- The Washington Times
Saturday, October 26, 2019

Nationals Park fell momentarily silent.

As Alex Bregman made contact on a pitch, the ball whistled through the air and made its way for the left-field seats. Soon, not only did the Astros star make his way to home plate, but so too did the three other Houston players on base. It was a grand slam at the worst possible moment for the Washington Nationals, and on this evening, the most predictable outcome.

Nothing went right for the Nationals in Saturday’s 8-1 Game 4 loss to the Astros, who now have tied the World Series at two games apiece. Not for Patrick Corbin, the team’s $140 million man who gave up four runs in six innings. Not for the offense, which for the second straight outing couldn’t produce with runners in scoring position. And certainly not for the bullpen, which melted down in the seventh, assuring the Nationals would be traveling back to Houston.

This is not what fans had wanted to see in the first two World Series games in the District in 86 years. In back-to-back defeats, the Nationals hardly resembled the team that took a commanding 2-0 series lead over MLB’s best regular-season team.

On Saturday, Corbin’s mistakes hurt and Bregman’s grand slam broke the game open in the seventh.

“We’ve been here pretty much all year,” manager Dave Martinez said. “So now it’s the best two out of three, right? We’ve got two of our big horses going in the next two games. We just come back.”

Those horses, of course, would be Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. One major problem over Washington’s last two defeats: The Nationals haven’t gotten dominant performances from their starting pitchers, unlike for most of the postseason. Scherzer and Strasburg could change that quickly.

Still, the Nationals can’t be satisfied after consecutive lackluster performances from Aníbal Sánchez and Corbin.

This season, Corbin found success because his slider was so effective. Before the game, Scherzer noted how the left-hander had firm control of the outside corners, which makes batters chase his slider and sinker.

But in Game 4, Corbin couldn’t locate the zone early. After an eight-pitch at-bat to strike out George Springer, the 30-year-old then gave up a first-pitch single to José Altuve. It was the start of four straight hits, two of which scored Altuve and left fielder Michael Brantley. The Astros took a patient approach, allowing Corbin to work up his pitch count.

The Nationals limited the damage. They got out of the inning when Anthony Rendon made an unassisted 5-3 double play. The National League MVP candidate had a stellar night defensively, making a number of diving stops.

When it looked like Corbin recovered and found his rhythm, the Astros soon answered back — blasting a two-run homer deep into left in the fourth. Before Houston catcher Robinson Chirinos crossed home plate, he skipped down the base line and slapped his chest to celebrate the 4-0 lead.

“The location on that pitch wasn’t where I wanted it,” Corbin said of Chirinos’ home run. “It was right down the middle. If I locate it better, it’s a different outcome.”

The Nationals, meanwhile, struggled to generate any sort of offense.

Saturday was supposed to be a “bullpen game” for the Astros. Manager A.J. Hinch declined to start ace Gerrit Cole on short rest and instead planned on using a variety of relievers to manage his way through the contest. To do so, he tapped rookie José Urquidy, who had appeared in just 4 ⅓ innings in two appearances this postseason, to start.

Urquidy, though, gave the Astros a much stronger performance than expected. The main reason? Strikes.

The 24-year-old got the Nationals to chase outside the zone. He relied primarily on a four-seam fastball, mixing in changeups, sliders and curveballs. Urquidy also baffled the Nationals’ lineup by going against his tendencies. Washington had watched film to prepare and knew what types of pitches Urquidy typically throws. Outfielder Adam Eaton, for instance, was expecting plenty of changeups, only for the rookie to go “off-script.”

When Urquidy exited after the fifth, he had allowed two hits.

“He went longer than we would have liked to have him to go,” Eaton said.

Finally, in the sixth, the Nationals showed signs of life. They drew two walks off Josh James, the second of which prompted Eaton to sprint to first instead of jog, perhaps eager for his team to start a comeback.

The Nationals then loaded the bases after Rendon singled to center, setting up a chance for Juan Soto or others to tie the game.

On the first pitch, Soto grounded out to first — though it scored Gerardo Parra. But the Nationals couldn’t manage more than that. At the next at-bat, Howie Kendrick struck out, whiffing on a 90 mph two-seamer in the middle of the plate.

The inning ended and when the Nationals returned for the seventh, the game truly got out of hand. Martinez went to reliever Tanner Rainey — a move that immediately backfired. Rainey walked his first two batters, and Martinez soon turned to 42-year-old Fernando Rodney.

That, too, was a disaster.

After loading the bases by allowing a single to Brantley, Rodney hung a fastball down in the zone for Bregman, and he sent it into the stands. 

“It’s not a bad pitch,” Rodney said. “He got good contact with the ball. That’s it.”

Until Saturday, Bregman was hitting just .208 in the postseason and an even worse .077 in the World Series. Bregman’s struggles were so pronounced that after Houston’s Game 3 win Friday, Brantley was asked what the team could do to help him.

After facing Rodney, Bregman didn’t need any help. Instead, he jogged the bases — stunning the Nationals Park crowd and making sure Houston will have at least one more home game this fall, Game 6 on Tuesday.

First, a pivotal Game 5 awaits on Sunday.

“Obviously we wanted to win these last two, and it didn’t come out our way, but we’ve been doing this all season,” Corbin said. “We’ve had losses, big losses, and have bounced back fine. Guys will be ready to go tomorrow.”

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