But the bats came to play in the early innings against these aces among aces. And in the end, the Nationals’ bats, particularly that of sophomore sensation Juan Soto, beamed brightest and their bullpen bent but didn’t break in a statement-making 5-4 victory in Game 1 on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park.
With five earned runs off Cole -- matching the total the Astros right-hander and free-agent-to-be had allowed in his previous eight starts combined -- Washington, which has the best record in baseball over the last five months, washed away all the “rest vs. rust” conversation that pervaded a six-day layoff created by its swift sweep of St. Louis in the National League Championship Series. Big moments from 35-year-old “Mr. National” Ryan Zimmerman, who hit the first Fall Classic homer in franchise history, and the 20-year-old wunderkind Soto, who finished a triple shy of the cycle, highlighted the Nationals’ first win in a World Series game and the first for a team from the District since Game 3 in 1933.
“This is just a team win,” Scherzer said. “When you look at this, there wasn’t one guy that won this game. It was a collection of everybody and up and down the lineup, in the bullpen, what can you say? The reason we won today was because of everybody in this clubhouse.”
It was Houston that struck first off a surprisingly shaky Scherzer by getting the first two batters aboard to set up Yuli Gurriel's two-out, two-run double off the left-center-field wall that made it 2-0. Scherzer, in his first Fall Classic start since 2012 with the Tigers, would need 48 pitches just to get through the first two innings, but he grinded his way through what turned out to be a five-inning effort.
"His pitch count got up there," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "First inning, he had a lot of pitches, but he battled. And I thought that he was good. Like I said, we need him to pitch again, and he's endured a lot this year. For him to keep us in that ballgame was huge. And going out there and finishing that fifth inning was huge."
The Nats' offense took some of the burden off Scherzer by getting to the previously untouchable Cole.
With a 0.40 ERA in 22 2/3 postseason innings and a 19-0 record in his previous 25 starts, Cole was either destined to pad his legend or doomed to adhere to the law of averages.
“It wasn’t my sharpest game,” Cole said. “We had to get creative. I thought the fastball was leaking a little bit off the corner a couple of times. I struggled with the curveball command and kind of buried us in some bad counts.”
In the second inning, the Nats got their first Series swat from an appropriate source in Zimmerman, who was selected with their first Draft pick after the move from Montreal exactly 5,250 days earlier.
“You're kind of almost floating around the bases,” Zimmerman said.
The Nats tied it in the fourth from the other end of the age spectrum, when Soto took Cole deep with a jaw-dropping opposite-field dinger that landed on Minute Maid Park’s famous railroad tracks.
"That's Juan being Juan," Martinez said. "He has to hit the ball all over the field. He's really good at staying behind balls and hitting the ball [to] left-center field, left field. And he was really good tonight."
The Nats took the lead for good when they roughed Cole up for a three-run fifth elevated by Adam Eaton’s RBI single and punctuated by Soto’s wall-puncturing double to left that brought home a pair to make it 5-2.
“I don't even look at him as young until you see his face,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said of Soto. “He's got kind of the ‘it’ factor. He's got the twitch. He's got fast hands. He's got no fear. ... He’s mature. Don’t let the age fool you.”
Having successfully addressed the rust questions, the Nats next had to progress to the bullpen questions. Potential Game 3 starter Patrick Corbin relieved Scherzer with a scoreless sixth, but the Astros got to a wild Tanner Rainey when George Springer homered in his record fifth consecutive World Series game to make it 5-3 in the seventh. Daniel Hudson relieved Rainey and recorded an inning-ending strikeout of Yordan Alvarez with the bases loaded in an especially huge moment.
Springer’s RBI double off Hudson in the eighth nearly cleared the right-center-field wall and put a lump in the throat of the Nationals faithful. But closer Sean Doolittle converted the four-out save to seal a win that reverberated some 1,400 miles away.
“We're elated to be here, really,” Martinez said. “The city, the fans, we've got the [NHL’s] Capitals wearing helmets playing the game, they've got name tags up there with the big W on there. The city is going crazy.”
In all best-of-seven postseason series, teams winning Game 1 have gone on to take the series 113 of 178 times (63%), including 25 of the past 31 times (81%) in the World Series. In all series with the current 2-3-2 format, teams winning Game 1 on the road have gone on to take the series 36 of 66 times (55%).
“You're so in the moment when it's happening that you're not thinking about what it might mean in context, and then it just hits you when you're done,” Doolittle said. “We just took the first game and won the first World Series game in Nats franchise history and took a lead in the Series. It was really cool to be out there for that.”