No bloops from Nats, one Astros blast leave series tied (updated)

The defining moment of Game 4 of this World Series, the moment that will be replayed over and over and remembered fondly in Houston, was Alex Bregman’s seventh-inning grand slam off Fernando Rodney, an MVP candidate blasting an erratic 42-year-old reliever deep into the D.C. night and propelling the Astros to an 8-1 victory to even up the series.

The moment that created that nightmare scenario, though, the rally that was squandered by the heart of the Nationals lineup the previous inning, was just as significant in the big picture. Maybe even more so, given that it set in motion the chain of events that led to Bregman’s 392 foot shot into the left field bleachers at Nationals Park.

The best-of-seven World Series is now knotted at two games apiece, all four games to date won by the visiting team for only the fifth time among the 115 Fall Classics that have been contested. It is guaranteed to be settled at Minute Maid Park, either in Game 6 on Tuesday or Game 7 on Wednesday.

“Hey, we’re in the World Series,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We’re going to play Game 5, tied 2-2. Who would have thought that in the beginning?”

It’s some necessary perspective for a team that was 19-31 on May 23 and had to win three elimination games just to get past the National League Division Series for the first time.

But the Nationals can no longer celebrate in front of their own fans, fans who so desperately wanted to celebrate this weekend on South Capitol Street. And Bregman’s big blast, to be sure, is a major reason that’s no longer possible.

But don’t forget to place plenty of blame on a Nationals lineup that after three weeks of sustained clutch hits has gone stone-cold silent the last two nights. After going 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position during Friday night’s 4-1 loss, that group went 1-for-9 in such situations tonight, with three critical at-bats coming during the bottom of the sixth of a game that was still within reach.

Unable to get anything going against rookie José Urquidy, who allowed only two batters to reach base in five innings, the Nationals finally gave themselves a real shot in the bottom of the sixth against the Astros bullpen. Trailing 4-0, they loaded the bases with one out via walks by pinch-hitter Gerardo Parra and Adam Eaton, then an Anthony Rendon comebacker that caromed off Will Harris’ leg for an infield single as the team’s first hit with a runner in scoring position since Game 2 (though one that still didn’t score a run).

The overflow crowd of 43,889 rose and roared as Juan Soto stepped to the plate with a chance to at least get the team on the board and at best tie the game with one swing. Then Soto swung at a first pitch curveball from Harris and grounded out weakly to first. A run scored, but now there were two outs with two on for Howie Kendrick.

The crowd still rose and roared for Kendrick, hoping the team’s RBI leader this postseason had at least two more in him. The veteran hitter, though, swung through back-to-back cutters from Harris to end the inning and leave the Nats trailing by three runs heading to the seventh.

“What are you going to change?” Kendrick said. “It’s not like guys are going up trying to strike out. At the end of the day, we just go back and keep playing the game. You’re going to strike out. You’re going to get out in those situations. I mean, you’ve just got to fight through it and keep playing.”

This failed rally in the sixth, though, proved quite significant because it helped shape Martinez’s bullpen decisions for the seventh. Had his team narrowed the deficit to one or two runs, he admitted he might have considered using one of his two trusted relievers (Sean Doolittle or Daniel Hudson) against the heart of the Houston lineup at that point. But down three runs, Martinez chose to ask Tanner Rainey, and later Rodney, to keep the game within reach.

“For me, you don’t chase wins,” Martinez said. “Come tomorrow, we’re up 2-0, and all of a sudden we’re in the seventh inning, you have to use Hudson for two innings. You have to use Doolittle for two innings. You want those guys ready to pitch. ... But you’re down still three runs. And like I said, Rainey has done well for us. It just happens he couldn’t throw strikes tonight.”

No, he couldn’t. The rookie reliever immediately walked the first two batters he faced, then was pulled after retiring Jose Altuve. So in came Rodney, the ageless wonder who wriggled his way out of a bases loaded jam in Game 3 when he got Bregman to ground out to short and now found himself in the exact same situation in Game 4 after allowing a single to Michael Brantley. It did not end nearly as well.

Rodney-Removed-from-Game-Blue-WS-G4-Sidebar.jpgBregman tattooed an 0-1 fastball on the inside corner and sent it soaring to left and sent more than a few fans to the exits.

“I made a mistake,” Rodney said, “and I paid.”

A three-run deficit was now a seven-run deficit, and Martinez was left to field questions about his bullpen decisions during an inning that saw Rainey and Rodney combine to give up four runs on two hits (one of them the grand slam) and a ghastly five walks.

“Rainey has been our guy in the seventh inning,” the manager said. “When he starts throwing balls, usually he can’t come out of it. He got a big out for us. And I honestly thought that Rodney ... threw a good pitch. Brantley put the ball in play. After that, he just made one mistake and Bregman got him.”

There were still 2 1/2 innings to play tonight, and the Nationals did stay in the fight enough to keep putting runners on base to the end. But it was far too little too late, and so now they face a wholly new situation the rest of the way.

In what is now a best-of-three series, the Nationals can feel good knowing they’ll send Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg to the mound in Games 5 and 6. Then again, the Astros can feel good knowing they’ll send Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander to the mound in Games 5 and 6.

“We don’t mind where we’re at: best-of-three with Scherzer and Stras going the next two days,” Eaton said. “We’d have liked to have won the last two games, but with that being said we’re not in such a bad position. We’ve got to come out tomorrow and give the crowd something to cheer about.”

The electricity and anticipation of Friday night’s game, the first World Series affair contested in Washington since 1933, was replaced tonight by a more nervous vibe from a sellout crowd that didn’t want to see the home team completely squander the 2-0 series lead it established in Houston to begin the week.

That vibe only grew more pronounced five batters into the top of the first, by which point the Nationals already were trailing 2-0.

An opening strikeout of George Springer seemed to set a positive tone for Patrick Corbin, but it was quickly wiped out by four consecutive singles, including RBI hits by Bregman and Yuri Gurriel. Gurriel’s hot smash to third was picked by Rendon in spectacular fashion, but Rendon cost himself when he briefly looked to second base before throwing to first too late to get the batter.

It was the third time in four games a Nationals starter gave up two runs in the first, Corbin following the pattern previously established by Scherzer and Strasburg. Unlike his two rotation mates, Corbin couldn’t hold the damage to that.

The left-hander got himself in immediate trouble in the fourth when he issued a leadoff walk to Carlos Correa. Moments later, he tried to fool Robinson Chirinos with a 1-0 changeup. He wasn’t successful. Chirinos launched the ball into the left field bleachers for his second homer in as many nights, not to mention a 4-0 Houston lead that left the crowd grumbling plenty.

“I mean, they are obviously a great team,” Corbin said. “And you make mistakes, you’re going to pay. So we tried to do what we thought was the best in each situation. They got on me early and were able to mix it up a little bit. ... We’ll just have to get over this and get ready to go tomorrow.”

They better be ready to go tomorrow. Because if they’re not and if they drop their third straight at home, a World Series that not long ago was in their control will suddenly shift to Houston with the Nationals now facing elimination.

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