After Max Scherzer was felled by neck and trapezius spasms early Sunday morning, right-hander Joe Ross was pressed into service as an emergency starter and did his best to keep the Nationals in Game 5 of the World Series.
But a pair of two-run homers were more than enough for the Houston Astros, as they took control of the series with a 7-1 victory at Nats Park before 43,910. They now lead the best-of-seven series three games to two.
Yordan Alvarez smacked a two-run shot in the second and Carlos Correa followed with a two-run blast in the fourth inning. Alvarez hit a 2-1 sinker and Correa crushed a 2-2 slider.
What hurts is it appeared that Ross had struck out Correa before he hit his homer.
Early in the Correa at-bat, Ross had the upper hand, getting to an 0-2 count. The next pitch, a slider, appeared to be a strike but was called a ball by home plate umpire Lance Barksdale. A few pitches later, Correa hit his two-run homer.
"I thought it was a strike," Ross said of the 0-2 pitch to Correa. "I haven't quite looked at it yet, so I'll have to go double check. But I feel like as far as baseball goes, something small happens, and then seems like later that at-bat, always something big follows up. Unfortunate that's how it went, but nothing I can do about it now."
"I thought it was a very good pitch," catcher Yan Gomes said. "I thought it was where we wanted it, yeah."
The Astros built a 4-0 lead through five innings. Ross was lifted after five, allowing four runs on five hits with two walks, a wild pitch and just one strikeout. He threw 78 pitches, 48 for strikes.
But in the end, it was the pair of two-run homers that Ross' start will be defined by. Gomes said they battled with Correa for seven pitches and tried to strike him out before the blast.
"We kept going back and forth, and we felt like it was a good time to throw his little sharp slider or cutter, as we both like to go back and forth on," Gomes said. "It just (got) a little bit more heart of the plate. These are good hitters. Any time you make a mistake like that, they are going to make you pay for it."
Having to face a pitcher like the Astros' Gerrit Cole, who kept the Nats scoreless for 6 1/3 innings before Juan Soto's solo homer in the seventh, proved to be too much to overcome. The 7-1 loss followed a similar script to the first two games of the weekend trio.
The four runs Ross allowed might not have been that bad if the Nats had scored some runs themselves.
"I thought he did really well, I really did," said Martinez. "I told (Ross), 'Hey, we want to keep (you) right about 80 pitches,' and he gave us five good innings. And I said, 'Hey, you need to be ready to pitch in a few days again.'"
Said Ross: "That's one of the best lineups in baseball. I'm not going to expect myself to go out there and strike out 20 like Max does, just kind of stick to my game. I was aggressive, pitched inside. (I) try to force swings. They're going to swing, they're aggressive. Some of their guys are patient, but (I tried to) just pound inside and keep the off-speed low, made a couple mistakes and they made me pay for it."
As the dust settled, the Nats look up at their first deficit in the series, having lost three games in a row by managing a total of three runs.
The Nats scored 17 runs in the two wins early in the series at Minute Maid Par before losing three at Nats Park. Gomes takes confidence in that the Nats were down two games to one to the Dodgers with two games remaining in the National League Division Series before storming back to win the best-of-five series.
"We've been in this situation before," Gomes said. "We just were in this situation before in L.A. We are not hanging our heads. We're still going to come out there and fight just like we've done all year.
"We're going to regroup. We'll go back and talk about it. Figure out what we can do and how we can just move guys over, do little things and win ball games. I know we're all trying to but it's just not happening right now."