HOUSTON -- This being Texas, it was only fitting that Game 1 of the World Series boiled down to a duel. On the pitcher's mound stood Gerrit Cole, who isn't a Texan but sure could pass for one: tall, strong, bearded, long hair, bit of a snarl, fastball that touches 100. His weapon was a baseball. Standing 60 feet, 6 inches away was Juan Soto, the perfect foil, a baby-faced 20-year-old from out east, a charismatic, charming, hip-swiveling boo magnet. His weapon was a bat.
Three times they faced off Tuesday night, and all three distilled baseball in 2019 to its most delectable essence. Power vs. power, brains vs. brains, excellence vs. excellence. Major League Baseball exists for these moments because these moments are of what great World Series are made.
And to see the final score -- Washington Nationals 5, Houston Astros 4 -- was to see a facsimile of Cole vs. Soto: incredibly close, eminently compelling, loads of fun and stoking a burning desire for more, more, more. The Nationals stole home-field advantage from the Astros by doing to Cole what no team had done in five months: hand him a loss. Amid that, Soto did to Cole what it no longer seemed any man could: make him look mortal too.
Inside the Nationals' clubhouse, players, coaches, executives -- everyone really -- was one-upping one another to lavish praise on Soto. How young he is, how poised he is, how everything he is. Nobody described Soto quite like Johnny DiPuglia, the Nationals vice president of international operations.
"He's a dog that plays checkers," DiPuglia said.
"You don't see dogs playing checkers," DiPuglia said, and he was right not just that paws aren't nearly dexterous enough to move checkers pieces but that Soto is that rare sort of beast, someone unique. And not unique like, hey, let's call him unique because he is good at something or kind of interesting. No: unique, as in a literal one of a kind.
Soto is bark, bite and double-jumps all in one. He is the only player ever with two seasons of at least 400 at-bats and an on-base percentage of .400 and slugging percentage of .500 before he turned 21. The five others who did it once: Ted Williams, Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Al Kaline, Alex Rodriguez. Hall of Famer, Hall of Famer, Hall of Famer, Hall of Famer, Hall of Fame production.
The first-inning showdown between Cole and Soto, then, was quite the production. Since May 22, Cole had pitched 25 times. In those starts, hitters batted .166, posted a .220 OBP and slugged .300. In other words, over 169⅓ innings, Cole made the average hitter he faced perform like Blake Swihart, who hit .163/.222/.304 this season. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of Blake Swiharts.
Juan Soto is no Blake Swihart, though Cole treated him as such in the initial at-bat. First pitch: 97.4 mph, down the middle, up in the zone. Soto swung through it. Next pitch: 98.1 mph, another four-seam fastball, up and on the inside corner. Soto took it. Last pitch: 99.1 mph, paint up and away, at which Soto waved. Three high fastballs, three strikes, see ya next time.
Soto vowed next time would be different. He loves the game and the gamesmanship and everything that goes into the pitcher against the hitter. He harkened back to spring training, where the Nationals and Astros share a complex in West Palm Beach, Florida. He steeled himself for Round 2.
"Most aces are confident in their fastball," Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long said. "They don't run away from it. And he didn't. I give him credit. He challenged him with it."
Cole did. The first pitch was a slider that Soto, whose batting eye is nonpareil, took for a ball. The second was another fastball, up and away again, lacking the petrol of the first but still plenty zippy at 96.4 mph. Soto drove it to left-center field, and it just kept climbing, as though an escalator was escorting it up onto the gaudy train tracks that sit some 50 feet above Minute Maid Park's field. It was an immense home run, measured at 417 feet but so much bigger because Soto's left-handed swing sent it the opposite way, and that tends to be the domain of pull hitters and pull hitters alone.
"Juan," Long said, "answered."
Loudly and clearly. A 2-1 Astros lead was gone, the score now tied. Soto has done that a lot this postseason. He had the seminal bases-loaded hit that helped Washington win the wild-card game. His mammoth home run off Clayton Kershaw helped bury the Los Angeles Dodgers in the division series. And now here he was making Long's pregame prediction that Soto would homer on a high fastball come true.
