Home confinement re-watch: 2019 World Series Game 1

The Nationals and their fans waited a long time to reach the World Series for the first time. So, really, who was going to complain about the extra six days they had to wait after sweeping the National League Championship Series before finally taking the field in Houston for their first appearance in the Fall Classic?

The long layoff may have been a dominant storyline entering the World Series, but it sure didn't hold up for long. By the end of their tense Game 1 victory - 5-4 over the powerhouse Astros - there was no doubting the serious threat the Nats posed to their 107-win opponents.

And in re-watching the opening contest of last October's classic series, it became clear the FOX broadcasting crew - Joe Buck and John Smoltz in the booth, Ken Rosenthal and Tom Verducci in the dugouts - recognized it as well.

The national broadcasters took a lot of heat for supposedly brushing aside the Nationals' chances throughout the postseason. Honestly, though, I haven't found it to be nearly as egregious as many fans say it was. The TBS crews that covered the previous rounds grew to appreciate and praise the Nats over the course of a couple of weeks. And though Game 1 of the World Series opened with a bit more spotlight on the Astros - they did, after all, have the best record in the majors and home field advantage - it didn't take long for the FOX crew to jump on the Nats bandwagon as Game 1 progressed.

More than anything, the 115th Fall Classic was touted from the outset as a compelling matchup between two teams with great starting pitching, the opener between Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer maybe the best head-to-head showdown of them all.

Then the game started and that storyline quickly fizzled out.

Neither Cole nor Scherzer were in elite form on this night. But it was Scherzer who gutted his way through a serious of high-stress jams with only minimal damage while Cole was surprisingly taken down by the Nationals' ferocious lineup.

Nats fans may have been worried when the first inning played out in upsetting fashion. The Nationals got Trea Turner into scoring position with nobody out, but then watched as Adam Eaton popped up a bunt and Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto looked overmatched against Cole. Then the Astros took it to Scherzer in the bottom of the inning, getting a two-out, two-run double off the left field wall by Yuli Gurriel and forcing Mad Max to throw 26 high-intensity pitches just to get through his opening frame.

But the wide-eyed visitors settled down quickly and quieted the sellout crowd, thanks to one of the most important moments of the entire series: Ryan Zimmerman's two-out home run in the top of the second.

Why was that solo homer to center so important? Because it calmed everyone down. It suggested Cole (who hadn't taken a loss since late May) wasn't unstoppable. And it let everybody in the Nats dugout know they really did belong there and would be fine in the brightest spotlight any of them had ever experienced.

Even so, it was obvious from the get-go the Nationals were facing their toughest challenge yet in the Astros, who were absolutely tenacious at the plate. (Save your sign-stealing and trash can-banging jokes. Who knows if they were doing anything untoward during this series, but can we acknowledge no matter that they're still really, really talented?)

Scherzer has never had to battle as hard as he did that night to only give up two runs in five innings. The Astros wouldn't bite on his off-speed pitches down and out of the strike zone, and he constantly found himself in tight spots. But the three-time Cy Young Award winner found a way to get the crucial outs when he needed them. He struck out George Springer on a 3-2 changeup to end the second. He struck out Carlos Correa with a slider to strand a pair in the third. He got Jose Altuve to ground out with two on and two out in the fourth.

At that point, Scherzer had thrown a whopping 96 pitches, 79 of those out of the stretch. All of them high-stress and high-intensity.

Cole didn't seem to be in nearly as much trouble, and he never really looked gassed out there. But the Nationals started making solid contact off him, from Zimmerman's homer in the second to Rendon's deep flyout in the third. And then with one titanic blast from the youngest player on the field, the tone of this game (and the series at large) took a whole new turn.

You don't need to be told where Soto's fourth-inning homer off Cole landed. You've watched it dozens of times. Let's just say it never fails to leave you bug-eyed and slack-jawed.

It also prompted a bit of an awkward anecdote from Verducci, who after the fact revealed the conversation he had with Kevin Long the previous day, in which the Nationals hitting coach "guaranteed" Soto would hit a home run off a high fastball from Cole. The anecdote was great. The manner in which it was shared was a little odd.

