By Ronald Blum | The Associated Press
WASHINGTON—Not bad for a TBA.
Unheralded rookie José Urquidy outpitched all those big-name aces who preceded him, quieting Washington’s bats and the Nationals Park crowd, too.
Alex Bregman busted out of his slump with a go-ahead single in the first inning and a grand slam in the seventh, and the resurgent Houston Astros routed the Nationals 8-1 Saturday night to pull even at two games apiece in an unpredictable World Series that’s been one big road show.
Urquidy had never pitched above Class A before this year. This stage seemed surreal.
“A couple of moments,” he said, “I was thinking about, oh my God, I’m in a World Series pitching.”
Game One winner Max Scherzer takes the mound Sunday night hoping to get Washington a home Series victory for the first time since the Senators won at Griffith Stadium in 1933. In a rematch of the opener, Gerrit Cole goes for Houston after losing for the first time since May.
Visiting teams have won the first four games for the first time since 1996, when the Yankees broke the pattern in Game Six against Atlanta to take the title.
Game Six will be Tuesday night in Houston, when the Astros lose their road-field advantage.
“This is what it’s all about,” Bregman said. “This is a beautiful thing. It’s two teams battling it out. They’ve got great pitching, great offenses. It’s been fun so far, and just want to keep it rolling.”
Yuli Gurriel also drove in a run in the first as Houston strung together four singles in a seven-pitch span for a 2-0 lead against Patrick Corbin. Robinson Chirinos homered for the second straight day, a two-run drive that boosted the lead to 4-0 in the fourth.
Fans started leaving in the seventh, when the Astros sent 10 batters to the plate and battered the bullpen. Bregman, who began the night in a one-for-13 Series slide, had the big blow, driving a low, inside fastball from Fernando Rodney into the left field stands of the ballpark where he was the All-Star Game MVP in 2018.
Bregman held his bat high as he slowly walked out of the batter’s box, then took 28 seconds to savor circling the bases.
Orange-clad Houston fans in the right field upper deck chanted “Let’s go Astros!” as Nationals fans were silenced. Wild-card Washington lost consecutive games for the first time since September 13 and 14 against Atlanta.
“I think tonight was really the first time we really did what the Houston Astros offense can do,” outfielder Josh Reddick said.
Starting pitchers were the talk of the Series coming in, with Washington’s Stephen Strasburg, Scherzer and Corbin combining for 12 All-Star picks and three Cy Young Awards. The baseball cards of Houston’s Cole, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke sparkle with 17 All-Star selections, two Cy Youngs and one MVP.
But there were just five 1-2-3 innings by starters in the first three games, and the most consecutive outs were turned in by Nationals veteran Aníbal Sánchez, who retired seven straight in Game Three.
Urquidy, who rebounded from Tommy John surgery in 2016, exceeded them all.
“Maybe he doesn’t have the Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole name, but he’s got good stuff,” Washington leadoff man Trea Turner said.
Urquidy wasn’t even announced as Houston’s starter until after Game Three, with Manager AJ Hinch hoping to piece together innings any way he could.
The 24-year-old right-hander began the season at Double-A Corpus Christi, then was bumped up to Triple-A Round Rock in mid-May and made his major league debut in July. It wasn’t all success: Urquidy was pounded for 11 runs and 14 hits at El Paso on August 7.
“I think I was a little crazy, a little ruined from the heat,” he said.
He faced the Nationals in just his 12th big league appearance, joining Fernando Valenzuela (1981) and Jaime García (2011) as the only Mexican starting pitchers in Series history and Valenzuela as the only one to win. Urquidy’s mother, Alma, was on hand.
“My mom is someone that I talk to a lot and, obviously, she helped me out this morning,” Urquidy said. “We had coffee, just gave me some words of encouragement.”
Urquidy allowed two hits in five scoreless innings, striking out four and walking none.
“From the very beginning I thought he was calm, I thought he was in control of his stuff,” Hinch said. “His fastball had a little extra life to it. It’s had good life this postseason. And then he just came up with big pitch after big pitch.”
Mixing four-seam fastballs in the mid-90 mph range with two-seamers, sliders, curves and changeups, Urquidy set down the Nationals in order in the second, fourth and fifth, retiring his final nine batters. He threw 30 of his first 38 pitches for strikes, 45 of 67 overall.
“He flipped his percentages,” Washington’s Adam Eaton said. “He threw me three sliders my first at-bat—and he throws it like 10 percent of the time. So I was just like, going back, scratching my noggin.”
Josh James, Will Harris, Héctor Rondón, Brad Peacock and Chris Devenski combined for two-hit relief to close it out for Houston.
Washington’s best chance to get back into the game came in the sixth, when Harris relieved with two on and one out, and Houston ahead 4-0. Anthony Rendon singled off the pitcher’s leg, loading the bases, and Juan Soto drove in a run with a groundout. Harris then struck out Howie Kendrick.
After going seven for 21 with runners in scoring position during the first two games, the Nationals are one for 19 in the last two.
Houston flipped for the positive, going nine for 23 with RISP after starting three for 17 in the two losses. The Astros burst ahead with timely hitting for the second straight night, getting consecutive one-out singles by José Altuve, Michael Brantley, Bregman and Gurriel.
Brantley had three hits, raising his Series average to .471 (eight for 17). Bregman also finished with three hits.
Chirinos, who homered off the screen on the left field foul pole to drive in Houston’s final run in Game Three, sent a flat changeup from Corbin deep into the left field seats, then slapped his chest and grinned as he skipped across home plate. The catcher doubled in the ninth and is four for 11 against the Nationals.
Signed to a $140 million, six-year contract as a free agent last offseason, Corbin dropped to 1-3 in three postseason starts and four relief appearances. He actually lowered his ERA to 6.64.
After the Scherzer-Cole rematch, Houston’s Justin Verlander and Stephen Strasburg are set to start Game Six.
Washington Manager Dave Martinez was looking ahead.
“We’ve got two of our big horses going in the next two games,” he said. “I just told the boys: ‘Hey, we’re in the World Series. We’re going to play Game Five, tied 2-2. Who would have thought that in the beginning?’”
Image credits: AP