World Series anniversary weekend starts with loss to Astros (updated)

It was no wonder the Nationals chose this weekend to celebrate the five-year anniversary of the 2019 World Series championship with the Astros in town for three games.

The pregame fanfare was a nice trip down memory lane. Clips of former players, such as Max Scherzer, Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon sharing memories and thanking fans were played on the new video board at Nats Park, along with highlights from that magical postseason run. The announced attendance of 22,999 fans gave loud ovations for manager Davey Martinez and first base coach Gerardo Parra during lineup introductions. And they booed loudly when Jose Altuve was introduced for the first (and his every subsequent) at-bat of the night.

But by the end of this series opener, the final result – a 5-3 loss – showed just how far apart these two franchises are five years after that Fall Classic intertwined them forever. (Although even with the loss, the Nats still have a better record at 8-11 than the Astros at 7-14.)

The game started off strong for MacKenzie Gore, making his fourth start of the season. He struck out Altuve and Yordan Alvarez on 97 and 98 mph fastballs and got Alex Bregman to fly out to right field on 16 pitches in the first.

The crowd was still coming through the gates, but they were into it.

Gore’s outing took a sharp turn in the second, however. He gave up four straight hits, the latter three scoring runs, without recording an out to start the frame, and gave up another hit before recording the third out with the Nats down 3-0. He needed 37 pitches in the inning, putting him at 53 through two and in position for a short night.

“They just got hits," the left-hander said after the game. "They just kind of hit a couple balls hard, and they also just hit a couple where we (weren't) in some grass. A lot of foul balls tonight. It's funny, it's not like I was walking a lot of guys, but I still threw a lot of pitches. So just going back, looking at and understanding why there were a lot of foul balls, and trying to just be able to put guys away in whatever way that is a little quicker.”

"I thought, through the ball well," said Martinez. "The three runs, a couple of bleeders in there, which is part of baseball. But I thought he threw the ball well.”

The 25-year-old would allow two runners to reach base in each of the next two innings, but didn’t surrender another run before his high pitch count of 92 ended his night after four frames. His final line included seven hits, three runs, one walk and four strikeouts, while his ERA rose from 2.81 to 3.60.

The Astros added two runs off the Nats bullpen for good measure. The first one came in the fifth on Chas McCormick’s sacrifice fly off Derek Law after Robert Garcia loaded the bases out of the bullpen. The second came on Mauricio Dubón’s RBI single off Matt Barnes in the eighth.

“Frustrating. I need to be a little better," Gore said. "But it was kind of one of those things where it wasn't bad. We had a chance. I thought the guys in the bullpen were really good again. And guys had good at-bats the whole night. I just wasn't good enough. But you know, that's how it was. It wasn't terrible. I just need to be a little better.”

While Gore was fortunate to only give up three runs in his short start, the Nats offense didn’t do much to help the starter against Justin Verlander, who was making his first start with the Astros after starting the season on the injured list with shoulder inflammation.

Verlander, who entered the night with dominant numbers against the Nats in the regular season (4-0, 1.85 ERA, 27 strikeouts in four starts) but terrible numbers in the World Series (0-2, 5.73 ERA, nine strikeouts in Games 2 and 6 in Houston), reverted back to his regular season ways against Washington with an impressive season debut.

The three-time Cy Young Award winner needed only 20 pitches to get through two perfect innings. And it wasn’t until Riley Adams’ one-out double in the third did the Nats have a hit against the future Hall of Famer. Ildemaro Vargas drove the catcher in to score in the next at-bat.

“Verlander was good," said Martinez. "He was throwing his curveball for strikes. His fastball location was good. We just couldn't get nothing going. … We just didn't have very many hits. Riley hit the ball really well. Couldn't get nothing going offensively."

Verlander had very few issues with the Nats lineup the rest of the night. The only other blip was Adams’ first-pitch homer on a 94 mph fastball right down the middle in the fifth.

“I mean, he's Justin Verlander, that's what makes him tough," Adams said. "Obviously, a first-ballot Hall of Famer and a great pitcher. I was just looking to get something early and not let the at-bat go too long. Thankfully, he left a couple of pitches more in the middle of zone and I was able to capitalize on that. But obviously, he's a great pitcher, got a lot of good stuff.”

Verlander, who entered the night expecting to only go five or six innings and 80-85 pitches, finished his first start right there: six innings, four hits, two runs (one homer), zero walks and four strikeouts on 78 pitches, 50 for strikes.

The Nats finally got to the Astros bullpen after that, but were only able to push one meaningless run across in the ninth after CJ Abrams tripled off Josh Hader and scored on Jesse Winker’s sac fly. But Verlander's damage to the Nats' psychic on this night still lingered.

“He just kept us off balance," Martinez said of Verlander. "He threw his curveball when he needed to, threw it for strikes. Located his fastball really well. He was good. Kept us off balance.”

The frustration boiled over in the eighth when Martinez was ejected for arguing a call that stood after the Nats challenged Vargas being called out while attempting to steal second.

Martinez let out his frustration even more after the game, calling for an obstruction ruling against Astros shortstop Jeremy Peña.

“Obstruction, right? Look at the video," the manager said. "I don't know if they knew what I was arguing. I won't argue a review. But the fact of the matter is they can sit down and get together and see. The fact that they can see it is brutal. I mean, Vargas almost broke his hand. The guy was blocking the base. That's obstruction to me. I hope they look at the video and understand that that's obstruction.”

It was a big call because Vargas would have been in scoring position with only one out, down two runs and slugger Joey Gallo coming up to pinch-hit for Jacob Young. But crew chief Todd Tichenor and home plate umpire Cory Blaser were not having Martinez's argument.

“I honestly don't think they knew what I was talking about. I really don't," the skipper said. "I went out there and I don't think they understood that I was not arguing, I'll never argue a review. That's dumb. But the fact of the matter is that if you're going to make rules, the umpires need to know the rule. Right? I mean, put yourself in a good position to call the play right. And know that he blocked the base with his foot and the reason why he didn't make it was because his foot was on the base.”

Per the rules, the challenge can't be for a missed obstruction call, only to overturn the out call. But Martinez still thinks that was a missed call and that the challenge rule should be changed.

“When you do that on that kind of play, you're challenging the safe/out call. The whole obstruction is not challengeable," he explained. "I think that's gonna end up having to change, but that's my opinion.”

And so it was on a celebratory night for the Nationals they were reminded they still have a ways to go before throwing another championship anniversary party in the future.

Regardless, the festivities will continue Saturday and Sunday. But winning those games will make them that much sweeter.

“Like I said, the bullpen was great, guys had good at-bats, we had a chance there at the end," Gore said. "Gotta come in here and win a game tomorrow.”

"That's baseball and that's how it is," Adams said. "We got to get back and get ready for tomorrow.”

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