Road Warriors Again: Astros Take Third Straight in Washington

So much for home field advantage. The visitors won for the fifth straight time in this World Series, which means that after losing the first two games of this series to the Nationals, the Astros are up three games to two. They took advantage of Max Scherzer being scratched from his rematch with Gerrit Cole due to neck spasms, tagging emergency starter Joe Ross with a pair of two-run homers. That was more than enough run support for a dominant Cole, though Houston’s lineup tacked on three more runs in the late innings and won 7-1. During the three games in Washington, they walloped the Nationals by a combined 19-3 score, and they’re now one win away from their second championship in three seasons.

A few quick thoughts on the game, which also featured a shaky strike zone from home plate umpire Lance Barksdale, a pair of flashers behind home plate that distracted Cole, and a visit from Donald Trump that did not go as well as the president envisioned…

Pain in the Neck

The character of Sunday night’s Game 5 changed significantly before a single pitch was thrown. Three and a half hours before game time, the Nationals announced that Scherzer, who had allowed two runs in five innings in Game 1 opposite Cole, had been scratched due to spasms and nerve irritation in his right trapezius, problems for which he had begun undergoing treatment on Friday. Though he had been able to play catch on Saturday, Scherzer had woken up on Sunday in intense pain, and “completely couldn’t get out of bed… I had to basically fall out of bed and pick myself up with my left arm,” as he said during a pregame media session during which his pain and immobility were quite apparent.

“I’m as disappointed as I possibly can be not to be able to pitch tonight,” he said. “I’ve pitched through so much crap in my career that would be easy to pitch through at this point. This is literally impossible to do anything with.” He received a cortisone shot in the hopes of being available for a Game 7, if there is one.

Obviously, there was no easy way for the Nationals to replace Scherzer, who in 25 total postseason innings (four starts plus an inning of relief) has pitched to a 2.16 ERA with 34 strikeouts and 11 walks. Ross, a 26-year-old righty who had made his postseason debut with two scoreless innings of relief in Game 3, pitched to a 5.48 ERA (fifth-highest ever for a World Series starter) and 4.59 FIP in 64 innings this year. After spending nearly two full months in Triple-A from late May to late July (save for a one-inning four-run stint for the Nationals on June 22), he posted a 3.83 ERA and a 3.90 FIP over his final 49.1 innings (nine starts and one relief appearance), though he missed three weeks in September due to forearm soreness.

According to our ZiPS-based playoff odds, the switch from Scherzer to Ross lowered the Nationals’ chances of winning Game 5 from 47.8% to 38.3%. As for their series odds, since it’s guesswork based upon whether Scherzer pitches again how well, Dan Szymborski offered a range of possibilities that showed a high of 40% for the Nationals winning (Scherzer starting Game 7 at full strength, followed by Stephen Strasburg and Ross) and a low of 35% (Ross starting Game 7 — an option that’s now off the table given his work — with Strasburg and Aníbal Sánchez following).

If at First You Don’t Succeed

Three times in the first four games of this World Series, the Astros put two runs on the board in the first inning; their total of six runs in the opening frame is just two short of the Wild Card-era record, held by the 2004 Red Sox. Their 16 first-inning runs during the postseason is the third-highest total of the era:

Postseason Scoring in First Inning, Since 1995
Cardinals 2011 18 21 .320 .414 .667 1.081
Cubs 2003 12 17 .411 .507 .661 1.168
Astros 2019 16 16 .328 .416 .567 .983
Yankees 1998 13 15 .357 .448 .446 .894
Phillies 2009 15 15 .306 .386 .677 1.063
Braves 1996 16 14 .313 .338 .463 .801
Red Sox 2007 14 14 .429 .486 .683 1.169
Indians 1997 18 14 .290 .380 .478 .858
Mets 2000 14 14 .291 .379 .491 .870
Cardinals 2000 8 14 .425 .465 .700 1.165
Red Sox 2004 14 13 .344 .452 .623 1.075
Red Sox 2018 14 13 .305 .397 .441 .838
White Sox 2005 12 13 .289 .373 .600 .973
Mets 2015 14 13 .281 .328 .649 .977

