In both their 2017 World Series run and their 2018 ALCS season, the Astros were a terrific regular season road team. They were 53-28 (65%) in 2017 and tied with the Indians for the best road record in the majors and stepped it up to 57-24 (70%) in 2018 when they were 6 games better than the Boston Red Sox for the top road record. In 2019, they had a good road record at 47-34 (58%) but not near the other two years. They rode a pristine 60-21 home record to the best overall record in the majors and a club record 107-74 season.
But what happens during the regular season, does not always translate to the playoffs. In 2017, the road warrior Astros took a 2-0 lead at home in the ALCS and then got pushed to the point of elimination by the Yankees, who stoned them 3 straight games in the Bronx, before the Astros won the last two at home on their way to the World Series.
In a total reversal of that feat, the 2019 Astros, who were so good at home and above average on the road, painted themselves into a veritable corner by losing the first two games against the Washington Nationals at home. This caused the team to hold a players-only meeting after Game 2 and to head to DC with the formidable task of staying alive in the series.
The Astros completely changed the series over a Lost Weekend for the Nats. Their 4-1 win on Friday meant the Astros would not be swept. Their 8-1 spanking of the Nats in Game 4, meant the series would be heading back to Houston for Game 5 on Tuesday. Their 7-1 win in Game 5 meant that the Astros would have two home game opportunities to put away the Nationals and claim their 2nd championship in three seasons.
So what happened in these three games?
Game 3 felt like one of those movies (think Freaky Friday) where two characters suddenly trade places. The foundation for those two road wins in Houston suddenly shifted for the Nats and the Astros rode the movement to a 4-1 lead.
In the first two games of the series, the Nationals offense had been a combination of a few timely long balls mixed in with soft contact hits finding open spaces. In game 3, the Astros first score was a Josh Reddick blooper to left that Carlos Correa took a risk from second and turned into a run on an airmail throw from Juan Soto. Then twice Michael Brantley hit singles that in the first two games might have been turned into outs by the Nats, that brought in Jose Altuve for the second and third runs. Then the run that was as much a psychological weapon as a physical one occurred as Robinson Chirinos, who had been brutal hitting in the ALCS swats a homer into the netting on the left field foul pole for the final 4-1 margin.
On the pitching side of the game, Zack Greinke channeled his inner Max Scherzer (at about 8 mph slower) as he allowed 7 hits and 3 walks in only 4-2/3 IP, but only let one run to score. The Nats who ate up the Astros with 2 out scoring the 1st two games left 12 on base in Game 3. The bullpen, led by understated hero Will Harris, held the Nats to only 2 hits in 4-1/3 innings of relief and the series momentum seemed to shift.
Game 4 looked like a pitching mismatch with young Jose Urquidy making his first post-season start against veteran Patrick Corbin for the Nats, who had pitched well as a starter (not so good as a reliever) in the post-season. As it turned out, the moment was not too big for Urquidy as he put up a brilliant 5 innings of 2 hit shutout baseball, where he got ahead and stayed ahead of the hitters and only used 67 pitches.
On the other side of the ledger, the Astros got out of the box fast with two runs in the first, including the awakening of Alex Bregman, who singled to knock in the first run. Hero from the first game, Chirinos doubled down with a two run homer to give Urquidy some breathing room and Bregman came back to stick a knife in the heart of the Nats hopes with a seventh inning grand slam. The slam allowed the Astros to give Roberto Osuna, Joe Smith and Ryan Pressly some rest this night.
Josh James stumbled taking over for Urquidy in the 6th, but Will Harris, Hector Rondon, Brad Peacock and Chris Devenski cleaned up behind him and the Astros won 8-1 tying up the series.
If this game was Astro fans’ last view of Gerrit Cole in a Houston uniform, it was a heck of a performance. Prior to allowing Juan Soto’s second home run against him in the series, Cole had thrown 6 innings of 2 hit, shut out ball. He got out of the 7th inning with the umpire’s assistance (after the ump assisted the Nats with a walk on a borderline pitch the hitter before). There are just not very many pitchers, who bring the ball 98 mph and up in their last inning of pitching.
On a night where some of us (my hand is waving above my head) were wondering why A.J. Hinch had switched his successful lineup around to put Yordan Alvarez in left field, Alvarez proved Hinch’s faith in him. First he hit a 2 run homer in the 2nd inning and then he scored the third run of the game, riding home on Carlos Correa’s dinger in the 4th. Yuli Gurriel, who has been hitting in bad luck all post season, knocked in a run in the 8th to negate Soto’s home run and George Springer launched a two run homer off of Daniel Hudson in the 9th to take the mystery out of this one.
Joe Smith continued his string of good performances out of the bullpen with a shutout inning and Ryan Pressly looked a lot more like his healthy self in a 1-2-3 ninth inning to close this 7-1 win out.
All the Astros have to do now is win at home against the brilliant Stephen Strasburg in game 6 behind Justin Verlander or roll Zack Greinke out in a 7th game against Max Scherzer (if recovered from his neck issue) and/or the whole Nats staff. If the Astros can continue to have their hitters warm up and get into the Nats’ suspect bullpen another insane parade may be in the works for downtown Houston.