WASHINGTON -- It isn't the way you want a World Series game to be decided. You want Gerrit Cole, maybe the best pitcher in the game in 2019, battling Max Scherzer, maybe the best pitcher the past several seasons, in an epic duel for the ages.
Instead, we got Cole versus Joe Ross in Game 5 after Scherzer had to be scratched because of spasms in his neck and upper right trapezius, and it played out exactly the way you might expect a Gerrit Cole-Joe Ross game to go. Cole was brilliant, and the Houston Astros took full advantage of not having to face Scherzer, jumping on Ross for hard-hit balls throughout his five innings, including a pair of two-run home runs that carried them to a 7-1 victory on Sunday. The Astros are now one win from their second World Series title in three seasons and looking for the potential exclamation point on a dominant three-year run of baseball.
The loss capped a disappointing three home games for the Washington Nationals in the first World Series games in the nation's capital since 1933. The fans were loud and enthusiastic but had little to cheer for as the Nats scored three runs in three games. Now the Nationals will have to try to do something that has never been done: win the World Series without winning a game at home. They'll have to win Games 6 and 7 at Minute Maid Park.
Cole gave up only one run and three hits in seven innings, and his only trouble early came in the bottom of the second, when Juan Soto and Howie Kendrick laced back-to-back singles to put runners at first and third with no outs. Cole then struck out Ryan Zimmerman on a curveball and got Victor Robles to ground into a 6-4-3 double play on an 0-2 slider. Cole retired 15 of the next 16 batters -- Anthony Rendon walked in the fourth -- before Soto homered in the seventh to finally put the Nats on the board.
"I think we responded well," Cole said after the game. "We had a challenge that we needed to meet, and we did. The World Series is about trying to collect four wins. Doesn't matter how many games you lose, unless you lose four. You've always got a shot unless you lost four, and so that's what we believed, and we just try to keep the same process that we've been keeping all year. Just keep one foot in front of the next, and just answer the bell."
Cole got early support from Yordan Alvarez, the supremely talented rookie slugger who started his first postseason game in the field, starting in left after making only nine starts there during the regular season. In the second inning, Alvarez lasered a 95 mph sinker on a 2-1 count from Ross to left-center. Alvarez's balls do not travel like normal balls. They come attached to Saturn rockets, and this ball kept carrying until it cleared the fence in left-center, drilling a spectator in a Nationals T-shirt who had Bud Lights in both hands right in his gut. It was a literal gut punch to the Nats.
It was Alvarez's first postseason home run, and it was impressive.
"You want to talk about feeling like you did the right thing, just put Yordan in the game and have him have three incredible at-bats, the first one being the most impactful," Astros manager AJ Hinch said. "Just being able to hit a missile to center field, to be able to kick-start our offense tonight. He's done this the whole year, but this postseason as he's tried to find his way, it was nice to see him stay within himself."
In the fourth inning, Alvarez fouled off a 3-2 slider and then drilled another slider through the shift for a base hit. He scored six pitches later when Carlos Correa homered to left field off a hanging slider. Alvarez completed a 3-for-3 night when he singled in the seventh and was removed for a pinch runner. His three hits: 106.4 mph, 100.5 mph, 106.9 mph.
Hinch had earmarked this game for Alvarez all along. Of course, he thought he would need the extra bat in the lineup because Scherzer was starting. He explained his thinking before the game. "I targeted this day for two reasons," Hinch said. "One, I've usually started Alvarez in the outfield when Gerrit Cole is pitching or when Wade Miley was pitching. One, because Gerrit would get so many strikeouts, there's less balls in play and less opportunity for something crazy to happen in the outfield. Factor in Gerrit being on the mound and then when Max was going to start, he put up two really good at-bats against Scherzer in Game 1. So there was a dual reason for that."
Hinch refused to call Alvarez a defensive liability, though he admitted that Alvarez doesn't have the most range out there. But his summary was this: "That would be a great advantage to get two or three at-bats of his."
Indeed it was. It probably helped that they didn't come against Scherzer.
• One big moment of controversy came with two outs in the seventh after a tiring Cole had given up the home run and walked Zimmerman with two outs. The score was 4-1 at the time. Robles worked the count full, and Cole's 110th pitch was a 98 mph fastball up and away -- a pitch that has a 14% strike probability, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Plate umpire Lance Barksdale rung up Robles, who had taken a step toward first base. Washington manager Dave Martinez and the Nationals were still yelling at Barksdale more than a minute after the inning, and the fans booed with chants of "Ump, you suck" as the eighth inning began.
• Following that, before Correa's home run, Ross had just missed on a 0-2 slider off the plate. Or maybe he'd just caught the corner. That pitch had a 76% strike probability. Needless to say, the Nationals were not happy with Barksdale's strike zone. Did it change the game? Probably not, but it's hard enough to beat Cole and the Astros without a few critical calls not going your way.
• That said, Ross was not effective at all and was lucky the Astros didn't score more runs off him. They hit seven balls off him at 100-plus mph in his five innings, and two more classified as hard-hit balls (95-plus). That's a lot of hard-hit balls in a relatively short stint. Ross has a good arm and a power two-seam fastball, and he pitched fairly well in August and September after joining the rotation, but this was a guy who had the fifth-highest ERA ever by a World Series starter. He lacks a good put-away pitch, and that's death against a team such as the Astros, who had the lowest strikeout rate in the majors.
• In fact, overall in the World Series, the Astros have had more hard-hit balls than the Nationals. The past two games, they hit into a ton of hard-hit outs and have 23 hard outs, compared to 14 by the Nationals. This lineup is tough, and now Alvarez will be back in the thick of things as the DH in Game 6 and (if necessary) Game 7.
• Behind the plate, give credit to Martin Maldonado, who has become Cole's personal catcher. He caught Cole 10 times in the regular season, and Cole posted a 1.57 ERA in those games, with 114 strikeouts in 68⅔ innings.
• We haven't talked much about the defense in this series, but it mostly has been wonderful on both sides (Alex Bregman's one bad inning in Game 2 being the exception). Rendon has made several highlight-reel plays, and Yuli Gurriel has made a couple of outstanding plays at first base for the Astros, including a nice one in the sixth on the speedy Trea Turner when he had to dive glove-first to first base to get Turner. When you watch good teams day after day in the postseason, you see how important defense becomes -- and how many bad or mediocre teams fail miserably in that area.
"We know how quickly things can turn and momentum can shift in a series. Especially in a series against a quality team in the Nats," Hinch said. "It is nice to go home. I don't want to talk about a second game. I'd like to wrap this up as soon as possible, and we've got Justin Verlander on the mound, and that brings a lot of confidence to our clubhouse."