HOUSTON -- Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki led off the seventh inning of a tied Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday night with an improbable clutch homer off ace pitcher Justin Verlander. Then came the bad news for the Astros.
In a flurry of walks, weak-contact hits, a throwing error and -- believe it or not -- the first intentional walk of the season issued by Houston manager AJ Hinch, the Nationals blew open a tight game by scoring six runs in the seventh inning and 10 over the final three frames to blast the Astros, 12-3, at Minute Maid Park and take a 2-0 lead in the Fall Classic.
The loss prompted Houston to have a players’ only meeting after the game to refocus ahead of Game 3 on Friday in Washington. The Astros held a meeting after losing three in a row in New York in the 2017 American League Championship Series and came back to win Games 6 and 7 in Houston en route to their first championship.
“We talked as a team, and obviously a big group of guys we have here is a family,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “We talked about keeping our heads up and moving forward and going out there and playing like we can play. It was just us talking to ourselves. We’re such a good team. A 2-0 [deficit] should not mess with our heads. We should stay focused moving forward for the next game.”
The epic meltdown late in Game 2 made a mess of what had been a tight and competitive battle between Verlander and Nats starter Stephen Strasburg, and it left Hinch with a stack of rubble to sift through as the team heads to Washington licking its wounds.
“Where would you like me to start?” Hinch said. “The leadoff homer? That's what happened.
“And soft contact for the rest of that inning that we didn't make a couple of plays [on], and they made contact in big at-bats and the inning spiraled out of control.”
Suzuki’s 381-foot homer to left field off a Verlander fastball to start the seventh put the Nationals ahead 3-2, but it was still very much a winnable game at that point. Washington’s suspect bullpen was going to have to cover the final three innings, but the turmoil that ensued rendered that challenge meaningless.
Verlander was pulled after walking Victor Robles, and reliever Ryan Pressly came in and promptly walked Trea Turner. Adam Eaton bunted them into scoring position, and Pressly came within an out of escaping when he got Anthony Rendon to fly out.
Hinch, who became the first manager in history to not issue an intentional walk in the regular season, chose to walk Nats outfielder Juan Soto to load the bases. The decision made sense, considering Soto has been a tough out and it avoided a lefty-on-righty matchup with Pressly.
Nationals manager Dave Martinez was not surprised at the move by Hinch.
“No, he's seeing the ball really well right now, he's swinging the bat really well,” Martinez said. “I had a feeling once first base was open that they'd walk him. But again, that's OK. We have Howie [Kendrick] behind him, who's been unbelievable.”
With the bases now loaded, Kendrick hit a grounder 83.5 mph off the bat, but third baseman Alex Bregman couldn’t get a handle on it as he moved to his left. Had he fielded it, he would have been able to throw out Soto at second base to end the inning, but instead a run scored on what was ruled an infield hit.
“I went to my left and reached for it, and I was kind of falling a little bit over and couldn’t come up with it,” Bregman said.
Hinch said that play changed the entire inning.
“Yeah, anytime Alex gets to it I expect him to make the play, he expects to make it,” he said. “It was just a little bit out of his reach where he couldn't catch it cleanly. And that kind of turned the entire inning.”
Asdrúbal Cabrera followed with a two-run single that was hit 75.7 mph off the bat, and Ryan Zimmerman hit a 62.8-mph dribbler down the third-base line that Bregman fielded and threw wide of first base. Suddenly, it was 8-2 Nats with only one ball hit harder than 84 mph.
“Contact is your friend in these situations,” Hinch said. “They did a good job of making contact against Press. I thought he made some really good pitches. But clearly that inning didn't go that way, nor did the next inning, nor did the next inning after that.”
The intentional walk to Soto was the first issued by a Houston pitcher since Héctor Rondón walked Jed Lowrie of the A’s on Aug. 17, 2018. The Marlins led the Majors with 52 intentional walks issued this season, and every other team had at least 10.
The decision made sense, even if the results made for chaos and clutter in the seventh.
“I've watched Soto just like you have,” Hinch said. “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.”