WASHINGTON — If home is where the heartbreak is during this strange World Series, the Washington Nationals can only hope that remains the case when they get to Houston for Game 6.
They’ve got to be wondering what they did to anger the baseball gods after engineering an amazing midseason turnaround, winning the National League wild-card game in dramatic fashion and bringing an eight-game postseason winning streak to Nationals Park three days ago.
If momentum swings like a pendulum, it swung back so hard that it knocked the Nats right to the brink of elimination, and did so with particular malice.
The Houston Astros didn’t figure to get swept away after losing the first two games of the best-of-seven series at home, but they dug a hole only three other teams had ever climbed out of.
So, they won Game 3 and, well, the Nationals were still very much in control. Then the Astros sent somebody named Jose Urquidy to the mound to start a “bullpen game” on Saturday and he shut the Nats out for five innings while Houston got after $140 million left-hander Patrick Corbin and the Nationals’ so-so middle relief crew.
It was at this point that fate decided it had not frowned quite enough on the team that brought the World Series back to the nation’s capital for the first time since 1933.
While the Nats were taking that 8-1 pounding on Saturday night, three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer and the Nats training staff were trying desperately to loosen up his sore neck in advance of Sunday’s scheduled start against Astros ace Gerrit Cole, but that classic matchup was not to be.
Scherzer woke up Sunday morning with his neck so “locked up” that there was no way he would be able to take the mound in what just about everybody assumed would be the pivotal showdown that would position the winning team to claim the championship at Minute Maid Park.
Instead, Nationals manager Dave Martinez has little choice but to give the ball to right-hander Joe Ross, who pitched pretty well in nine starts at the end of the regular season, but was never going to be mistaken for Max Scherzer.
The hope was that Ross would do just what Urquidy did the night before and hold the fort until the Nationals could put a few dents in Cole like they did in Game 1.
After all, they were the first team to beat him since May 22, ending a 19-game winning streak that included 16 regular-season and three postseason victories.
Ross didn’t pitch poorly, but he was operating without any margin for error. Cole didn’t win those 19 straight decisions by accident and he bounced back with a seven-inning performance in which he allowed just a run on three hits.
The Nats couldn’t have known it at the time, but the first time Ross blinked — giving up a two-run homer to rookie Yordan Alvarez in the second inning — they were headed for Houston without another inch of slack.
Ross would give up one more big swing, a two-run shot to shortstop Carlos Correa, and get through five innings. It was a respectable outing under the circumstances, but not nearly good enough to staunch the Astros’ momentum, which carried them to a 7-1 victory.
Perhaps Stephen Strasburg can do that on Tuesday night, when he faces off against 21-game winner Justin Verlander in Game 6. Since no team has won in its own ballpark yet, the Nats can only hope the home-field disadvantage holds for a couple more games.
Verlander hasn’t exactly been unhittable in October. He’s 1-3 with a 4.15 ERA in his five previous postseason starts. Strasburg, meanwhile, has been lights out, going 4-0 with a 1.93 ERA.
If the Nats can get past Game 6, there’s an outside chance that Scherzer will be able to come back and pitch the decisive seventh game.
Wouldn’t that be something.