WASHINGTON — The pimp job lasted 11 steps. The first five, methodical and languorous, allowed Alex Bregman to admire his work. His left arm extended, his blonde maple bat pointing at the ball that was about to breach the left-field fence at Nationals Park, Bregman walked toward first base. On the sixth step, the pace picked up, and on the seventh, he relaxed his left arm, and on the eighth, the transfer began, and by the ninth, the bat was in his right hand. He was already halfway down the line when he took his 10th step. And on his 11th, his knuckles to the sky, Bregman’s right fist opened. If you’re going to drop the mic in the World Series, it might as well be on a grand slam.
It was the seventh inning Saturday, and the Houston Astros already led Game 4 of the World Series, but no lead is ever good enough for Bregman. If Jose Altuve is the heart of the Astros, Bregman is their soul — all id, endlessly seeking gratification, loud and blustery and entirely aware of his greatness. No third baseman had hit a grand slam in a World Series game since 1964? Well, Bregman might say, just wait.
He is also, in many ways, the Astros’ metronome. When he lags, they lag. When he speeds up, they speed up. And his pace in an 8-1 throttling of the Washington Nationals on Saturday that evened the World Series was breakneck. When Bregman suddenly looked like his regular-season self, the Astros followed suit.
Over the previous two weeks, in the American League Championship Series’ six games and the first three of the World Series, the 25-year-old had gathered four hits in 31 at-bats and driven in three runs. Bregman’s struggles emboldened Nationals manager Dave Martinez to intentionally walk Michael Brantley to load the bases for Bregman in Game 3 — and he escaped the inning after a groundout. The struggles ended there. On Saturday, Bregman rapped three hits in five at-bats, drove in five runs and cleared the bases to double the Astros’ run total.
“It’s impossible to break him,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “And it’s impossible to get to him. He’s not going to fail. He’s just not. There’s not a lot of people like Alex Bregman.”
Nor, it should be noted, are there many teams like these Astros. Down two games to none after the Nationals stunned their co-aces Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander at Minute Maid Park, the Astros did not cower or fold. They did what Bregman does when he’s slumping: work. They’re at their best when they string together good at-bats, which they did in the first inning of Game 4, lacing four consecutive singles, including a run-scoring shot to left-center field by Bregman that scored Altuve and staked them to a 1-0 lead.
They would plate one more in the first, another two in the fourth on Robinson Chirinos‘ second home run in as many nights and get five shutout innings out of rookie starter Jose Urquidy, who previously had thrown a total of 4⅓ innings this October. The Astros answered the Nationals’ first run in the bottom of the sixth by going walk, walk, single to load the bases for Bregman.
He was facing Fernando Rodney, who at 42 is the oldest active player in baseball. Bregman most certainly did not respect his elder. Rodney fired a low-and-inside sinker. Bregman tends not to offer at such pitches. He saw 72 of them during the regular season. He put only 11 into play. Only three went for hits — all singles. Rodney threw a good pitch. Bregman is simply better than good.
“This game is a game of failure, and you’re gonna fail a heck of a lot more than you succeed in it,” Bregman said. “I think the feeling that I had when I hit that was I was pretty fired up.”
So fired up that he took his sweet old time to get to first base — 9.43 seconds, to be exact. The rest of the trot wasn’t exactly Bolt-ish: 28.71 seconds total, almost a quarter-second slower than his 28.47-second jog in a Game 2 blowout loss.
Alex Bregman says he was “pretty fired up” after hitting his seventh-inning grand slam in Game 4.
That was the low moment for the Astros, who hadn’t exactly sleepwalked their way to the World Series but certainly hadn’t worn their Sunday best, either. They haven’t hit with runners in scoring position. They haven’t gotten a consistent run of excellent starting pitching. That they haven’t more than they have and are still here, with three games left to decide a champion, two of them back in Houston, illustrates the sort of outfit they are.
Houston won 107 games during the regular season, 14 more than the Nationals. The Astros were the best team in baseball, the Nationals a wild-card team. Houston has gotten here essentially with three starters, not relying heavily on Urquidy, a 24-year-old right-hander, until he kept getting Nationals hitters out. He left the game after 67 pitches because Hinch is thinking ahead to a Game 7, a potential all-hands-on-deck chase for the championship.
Between now and then, the series gets Version 2.0 of Cole vs. Max Scherzer (Game 5 on Sunday) and Verlander vs. Stephen Strasburg (Game 6 on Tuesday). This World Series doesn’t rank anywhere near the greats, not yet, but the halfway point of Game 4 bulldozed a path for it to get there.
“This is what it is all about,” Bregman said. “This is why we play the game. Got great pitching, great offenses going at it. Can’t wait.”
He didn’t exactly say it with the unbridled enthusiasm of Bart Scott, but then Bregman didn’t need to. He’d already dropped the mic once.