Having now tied the game 2-2, the Nats had no reason to fear the mighty Cole. And they showed it in the top of the fifth, when they put pressure on the Houston ace via Kurt Suzuki's walk, Victor Robles' opposite-field single and Suzuki's key tag-up on Turner's flyout to right. (Suzuki had a heck of a game in #TheLittleThings department, successfully blocking a parade of Scherzer pitches in the dirt to avoid disaster.)

The Nationals would take the lead on yet another clutch RBI hit by Eaton (who had already established his penchant for doing such things). Then after Rendon hustled down the line to prevent an inning-ending double play, Soto stepped up to bat again and again ripped the ball to the opposite field. This time, it didn't have the loft to clear the fence but it did have the velocity to rattle off the left field scoreboard and bring home two more runs to extend the lead to 5-2.

Soto-WS-Double--Blue-G1-sidebar.jpgSoto - who, you'll remember, was in a mini-slump at the plate during the first three games of the NLCS - was really feeling it in his first World Series game, never more so than during that fifth-inning at-bat. He shuffled his way around the batter's box after multiple pitches from Cole, nodded confidently after missing a 3-1 changeup and then hammered the 3-2 slider for the two-run double. In the booth, Buck and Smoltz raved about the kid's prowess and sky-high future.

Handed a three-run lead, Scherzer would deliver a shutdown bottom of the fifth, striking out Gurriel to cap the first 1-2-3 inning of the game for either pitcher, then stalking off the mound having thrown 112 of the toughest pitches of his life to leave his team in position to win.

The Nationals still needed 12 outs from their bullpen, though. And so Davey Martinez decided to again get creative and play every viable card he had in his hand to try to win Game 1, no matter what that meant for his team's chances in future games.

Patrick Corbin, who hadn't yet been named the Game 3 or 4 starter, made his World Series debut out of the bullpen, pitching a scoreless sixth inning. The lefty was so effective, you had to wonder if he might return for the seventh. He did not, but the resulting chain of events might have convinced Martinez to play things differently the next week in Game 7.

Hoping to find another bridge to the back end of his bullpen, Martinez summoned Tanner Rainey for the bottom of the seventh. It wasn't a disaster, but it wasn't pretty, either. Rainey immediately served up a homer to Springer on a 99 mph fastball, cutting the lead to 5-3. He later issued back-to-back, one-out walks to Michael Brantley and Alex Bregman, and that forced Martinez to play his best bullpen card right then and there.

Who cares if Daniel Hudson technically was the closer at this point? The game was on the line in the bottom of the seventh. Besides, the Nats originally acquired the veteran righty to be a fireman who could pitch his way out of an inherited jam. And never did he perform that task better than in Game 1.

Hudson got Gurriel to pop up for the second out. And though Correa would reach on an infield single to load the bases, Hudson shut the door with a three-pitch strikeout of Yordan Álvarez, punctuating his impressive relief outing by needing only eight pitches to get two outs and get out of the seventh.

That allowed Hudson to return to the mound for the eighth, though things would get a little hairy. After leading off with a single, Kyle Tucker aggressively tagged up from first base on a long flyout to center field, with Robles inexplicably throwing the ball to first instead of second. Then, near disaster: Springer drove a ball to deep right-center, and the crowd reacted as though he had just tied the game. He didn't, but the ball caromed off the wall and just out of Eaton's leaping reach for an RBI double, trimming the Nats' lead to a mere 5-4.

Hudson would remain in to face one more batter, and he got Altuve to fly out to right. Sean Doolittle then entered to face the left-handed Brantley, and retired him on four pitches, leaving him plenty fresh for the bottom of the ninth.

And that bottom of the ninth proved to be far less stressful than the previous innings. Doolittle stared down the middle of the Houston lineup and set it down in order, ultimately recording a four-out save on 13 pitches to seal the first World Series win in Nationals history.

Now, reality was setting in. The Nats knew they belonged here. The Astros knew they were in for their toughest battle of the season. And the broadcasters knew they were in for treat of a World Series.

"I'll tell you what: This is going to be a great series," Smoltz said before signing off for the night. "I don't know if a lot of people knew it going in."

If they didn't, they sure knew it now.

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