This World Series between the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros lacked memorable games before Tuesday. There had been little drama and few thrills. There had been zero suspenseful late-game twists and turns of which to speak. The road team had won each of the first five games, but moments to remember when the years roll by were sparse.
Game 6 at Minute Maid Park changed all that. It featured a brilliant pitching performance from a former phenom and comedic petty showmanship from a current one. There were towering blasts off the bats of a few of the sport’s brightest stars, a controversial call that could have swung the series, and an enraged manager barreling through members of his coaching staff to prompt an ejection.
And when the wild game was over, once the 54th out was secured to conclude the 3-hour 37-minute ride, the Nationals had won 7-2 to force a winner-take-all Game 7 on Wednesday.
For the first time in history, the road team has won each of the first six games of a Series. For the Astros to claim their second title in three years, they’ll have to break the pattern and win at home. For the Nationals to seize their first championship, they’ll have to extend it to the end and win their fifth elimination game of the postseason.
Washington’s chances of survival Tuesday depended on Stephen Strasburg. He needed to bookend his dominant October with one final dominant performance, and he delivered. The right-hander outdueled Justin Verlander, pitching into the ninth inning after overcoming a rocky first inning. He held the high-voltage Astros to two runs and five hits in 8 1/3 innings. He struck out seven batters, walked two and exited after throwing 104 pitches.
“I saw an incredible pitcher,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “He was really good.”
Houston’s runs came in the first inning. Later, Strasburg revealed he had been tipping pitches but adjusted and the Astros didn’t have an answer.
“I emptied the tank tonight,” Strasburg said.
The Nationals didn’t hold a lead in the Series’ three previous games, all in Washington. They scored three runs in the three losses to squander a 2-0 Series advantage. It took them three batters to take a lead Tuesday.
Trea Turner reached base on a leadoff infield single. Adam Eaton dropped a bunt near the third base line, nearly beating it out, to advance Turner to second base. Anthony Rendon followed and, seeing a gaping hole on the right side of the infield shift, deposited a soft groundball through the opening. Turner scored from second base.
The Astros countered with a bang. George Springer hit Strasburg’s first pitch, a fastball down the middle, off the scoreboard in front of the Crawford Boxes in left field for a double. Three pitches later, Jose Altuve lifted a sacrifice fly to the warning track in left field.
Alex Bregman gave Houston the lead by hitting a cut fastball for a home run. Bregman admired his blast, but opted against the trendy bat flip. Instead, he carried his bat all the way to first base. He tried handing it to first base coach Don Kelly, but botched the transfer. The bat rolled onto the field. Kelly scampered to pick it up as Bregman trotted to second base and Minute Maid Park rocked.
The Nationals made Verlander throw 75 pitches through four innings and the work bore fruit in the fifth. Eaton ditched bunting to hit a home run to tie the score 2-2. Two batters later, Juan Soto was at the plate, shuffling and grabbing his crotch in the batter’s box as has become his notorious routine. On the fifth pitch, he demolished a fastball to the upper deck beyond the right-field wall. In response to Bregman, he carried his bat to first base and dropped it in front of first base coach Tim Bogar.
“I thought it was pretty cool,” Soto said with a smile. “I wanted to do it.”
The Nationals were on the prowl for more in the seventh inning when controversy surfaced and tempers flared. Yan Gomes reached with a leadoff single before Turner bounced a swinging bunt a few feet off the third base line. Pitcher Brad Peacock grabbed the ball with his barehand and threw slightly off the mark to first base, forcing Yuli Gurriel to reach in front of Turner to catch it.
The throw pegged off Turner as he ran through Gurriel’s arm, knocking the glove off his hand. Turner reached second base safely but plate umpire Sam Holbrook called him out for interference and Gomes was told to return to first base. Instead of runners on second and third with no outs, the Nationals had a runner on first base with one out.
The play wasn’t reviewable because it is deemed a judgment call. Unrest boiled in the Nationals dugout.
“What else do you do?” Turner said. “The batter’s box is in fair territory. First base is in fair territory. I swung, I ran a straight line. I got hit with the ball, I’m out. I don’t understand it. I’d understand it if I veered one way or another. I didn’t.”
The protests did not sway the outcome. The ruling felt significant in the moment, perhaps a Series-changing decision. Two batters later, Rendon quelled some of the anxiety by connecting for a two-run home run to torment his hometown and supply Washington with a three-run cushion.
The insurance, however, didn’t suppress Nationals manager Dave Martinez’s frustration.
After the top of the inning was over, Martinez emerged from the dugout to confront Holbrook and crew chief Gary Cederstrom. The confrontation quickly escalated. Bench coach Chip Hale intervened, but Martinez kept at it, pushing through Hale to offer his thoughts to Cederstrom. Eventually, Holbrook tossed Martinez. He became the first manager ejected in a Series since Bobby Cox in 1996 while with the Atlanta Braves.
“In the heat of the moment things get blown out of hand,” Martinez said. “I saw things differently.”
Martinez watched from the clubhouse as the Nationals tacked on two runs in the ninth inning. He’ll be back in the dugout Wednesday managing Game 7. Max Scherzer will take the mound for Washington opposite former Dodger Zack Greinke. It will all come down to one game after a memorable night.