WASHINGTON – Houston, the Washington Nationals have a problem, and it’s you.
Or perhaps it’s them.
Something is wrong, and whether it’s the Nationals’ sudden lack of hitting or the Astros’ suddenly phenomenal pitching, Washington has squandered a 2-0 World Series lead, giving up every ounce of momentum it worked so hard to achieve just three days ago.
The October Washington Nationals, unbeatable over eight straight postseason games until Friday, have now reverted to the April and May Nationals, the team that stumbled out of the blocks to a 19-31 start before coming on like gangbusters over the summer to qualify for the wild card and earn an improbable spot in the World Series.
No statistic tells the tale of the Nationals’ jarring woes better than this: in Games 3 and 4 at Nationals Park, the Nats have had a whopping 19 runners in scoring position.
Only one of them has crossed the plate.
In all, the Nationals have managed just two runs in 18 innings: Friday’s 4-1 loss and Saturday’s 8-1 drubbing. They look either flummoxed or over-eager at the plate, or both. The mature and energized Washington hitters of the National League Championship Series and the first two games of this World Series have disappeared.
Whether it’s the pressure of this grand moment as a World Series title loomed, or the rise of the supremely talented Astros, or trying to do too much and ending up doing far too little, the Nationals are reeling at the worst possible time.
The question now is quite simple: Do they ever recover? Or are the Astros now unstoppable, even though the Series is still tied, 2-2, with all four games having been won by the team on the road?
Nationals manager Dave Martinez chose optimism. “Now it’s best two out of three,” he said, uttering what became the key talking point in both clubhouses late Saturday night into early Sunday morning.
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“We haven’t hit the last couple of days,” Martinez said. “I have confidence we’ll bounce back and be ready to play tomorrow. It’s just one of those things, it’s baseball. I told the boys, we’re in the World Series, we’re going to play Game 5, it’s tied 2-2, who would have thought that in the beginning?”.
As for the anemic hitting, the spotty pitching and the missed opportunity to put the Series away in front of a crowd that was ready to explode?
“Forget about it,” Martinez said. “We can’t do nothing about the last two games. Let’s look ahead and get ready to play tomorrow.”.
His message was directed at his entire team, but if there’s someone who really needs to take those words to heart, it’s young Juan Soto, who has gone 0-for-7 in Games 3 and 4, fooled by Houston’s pitchers and his own impatience.
Martinez said he has spoken with Soto.
“I just want him to understand he’s really good when he stays in the middle of the field…And takes his walks. That’s the key to him. Don’t try to do too much.”.
Every Nationals player who chatted with a reporter after Game 4 struck the same theme.
“It’s what we’ve dealt with all year, getting punched in the face and coming back,” said right fielder Adam Eaton. “Sometimes you need to get punched in the face in order to get back in the fight.”.
The best reason for hope for the Nationals is that their two top pitchers, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg — the men who beat the Astros in Houston — will be pitching in Games 5 and 6.
“It’s easy to erase what’s happened the last two days,” Eaton said. “We’ve got two really good pitchers the next two days, which gives us a lot of confidence.”.
Said teammate Anthony Rendon: “The series is back at zero. It’s a race to two wins and we’re going to try to treat it like it’s a regular-season series and try to win two of three.”.
“The guys get it,” Martinez said. “It’s been preached all year long: Let’s just worry about the here and now and worry about going 1-0 tomorrow. Let’s go with that.”.
On a night when the joy in a packed stadium exited as quickly as many of the fans did, that was as good a thought as any.