The Washington Nationals will be remembered as one of the great comeback teams of all time. They rallied from 19-31 and they rallied from deficits in five elimination games, including the last two games of the World Series against a 107-win team that had a lead at home for two Cy Young Award winners, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke.
The World Series comebacks, one in the fifth inning and one in the seventh, highlighted the inherent beauty of baseball. You can’t sit on a lead. You can’t run out the clock. As long as you have a turn at-bat, you have a chance.
These comebacks were particularly beautiful because they turned on strategy and small details. At any moment in Games 6 and 7 the series might have turned out differently. These are the pivot points, and the stories behind them, of how the World Series was won–and lost.
The Rendon Mistake
With Anthony Rendon batting with a runner at second base in the first inning, the Astros played a shift against him, with three infielders on the left side.
“You’re inviting a good hitter to take advantage of the hole,” Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long said. “And he’s a great hitter.”
Remember, Rendon needed only a single to get the run home, not extra bases. The deployment was especially strange because Justin Verlander threw him seven consecutive breaking balls–six sliders and one curveball, all breaking away from Rendon toward the outside part of the plate.
How unusual was it to see Houston shift against Rendon with a runner in scoring position? Here are the numbers:
Rendon vs. Shift With RISP
Houston’s strategy was even more curious when the count moved to two strikes. Consider that with two strikes and runners in scoring position (and first base open), Rendon uses the opposite field more than any other field. And factor in Verlander throwing nothing but breaking balls away, and the result was predictable. Cutting down on his swing, Rendon simply punched a groundball through the open right side of the infield for an RBI single. The Nationals scored the game’s first run. And Verlander was left shaking his head on the mound.
Verlander’s Missing Pitch
Verlander had one out and a 2-1 lead in the fifth when he jumped ahead of Adam Eaton, 0-and-1. That’s when he hung a slider that Eaton crushed for a game-tying homer. Verlander had not given up a home run on a high slider all year.
Two batters later, Juan Soto would give Washington the lead for good by homering off a high fastball. But Eaton’s home run was a dagger, and it underscored how Verlander had been trying to get by all postseason without his best pitch, the slider.
Hitters batted just .119 off his slider in the regular season. Only Sonny Gray’s slider was harder to hit.
But Verlander never found a consistent touch on the pitch, not even when he tinkered with his grip during the World Series to move the baseball deeper into his hand. Batters slugged .517 off his slider in the postseason–an incredibly high number.
But where the slider really hurt Verlander is when he needed to put away hitters. One of the best put-away pitches in the game went missing in October. Verlander gave up 10 hits on his slider all year when ahead of the count. He gave up seven just in the postseason.
Strasburg and The Tipping Point
Down 3-2 in the fifth, with runners at second and third and one out, the Astros had the right man at the plate against Stephen Strasburg: Jose Altuve. Just about any contact, other than a pop-up or shallow flyball, and the game was tied. Altuve had batted 14 times this year with runners at second and third and struck out only once.
Here’s what happened in the biggest at-bat of the game for Houston:
0-0 changeup. It fools Altuve. Reading fastball, he swings early and misses.
0-1 curveball. It’s off the plate. Altuve chases it and fouls it off.
0-2 curveball. It’s way below the strike zone. It bounces. Altuve swings and misses for the strikeout.
This sequence tells you everything you need to know about the importance of the Nationals figuring out that Strasburg had been tipping his pitches. The Nationals could have easily lost this game and the World Series, the way the Yankees did with Andy Pettitte tipping pitches in 2001 Game 6 and the Dodgers did with Yu Darvish tipping pitches in 2017 Game 7. But unlike those teams, they found the problem in time.
Jonathan Tosches, the Nationals coordinator of advance scouting who manned the replay monitor in the clubhouse, alerted pitching coach Paul Menhart, who alerted Strasburg after the second inning.
As Menhart later related the conversation to me, Strasburg told his pitching coach after introducing a more deliberate set position with a glove flap to hide his tells, “I got takes on balls they were hitting before, and they were swinging and missing at balls they were spitting on in the first inning.”
There is no bigger reason why the Nationals won Game 6–and thus were in position to be world champions–than how Washington self-scouted before it was too late and corrected Strasburg’s pitch-tipping.
The Altuve at-bat–a mis-read of a changeup and two chase swings on curveballs–would never have happened when Strasburg was tipping his pitches.
If you don’t think pitch-tipping matters, just look at these numbers on Strasburg when he was tipping his pitches and after they corrected it. It is the story of the game.
