Nationals Beat Astros 5-4, and Baseball Saves Baseball

It’s been a great postseason. But…

Baseball fans have been treated to an excellent month of ballgames. The NL Wildcard was an instant classic, and three matchups in the divisional round went the distance. Washington pitched historically well in the NCLS, and on the other side of the bracket, two of the best teams in baseball battled in an entertaining war of attrition, a back and forth set that climaxed with José Altuve’s walk-off homer in Game 6. Thus far, we’ve been spoiled.

But you’d be forgiven for thinking it hasn’t felt that way. As baseball reaches its annual crescendo, the sport’s collective focus has often drifted away from the games on the field. The partial un-juicing of the ball emerged as a dominant storyline early in the postseason, right alongside the usual complaints about extended commercial breaks and out-of-touch announcers blathering on far-flung networks. Then, as the league championships kicked off, ESPN’s T.J. Quinn released a disturbing piece detailing how Angels team employees not only failed to intervene on Tyler Skaggs‘ drug use but actually abetted it in his final days. Reading the news, you may well conclude that the league itself has lost the ability to sway the narrative in a way that reflects positively on the enterprise.

Unfortunately, the pattern continued; Game 1 of the World Series began under a cloud of a different sort. In the aftermath of Houston’s dramatic, exuberant ALCS win over the Yankees, assistant general manager Brandon Taubman used the occasion to rub salt in a wound. With three women reporters standing nearby, Taubman, cigar in hand, loudly and repeatedly directed a message their way: “Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so [expletive] glad we got Osuna!”

On the surface, it’s a curious message: Altuve only had to save the day because closer Roberto Osuna had coughed up a ninth-inning lead. The context, however, is damning. Osuna is only an Astro because the club was able to acquire him on the cheap while he served a suspension for domestic violence. One of the women in question has previously come under fire from Taubman for the timing of her Osuna-related tweets. That she was wearing a purple anti-domestic violence bracelet at the time adds a jolt of nastiness to already reprehensible behavior.

By now you know the details of what followed. How Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein reported the news; that Houston vehemently denied the incident took place, and questioned Apstein’s credibility, when multiple other journalists from other outlets corroborated Apstein’s account; and the Astros’ late and inadequate walk-back of their initial statement. On a day when we should have been celebrating the best of baseball, hyping up Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer, we were instead left to grapple with the worst symptoms of its culture. As the Washington Post’s Barry Svulga succinctly summed it up: “It’s infuriating it’s 2019, and it’s the World Series, and we even need to be having this conversation. But clearly we do.”

In the end, baseball itself rescued the day. It wasn’t so much that a great game made us forget all that transpired in the previous 48 hours — as if anyone with a Twitter feed possibly could have anyway. No, a game cannot simply toss us an escape rope, and we shouldn’t want to move on so soon: Three women were wronged in an incident symptomatic of a broader problem; basic decency demands that we ask baseball to better itself.

What a game can do is remind us why we care in the first place, why we’re bothering with reading and listening and talking about these problems within baseball’s ecosystem instead of anywhere else. For all that was wrong in the last few days, baseball reminded us of its virtues, of why we choose to spend our leisure time in this imperfect space.

More on those virtues:


Grit remains a dirty, or at least loaded, word in these circles; who needs a gritty shortstop when you can have one who hits homers instead?

But grittiness should not be synonymous with inferiority, but rather perseverance. It’s not so much a human trait as a human need. We’ve all gutted through a day’s work after a poor night’s sleep or with our minds focused on other matters.

Max Scherzer was not at his best last night. For every 98 mph fastball or biting slider, there was a non-competitive curve, a ball spiked in the dirt, a missed spot out over the plate. The Astros deserve credit here, of course. They field one of the best offenses of all time — Yordan Alvarez, he of the 178 wRC+ this year, is hitting in the damn seven-hole — and they chiseled through at-bats all night long.

Scherzer bent but never broke. After 26 pitches and two runs in the first, Houston kept up the pressure. He needed another 22 pitches in the second, and 21 more in the third as he pitched around two singles. The Astros put two more men aboard in the fourth and by the end of the fifth, a laboring Scherzer had fired the ball in anger 112 times.

We watch aces to see them dominate. Scherzer has thrown two no-hitters, captured three Cy Youngs, and appeared in more Pitching Ninja GIFs than anyone alive. But last night, in a game where he didn’t have his best control, against the best-hitting team we’ve seen in decades, he battled through five innings and held the line at two runs. An inspiring performance.


It is perhaps easiest to enjoy watching a kid’s game when, well, you’re watching a kid play it. The guy mashing opposite field homers onto railroad tracks and spitting on vicious breaking balls mere inches off the plate is, somehow, still just 20 years old. There’s a certain amount of swagger that comes naturally for those so good so young, and there’s a joy there too in the way he shuffles toward the mound after a ball, or how he stares down the pitcher and slings his bat toward the dugout after a walk. He can’t drink legally yet — of course he leaned into that and popped bottles of grape juice after the NLCS clincher — and he’s already a sensation, a man who has notched 8.5 WAR and belted 56 homers with a style all to his own. If all goes well, Juan Soto is about to be Ken Griffey Jr. for a generation of kids.

