The World Series leaves Washington more interesting than how it arrived

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·MLB columnist
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WASHINGTON — In the waning moments of Sunday night, the people left for the corner bar across the street, perhaps for the Metro station or a parking lot, somewhere away from here, the World Series about to up and leave with them.

Three days of baseball had passed in the Navy Yards, three days a few of them had waited 86 years to witness, and when Howie Kendrick was out at first base at the end they’d not seen a win, not seen as much as a lead, not seen but a few chances for either.

The baseball soul that had taken decades to reroot here has its shot at glory still. A couple wins is all. A long flight and a day to themselves and a date, at first, with Justin Verlander, and those couple wins.

A World Series that never had to leave here, as the Washington Nationals had returned Friday afternoon having already won the first two games in Houston, left here having assumed an entirely different character. They hadn’t challenged the Houston Astros as much as they’d pissed them off.

At Nationals Park, the weather was great. The beer was cold. They’d sung fun songs together. They’d booed umps and Trumps. They’d turned their caps inside out and bucked up when their best pitcher went down hours before his start and then, somewhere on the long shuffle out, perhaps realized they might have seen the last of this edition of the Nationals, of a long summer of inspiring baseball, of potential free agents Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg, of an exceptionally cool ballclub. They waved goodbye. They prayed for a parade. And, as at the end of any long weekend, wondered where the time went.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 27:  Joe Ross #41 of the Washington Nationals reacts after allowing a two-run home run to Carlos Correa #1 of the Houston Astros during the fourth inning in Game Five of the 2019 World Series at Nationals Park on October 27, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Joe Ross allowed four earned runs in five innings after starting for the injured Max Scherzer. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

In fact, in order to find a fanbase, a franchise, with higher hopes that ultimately were drowned by the actual results of the baseball games, you’d have to go back, like, five days.

The Houston Astros had lost twice at home, had otherwise stomped on their tongues, and had the look of a squad that would underachieve for a second consecutive October. They won the next three games by a cumulative score of 19-3, including Game 5 by 7-1, and so George Springer, their outfielder, was asked what it was they’d done on the off day to rediscover their best game.

“We played beach volleyball,” he said.

“Really?” the reporter gushed.

“No,” he said.

They put some balls in play. They won a lot of at-bats, both sides of the ball. They brought back Gerrit Cole, who went seven strong Sunday night. They watched Jose Altuve raise his series batting average to .360, and Michael Brantley his to .400 and, in Game 5, they hit three more home runs. They won the moments, which sounds goofy and hackneyed unless you saw them lose most of them in Houston, and up next to each other the contrast was startling. In Game 3, they took a lead in the second inning and did not relinquish it. In Game 4, in the first inning. In Game 5, the second inning.

That’s some foot-on-neck stuff, especially while playing from behind.

“The confidence comes from the success that we’ve had,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “We feel like we’re in every game. We’ve had games where we’ve come from behind. We’ve had games where we’ve stretched the lead. We’ve had games like today where we just methodically kept going with big swings and we look up and we have a comfortable win.

“We took a pretty heavy punch in the gut when it came to the first two games. The Nats came out hot. … And when you take a step back, and you’re like, ‘We’re still in the World Series and it’s still a race to four wins.’ You win that first win.”

In the midst of that came the news, learned hours before Sunday night’s first pitch, that the Astros would not face Max Scherzer, but Joe Ross. A series that was, from Game 5 on, to measure its momentum in the width of a fungo bat, in the breadth of an injury report, Scherzer could not go because of neck spasms.

“Let’s go Joe!” the people shouted again and again, sensing if there was to be a happy ending, Joe would need some help.

“Let’s go Joe!”

Joe Ross, 26, the former first-round draft pick, traded at 21 to the Nationals from the San Diego Padres, had not had a remarkable career. He suffered injuries and set-backs and in the summer of 2017 endured Tommy John surgery. For parts of five seasons he pitched in the major leagues and in each of the past three — over 64 innings in the past season — had an ERA above 5. He was not on the rosters of the Nationals’ wild-card win or the division and league championship series. By Sunday night he’d thrown two competitive innings in a month. In his only previous postseason start, three years ago in Los Angeles, he got eight outs and allowed four runs.

In the late afternoon, Dave Martinez, manager of the Nationals, had walked into his regular pregame news conference and said, “Before we get started, I want everybody to know that Max will not start today.”

The room chewed on that piece of series-altering drama. As it did, Martinez continued, “So Joe Ross will start today.”

Washington Nationals catcher Yan Gomes, left, and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman watch during the ninth inning of Game 5 of the baseball World Series against the Houston Astros Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
The Washington Nationals scored just three runs in their three World Series games at home. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The city, those in curly W caps and red tees, had 3 1/2 hours to pass through grief’s seven stages, or three or four of them at minimum, and when at 7:39 ET a long and lean figure climbed the stairs of the first-base dugout and strolled toward the right-field corner, tens of thousands of people began to plead, “Let’s go Joe! Let’s go Joe!”

The coming innings on a pitcher’s mound shared with Cole, the crowd seemed to decide, would have to be part Joe Ross acumen, part Dave Martinez intuition and part outside inspiration, which is where the fans came in. The first pitch of the game — a 95-mph strike to Springer — brought them to their feet with a roar, along with further encouragement/insistence, “Let’s go Joe.”

When the home runs came — Yordan Alvarez in the second inning, Carlos Correa in the fourth — and the deficit was 2-0 and then 4-0, the chants from the bleachers to the luxury boxes continued, somewhat muted. And when Martinez rode Ross into a fifth inning, in spite of the growing score and the top of the Astros’ lineup drawing near, Washington D.C. did not gripe, did not groan, did not wonder if its manager had lost his mind.

The boos it had saved for the sitting president, so much so the people here had little left for a game staggering toward defeat. They’d waited 86 years for a World Series game here, got three of them, and lost them all, the last when their ace had to be helped into his shirt by his wife and then was scratched from his start.

“As far as baseball goes, seems like something small happens and later in the at-bat it becomes something big,” Ross said of a lost battle with Correa in the fourth inning, but he might also have addressed the story of a series that has twice appeared close to over.

It remains alive, turns out, and leaves here a little more interesting than how it arrived. So maybe it wasn’t such a bad time after all.

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