The Washington Nationals went 2–0 in Houston against the two AL Cy Young frontrunners and seemingly had every once of momentum on their side.
Then they came home to D.C. and it all suddenly disappeared. Their starting pitching wasn’t great, their bullpen was worse, and the entire lineup went cold — or should I say Coled?
That’s not to say the Astros didn’t simply show up and outplay the Nationals, because they did. That’s in their DNA. They won a World Series two years ago and had 107 victories this regular season. However, they also had their struggling third starter (Zack Greinke) and a rookie (Jose Urquidy) on the mound, whereas Washington featured a savvy veteran on a hot streak (Anibal Sanchez) and the man they thought was — and paid to be — their third ace (Patrick Corbin).
It was much the same script every game. Houston jumped out to an early lead, bent and gave up a run mid-game, then pulled away late. There’s no true sense in walking through a recap. The Astros all came up with big hits, and none of the Nationals matched them. Every Houston pitcher tossed a gem, and none of Washington’s did the same. For the most part, the Nationals got punked on their home field the same way the Astros did in the two prior games.
So what does the future hold? Quite simply, it’s do-or-die for the Nationals, and anything less than back-to-back wins would be viewed as a historic collapse. That’s right, the franchise that just rewrote their postseason narrative is on the brink of it all coming undone — it’s not the same, but the public will remember it that way.
There is some good news. They’ll head back to Houston with a high probability that their top two starters (Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer) will start the elimination games. They will also be welcomed back with the addition of the designated hitter — which gets Howie Kendrick off his feet while also providing the lineup with uncanny righty-lefty balance from leadoff through seventh, thanks to Asdrubal Cabrera.
Their batting order will remain consistent the rest of the way, unless Corbin starts Game Seven or Kurt Suzuki is still too hurt to play — which he doesn’t seem to be.
SS Trea Turner, RF Adam Eaton, 3B Anthony Rendon, LF Juan Soto, DH Howie Kendrick, 2B Asdrubal Cabrera, 1B Ryan Zimmerman, C Kurt Suzuki, CF Victor Robles
Speaking of still being hurt, Scherzer’s status looms a large shadow over the rest of this series. Obviously, it’s a blow to Washington if he can’t pitch. However, it wouldn’t be entirely bad. They could remove him from the roster and add someone. Here are my five most likely candidates, in a very particular order:
- RHP Austin Voth
- OF Andrew Stevenson
- C Raudy Read
- INF Wilmer Difo
- RHP Erick Fedde
Voth — or Fedde, for that matter — would be a direct replacement for Scherzer, as a typical starter who could provide multiple innings of relief aid.
Stevenson and Difo are the top pinch-running options left on the 40-man roster — only the nonstarter between Victor Robles and Michael A. Taylor (who I would implore Dave Martinez to use in a high-leverage situation, given his postseason success) would be a better option off the bench on the bases. Stevenson has a leg up, however: his suddenly remarkable ability as a pinch hitter.
On the topic of pinch hitters, that’s why I include Read; not because he can do it, but because it frees up the primary backup catcher to do it. Very rarely do both get to hit in a game, but the addition of Read as a true emergency catchermakes that a possibility.
I don’t mean to discount Houston, but all they have to do is hold serve, which is what they’re supposed to do, especially with seemingly everything going in their favor now.
The bad news: no Gerrit Cole (except possibly in relief of Game Seven). Justin Verlander and Greinke will make the starts — barring a Scherzer-like catastrophe. The good news: They’ll have their full offensive arsenal back.
CF George Springer, 2B Jose Altuve, LF Michael Brantley, 3B Alex Bregman, 1B Yuli Gurriel, DH Yordan Alvarez, SS Carlos Correa, (C Martin Maldonado/Robinson Chirinos), RF Josh Reddick
Here are the potential pitching matchups — I’ll let the postseason numbers speak for themselves.
Stephen Strasburg: 4–0, 5 games (4 starts), 1.93 ERA, 28 innings, 40 strikeouts, 2 walks
Justin Verlander: 1–3, 5 starts, 4.15 ERA, 30.1 innings, 35 strikeouts, 11 walks
Max Scherzer: 3–0, 5 games (4 starts), 2.16 ERA, 25 innings, 34 strikeouts, 11 walks
Emergency: Anibal Sanchez (1–1, 3 starts, 2.50 ERA, 18 innings, 18 strikeouts, 4 walks)
Zack Greinke: 0–2, 4 starts, 5.30 ERA, 18.2 innings, 22 strikeouts, 8 walks
I note Sanchez as the backup plan because I firmly belief Martinez will take an all-hands-on-deck approach with Corbin (he’s already used Pat Co in relief four times this postseason — and wouldn’t shy away from doing it two more times).
Also worth mentioning, Justin Verlander is 0–5 with a 5.73 ERA in six career World Series starts. Strasburg and Greinke just made their first such starts earlier in this series, while Scherzer and Sanchez each made one in 2012 while teammates with Verlander in Detroit. They have all faired considerably better than the famous Kate Upton’s husband.
Unfortunately, it’s way harder to pull up matchup numbers for games that aren’t the next day — but here’s some data for Game Six:
- Nationals against Justin Verlander:
- Trea Turner: 1–2 (.500), one walk
- Adam Eaton: 8–34 (.235), one triple, two doubles
- Anthony Rendon: 1–5 (.200), one double, one walk
- Juan Soto: 1–3 (.333), one double
- Howie Kendrick: 4–21 (.191), two doubles
- Asdrubal Cabrera: 20–75 (.267), three home runs, six doubles
- Ryan Zimmerman: 1–8 (.125), one walk, three strikeouts
- Kurt Suzuki: 13–37 (.351), one home run, one double
- Victor Robles: 0–2 (.000), one walk, one strikeout
- Gerardo Parra: 4–12 (.333), one home run, two doubles, six strikeouts
- Astros against Stephen Strasburg:
- George Springer: 0–6 (.000), two strikeouts
- Jose Altuve: 4–8 (.500), one double
- Michael Brantley: 2–5 (.400), two singles
- Alex Bregman: 3–6 (.500), one home run, one double
- Yuli Gurriel: 1–5 (.200), one double
- Yordan Alvarez: 1–2 (.500), one walk
- Carlos Correa: 0–3 (.000), one strikeout
- Martin Maldonado: 0–4 (.000), one walk, one strikeout
- Josh Reddick: 0–4 (.000), two strikeouts
In many respects, this series has been decided. Now Washington will receive the honor of watching Houston clinch its second title in three years in front of a raucous crowd, and they’ll just have to take it as if it doesn’t phase them.
But here’s the catch: there was only one team that rivaled the Astros for the duration of this regular season — the Dodgers. L.A. finished with one fewer win the Houston, and led the way in victories for most of the year. What happened when the Nationals faced them in the NLDS? They won initially, sputtered for multiple games, and then won the last two games in with their backs against the wall. Does that sound familiar? Now, the stakes are raised — but when has that stopped them this season?