HOUSTON, TX – It's been an unconventional road to Game 7 of the World Series for Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals.
Seizing the October spotlight he missed out on as a youngster, Strasburg pitched another postseason gem into the ninth inning Tuesday night as the Nationals beat the Houston Astros 7-2 to tie this Fall Classic at 3-3.
Yep, these wild-card Nationals have matched the heavily favored Astros swing for swing, hit for hit — even home run celebration for home run celebration.
Now, it's onto a winner-take-all Game 7 on Wednesday night to decide the only Series in which the visiting team won the first six.
"It's weird, really. You can't explain it," Washington manager Dave Martinez said.
Adam Eaton and Soto hit solo homers off Justin Verlander in the fifth to help the Nationals overcome a 2-1 deficit. Anthony Rendon also went deep and drove in five runs.
"Maybe they enjoy our park and maybe we enjoy their park," said Rendon, who attended high school 4½ miles from Minute Maid Park. "We're not going to ask questions."
Max Scherzer, revitalized by an injection of painkiller, is primed to return from an irritated nerve in his neck to start Game 7 for Washington in a Series that's been all road, sweet, road.
Scratched from his scheduled Game 5 start only hours before the first pitch, Scherzer was warming up in the seventh inning Tuesday before Rendon's homer, then sat down as Martinez became the first manager tossed from a Series game since Atlanta's Bobby Cox in 1996.
"The cortisone shot worked. That relieved the pressure on the nerve, and then keep applying heat," Scherzer said. "Our chiropractor, he does amazing work. He was able to go in there and make adjustments. We did two treatments of it and really freed up the neck."
Zack Greinke will start for the Astros, who led the majors with 107 wins and are seeking their second title in three seasons.
"I wish it was in a National League park," Greinke joked, cracking a smile about his affinity for hitting.
Fired up after a disputed call at first base went against them in the seventh, the Nationals padded their lead moments later when Rendon hit a two-run homer off Will Harris. Martinez, still enraged at umpires, was ejected during the seventh-inning stretch, screaming as a pair of his coaches held him back while the crowd sang along to "Deep in the Heart of Texas."
Rendon added a two-run double off Chris Devenski in the ninth to just about seal it after Strasburg gutted through without his best fastball to throw five-hit ball for 8 1/3 innings. Washington pitching coach Paul Menhart told Strasburg after the first that he was tipping pitches. Strasburg allowed only three more hits.
"Started shaking my glove, so they didn't know what I was throwing," Strasburg said. "It's something that has burned me in the past, and it burned me there in the first."
Now the Nationals will attempt their ultimate comeback in a year when they were written off time after time, hoping for the first title in the 51-season history of a franchise that started as the Montreal Expos and the first for Washington since the Senators in 1924.
Visiting teams have won three straight Game 7s in the Series since the Cardinals defeated Texas at home in 2011.
"I don't think there's a person in the building that would have assumed that all road teams were going to win," Houston manager AJ Hinch said. "We've just got to make sure that last one is not the same."
Washington rebounded from a 19-31 start — the Nats were given just a 1.6% chance to win the Series on May 23 — to finish 93-69. They rallied from a 3-1 eighth-inning deficit against Milwaukee in the NL wild-card game, a two-games-to-one deficit vs. the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Division Series and a 2-1, fifth-inning deficit in Game 6 vs. the Astros.
Outscored 19-3 at Nationals Park while going 1 for 21 with runners in scoring position, the Nationals got the strong outing they needed from Strasburg, who allowed his only runs in the first inning, struck out seven and walked two while throwing 104 pitches.
"It was a mental grind out there, especially after the first," Strasburg said. "Just got to keep fighting."
Strasburg was memorably shut down by the Nationals in September 2012 to protect his arm in his first full season following Tommy John surgery, and Washington was beaten by St. Louis in the Division Series.
He improved to 5-0 with a 1.98 ERA in six postseason outings this October — five starts and one relief appearance — despite failing to get a swing and miss in the first two innings for the first time this year. Eight of his nine swings and misses overall came on breaking balls, and Strasburg escaped a two-on, two-out jam in the fourth by striking out Carlos Correa.
After George Springer's one-out double put runners at second and third in the fifth, José Altuve struck out on a curve in the dirt and Michael Brantley hit a hard grounder to second.
"He has an uncanny ability to slow the game down when he's under any duress," Hinch said about Strasburg.
Sean Doolittle got the final two outs as the Nationals bullpen headed into Game 7 relatively rested.
Verlander dropped to 0-6 with a 5.68 ERA in seven Series starts, a blemish on his otherwise sterling career.
"I didn't really have great feel for the off-speed stuff," he said. "The last inning just a poorly executed slider and then really just kind of a fastball up and in."
Martinez's ejection came after Trea Turner was called out for interference when he ran on the fair side of the foul line and knocked the mitt off first baseman Yuli Gurriel in the seventh following his slow roller. Washington was leading 3-2 at the time and would have had runners on second and third with no outs.
Martinez tried to protest the game. Joe Torre, MLB's chief baseball officer, said the long delay that followed — just over 10 minutes — was caused by umpires at Minute Maid Park consulting with the replay room in New York to confirm the decision on the field was not subject to a protest.
Rendon's RBI single through a shifted infield put the Nationals ahead in the first, but Houston needed just four pitches to tie the score. Springer lined a double off the left-field scoreboard, at 112 mph off the bat the hardest-hit ball of the Series, and advanced on a wild pitch before scoring on Altuve's sacrifice fly.
Bregman's third homer of the Series put the Astros ahead on Strasburg's 12th pitch. He carried his bat out of the batter's box and tried to hand it to first base coach Don Kelly, only for the bat to fall as Kelly stuck out his hand for a shake.
Strasburg called Bregman's antics "tired."
"I just let my emotions get the best of me and it's not how I was raised to play the game," Bregman said. "I'm sorry for doing that."
Eaton tied the score in the fifth when Verlander hung a slider. Soto, who turned 21 on Friday, followed with his third home run of the Series.
Soto, too, flipped the bat at his first base coach, Tim Bogar.
"I just thought it was pretty cool," Soto said when asked if he was mimicking Bregman. "I wanted to do it."