Speaking of Griffey, here’s a fun list:

Most WAR Through Age 20
Mel Ott 61 12.4
Mike Trout 35 10.8
Al Kaline 32 8.7
Alex Rodriguez 41 8.6
Juan Soto 56 8.5
Bryce Harper 42 8.4
Mickey Mantle 36 8.1
Ken Griffey Jr. 38 7.5
Ted Williams 21 7.1
Frank Robinson 38 5.8
Tony Conigliaro 56 5.1

So, Soto is 20, he’s on a Hall of Fame trajectory, and now he’s etched his name into World Series history. Not merely by becoming the third player (after Ty Cobb and Miguel Cabrera) to hit cleanup in a Series game before his 21st birthday. He also just about won the damn thing at the plate. His aforementioned long home run off of Gerrit Cole tied the score at 2-2, and his double in the bottom gave the Nationals two precious insurance runs.

Game 1 began with the prospect of a pitcher’s duel for the ages. Instead, the night belonged to Soto.


I don’t want to dwell here for too long, but it’s worth a quick point: We like watching baseball in part because we know it’s a hard game. You can see that in the usual failures, the famous saying that three successes in 10 tries will get you to the Hall of Fame.

You can also see it in Washington’s center fielder Victor Robles overzealously chasing a flyball and clanging it off of his shoulder:


Baseball was a thinker’s game 100 years ago and it remains one today. For the players, it’s a ceaseless maze of decisions that starts well before the first pitch and never settles, the context and nuances shifting with every pitch as a chessboard takes new shape after each move. Where should I stand? What should I throw? Can I sit on the curveball here?

For the fans, the game is in the first- or second-guessing. As in, “Wow. Dave Martinez is bringing in Patrick Corbin for the sixth inning. What’s the plan here?”

There were, and are, a number of directions that could go. Even if you’re on board with the general strategy to let Washington’s six best pitchers throw as many innings as humanly possible, Corbin remains a bit of a wild card. He’s pitched out of the bullpen three times this postseason, with mixed success. It wasn’t entirely clear whether he was meant to bridge the gap to the back end of Washington’s bullpen, and thus be pushed back to starting in Game 4, or if Martinez was praying for a 1-2-3 inning to keep him on track for Game 3.

It’s still up in the air. Corbin pitched well, striking out two and allowing a harmless single in an inning of work. But he needed 21 pitches to escape, which puts him right at the crossroad of “just threw a bullpen against live hitters” and “needs an extra day of rest before his next start.” Was that one inning worth the risk of future fatigue? Will Corbin toe the rubber Friday night in D.C.? Time will tell.


Of course, the entire reason Corbin threw yesterday at all is that the Nationals have approximately 6.5 pitchers they trust. The four starters, Daniel Hudson, and Sean Doolittle have all pitched brilliantly this October; Tanner Rainey has intermittently succeeded as well. Martinez is rightly terrified to give the ball to anyone else.

A 5-2 lead with three innings to play is a safe game state in most circumstances. After Adam Eaton flew out to end the top of the seventh, Washington had an 87.2% win expectancy.

This being the 2019 Nationals, though, nobody left their seats. Martinez called upon Rainey, and he got the wild, bad-command version of his flamethrower. The skipper wasn’t entirely shocked; he had Hudson up and getting loose from practically the second Rainey left the bullpen. After surrendering a dinger and two walks, Martinez went to his fireman; Hudson escaped without allowing further damage.

It’s hard to overstate how valuable Hudson and Doolittle have been for the Nationals this October. By themselves, the two of them have turned what looked like a crippling weakness into a modest strength. Nobody really expected this: They’re solid pitchers, but entering play yesterday, they’d allowed just two runs in 13 innings. As good as they’ve been, this still feels like an area of vulnerability.

The Astros barreled a few balls off of Hudson. Pinch hitter Kyle Tucker started the eighth with a hard single to center. After an out, Springer launched a deep fly to right. At 102.5 mph off the bat, with a 31 degree launch angle, it’s the kind of drive that has sailed into the first row of seats all year long; here, with October’s special brand of horsehide, it nicked off the side of Adam Eaton’s glove and onto the wall for a double. Damaging for the Nats (Tucker would score), but not fatal. Hudson and Doolittle coaxed two flyouts to end the threat and preserve a one-run lead.

Should Springer have been on third for Altuve’s one-out fly? One can make the argument; in real time, I was surprised a player with his wheels hadn’t tried for the extra base. Given what transpired in the ninth, he and the Astros will undoubtedly mull over an alternate reality where he tosses caution to the relay and burns for third.

As it was, Doolittle’s work in the ninth was the tidiest inning a National threw all night. He needed just nine pitches to take care of 4, 5, and 6 in Houston’s order, a calm drift into port after too many hours on the stormy seas. It was a game that had a bit of everything: stars and rockets, wild pitches and outfield goof-ups, big calls from the dugout and big responses from the players on the field.

Baseball, for your sake and all of ours, we’ll take another six just like this one.

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4 years ago

thought what hurt Cole was in all of the Scherzer innings save for the last one- Scherzer threw at least 20 pitches… So really long by time innings. But the Astros couldn’t convert- and then Cole wasn’t as sharp as he was to start as a result.

4 years ago
Reply to  stever20

-6? I’m not sure what you did wrong. Baseball is weird. Max was in trouble almost every inning but it didn’t add up to much, but almost mistake Cole made hurt. I thought Cole looked fairly rattled during his start. His stuff is otherworldly but I think he was a bit shocked that it wasn’t coming as easy as he has gotten used to.

4 years ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

I didn’t vote down but I saw it coming. The article was about what is currently ugly in baseball and what is beautiful in baseball. The comment didn’t seem to be responding to that.

There’s also the question of if over-resting could be an issue and if Cole wouldn’t experience that all the time in 2019.

4 years ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

he looked great that first inning(especially after the bunt attempt by Eaton) Strikes out Rendon and Soto on 3 pitches each.

The Zimmerman HR in the 2nd was gigantic. Was an immediate answer for the 2 runs in the first.