HOUSTON, TX – Justin Verlander, Joe Smith and Will Harris tossed the ball at Minute Maid Park as slanting light from the late-afternoon sun streaked through the large glass panels and across right field.
After arriving home at 4:30 a.m., they were back in familiar surroundings, yes, but home, sweet, home has been anything but in this contrarian World Series. For just the third time in Series history, the visiting team has won the first five games.
"I don't think there's really a rhyme or reason why maybe that's happened," Harris said.
In a tale of two cities, the Nationals outscored the Astros 17-7 in the first two games at Minute Maid Park last week. After the travel day, Houston had a capital time in Washington, outscoring the Nats 19-3.
"I think I would have rather played the last three games on the road, with the outcome," Washington shortstop Trea Turner said with a chuckle after Houston swept three games at Nationals Park.
This is the first time the road team has won the first five games since 1996, when the Braves rocked the New York Yankees by a combined 16-1 in two games to spurt ahead on the road, lost the final three games played at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, then were beaten in Game 6 in the Bronx.
Going back to the Windy City Series of 1906, when the home team alternated each day, the Chicago White Sox won Games 1, 3 and 5 at the West Side Grounds and the Cubs took Games 2 and 4 at South Side Park. The White Sox finally gave the home faithful something to cheer in Game 6, bursting to a six-run lead and winning 8-3.
Houston was 60-21 at Minute Maid this season, the best home record in the major leagues since the 1998 New York Yankees, and Washington's 50 home wins tied for third-most in the NL. Eighteen of the 30 teams had winning records at home during the regular season, and overall clubs were 1,286-1,143 at home for a .529 winning percentage, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Home clubs then went 17-13 in the postseason through the League Championship Series.
But the World Series has been a bon voyage of late. Including Boston's victories at Dodger Stadium in Games 4 and 5 last year, visiting teams have won seven straight World Series games for the first time.
Washington first baseman Ryan Zimmerman doesn't think too much of the trend.
"I don't think home and road matters in baseball, other than the walk-off, obviously," he said. "During the season when you're home for a 10-game homestand and you get to sleep in your bed and other teams are maybe on a long road trip, but during the playoffs you have off days."
Washington and Houston looked like two different teams after the change of ballparks. The Astros stranded 20 at home and were 3 for 17 with runners in scoring position, then went 7 for 21 with RISP in D.C.
"The confidence never left us," Astros reliever Joe Smith said. "It was just a matter of time. You could feel it coming. I could feel it coming. I think we all could feel it coming."
After going 7 for 21 with runners in scoring position on the road, the Nationals were 1 for 21 at home.
"We took a pretty heavy punch in the gut when it came to the first two games," Astros manager AJ Hinch said. "The Nats came out hot. They won a close game, then they blew us out late. And then you take a step back, and you're like, we're still in the World Series and it's still a race to four wins. You win that first win. I said that: I think the vibe was going to start to pick up a little bit."
Some players have said over the years that it's easier playing on the road, without the distraction of dealing with well-intentioned but time-consuming family and friends. Nationals manager Dave Martinez didn't think there was an advantage to being cosseted in a hotel.
"I'm not a big room service guy," he said. "I like to go out and eat. Houston has got some pretty good restaurants that I like."
Home teams are 43-24 in Game 6, winning five of the last six. The exception was 2016, when the Cubs overcame a 3-1 Series deficit and took the final two games in Cleveland for their first championship since 1908.
Washington right fielder Adam Eaton views the Nationals as road warriors, recalling a three-game sweep at Chicago's Wrigley Field in August filled with attitude — perhaps even a bit of road rage.
"We kind of had a chip on our shoulder, wanting to go in there and prove something," he said. "We're going back to their place where we've had some success. Hopefully we can have that villain mentality and come together as a group."