HOUSTON — Justin Verlander wore the look of someone who had just been played, as in the butt of an office practical joke. The Washington Nationals didn’t just beat him. They just papered his cubical with sticky notes. Actually, the look wasn’t too different than the one on his face in the fourth inning of World Series Game 2 Wednesday night, when he somehow found himself on his rear end throwing a baseball off his shin. Absurdity demands surrender.
“I’d like to win a couple,” he said. “Hopefully I get another opportunity.”
One of the greatest pitchers of his generation, Verlander stands alone when it comes to World Series futility. He has started more World Series games without getting a win than any pitcher in history. In six tries he is 0-5 with a 5.72 ERA.
Wednesday night he wasn’t bad. He just wasn’t good enough again. The absurdity of the night offered multiple choices for its maximum height: a four-pitch walk to the first batter for only the third time in his 482 career starts, the pratfall on his keister trying to make a play on a dribbler by Ryan Zimmerman, the key missed call by umpire Doug Eddings, or the career-long ownership of Verlander by Kurt Suzuki, a .160 career postseason hitter.
“There are just those guys for certain pitchers,” Verlander said about his unlikely nemesis. “He’s been mine–for whatever reason. He’s been turning on fastballs all year.”
Better than most, Verlander understands that October can be a mischievous. It plays tricks with convention and laughs at your expectations. This was supposed to be the World Series of old-timey pitching duels. Instead, none from among Gerrit Cole, Verlander and Max Scherzer has managed a quality start. (Stephen Strasburg did so for the win in Game 2.)
Cole and Verlander lost on back-to-back days for the first time all year, and did so at home while getting peppered for nine runs in 13 innings.
Astros manger A.J. Hinch did not intentionally walk a batter all year, so when he finally ordered one–that’s how much Juan Soto scares Houston–it triggered a five-run rally in which nobody hit the ball hard.
“Nothing was hit over 85 miles an hour,” Verlander said.
Absurd? Maybe. But let’s get serious: the Washington Nationals are so scorching hot they look unstoppable. The Astros began playing this series against history. Their goal: a second World Series title in a three-year window with more than 100 wins in each season. Only Connie Mack’s A’s and the Cardinals of the 1940s had pulled that off. But let’s put historical comps on hold and first see if Houston can manage one win against this runaway train of a baseball team.
Never in their history had the Washington Nationals ripped off an 18-2 run–until now. And now they are extending it in the World Series with a lineup that is out-grinding the Astros.
Big spot after big spot, the Houston pitchers can’t put away the Washington hitters. In the 32 years since pitch counts have been tracked, only the 2018 Astros and 2016 Cubs have been better at finishing off hitters than the 2019 Astros. They held batters to a .144 batting average with two strikes.
But Washington is hitting .272 in this series with two strikes. The Astros crunched all the numbers, watched all the video and scoured all the reports about the Nationals to prepare for the World Series. But 18 innings of live baseball have given them a more eye-opening education.
“They’re pretty dynamic top to bottom,” Verlander said. “I guess I hadn’t paid that much attention to them in the NL. But I think they’re way better than people give them credit for. Obviously those guys in the middle get a lot of headlines, but they can all hit. And they work you. They change their approach. They adjust through the middle of the game from at-bat to at-bat. It’s a grind.”
Last year the Boston Red Sox set up a situational hitting station on a back field in spring training to emphasize putting the ball in play, or at least fouling off tough pitches. They set up a pitching machine and cranked it up to ballistic. Hitters would cheer if they managed a foul ball. The idea: find a way to fight to another pitch or put the ball in play. They became the best two-strike hitting team in baseball and won the World Series.
This year, as the Nationals trained in the same complex as the Astros, manager Davey Martinez sold his players on the importance of extending at-bats. Washington without Bryce Harper was not a home-run hitting team–they ranked 13th in home runs–so situational approaches became important to the Nationals. They led the National League in two-strike hitting and set a franchise record for most two-strike hits. They have 12 two-strike hits in this series.
Said Suzuki, “If we could pinpoint one certain thing, man, I think it might just be our resilience. Davey emphasized in spring training he doesn't like strikeouts. If we are striking out then obviously we're not giving ourselves a chance to get on base, we're just getting ourselves out, and obviously we're not making the defense work.”
Verlander was down 2-0 after nine pitches in Game 2. The four-pitch walk to Trea Turner to start the game was inexcusable. Adam Eaton, who is deploying a two-strike approach on every pitch, shot an opposite-field single like a billiards trickster burying a ball in the corner pocket. And then, at 0-and-2, Verlander made a poor pitch with a changeup that Anthony Rendon pulled off the scoreboard in leftfield for a two-run double.
The Astros tied the game with Strasburg made his own mistake with a changeup, which Alex Bregman popped for a two-run homer. Verlander settled down with the help of his modified slider. Batters had been slugging .500 against the pitch this season, as it rolled more than it broke. In a bullpen session before his Game 2 start, Verlander tinkered with his grip to put the slider deeper into his hand to tighten the break, and it worked.
“Ah, I haven’t been happy with it,” Verlander said after Game 2. “I’ll have to look at the video to see if it was better.”
The game still was 2-2 when Suzuki stepped in to renew his haunting of Verlander. Suzuki has been collecting hits off Verlander since 2007, when the catcher was a 23-year-old rookie. He’s now a 36-year-old veteran. It was his 46th plate appearance against Verlander. At 1-and-0, Verlander threw a fastball over the plate. Suzuki pulled it into the Crawford Boxes for a home run. He is a career .259 hitter, but .356 when Verlander is out there.
Down 3-2, Verlander then appeared to have Victor Robles struck out on a 2-and-2 fastball. The pitch was over the plate and completely inside the strike zone, but Eddings called it a ball.
“He said he had it down,” said catcher Martin Maldonado, who had just entered the game at the top of the inning. (“Nothing to do with it. No, no, no,” Verlander said about the change from Robinson Chirinos, his regular catcher, to Maldonado.) “I like Doug Eddings. He’s a good guy, one of my favorite umpires. I just asked him where he had it and didn’t say anything else.”
If the pitch were called a strike, Verlander would have remained in the game with one out and the bases empty.
“I’m feeling great at that point,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going that much longer, but who knows what happens. I’m still in the ballgame, we’ve got one out, and nobody on only down by one. I don’t have a crystal ball, but …”
Instead, after he threw ball four, Verlander was out of the game and the Nationals had a rally started. When Hinch took the ball from Verlander after the walk to Robles, Verlander, as he walked off the field, shot an icy look at Eddings. There was no humor in that moment. The rally would rage for five more runs, putting the game out of reach. Washington fought off eight two-strike pitches in the inning, squeezing out three walks and four hits.
Next up to try to slow down the Nationals is Zack Grienke, the guy with the 4.44 career postseason ERA and 3-5 record. He has coughed up 10 runs in 14 postseason innings this year.
The Nationals have a chance to close out a season on an all-time great run. They have forgotten how to lose. They are 18-2 over the past 30 days, including eight straight wins in which they have outscored their playoff opponents 50-17. They have trailed in only three of their past 54 innings.
“We knew they were a great team,” Maldonado said, “and right now everything they hit is a hit. They are really hard to strike out. It’s hard to put them away.”
Over the past few weeks the Nationals have won games in which they faced Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Cole and Verlander–half of the top 14 opposing pitchers in ERA. Verlander was just the latest to discover the Nationals are not just pesky and persistent, but also absurdly hot.