"He's got kind the 'it' factor, he's got the twitch, he's got no fear," Astros manager AJ Hinch said of Soto. "I think that's really big for a young hitter early in his career to just kind of leave it out there. It looks like he's completely in control of enjoying the moment, and he hit all sorts of different pitches."
That was the third at-bat. The Nationals were ahead 3-2. Soto was up with runners on first and third. Cole threw another first-pitch slider, this one low and inside, and it missed the plate. He then lost two curveballs high and outside, running the count to three balls and no strikes. Cole spun a tight slider low and over the inside third of the plate for a strike and followed with a changeup that fooled Soto. The count was full. Five pitches, zero fastballs.
"That kid can hit fastballs that are 105," Nationals catcher Yan Gomes said. "He can always get a fastball."
For months, teams that scouted Soto sent that same report: Get him with the soft stuff; don't throw him heat, as he will embarrass you if you do. Oh, and don't give him anything up in the zone, either: Only Christian Yelich's slash line against pitches in the upper half of the zone bested Soto's .344/.432/.730.
Cole, who will obsess over pitch sequencing and selection and do so to great effect, didn't go high and didn't go heater. His slider on the outer half of the plate was low, but not low enough for Soto to miss. Soto tattooed the pitch off the left-field wall, and with Anthony Rendon running on the full count, the double scored a pair of runs.
It was, Cole said, a "poor pitch," compared to the home run ball, which he deemed a "tip-your-cap situation." Cole would exit after the seventh inning with Soto having gone 2-for-3 with three RBIs. Soto added another hit off Astros reliever Will Harris in the eighth inning. Already with the home run, Soto had become the second-youngest player to hit one in his first World Series game, and at 20 years, 362 days was only the fourth to hit a World Series home run before his 21st birthday.
Every time he went to the plate, Soto stared at Cole. He wasn't scared. He wasn't intimidated. It was not just part of his shtick where he dances around after pitches he takes as balls; this was part of his routine, his process, the secret sauce to his excellence.
"I've been here working on that since my first day in the big leagues," Soto said. "Sometimes, I just put gum in my mouth and try biting it, but most of the times just take a deep breath and just focus on the picture of me. Everybody around I forget about; it's just you and me. And that's how everything comes down, try to enjoy it."
By the "picture of me," Soto meant the space between him and the pitcher, the 60 feet, 6 inches, and how the rest of the world doesn't exist when he is in that space with a pitcher. Even Cole, who is arguably the finest pitcher on the planet, something about which Soto truly could not care less.
"Maybe," DiPuglia said, "he thinks he's better than the guy who's best in the world."
After Tuesday, who could blame him?
The Cole vs. Soto at-bats accounted for only 11 of the 104 pitches Cole threw. That they were the decisive ones in Soto's first World Series game wasn't altogether surprising. Because this is Juan Soto. And Juan Soto does special things.
Just look, Long said, at what he did earlier this week. In addition to being brilliant at baseball, Soto is exceedingly bright -- he learned English in a year as a teenager after signing with the Nationals in 2015 for $1.5 million -- and unfailingly polite. When they were at a team hotel earlier this week, Long said, his wife was having difficulty with a package. Soto noticed it, went up to her and said: "Are you OK, Mrs. Long?"
Long laughed. Not just at the earnestness but a little bit at how he still used the honorific in front of her name. Long was asked if Soto called him Mr. Long, and the answer was no. But when asked what he calls Soto, Long did not hesitate. It's the perfect name for a kid who turns 21 on Friday, who is scheduled to celebrate his birthday with the first home World Series game in Washington in 86 years and who celebrated his first World Series game by standing 60 feet, 6 inches from arguably the best pitcher in the world and outdueled him.
What does Kevin Long call Juan Soto?
"Mr. Soto," he said.