Bernie: Max Leads Nationals Into Game 7 At Houston’s Roadhouse. Can the Visitors Do It Again?

The Washington Nationals charged their way to a 7-2 victory Tuesday night in a rollicking, raucous, Game 6 at Minute Maid Park to tie the World Series at three games apiece.

The beautiful reward for baseball fans: a Game 7 showdown Wednesday in Houston, first pitch just after 7 p.m. with Our Town’s Max Scherzer starting for the Nationals against the Astros’ Zack Greinke. A dud is always a possibility, but let’s hope for a classic in this one.

Facts and Sass:

1. The Nationals thrive on being the underdogs. After flopping at home, losing three in a row to the Astros in D.C., the Nattys went back to Houston and competed with confidence. As you know, this is an odd World Series because the home teams have lost all six games. But the Nationals have been excellent on the road this postseason, winning seven of eight games. Houston is just the latest stop.

2. As a matter o’ fact: the Nationals have won their last seven road games this postseason: two in Los Angeles, two at St. Louis, and three at Houston. In the process, Washington outscored the home teams 40-15 in the seven straight road wins. The postseason record is eight consecutive road victories, by the 1996 Yankees.

3. The Nationals have outscored the Astros 24-9 in their three wins at Houston. The Astros outscored the Nationals 19-3 in three wins at Washington. The Nationals have homered eight times in three games at Houston but only popped one homer in the three losses in D.C. The Nats have gone 9 for 27 (.333) with runners in scoring position in the three contests at Houston. The Nationals were 1 for 21 with RISP (.047) in their three home defeats. Go figure.

4. In this highly unusual World Series the home team has led for a grand total of seven innings. And the home team has never led, at any point, after four innings. Crazy.

Said Houston manager AJ Hinch:

“We worked really hard to get home-field and we’re happy to play at home. We have no problem playing at home. This place will be rocking tomorrow. We’ve won a ton of games in this ballpark. This series has been very weird.

“If I had told you the series was going to be 3-3 going to a Game 7, I don’t think there’s a person in the building that would have assumed that all road teams were going to win. We’ve just got to make sure that last one (Game 7) is not the same.”

5. Pointing out the obvious: with a win in Game 7, the Nationals would become the first champion in World Series history to post all four wins on the road. They’d also become the first World Series champion representing Washington D.C. since 1924. That D.C. franchise eventually moved to Minneapolis and became the Twins.

6. The Nationals are the first team in MLB history to generate four comeback victories in potential elimination games during a single postseason. The comebacks came in the wild-card win over Milwaukee, NLDS Game 2 at LA, NLDS Game 5 at LA, and in Game 6 at Houston.

7. A number of sharp observers pointed this out on Twitter, and so I’ll pass it along to you: this will be the 1st Game 7 in World Series history matching two starting pitchers that already have won at least one Cy Young award in their careers.

8. About that matchup, Scherzer vs. Greinke, and let’s start with Max: in 21 career postseason games, Scherzer had a 3.36 ERA. He’s been terrific this postseason, with a 2.16 ERA in 25 innings over five games. (Four of which were starts.) The Nationals are 5-0 in games worked by Scherzer this postseason; he has an individual record of 3-0. Since signing with the Nationals, Scherzer has a 2.84 ERA in 44 and ⅓ innings.

9. More on Greinke: It’s been a bumpy postseason. In four games (all starts), he’s been smacked around for five homers and 11 earned runs in 18 and ⅔ innings. That’s a 5.30 ERA. Postseason opponents have jumped on Greinke for a .289 batting average, .365 OBP, .566 slug and a .930 OPS … for his career, Greinke has a 4.31 ERA in 15 postseason games.

10. Stephen Strasburg’s command performance shouldn’t get lost in the confusion, the chaos and clumsiness of Game 6. (More on that in a moment.) The Nationals’ starting pitcher improved to 5-0 this postseason with 8 and ⅓ innings of two-run ball. After Strasburg yielded two first-inning runs, teammate Brian Dozier told him he was tipping pitches. Strasburg adjusted and shut out the Astros for the next 7 and ⅓ innings. Strasburg has a superb 1.98 ERA over 36 and ⅓ innings this postseason, and the team is 6-0 in his games. For his career, Strasburg has a 1.46 ERA over 55.1 innings. That’s among the best, ever, by a starting pitcher.

11. Strasburg’s two wins over Houston counterpart Justin Verlander was a critically important element of Washington’s staying power that brings them to Game 7. In the two Strasburg vs. Verlander matchups, Strasburg allowed four earned runs in 14.1 innings (2.51 ERA). Verlander was roughed for seven earned runs in 11 innings (5.73 ERA.)

