HOUSTON — A few times this October, as the strikeouts and groundouts and flyouts piled up, Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki trudged home and told his wife, Renee, a secret: The scuffle was beginning to bother him. Washington was winning, and he was handling the pitchers well—always his first priority—but he barely remembered what first base looked like. He had one hit, a single, in the Nats’ 10 postseason games. He feared he was letting his team down.
Renee didn’t know quite what to say. “Look how far you’ve come,” she would respond.
She thought again of those moments on Wednesday night, 20 minutes after Game 2 of the World Series ended in a 12–3 Washington win and her husband, the hero, greeted her.
Suzuki had played 13 years in the majors, but like the Nationals, he had never advanced past the Division Series. Leading off the seventh inning with the game tied at 2, he pulled a Justin Verlander fastball into the leftfield Crawford Boxes. The team never looked back.
“Where would you like me to start?” said Astros manager A.J. Hinch, eulogizing the game. “The leadoff homer? That's what happened. It started with the leadoff homer.”
Suzuki is almost never the star, at least offensively. With limited hours in the day, he often skips extra reps in the batting cage to pore over scouting reports for his pitchers, or to lie on the training table and try to finesse his 36-year-old body through another four hours of squatting and foul tips. He would rather catch a shutout than go 5-for-5, and it shows: Pitchers extol him, and he has a career .708 OPS. They say they would want him behind the plate even if he were hitting .000. Still, his five-year-old son Kai owns a closetful of Nationals jerseys; even he rarely chooses Dad’s.
Suzuki did not mention to his teammates how frustrated he felt about his drought. But they knew.
“You look up [at the jumobtron], you see the .080,” said Game 1 starter Max Scherzer, referring to Suzuki’s batting average. (Scherzer is being generous; Suzuki was hitting .043 entering Game 2.) “Everybody sees it. So you know he hasn’t been hitting, but the value he’s brought to this team has been invaluable even though he hasn’t done anything at the plate, and then he has his moment and he’s able to hit a huge home run for us in a key spot.”
The dugout went nuts. The bullpen descended into chaos. “We were jumping around like a college basketball team,” said closer Sean Doolittle.
Suzuki considered retirement during the 2016 season, his second straight as a black hole at the plate. He and Renee, who met as students at Cal State Fullerton—he walked on, of course—decided to give it one more year. He signed with the Braves for one season and $1.5 million and promptly had the best offensive year of his career. One year became four. He entered the season planning to work as part of a platoon. He became the starting catcher.
Suzuki has seen a lot in this game. He hit a home run against Scherzer the first time they faced one another, back in 2011, back when “he used to be passive against the first pitch,” Scherzer recalled. Suzuki taught Doolittle, fresh off a conversion from first baseman, to believe in his fastball when they played together for the A’s in ’12.
“He was willing to put the 1 down every single time,” said Doolittle. “He trusted it and that allowed me to trust it.”
Suzuki excels at calling a game and at blocking balls in the dirt. In Game 1, when Scherzer knew his stuff was lacking and he was tiring, he feared making a mistake over the middle and allowing a home run. So he began burying pitches, all but aiming for home plate, secure in the knowledge that his catcher would not let an errant ball reach the backstop. He was right.
If Suzuki has a defensive weakness, it is in controlling the running game. Fifty men attempted to steal a base off him this year. Forty-five succeeded. So, when down two in the first, José Altuve doubled and took off for third, Suzuki reacted calmly.
“I don't really get surprised when guys try to run on me,” he said. “They like to put the pressure on the defense.”
Third baseman Anthony Rendon was shifted toward second, so Suzuki tried to throw like a quarterback, leading his receiver to the bag. They nabbed Altuve, which quickly became crucial: The next batter, Michael Brantley, singled. Alex Bregman homered, which tied the game instead of putting the Astros ahead.
That would have been enough for Suzuki’s teammates. But it wasn’t enough for him.
All playoff runs contain some measure of magic. Over the years, the Nationals have been the ones trudging off the field after an improbable series of events unfolds in favor of their opponents. But that’s not how this stretch has gone. Washington, which began the season 19–31 amid calls for the firing of manager Dave Martinez, is not the best team in baseball. That is unquestionably Houston. Yet the Nats lead the World Series 2–0, having stolen two games on the road. The seventh inning, which Suzuki began, ended 10 batters later as he grounded to shortstop. In between the Astros made an error, lost a wild pitch and generally collapsed. The Nationals scored six times.
Their path to a title remains bumpy. Houston’s lineup is dangerous. Its pitching is superior. But sometimes the overmatched catcher hits a home run off one of the greatest starters of his generation.
“You have a great year, and you can run into a buzz saw,” Game 2 starter Stephen Strasburg, who allowed just those two runs over six innings, said last week. “Maybe this year we’re the buzz saw.”
Like the Nationals, Suzuki began the season overlooked. And like the Nationals, he walked into the clubhouse on Wednesday two wins from a championship.