HOUSTON — Earl Weaver always said that in baseball, momentum is best defined as your next game’s starting pitcher.
This is what the underdog Washington Nationals must believe if they are to win the 115th World Series. Down three games to two after being routed three straight at home, the Nats will turn their desperate eyes to Stephen Strasburg when the Series resumes Tuesday at Minute Maid Park.
Nothing we saw in three weekend games in D.C. would make any neutral observer believe that the Nats have a chance. They were outscored, 19-3, over three listless nights, smothered by every Houston pitcher. After winning eight consecutive postseason games, and 18 of 20 overall dating to the end of September, the Nats went cold in their own park and watched Houston go white-hot. It felt like the magic ran out on Washington’s season.
The Astros are clearly the better team. They have Justin Verlander (Tuesday’s starter), Gerrit Cole, and Zack Greinke, and their fourth starter, unheralded Jose Urquidy, blanked the Nats for five innings on two hits in Game 4.
Meanwhile, the Houston lineup is deep and relentless. Carlos Correa would be a legitimate No. 3 hitter on many teams. He bats seventh for the Astros. It reminds me of the 1990s Cleveland Indians, who sometimes had young Manny Ramirez batting seventh.
Enter Strasburg, the former No. 1 overall pick, a highly paid (seven years, $175 million, including $45 million this season) San Diego State wonderboy who has gone from wildly overrated to wildly underrated in just a few short seasons.
Now a grizzled 10-year veteran, Strasburg is the guy who can extend this World Series to a seventh game. And the Astros know it. Strasburg beat them in Houston last week and is 4-0 in this postseason with a 1.93 ERA, 40 strikeouts, and only two walks in 28 innings.
“It’s a tremendous honor, and I’m going to go out there and compete and give it everything that I have,’’ Strasburg said. “Really, it comes down to the execution of pitches. The important thing is to go out there and pound away and trust your stuff.”
Strasburg is intentionally boring in the mold of Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and other young baseball stars of 2019. He got more attention than he wanted when he was throwing 102 miles per hour and labeled “the most-hyped pick in history” before the 2009 amateur draft. (Little-known fact: Strasburg pitched for the Torrington Twisters in the New England Collegiate Baseball League in the summer of 2007.)
He was rushed to the big leagues a year after he was the No. 1 overall pick and forfeited most of his first two seasons to Tommy John surgery. When he returned in 2012, it was decided by agent Scott Boras and Nats general manager Mike Rizzo that Strasburg would not pitch more than 160 innings. So they shut him down late in the season, and he watched from the sideline when the Nats were stunned by the Cardinals in the NLDS.
It was controversial and ugly. Washington checked out of the playoffs without using a healthy starter who went 15-6 during the season.
Since all that happened, Strasburg has rather quietly become what everybody thought he would be in the first place. The 31-year-old veteran was 18-6 this year with a 3.32 ERA. Lifetime he is 112-58 with a 3.17 ERA. He struck out 251 batters in 209 innings this year.
Despite all of this, he gets far less attention than he got when he was the unwashed phenomenon. Strasburg is no longer the star of his team. Free agent-to-be Anthony Rendon emerged as the Nats’ best player and 21-year-old Juan Soto looks like the game’s next superstar.
Strasburg is not even the most famous pitcher on his team: Three-time Cy Young winner and likely Hall of Fame-bound Max Scherzer handles that role. This leaves Strasburg in the background, which suits him nicely, especially after all the noise of his early career.
Considered fragile when he was the young gun (at least two trips to the injured list in five seasons), Strasburg this year led the National League in innings and is at a career-high 237 innings (including postseason) as he prepares for the biggest game of his life.
“This is uncharted territory,’’ he acknowledged. “I’m just trying to continue to do what I’ve tried to do all year, just take it one day at a time and listen to the body.’’
In the dark hour after the Nationals’ third straight pummeling at the hands of the Astros late Sunday, Washington manager Dave Martinez gave Nats fans a reason to believe.
“Game 6 and we’ve got Stephen Strasburg on the mound,’’ said the manager. “I like our chances.’’
He amplified those remarks Monday.
“Stephen’s been unbelievable for us all year,” said Martinez. “The guys are all upbeat. They think this is far from over.’’
The Astros have all the momentum. The Nationals have Strasburg.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.