HOUSTON — They arrived early here and waved their orange hankies and did the wooing thing for Josh Reddick and booed Max Scherzer’s limp throws to first base and this was not at all how it was supposed to go.
Gerrit Cole wasn’t ever supposed to lose. He was going to run it out, from all the way back in May, all the way into one of those free-agency binders Scott Boras passes around every December, all the way into his multi-generational wealth. All of which would happen anyway.
Cole was the sure thing, THE sure thing, not nothing when the guy behind him is Justin Verlander.
His last loss was 26 starts ago. His Houston Astros had lost two of them, neither reflecting poorly on Cole, and otherwise they won, including three starts in October, once when he struck out 15 Tampa Bay Rays and once when he shut out the New York Yankees for seven innings in the Bronx.
The remarkable regular-season Cole had become an even better Cole, the give-me-a-run-or-two-and-we-win Cole, which is precisely what the Astros did for him in the first inning Tuesday night. Which wasn’t enough. Not near enough. These things happen, just not lately, and not to Gerrit Cole.
And so Alex Bregman stood late Tuesday night with his back against the wall, wearing a white T-shirt that looked straight out of the bottom of his gym bag and a pair of sweats in whose pockets he pushed his hands as far as they would go, clean up to his forearms. He looked tired, except maybe he always looks a little tired, his eyes wearing that drowsy thing that suckers pitchers into thinking he’s not all there.
Long after his Houston Astros had taken the first game of the World Series on the chin at Minute Maid Park, by a score of 5-4, after Cole had given up all five of those runs, after Carlos Correa had struck out three times, after plenty of guys had left baserunners out there, after they’d let the Washington Nationals’ bullpen off the hook across three innings and 15 batters, Bregman had identified the enemy and it was he.
“It starts with me,” he said. “I was horrible all night.”
In fact, he said, “I’ve been terrible this postseason. I need to get in the video room, get in the cage and figure it out. For me, personally, I’ve just been horrible mechanically.”
Then he went through the outcomes that make a hitter feel feeble, among them taking hittable pitches for strikes, swinging at unhittable pitches. Maybe that’s about it. That’s about enough.
“Better take my bat home,” he said, cracking a wry smile, “sleep with it, figure it out.”
In 12 games, he’s had nine hits and 11 walks, which doesn’t sound terrible, except he’s found himself swinging through middle-middle fastballs, swinging under fastballs he’s used to hammering, finding at times that it’s all moving too fast. He’s more accustomed to the game slowing to his speed, to getting up on the plate and forcing pitchers to come in while also covering the plate away, holding his elbows up high and taut the way he likes, what a guy does when he bangs 41 home runs and hits .296 across the first six months. Then the postseason gets choppy, the games spread out, the pitchers come and go, and one night you’re going home with your Louisville Slugger.
“Right now, for me, I don’t feel the adjustments I need to make,” he said. “Everything’s quick. Normally I’m a little slow in the box. … And I gotta figure it out, ASAP. I gotta be better.”
Many of the Astros wore that expression, not beaten but perhaps sensing Game 1 should have been theirs. Max Scherzer looked a lot like Cole across his five innings and 112 pitches, still capable and still ferocious, but oddly beatable. The Astros had their baserunners. They had their hitters’ counts. They had their openings.
Bregman struck out three times, once with two runners on base, and again in the ninth inning, with Sean Doolittle pitching and the Crawford Boxes calling in a one-run game. He hadn’t struck out three times in a game since May 2018. Across five plate appearances, he’d put a single ball in play and that was a harmless grounder to shortstop. In the seventh inning, against Tanner Rainey, who throws hard and is a not unreasonable place to strike the Nationals’ short bullpen, Bregman had a runner at first base and a three-and-oh count, took two fastballs for strikes, fouled off the fastball he might’ve otherwise hit onto the train tracks, then walked.
“Probably the only productive thing I’ve done,” he said, “the past few weeks.”
That inning died with Yordan Alvarez struck out with the bases loaded.
Bregman walked out empty-handed, so he probably had been joking about the bat, which is not to say he didn’t find one to drag along the corridor to his car for the drive home. The Astros lost their last World Series opener — two years ago, albeit in Los Angeles and not here — and won that series in seven. Bregman hit .233 in that series. Come this sort of series, it’s not so much how often but when, and there are plenty more whens out there, plenty more wagging orange hankies, plenty more woos for Reddick, plenty more boos for whomever is wearing the gray pants.
Before he’d left, Bregman had said again that it starts with him, the cleanup hitter, the possible American League MVP, the slugger, the guy who doesn’t want to be alone tonight.
“I’ve definitely failed enough in this game,” he said, “to know how to get back at it.”
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