HOUSTON — Finally, a baseball game worthy of these two teams. Five times over the past week, the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals, two teams fat with transcendent talent, had played one another in the World Series, and they had produced a solid game, a blowout and three duds.
Game 6 was none of those things. Game 6 had everything. An ace pitching like an ace. An ace faltering. A controversy. An ejection. A showboating clinic. Clutch hits. Big outs. Everything. And all in service of one more game to be played Wednesday night that will crown a champion.
Baseball can be a maddening sport, too slow or too boring or too so many other things, but damn if it isn’t the most beautiful sport in the world when played at the level the Astros and Nationals did Tuesday night in Washington’s 7-2 victory at Minute Maid Park. Want to sell a new generation of fans on the sport? Show them Game 6, which hoarded so much of what its predecessors lacked.
Let them marvel at Stephen Strasburg and suffer with Justin Verlander. Watch them scream at the illogic of an interference call and huzzah Nationals manager Davey Martinez raging against the machine. Let them take their bats for a walk like Alex Bregman and Juan Soto. Insist they revel in Anthony Rendon ‘s somnambulant eminence. Baseball is not slow or boring or so many other things when it delivers a game worthy of its stage.
Where to start? Well, how about the start itself, because this is the sort of game that begs to unfold chronologically, each incident informing the next. In the first inning, Verlander allowed a run and Strasburg two. The second Astros run came on a home run from Alex Bregman, their star third baseman, who held his bat the entire 90-foot jog down the first-base line before a failed hand-off to first-base coach Don Kelly. It was a glorious bit of insolence that planted the first seedling of possibility: Maybe this game wasn’t going to be like the others.
The Astros had taken the previous three games at Nationals Park after Washington stole the first two at Minute Maid, and the whole series felt upside down, home-field advantage actually registering as a disadvantage. Bregman was planting his flag. The Astros were going to end that streak. For the next three innings, the Nationals threatened Verlander but did little to disprove Bregman.
Then came the fifth. Adam Eaton hammered a home run off Verlander to tie the game. Two batters later, Juan Soto, their wunderkind cleanup hitter, launched a fastball nearly off the scoreboard in right-center field. On his home run trot, he brought the bat on the ride to first base, too, later saying: “I just thought it was pretty cool. I wanna do it, too.”
As Soto went on his vision quest of coolness, most of the 43,384 fans at Minute Maid fell silent. Verlander, for his career 0-5 in the World Series, was losing again. In 13 division series appearances, his ERA is 2.52, and in 11 league championship series appearances, his ERA is 3.13, and coming into Game 6, in six World Series appearances, his ERA was 5.73. He was done after five innings, trailing 3-2, out before the madness really started.
The top of the seventh inning was a big, messy disaster. Nationals catcher Yan Gomes singled. Trea Turner, their speedy leadoff hitter, topped a swinging bunt down the third-base line. Pitcher Brad Peacock charged, whirled and threw. Turner collided with first baseman Yuli Gurriel. The ball skipped away. Turner moved to second, Gomes to third. Home-plate umpire Sam Holbrook then walked toward first base, punched his right fist in the air and called Turner out. He had violated Rule 5.09(a)(11) and committed interference — a judgment call by Holbrook.
Over the next five minutes, the Nationals went through an accelerated Kübler-Ross cycle of the stages of grief. First, they couldn’t believe it. Turner hadn’t leaked haphazardly inside the baseline to interfere with Peacock’s throw or Gurriel’s catch. Then there was anger. Holbrook argued Turner had not run in the lane designated outside of the baseline, even though the base itself is inside the line, meaning a runner, theoretically, needs to come from inside the line to outside to back in. The rage burbled inside the Nationals’ dugout.
“Wait until you watch!” Martinez yelled at Holbrook. “Wait until you watch.”
The bargaining phase didn’t last long. Martinez said he wanted to protest. Major League Baseball said no because teams cannot lodge protests against a judgment call. Martinez understood. Turner did not. He looked toward Joe Torre, MLB’s chief baseball officer and the person in charge of rules and umpires, sitting nearby.
“Hey, he’s right there,” Turner said in the dugout. “Just ask him. Why’s he hiding? He’s sitting with his head down trying not to look up.”
Then the melancholy kicked in. The Nationals had been through this before. In 2017, MLB admitted to blowing a call in Game 5 of their division series against the Chicago Cubs. This felt like that again, only it was the World Series — a World Series game in which they were beating Justin Verlander. Everything they’d worked for, starting off 19-31, getting swept at home, fighting back in this game, all for what? So that a judgment call — an unreviewable call — could ruin them. Even if it followed the letter of the rule, it certainly did not abide by the spirit.
“What else do you do?” Turner later said. “I don’t know. The batter’s box is in fair territory. First base is in fair territory. I swung, I ran in a straight line, I got hit with the ball and I’m out. I don’t understand it. I can understand if I veered one way or another. I didn’t.”
They were sad because they had seen almost the exact same play almost exactly a year ago. Game 4 of the 2018 World Series. Bases loaded. One out. Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Cody Bellinger hit a ground ball to first base. Steve Pearce threw home for a force out. Catcher Christian Vazquez tried to double up Bellinger, running inside the line, at first. Bellinger plowed into Pearce’s glove. The ball got away. Interference wasn’t called. A run scored. Yasiel Puig hit a three-run home run the next at-bat.
This was baseball stepping in it again, eschewing logic — Turner would have run into Gurriel’s glove even if he was in the lane — for an antiquated rule that long ago should have been changed. In fact, sources said, it is a rule that has been discussed by MLB’s competition committee because it is clearly troublesome for runners to follow. Seriously. Watch any play with a dead sprint down the first-base line. Almost every runner is inside the line … because that’s where the bag is.
