The Houston Astros are suddenly on the brink

BY Martin Rogers u2014 @MrogersFOX • October 25, 2019

“We know we have to go out there and win some games,” Houston Astros’ talismanic second baseman Jose Altuve said on Wednesday night. “We have no choice.”

Altuve’s comments represent a tiday and positively-spun way of saying the Astros — those mighty Astros, who crushed their way to 107 wins and possess a pitching 1-2-3 punch for the ages — have been pushed around in this World Series, shoved to the edge of defeat by a Washington Nationals squad that has no time for big reputations.

Houston indeed has a problem and just like Altuve said, it’s out of options. Having seen its major advantages — home field and starting Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander on consecutive nights — swatted away in Games 1 and 2, the Astros must now find a route to a victory that deviates from the expected script.

Heading into Friday’s Game 3 (FOX, 8:07 p.m. ET), not much about this Fall Classic has followed the running order. You don’t figure on seeing Cole concede five runs like he did in the opener, because he hadn’t done that since May 22. He hadn’t lost since then, either, going a ridiculous 19-0 with a 1.59 ERA in the interim. You’re not primed for him and Verlander to fall in back-to-back starts, because we hadn’t seen that all year.

You don’t predict ill-timed throwing errors for Alex Bregman or base-stealing misjudgments from Altuve, and you certainly don’t predict a nine-run explosion across the seventh and eighth innings like the Washington outburst that tore open Game 2 and turned the momentum behind the Nationals into a locomotive.

Winning the first two games of a World Series isn’t a failsafe precursor of triumph, but it certainly helps. The last 11 teams to do so have gone on to clinch the championship. The last team to lose the first two games at home and come back to win were the 1996 New York Yankees, who mounted a remarkable revival against the Atlanta Braves.

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FOX announcer John Smoltz was on the losing end of that, despite winning Game 1 and pitching lights-out in an epic duel against Andy Pettitte in a 1-0 Yankees win in Game 5. It meant that the Braves’ epic Big Three era, spearheaded by the fearsome Hall of Fame combo of Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, would ultimately realize just one World Series title.

“It’s one of the main things I will never forget from my career,” Smoltz told me in a telephone conversation. “It’s the greatest moment that I would like back. What people fail to realize is that a situation like that with our team changed the direction of the entire organization.”

Smoltz has been in awe of the way the Nationals — now in an 84-40 stretch since righting their early-season wobbles — have executed their business, but he can still see a glimmer of hope for Houston.

“Right now, the Nationals are executing as good as you possibly can,” Smoltz added. “It’s been amazing to see them break it open and take the pressure off that bullpen. Before you know it, the series could be over and the bullpen hasn’t been really tested.

“The overall depth was key for them. It meant the pressure on Cole and Verlander to win was unbelievable and it really puts Houston in this precarious situation. Their mantra now has to be all about figuring out how to get Cole and Verlander another start each.

“When the game plan isn’t working, you need to not rip it up but maybe get away from it a little. Houston has to impose themselves offensively.”

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With the Nationals boasting Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg but a supposedly dismal bullpen, Houston manager A.J. Hinch built his tactical approach around trying to get past the starters with patience and guile, but it hasn’t worked. The Washington offense has had more than enough to protect their back-up arms.

As Houston’s third ace, Zack Grienke, prepares to start Game 3, the pitching narrative has changed somewhat. Unlike their rival, the Nationals have four established starters, with Aníbal Sánchez primed for Friday and Patrick Corbin for Game 4, while the Astros are penciled in for a bullpen game on Saturday, unless they risk bringing back Cole on short rest.

Smoltz feels the Nationals, originally coming in as one of the biggest underdogs in recent World Series history, benefitted from starting the series on the road.

“It takes a lot of the edginess out of it; it can free you up,” he added. “But it doesn’t necessarily work in reverse. Now Houston is up against it. When the better team has lost the edge, it’s like you’ve given something away. You don’t just get to say: ‘we’re the underdog now, we can play with freedom.’ They will be feeling it.”

The odds have flipped. The Nationals are now favored with FOX Bet at -275, with the Astros now +230 underdogs. Yet as quickly as the Nationals shifted the narrative, it can turn the other way. If Greinke can reestablish the Astros’ pitching dominance, if the clumsy errors are set right, if the Nationals bats cool a little and if Houston’s are able to light up, this thing is not done yet.

Yet for all their months of excellence, their resounding favoritism and seemingly unstoppable vibe just a few days ago, that’s what it has come to for Houston: a handful of ifs and maybes, and a desperate need to turn the tide.

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