It was a pitching duel worthy of deciding the destiny of the World Series: Zack Greinke v Max Scherzer in a battle of two aging aces. Yet in the end, the key struggle might have been internal, Scherzer’s spirit in defiance of a sore body that threatened to betray him.
The 35-year-old woke up on Sunday with neck spasms that left him unable to move his right arm, get out of bed or get dressed by himself. He flew to Texas on Monday wearing a neck brace. A couple of days, a cortisone shot and some chiropractic treatment later, he pronounced himself fit and ready, pitched in the decisive game of the World Series and gave up only two runs in five often-agonizing innings: a home run from Yuli Gurriel and an RBI single from Carlos Correa.
That narrow margin proved vital when the contest turned on its head in the seventh inning, as the Washington Nationals scored three times to storm into the lead, spoil Greinke’s stellar performance and deliver the first World Series title either before or since the Nationals franchise emigrated from Montreal in 2005. It is the city’s first since the Senators beat the New York Giants in 1924.
While Greinke cantered through the first six innings, showcasing his fielding skills as well as his finesse, Scherzer was doughty but dodgy over his 103-pitch outing, allowing seven hits. Clearly below his best, he was also playing without his catcher of choice, the injured Kurt Suzuki.
The Astros, who led the majors with 107 wins during the regular season, were undeniably wasteful, stranding 10 runners on base, especially when they had excellent chances to build a big lead. But Scherzer’s stubborn refusal to yield despite his suspect pitch control, doing just enough to keep the deficit down and burnish hopes of a comeback, was emblematic of a Washington team that has proved inspired by adversity.
After all, they saw their superstar slugger, Bryce Harper, leave for Philadelphia in free agency in March; had won only 19 games and lost 31 at the end of May; were on the brink of elimination against the Milwaukee Brewers in the wild-card round; and carved out an improbable 3-2 series win over the fancied Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series before easing past the St Louis Cardinals in the NLCS.
Stephen Strasburg became the first No 1 overall draft pick to be named Most Valuable Player of the World Series after earning victories in each of his two starts, surrendering a combined four runs over 14 and one third innings. But while this series generally lacked classic encounters – six of the games were won by wide margins – and was pockmarked by some of the worst umpiring since Leslie Nielsen portrayed Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun – it was abundantly weird.
The Astros, who won their first Fall Classic two years ago, were overwhelming favorites entering this series, especially with four games at Minute Maid Park, where they owned the best home record in baseball. This, though, was the series that popularized the concept of home disadvantage. Never before had the visiting team won the first six, let alone seven, games in a World Series – and that goes for the best-of-seven postseason series in the NBA and the NHL, too.
Wednesday’s match-up was also the first Game 7 in World Series history to pit two former Cy Young winners against each other. Greinke, 36, was acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a trade in July as the Astros revisited their splashy strategy from two years earlier, when they made a last-gasp trade for Justin Verlander, another veteran ace pitcher, and won their first World Series, sparking joyous scenes in a city that had been devastated by Hurricane Harvey only a few weeks earlier.
But would they get the Greinke who gave up one run in four and two thirds innings in Game 3 last week, or the Greinke who allowed six runs in three and two thirds innings against Tampa Bay in the American League Division Series? On Wednesday he was brilliant … until he wasn’t.
Anthony Rendon, the Nationals’ outstanding third baseman (who was born in the Houston area) punished a rare Greinke mistake with a solo home run in the seventh inning. Greinke, suddenly touchable, then walked Juan Soto, the 21-year-old slugging starlet, and AJ Hinch, the Astros manager, brought down the curtain after 80 pitches. It was a fateful decision.
Barely had the crowd sat down after affording Greinke a standing ovation when Will Harris relieved him and 36-year-old Howie Kendrick – who had shocked the Dodgers with a 10th-inning grand slam – pinged a two-run home run off the right-field foul pole. The atmosphere inside Minute Maid Park, so boisterous and confident a few moments earlier, turned queasy. The Astros players looked ashen-faced.
Houston’s bullpen misery deepened when a Soto single added a run, scoring Adam Eaton, and continued as Washington plated two more runs in the ninth inning.
The Astros’ smooth progress had been snapped with sudden brutality. They were finished, and Scherzer, whose night had seemed likely to be remembered as an exercise in heroic failure, was a World Series champion, dancing with his ecstatic teammates as they sprinted on to the infield after the final out, all the pain forgotten.