The Astros are in big trouble. They lost Game 1 Tuesday night when the Nationals touched up the best pitcher in baseball for five runs, and came into Game 2 needing to scratch out some offense against a rolling Stephen Strasburg in order to salvage a split at home. They got off to a good start on that front Wednesday night, but watched their own pitching implode and lost a laugher, 12–3, to head to Washington in a deadly hole.
It’s hard to overstate how improbable this predicament is for the Astros. They need two wins over the weekend to even bring the series back to Houston, and they’ve already pitched Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, two of the, oh, three most dominant pitchers in the American League. Cole and Verlander become the first pair of 20-game winners to lose Games 1 and 2 of a World Series, ever. The best home team in baseball this regular season gave up 17 runs in two games in Houston, in games started by their ace and co-ace. Seventeen runs by the road team in two World Series games, in case you weren’t sure, is a lot of runs:
The Nationals struck first Wednesday night, plating two in the first inning on an Anthony Rendon double to left. This looked to be a powerful spot for the visitors, especially when Strasburg opened the bottom half of the inning by fanning George Springer on three pitches. But the Astros got on the board soon thereafter, on an Alex Bregman two-run bomb to tie the game. Had José Altuve not been thrown out on the bases two batters earlier, this would’ve been a go-ahead shot:
Verlander settled in following his rocky first, and he and Strasburg traded scoreless, relatively clean innings all the way through the sixth. Verlander was cruising along easy enough that manager A.J. Hinch elected to send him back to the mound to start the seventh, even with 98 pitches already under his belt. This backfired immediately and spectacularly, when old man Kurt Suzuki ripped Verlander’s second pitch of the inning for a go-ahead homer to left:
Verlander was pulled after he walked Victor Robles following Suzuki’s dinger, and replaced by reliever Ryan Pressly. Pressly promptly walked Trea Turner, but then retired Adam Eaton on a sacrifice bunt and Anthony Rendon on a harmless shallow fly to get to Juan Soto with two down and first base empty. Hinch, whose team was the first since 1955 to not issue a single intentional walk during the regular season, elected to give Soto the free pass to load the bases and get to Howie Kendrick. This was another judgment call that immediately and hideously exploded on the Astros, when Bregman was eaten up by a Kendrick grounder to the left side, plating another run. Now in a deeper hole, Pressly allowed a two-run, two-out single to Asdrúbal Cabrera, and then reliever Héctor Rondón gave up another infield single to Ryan Zimmerman, scoring Kendrick. To make matters worse, a throwing error from Bregman brought Cabrera around, and just like that, in a sequence straight out of an especially cruel baseball nightmare, the Astros had surrendered six runs on exactly one well-hit ball.
Basic arithmetic tells you the damage didn’t stop there, even though Rondón was eventually able to stop the seventh-inning conga line. The Nats scored three more in the eighth to usher in garbage time, and manager Davey Martinez was able to close out the last three innings with Fernando Rodney, Tanner Rainey, and Javy Guerra on the mound, and limit the workload and exposure of the all-important Sean Doolittle-Daniel Hudson duo. Even the most optimistic Nationals fan on the planet wouldn’t have predicted any positive scenarios where all three of Rodney, Rainey, and Guerra pitched in the same game.
The Astros will hope like hell that Zack Greinke can reverse their fortunes in Game 3, scheduled for Friday in Washington, just as they will hope that Nationals scheduled starter Aníbal Sánchez doesn’t have another seven-plus innings of lights-out postseason pitching in him. Things get bleaker from there—Hinch had tentatively planned a bullpen day for Game 4, when his team is slated to face Patrick Corbin, who finished the regular season fourth in the NL in strikeouts and sixth among NL pitchers in bWAR. The Astros are still the Astros, which means they are absolutely capable of roaring back into the series, and the Nationals are still the Nationals, which means all this could be a prelude to devastating heartbreak. But with Cole and Verlander already spent, the 107-win Astros find themselves suddenly facing long odds in a series that in its buildup felt very much like a coronation. They’ve certainly got their work cut out for them.