For Astros in the World Series, a Surprising Hook and a Sudden Fall

HOUSTON — The fall came with the completeness of a total eclipse of the sun, a shadow spread across a stadium throbbing with expectation.

One minute the leather-lung men and women behind me in center field 440 feet from home plate (to sit there is a bit like watching the game from the International Space Station) were bellowing and hurling joyfully unprintable invective at the Nationals. Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel had launched a moon shot into the left-field stands and Zack Greinke, one of the Astros’ trio of aces, was methodically working a one-hitter.

Greinke is a phlegmatic artist and he has a curious hitch in his delivery. He pauses, leg in the air, and seems to consider which of 14 varieties of sliders, curveball, changeup and fastball to drop on befuddled batters.

The Astros clung to a two-run advantage going into the seventh inning. All game long they had put runners on base and fumbled too many chances to score for true comfort. But just nine more outs and the Astros could claim their second World Series championship in three years. It was not to be.

After inducing a groundout to start the inning, Greinke gave up a home run to Anthony Rendon, the Nationals’ chill-dude leader. Then he walked the 21-year-old man-child Juan Soto and you watched manager A.J. Hinch hop out of the dugout and walk to the mound.

NASA, we have a problem.

Hinch is a thoughtful man who does not take himself too seriously, and he runs a team that won 107 regular-season games — and 311 games the past three years — so he can lay claim to being very good at his job. But this move produced a queasy feel. You’re going to take out a pitcher who has thoroughly mastered the Nationals?

The bleacher bums behind me began to emit guttural effusions, a sort of existential, yowling yodel. As most had more than a few beers under their belts these could have been mating calls, but more likely they echoed the same inchoate angst.

Hinch brought in Will Harris, a most dependable reliever who promptly tossed a cutter low and away to Howie Kendrick.

Bam.

Kendrick, a right-handed batter, went with the pitch and rifled it on a low, mean arc until it hit the foul pole in right for a home run. The Nationals led, 3-2, and it was as if Minute Maid Park had suffered an uppercut to the solar plexus.

Why, Hinch was asked afterward, take out a pitcher on a holy roll? Did you overthink it?

Hinch did not flinch, though his voice was thick enough to hint at pain. He was not persuaded he had moved too early; after all, Greinke had thrown more than 80 pitches and perhaps was tiring. “I didn’t leave him in,” he said. “There’s no real ifs and what-ifs and things like that.”

He said this in a way that suggested ifs were in fact running like wild horses across his brain pan.

This was a strange series. The home team never won a game. The Nationals lost all three of their games in Washington and the Astros reciprocated by losing all four of theirs. Although the seventh game was a rope pull for most of the night, the Nationals finally won by four runs, 6-2.

Max Scherzer, the quirky genius known as Mad Max and arguably the best pitcher of the past decade (he has four times led the league in wins and three times in strikeouts), had taken the mound for Washington. He was a man risen from the athletic dead.

Only four days earlier, the 35-year-old Scherzer had so strained his right trapezius muscle that he was writhing in bed, his neck and shoulder locked so tightly he needed his wife’s help to rise and get dressed.

Dave Martinez, the Nationals’ manager, is fond of talking of “his boys,” and when he saw Scherzer that day, he said he winced.

“He did not look good,” Martinez said. “Oh man, He looked like. …”

He dropped one shoulder and bent his head and gave a reasonable imitation of Lurch from “The Addams Family.”

Rallying, Scherzer took the mound on Wednesday possessed of his mid-to-high-90s velocity but stripped of his masterly control. His whipping delivery puts painful-looking torque on neck and back and he grunted on many pitches like a tennis player working a fourth-set volley at the United States Open.

He went five innings and put 11 men on base, but allowed only two of them to score. “We made him earn every out he got,” Hinch said.

This was true and beside the point. Scherzer positioned his Nationals to take advantage of any falter by the Astros.

It’s difficult to sit in a stadium, particularly in the eagle’s aerie that was the center-field bleachers, and not connect with the diverse fans who crowd on all sides of you. They swilled beer and yelled themselves hoarse and then sang along like a drunken Trapp family to “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” Then they fumbled and dropped their cellphones and asked you for assurances that sportswriters do not hate their team.

I explained that as my family is a Mets team by birthright and as the Astros had vanquished the Yankees and now were battling our Eastern Division foe, my family held the Astros in high regard. They beamed.

Alas, I had to pack up and leave in the eighth inning to prepare for postgame festivities. I looked back and the leather-lung bleacher bums now were wearing their orange rally towels on their heads like veils of mourning.

I got down to the interview room just in time to hear Hinch speak to existential fate: “It’s just our reality. This is how it is.”


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