Astros lose World Series opener to Nats after sordid week off the field

You can play indoors and still be under a cloud.

On the field, the Washington Nationals conjured a surprise victory in the first game of the World Series as the aura of invincibility around the Houston Astros’ Gerrit Cole was punctured by the power of Juan Soto, the 20-year-old slugger. But as one of the finest pitchers in Major League Baseball lost for the first time since 22 May, the fallout lingered from a distasteful off-field episode.

Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein reported that after the American League Championship Series-clinching win over the New York Yankees last Saturday that sent the Astros to the World Series, “assistant general manager Brandon Taubman turned to a group of three female reporters, including one wearing a purple domestic-violence awareness bracelet, and yelled, half a dozen times, ‘Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so fucking glad we got Osuna!’ The outburst was offensive and frightening enough that another Houston staffer apologized.”

While a member of the Toronto Blue Jays last year, Roberto Osuna, the Houston closer, allegedly assaulted the mother of his child. Charges were dropped after the woman decided not to testify, but MLB suspended Osuna for 75 games. The Astros, Apstein wrote, saw the opportunity to acquire an asset on the cheap, and in trading for the pitcher without giving up much of value, “used assault as a market inefficiency”.

The Astros’ initial rebuttal was preposterous, especially since Osuna had pitched poorly and blown a two-run lead: “[Taubman’s] comments had everything to do with the game situation that just occurred and nothing else”. It also accused Sports Illustrated of “fabricating” the story.

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This was spin in the old-fashioned them-against-us genre, a closing of ranks in the clubhouse – but also a very modern and familiar attempt at media manipulation. Gaslighting instead of apologising; when accused of misconduct, especially by a woman, deny, smear and yell fake news, because truth is fungible now and victory belongs to the brazen.

After the account in the article was corroborated by multiple reporters, Taubman issued a statement conceding that he “used inappropriate language for which I am deeply sorry and embarrassed”, but insisting that his “overexuberance” was “misinterpreted”. Astros owner Jim Crane said the team takes domestic violence seriously, while the league equivocally said it would “interview those involved before commenting further”. There was no apology for the original statement, while Taubman concluded with, “I am sorry if anyone was offended by my actions.” If?

For all the brilliance and appeal of star players such as Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and the genial manager, AJ Hinch, the incident has made some wonder if the Astros are auditioning for the role of baseball’s Evil Empire now that the Yankees have endured a decade without reaching the World Series.

The episode has left Houston open to accusations that they care little about domestic violence or the truth; that this club, painstakingly built for success using cutting-edge data analytics and bold big-money trades, has a culture that marries toxic locker-room banter with boorish arrogance redolent of Silicon Valley’s tech bro excesses.

Tuesday’s game, at least, was great fun. Minute Maid Park is among the best of baseball’s boxes; drawbacks include those carbuncles at the corners, the Chick-fil-A “fowl poles”, and decisions to keep the roof closed even on days such as Tuesday, when the weather is perfect. But that rarely-retracted roof helps keep the deafening crowd noise pinging around the ballpark. So the sound of silence in the rocking orange madhouse was especially striking when Ryan Zimmerman, the first baseman who has been with the Nationals since they emigrated from Montreal in 2005, launched a 413ft home run off Cole in the second inning.

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Though the Nationals had a week of rest after their 4-0 National League Championship Series stroll past the St Louis Cardinals, the Astros – winners of the World Series for the first time in 2017 – entered the series as heavy favourites, with Cole’s imperiousness a big factor. He had allowed a solitary run in his past three postseason starts, all wins.

Yet on the biggest stage, he stumbled. Though the Astros raced into a 2-0 lead courtesy of Yuli Gurriel’s two-run double off Max Scherzer in the first inning, their lead was erased by the fourth through Zimmerman and then an even bigger solo blast from Soto, up to the train tracks above left field.

After overcoming adversity against the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers in previous rounds to give the capital city its first Fall Classic since 1933, there is a zany quality to these Nationals, a subversive streak that complements their obvious talent. When Adam Eaton drove in a run in the fifth and Soto added a deep two-run double, Washington held a 5-2 lead, reduced in the seventh through a solo Springer home run. Springer, a postseason home run machine, drove in another run in the eighth with a double that almost cleared the right field fence as the Nationals’ bullpen wobbled, but did just enough for a 5-4 win.

Houston host Washington again on Wednesday in the best-of-seven series as the Astros try to – as their slogan goes – Take It Back. All things considered, it’s a sentiment that should apply to more than their quest for the World Series trophy.

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