In the two days between Games 2 and 3 of the World Series, between receiving a staggering blow and delivering a counterpunch, the Houston Astros kept reminding themselves they were so good for so long.
They reminded themselves on the flight from Houston to Washington, during their off-day workout, and in the clubhouse before they took field for Game 3 on Friday with their season hanging off a cliff.
They convinced themselves this series against the Washington Nationals was far from over even after dropping into an 0-2 hole. They compiled 107 wins during the regular season, toppled two worthy foes for the American League pennant, and were the biggest World Series favorites in 12 years. They were too good to just crumble without a fight.
“We’re not just going to give up,” Astros second baseman Jose Altuve said. “That’s not who we are.”
On Friday, the Astros got off the mat and responded with a 4-1 victory at Nationals Park in a slow-moving affair that took over four hours to complete. Game 4 is Saturday with the Nationals leading the series 2-1.
“We stopped the bleeding,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said.
This city waited 86 years for this baseball game. It had been that long since the Washington Senators hosted the New York Giants in the World Series in 1933. Baseball in late October had become a fantasy.
The breakthrough was a jam-packed event. Prices for standing-room-only tickets soared beyond $1,000.
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin threw out one of the ceremonial first pitches. Chad Cordero, the first closer in Nationals history, threw out one of the first pitches to Brian Schneider, a catcher on that first team in 2005. A local treasure of a singer named DC Washington rocked the building with his rendition of the national anthem.
Much of the rest of the night was filled with frustration for the home club and 43,867 spectators in attendance.
The Nationals had gone to Houston and defeated the Astros’ two best pitchers — Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander — to swing the pendulum their way. On Friday, Houston turned to Zack Greinke, a former Dodger whose struggles in his three playoff starts did not warrant optimism. He had allowed 10 runs in 14 innings before Saturday and wasn’t very effective again. He threw 95 pitches in just 4 2/3 innings. He allowed seven hits and walked three. But it was a game of missed scoring opportunities on both sides, and the Astros missed fewer.
The Nationals left 12 runners on base. A runner reached second base in each of the six innings, chasing Greinke along the way, but the Nationals went 0 for 10 with runners in scoring position. Houston left 10 runners on base but, after recently struggling with runners in scoring position, went four for 10 in those situations.
The result snapped the Nationals’ eight-game winning streak; their previous loss had been in Game 3 of the National League Division Series against the Dodgers.
“We’ve been doing really well, driving in runs with men in scoring position,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “It just didn’t happen today.”
The Astros took a lead in the second inning against right-hander Anibal Sanchez, the Nationals’ fourth starter after their vaunted trio of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. Carlos Correa smacked a leadoff double, and Josh Reddick singled to score him. Houston manufactured another run in the third inning with help from Juan Soto in left field.
Altuve led off with a line drive into the left-field corner, where Soto failed to cleanly retrieve the ball. His troubles allowed Altuve to advance to third base. He scored moments later on a single from Michael Brantley that deflected off Sanchez. The same sequence was repeated in the fifth inning: Altuve doubled, and Brantley singled him home.
Robinson Chirinos clubbed a home run in the sixth inning before Fernando Rodney, a 42-year-old reliever, rode a bullpen cart out to replace Sanchez. There were runners on second and third base when Martinez took a gamble and intentionally walked Brantley to face Bregman with the bases loaded.
Bregman has struggled recently — his two-run home run in Game 2 notwithstanding — but remains one of the sport’s most dangerous hitters. Martinez’s gamble worked as Bregman grounded into a fielder’s choice and Rodney escaped.
But the Nationals didn’t capitalize on the tactical triumph. They left six runners on base through three innings before scoring their only run in the fourth inning.
Ryan Zimmerman drew a leadoff walk against Greinke. Two batters later, Victor Robles lined a triple down the left-field line, scoring Zimmerman.
Another chance arose in the fifth inning, which Adam Eaton started with a single. Asdrubal Cabrera cracked a two-out double to knock Greinke out of the game on his 95th pitch — 12 more than he had thrown in any of his previous three starts this postseason. Josh James, a right-hander, was summoned to face Zimmerman. They engaged in an eight-pitch clash. James prevailed with a strikeout, and the Nationals were left with nothing again.
Eventually, the Nationals’ opportunities evaporated and the Astros proved they’re too good to just fold.
“We’re a great team and I don’t think they thought we were ever out of it, so it’s going to be a battle,” James said. “It’s going to be a battle for however many games this goes.”