October 27, 2019
A great first game. A good second one until it got silly in the late innings. A decent contest, if not a really exciting one, in Game 3. And two snoozers.
Games 4 and 5 of the World Series were exercises in frustration both for Nationals fans and for we who like our baseball full of strategy and intrigue. Game 4 in particular seemed to be over early, as the score was 4-0 Houston before Washington even mounted a threat in the sixth inning. And then the seventh was nightmarish—a familiar one to us Mariner fans that lived through the 1990s and endured Seattle bullpens full of gasoline and matches—with Astro third baseman Alex Bregman tagging The Fernando Rodney Experience for a grand slam to really put the game away. The Nats should have had an easy time with Game 4 as the Astros were continuing their bizarre plan of having bullpen games in the postseason, but this Urquidy guy just cruised and shut Washington down much like a recalcitrant Congress exceeding a budget deadline. Maddening for Nats fans, boring for fans of exciting games.
Then tonight, Game 5. Supposed to be a rematch of Game 1, aces for both squads, but instead Max Scherzer woke up with a painful trapezius and our exciting pitchers' duel suddenly looked like a weapons-grade mismatch. Gerrit Cole couldn't possibly lose without facing a Scherzer-level opponent, right? As it turns out, right. Cole was great. Nats fill-in Joe Ross was fine, but fine isn't enough against Cole, and once again it was 4-0 Houston before you knew it; only with Cole, 4-0 felt like 12-0. Washington might scratch out one or two, but four? Juan Soto gave them one with a homer that barely cleared the fence, but Houston got it right back and George Springer capped it off with a ninth-inning two-run bomb of his own. 7-1 Astros and what had looked like a sure Washington upset now heads back to Texas with the Astros firmly in the pilot's seat.
The home-plate umpiring in this series has been abysmal. Every game has seen a different HP ump call balls strikes and strikes balls, often at critical moments, as when Victor Robles was rung up on a 3-2 pitch that was further outside than a similar pitch that had been called ball two earlier in the at-bat. Calling the first one a ball and the last one a strike is indefensible. Call them both one or the other, and I'm OK with it. Call the first one a strike and the last one a ball and I'm OK with it (the earlier one was close enough to call even though it was off the black). But this was a key moment, the Nats were rallying for really the only time in the game and had that call been correct, Robles would have gone to first base and Yan Gomes, who's been kind of hot, would be up representing the tying run. It wasn't quite a Don Denkinger moment (the Nats weren't close to the win yet), but it had that air about it.
At an earlier point in the game, Gomes had some words with Lance Barksdale, tonight's home-plate ump, captured on camera. Barksdale had called a 2-2 pitch to Michael Brantley ball three even though the pitch was well within the lower third of the strike zone. In response to Gomes' questioning, Barksdale replied that Gomes had anticipated a strike call early and started to head for the dugout, to which Gomes could be seen to say, "so it's my fault [that you screwed us there]?" Manager Dave Martínez risked an ejection by yelling out to Barksdale, "wake up, this is the World Series."
Cole was none too happy with Barksdale either, several times not getting a strike on a close pitch and saying "Come on, man," or words to that effect after the call was made. Juan Soto had a strike called on the first pitch of his ninth-inning at-bat and while getting set for the next pitch realized what happened and turned to Barksdale, confusion on his face, and could be seen to say, "that was a strike?"
And that was just Game 5. Games 1-4 weren't much better, ball-strike-umping-wise.
I'm not one of those clamoring for computerized ball-strike umpiring, I like the human element and, yes, the occasional screw-up that entails. But this is getting out of hand. Even Eric Gregg was consistent about calling egregious strikes three inches outside. Now it seems impossible to know from one batter to the next—one pitch to the next in Robles case tonight—if the pitcher will get the call on a pitch nicking the black or if the batter has to protect not just the plate on a 3-2 count, but a few inches into the opposite batter's box too. Were things better in the old days, or was it just that we didn't have the tech to confirm when the calls were wrong before? I sure don't remember Dutch Rennert being this fickle.
The road team has now won the first five games of this World Series, something that has only happened twice before: 1906 and 1996. In 1906 it was arguably less of an issue as both teams were local (Cubs vs. White Sox), and, well, it was just the third World Series ever. ’96 it was the Yankees hosting the Braves. On both occasions, the road-team-wins streak snapped in Game 6, with the team that lost the first two at home capping their victory with four straight wins. 1996 had the same scenario we will see in Game 6 of 2019, a rematch of Game 2 starters: Then it was Greg Maddux and Jimmy Key, with Key somehow besting the statistically-far superior Maddux; on Tuesday it will be Stephen Strasburg and Justin Verlander. Should Strasburg and the Nats prevail, it will be a World Series first, a road win in six consecutive WS games.
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