If Game 3 of the World Series was the most frustrating four hours of the Nationals' entire postseason run, what was Game 4? Awfully frustrating in its own right, that's what it was.
There weren't as many squandered opportunities at the plate as there were the previous night, but there were more than a few. And though the final score (an 8-1 Astros victory) was lopsided, the game was very much there for the taking in the bottom of the sixth and top of the seventh, perhaps the key stretch of the entire affair.
But let's get through the first portion of the game before we progress to that critical sequence.
At the outset, this looked like a distinctively advantageous matchup for the Nationals, with Patrick Corbin on the mound against JosÃ© Urquidy, the Astros rookie swingman who wasn't supposed to go more than four innings before handing the game over to the bullpen. It certainly didn't play out that way.
Corbin, as he did in all three of his postseason starts, labored. Especially in the top of the first, when he allowed four consecutive singles, the latter two each driving in a run to give Houston a quick 2-0 advantage. The deficit might've been far bigger had the lefty not managed to induce a bases-loaded double play out of Robinson Chirinos to end the 26-pitch frame.
Corbin would find his groove in the second and third innings, but then came a big-time mistake in the fourth. He tried to surprise Chirinos with a changeup but left it over the plate and watched as the Astros catcher launched it deep to left for a two-run homer, his second in as many nights.
Down 4-0, the Nationals needed to generate some offense. They needed to generate some hits with runners in scoring position, something they just could not do in their agonizing Game 3 loss. They couldn't do it again in Game 4, though that was mostly because they couldn't even put themselves in position to need a clutch hit.
Urquidy became an unlikely late-October star with a dominant performance. He threw five scoreless innings on a scant 67 pitches, allowing only two baserunners along the way (Anthony Rendon's single in the first, Yan Gomes' double in the third).
The overflow crowd at Nationals Park kept trying to urge the guys on, but there just weren't any opportunities to get hyped up. Until, at last, the bottom of the sixth, with Urquidy finally out of the game.
AJ Hinch gave the ball to Josh James, but the right-hander walked two of the first three batters he faced, including Gerardo Parra (who got the crowd warmed up with the second-to-last "Baby Shark" plate appearance of the season). So with the heart of the Nats' lineup due up, Hinch now turned to his most trusted reliever: Will Harris.
Harris was perhaps on the verge of running out of gas after a long regular season and postseason pitching in high-leverage spots, but he wasn't quite there yet. Though the veteran righty gave up an infield single when he couldn't snag Rendon's comebacker, he took down the fearsome Juan Soto-Howie Kendrick tandem to get out of the inning.
Soto got fooled on a first-pitch curveball and grounded out to first, bringing the Nats' lone run home. Kendrick then swung through back-to-back cutters on the inner portion of the strike zone to leave the bases loaded. The crowd groaned, and Kendrick walked away frustrated. But perhaps in the back of his mind he knew he'd get another crack at Harris before this was all over. And maybe next time around, Harris would throw that cutter on the outside corner instead of the inside one.
That sequence proved critical, because it shaped in part Davey Martinez's bullpen management for the top of the seventh. Had the Nationals trimmed the deficit to two runs (or certainly one), the manager admitted, he might've used Daniel Hudson or Sean Doolittle to try to keep the game within striking distance. But because the Nats were still down three, Martinez was reluctant to burn up one of his top two relievers and instead went with Tanner Rainey and Fernando Rodney.
(There may have been another reason Martinez didn't use Hudson or Doolittle, a reason unknown to everyone but a few folks in the Nationals dugout at that point but one that would become public the following afternoon when Martinez announced a shocking change of starting pitchers for Game 5.)
At the time, though, the bullpen management caused plenty of consternation, not only from fans but from the broadcasters themselves, with both Ken Rosenthal and Joe Buck openly wondering why Martinez brought in Rodney instead of Hudson to try to escape the jam Rainey created by walking the first two batters of the inning.
Rodney, though, did escape a bases-loaded jam in Game 3, getting Alex Bregman to ground out to end the sixth inning. The 42-year-old reliever wasn't nearly as successful this time around. After allowing a line drive single to Michael Brantley, he threw Bregman a fastball down and in and watched it soar to left field for the grand slam that blew this game wide open.
Rodney would walk two more batters before he finally got the hook and walked off the field to a chorus of boos. It was the last time he would pitch in 2019. And for all we know, it may well have been the last time he pitched in a major league game.
Down seven runs, the Nationals tried to get something going at the plate. And they did get a runner into scoring position in the seventh and again in the eighth ... only to leave them stranded yet again. By night's end, they had gone 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position, bringing their two-day total to a ghastly 1-for-19. And the one hit (Rendon's infield single in the sixth) didn't even drive in a run.
So it was that a World Series that was firmly in the Nats' corner after two wins in Houston was now knotted up after two losses in D.C. The series would be going back to Minute Maid Park no matter what. The Nationals could only hope to head back there leading the series and not facing elimination.
But hey, at least they knew they had Max Scherzer starting Game 5 against Gerrit Cole, right?
Er, maybe not. The World Series wasn't just tied. It was about to be jolted by an unexpected injury revelation.