HOUSTON — Not once this season, even when Mike Trout came up with first base open, did Houston Astros manager AJ Hinch see fit to order an intentional walk.
It was a record going back to 1955 when intentional passes were first kept as a statistic. Hinch said before the World Series that he was willing to put an opposing hitter on, but only if the circumstances made sense. That moment came in the seventh inning of Game 3 on Wednesday night.
With the Washington Nationals leading by one run with runners on second and third and two outs, Hinch held up four fingers and Juan Soto trotted to first base.
The 20-year-old lefthanded power hitter was 4 for 7 with three extra-base hits through two games and the Astros didn’t want him to face righthander Ryan Pressly.
The decision underscored the curious decision Houston made to go into the Series without a lefthander on its pitching staff, something no team had done since 1903. Their best defense against Soto was a walk.
It was a decision that turned the Series. After Soto took his base, the next three Nationals had hits that fueled a six-run inning and sent Washington to a shocking 12-3 victory.
Soto did not know until after the game that he was the first hitter Hinch decided to walk this season.
“I was really happy when I took that walk because I know who’s coming behind me,” he said. “I felt good. I knew they were going to drive in the runs.”
Hinch actually had it right before it all went wrong. Howie Kendrick grounded to third for what should have been the last out but Alex Bregman bobbled the ball and a run scored on what was ruled a single.
Asdrubal Cabrera, who had struck out three times, followed with a single up the middle that scored two runs.
After a wild pitch, Ryan Zimmerman grounded slowly to third base and Bregman threw the ball away as two more runs came in.
The intentional walk backfired in every way possible.
“Clearly I think there’s a lot of downside given that I haven’t done it all year,” Hinch said. “But ironically I thought it was our best chance to limit their scoring and instead it poured gasoline on a fire that was already burning.”
The Nationals seem intent on getting this over quickly. They have won eight playoff games in a row, outscoring the Dodgers, Cardinals and Astros 57-20.
Fifty-five teams have taken a 2-0 lead in the World Series and 44 went on to win it including 17 of the last 18. The 1996 Yankees were the last team to rebound from a 2-0 deficit.
Game 3 is scheduled for Friday night at Nationals Park. It will be the first World Series game in Washington since 1933.
“We have a long way to go. But it feels really good to be going back home,” said Soto, who was unintentionally walked as part of a three-run eighth inning. “We have the home crowd in our favor. We have to keep playing the same baseball we’ve been playing.”
Hinch made another regrettable decision in the sixth inning when he pinch-hit for catcher Robinson Chirinos, and not necessarily because Kyle Tucker struck out with two runners on in a 2-2 game.
It meant that Martin Maldonado would come in to catch Justin Verlander for the first time all season. Until then, Chirinos had caught every pitch from the righthander.
The first pitch with Maldonado behind the plate was a curveball above the strike zone. The second pitch was a four-seam fastball high, not quite as high. Kurt Suzuki blasted it to left center field for his first career postseason home run.
“I can’t remember the last time I barreled a ball up like that. It felt great,” Suzuki said.
Verlander then walked Victor Robles and when Hinch came out to get him, the pitcher barked what appeared to be some angry words into his glove.
Verlander was charged with four of the runs and took the loss. He is 0-5 with a 5.72 earned run average in six career World Series starts.
“Obviously it’s magnified in the World Series when you’re not clicking on all cylinders,” Verlander said.
Stephen Strasburg, in his first Series game, allowed two runs over six innings to get the win.
“As a kid you have those dreams,” he said. “At the same time you’re playing the game because you love it and I love playing this game. I’m going to play it as long as I can and hopefully there are some championships.”
The Nationals were 19-31 on May 23, already 10 games out first place. The odds they would be two games away from a championship six months later weren’t incalculable. One formula had it at 0.1 percent.
“I wish I was a betting man, but I’m not. I don’t really believe in that stuff,” Washington manager Dave Martinez said. “What I believe in is hard work, being consistent in what we do, and sticking to our process, and we did that.”