Adam Eaton raced around the bases when he smashed the ball over the right-field wall, without an inkling of desire to admire the home run, slowing down only when he reached home plate and began his walk to the dance floor along the third base line. He stepped into the Washington Nationals’ ecstatic dugout with choreography prepared.
He took off his helmet, bent down and backed it up through the path his teammates, clapping to a rhythm, created for him. When he reached the end, he took a seat on the bench next to Howie Kendrick for the celebration’s finale. They shifted their trucks’ gears three times and added the sounds for the revved-upengines. It’s a bit they’ve done since the All-Star break. It didn’t go quite right on baseball’s biggest stage.
“I missed third gear on my truck,” Eaton said. “I short-shifted and came out of the clutch a little early.”
It was a window into the loose bunch the Nationals have become. They dance to celebrate home runs. They wear bright sunglasses at games, even if they’re played at night or inside domed ballparks, and they enjoy group hugs. They have fun and the good time was never better than Wednesday night when they routed the Houston Astros 12-3 to take a two-games-to-none lead in the World Series.
On May 24, they woke up 19-31 with the third-worst record in the National League. They will wake up Oct. 24 with an eight-game winning streak and two victories from claiming the first World Series title in franchise history.
“We’ve defied the odds,” Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon said.
While the Nationals’ rise has been slow and steady, the Astros have found that life can come fast too. On Saturday, they were celebrating Jose Altuve’s walk-off home run to beat the New York Yankees and claim the American League pennant. They were cast as overwhelming favorites to win their second championship in three years. They were confident — and with 107 wins in the regular season they had a reason to be.
Four days later, the Astros are in disarray. Off the field, they have encountered vicious backlash for a front-office executive’s behavior toward female reporters and their dismissive response to the allegations. On it, the have lost two games with their two best pitchers — Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander — on the mound. They must win at least two of the next three in Washington to ensure they will play at Minute Maid Park again in 2019. Game 3 is Friday.
“Clearly the Nats have outplayed us, bottom line,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said.
The night started with Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred addressing a central figure in these playoffs: the baseball.
All regular season long, MLB faced questions about the baseballs used because they were flying farther than ever.
Then, suddenly, the baseballs seemed to have changed once the calendar flipped to October. Sure home runs the previous six months regularly became routine fly balls. Players and team officials have asserted the balls were changed.
Manfred challenged the consensus. He maintained that the sample size is too small and unreliable. He emphasized the balls are not different from the ones used during the regular season, though he added the league’s investigation into the matter will conclude some time after the World Series and before the end of the year.
“I can tell you one thing for absolute certain, just like every other year, the balls that were used in this postseason were selected from lots that were used during the regular season,” Manfred said. “There was no difference in those baseballs.”
The balls’ characteristics have not mattered to the Nationals. They have continued their torrid run through October, winning games in every which way to propel themselves to the precipice of a championship.
For six innings Wednesday, Verlander and Stephen Strasburg were locked in a duel. Both gave up two runs on hits from the teams’ All-Star third basemen in the first inning. Rendon supplied the Nationals’ production with a two-run double. Alex Bregman smashed a two-run home run to snap a three-for-22 skid.
The pitchers didn’t surrender another run over the next five innings. Strasburg escaped a jam with two runners on base by striking out Robinson Chirinos on his 113th pitch to conclude his night. Verlander outlasted Strasburg but immediately encountered tumult in the seventh inning, which the Nationals began with a boom before vanquishing the Astros with a flurry of soft contact.
Kurt Suzuki led off the inning by clubbing a high fastball from Verlander over the wall to give the Nationals a 3-2 lead. Verlander then issued a walk to Victor Robles on his 107th and final pitch.
“That was the at-bat of the game,” Eaton said. “It kept the line moving.”
The Astros slowly fell apart from there. Ryan Pressly relieved Verlander and walked Trea Turner. Eaton dropped a sacrifice bunt and Rendon flied out to bring the Astros within an out from closing the inning. They wouldn’t secure it until the Nationals scored four more runs without hitting a ball hard in play.
Juan Soto was intentionally walked and the Nationals tallied three consecutive softly hit singles to bust the game open. When the inning finally ended, after Suzuki grounded out in his second plate appearance, the Nationals had netted six runs.
So the Astros were already buried when Eaton swatted his home run, but the Nationals’ fun doesn’t stop. They’ve ridden the wave for five months, and they’re two wins away from the biggest celebration yet.