WASHINGTON, DC – Josh James sailed a changeup high and tight to Ryan Zimmerman, going to a full count with two on and the Houston Astros clinging to a two-run, fifth-inning lead.
Catcher Robinson Chirinos called for another change. James shook him off.
Chirinos put down the same signal.
"It was one of those situations where I trusted him," James said. "He knew what to call and I just threw it."
James' second changeup spun off the inside corner and would have been ball four, but Zimmerman swung over it . The Nationals wasted an opportunity yet again as the Astros won 4-1 Friday night and clawed back to 2-1 in the World Series after losing the first two games at home.
Astros pitchers baffled batters when it mattered most, shutting down an October offense of uncanny timeliness.
Washington had a .314 average with runners in scoring position in its first 12 postseason games, 68 points higher than any of the other nine postseason teams. The Nationals threatened in each of the first six innings Friday but went 0 for 10 with runners in scoring position and stranded 12. On a night of pitching dangerously, Zack Greinke and the Astros' bullpen kept escaping.
"A lot more runs could have been scored there," Zimmerman said. "Had a chance a couple times but, yeah, that's baseball."
Houston pitchers had just one 1-2-3 inning, by Will Harris in the seventh , just the fourth time the Astros retired the side in order in the Series.
Unsustainable in the long run, but on this night good enough.
Chirinos, who also homered in the sixth inning Friday, spent six hours watching video before Game 1 at Minute Maid Park, examining Nationals' plate appearances all the way back to 2017.
"Just trying to look for anything I can take advantage in," he said.
He spent two-to-three hours at Nationals Park on Friday reviewing the first two games.
"How they're taking spins, how they're swinging at fastballs, where they're putting better swings," he said. "We're in the World Series. You have to put the time, the effort in this situation."
James relieved Greinke after Asdrúbal Cabrera's two-out double put runners on second and third. James' 0-2 pitch sent Zimmerman sprawling, a 98 mph fastball near the batter's head.
"I think it scared me more than anything, but that's part of the game," said Zimmerman, who was slow to get up.
Zimmerman took two balls, fouled off two, and took the first changeup. Then came the key moment.
"I know Zimmerman chases the changeup," Chirinos said. "JJ wanted to throw the slider. I didn't think it was the right pitch in that situation. Something I saw."
James wasn't hard to persuade.
"I knew if I got it relatively in the zone, around the zone, I could get him to swing, hopefully some soft contact or get him to swing and miss," he explained.
James, who got the win, combined with Brad Peacock, Harris, Joe Smith and Roberto Osuna for 4 1/3 innings of shutout, two-hit relief.
Greinke, pitching four days after his 36th birthday, was 0-2 with a 6.43 ERA in his first three postseason starts. He displayed his broad repertoire against the Nationals, mixing four-seam fastballs (39) and two-seamers (six) with curveballs (18), changeups (18) and sliders (14) to keep batters off-balance for 4 2/3 innings.
"We were kind of surprised early that they were swinging at Zack's curveball," said Chirinos, who was so alarmed at Washington's approach that Houston checked video to make sure Greinke wasn't tipping the curves.
Greinke's fastest pitch was 93 mph, and his slowest 67. He struck out Juan Soto, playing on his 21st birthday, on a 72 mph curve to strand a runner at second in the first inning, fanned Cabrera on a curve with the bases loaded to end the third and retired Trea Turner with a curve hit for a grounder to leave a runner at third base in the fourth.
With two on in the second, Victor Robles grounded a fastball for a 5-4-3 double play.
"He toys with the strike zone. He never really concedes," Astros manager AJ Hinch said. "He would rather pitch carefully to you than necessarily throw a ball right down the middle."
Greinke fell one out short of getting the win but was more concerned about taxing his bullpen ahead of Houston's all-reliever pitching plan for Game 4 Saturday.
"We might have used a guy a little more, to make it a little harder for tomorrow," he said.
Osuna, booed loudly when he entered, froze Soto with a 99 mph fastball for a called third strike to end it. The Astros lined up in front of the third-base dugout for handshakes.
"It brings a lot of confidence back," Osuna said.
Houston managed to avoid a sweep. And maybe more.