Nats turn tight game into laugher for 2-0 lead

October 25th, 2019

HOUSTON -- The tension mounted in Minute Maid Park with each pitch to the pinch-hitting rookie with two aboard in the sixth inning of a tied Game 2 on Wednesday night. fought off ’s most onerous offerings and slowly worked the count full, with the Astros faithful waving their orange towels in anticipation of a magic moment.

Then the kid watched a high curveball dive into the upper reaches of the strike zone for the inning-ending strike three. Moments later, a leadoff rocket off the bat of just one pitch into the seventh sparked the ruthless six-run frame that featured a rare intentional walk and two uncharacteristic misplays by Houston third baseman , silencing a sold-out crowd and sending the Washington Nationals toward a 12-3 win that put them up 2-0 in the best-of-seven World Series.

That sequence -- that stunningly swift twist in which an optimistic opponent is suddenly left wondering what the heck just ran it over -- reflects the story of the Nationals’ October ride.

“I think we've kind of defied the odds at this point,” third baseman said. “And we don't pay too much attention to them.”

The Nats trampled deficits and hearts in the late innings of the winner-take-all National League Wild Card Game against the Brewers and Game 5 of the NL Division Series against the Dodgers. They made a mockery of the once-confident Cardinals in a clean sweep of the NL Championship Series to reach their first Fall Classic. And now they’ve put a 114-win Astros team that had started the two American League Cy Young Award favorites at home into some truly dangerous mathematical terrain as the Series shifts to D.C. for the first time in 86 years.

In all best-of-seven postseason series, teams grabbing a 2-0 advantage have gone on to win 71 of 84 times. In those with the current 2-3-2 format, teams winning Games 1 and 2 on the road have gone on to win 22 of 25 times. Each of the last 10 teams to grab a 2-0 lead on the road has won, including six sweeps -- one by the Nationals in that aforementioned NLCS.

“Clearly, the Nats have outplayed us, bottom line,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “They came into our building and played two really good games.”

Having now won a record-tying eight straight games within a single postseason, the Nats -- the same franchise once roundly criticized for its inability to advance in October -- are underdogs undeterred by the elite standing of the 2017 champs.

How much did they throw the analytically adept Astros off their usual game plan in Game 2? So much so that Hinch ordered his first intentional walk of 2019 in that spectacular seventh.

But more on that in a minute.

First things first. Each team put up a pair in a first inning highlighted by a two-run double from native Houstonian and Rice University product Rendon off Justin Verlander and Bregman's two-run blast off Strasburg.

The score remained 2-2 up to and through that missed opportunity for the Astros in the sixth, when Strasburg was backed into a corner but punched his way out. The Nationals intentionally walked to put two on with one out. Strasburg got to pop out harmlessly to second, then he struck out Tucker to end that aforementioned eight-pitch at-bat.

“Didn’t execute some pitches in that at-bat early on and was able to get back into the count,” Strasburg said. “I knew it was just one pitch and just had to trust it, commit to it, and I made the pitch.”

And when the catcher Suzuki, who earlier had contributed a key caught stealing of a streaking at third base, did some punching of his own with the solo swat high above the wall in left-center off Verlander’s 100th pitch, the Nats went up for good.

"I can't remember the last time I barreled a ball up like that,” Suzuki said. “It felt great.”

The inning erupted from there: A walk to chase Verlander and bring in reliever . A walk and a sac bunt from Adam Eaton to move the runners up. Hinch made the truly uncharacteristic decision to intentionally walk the red-hot Juan Soto to load the bases, but all that did was set up 's infield single that ate up Bregman at third to score one run, an single that scored two and a ground-ball single from that scored another two.

"I've watched Soto just like you have," said Hinch. "We see the downside of it. Clearly, I think there's a lot of downside, given that I haven't done it all year. 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."

Asked if he was surprised about the free pass to Soto, Nationals skipper Dave Martinez said, "No. No, he's seeing the ball really well right now, he's swinging the bat really well. I had a feeling once first base was open that they'd walk him. But again, that's OK. We have Howie behind him, who's been unbelievable."

Add it all up, and the Nats had taken an 8-2 lead and, effectively, the ballgame, though they kept adding on in the eighth and ninth, further asserting themselves on this October stage. They join the 2004 Red Sox, '05 White Sox and '14 Royals as the only teams to win eight straight in a single postseason, and they head home not just to play the first World Series game in Washington since 1933, but to try to win the District’s first World Series title since '24.

“It’s gonna be crazy,” Suzuki said.

Just like the Nationals’ entire run.