WASHINGTON — The Houston Astros handed the ball to Gerrit Cole, and he gave them a seemingly firm grip on the World Series.
Minus ailing ace Max Scherzer, the Nationals were no match in this Washington wipeout.
Cole looked exactly like the standout who dominated baseball most of this season, bouncing back from a Game 1 clunker to pitch the Astros to a 7-1 victory Sunday night and a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven World Series.
“He knew what this game meant to this Series,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “So, nobody better to have on the mound.”
Previously slumping rookie Yordan Alvarez and Carlos Correa each hit an early two-run homer off emergency starter Joe Ross. George Springer added another postseason drive, and Houston won its third straight at Nationals Park.
What a turnaround, too — outscored 17-7 overall at Minute Maid Park, 107-regular-season-victory Houston hammered wild-card Washington 19-3 at Nationals Park. The hosts were limited to one run in each game.
“We actually hit some balls hard. We really did,” Washington manager Dave Martinez said. “We just can’t get nothing going these last three days.”
Scherzer beat Cole in the opener, and was perhaps his team’s best hope to slow Houston.
But he was scratched 3½ hours before game time because of an irritated nerve near his neck, an injury that could finish him for the Series.
With the road team winning every time so far, Houston heads home with two chances to claim its second World Series title in three years. Justin Verlander gets the first try when he starts against Washington’s Stephen Strasburg in Game 6 on Tuesday night.
“High level of confidence,” Cole said.
Cole threw three-hit ball for seven innings, nicked only by Juan Soto’s home run in the seventh, and struck out nine — eight on breaking balls.
“I just thought that we needed to execute better pitches this time out, and I didn’t realize that was how we got that many strikeouts,” Cole said. “I guess the situation just called for breaking balls in that spot. That’s what we were feeling.”
Cole’s mix of 99 mph heat and sharp secondary pitches induced a bevy of bad swings from the Nats as he improved to 4-1 with a 1.72 earned-run average this postseason. It might have been his final start for Houston — he is eligible for free agency and figures to command a steep price.
Standing tall on the mound, Cole was unflappable in the face of 43,910 fans who went from fired up to furious to flat-out frustrated.
The crowd gave Ross an ovation when he walked onto the field for warmups, sympathetic to his situation — he had pitched a total of two innings in almost a month.
But when President Donald Trump was shown on the videoboard for about 10 seconds before the fourth inning, watching from a lower-level suite, fans let loose with loud boos and some broke into a chant of “Lock him up!”
The fans weren’t finished, either.
Cole ended his outing by getting Victor Robles on a called third strike, a pitch the TV zone showed to be off the plate. Robles chucked his bat, helmet and gloves, and the crowd soon began a derisive chant at umpire Lance Barksdale.
“I know there were some choice words but that’s just in the heat of the moment,” Martinez said.
Cole acknowledged he finished his outing “with a break.”
Most fans stayed to the end.