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‘Let’s get our swagger back’: How the Astros took control of the World Series

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The Astros’ absurdly talented players (and there are a lot of them) are coming through for them in the World Series.

WASHINGTON D.C. — A home team has yet to win a game in the 2019 World Series. The Astros will have two tries to break that trend as they head back to Houston needing just one win for their second championship in three years.

Though the Astros leading the Fall Classic three games to two seemed like a probable outcome heading into the series, the path to the drivers seat was anything but clear.

Game 5 gave us a vintage performance from Gerrit Cole, who struck out nine in his seven innings, and allowed only one run. It was a marked improvement from his loss in Game 1, which was essentially Cole’s only bad start in the last five months.

Cole was arguably the best pitcher in the majors during the season (his closest challenger was perhaps teammate Justin Verlander, and oh by the way he’s starting Game 6 on Tuesday). This postseason, Cole has been even stingier, with a 1.72 ERA and 47 strikeouts, the latter figure tied for the second-most in any single postseason.

Counting the regular season and postseason together, Cole’s 373 strikeouts in 2019 are the fifth-most in any year in baseball history.

That Cole is dominating October is not much of a surprise. We expect great players to perform like great players, and the Astros sure have a lot of them.

A roster full of stars

The Astros won 107 games during the regular season, the best record in baseball and their third straight year with triple-digit victories. They had the best run differential (+280), and adjusted for park and league, they also had the best offense (125 wRC+, 119 OPS+), pitching (127 ERA+), and defense (turning batted balls into outs 72.9 percent of the time).

Houston was the best in baseball because it has the best collection of players.

Sometimes they struggle, like Alex Bregman, who was 4-for-31 without a hit with runners in scoring position for a nine-game stretch starting with the ALCS. He broke out with three hits, including a backbreaking grand slam, in Game 4.

In Game 5, 22-year-old rookie Yordan Alvarez made the most of his first start in the field in eight weeks. The Astros’ usual designated hitter was a reserve for the first two games in Washington in part because his outfield defense is bad, but also because he was just 10-for-49 this postseason, hitting .204/.278/.265 with no home runs and one RBI.

Alvarez hit .313/.412/.655 in his debut season. He had 27 home runs despite playing just over half a season. If he’s not the unanimous AL Rookie of the Year, there might need to be an investigation. He wasn’t going to be held down forever. And with Cole, a strikeout pitcher, on the mound, Houston could put Alvarez in left field and not have to worry too much about his defense.

“I didn’t want to go three games without having his bat in the lineup for multiple at-bats,” manager A.J. Hinch said Sunday.

The move paid off handsomely. Alvarez opened the scoring with a two-run home run, one of his three hits in as many at-bats.

Carlos Correa, who was limited to just 75 games during the regular season thanks to back discomfort and a fractured rib, still hit .279/.358/.568 with 21 home runs. He had been at .161/.242/.321 this October, but he homered in Game 5 to push the Nationals closer to elimination.

Ditto George Springer, who was hitting .177/.282/.339 in the postseason before Game 5, where he hit a double and a home run, the latter his seventh in 12 career World Series games. Springer is a three-time All-Star who hit .292/.383/.591 with 39 home runs this season.

Being down 2-0 in the World Series was a wake-up call for the Astros. An airplane conversation between Correa and his fellow middle infield star, Jose Altuve (who, by the way, is two hits shy of a single postseason record), encapsulated the situation.

“‘We’re getting hits and we’re not even getting hyped up. We’re scoring runs and it feels like a regular game. This is the World Series. This is the last series of the season. We need to play like it. We need to give everything we’ve got,’” Correa recalled telling Altuve. “‘Then after the series is over we’re going to be exhausted but we got three months to rest and then show up to spring training.

“‘Let’s get our swagger back. Let’s play hard. Let’s play with passion. Let’s play like we want it.’”

The Astros’ swagger is possible because of the abundance of talent they have amassed. No matter how much some of them may have been kept quiet this postseason, shutting down enough Astros players to win a playoff series is a Herculean task. The Nationals are finding this out the hard way.

Did I mention that in addition to their All-Star talent, the Astros are getting contributions from some unheralded stars as well? It’s not hard to see why they lead this World Series.

The Nationals bubble bursting

Max Scherzer getting scratched from his Sunday start with a nerve injury in his neck was a crushing blow for the Nationals. Though the Nationals Park crowd did their best to encourage fill-in starter Joe Ross — he was serenaded with multiple pregame ovations, and a series of “Let’s go, Joe” chants by the loudest crowd of the weekend — he wasn’t quite up to the job. Ross gave manager Dave Martinez the five innings he wanted, and his 78 pitches fell well within the expected range, but a pair of two-run home runs allowed was all the Astros needed.

The middle three games illustrated just how tenuous Washington’s pitching plan has been throughout the postseason. Before the World Series, the Nationals essentially consolidated their staff to six pitchers. Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, Sean Doolittle, and Daniel Hudson threw 90 percent of their innings.

Such a plan is easy to make work when you’re sweeping teams, as the Nationals did in the NLCS. Hell, it looked like a sweep was even possible in this World Series after the Nationals captured the first two games in Houston. Those aforementioned six pitchers threw 14⅔ of the 18 innings in Houston.

But they only pitched 14 of the 27 innings at home. The two primary relievers — Doolittle and Hudson — didn’t get on the mound until the seventh inning of Game 5, after the Nationals trailed by four runs.

The Nationals lost all three games at home, which means the road team has won all five games, matching the record for a single World Series. This is the third time road wins have happened in the first five games of a Fall Classic. The other two times it happened — 1906 (White Sox over Cubs) and 1996 (Yankees over Braves) — the home team snapped the streak to close out the championship in Game 6.

On Tuesday, we’ll either see a World Series record, or a new champion crowned.