By HAL McCOY
Max Scherzer versus Gerrit Cole: Great match-up.
Joe Ross versus Gerrit Cole: Not so great.
A stiff neck and back forced scheduled Washington Nationals starter Max Scherzer to take a pass from his Game 5 World Series assignment Sunday night.
His stand-in, Joe Ross, was no match for Gerrit Cole and the Houston Astros. The Astros clubbed a couple of early-game two-run home runs off Ross and used them as the impetus to a 7-1 victory.
So, after losing the first two games at home, the Astros swept three games in Nationals Park and are one victory away from World Series rings for everybody.
After a day off Monday, the Series returns to Houston’s Minute Maid Park Tuesday night. And after the visiting team has won every one of the first five games, the Astros are afforded the chance to win it all at home.
A four-run early lead for Gerrit Cole is money in about four banks. And Cole took care of things.
Cole, a free agent-to-be, probably pitched his last game for the Astros before embarking on a search for vast riches. And he is leaving with an exclamation point.
Cole, a 29-yea-old right hander from Newport Beach, Calif., hand-fed the Nationals with a heavy diet of unhittable pitches for six innings, holding them to no runs and two hits.
Washington made one threat early in the game. Juan Soto and Howie Kendrick hit back-to-back singles to open the second. But Ryan Zimmerman struck out and Victor Robles hit into a double play. And that was that.
His only other minor annoyance surfaced in the seventh inning, his last. He gave up a one-out home run to Juan Soto. With two outs he walked Ryan Zimmerman on a disputed pitch.
Then the dispute went the other way. Plate umpire Lance Barksdale called out Victor Robles on a dubious high-and-outside full-count pitch.
That ended Cole’s productive night — seven innings, one run, three hits, two walks, nine strikeouts on a 110-pitch evening.
The Astros scored two in the second on a one-out single Yuri Gurriel that caromed off Ross and a home run by Yordan Alvarez.
Houston struck again in the fourth after there were two outs and nobody on. Alvarez singled and Carlos Correa drilled one over the left field fence for a 4-0 lead.
After Soto’s home run in the seventh, the Astros quickly retrieved that run in the eighth. George Springer led with a double and scored on Yuri Gurriel’s two-out single to make it 5-1.
Wright State University product and Cincinnati native Joe Smith was Cole’s eighth-inning replacement.
He gave up a leadoff single to Yan Gomes, then struck out Asdrubal Cabrera, coaxed a fly ball out of Trea Turner and retired Springfield native Adam Eaton on a pop foul.
Then, to put a tight lid on matters, George Springer hit Houston’s third two-run home run of night to make it 7-1.
Houston’s Ryan Pressly was asked to finish it off and had to face the thunder of Washington’s lineup — Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto and Howie Kendrick — but had the luxury of a six-run lead.
Rendon lined out to right field, Soto struck out, Kendrick grounded out to third. . .and the World Series was headed back to deep in the heart of Texas.
After scoring 12 runs in Game 2 in Houston, a game started by Justin Verlander, the Nationals went home and scored three runs. They lost by 4-1, 8-1 and 5-1.
The Nationals never led in any of the three games at home, That hadn’t happen since 1949, when the Brooklyn Dodgers lost three straight in Ebbets Field without ever leading in those games against the New York Yankees.
Now they face Verlander again Tuesday night and send Stephen Strasburg to the mound to save Washington’s season.