How the Astros just gave this World Series a shot at greatness

WASHINGTON -- The 115th World Series became a series Friday night. The Houston Astros, AWOL for the first two games, served notice they were no happy-to-be-here pushovers. The Washington Nationals, winners of Games 1 and 2, conceded that their parade would take some work. Game 3 was a long, slogging, meh affair that ended in a 4-1 victory for the Astros, although that was fine. The evening served a purpose.

Beyond being the first World Series game in the nation's capital since 1933, Game 3 rekindled the notion of baseball being played until the cusp of November. It planted dreams of a seven-game fracas and guaranteed the Astros could start Gerrit Cole in Game 5, which, at least until the Nationals beat him in the first game of the Series, was enough to almost guarantee a Justin Verlander start in Game 6.

And in that there was great utility, because what this Series has lacked in intrigue through three games can be remedied easily over the potential final four. Actually, four was the number that helped win Game 3. The Astros got four (and ⅔) innings from their starter, Zack Greinke, and another four (and ⅓) from their bullpen. After going hitless with runners in scoring position over the first two games, Houston gathered four hits in such situations and scored four runs. The Astros even stole four bases. Four, after all, was their magic number entering the night: They needed four victories for another championship ring.

"We stopped the bleeding," said Houston third baseman Alex Bregman, as the Astros had gone from a paper cut in Game 1 to a festering wound following Game 2. Had they lost Game 3, no blood bank in the world would have enough O negative to replenish their supply. Teams down 3-0 in the World Series have won zero percent of the time. Teams down 2-1 in the World Series have won 34.4% of the time.

They didn't win Friday, of course, because they're the team with more World Series experience. Or because of the team meeting they held after Game 2. Or because of the pep talks on their flight to D.C. from Houston. Or because of lucky underwear or superstitions or some karmic cloud lifted by Brandon Taubman's firing. They won because -- ta-da! -- the Astros are a really, really good baseball team.

And maybe that's not a particularly satisfying answer. It's just the true one. Houston did most things right in Game 3. The half-Greinke, half-bullpen strand team was in effect, with the Nationals going 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position. The Astros fielded the ball cleanly, as opposed to themselves in Game 2 and the Nationals in Game 3. Houston hit enough. Not like the regular-season Astros. Those guys haven't shown up all October: The team's cumulative .222/.297/.377 line in 530 plate appearances looks like something offered by a bad catcher, not a team whose lineup starts Springer-Altuve-Brantley-Bregman-Gurriel-Correa.

They didn't roar back with a vengeance so much as ring the doorbell and ask nicely to come in. Josh Reddick singled home Carlos Correa for a run in the second inning. Michael Brantley doubled home Jose Altuve an inning later. Brantley singled home Altuve in the fifth. Robinson Chirinos homered an inning later. And voilà ... instant win.

It felt that easy during the regular season, when the Astros won 107 games. That Houston finds itself here, heading into Game 4 of the World Series when its B-level squad has shown up during October, is a frightening proposition for the Nationals. Because if it finally happens -- if Game 3 unlocked something in the Astros -- then this Series gets even more interesting.

It's already not half bad. As he did on the night Houston clinched the American League pennant, manager AJ Hinch will turn to a bullpen-heavy approach in Game 4 as the Nationals tab left-hander Patrick Corbin. All season, the Astros have dismantled left-handed pitching. Their .274/.362/.505 line during the regular season against lefties looks far more palatable than that of the postseason Astros.

Win Game 4 and there is a path to mirror the 1996 New York Yankees, who lost the first two games of the World Series in the Bronx before pummeling the Atlanta Braves in four straight. Though the Nationals showed their mettle in beating Cole in Game 1 and Verlander in Game 2, doing it twice? That takes optimism. And the Nationals carried home an abundance of it, having not lost since Oct. 6 until Friday night.

Now they've got Game 4, and then Cole, and then maybe Verlander and then an everyone-you-can-imagine potpourri of arms for a potential Game 7. And now this Series is starting to sound exciting again, especially with how Nationals manager Dave Martinez avoided using relievers Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle the past two games, which means they haven't been overexposed, which could make all the difference in the late innings of a long Series.

We're not there yet. But this Series doesn't feel like the sort that is ending without a return trip to Houston. The Astros weren't great Friday. They didn't have to be. Their good might just be good enough to make this Series great yet.