HOUSTON -- Having done -- and won -- this World Series thing before, the Astros understand what works and doesn’t. Despite mild climes in Southeastern Texas this week, the team chose to play Games 1 and 2 with Minute Maid Park’s roof closed. All the better to trap in noise, send fans into a froth and intimidate anyone who dares challenge the 107-win Astros.
As planned, the atmosphere for Wednesday's Game 2 was pulse-pounding loud at times -- at least until the Nationals scored six runs in the seventh on a combination of smashes, walks and dribblers. “The inning,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said, “spiraled out of control.” And Minute Maid Park softened by a decibel or three.
By the time the 10-batter rally was complete, it was the Nationals on the verge of a 12-3 win, rather than the team with the best record in baseball. It was the Nats who let their stress melt away, parading back to the visiting clubhouse for a postgame dance party featuring songs that, in Juan Soto’s words, “make everybody jump.” It was the Nationals who spent the rest of their clubhouse time answering questions about how they once had a 0.1 percent chance to win the National League pennant, but now they were heading home holding a 2-0 World Series lead.
Consider that a juxtaposition that any Astros player would find disquieting. Only three teams to take a 2-0 World Series lead on the road were unable to win the championship. And so, in a 10-batter span on Wednesday, the Nationals gained further footing as heavy -- yes, heavy -- Fall Classic favorites.
“Momentum was huge right there,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “We took advantage of it.”
After each team scored a pair of runs in the first inning, the game, in Zimmerman’s estimation, “turned into basically what everyone thought tonight was going to be” -- a pitchers’ duel between Stephen Strasburg and Justin Verlander. Those two right-handers matched zeros until the seventh, when Verlander allowed Kurt Suzuki's leadoff, go-ahead home run.
It could have ended there. Rallying after a home run, Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton said, can be difficult as pitchers refocus. So it was significant for the Nats when Victor Robles followed with a walk to chase Verlander from the game.
Trea Turner also walked against reliever Ryan Pressly, prompting Eaton to bunt the runners to second and third. Then, with two outs, Hinch opted to intentionally walk Soto.
Houston had not issued an intentional walk all season. The Astros generally don’t believe in the practice. Then again, teams -- particularly those on edge -- tend to do funny things in October.
Essentially on cue, Howie Kendrick followed with an RBI single that Alex Bregman could not glove at third, Asdrúbal Cabrera banged a two-run single into center and Zimmerman followed with an RBI chopper that Bregman fired into foul ground to plate another run. All told, the Nationals scored six runs in the inning on four hits, three walks and no strikeouts.
“That was one of the best innings that we’ve had as a group this postseason,” reliever Sean Doolittle said.
For the Nationals, it was less a rally than a revelation. Like most teams painted as October underdogs, the Nats embraced the fact that few picked them to topple the Brewers, Dodgers, Cardinals and so far the Astros in succession. Any qualms heading into this month centered more on the fact that they had never won a playoff series, let alone a World Series, in franchise history. Six-run innings featuring walks, infield hits and errors tended to victimize the Nationals in October, not the other way around.
Until now. Following Washington’s NL Championship Series sweep of St. Louis, Strasburg noted that “maybe this year, we’re the buzzsaw.”
Within a week’s time, the Nationals will know for sure. The World Series now shifts to the nation's capital, where the Nats will have a chance to end things without even coming back to Houston.
They also understand that plenty of work remains, which is why they spoke more in serious tones than celebratory ones after their dance party finished. By the time the Nationals packed their bags and left the stadium, Minute Maid Park had grown even quieter. Cleanup crews roamed the stands as a few straggling media members wandered around the warning track. Their voices echoed through a near-empty stadium, some of them surely wondering if this park will fill up with noise again this year.