WASHINGTON -- They got the news on the radio while battling the Beltway traffic, or on their smartphones in their Ubers or Metro rides. Perhaps they heard it from fellow foot soldiers, ballpark-bound on South Capitol Street. Wherever or however Nationals fans found out that Max Scherzer -- their heterochromia-carrying hero, their Game 5 feature act -- would not be able to post up for the tiebreaker tilt at Nationals Park, surely many among them hung their heads, or swore up a storm or felt that nagging sense of dread or doubt.
But with Mad Max lost to a literal pain in the neck, Washington fans tried to rally behind their Ordinary Joe, right-hander Joe Ross. They saluted him like a superhero, and he tried to reward their love with a fighting spirit against a deep and hot Houston lineup. In the end, though, the initial assumption was the reality: The Astros had an edge when Scherzer could not take the mound for his scheduled duel with Gerrit Cole, and they turned it into a 7-1 victory in Game 5 on Sunday night to take a 3-2 edge in the best-of-seven World Series.
“We're just going to kind of put one foot in front of the next,” said Cole. “Respond to the challenges that come our way, and you shower off the mistakes, celebrate the amazing plays, celebrate the amazing pitches.”
Houston reached the title threshold in Game 5 because Cole, save for the solo shot he served up to Juan Soto in the seventh, was Cole, going seven innings and allowing just that run on three hits with two walks and nine strikeouts. Ross, alas, was not Scherzer.
It really was that simple.
Two-run home runs from Yordan Alvarez and Carlos Correa were more than enough support for Cole on a night when he more readily resembled his transcendent, pre-Game 1 self, but the Astros kept the runs coming late. As a result, we’re up to five games and five road victories in this unusual Fall Classic. This marks just the third time (also 1906 and '96) that the road team has found a way in the first five games.
The Astros are trying to become the 14th team to come back from a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-seven postseason series, and the first to do so in the World Series since the 1996 Yankees. In all series with the current 2-3-2 format, when the first four games have been split, the Game 5 winner has gone on to take the series 38 of 55 times (69%) overall -- 18 of 22 (82%) when winning it on the road.
In all 2-3-2 series, teams with a 3-2 lead heading to Game 6 at home have won those series 35 of 46 times (76%). In 2-3-2 World Series specifically, teams with a 3-2 lead heading to Game 6 at home have won those series 17 of 24 times (71%).
You’re hearing and seeing 1996 referenced a lot lately, because the Astros could become the first team since the ’96 Yankees (and just the fourth overall, also joining the '85 Royals and '86 Mets) to drop the first two World Series tilts at home and then win it all. Seizing this 3-2 lead in the first Fall Classic games in D.C. in 86 years -- in front of all these red-clad bodies in the blue seats, in the face of “Baby Shark,” in front of President Donald Trump (who was in attendance for Game 5) and amid the boisterousness that pervaded all three ballgames -- was an admirable achievement.
“I love our feel for the moment and feel for this team,” Houston manager AJ Hinch said.
“Everybody talks about culture and chemistry, and when you have it, you love it. When you see it on the other side, you're envious of it. And we just have a way of playing today. And the confidence comes from the success that we've had. We feel like we're in every game. We've had games where we've come from behind. We've had games where we've stretched the lead. We've had games like today where we just methodically kept going with big swings and we look up and we have a comfortable win.”
The Astros lost two games back home but not their calm. They outscored the Nationals by 16 runs in these three games in the District -- tied for the highest run differential for one club vs. another in any three-game stretch of road games in postseason history.
“They didn't win [107 games in the regular season] for nothing,” Nats manager Dave Martinez said. “They're really good. They've got a well-balanced lineup. Their pitching is good. Their bullpen gets outs. We knew this coming in. It was pretty even this whole series. They're a game up with two games left. So let's just worry about Tuesday.”
On Sunday, Cole coolly prolonged the sudden and unmistakable slump that has swallowed the Nationals’ once-booming bats. The same Nats team that hit .314 with runners in scoring position from the National League Wild Card Game through World Series Game 2 went 1-for-19 with RISP (and scored two runs total) in Games 3 and 4. And in Game 5, there simply weren’t many opportunities on which to capitalize. Cole, routinely turning to his wipeout slider as a putaway pitch, kept Washington's bats in lower case most of the evening -- even if Soto, who also homered off him in Game 1, seems to have his number.
“I just thought that we needed to execute better pitches this time out [compared to Game 1],” Cole said. “I guess the situations just called for breaking balls in that spot. That’s what we were feeling.”
Meanwhile, Houston's bats jolted Joe. In the second, Yuli Gurriel hit a high chopper that skipped off Ross’ glove, allowing him to reach safely on a single. Alvarez, making his first start in the NL city, followed with a 106.4-mph rocket line drive that cleared the left-center-field wall and struck a double-fisting Washington backer in the belly.
"You want to talk about feeling like you did the right thing is just put Yordan in the game and have him have three incredible at-bats," Hinch said. "The first one being the most impactful, just being able to hit a missile to center field or just off of center field to kick-start our offense tonight."
All Nationals fans felt that punch to the gut, and another arrived in the fourth. This time, it was an Alvarez single that set up a two-run shot off the bat of Correa, who smoked Ross’ 86-mph slider that cut across the middle into the left-field seats to make it 4-0.
“They were doing a great job of punting me in with the two-seamer, not leaving anything down the middle,” Correa said. “And I got that one mistake and I was able to put a good swing on it to hit it for a home run. Joe is a tough pitcher who was commanding the strike zone very well. And that was one mistake he made to me, and I was able to take advantage of it.”
Soto’s homer finally got the Nationals on the board in the seventh, but it was a solo shot that made it 4-1. The Nats had an opportunity to score more when Ryan Zimmerman walked with two outs. But in quite likely his final start as an Astro and on quite possibly his final pitch as an Astro, Cole controversially struck out Victor Robles looking in a full count with a high fastball off the outer edge of the zone to escape the inning. Houston padded its lead late with Gurriel’s eighth-inning RBI single and George Springer’s titanic two-run tater in the ninth.
While Scherzer sadly could not contribute to the duel that had been designed, Cole delivered his end of it. And now the Astros are headed home on the cusp, having overcome a Nationals team and a D.C. crowd that valiantly but unsuccessfully tried to shake off the Scherzer snafu.