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Houston Astros’ Carlos Correa scores past Washington Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki on a single by Josh Reddick during the second inning of Game 3 of the baseball World Series Friday, Oct. 25, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

The World Series came to Washington on Friday night. Unfortunately, so did the Houston Astros.

For those solely interested in whether the Washington Nationals become world champions, which seemed to be roughly 99 percent of a crowd of 43,867 that appeared to be in its seats before breakfast, this was bad news.

Houston won Game 3, 4-1, pecking away for 10 hits off Aníbal Sánchez, to avoid the disaster of a three-game deficit. Jose Altuve, Astros star and emblem, had a pair of doubles and scored twice and the Astros bullpen stifled the Nats over the last four-plus innings.

Just the Astros doing typically efficient and suffocating Astros things. And little fun at all for D.C. which waited 86 years to find out that while their Nats are leading in this World Series, they’re also in a battle now.

However, for those who anticipated a long, complex strategy-filled World Series between two roughly equal teams – the Astros supremely dominant all season, but the Nats quite comparable for the past five months – this night gave promise of a dramatic World Series, complete with dicey decision-making, that is starting to unfold. In other words, purists who love good baseball, and lots of it, are suddenly happy, fie on them.

In Game 1, the Nats made a strategic gamble, but perhaps an unavoidable one given their lack of bullpen depth, by using $140 million free agent lefty Patrick Corbin to pitch an important inning of relief when Max Scherzer left after five innings and 112 pitches. Calling on the willing Corbin helped patch together the last 12 vital bullpen outs in a one-run victory.

But it also pushed Corbin, an elite starting pitcher in his prime, back from a Game 3 start, and possibly one in a Game 7 if necessary, too, into just one certain start in Game 4. The Astros are loaded with right-handed hitters and like facing most lefties. But does that mean they’d enjoy facing a southpaw like Corbin who was fourth in the NL in strikeouts (238) and eighth in ERA (3.25)?

For the Nats, that decision to have Corbin, “spikes on,” for use in Game 1 or 2, or even both in relief, was a double-edged issue.

The first part of the tradeoff was to trust Sánchez, 35, with a much larger role. Sánchez’s career was considered finished two years ago, but he and personal catcher Kurt Suzuki studied analytics and rearranged the priorities in his six-pitch old-guy arsenal to emphasize cutters, not fastballs, and slow curves and changeups, and fewer sliders in big spots.

Sometimes, when Sánchez command is sharp, he can produce marvels, like having a no-hitter for 7 2/3 innings in his win over St. Louis in Game 1 of the NLCS. But the Cards are a mediocre hitting team. The Astros are elite. In Game 3, Sánchez lasted 5 1/3 innings, but Houston peppered him for 10 hits and four runs while Fernando Rodney stranded two men he left on base.

A spectacular leaping catch in center field by Victor Robles saved a run in the first inning. The overall impression was that if this World Series goes to a Game 7 in Houston, it will be a nervous night for Nationals with all pitching arms on deck. Sánchez might start but with a much shorter leash than he had in Game 3 when Manager Dave Martinez allowed the no-hit, no-bunt Sánchez to bat -and strike out ineffectually– with the speedy Robles on third and only one out, Houston ahead just 2-1. If there is a next time, call a Shark.

Luckily, for the Nats, there is another side to the Sánchez-Corbin double-edged pitching blase. The Astros glaring weakness, since the implosion of lefty Wade Miley in September (16.67 ERA in five starts), is the absence of a fourth starter. Ironically, both Miley and Sánchez were under consideration by the Nats in signing a free agent last winter.

On Saturday night, the Astros, who have a strong, deep bullpen, will be forced to patch together a “bullpen game” while facing Corbin, who is one of the Nats Big Three.

If Corbin does well and the Nats win to take control of this World Series, one of the hidden plot line will be that Washington built a rotation deep enough that it could flip Corbin and Sánchez around in this Series and remain functional, while also getting a useful start from Sánchez in the NLDS and a brilliant one in the NLCS.

