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The Nats Had No Max Scherzer and No Offense in Game 5—and Now May Have No Chance

Washington’s ace was a late scratch on Sunday, but he hasn’t ruled out a return for Game 7. The question now is whether his team can push the Astros to that point.

World Series - Houston Astros v Washington Nationals - Game Five Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

For the first 14 games of the Nationals’ postseason run, Davey Martinez managed to avoid the soft part of his pitching staff by using his frontline starting pitchers as often as possible, even out of the bullpen. In those 14 games, pitchers other than the team’s top four starters and two top relievers threw only 19 innings. They allowed 13 runs, which didn’t argue in favor of further work.

On Sunday, though, Martinez ran into a roadblock that he couldn’t manage around: scheduled starter Max Scherzer’s severe neck spasms. Scherzer, who’d been experiencing less severe symptoms since Friday, got treatment at the park on back-to-back days but woke up worse on Sunday. “I had to just basically fall out of bed and pick myself up with my left arm,” said Scherzer, who added that it was “literally impossible to do anything with” his right arm and that he was unable to dress without his wife’s assistance. Scherzer has suffered neck spasms before—in August 2017, he was pulled from one start, scratched from a subsequent one, and sent to the IL—but never like this. Scherzer is famous for always wanting to pitch, so no one doubted GM Mike Rizzo when he described the ace’s symptoms as “ungodly pain.”

With Scherzer down to one working arm—unfortunately for the Nationals, the left one—Martinez had to hand the ball to Joe Ross, who was added to the World Series roster after failing to make the cut for the wild-card game, the NLDS, and the NLCS. Entering Sunday, Ross’s two scoreless innings in Game 3 represented his only in-game work since September 29. On the bright side, Ross was on a roll before the postseason started: After joining the rotation for good on August 2, he recorded a 2.75 ERA in eight starts down the stretch. But a look at a larger sample exposes how huge the drop-off is from a healthy Scherzer to Ross: Of the 313 pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched from 2017-19, Scherzer’s park-adjusted ERA ranked eighth-best, and best among starters; the oft-injured Ross’s ranked 38th-worst.

Considering those stats and the circumstances on Sunday—the surprise of being pressed into service with only a day’s notice that he might be needed, any hangover effect from his two-inning outing on Friday, and the all-time-great Astros lineup he was facing—Ross wasn’t terrible. But he would have had to be almost flawless for his team to have had a chance against Astros ace Gerrit Cole, and despite several “Let’s go, Joe” chants from a supportive crowd, Ross was far from that. He allowed four runs over five innings, but the first two were enough to seal a weekend sweep. The Astros went on to take Game 5 by a score of 7-1, sending the series back to Houston with the Astros one win away from a championship.

During the regular season, Ross’s weakness was the walk, and in Game 5 he allowed one to the first hitter he faced, George Springer. Two ground balls got him out of that inning—the first hitless first inning for both sides in the series—but another grounder got him in trouble in the second, when he got a glove on a Yuli Gurriel comebacker but couldn’t field it cleanly. The next batter was Yordan Álvarez, who’d earned a start in left field after being benched in games 3 and 4 amid a postseason power outage. The time off may have helped.

“From the Astros’ perspective, he picked a terrible time for his first slump,” I wrote last week, “but one well-timed hit in the coming week could still salvage his postseason.” On Sunday, he got it. Just after the broadcast flashed a graphic about his 21-game, 71-at-bat homerless streak, Álvarez lifted a low-and-away sinker into the left-field stands for what would prove to be a game-winning two-run homer. He subsequently singled twice before being lifted for a pinch runner, and now that he seems to be back, Houston will be that much tougher to beat. Carlos Correa put the game away with another two-run homer off Ross in the fourth, and the Astros added three more runs off a well-rested Daniel Hudson in the eighth and ninth, courtesy of a Gurriel single and a two-run shot by Springer.

Cole, in what could be his last start or even outing for the Astros, was—you guessed it—great again, bouncing back from his streak-snapping defeat in Game 1. Because we’ve apparently time-traveled back to the heyday of the starting pitcher, A.J. Hinch let him hit in the top of the seventh with two outs and a runner on first, and he stayed in to allow a solo shot to Juan Soto in the bottom half of the inning, finishing the frame at 110 pitches. Soto’s homer was one of only three hits surrendered by the righty, who walked two and struck out nine. After Cole escaped a first-and-third jam with no outs in the second by striking out Ryan Zimmerman and getting Víctor Robles to ground into a double play, he kept the Nationals off the bases through the sixth, save for a fourth-inning walk to Anthony Rendon. The Nats mustered three hard-hit balls with expected batting averages over .500 in the third and fourth, but the Astros had fielders in front of them, as they so often do.

