Nationals Make Gerrit Cole Look Maybe Not Quite Human, But At Least Humanoid

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The combustible Nationals bullpen tried very hard to give this away, but in the end the five runs their hitters put up on terrifying buzzsaw Gerrit Cole held up, and the Nationals escaped Game 1 with a 5–4 victory to snatch away home-field advantage in the World Series.

Cole looked very much like his normal, dominant self in the first inning. Trea Turner got on when his grounder to short banged off the glove of a hurrying Carlos Correa, but Cole ended the threat by mowing down Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto, in order, on six pitches. When the Astros put up a pair of runs and made Max Scherzer throw 26 pitches in the bottom half of the inning, it was easy to envision the Astros cruising to a comfortable victory behind another shutdown outing from their ace. Instead, Cole left a fastball over the plate against Ryan Zimmerman in the second inning, and Zimmerman clobbered it over the wall in center to get the Nationals on the board.

This was a glimmer of hope for the underdogs, but for the time being it was only a glimmer. The Astros weren’t putting up runs, but they were forcing Scherzer into some grueling innings, and by the time he escaped a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the third, he was already up to 69 pitches, virtually all of which were of the dreaded high-stress variety. If Cole could keep the Nationals quiet, the Astros would be looking at plenty of opportunities to eat up a shaky bullpen. But in the top of the fourth, Soto stepped to the plate and crushed a high fastball the other way for a game-tying solo shot. New ballgame!

Here’s where a clean frame from Scherzer would’ve dramatically changed the look of this game, offering some hope for the Nationals that they might avoid turning to one of their scattershot relievers in order to get to their relatively reliable late-innings guys. Alas, the relentless Astros continued to grind out tough at-bats, and Scherzer was forced to throw another 27 pitches and work through trouble to record another three outs. But! For the third straight inning, the grunting madman successfully worked his way out of trouble and kept the Astros off the board.

To this point in the game, apart from the two solo dingers, Cole was having a strong, efficient outing. He’d thrown 57 pitches over four innings, struck out four batters, and scattered four baserunners. There was no real indication that the Nats were on the verge of breaking things open, but that’s exactly what happened in the fifth. Kurt Suzuki led off the inning with a walk. Rookie Victor Robles, who had an adventurous night in center field, followed Suzuki with a seeing-eye single through the right side. Suzuki tagged and moved to third on a Trea Turner line-out. Adam Eaton then stepped to the plate and roped a single to right to drive in the go-ahead run.

Cole very nearly ended Washington’s momentum when he got Rendon to pound a first-pitch fastball into the dirt, but the Astros were unable to turn the inning-ending double play, which meant Soto would have a chance to break the game open with runners on first and third. And that’s exactly what happened. Soto, the delightful crotch-grabber, has been Washington’s breakout star in these playoffs, and in the game’s biggest spot, he stayed on a tough 90-mph outside slider and ripped it the other way for a huge two-out double, driving in both Robles and Rendon.

The five runs allowed by Cole were the most against him in any game since May 22, a streak that covers a whopping 25 regular-season and postseason starts. And Cole wasn’t even bad! He threw 104 pitches across seven innings of work, and struck out six, and walked just one. While Scherzer was sweating bullets and grinding his way through every out, Cole mostly had all his stuff, and mostly hit all his spots. But the Nats, as has been their way throughout much of these playoffs, managed to string together their best at-bats and luckiest bounces, and push runs across without ever seeming to fully gain the upper hand.

But they still had to survive 12 outs of relief work, which for them is as treacherous a tightrope act as anything in baseball. Davey Martinez turned to starter Patrick Corbin to work the sixth, which is dicey business, given that his relief appearances in these playoffs haven’t always been pretty, and how the Astros generally demolish lefties. Here Corbin allowed a one-out single but was otherwise clean and efficient. It was when Martinez turned to a real reliever that things very nearly went to hell. Hard-throwing Tanner Rainey gave up a leadoff dinger to George Springer in the bottom of the seventh, then walked consecutive batters with one out; recent closer Daniel Hudson, brought on to clean up Rainey’s mess, loaded the bases but fanned Yordan Álvarez to escape the threat.

Hudson created his own mess in the eighth, and Springer, who got on base four times Tuesday night, crushed an RBI double off the top of the wall in right to make it a one-run game. Martinez was forced to call upon his last reliable and available pitcher, Sean Doolittle, to escape another two-out jam and work a four-out save. Michael Brantley made solid contact on an 0–2 fastball, but his liner was more-or-less laser-guided at Soto in left, stranding Houston’s last best chance at tying the game. In what qualifies as a minor miracle, Doolittle worked a clean 1–2–3 ninth.

The Nationals will have Stephen Strasburg on the mound for Game 2, with his 1.10 career postseason earned-run average. Now that Cole has been roughed up, it’s fair to say Strasburg has been the best pitcher through these playoffs—suddenly the Astros, the biggest World Series favorite in more than a decade, find themselves in a fairly desperate must-win situation. A dominant outing from Cole in Game 1 seemed like the surest thing in the world; now that his inevitability has been cracked, anything seems possible.

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