That inconsistency was particularly maddening to a Nationals team that was loath to accept it. Only it had to. This was the call. Turner was out, Gomes back on first. Eaton popped up. And then up came Anthony Rendon.
Rendon grew up in Houston, went to school at Rice and carries himself with the disinterest of someone playing baseball just to play baseball. It belies the dynamism within. Rendon stared at the first pitch, a 91.1 mph cutter from the unscored-upon Will Harris. He swung at the next pitch, also 91.1, also a cutter but Harris no longer unscored upon. It flew into the short porch in left field. Turner was avenged. The Nationals led, 5-2.
“You can’t let any outside elements get into the game,” Rendon said. “No matter if it’s the crowd. You’ve got 40,000 people cheering against you. Or whether it’s the weather or if we’re in D.C. and it’s 40 degrees, whatever it might be. No one is going to feel sorry for you. They’re going to expect you to go out there and just perform as best as you can, and they’re going to expect the best out of you. Because I feel like people put professional athletes on a pedestal, where they say, ‘Oh, who cares, they’re making millions of dollars, they’re playing a game for a living so it’s easy. They should go out there and be successful every day.’ We try to just keep our head down and keep playing.”
Keep playing. That’s the Nationals. It didn’t matter that in between innings Martinez finally blew. He screamed at Holbrook and Gary Cederstrom, the crew chief. Bench coach Chip Hale tried to hold him back. He couldn’t. First-base coach Tim Bogar joined. Two men weren’t stopping Davey Martinez. He hit his inner B button, unleashed a spin move and got into Holbrook’s face. This was — well, it was obvious what thing this was, and Martinez was ejected.
But they had to keep playing. Play when you’re down during the season. Play when you’re down during the postseason. Play when you’re losing the wild-card game to Milwaukee and the division series to Los Angeles. Play without your manager. Play like they can at their best — with Rendon and Soto pummeling the ball, Turner creating havoc with his speed and Strasburg dealing.
Like Rendon, Strasburg is able to become a free agent this winter. This could be his final performance with the Nationals. And the problems from the first inning were gone. On the bench, the Nationals noticed his glove position was tipping his pitches, just like it had in Game 2. George Springer’s rocket double, Bregman’s walk-the-dog homer — both knew what was coming, and he happened to leave those fastballs over the heart of the plate.
“We are very quick to dissect every pitch,” said Nationals veteran Brian Dozier, a pitch-picking expert who noticed Strasburg’s issues. “Stras listens. Some guys aren’t very receptive to it, if they are tipping or not. But in this situation, you have to be receptive. He’s really good at that. That’s why he’s one of the best.”
For the next seven innings, the Astros couldn’t solve Strasburg. His fastball, his curveball, his changeup — they filled all four quadrants of the zone and stayed out of the middle. When he arrived in the major leagues with all the hype imaginable, the days of his starts called “Strasmas,” this was what he was supposed to be: fully realized, in command of all his faculties, brilliant.
“I saw an incredible pitcher,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “I mean he was really good, and as I said before the game, he has an uncanny ability to slow the game down when he is under any duress.”
The duress lessened as the game went on. Rendon drove in two more runs with an eighth-inning double, extending the lead to 7-2. Strasburg returned for the ninth, secured one out and gave way to Sean Doolittle for the final two outs. The series was tied. Game 7 beckoned.
Before that, nobody could stop talking about Game 6. The bat carrying. (Both managers criticized Bregman and Soto. MLB says to “Let the Kids Play.” Cognitive dissonance is real.) Strasburg and Rendon. (Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.) Verlander. (The quip about his 0-6 World Series mark: “I thought we didn’t talk about record anymore.”) And, of course, the interference call. (Torre tried to explain it and deferred to the rulebook, which would be great if the rule wasn’t awful.)
As everyone else talked up the game, a man stood in the corner of the Nationals’ clubhouse pulling a shirt over his torso and preparing to return to the hotel. Two days earlier, Max Scherzer was supposed to start Game 5. He woke up and couldn’t move his right arm, a nerve issue compressing his spine and locking up his neck. He received a cortisone shot there. He went through two chiropractic sessions. The treatment worked. Scherzer threw before Game 6 on the field. He went to the bullpen during Game 6 and loosened up, preparing to enter the game if the Astros trimmed the lead. They didn’t need him. They’ll get him Wednesday.
“It’s Game 7,” Scherzer said. “Let’s go.”
Let’s go for a repeat of Tuesday night, a reminder that when the Astros and Nationals get together, they can birth greatness — and frustration and drama and intrigue and strategy and excitement and all of the things baseball offers. When it’s really clicking, really moving, really good like it was in Game 6, it is a machine that not even Sam Holbrook’s judgment or Rule 5.09(a)(11) can stop.
What Game 6 brought Game 7 can duplicate. It will be Scherzer vs. Zack Greinke, yes, but it will be so much more, with Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez at Martinez’s disposal and Jose Urquidy and the Astros’ deep bullpen and, yes, even Gerrit Cole for an inning, maybe the last inning. It’s the World Series, and it matters not that the bidding on Cole when he reaches free agency this winter will start at $250 million. He plays for the ring, not the game.
And on Wednesday night, the precious will find its rightful owner. “I think you’re lying to yourself if you can treat, or really approach it like any other game,” Doolittle said, and he’s right. It’s not any other game. Not even close.
It’s Game 7. And it’s happening thanks to a Game 6 that saved the World Series in more ways than one.