Strasburg Before and After Pitch Tipping
The Robinson Chirinos Bunt
The Astros opened the second inning this way against Max Scherzer: home run hit 100.8 mph, single hit 106.1 mph and single hit 104.8 mph.
The home run hit by Yuli Gurriel was the first home run off one of Scherzer’s sliders since Aug. 28, 2018–an incredible run of 771 consecutive sliders without a homer.
Scherzer was on the ropes. Then Robinson Chirinos handed him an out. He popped up trying to bunt.
This made no sense on many levels.
• The 2019 Astros had fewer sacrifice hits (10) than any team in the franchise’s 58-season history. Bunting is just not part of their game.
• It was early. No Houston position player had attempted a true sacrifice bunt in the second inning all year (not counting squeeze plays or bunts for hits scored a sacrifice).
• Chirinos is not an adept or experienced bunter. Over the past three seasons he has two successful sacrifice bunts in five tries. (Remember, with runners at first and second and a force play in order at third, the bunt has to be especially done well to get Yordan Alvarez to third.)
• You don’t generally bunt to get the No. 9 hitter to the plate. Josh Reddick was due up next. He had struck out in 10 of his career 25 at-bats against Max Scherzer.
Reddick would pop out and George Springer would line out to leftfield. The irony is that one of the most analytically-inclined teams killed their own rally with a second-inning bunt.
The Decision to Pull Zack Greinke
This is what Houston manager AJ Hinch watched Zack Greinke allow in four postseason starts entering Game 7: a 5.30 ERA and 30 baserunners in 18 2/3 innings. He was averaging just 4 2/3 innings per start and 81 pitches. His walk rate tripled.
So Hinch had a short leash heading into Game 7. He decided Greinke would be allowed to pitch out of one jam, but probably not a second.
Through six innings Washington put only two runners on against Greinke: a single, which was followed by a double play, and walk, which was followed by bunt for an out and a pop-up.
The seventh inning began without alarm, a groundout by Adam Eaton on a 2-2 pitch.
Then Greinke missed location with a fastball down and away to Anthony Rendon. He then tried a changeup. It was the 13th changeup Greinke threw, but only the second that landed in the strike zone. (The first one was an unintended accident–an up-and-in changeup that Howie Kendrick hit with a check swing for a double play.)
Greinke wants his changeup to start in the zone and dive out. The one to Rendon was a warning sign. It floated over the plate and was in the strike zone the entire time–at least until Rendon smashed it for a home run.
The next batter was Juan Soto, who had haunted Houston all series. Frankly, the Astros didn’t know how to get him out. They thought going into the series they could do so with high fastballs, but Soto hit high fastballs from Gerrit Cole (twice) and Verlander for home runs. With the score 2-1, Greinke, in trying to defend the home run, reverted to the cautious, nibbling Greinke of his first four postseason games.
He walked Soto on five pitches, one of which was a strike that home plate umpire Jim Wolf missed by calling it a ball.
Hinch took inventory of the situation. Greinke was at 80 pitches, a low number, but five of his past seven pitches were balls and another one was a rare miss in the strike zone for a home run. Should he allow Greinke to pitch out of another jam, especially when the previous four games caused Hinch to think about a short leash?
This was the decision that would set into motion the deciding events of Game 7.
Hinch needed eight outs to win the World Series. He had at his ready his two most trusted relievers, Will Harris and Roberto Osuna, and the best pitcher in baseball this year, Gerrit Cole.
So he pulled Greinke. Only twice before did a manager pull his starter after the sixth inning when that pitcher was cruising with no more than four baserunners and one or no runs. But neither occasion exactly fit the white flag Hinch raised for Greinke.
1981: Yankees manager Bob Lemon removed a dominant Tommy John (three-hit shutout, no walks) after the seventh in order to give closer Rich Gossage the final six outs. It worked just as Lemon scripted. The Yankees beat the Dodgers, 3-0.
1982: Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog removed Joaquin Andujar in the seventh with a three-hit shutout intact, but that was only because Andujar was hit on the right knee by a ball hit by Ted Simmons. Three relievers pick up the eight outs in what was a 6-2 win over Milwaukee.
By historical measures, this was a quick hook. Greinke’s four previous outings influenced Hinch into making it. He wasn’t going to lose the World Series with Greinke on the mound deep into a game, not when Greinke was working the seventh inning for the first time in 35 days.
“We asked him to do more today than he had done, and pitched deeper into the game more than he had done in the entire month of October,” Hinch said. “I wanted to take him out an at-bat or two early rather than an at-bat or two late.”
