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Around the Horn

Game 1: Surprising, yet as expected

Hey, that was fun, wasn't it?

2019WS

Game 1 of the World Series, a 5-4 victory by the Washington Nationals over the host Houston Astros, looked like it would be a tight, tense affair with ace pitchers Max Scherzer and Gerrit Cole taking center stage, and so it was—just not in a way that gave the imagined 1-0, 2-1 sort of final score.

Instead, Scherzer—who threw more pitches in this game than he had in any single start since June 30, when he lasted eight full innings and struck out 14—was down 2-0 in the first inning and barely made it through five frames. And Cole, while good, was not exactly Gerrit Cole-like in that he only struck out six in seven innings and served up not one, but two impressive home runs (solo shots by Ryan Zimmerman and Juan Soto) after a regular season that saw him surrender very few (10th-fewest per nine innings among AL pitchers, or 0.13 HR per IP). 

If you knew ahead of time that Scherzer was only going to last five innings and throw 112 pitches, you'd probably predict an easy win for Houston, right? The Nats' bullpen is their weak link and Cole was riding a 25-game undefeated streak. But no. Washington broke through against the seemingly unbeatable Cole, plating three in the 5th inning to give just enough cushion for their ulcer-inducing relief corps to finish things off. Manager Dave Martínez so mistrusts his middle relief that he brought in likely Game 3 starter Patrick Corbin for an inning and bucked conventional wisdom by (smartly, I think) using his closer, Daniel Hudson, to get out of a jam in the seventh when Tanner Rainey got into trouble—homer, out, walk, walk—and taking a chance that the 8th an 9th would be smoother and survive a less consistent arm.

That the bullpen had to come into play so early is partly because of home plate umpire Alan Porter. Porter's inconsistency on close pitches clearly added to Scherzer's already overamped anxiousness and cost him a lot of throws—if the first, Scherzer, who rarely walks anyone, walked leadoff man George Springer on a seven-pitch sequence of which only one was truly out of the strike zone and one other excusably borderline. Not only would Springer come around to score, but Scherzer would be victimized by ball calls on several more strike-worthy pitches throughout his five frames, adding to his pitch count and likely shaving at least another inning off his game. To be fair, Porter also did this to Cole, perhaps shortening his game as well, but Astro fans are less likely to have cardiac episodes when their club's middle relief is called upon.

So: Tight game? Check. Impressive pitching from Scherzer and Cole? Check, but stressful pitching instead of the free-and-easy dominance they're known for. Shaky Washington relievers? Check. As expected. Even the solo homers don't buck the projection really, you just don't expect them off of Cole. They were each somewhat historic homers, too: Zimmerman became the 37th payer to belt a home run in his first-ever World Series at-bat and the oldest to homer in his first WS game; Soto is now the second-youngest to belt one in his first WS game (Andruw Jones was a year-and-a-half younger when he hit one in the first game of the 1996 WS) and tied for third-youngest (with Mickey Mantle) to hit one in any WS game; and Springer's solo shot in the 7th gave him home runs in his fifth consecutive World Series game, breaking the record he previously shared with Reggie Jackson and Lou Gehrig. I don't have numbers for it, but Soto's surely was among the longest bombs ever hit in Minute Maid Park, hitting the back window above left-center field and ricocheting onto the top of the wall containing the railroad track. (By the way, what is it with the train in Houston? Why a train? Is Houston known for trains and I just never knew it?) Had the roof been open, it would have left the building.

It was fun. Bring on Game 2.

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