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Nats lead Astros 2-0 as World Series finally returns to DC

By Ben Walker

AP baseball writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — Walking off the field after the final out, Juan Soto smiled as he approached manager Dave Martinez and held up a pair of fingers.

“Two more,” Soto told his skipper.

By then, Minute Maid Park was nearly empty and mostly silent, except for a small clutch of fans behind Washington’s dugout.

Suffice to say, it will look and sound a lot different Friday night at Nationals Park.

Halfway to a World Series championship in a city that hasn’t claimed the crown since 1924, Washington has watched everything go its way in taking a 2-0 lead over the discombobulated Houston Astros, who were heavily favored at the start.

Not that anyone expected exactly this.

Those taut, tense pitching duels that were set with aces Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Stephen Strasburg on the mound?

Nope.

“Just about when we all predict what this is supposed to be about, the game will show you that you know maybe a little bit less and less the more you’re around it,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said.

Instead, the biggest star so far is a hitter — Soto, still in his first full season and already with a knack for clutch knocks.

It was Soto’s eighth-inning hit that rallied the Nationals past Milwaukee in the NL wild-card game. He then hit a tying home run off Clayton Kershaw in the eighth during the deciding Game 5 of the Division Series.

Soto was just getting warmed up, apparently.

He’s 4 for 7 with a homer and two doubles in the World Series, driving in three runs and scoring three and also stealing a base. And those shakes and shimmies he does at the plate, no wonder it’s called the Soto Shuffle.

And how’s this for timing — his 21st birthday is Friday, when Aníbal Sánchez is scheduled to start for the Nationals against Zack Greinke. It will be the first World Series game in Washington since 1933 with the Senators.

Just imagine the party Soto’s adoring crowd will throw at pumped-up Nationals Park.

“It’s going to feel amazing,” he said. “I can’t wait for it to happen.”

Soto and the Nationals wrapped up a 12-3 romp Wednesday night and made the Astros look awful in the process.

“Clearly, the Nats have outplayed us, bottom line. They came into our building and played two really good games,” Hinch said. “We’re going to have to try to sleep off the latter third of this game. I don’t want to lump this into a horrible game; it was a horrible three innings for us.”

Kurt Suzuki got the ball rolling — flying, rather — by leading off the seventh inning with a tiebreaking home run off Justin Verlander. Things quickly turned messy for Houston, and the Nationals pulled away with late homers from Adam Eaton and Michael A. Taylor.

“Not in a million, billion, gazillion years did I ever think I’d homer in the World Series,” Eaton said.

It hasn’t been that long since a team overcame this kind of deficit in the World Series, but it’s been a while.

Only three of the past 25 teams to drop the first two games at home under the 2-3-2 format have rallied to take the title. The last to do it was the 1996 New York Yankees against Atlanta.

The Astros led the majors with 107 victories and now need to win two of three to merely send the matchup back to Houston.

“You can’t dwell on two games not putting everything together. Something goes our way, one ball goes our way, one line drive finds a gap instead of going at somebody, and everything changes,” Verlander said.

“Things didn’t go our way,” he said. “We don’t have time to feel bad about ourselves. Reset and come into an environment that we know is going to be pretty crazy and be ready to play baseball like we know we can.”

Fact is, the Nationals know what they can do, too. They’ve won eight in a row this postseason and 18 of 20 overall dating to the stretch run.

Not bad for a team that clearly remembers when it was 19-31 and things didn’t look too promising.

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