HOUSTON -- If you were surprised by Game 1 of the 2019 World Series, you haven’t been paying attention. This is what the Washington Nationals do to teams. This is what they’ve done for the last five months.
They play with a certain resolve and fearlessness, which may be a byproduct of being left by the side of the road five months ago. From 19-31 to the World Series is a long, twisted road.
Since then, the Nationals are 83-40, including the postseason. Yes, the Nats have a different formula for winning, and it was on full display in a 5-4 victory over the Astros on Tuesday night.
In an era of pitching depth, the Nationals have gotten 90 percent of their postseason innings from six guys. When starter Max Scherzer was done after five innings and 112 pitches, lefty starter Patrick Corbin trotted in from the bullpen and pitched an inning to hand things over to the late-inning arms.
Here are six Game 1 developments that may offer some clues for the rest of this World Series:
1) Juan Soto may just be the best player in this Fall Classic -- at least he is so far
The World Series is where legends are born, and the 20-year-old outfielder singled, doubled and homered in his first Fall Classic game. Soto also drove in three of Washington’s five runs. This is what the Nationals have come to expect of him after 266 career regular-season games in which he already has 56 homers, 57 doubles and a .937 OPS.
“When you look back and see 20-year-old big leaguers in general, the list is very short,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “When you factor in doing it on the big stage, his feel for the moment, his swing. He’s just an all-around gifted guy.”
2) Can the Astros win a World Series with Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa not hitting?
Bregman was the best player on a team that won 107 games, and he seems likely to finish second behind Mike Trout in the American League Most Valuable Player Award balloting. He batted .167 with no homers in the AL Championship Series against the Yankees, and he opened the World Series by going hitless in four at-bats, including three strikeouts. Meanwhile, Correa batted .182 in the ALCS and opened the World Series going 1-for-5 with three strikeouts and an infield single. They have been a significant part of baseball’s deepest offense, and when they’re not hitting, the Astros are a lot less imposing.
3) Long layoff for the Nationals, no problem
The Nationals showed no rust, and they did not lose their edge. That magic they rode into their first World Series was alive and well in Game 1 when they rallied from a 2-0 first-inning deficit, played a clean defensive game and tagged Astros starter Gerrit Cole with his first loss since May 22. Now the Nats are in a good place, having won a World Series game on the road while proving that everything else was noise. Which they probably already knew.
4) Mad Max was not perfect, but he was plenty good enough
Sometimes, the great ones remember games like this, when nothing comes easy, when they are constantly in trouble and when, against all odds, they somehow give their team a chance to win. The Astros did a lot of what they wanted to do against Scherzer. They scored two runs in the first inning, then did a nice job running up his pitch count in the first four frames. That wasn’t enough. Scherzer stranded runners in scoring position in three of the first four innings. He ended the first and third by striking out Correa with runners in scoring position, and he got José Altuve to ground out to first base to strand a pair of runners in the fourth.
5) Cole was finally less than perfect
Cole allowed five earned runs in six September starts and one in three postseason starts. He hadn’t been charged with a loss since May 22. Cole had been so close to perfect that the five earned runs he allowed over seven innings on Tuesday seemed like one of those outings the Astros had to know was coming. Ryan Zimmerman tagged him for a homer in the second and Soto hit one in the fourth. When the Nationals scored three times in the fifth, Cole was on the ropes. That he recovered to get through seven innings set Houston's bullpen up nicely for Game 2, but it wasn’t what he hoped for in his first World Series appearance.
6) Strasburg vs. Verlander may be the most important game of the World Series
After the Astros lost Game 1 of the ALCS at home, manager AJ Hinch was asked if Game 2 was “a must-win game.” Hinch responded, “I’ve never managed a postseason game I considered anything less than must-win.” The Astros did win Game 2 against the Yankees, and now they’re in the same spot against the Nationals. If Justin Verlander does not even the World Series, history says Houston is in trouble. Under the current 2-3-2 format, teams dropping Games 1 and 2 at home have come back only three of 25 times (12 percent). The 1996 Yankees are the last team to lose Games 1 and 2 at home and still rally to win. Washington wanted Stephen Strasburg pitching Game 2 because his low-key demeanor is perfect for a tough road environment.