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Washington Nationals celebrate after defeating the Houston Astros in Game Seven to win the 2019 World Series on Oct. 30, 2019.
Daniel Hudson #44 of the Washington Nationals celebrates after defeating the Houston Astros in Game Seven to win the 2019 World Series on Oct. 30, 2019.
Juan Soto #22 of the Washington Nationals hits an RBI single against the Houston Astros during the eighth inning in Game Seven of the 2019 World Series on Oct. 30, 2019.
Washington Nationals catcher Yan Gomes (10) and center fielder Victor Robles (16) celebrate with third baseman Anthony Rendon (6) after scoring a run past Houston Astros pitcher Jose Urquidy (65) in the 9th inning of Game Seven of the 2019 World Series, Oct 30, 2019.
HOUSTON — If Game 7 of the World Series was presented as a fictional script, it would have been dismissed as a bit too ridiculous.
You had the legendary Washington Nationals starting pitcher, just 72 hours removed from neck spasms that rendered him barely able to move. He fought and scratched and clawed, and his old-school manager left him in too long, but he absorbed punch after punch and gave up just a couple of runs.
On the other side you had Houston with a Cy Young winner at the height of his powers, defusing the Washington offence completely through six innings. The Astros were younger, and better, and playing at home in front of a blazing-orange crowd. They were eight outs from the World Series, with a two-run lead.
But then, plot twist. An Anthony Rendon home run and a walk to Juan Soto chased Zack Greinke, who had been utterly masterful up until that point. Houston manager A.J. Hinch did what his counterpart Dave Martinez did not: he pulled his starter at the first sign of trouble. This is what the Astros do, they play the numbers, they trust the science, they remove the human element, and it has proven to be hugely successful.
Except sports are random. Baseball is oh so random. And so, the fresh reliever Will Harris came in for Greinke, and Howie Kendrick reached out and smacked his second pitch to the opposite field. It arced high, and bent toward foul territory, but the yellow foul pole got in the way. A two-run home run, and a 3-2 lead for the visitors. It was, in a word, bananas.
The Nationals had stumbled and staggered through six innings, Max Scherzer gamely battling his way back from jammed nerves in his neck that had caused him to miss his Game 5 start. The Astros always seemed to be one swing from blowing the game open, but that swing would not come.
And so, the Nationals, the team that just would not die in this postseason, did not die. The former Montreal Expos, who began life in 1969 at Jarry Park, are the world champions for the first time in franchise history, after a 6-2, come-from-behind victory, the fifth win of that nature for the Nationals in an elimination game this postseason. The road team won all seven games in the World Series for the first time ever. Implausible, wildly implausible, but true.
Considering the full smorgasbord of events that took place a night earlier in Game 6 — the rocket homers, the lead changes, the showmanship, an umpire controversy and a manager ejection — the early part of Game 7 was relatively sedate. It was more of a feeling-out process, the opening rounds of a prize fight. Jab, Jab, hug.
The Astros landed a lot more of their punches, getting runners on base in each of the first three innings, but the only run they had to show for it was the result of a bases-empty blast into the left-field seats from Yuli Gurriel.
Scherzer, evidently not quite himself and unable to be as crisp with his breaking pitches, battled through all that trouble and stranded five runners in those first three frames, when 43,000 orange-clad people and Minute Maid Park were just heaving in anticipation of a game-altering swing. Scherzer did get a big assist from the Astros in the second inning, when with two men on and none out, catcher Robinson Chirinos attempted a bunt and popped it up for an easy out. Maybe Houston felt sorry for the guy, what with the neck and all. The clearest sign that Scherzer wasn’t the full Mad Max: zero strikeouts through three innings.
Greinke, meanwhile, was dazzling. Although he came into the game with a postseason ERA north of 5.00 and had been shaky against the Nationals even in his Game 3 win in Washington, he was at his befuddling best on Wednesday night, facing the minimum 12 batters through the first four innings and inducing several weak tap-backs to the mound that he fielded himself.
It was the first-ever Game 7 matchup of former Cy Young winners, with one healthy and one not. The results, perhaps, were predictable. The former flashed his arsenal, the latter laboured to establish his own.
And yet, it was still a one-run game. The Nationals had faced elimination four times in this postseason, and trailed in each game. They knew well the benefits of hanging around.
By the bottom of the fourth, Scherzer was at it again, allowing a two-out single to Josh Reddick and a walk to George Springer, bringing mighty mite Jose Altuve to the plate. He hit the ball hard, but right at Victor Robles in centrefield, ending the threat and stranding two more Houston baserunners. Some of Scherzer’s struggles could also be chalked up to the absence of his normal caddy — Yan Gomes was catching in place of the injured Kurt Suzuki — but whatever the reason, he spent his entire time on the proverbial tightrope. Scherzer is an old-school type who imagines the manager only prying the ball from his cold, dead hands, but Martinez was taking a huge risk by continually running him back out there, especially with rested starters Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez rested and available.
That strategy caught up with the Nationals in the fifth, when Carlos Correa smacked a single just inside the third-base bag with two runners on. Gurriel scored his second run of the game to double Houston’s lead.
It seemed like it would be more than enough for Greinke. Washington was down to its final few outs and a master was dealing.
But these were the Nationals, and there was much more of a story to be written.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019