WASHINGTON -- The Astros were asked questions about their backs being against the wall. They were asked about pressure, must-win games and their level of shock being down 0-2 in the World Series after losing two games at home to the Nationals.
If the Astros are able to brush aside the Nationals in Game 3 of the World Series on Friday night at Nationals Park as easily as they dismissed any questions regarding their level of concern about their World Series deficit, perhaps they’ll make this an interesting series after all.
“We were outplayed for two straight games,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said. “We try and stop the bleeding tomorrow. And [if] we stop the bleeding tomorrow it's going to be a lot of fun the rest of the series. I think that's the biggest thing, just stop the bleeding.”
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 this year’s National League Championship Series.
The Astros can take confidence that their best baseball is probably still ahead of them. They can take confidence they’re not facing Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg, though Game 3 starter Aníbal Sánchez has an impressive resume of his own. They can take confidence starter Zack Greinke dominated the Nats earlier this year at Nationals Park while he was still with the D-backs.
“We're ready to play,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “This is a group of guys that have won a lot of games. And I understand that everybody wants the pressure put on us. That's great. We've responded great to pressure. I understand they have a 2-0 lead. Their view of the finish line is a little closer than ours. But I wonder what everybody will feel like if we can win Game 3? And all of a sudden it flips a little bit. And all of a sudden we put up a few runs. And all of a sudden you can write that we're back in it.”
Here are some things the Astros have to turn around, and quickly, if they want a shot to win their second World Series title in three years:
Hit with runners in scoring position
The Astros’ offense, which posted a Major League-record .495 slugging percentage in the regular season, has been stuck in mud in October. Houston has been getting by on timely home runs -- Carlos Correa and José Altuve both hit walk-off homers in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees -- but hasn’t come up in the clutch and has left too many runners on base.
Houston hit .268 with runners in scoring position in the regular season, but has slumped to .175 in the playoffs (17-for-97), including .127 (8-for-63) since the start of the ALCS. The Astros were 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position in their Game 2 blowout loss to the Nationals in the World Series.
“You go through stretches throughout the season where you don't swing the bat or pitch or play defense the way you want to play it,” Bregman said. “I think it takes one day to stop the bleeding. You play good one game, the bleeding stops. Panic stops. You start playing the way you want to play.”
Do the little things
Houston’s seventh-inning meltdown in Game 2, when the Nationals scored six times to break open what had been a 2-2 game, was an example of how the Astros absolutely can’t play against the Nationals. Bregman, a Gold Glove finalist, had a throwing error and couldn’t field another grounder that would have kept the deficit in the inning at 3-2.
Earlier in the game, Altuve was thrown out trying to steal third base ahead of a two-run homer by Yuli Gurriel that could have been a three-run homer. In Game 1, George Springer didn’t run hard out of the box on a fly ball off the right-field wall that resulted in a double. Had he reached third, he might have scored on an Altuve fly ball.
“It's hard unless you go through every single scenario where you feel like you have to maximize your opportunities,” Hinch said. “I just think we've got to be better across the board in putting more pressure on them and maybe separating ourselves a little bit and having them feel what it's like to have a big inning put up against them.”
Get big outs from the bullpen
The Astros closed out the ALCS with a bullpen game, with seven relief pitchers holding the Yankees to four runs in nine innings. It was a gritty and clutch effort by a bullpen that had been ridiculed throughout the playoffs. Alas, Houston’s bullpen imploded late in the Game 2 loss to the Nationals, giving up five earned runs and seven hits, including two homers, in three innings.
In three playoff starts, Greinke has pitched past the fifth inning only once, which came in Game 1 of the ALCS in which he gave up three runs in six innings against the Yankees. He lasted only 4 1/3 innings in Game 4 of the ALCS. The Astros are likely to have a bullpen game in Game 4, so the workload by the relievers could be heavy in the next two games.
“To be around our club is to know that our club has a lot of confidence and we have a lot of resilience,” Hinch said. “A week ago we lost Game 1 to the Yankees and they were going to sweep us. We have to bounce back in this ballpark similar to how we did at Yankee Stadium, and put pressure back on the Nats to have to try to close it out.”