The Washington Nationals have completed remarkable feat after remarkable feat in the past month. They qualified for the playoffs despite starting the season 19-31. They came back against Josh Hader in the eighth inning of the wild-card game. They came back against Clayton Kershaw in the eighth inning of Game 5 of the NLDS. They swept the Cardinals in the next round, never trailing in the entire series.
And yet, it’s possible that none of those feats was quite as remarkable as that which the Nationals accomplished on Tuesday in Houston: They beat Gerrit Cole, and they beat the Astros 5-4, and they now lead the World Series one game to zero. Houston may have been the largest Vegas favorite since the 2007 Red Sox against Colorado, but Washington has already bested those Rockies—not only winning a game, but winning the first game, and shifting the advantage with just a few key plays.
To do so, they needed to score against Cole, which seemed like the most challenging task on a baseball diamond that anyone could imagine. Through three postseason starts, all wins, Cole had allowed just one run in 22 2/3 innings, during which time he struck out 32 batters and allowed only 10 hits. And in his final 22 starts in the regular season before that, he’d gone 16-0 without ever allowing more than four runs in a start, and only once allowing more hits than strikeouts.
Tuesday’s game thus started as expected. Cole surrendered an infield single to Trea Turner but retired the next three Nationals in quick succession, including three-pitch strikeouts of Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto back to back. And in the bottom of the first, when Yuli Gurriel doubled in two Astro runs off a high Max Scherzer fastball, Cole gained the only advantage he seemingly needed to win Game 1. Gurriel’s double bumped the Astros’ objective win probability up to 72 percent, but with Cole on the mound, it felt as good as 100.
But Ryan Zimmerman cut the deficit in half in the second, launching a home run to center field in his first World Series at-bat, and two innings later, Soto avenged himself of the first-inning strikeout, sending a Cole fastball 417 feet to the opposite field. That homer ran Soto’s list of achievements this month to: game-winning hit off Hader, game-tying hit off Kershaw, game-tying hit off Cole. And he wasn’t done yet.
Soto’s next trip to the plate produced even more runs, in an even higher-leverage situation. It was the top of the fifth, and the bottom of Washington’s lineup had put rare traffic on the bases against Cole. No. 8 hitter Kurt Suzuki led off with a walk, and no. 9 man Víctor Robles dinked a single to right. After a flyout, Adam Eaton singled in Suzuki, giving the Nationals a 3-2 lead, and Soto opened the advantage even further by besting Cole again.
In a full count, Cole spun a slider toward the lower outside corner of the strike zone, but Soto wasn’t fooled—he waited on the pitch and directed it toward the left-field wall. It bashed off the scoreboard with a clatter, scored two more runs, and officially gave Cole his worst start since May.
Those two runs proved crucial as the game progressed. Washington didn’t score again, as Cole completed seven innings and Will Harris and Joe Smith combined for two scoreless frames from the bullpen. (Only one batter reached against the Houston relievers: Soto, of course, via a single against Harris.) Meanwhile, the Astros lineup spent the night stressing Washington’s pitchers, collecting more walks and hits than the D.C. batters.
Scherzer kept the scoreboard clean after the two-run first, but he sweated through the rest of his outing. Houston placed a runner on base in the second, then two in the third, then another two in the fourth—and each time, Scherzer escaped, but not before ballooning his pitch count to worrisome heights. Even when not reaching base, the Astros made Scherzer work, spoiling two-strike pitches with foul balls and working full count after full count. The Nationals ace needed 112 pitches to traverse only five innings—the first pitcher to reach those numbers in a playoff start since CC Sabathia in 2007.
Washington manager Davey Martinez was forced to turn to his rickety bullpen earlier than desired. Projected Game 3 starter Patrick Corbin threw a scoreless sixth inning in relief, but once the real relievers entered, Houston immediately demonstrated just how dangerous this matchup will prove all series long. George Springer greeted hard-throwing Tanner Rainey with a home run, and after two walks, ostensible Nats closer Daniel Hudson had to enter early to clean up Rainey’s mess. In the eighth, Hudson himself faced trouble, surrendering a single and Springer double, which cut the lead to 5-4 and placed the potential tying run in scoring position.
Martinez called on his last semi-trustworthy reliever, and Sean Doolittle finally settled the Nationals’ nerves, inducing an inning-ending flyout then tossing a 1-2-3 ninth inning to secure the win. The game began about as poorly as possible for Washington—an early deficit and an exhausting start for Scherzer, an animated home crowd, an unbeatable pitcher in the opposing dugout. Yet the Nationals won anyway, because just about every metric that had defined Cole’s recent run slid away in this start. He allowed five runs. He allowed more hits (eight) than he had strikeouts (six). He whiffed less than one batter per inning for the first time in 13 starts.
And while Houston’s star hitters largely failed to deliver in clutch situations—Houston was 3-for-12 overall with runners in scoring position, leaving 11 men on base—Soto came through multiple times for Washington. He has now victimized three All-Star pitchers with four game-changing hits this postseason, and all at the tender age of 20. Only three younger players have ever homered in the World Series, and only two younger players have ever driven in as many runs in a World Series game. None has ever conquered a pitcher as supremely dominant as Cole.
He’ll have the chance to battle yet another All-Star hurler in Game 2, when Justin Verlander takes the mound with a sterling postseason track record of his own. But the balance of power in the series will have tilted come Wednesday night—now, the Nationals lead 1-0, with a chance to steal both games on the road before returning to their home park. Fortunes can change in an instant in a short series, and they seem to change even more dramatically when Soto steps to the plate.