Cole induced only 13 swinging strikes, and just four on his fastball, which he had trouble commanding. After striking out at least 10 batters for the 11th consecutive start in ALDS Game 5, he’s made three straight starts without a double-digit strikeout tally for the first time all year. Cole finished Sunday’s start just short of 250 innings on the season, so perhaps he’s feeling some fatigue. During this relative strikeout dry spell, though, he’s lasted seven innings in each outing and allowed a total of six runs, which translates to a 2.57 ERA. Some slump.

The revelation that Scherzer’s status for Game 5 was in doubt over the weekend cast Martinez’s apparent lack of aggressiveness—both in failing to pinch hit for Aníbal Sánchez in Game 3 and in using Fernando Rodney rather than Sean Doolittle or Hudson in Game 4—in a slightly softer light. Martinez knew he might need extra innings from his pen on Sunday if Scherzer couldn’t go, which he acknowledged played a role in his decisions on Saturday and may have been in the back of his mind on Friday. Martinez may have stuck with Ross a little long on Sunday, too, letting him hit in the third and stay in until he was facing the top of the Astros’ order for the third time in the fifth, but he couldn’t count on more than four innings at most from pitchers he trusted, even if he’d used Sánchez for an inning in relief.

Ultimately, Martinez wasn’t the Nationals’ problem this weekend. Neither was the umpiring, although Lance Barksdale’s floating zone on Sunday didn’t help; Ross appeared to throw an 0-2 strike to Correa in the fourth, but a ball call extended the at-bat that ended in a dinger.

Even if Martinez had pulled every lever at the optimal time, Scherzer’s neck had loosened up, and more calls had gone their way, the Nats likely would have lost all three games at Nationals Park barring a better performance at the plate. During the regular season, teams that scored one run went 33-415, an .074 winning percentage. Counting the playoffs, teams that scored one run against the Astros have gone 1-31, an .031 winning percentage. (The Twins beat Justin Verlander 1-0 on April 29.) The Nationals scored only one run in each of the three games, and they never held a lead on the homestand, a bummer for the fans who’d never seen a World Series in D.C. and had few opportunities to cheer. There’s only so much a manager can do when his offense gives him almost nothing to work with. Prior to this series, the 2019 Nats had never scored fewer than four runs over any three-game span. But then they hadn’t played the Astros, either. This weekend, Washington’s buzz saw stopped spinning.

The Astros went 3-for-17 with runners in scoring position in games 1 and 2, but their bats delivered at opportune times in D.C. Whatever unclutch contagion they’d contracted in those first two contests passed to the Nationals, who went a combined 1-for-19 with runners in scoring position in games 3 and 4. Before Game 5, a reporter asked Rendon if there was a way to get those hits. Rendon gave the question the response it deserved, joking, “So we have these bats, and usually you try to square it up, and there’s a baseball, and then you hit the outfield grass and usually they’re hits.”

It sounded simple enough, but the Nats took another oh-fer with runners in scoring position on Sunday, although the bigger problem was that their hitters had only two chances to change that. Home teams are now a combined 4-for-38 with runners in scoring position in this series. Not coincidentally, the home team has yet to win.

As Baseball-Reference reported, this is only the third World Series in which the road team won games 1-5. That streak has never continued through a sixth game, and if it doesn’t this time, the series will end on Tuesday. The odds are ever in the Astros’ favor; FanGraphs and FiveThirtyEight give Houston an 80 to 85 percent chance to take the title. The good news for the Nats is that they have Stephen Strasburg going against Verlander in Game 6; with an off day on Monday, they should be able to get through that game using only Strasburg, Doolittle, Hudson, and perhaps Patrick Corbin. If they survive Game 6, all eyes will return to Scherzer, who had a cortisone shot on Sunday that doctors told him would take at least 48 hours to kick in. If Scherzer can get out of bed, get dressed, and move his arm on Wednesday, he’d get the Game 7 nod against Zack Greinke; if not, Sánchez would start instead. As they face elimination for the third time this October, the Nats would be fortunate to make it that far.