HOUSTON — The second-to-last baseball game of 2019 came buried in a nest of neck veins and stretched-out jerseys, bulged eyes and protestations, in the right arm of Stephen Strasburg and on the bat barrel of Anthony Rendon.
Justin Verlander lost another World Series game and the road team won for the sixth time in the series and Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez was removed from the game because he protested in ways both semi-official and vulgar, and amid it all Max Scherzer, scratched from Sunday’s game because of a neck injury and tentatively scheduled for Wednesday’s game, warmed up in Tuesday’s game, just in case.
This was the chaos that led finally to Game 7, Wednesday night at Minute Maid Park, that and misdialed or unanswered phones, that and batters hauling their bats all the way to first base, that and a quick primer not on what batters should — or should not — have in their hands when they arrive at first base, but the path by which any batter should arrive there.
In the end, World Series Game 6 showed a convincing outcome: Nationals 7, Houston Astros 2. And what it set up is the simplest and most captivating of affairs: Game 7, Scherzer against Zack Greinke, at stake what they have played for the past seven months and exactly to where this series has barrelled for a good week-and-a-half.
The arguments, the exasperation, the anger, the absurdity, none of it altered an outcome fueled by Strasburg, who pitched into the ninth inning and won for the second time in the World Series and the fifth time in the postseason, and by an imprecise Verlander, who is 0-2 in this World Series and 0-6 across four of them. And by Rendon, who homered, doubled twice and drove in five runs.
These were the Nationals of the unexpected summertime run of clean and relevant baseball. The Nationals of real fight. So, on their way to Game 7, after having been swamped in three home games over a terribly long — for them — weekend in D.C., they got after that fight again, when a seventh-inning call went against them, and for a good five minutes everyone stood around and watched them go to pieces.
Plate umpire Sam Holbrook ruled Nationals baserunner Trea Turner had interfered with a throw from Astros pitcher Brad Peacock, based on his positioning near — but not on — the first base line. Martinez disagreed, with apparently decent reason. He attempted to protest the game, though rules state a judgement call — non-reviewable under baseball’s replay restrictions — may not be protested. Nevertheless, he demanded a rules-check replay, so two umpires put on headsets and called the replay center in New York and also attempted to call operations chief Joe Torre, who was sitting maybe 50 feet away. Torre said his phone never rang. Besides, the call had been made (correctly, according to the umpires and Torre, who arrived at a postgame news conference with his thumb designating the proper page in the official rule book, which he later read aloud), and in the end all any of it did was delay the Nationals’ victory.
To sum up, Martinez was asked afterward what it was he was protesting there and he said, “Honestly, nothing. Because I knew you couldn’t.”
When the conversation one day turns to the game within the game, the tiny battles — some significant, some not, some cheekily petty — within the game that fed the final result, the topic will be Verlander and Strasburg, of course, and Martinez and the umpires (and bench coach Chip Hale’s worthy attempts to divert his manager), and also Alex Bregman and Juan Soto, for what they did and how they celebrated it, and then how Tim Bogar and Don Kelly also played parts in the drama.
Bogar and Kelly are first base coaches, Bogar for the Nationals and Kelly for the Astros. Generally, they stand to the right of first base and mind their business, timing pitchers in their deliveries to the plate and keeping track of the outs. On Tuesday night, they served also as post home run bat racks, as Game 6 devolved into playground warfare.
This is, perhaps, what comes of two teams of 25 men each spending just a little too much time together, when small acts of mirth and high spiritedness become challenges to another’s manhood, and when Bregman homered in the first inning he found himself all the way to first base with his bat still in his hand. Maybe he froze trying to think of a suitable bat flip, then found himself at first base, at which point he handed the bat to Kelly, who fumbled the bat, which ended up in the dirt beside first base. Bregman looked back over his shoulder. He later apologized, saying, “I let my emotions get the best of me. I’m sorry for doing that.”
Four innings later, with the score tied, 2-2, the 21-year-old Soto hit a ball into the second deck in right field. Several seconds and 90 feet after the ball was struck, he dropped his bat at Kelly’s feet.
“It looked cool,” he said of Bregman’s bat trip. “I wanted to do it too.”
Afterward, the managers agreed that this sort of self-aggrandizing reflected poorly on their players and their organizations.
“We didn’t like it,” Martinez said of Bregman’s show. “And the fact that Soto did it, I’ll be quite honest with you, I didn’t like it when he did it.”
Said Astros manager A.J. Hinch: “Yeah, [Bregman] shouldn’t carry the bat past first base. Soto shouldn’t carry the bat to first base either.”
They’re getting on each other’s nerves, which is how these things go, which is how these things should go, which is how they get to Game 7.
Which was, through Game 6.
The Nationals hadn’t had a lot of leads of late.
In their efforts to win/survive/suffocate Game 6, to spend another 27 or 28 hours in pursuit of a championship, the Nationals scored a run in the top of the first inning against Verlander, which was not insignificant.
They hadn’t held a lead in the series since Game 2. Nearly a week had passed. They’d played from behind for 25 of 27 innings, the two exceptions being the first innings of Games 3 and 5. They’d spent a lot of time looking up at the Astros, struggling to put runners in scoring position, then failing with the handful of runners who got there, and they ultimately boarded a flight to Houston for at least one elimination game — two — if they were to have any luck at all against Verlander. They finished Verlander early. They rode Strasburg for all but the final two outs. They had the big, loud hits. They took the soul of the big, lively crowd. They piled on late. They walked into the second-to-last game of 2019 as some of the only people in the ballpark who expected it to be the second-to-last game of 2019. Who could do something about it. Who made the pitches and put up the runs. Who protested the un-protestable.
That only left Game 7, and whatever nest that comes buried in.
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