At 7:39 p.m. local time Sunday, Joe Ross emerged from the Washington Nationals’ dugout and strolled out to the bullpen tucked in the right-field corner. Halfway there, the back of his navy blue No. 41 jersey appeared on the big screen at Nationals Park. The sighting ignited a stirring ovation from the crowd still filing in ahead of the night’s first pitch.
Max Scherzer was supposed to make that walk. The Nationals were scheduled to give the ball to the three-time Cy Young Award winner for Game 5 of the World Series against the Houston Astros. But Scherzer woke up Sunday unable to lift his right arm, neck spasms making pitching an impossibility.
So Ross was notified only hours before that he would start in the most important game in the Nationals’ 15-year history. The last-second development was a debilitating blow to the Nationals’ chances, but they are a team that has overcome adversity all season going back to their 19-31 start. They’ve thrived in those backs-to-the-wall situations. But the challenge was never as steep as needing to beat Gerrit Cole at his absolute best.
The combination, and some beef with plate umpire Lance Barksdale, was too much to surmount as the Astros pounced early and didn’t relinquish the lead en route to a 7-1 victory with President Trump in attendance.
It was the Astros’ third consecutive victory at Nationals Park after falling behind 2-0 in Houston. The Nationals didn’t lead in any of the three games — Washington’s first Series contests since 1933 — and were outscored 19-3. As a result, the Astros will return to Houston for Game 6 on Tuesday night with a chance to capture their second Series championship in three years.
“I love our feel for the moment and feel for this team,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “Everybody talks about culture and chemistry, and when you have it, you love it. When you see it on the other side you’re envious of it.”
Ross gave up a two-run home run to Yordan Alvarez, a former Dodgers farmhand who finished with three hits in his first start since Game 2, in the second inning and another two-run drive to Carlos Correa in the fourth. Those were the only runs he gave up in five innings, but Cole’s performance rendered the effort insufficient.
Cole, an impending free agent, suffocated the Nationals after a subpar outing in Game 1. He gave up one run and three hits in seven innings. He struck out nine batters and walked two.
“I think his rhythm, his timing, his use of his pitches got better and better as the game went on,” Hinch said.
President Trump arrived at the ballpark minutes before first pitch, as scheduled, to attend his first Washington sporting event since taking office. He wasn’t asked to throw out the first pitch. Instead, chef and philanthropist Jose Andres, a Trump critic nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, was selected.
Trump sat in the Commissioner’s suite next to the First Lady and surrounded by members of Congress and aides, and was not welcomed warmly.
He was shown on the video board between the third and fourth innings when military veterans were honored during a presentation the Nationals run every home game. The veterans were presented to cheers before Trump was introduced on the public-address system and greeted with sustained boos. Trump clapped for the 13 seconds he appeared on the screen.
When the camera returned to the veterans, the crowd loudly cheered again. Barksdale was soon challenging Trump’s approval rating among the 43,910 in attendance.
Cole’s 110th and final pitch elicited anger in the seventh inning. The right-hander was facing Victor Robles with a runner at first base and two outs. Juan Soto had homered against Cole in the inning to pull Washington within three runs. Cole was emptying the tank. Momentum was on the Nationals’ side. In an instant, it vanished.
With the count full, Robles took a 98-mph up and away. Robles thought it was a ball. The Nationals dugout thought it was a ball. Strike-zone images suggested it was a ball. But Barksdale called it a strike to end the inning and the Nationals’ final threat. Boos rained as manager Dave Martinez led the barking from the dugout.
Both sides had gripes with Barksdale until then, but the Nationals’ were loudest.
“If any questions are about the umpire, I’m not going to talk about it,” Nationals catcher Yan Gomes said. “But I’ll keep saying, the fact that you’re asking about him, you’re answering your own questions.”
The Astros soon began slamming the door. Yuli Gurriel delivered a run-scoring single in the eighth inning. In the ninth, George Springer hit a two-run home run to complete the spoiling of the Series’ return to Washington after 86 years.
The Nationals were riding high after toppling the Astros’ two best pitchers in Games 1 and 2 on the road. They arrived at home with a chance to win the Series in front of their fans. Over the next three days, the 107-win Astros asserted themselves and have pushed the Nationals to the brink of elimination.
So for the Nationals to seize the first Series title in franchise history, they must win the next two games at Minute Maid Park. The road team has never won the first six games of a Series, let alone all seven. Stephen Strasburg will oppose Justin Verlander in Game 6. Scherzer could return to start Game 7, if there is one, against Zack Greinke. For the Nationals, it would be a fitting finale.
“It’s been a crazy year for us,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “So why not have every road team win every game in the World Series. Why not?”