The Astros did not add to that total on Sunday night, however. Ross began by walking leadoff hitter George Springer after an eight-pitch plate appearance, but he then got Jose Altuve to ground into a 6-4-3 double play and got Michael Brantley to ground out as well. Unfortunately, his second inning didn’t go so well. After Yuli Gurriel’s one-out single, Yordan Alvarez — playing left field for the first time this postseason and just the 11th time in his major league career after being limited to pinch-hit duty over the previous two nights — crushed a 2-1 sinker on the outer edge of the strike zone for his first home run of the postseason:

The hit was just Alvarez’s fifth over his past 41 plate appearances, dating to his final two plate appearances of Division Series Game 4 against the Rays; in that span, he had struck out 17 times. He had shown signs of emerging from his slump by getting on base a team-high five times in the first two games of the World Series, via three singles and a pair of walks, but his limited defensive abilities left him on the bench, and it’s tough to argue with the results given that the Astros evened the series.

After that homer, Ross retired seven of the next eight hitters before Alvarez won a seven-pitch battle with a single to right field. Ross got ahead of Carlos Correa 0-2, then just missed with a slider on the black outside:

That Ross didn’t get the call from Barksdale loomed large, because four pitches later, Correa demolished a hanging slider that was right over the heart of the plate:

Understandably leery of getting too deep into a bullpen that had allowed four runs in three innings in Game 4, and was down an extra man because of Ross’ emergency start, Nationals manager Davey Martinez let his starter remain in the game even as the lineup turned over for the second time in the fifth inning. After issuing a one-out walk to Springer, Ross again induced Altuve to hit into a double play. In his five innings, he allowed a total of five hits and two walks while striking out one; he netted just six swinging strikes out of 78 pitches. Of the 17 balls the Astros hitters made contact with, seven of them had exit velocities of at least 100 mph, including both homers. Whoosh. His was a tough and perhaps even impossible assignment; he was a pitch or two away from matching Scherzer’s Game 1 contribution, but he just didn’t get the breaks.

Young King Cole

That four-run lead would be more than enough for Cole, who as the Fox broadcast noted was 40-0 in his career when given a margin of at least that many runs. The pitcher that was roughed up for five runs in his Game 1 start opposite Scherzer was nowhere in evidence; this was the dominant version of Cole, the one that allowed just one run and 10 hits across 22.2 innings in the first two rounds of the postseason.

The 29-year-old righty allowed baserunners in only two of the first six innings. In the second, Juan Soto and Howie Kendrick hit back-to-back singles, but then Ryan Zimmerman struck out swinging and Victor Robles grounded into a double play. The 0-for-2 with runners in scoring position — the only two chances the Nationals would get all night — extended Washington’s three-game string of futility to 1-for-21 in such at-bats. In the fourth, Cole issued a one-out walk to Anthony Rendon that went unconverted. In the seventh, he finally yielded a run when Soto connected with a 98.7 mph fastball down Broadway, his second homer of the series off the Astros’ ace:

While Cole recovered to strike out Kendrick, he issued a six-pitch walk to Zimmerman, a pitch that came just after two models lifted their shirts while standing behind home plate, apparently to raise awareness of breast cancer. The pitcher stepped off the mound to refocus, and on the ensuing pitch, he just missed on a slider outside the zone that both he and catcher Martín Maldonado believed was strike three; the pitcher was so heated that manager A.J. Hinch came out to the mound to settle him down. Amid that plate appearance, his pitch count had crossed 100 — and his velocity had nearly reached 100 mph (Statcast had that as 99.5). He dialed it up as high as 99.8 mph against the next batter, Robles, before getting the benefit of the doubt on a 98.2-mph fastball that was further outside than either ball four to Zimmerman or the aforementioned Ross pitch to Correa.

Here are those two Cole pitches:

Ugh. Via the Brooks Baseball Fastmap — the “as called” zones drawn to the specifications of analyst Mike Fast, a pioneer in quantifying pitch framing who until recently worked for the Astros — Barksdale’s zone against right-handed hitters was terribly inconsistent:

That’s from the umpire’s point of view, so the Correa, Zimmerman, and Robles pitches are all on the right side, an area where the calls for balls and strikes was quite haphazard. Barksdale was relatively better when it came to the calls against lefties, but he did utterly blow one, as shown by the green dot in the lower right:

That should have been strike three to Brantley, but Barksdale apparently didn’t call it because Gomes got out of his crouch too quickly. “Oh, it’s my fault?” asked the catcher.

These are the professionals, folks.

