HOUSTON — Hello, World Series, where you been?
After five mostly listless affairs, the Washington Nationals won a rollicking Game 6 on Tuesday night to stave off elimination and set up what should be a wild Game 7 on Wednesday.
The Nationals rode a dominant performance from starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg and their dormant bats were roused from slumber, with home runs from Adam Eaton, Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon providing most of the offence in a 7-2 win.
The game had a bit of everything that makes postseason baseball fun. There was good pitching, some pulverized baseballs, sterling defence and even multiple lead changes — the first time anything like that had happened since way back in Game 1. There was a ridiculous umpiring controversy and then a ridiculous replay-review controversy. There was also plenty of showmanship, particularly when Soto, who became the youngest player to ever hit three home runs in a World Series, carried his bat most of the way up the first base line, an insouciant homage to what Houston’s Alex Bregman had done a few innings earlier. A dash of enmity never hurts at this point.
The Game 6 matchup was an intriguing one from a pitching perspective: two aces, but each with distinctly different trendlines. Justin Verlander, a perennial All-Star with a long postseason resume, was somehow 0-5 in the World Series, with a 5.73 ERA no less. The Nationals countered with Strasburg, the one-time phenom finally having a career season. He came into Tuesday night with a 4-0 record in the postseason, and had lowered his career playoff ERA to a sparkling 1.34. Only two pitchers in MLB history had a better number over at least 40 innings, Sandy Koufax and Mariano Rivera. Decent company.
The game began well for the Nationals, with Trea Turner beating out an infield single. He was then bunted over to second by Eaton, somewhat mysteriously given Verlander’s struggles in the first inning this postseason. Rendon drove him in with single through the hole in a shifted infield to get the Nationals on the board, but after Soto and then Howie Kendrick flew out, it looked like Washington had squandered a chance for a big inning.
The need for more runs was quickly proven in the bottom of the inning when George Springer led off with a double that was powdered off the left field wall. He scored on Jose Altuve sacrifice fly after a wild pitch moved him to third, and then Bregman followed with a rocket of a home run to the short porch in left. The MVP candidate carried his bat all the way up the first-base line — kind of like the funhouse mirror version of a bat flip.
With his deficit turned around into a 2-1 lead, Verlander breezed through the second inning, striking out Asdrubal Cabrera and Victor Robles in a tiny frame. Minute Maid Park was buzzing; Verlander had wobbled, gotten through it, and now there was the anticipation of a killshot. But Strasburg settled down, too, with a perfect bottom of the second. It was game on.
Washington eventually carried a 3-2 lead into the seventh inning on the back of the Eaton and Soto home runs, chasing Verlander in yet another World Series that wasn’t quite good enough, and that’s when things became really weird. Yan Gomes led off with a single, and Trea Turner followed by pounding a ball into the dirt in front of home plate in what turned into an accidental bunt. Robinson Chirinos scrambled to field the ball and threw to first, but the ball hit Turner in the back of the right leg.
Both runners advanced, and it looked with Washington would have men at second and third with none out — but then umpire Sal Holbrook ruled that Turner had interfered with the throw because he wasn’t properly to the right of the base line. According to the letter of the law that is true, but it is a rule that is constantly ignored; players are routinely on the base line in their final strides because first base is not in foul ground. To make that call in the seventh inning of an elimination game in the World Series? Utterly baffling.
Confusing things further, there was a replay review of the call — even though such a judgement call is not supposed to be reviewable — and then the umpires decided to uphold it anyway. Meanwhile, various players took to their social media accounts to describe what had happened at varying levels of absurd.
But then, a weird sort of cosmic justice: a batter later, Rendon parked a Ryan Pressly pitch in the left-field stands for a two-run home run that gave the Nationals a 5-2 lead. That was all Strasburg would need.
Game 7 will be Wednesday night, with Max Scherzer expected to return from a nerve issue in his neck to start for the Nationals, against Zack Greinke for the Astros. It has taken a long while for this World Series to get going, but the finish should be fantastic.