nationals and said they held a team meeting after the game. Verlander and Altuve briefly stood up and told everyone to keep their heads up, and that was it. It made for a dramatic storyline, especially the way the Astros rallied and responded with three consecutive wins.
After the Astros had tied the series, manger AJ Hinch said the story of the team meeting was maybe a little bit overblown. Sure, a couple of players spoke up, but it wasn’t as dramatic as it was made out to be. Tables weren’t overturned. The Astros, as they have done all year, have kept an even keel win or lose, and that starts with the manager.
• Experience brings comfort to Astros skipper
“What I've learned over the last few years of winning is that when something doesn't go your way, there's an immediate overreaction to like, ‘What's going on, what's wrong with your team?’” Hinch said. “And my message is always that, ‘No, we're the same team. We're the same talent. We have the same vibe. We have the same preparation.’
“It's like you get defensive of your team when you get doubted. ... I have to remind everybody, we have a good team. It's a seven-game Series. We're going to be fine. I think over the course of this time everybody expects it to be this smooth ride of excellence and dominance. And talent wins out.”
Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.