Nationals manager Dave Martinez said playing the Astros for the first time since the 2019 World Series brought back memories this weekend.
“It’s fun knowing what both teams went through that year, and we both played in the World Series together,” Martinez said Sunday, before Washington’s 8-0 loss to Houston. “Those memories never go away.”
But more important than the memories is the sense that 2019 feels too long ago. Having a team capable of winning a World Series is, in fact, just a memory for the Nationals — and a goal that will likely take multiple seasons to achieve again.
Two-and-a-half years since Washington’s Game 7 win over Houston clinched the franchise’s first championship, the two clubs have gone in opposite directions. The Astros are still one of the best teams in baseball, while the Nationals have slipped into the cellar and are rebuilding.
Houston made it to the ALCS one year after losing the World Series to the Nationals and returned to the Fall Classic in 2021. But the Astros, who won a championship in 2017 after enduring a nearly decade-long rebuild, fell to the Braves last year in six games.
“They’re a good team,” Nationals starting pitcher Patrick Corbin said. “They’ve shown it this whole series here and throughout the course of the season. They’re a patient, veteran ball club.”
While Houston has continued its success, that doesn’t mean it’s been all sunshine. The 2020 sign-stealing scandal tarnished the reputation of the organization and many of its players. No player has gotten it worse than second baseman Jose Altuve, who received a chorus of boos from Nationals fans each time he stepped to the plate Sunday.
The Nationals, meanwhile, haven’t gone to the postseason since their improbable championship run, compiling a 103-155 record. The organization has been in rebuild mode since last summer when general manager Mike Rizzo shipped off several of the team’s top players in exchange for prospects.
The series wasn’t just a rematch of the 2019 World Series, but also a reunion as Astros manager Dusty Baker returned to Nationals Park for the first time since the club didn’t renew his contract following the 2018 season.
“I had great memories here,” Baker said before the series began. “For a two-year period, this is probably as good of a period as I’ve had anywhere.”
Earlier this season, Baker became the 12th manager in major league history to win 2,000 games.
The juxtaposition of the two franchises was clear Sunday afternoon in the Astros’ rubber-match win. Houston improved to 23-12 to remain in first place in the AL West, while Washington fell to 12-24 — the second-worst record in the major leagues.
Justin Verlander took a no-hitter into the fifth, and Houston’s bats knocked in eight runs in the final five frames.
Despite a high pitch count that ended Verlander’s day after just five innings, the veteran right-hander was superb, allowing no runs and just two hits with five strikeouts. Verlander, who won the 2019 Cy Young Award with the Astros, is having a resurgent season at 39 years old after missing the entire 2021 campaign and throwing just six innings in 2020 due to elbow injuries.
Corbin matched Verlander through four innings with zeroes of his own. But the expensive Nationals southpaw gave up home runs in each of the next three frames for his sixth loss of the season. Corbin is tied with fellow Nationals starter Joan Adon and two other pitchers for the MLB lead with six losses.
“Not when you step in between the lines, you’re focused on that game no matter who your opponent is,” Corbin said when asked if he had any flashbacks to the 2019 World Series when pitching against the Astros Sunday. Corbin was the winning pitcher in Game 7 after throwing three innings in relief.
“We do think about 2019 sometimes,” Corbin added. “But usually when you’re out there on the field, you’re just trying to do your job.”
Martin Maldonado’s two-run long ball to left-center field — a 423-foot slam off a pitch that was right down the heart of the plate — put the Astros up 2-0 in the fifth. Yuli Gurriel then hit a solo shot in the sixth, and Chas McCormick ended Corbin’s day with a two-run homer in the seventh. Corbin allowed six hits and five runs while punching out five batters in six innings.
The Astros added two more runs off reliever Austin Voth in the seventh. After giving up three straight singles, Voth walked Alex Bregman with the bases loaded and allowed another run on a Yordan Alvarez double play. Altuve then silenced the boos with a solo homer in the ninth.
Rafael Montero, Ryne Stanek and Bryan Abreu each followed Verlander with shutout innings to blank the Nationals. Washington tallied just four hits a day after putting up 14 hits in a 13-6 win on Saturday.
The Nationals are on the road this week, starting Monday with a three-game series against the Miami Marlins.
• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at email@example.com.
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