HOUSTON — The train tracks and ornamental locomotive high above the centre-field wall at Minute Maid Park can be an annoying accessory to visiting opponents.
The whistle blows endlessly whenever the host Astros hit a home run, which in recent seasons can be a regular occurrence.
The engine and its tracks were a featured element again as the 115th World Series got under way on Tuesday between the Astros and National League champion Washington Nationals.
But not in the way the home team had hoped.
When 20-year-old Nats sensation Juan Soto blasted a 417-foot homer in the fourth inning that came to rest on those tracks, the whistle didn’t blow but some of the air was let out of a stadium that was buzzing for what turned out to be an outstanding start to the Fall Classic.
Soto’s blast didn’t win Game 1 for the upstart Nationals, but after the ball left the park far, far away from home plate, the Nationals never trailed on the way to a gripping 5-4 win over the favoured Astros.
While there were plenty more dramatics to unfold before this one was settled, the night may well be remembered as one of those star-is-born moments the World Series can deliver.
Soto, who added a two-RBI double in the fifth, became the fourth-youngest player in World Series history to hit one out. The only players younger than the native of the Dominican, who will turn 21 on Friday, are impressive: Andruw Jones, Miguel Cabrera, and Mickey Mantle.
Washington would need every bit of Soto’s production once the game turned into the George Springer show in the seventh, however, some opening night dramatics replacing the expected starting pitching duel that dominated the build-up to Game 1.
The Nationals have great belief in Soto, an outfielder who is batting cleanup for the NL champs. He approaches the plate like he means business and was clearly undaunted by facing Astros ace, Gerrit Cole in the biggest game of his young career.
The win continued an incredible run for the Nats, who are 17-2 since Sept. 23, those two losses coming to the Dodgers in the NLDS. A team that began its season 19-31 is now three wins away from winning the first championship in Nationals/Montreal Expos history.
As mentioned, the expected pitching duel between ace starters Cole of the Nationals and Max Scherzer didn’t materialize exactly the way it was drawn up. While neither starter was rocked, they were touched up and worked over through lengthy at bats that created a tension-filled night for both teams.
Cole, who hadn’t lost a game he had started since May 22, seemed particularly vulnerable allowing eight hits in seven innings, including a pair of home runs. It was only the third time this season that Cole had given up five runs and the first since May 22.
The AL Cy Young candidate entered the game with a 3-0 record this post-season and an ERA of 0.40 in 22.2 innings. Furthermore, Cole had won his previous 19 decisions and were 17-2 in his Minute Maid starts this season.
His team never trailed by more than three, however, as the Astros chased Scherzer from the game after five innings. The right-hander had allowed just two runs on five hits but needed 112 pitches to get to that point.
The Astros seemed poised for a rally in the seventh inning when Springer made history with a leadoff homer to cut the score to 5-3.
Dating back to the Astros’ 2017 victory over the Dodgers, Springer set a World Series record with a home run in five consecutive games, breaking the mark he shared with Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson (1977-78) and Lou Gehrig (1928-32).
The Astros kept it going with runners on first and second and one out for reliever Daniel Hudson, who came to the Nats from the Blue Jays in a trade deadline deal. Hudson pitched out of the jam to keep the Nationals lead at 5-3.
Springer wasn’t done yet, however and was feet away from taking Hudson out of the park in left centre. The towering blast still resulted in a double and another RBI, however, to make the score 5-4.
— The Astros got the early jump on a two-RBI double from Yuli Gurriel in the bottom of the first.
The blast off the wall in centre came on cue after Houston manager A.J. Hinch sang his praises prior to the game.
“He’s one of the most dangerous hitters on our team and that’s among a lot of dangerous hitters,” Hinch said. “His presence in our lineup is huge. If you ask around the league, a lot of managers, a lot of pitchers, a lot of players will talk about the fear they have when he comes to bat.”
— Houston got one back in the top of the second when 35-year-old first baseman Ryan Zimmerman deposited a Cole offering over the wall to cut the lead in half. Some history with that one, as well, as it marked the first time a 35-year-old and 20-year-old homered in the same World Series game.
— The Nats went up 5-2 with a three-run fifth, bolstered by Soto’s double, to score a pair a lead they would need every ounce of before this one finished.
— The winner of Game 1 of the World Series has won 25 of the previous 33 editions, including the Red Sox in 2018.
One of the exceptions? That would be your 1992 Toronto Blue Jays, who overcame the Atlanta Braves’ home-field edge.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019