Matters look … dark for the Washington Nationals. What a lousy, wretched, horrible, double-plus-ungood weekend of baseball. Nationals fans went into the weekend wondering if their World Series Game 4 tickets would be collector’s items after they finished off a sweep; they left it down, 3-2, headed back to Houston facing elimination and with their best pitcher sidelined with severe neck spasms. Everything fell apart on them this weekend. This Series is entirely upside down. Again.
You can understand why Nationals fans are despairing and Astros fans are already icing the champagne. But contrary to how it might have felt at the end of Game 5 at Nationals Park, this series is not, in fact, over yet. If you’re a Nats fan looking for some hope on this off-day, allow me to fill your cup with the brew of unfettered optimism. Here are five reasons that Nationals fans can still believe.
1. The rotation IS set up perfectly
Obviously, Max Scherzer being scratched just a few hours before he was supposed to start a World Series game is not ideal. But if he is able to get healthy by a potential Game 7 -- and that of course is anything but a certainty -- the Nationals couldn’t hope for a better way for their rotation to land for two games in which they are facing elimination. Stephen Strasburg will pitch Game 6 on full rest, and Scherzer (again, _if_ he’s healthy) would have extra rest for Game 7. Almost every scenario for the Nats winning this series relied on their top two starters being dominant. If they are both dominant in their final two starts, the Nationals could still win the championship.
Another factor to this: Let’s say Scherzer would have been healthy on Sunday night and gone out and, say, thrown eight innings and given up two runs. That’s an incredible performance against a stacked Astros lineup, almost the best you could hope for. And because the Nationals would have been facing Gerrit Cole, they still would have lost. With Cole throwing the way he was, the Nats likely would have lost even if they had a more accomplished pitcher on the mound than Joe Ross. Maybe it’s good they got the Cole loss out of the way? Which leads us to …
2. They will not have to face Cole longer than one or two innings the rest of the way
Yeah, suffice it to say, Cole’s Game 1 loss was the anomaly. Did you see that guy on Sunday night? Dominant start to finish and, perhaps most impressive, he was stronger at the end of the game than he was at the beginning. That’s the reason he’s going to be the top free-agent signing this offseason, and that’s the reason the Nationals have to be relieved that they are probably done with seeing him again this series. It’s possible Cole pitches an inning or two of relief in a theoretical Game 7, but that would be all of it: one or two innings. The Nats were able to get to Justin Verlander in Game 2, and while they only got one run off Zack Greinke in Game 3, he was hardly dominant.
There might be only one pitcher on the planet who would be favored to beat either Strasburg or Scherzer in a matchup of starting pitchers … and he just pitched. In a Game 7 matchup, if the Nationals can get there, you’d have a Scherzer-Greinke face-off. You’d have to take Scherzer in that game. _If_ he’s healthy.
3. They still have all those superstars, and the dancing
It was easy to forget during the weekend wipeout in D.C., but the Nationals still do have a ton of superstars, even if they didn’t do much in Games 3-5. Juan Soto is hitting, but nobody else is: Anthony Rendon is batting .200 for the series, Trea Turner .136 and Howie Kendrick .222. These guys were the driving force behind a truly enjoyable postseason team, and their bats went silent over the weekend. But Rendon is still one of the best players in the sport, and he could be primed for a blowup in his hometown. The Nats have had the sort of vibe that builds on itself when it’s going right, a ball just rolling downhill, and while it vanished over the weekend, it can return just as quickly. Rendon is too good not to bust out at some point. This is a team that coasts on the good vibes. Those vibes can return.
4. The Cubs just came back the same way as they did three years ago
As has been pointed out many times, no World Series has ever gone seven games with the road team winning all seven. So that’s a bad sign. However! If you are looking for an example of a team being behind 3-2 heading into two road games, but then winning both those games to win the World Series, look no further than those 2016 Cubs. The Cubs were actually down 3-1 before winning Game 5 at Wrigley Field, but they still had to come back to Cleveland facing Josh Tomlin (who had been brilliant that postseason up to that point) and Corey Kluber. The Cubs ended up winning both those games, as you might remember. The point is: Don’t sweat that no Series has had road teams win every game. What the Nationals are trying to do was just done three years ago.
5. Baseball is very strange!
It was odd that the Nationals won the first two games in Houston, and it was odd that the Astros won the next three in Washington. Surprising results! Baseball is crazy that way! Game 6 features Strasburg-Verlander … and it could end 13-12. The best-pitched game of this series before Cole’s gem on Sunday might have been rookie Jose Urquidy’s five scoreless innings in Game 4 on Saturday. It’s an unpredictable game. Trying to figure out what’s going to happen in a given series is nearly impossible to do ahead of time, let alone in two games. The Nats could blow the Astros away in Games 6 and 7. Who knows? That’s why these games are so much fun to watch. There are two Major League teams that can win a World Series right now, and one of them is the Nationals. They’re not the favorites to do it. But they absolutely could.