'Knock the door down': How the Nationals toppled Gerrit Cole to steal Game 1

HOUSTON — Often baseball teams can be accurately accused of not seeing the forest for the trees, obsessively strategizing over the individual matchup and the particular pitch that works 65 percent of the time in this count to that guy. They’ll tell you they do it, too. Not intentionally or guiltily but colloquially, offering cliches about taking it one game at a time.

“Our mindset has always been to win today's game,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said before the whole shebang got underway on Tuesday. “We're not thinking about winning the World Series today. We're thinking about winning Game 1.”

I mean, it’s a lie, but they do say it.

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That’s not what was happening when the Nationals jeopardized their probable Game 3 starter to bring Patrick Corbin out of the bullpen in relief of Max Scherzer — who had snarled his way through a 112-pitch five innings, just one of them easy, but left with the lead. The Nats had a chance to take a game, sure, but not just any game. This was their first World Series game, which is not the point but certainly a good story.

The point, actually, was that the other team always loses when Gerrit Cole is on the mound, or when the Astros are at home, and especially when both those things are true. As of Tuesday morning, the Astros hadn’t lost when Cole pitched since July 12, Vegas had Houston as the World Series favorites by a margin unmatched since the 2007 Red Sox played the Rockies (remember how that worked out?), and ZiPS had the Nationals’ win probability for Game 1 as the lowest of the whole series. This wasn’t a must-win game — rather it was an opportunity to steal a win that no one saw coming.

(Outfielder Adam Eaton upon learning of the Nats’ long-shot status, according to the official oddsmakers: “Cool.”)

Kurt Suzuki is congratulated by teammate Juan Soto after scoring in the fifth inning Tuesday night. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Kurt Suzuki is congratulated by teammate Juan Soto after scoring in the fifth inning Tuesday night. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

After it worked to once again use a regular season starter in relief (although with this being his fourth bullpen appearance of the month, it’s hard to know what to call Corbin anymore), Nationals manager Dave Martinez explained the decision, with the usual platitudes. “For me it's about playing one game. And that's what we focus on, is just worry about the game at hand and then go from there.”

To be perfectly honest, the Nationals almost didn’t commit hard enough to this strategy — they maybe should have pulled Corbin out of the rotation even more decisively by letting him pitch a second frame. Instead, the Astros eventually pulled within one after booting the Nationals’ aces in favor of their oft-lamented bullpen. Final score: The Nationals gave up four runs, but scored five, all off Cole, the most he’s given up in his past 25 starts.

So how did they do it? How did the wild-card team from the lesser league beat the pitcher with the air of invincibility?

It was pretty perfect when Ryan Zimmerman, the First Nat, scored his team’s first World Series run on a homer to straightaway center. It was spectacular when Juan Soto followed it up with an oppo shot 417 feet. And it’s very cute and fun that the spread of their two ages would be in high school.

But that was just enough to tie it at two with plenty of game left to play.

“The Suzuki walk kind of opened up everything,” Hinch said after watching his team lose.

Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki was 0-for-3 besides that walk. But after leading off the fifth inning with the freebie he made the most of it — advancing to second on Victor Robles’ single, tagging up and going to third on Trea Turner’s fly out, and on Eaton’s single, “... I was like, oh cool, I scored,” Suzuki said.

Easy, peasy. Except it hasn’t been, and it was cool. When Suzuki came home to stony silence in the inhospitable Minute Maid Park, he became the first player to score a run off Cole on a hit that was not a homer in nearly two months. Even when he makes mistakes, he doesn’t allow for rallies. It’s a key part of how he’s been so successful. Until he did, and he wasn’t.

Suzuki was the first of three runs to score in the frame, giving Washington a lead that would bend but not break en route to their first World Series victory.

“When you get a crack in the door, you gotta knock the door down,” Eaton said. “And try to get as many runs as you can when you get guys on.”

It sounds almost stupefyingly obvious, definitional in the way that baseball analysis by baseball players can sometimes be. Of course, it’s easier to score runs when guys are on base. But then again, the increasingly valid complaint against the modern version of baseball is precisely that teams don’t manufacture runs in that way, that instead they focus on how one swing can change the game. And maybe it’s the deadened October baseball that’s not conducive to home runs, or that they’re a “true NL team” as Eaton dubbed the Nats, or that the clash of two clubs with traditional pitching rotations inspired an all-around throwback style game, or that a sac fly is sometimes the best you can hope to do against a pitcher of Cole’s caliber — but the point is it took a scrappy inning of small ball on the sport’s biggest stage to snag the first upper hand in the series.

Regardless of why, this is the kind of baseball Washington will play. During the regular season, the team was sixth in overall runs scored, despite being 13th in total homers. And a big part of bridging that divide was making clutch contact. As a team, the Nats struck out just 18.6 percent of the time with men on base — less often than all but one other team. In other words, if you hate all those statistics and wish baseball was more like when the Nationals would have been the Senators, you might actually really like these Nationals after all.

It’s just one win of the four that they’ll need to make history, but not just any win. This win was their first Fall Classic win, and one that shifted the tenor of the entire series from a perfunctory final test for the Astros’ burgeoning dynasty to a matchup of mettle that might be decided not by a bang, but by aggressive, well-timed baserunning.

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