12. Verlander is a lock for the Baseball Hall of Fame, but … Tuesday’s loss dropped him (like an anchor) to 0-6 with a 5.68 ERA in his seven career World Series starts. And in his last five starts this postseason, Verlander was pounded for 17 earned runs in 28.1 innings (5.40) ERA. The damage included eight homers allowed in 123 batters faced.

13. The umpiring was terrible. But Sam Holbrook has been a mediocre umpire for a long time, so no one should be surprised by Holbrook’s seventh-inning brains shortage that could have cost the Nationals a chance to stay alive in the series.

14. I don’t care what the rulebook states, technically,  about runner interference — with the first baseman, or involving the fielder making the throw — when the batter is sprinting from the batter’s box to first. The rule didn’t apply here for a simple, obvious reasons: the outcome of the play was the result of a bad throw by Houston pitcher Brad Peacock. And the runner, Trea Turner, did not cause the inaccurate throw. Even if Turner strayed from the so-called boundaries — which he didn’t. If the panicky Peacock doesn’t throw wildly to first base, Astros 1B Yuli Gurriel doesn’t have to stretch into the baseline, in the path of the runner. And if Gurriel isn’t reaching across the baseline to snag the errant throw, then Turner doesn’t touch him.

15. In other words, this is plain common sense.  So use it. The pitcher messed up with an off-target throw. You don’t penalize Turner and the Nationals for that. You don’t reward the Astros for their poor defensive work at that moment. The Nationals should have had runners on second and third with no out and an enhanced chance to extend their 3-2 lead. Instead, they were left with a runner on first and one out.

16. The greatest part of this latest bad-ump embarrassment was how Anthony Rendon made it largely irrelevant with his massive, two-out, two-run, home-run rocket into the Crawford boxes above left field. The devastating blow came only one batter after Holbrook lost his marbles with a lapse in logic and judgment. Rendon eradicated the Holbrook taint, jolted the Nationals into a 5-2 lead and all but secured his team’s safe passage to Game 7. Before the Rendon blast, the Nationals had a 65 percent win expectancy. After the homer, Washington’s win probability increased to 86%. Rendon later doubled in two more runs and finished with three hits and five runs batted in.

17. In the Year of the Home Run, the postseason has followed the same flight pattern. Adam Eaton, Juan Soto and Rendon went deep Tuesday as the Nationals outhomered the Astros 3-1. Teams that have hit the most home runs in an individual game are now 25-6 this postseason. And in this World Series, home runs have accounted for 53 percent of the 55 total runs scored by the Astros and Nationals.

18. If the Astros prevail in Game 7, they’ll enter an exclusive club: teams that won 100+ games for three consecutive seasons, capped by at least two World Series titles in the three-year run.

— The 1929-1931 Philadelphia A’s averaged 104.3 wins per season, with a “low” of 102 wins in 1930. They won the World Series in 1929 and ‘30 and lost it in ‘31.

— The 1942-1944 St. Louis Cardinals averaged 105.3 victories per season during World War II, with a win total no lower than 105. The Redbirds won the World Series in 1942 and in ‘44 but lost it in ‘43.

The Astros averaged 103.6 over the last three seasons, reaching their high of 107 victories this year. The 2017 Astros posted the lowest number of wins (101) but defeated the Dodgers in the World Series. The 2018 Astros — eliminated by the Red Sox in the ALCS — didn’t get there in 2018, but have a chance to grab their second World Series Trophy in three seasons by beating the Nationals in Game 7.

19. And if the Astros lose Game 7? Well, that would put them right there with the 1969-1971 Baltimore Orioles, a mighty team led by manager Earl Weaver, a native St. Louisan. The O’s averaged 106 wins over the three years, with a high of 109 in 1969 and a low of 101 in ‘71. But the Orioles were upset by the Mets in the ‘69 series, and blew a 2-0 series lead to the Pirates in ‘71. Baltimore’s only World Series triumph during the three-year period of regular-season dominance came with a four-game sweep of the Reds in 1970.

20. Scherzer’s turnaround from the neck-shoulder spasms that immobilized him on the morning of Sunday’s scheduled start in Game 5. Scherzer was scratched from that assignment. But by Tuesday night — after a cortisone injection and two days of intense treatment — Scherzer was loosening in the bullpen to enter Game 6 if needed. (But Scherzer sat after Rendon’s homer.) And now Max is the Game 7 starter. Wow.

20a. Washington manager Davey Martinez has plenty of pitching strength in reserve including available starters Anibal Sanchez and Patrick Corbin. And if Scherzer is hurting, or badly off form, Martinez must be aggressive about intervening. But here’s hoping that Scherzer sets the pace and leads the way to a World Series parade in Washington.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie