What I’m Hearing: USA TODAY Sports’ Bob Nightengale describes the mood in the Astros locker room after defeating the Nationals in Game 4, tying the series at 2-2. USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — The Houston Astros, with the music blaring and laughter permeating the clubhouse Saturday evening, still can’t figure out what happened back in Houston.
They lost with Gerrit Cole. They were routed with Justin Verlander. And they got on the plane to Washington, D.C., wondering what in the world hit them.
Well, whatever the virus that inflicted them, it’s now out of their system, and they are back to being the biggest and baddest dudes in all of the land.
“What’s important now is that we got our swagger back, and we’re playing good,” Astros shortstop Carlos Correa said Saturday night, “and we are dangerous when we feel like this.”
The Washington Nationals certainly are witnesses to the Astros’ turnaround. Their 2-0 lead in this World Series has disintegrated in front of them, losing back-to-back games for the first time in six weeks after the Astros’ 8-1 rout at Nationals Park.
The World Series is now tied at 2-apiece, with the visiting team winning all four games for the first time since 1996.
So what happened?
Where was this team at the start of the World Series?
“I don’t know,’’ Correa said, “it was weird. I felt like Games 1 and 2 almost felt like regular-season games for some reason. We didn’t have our swagger. We didn’t have our flow. We didn’t have our hunger, wanting it so that you want to go out there and fight for it.”
They decided to have a talk about it.
Verlander and Jose Altuve reminded the team after their 12-3 loss in Game 2 that this still was the same team that won 107 games in the regular-season. It was still the same team that knocked off the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS, outlasted the New Yankees in the ALCS.
“We said, ‘We got to get our swagger back,’” Correa said. “We got to go out there and get hits. And get hyped. Get pumped. We’ve got to go out there and play the baseball that we were playing all year and were successful doing.
“We can’t just be out there and acting like it was normal. It’s the World Series. It doesn’t get any better. It’s the last series of the season, let’s give it our all.”
Well, mission accomplished, with the Astros outscoring the Nats 12-2 the last two nights, pounding out 24 hits, seven for extra bases, with three homers.
“We flipped the script,” Astros outfielder Josh Reddick said. “I think for the first time this postseason, the Houston Astros showed what we can really do with this lineup.”
Now, after playing eight months, 324 regular-season games and 29 postseason games between them, the entire season comes down to a best-of-three series.
The Astros have their Cy Young candidates lined up with Gerrit Cole going Sunday in Game 5 at Nationals Park and Justin Verlander in Game 6 at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
And the Nats have their co-aces lined up with Max Scherzer in Game 5 and Stephen Strasburg in Game 6.
“They won Round 1,” Correa said. “Round 2 is the most important.”
Indeed, Cole and Verlander were out-pitched by Scherzer and Strasburg in Games 1 and 2. It was the first time all season they lost back-to-back starts at home, sending shock waves throughout Houston.
The odds of it happening again?
“It ain’t happening,” Reddick said. “Gerrit isn’t’ going to lose two in a row. He doesn’t do that. We expect him to do great things, and JV (Justin Verlander) to be JV when we get home.”
So, it’s OK to go ahead and schedule that second World Series parade in three years in downtown Houston, considering it’s almost inconceivable Cole and Verlander can lose again?
“You can never say that,” Correa said. “It’s baseball. Anything can happen. But Gerrit is one of the, if not the most, dominant pitchers in the game right now. When he’s on the mound, you feel confident on the field, and that’s not going to change because he lost one game in the last four months.”
Well, to be technical, it’s five months. He lost a start for the first time since May 22 after going 19-0 with a 1.59 ERA in his previous 25 starts.
“Anybody,” Correa said, “can have a bad day.”
But for Cole to lose two games in a row?
“I’m not going to throw a jinx out there like that,” said Astros reliever Will Harris, who once again worked his magic, preserving their early lead and now retiring 27 of the 32 batters he has faced this postseason.
Still, this is different lineup now.
Astros catcher Robinson Chirinos became the first catcher to hit homers in consecutive days since Ted Simmons in 1982, and struggling MVP candidate Alex Bregman is back. Bregman came into the game with four hits in 31 at-bats since the ALDS.
“We don’t see Bregman struggle too often,” Correa said, “so when he does, it feels like he’s in an 0-for-50 slump. Guys like him and Altuve don’t struggle too long, but when they do, it seems like it’s forever.”
The Nats found out the hard way, watching him hit a seventh-inning grand slam that broke open the game, ending his night by going three for five with five RBI.
“You know Bregman, he was pissed off,” Correa said. “That intentional walk (in Game 3) set him on fire. You do that to Breg, and he’s going to come back the next day and be A-Breg.
“He’s born for this. He’s born for big moments.”
“There was a lot of noise around losing the first two games,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said, “and rightfully so because the Nats had outplayed us. I think we turned it around.
“But our mojo, our vibe, our approach, our banter in the clubhouse … our confidence level is at a pretty good level.”
Yessir, the boys that make their home deep in the heart of Texas may have wandered off for a while, but they are back.
Follow Nightengale on Twitter @Bnightengale
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