Anyway, Cole was brilliant and stifling. In his seven innings, he allowed just three hits and a run while walking two and striking out nine. He threw 110 pitches and netted 13 swinging strikes — six via his slider, four via a four-seam fastball that averaged 97.3 mph, and three via his curve. His total of 47 strikeouts is now tied with Randy Johnson (2001 Diamondbacks), Josh Beckett (2003 Marlins) and Cliff Lee (2010 Rangers) for the second-highest in a single postseason, behind only Curt Schilling’s 56 with the 2001 Diamondbacks.

And That Happened

The late innings became the Springer show. The 30-year-old center fielder led off the eighth with a double against Daniel Hudson, scoring on a two-out single by Gurriel. Facing Hudson again with two outs and a man on in the ninth, he hit a two-run homer, his second of this series, his seventh in any World Series (recall that he was the MVP in 2017 for hitting five dingers), and his 15th postseason home run. Not too shabby.

Anyone who wants my political commentary can get it via my Twitter feed, but I can’t write about this game without noting that Trump was in the park and got a frosty reception. ‘Nuf said.

With the Astros’ win, road teams are now 18-17 in this postseason. This isn’t all that uncommon, though. During the Wild Card era, road teams have gotten the upper hand in 1996 (18-14), ’98 (16-14), 2003 (20-18), ’10 (19-13), ’12 (19-18), and ’16 (18-17). Good teams, short series, et cetera.

Meanwhile, this is the first time in 23 years that the road team has taken the first five games of the World Series. In 1996, the Braves took the first two games against the Yankees in the Bronx, but the Yankees stormed back to take three in Atlanta, then wrapped up their first championship in 18 years by winning Game 6 in the Bronx. With Justin Verlander going for them against Strasburg at Minute Maid Park, the Astros could be positioned to join their company.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
4 years ago

Does MLB realize how big of an issue these umpires have been?

And it’s amazing to think these are supposedly the best of the best… That’s the saddest part of things.

4 years ago
Reply to  stever20

I thought the catcher’s did a nice job framing in game 4 and I like to see that skill rewarded, but it wasn’t framing that lost or gained several strikes in 5. The ump was just inconsistent and it was annoying. It really seemed the call in the seventh on Robles was just a make up call for the borderline Zim call Cole complained about. That’s no way to call a game.

4 years ago
Reply to  stever20

The umpire did not cause the Nationals to lose by six runs.

4 years ago
Reply to  Sittch


4 years ago
Reply to  Sittch

Sure, but at the time of that Robles call, the Nationals would have had tying run up to bat. Gomes got a hit to lead off the next inning; lots of if’s, but there’s a chance at that point it’s a 4-2 game with tying run on instead of 5-1.

4 years ago
Reply to  Sittch

The umpire did not cause the Nationals loss. Houston did that. It is disappointing that in addition to having to overcome Cole and the Astros never-ending lineup of awesome hitters, the Nats ALSO had to overcome Lance Barksdale’s bad day.

4 years ago
Reply to  Sittch

Did you accidentally reply to the wrong comment (because the OP did not hint at this)?
Or are you arguing that missing balls and strikes isn’t inherently a big issue?

4 years ago
Reply to  Sittch

Are you fine with with umpires missing on average 14 calls per game both ways this series? THAT’S the problem right now. An average of 1.5 calls per inning are wrong. 4.4% of the pitches in the series have been wrong- 69 of 1577 for both teams. Is that acceptable for you? Because it sure as hell isn’t for me.

And like I said- these numbers are with the supposed best of the best.

4 years ago
Reply to  stever20

saw somewhere online where folks were proposing instead of going full robo umps a challenge system similar to tennis. Teams would get 3 challenges for balls/strikes. If sucessful get to keep the challenge(just like replay).

Think this could be a possible winner..

London Yank
4 years ago
Reply to  stever20

A knock on effect could be speeding up the pace of play. Presumably pitchers would have more incentive to get the next pitch in before opposing teams have time to relay in from the video room that a challenge should be issued.

…on the other hand, if the pitching team wants to challenge it could have the opposite effect of slowing down pace of play. On reflection, a challenge system really gives an advantage to the pitching team.

4 years ago
Reply to  London Yank

I think the challenge itself would be instantaneous like in Tennis.

I really don’t think it would favor batters or pitchers.