As fans began entering Nationals Park for Game 5 of the World Series, a few thoughts probably were foremost on everyone's minds ...
* The home team had to win one of these games eventually, right?
No. And no. Not even close. The home team would not win on this night, nor on any forthcoming night (though nobody could have realized that at the time). And more troublesome, Scherzer would not start this game after waking up with so much neck pain he couldn't get out of bed or dress himself without assistance.
Talk about a letdown for the final home game of an otherwise remarkable 2019 season.
Just like Game 3 and Game 4, Game 5 was a tough re-watch. But like those two previous losses to the Astros, there were some surprising revelations along the way. Like the fact Joe Ross actually pitched pretty well in Scherzer's place. And the game was right there for the Nats to take, into the later innings.
Oh, and boy did Lance Barksdale have a rough night behind the plate. (More on that in a moment.)
The broadcast opened with the Scherzer news and the speculation - or maybe just overly optimistic hope - that Ross might become an unlikely October hero when it was all said and done. The crowd certainly tried to do its part, giving the 26-year-old right-hander a standing ovation as he made his way to the bullpen to warm up and then greeting him with a sustained "Let's go, Joe!" chant before he took the mound.
As Joe Buck put it: "If you're the Nationals, you're thinking maybe tonight's the night a legend is made. And going forward in the future, they're looking back at this game as 'The Joe Ross Game.' "
It would not play out quite like that, but Ross did as well as he reasonably could have been expected to do, his five-inning start marred only by two bad moments, each of them resulting in a two-run homer.
Ross got things off to a positive start when he faced the minimum in the top of the first, something neither Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, AnÃbal SÃ¡nchez nor Patrick Corbin did in any of the series' six other games.
But he was not so fortunate in the top of the second, when with one on and one out, he thought he made a good pitch to Yordan Alvarez - a sinker on the outside corner - which the Astros rookie slugger somehow drove into the Red Porch seats behind the left-center field wall. (The ball, by the way, struck a large fellow named Jeff Adams in the gut as he held onto a beer in each hand, making him an instant celebrity and earning him a free ticket to Game 6 and a television commercial to go along with it.)
Down 2-0, the Nats tried to mount an immediate response against Gerrit Cole in the bottom of the second. As they did so often in Games 3 and 4, they gave themselves a golden opportunity to score after back-to-back singles by Juan Soto and Howie Kendrick. And just as they did so often the previous two nights, they squandered that opportunity. Ryan Zimmerman struck out on a curveball way out of the zone, and Victor Robles grounded into a double play to kill the rally.
The Nats were now 1-for-21 with runners in scoring position in 20 innings at home in the World Series. Remarkably, they wouldn't take another at-bat with a runner in scoring position the rest of the night.
Ross, meanwhile, continued to pitch effectively but then was done in by one killer sequence in the top of the fourth. With two outs and a runner on first, he had Carlos Correa down in the count 0-2 and then threw a near-perfect slider just off the outside corner. Barksdale called it a ball, which it was, though Cole had been getting pitches in a similar location called strikes. The crowd groaned, the Nats dugout yelled and Ross tried to shrug it off. He didn't. After a slider in the dirt advanced the runner, he hung another slider right over the plate, and Correa crushed it to left field to double the Astros' lead to 4-0.
That really was Ross' only mistake of the night. He would get out of the fifth inducing another double play out of Jose Altuve, and he departed having thrown 78 pitches while giving his team a chance.
Trouble is, the Nationals didn't have a chance the way they swung the bats against Cole. There were some well-struck balls, inconveniently placed directly in the path of Houston fielders. But there wasn't much else as Cole cruised along.
As the game reached the seventh inning, Davey Martinez had a decision to make. He elected not to use his two best relievers (Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson) when trailing by three runs in Game 4, a decision we'd later found out was tied in part to the knowledge Scherzer might not be able to start Game 5. Trailing by four runs this time, Martinez did turn over the final three innings to those two, with Doolittle up first.
Doolittle got through the top of the seventh unscathed, and the heart of the Nationals lineup prepared to try to mount some kind of rally in the bottom of the inning. Only Soto was able to deliver, drilling a 2-2 fastball to left-center for a solo homer that made him 4-for-6 with two big blasts versus Cole in the World Series.
Soto's homer trimmed the deficit to 4-1, and when Zimmerman drew a walk on a 3-2 pitch from Cole that just missed the zone and prompted a negative reaction toward Barksdale from the Astros side, the sellout crowd was back into it, rising and roaring as Robles worked the count full.
Cole tried to get the rookie with a 98 mph fastball up and away, but Robles wouldn't bite. He started to trot toward first. Then Barksdale signed strike three, and the resulting scene was not pretty. Robles was careful not to say or do anything that might get him ejected, but the Nationals dugout was livid, as were the fans. Instead of two on, two out and the tying run at the plate, the seventh inning was over, and the Nats would never get another chance like that on this night.
Thus ended the competitive portion of Game 5. The Astros tacked on three more runs off Hudson, who gave up one in the eighth, then returned for the ninth and served up a two-run homer to George Springer on his 36th pitch of the evening (the most he threw in any appearance all season).
Down 7-1 in the bottom of the ninth, the only remaining notable moment came when Rendon walked to the plate for what would be his final home at-bat as a National. The crowd, realizing that might be the case, rose and applauded the star third baseman, who at that point was having a bad series (4-for-20, two RBIs).
Suffice it to say, the mood was pretty dour as the stands cleared out for the last time in 2019 and the Nats prepared to head back to Houston. After blowing a two-games-to-none lead in the World Series, they were now going to have to win Games 6 and 7 on the road, their ace's status to pitch in either of those contests very much in doubt.
It would take an unprecedented series of events for the Nationals to emerge victorious. They'd already defied the odds every step of the way. Could they actually pull it off again, or was the clock about to strike midnight?