Bernie On The World Series: Five Reasons Why The Nationals Got The Jump On The Astros

Five reasons why the Washington Nationals got the World Series jump on the Houston Astros with a 5-4 victory in a fascinating Game 1 played Tuesday nigh at Minute Maid Park:

1-The Nationals took away Gerrit Cole’s superpowers and turned him back into a human, a normal pitcher. After a quick 10-pitch first inning to dismiss the Nationals with stunning ease, Cole was handed a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first — that’s big trouble for Washington, right? But Cole couldn’t hold it long.

The most senior National, Ryan Zimmerman, homered with two outs in the second, making it 2-1. The youngest National, Juan Soto, rocked a long one onto the tracks above the left field wall in the fourth, tying it 2-2. After an RBI single by Adam Eaton and a two-run double by Soto in the fifth, the Nationals were suddenly up by three runs, 5-2.

The damage was done. Cole would push for 7 innings, getting tagged for eight hits and five earned runs. But the Nationals hung a loss on Cole, and this is a very big deal. The Astros hadn’t lost a game started by Cole since July 12, which means they’d won his last 17 starts including four in the American League playoffs. Over this brilliant 17-game stretch, Cole had been barely touched, pitching to a 1.28 ERA.

And Cole hadn’t been charged with an official loss since losing to Texas back on May 22, so his spectacular streak of 26 consecutive starts with a win or no-decision was abruptly halted on Tuesday night.

2-Max Scherzer getting the win by fighting  like mad on every pitch.  Over his 112 full-exertion pitches Scherzer remarkably held the Astros to two runs in five laborious, warrior-soul innings. Scherzer didn’t have command or a feel for his changeup. And the Astros really, really made Max work. Were it not for Max’s maximum competitive fire, the Astros easily could have put the Nationals away early in Game 1. But Scherzer — and this is absolutely a compliment — was an animal, sweating and grunting in his duels with 23 Astros batters. Scherzer has pitched better, of course, but he really earned this one.

3. Juan Soto’s latest star turn. He took another spin on baseball’s biggest stage and wrecked Cole and the Astros with three hits, including the homer and double, to drive in three of his team’s five runs. Soto had a .362 onbase percentage and .548 slug this postseason with five extra-base hits and 10 runs batted in. He had the late game-winning hit in the NL wild-card game. He hit the late game-tying homer off Clayton Kershaw in NLDS Game 5. Later in that Game 5 in Los Angeles, Soto got on base and scored on the 10th-inning grand slam homer by Howie Kendrick that launched the Nationals into the NLCS against the Cardinals. And now this? Soto making his World Series debut by giving the supposedly indomitable Gerrit Cole a whomping in Game 1? Soto turns 21 years old on Friday.

4. Nationals manager Davey Martinez sticking to his aggressive bullpen strategy to go all-out in an effort to secure every possible postseason victory that’s there for to be claimed — no matter what it takes.  The attitude could be described this way: “Don’t worry about tomorrow. Just win the damn game today.” Yep. Heck, yeah. Grab the win that’s there for you to claim, right here and right now, instead of fretting over what it might mean three days from now. And that’s why we saw Nationals starting pitcher Patrick Corbin trotting in to pitch the sixth inning in relief of Scherzer. That’s why Martinez later leaned on lefty Sean Doolittle to bag a four-out save.

Think about this: can you even imagine the emotional blow to Washington had the Nationals lost this game after breaking through on Gerrit Cole for five runs and a three-run lead? Martinez wasn’t going to fool around. He still needed to get 12 outs after Scherzer’s work was done. And Corbin made perfect sense to bridge the gap.

A manager can’t be casual in this situation. He must go for it, without hesitation or fretting about an upcoming game that may not even present a clear opportunity to win.

5. It was tense, but the Martinez strategy worked  — again!  During this postseason he’s relied heaviy relied on six pitchers: starters Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Corbin and Anibal Sanchez — plus relievers Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. Lately Martinez has been utilizing power-armed reliever  Tanner Rainey, but as we saw in Game 1 Rainey tends to be wild and can walk batters in a hurry.

The Martinez relief brigade in Game 1 consisted of Corbin, Rainey, Hudson and Doolittle. Rainey was blasted for a solo homer and walked two. Martinez went to Hudson, who got the Nationals out of Rainey’s jam, only to yield an RBI double to George Springer in the 8th that cut the Nats lead to 5-4. Tension!

Martinez pivoted and turned to Hudson for the final four outs against the heart of the Houston lineup. And Doolittle shut down, in order, the dangerous foursome of Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel and Carlos Correa. Hudson has a 1.29 ERA this postseason in seven appearances.

The Nationals have pitched 99 innings this postseason. The four starters, Doolittle and Hudson have supplied 90.5 percent of those innings. Add Tanier (six appearances) to that list and seven pitchers have accounted for 94 of the 99 innings.

Sanchez hasn’t been used in relief through the Nationals’ first 11 postseason games. But Corbin, Scherzer and Strasburg have combined for six relief appearances and 7.1 innings. For the postseason the four Washington staters have accounted for 70 of the team’s 99 IP.  That’s just under 75 percent.

The tactics are risky, and I don’t know if Martinez and the Nationals can win three more games without the Astros blowing up Washington’s pitching plan. But this isn’t a matter of wrong or right; Martinez is making a push with his pitchers. This has been the only thing to do; so far it’s also been the right thing to do.

The Nationals continued to stand tall as they ride the wave. They’ve won six consecutive postseason games, winning Game 5 of the NLDS in Los Angeles, sweeping the dormant Cardinals in four straight, and taking the World Series opener. Since losing two of three games in St. Louis in mid-September, Washington is 19-3.

And since their grim 19-31 start to the season, the Nationals are 83-40 including postseason.

That’s a .675 winning percentage.

(Is that good?)

Not sure why we should be surprised by their latest success … including the bashing of G. Cole, who came into Game 1 as the best starter in MLB. An intimidating dude that had a 1.59 ERA in his previous 26 starts.

“We’ve been in playoff mode and facing really good pitchers for the last four months,” Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said late Tuesday, as quoted by The Athletic. “When you walk through that gauntlet of (Walker) Buehler, (Hyun-jin) Ryu and (Clayton) Kershaw with the Dodgers and then you beat (Jack) Flaherty and (Adam) Wainwright with the Cardinals — our guys are pretty good. They think they’re pretty good. And they think they can beat anybody.”

Statistic worth remembering: Over the past 25 years, the winner of Game 1 has won 20 of the 25  World Series. This one ain’t over. But this was a huge triumph for the Nationals.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie