HOUSTON — Juan Soto and the Washington Nationals quickly derailed the Cole Express.
A 20-year-old prodigy with a passion for the big moment, Soto homered onto the train tracks high above the left field wall and hit a two-run double as the Nationals tagged Gerrit Cole and the Houston Astros 5-4 Tuesday night in the World Series opener.
"After the first at-bat, I just said, ‘It’s another baseball game,"’ Soto said. "In the first at-bat, I’m not going to lie, I was a little bit shaking in my legs."
Not even a history-making home run by post-season star George Springer — and another drive that nearly tied it in the eighth inning — could deter Washington.
Ryan Zimmerman, still full of sock at 35, also homered to back a resourceful Max Scherzer and boost the wild-card Nationals in their first World Series appearance — tres bien for a franchise that began as the Montreal Expos in 1969.
"They waited a long time," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said.
Otherworldly almost all season, Cole looked downright ordinary. Trea Turner singled on the second pitch of the game and the Nationals were off and running, ending Cole’s 19-game winning streak that stretched back 25 starts to May.
"I didn’t have my A-game tonight," Cole said.
Not what Cole or anyone else at Minute Maid Park expected, especially after he led the majors in strikeouts, topped the AL in ERA and finished second in the big leagues in wins to teammate Justin Verlander.
Cole had breezed through the AL playoffs, too.
Yet it was a further testament to an eternal truth about baseball: It doesn’t matter what you do the whole season if you don’t get it done in October.
"I think he’s been so good for so long that there builds this thought of invincibility and that it’s impossible to beat him," Astros manager AJ Hinch said. "So when it happens it is a surprise to all of us because we’ve watched for months this guy completely dominate the opposition."
Soto finished with three hits and a stolen base. Three days shy of his 21st birthday, the wunderkind left fielder also snared Michael Brantley’s late try for a tying hit.
The MVP when Houston won its first crown in 2017, Springer set a record by connecting in his fifth straight Series game to make it 5-3 in the seventh. But reliever Daniel Hudson threw a fastball past rookie Yordan Alvarez with the bases loaded to end the inning.
In the eighth, Springer put a charge into a drive to deep right-centre field, and it appeared as though he might’ve hit a tying, two-run homer. Springer took a couple of hops out of the batter’s box to watch, and had to settle for an RBI double when the ball glanced off the glove of a leaping Adam Eaton at the fence.
Heavily favoured at the start, the 107-win Astros will try to get even Wednesday night when Verlander faces Stephen Strasburg in another matchup of aces.
Scherzer slipped in and out of trouble for five innings. But every time the stadium got rollicking, he found a way to get out of trouble. There’s a reason ol’ Max has won three Cy Young Awards.
Projected Game 4 starter Patrick Corbin threw a scoreless sixth for the Nationals. Springer connected off Tanner Rainey for his 14th career post-season home run before Hudson fanned Alvarez on three pitches.
Hudson retired Jose Altuve, and Sean Doolittle got Brantley to strand Springer at second in the eighth. Doolittle then closed for a save to give the Nationals their seventh straight victory and 17th in 19 games dating to their September playoff run.
The Nats had a week off after sweeping St. Louis in the NL Championship Series, and easily answered any worries about whether the layoff would leave them rusty.
Leading the way was Soto, whose eighth-inning hit in the wild-card win over Milwaukee sent the Nationals on their path.
Relentless at the plate, he’s already become one of those rare players — like Springer — who seems to turn pressure into production.
"I don’t even look at him as young until you see his face. He’s got kind of the ‘it’ factor," Hinch said. "He’s got the twitch. He’s got fast hands. He’s got no fear."
Soto looked overmatched when he fanned on Cole’s 99 mph heater in the first inning. Turned out Soto — the third-youngest player to bat cleanup in a World Series game after Ty Cobb (1907) and Miguel Cabrera (2003) — was just getting warmed up.
Soto justified his place in the 4-spot, launching a leadoff drive in the fourth onto the train tracks to make it 2-all. He became the fourth-youngest player to homer in the Series, behind Andruw Jones, Cabrera and Mickey Mantle.
A while later, the ball was still resting there when the Nationals rallied. Eaton hit a tiebreaking double in the fifth and one batter later, Soto doubled with two outs for a 5-2 lead.
Zimmerman’s long wait in Washington paid off when he hit the first World Series homer in Nationals history, connecting in the second. He was the first player drafted by the team, shortly after it moved from Montreal for the 2005 season.
"It’s been a long ride," Zimmerman said.
Said Martinez: "My eyes got a little watery for him."
Cole left after the seventh, getting a pat from Hinch in the dugout. Watching from the front row behind the plate was someone who also knows a lot about pitching — Astros executive, Texas great and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, the Ryan Express himself.
Yuli Gurriel ended a string of narrow escapes for Scherzer this month. Opponents had been 0 for 17 against him with runners in scoring position in the post-season before Gurriel’s two-run double in the first.
Nationals: Strasburg was 3-0 with a 1.64 ERA in the NL playoffs. He went 18-6 and set a career high for wins during the regular season. He’s pitched once in Houston, throwing six scoreless innings in 2017.
Astros: Verlander is 0-4 with a 5.67 ERA in five World Series starts. He got this far with Detroit in 2006 and 2012 and the Astros in 2017. Verlander led the majors with 21 wins this year and struck out 300.