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HOUSTON – From the quaint roots at Jarry Park in Montreal, to the frustrating struggles at the less idyllic Olympic Stadium and then to the heart-wrenching departure for many Canadian baseball fans to their new home in the U.S. capital, the Washington Nationals are on the verge of making their own sensational history.
The tough-as-nails National League wild-card entry got to Astros ace Justin Verlander in the seventh inning here on Wednesday, then they blew the doors off the winningest team in MLB in 2019 to cruise to a 12-3 blowout in Game 2 of the World Series.
That six-run seventh stunned the sellout crowd of 43,357 at Minute Maid Park and gave the Nats a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven set that shifts back to D.C. for at least two, and possibly three, games beginning on Friday.
The links to the Montreal past – however they are presented – will be drenched in bitterness for some, but shouldn’t get in the way of the incredible feats this team is accomplishing and the fresh history it is making.
Dominant from the outset of this post-season, the Nats are now just two wins away from the first championship in Nationals/Expos franchise history.
“It’s obviously great for the fans who have supported this team for years and years,” Nationals pitcher Patrick Corbin said. “But this isn’t done yet.”
What was billed as, and settled into, a pitching duel between Verlander and Washington starter Stephen Strasburg through six innings ended up in a one-sided stunner to take down the Astros, who led the majors in 2019 with 107 regular-season wins.
It was the latest sensation in the Nationals’ remarkable post-season run that has now seen them record back-to-back wins against two likely finalists in the AL Cy Young Award race – Verlander and Game 1 starter Gerrit Cole.
As well, the Nats now have won an incredible eight in a row this post-season, six of those on the road. Both are MLB post-season records.
“We’ve been in a playoff mode and facing really good pitchers for months,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said of his confident, veteran-heavy team. “With the Dodgers (in the NLDS) and the Cardinals (in the NLCS) we’ve run the gauntlet.
“These guys think they’re pretty good, and they think they can beat anybody.”
The right-hander was hanging tough until he was bitten by one of the most unlikely hitters in the order. Kurt Suzuki was just 2-for-25 in the post-season when he entered the batter’s box and the 36-year-old delivered with a huge shot to left-centre field.
As great as Verlander is – and he certainly was exceptional again on Wednesday – he still has yet to record a win in World Series play and now has an overall record of 0-5.
The Astros became unglued after the Suzuki homer with manager A.J. Hinch at one point issuing an intentional walk to young Nats star Juan Soto, the first time the Astros have given a free pass all season.
Soto eventually came around to score – one of six the Nationals pushed across in the inning – and the rout was in full effect.
The Astros, who were hoping to win a second title in three years, are against the ropes, though manager A.J. Hinch isn’t looking at it that way.
“They are halfway to a race to four wins so clearly Game 3 becomes critical for us,” Hinch said. “I doubt the Nats will feel too confident that they have this sewn up and can plan the parade.”
As conflicted as Expos fans are about losing their team to D.C. in 2005, there’s no denying it has been an incredible ride for the franchise. Thousands of fans of Canada’s first major league team still feel connected to the Nats and the Fox broadcast of the games here has been full of Expos references and images.
The checkered history that transformed the Expos into the Nationals is one thing, but modern World Series history is now squarely in their corner. The past 11 teams to take a 2-0 lead in the Fall Classic have gone on to claim the title, and 44 of 55 overall.
No team has won the first two World Series games on the road since the 1999 Yankees, part of the reality facing the Astros in an awful three-day stretch for the team.
How hot are the Nationals? Dating back to Sept. 23, they are now a dominant 18-2, the best 20-game stretch in Nationals history, but a mark the Expos matched multiple times.
Getting to the cusp of a World Series is sure to bring back bitter memories for many old Expos fans and you can’t blame those that feel that way. But for those who want to relive the memories of those ground-breaking days for baseball in Canada – the good and the bad – good on them as well.
Bottom line from all of it, however, is that these Nationals are fun to watch – and right now anyway, next to impossible to beat.
“We’re here because our boys never gave up,” Nats manager Dave Martinez said of his team, which has outscored its opponents 56-19 in its past eight games. “What I believe in is hard work and being consistent in what we do and sticking to our process.”
– Though Verlander got touched up with his two runs allowed in the first, by the end of the second inning he had made MLB playoff history. When he struck out Victor Robles in the second, it was his fourth K of the game, and a record 200th of his career in the post-season, surpassing the previous record held by John Smolz. A hollow victory, to be sure.
– After trying to shoulder much of the blame for the Game 1 loss – in which he struck out three times – Astros third baseman Alex Bregman made a bid for instant redemption in Game 2 with a two-run homer in the bottom of the first to tie it.
– The first-inning blast to Bregman aside, it was a strong outing for Strasburg, who struck out seven over his six solid innings of work. Astros batters kept him grinding, as the veteran right-hander worked for the win with 114 pitchers on the night. Strasburg now has a stellar 1.34 ERA this post-season.
– When Soto doubled in the third inning, it marked an incredible beginning to his World Series experience. In six at-bats he had recorded four hits, and three of those for extra bases.
– Who says baseball has to be a young man’s game? Heading into the eighth inning in Game 2, Nats hitters aged 30 or older were 10 for 23 in the game with eight runs batted in.
– The Nats are just the fifth team in the DH era (since 1973) to win the first two World Series games as a visiting team in an AL park.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019