“This time worked out pretty well for us being able to throw Game 1 and then having three full days off,” said Corbin before Game 3. “Being available for Game 2 worked out great –not getting in. . .I didn’t throw at all. So, I was able to do my same routine.

“Everything feels great, ready to go.”

Game 4 will be a true crisis for the Astros because three-games-to-one holes are tough to escape even if your next two match-ups would be brilliant Gerritt Cole and Justin Verlander against three-time Cy Young winner Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, this year’s leading NL winner (18-8).

But it will also be deadly serious business for the Nats, too. Postseason history shows that if you are able to gain the huge advantage of a two-game lead on the other team’s field, then don’t let them get even at two-to-two and know that they’ll get to go back home.

After their six-day layoff after the NLCS, the Nats appear to have regained their hitting timing -if they ever lost it. They’re getting their hits. But, like many teams in their first World Series, they seem to be feeling their nerves more at home, where there is an intense desire to please the fans who adore them, rather than the dashing desperado attitude of a hot team, winners of 18 of 20 going into Friday night, that wants to go into a hostile ballpark and rip off victories that demoralize both their foes and the struck-silent rival crowds.

Juan Soto, on his 21st birthday, seemed especially effected. Maybe having the leftfield stands sing “Happy Birthday,” to which he doffed his cap, just increased his desire to please. After grounding out impatiently on a knee-high first-pitch slow curve from Zack Greinke -an unnecessary swing-to end the first and strand a man in scoring position, Soto also made too uncharacteristic blunders in leftfield. This, remember, is a second-year player, new to leftfield in ’18, who this week was named one of the three finalists for a Gold Glove in leftfield.

In the second inning, Soto charged an RBI bloop single by Josh Reddick and launched a throw to the plate -probably pointless anyway-that soared over the catcher, the pitcher backing up and slammed the box seat wall as Reddick took second base. Next inning, he over-anxiously bobbled away a routine Jose Altuve double into the corner –giving Altuve third base and himself an error.

Just as worrisome, since exceptionally hot teams sometimes go collectively cold, was the impatient hitting with runners in scoring position, a Nats strength this October. Until now, it’s been the Astros whose hitting in the clutch has been far below their norm through the whole playoffs.

Once with two on and no out, and once with a man on first and no outs, the usually selective Anthony Rendon flew out weakly against Greinke on the first pitch he saw -neither a fat hitter’s pitch.

While we’re getting all the grungy stuff out of the way at once, the heretofore amazingly healthy Nats saw Trea Turner lay near the plate in pain for several minutes after fouling a ball off his leg. Catcher Kurt Suzuki, who battled shoulder problems in September, left in midgame -for a pinch-hitter, but also after being seen by the trainer on the field in the previous inning. Suzuki, who tries to limit the number of max-throws he makes in a game had made three of his hardest peg to second base -one of them wild for an error– in unsuccessful attempts to stop Astro thieves. to try to stop base stealers.

Make no mistake, the World Series has come to Washington, and celebrations, jammed streets, chanting fans and general red-clad Nationals joy now rules the happy city. But the Astros have arrived, too, fresh off a shape-up-this-ship team meeting in Houston after Game 2.

Just as the Nats modest motto for this year became #StayInTheFight, the Astros for the whole year has been #TakeItBack. You see (everyone in MLB knows this), the Astros aspire to the kind of We’re-Just-Better hauteur familiar to Yankee follwoers. Houston won the World Series in ’17 -their first ever-and want to give the impression that was just a one year mistake and an MLB title is something that they can just “Take Back” because it’s sort of theirs.

Saturday’s Corbin vs. the bullpen matchup in Game 4 may not seem like some high-dudgeon battle. But it should be viewed that. It’s Finish the Fight vs. Take It Back. Yes, in the World Series each game just counts as one. But this is a BIG one.


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