Managers in today’s bullpen-heavy game fear losing postseason games by sticking too long with their starting pitcher. The last time a manager lost a postseason game by allowing a starter to give up the deciding run in the late innings was Game 1 of the 2016 NLDS, when Giants manager Bruce Bochy rode Johnny Cueto to a 1-0 loss on an eighth-inning Javier Baez home run. No manager in 138 postseason games since then has lost a game that way.
The Gerrit Cole Non-Move
Cole was never going to come into a game in the middle of an inning. He had never pitched in relief in his professional life. He never was an option to bail out Greinke mid-inning.
Hinch had a very narrow role in mind for Cole: he would only start an inning and only if the Astros held the lead. He said before the game Cole would not be Jon Lester in 2016 Game 7 (entering mid-inning, he threw 55 pitches on one day of rest) or Madison Bumgarner in 2014 Game 7 (five innings on two days of rest).
Lester and Bumgarner were under their teams' control for years. Cole was about to be a free agent–not just any free agent, but one with the largest value of any pitcher to ever hit the market.
Under his plan, Hinch’s best scenario was to get the lead to Cole to start the ninth inning. So that essentially left five outs on the table. Hinch had two options to get there:
1. Use his closer, Roberto Osuna, to bail out Greinke and be the bridge to Cole. Osuna had secured at least five outs three times during 2019.
2. Use his second-best reliever, Will Harris, to get a couple of outs and then hand the game to Osuna, with Cole behind him.
Before the game Hinch actually discussed the possibility of using Osuna in a high leverage spot in the seventh or eighth, knowing Cole would be behind him.
Instead of choosing the Osuna-to-Cole plan, he chose the Harris-to-Osuna plan.
For much of the postseason that sounded like a good plan. Harris had not allowed a run in his first 10 appearances in October. But then, only the night before, Rendon crushed a home run off one of his cutters. In Game 7, asked to face Howie Kendrick, Harris was pitching for the 12th time in 24 days, all in high leverage spots. Hinch knew he had pushed Harris because he had so few reliable options in his bullpen.
He asked Harris to get the job done one more time.
He couldn’t. And neither could Osuna, who gave up a huge tack-on run in the eighth. Osuna’s outing made you think of how this World Series began, with the toxic fallout from Astros assistant GM Brandon Taubman taunting female reporters after the team’s ALCS win by yelling, “Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so f------ glad we got Osuna!”
Howie Kendrick Going (Kevin) Long
When the Nationals hired Long as their hitting coach after the 2017 season, one of his first orders of business was to visit Kendrick. That’s because both live in the Phoenix area. The two had barely said hello before Long handed Kendrick, a .291 career hitter at the time, a piece of paper with areas where he could improve his hitting.
Kendrick was such a groundball, opposite-field hitter that one manager told me two years ago he considered a rarely-seen opposite field infield shift against him–to take away his greatest strength. Kendrick would stride into the pitch and hit it inside-out.
Long, as he did with Daniel Murphy, saw a hitter with great hand-eye coordination, especially against fastballs, and knew there was more in there. He adjusted Kendrick’s stride so that it was more neutral, which enabled Kendrick to turn on inside pitches, the kind pitchers had preferred pounding in on him because of his inside-out approach.
The NLDS home run Kendrick hit against Joe Kelly–high-velocity fastball running in – probably doesn’t happen in 2017.
Take a look at this: Kendrick’s hits by direction in the two years prior to working with Long, and the two years since:
Kendrick Hits by Direction (Including Postseason)
Kendrick essentially flipped his opposite field hits to the pull side. There is no longer just one way to pitch him. And you certainly have trouble beating him with fastballs on either side of the plate.
Hinch brought in Harris to face Kendrick. It was the third time in seven games Kendrick was getting a look at Harris.
Harris had thrown him a first-pitch curveball in Game 1, but then he threw Kendrick nine cut fastballs in the next 10 pitches, including the pitch that Kendrick hit for a home run. Kendrick hit .357 on fastballs–the second best among 212 MLB players with 200 at-bats decided on fastballs. (Only Luis Arraez of the Twins devoured fastballs at a better rate.)
The pitch Kendrick hit off Kelly was an inside fastball he crushed to centerfield. The pitch from Harris was a cut fastball away he plunked off the screen adjacent to the rightfield foul pole.
Kendrick is a more complete hitter who hits off the fastball every pitch. In two years in Washington Kendrick has hit .331. And Long took his third team to a World Series (2009 Yankees, 2015 Mets, 2019 Nationals).