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Tasked with Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, the Nationals emerged unscathed

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The two favorites for the AL Cy Young award faced the Washington Nationals in back-to-back World Series games, but neither could will the Houston Astros to a victory.

MLB: World Series-Washington Nationals at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals could not have dreamt up a better scenario than the one that’s played out over the first two games of the World Series.

Entering the Fall Classic with six days’ rest, the Nationals shook off any notions of rust in Game 1 when the lineup smacked a couple early home runs before wearing down Gerrit Cole and knocking him around for five earned runs. Max Scherzer struggled early but gutted his way through five innings.

The only thing Davey Martinez probably didn’t like about that game was that he was forced to use Patrick Corbin for an inning, but the southpaw delivered and the back end of the bullpen held on to secure a series-opening win.

In Game 2, another beast took the mound for the Houston Astros in Justin Verlander, but Washington jumped all over him for two runs in the first. Their bats did go quiet for a few innings before chasing him from the game and unloading for six runs in the seventh.

Stephen Strasburg served up a two-run homer to Alex Bregman in the first, but he settled in and struck out seven in six innings of work. Neither Sean Doolittle nor Daniel Hudson needed to get off their seats the entire evening.

Those two victories have put the Nationals in the driver’s seat, sending them home with a 2-0 series lead before hosting the next three games—if even three will be necessary.

“We know the series isn’t over,” third baseman Anthony Rendon said after Game 2. “I think it would have been a success if we only came in and stole one game, obviously, playing at this stage and playing with the crowd and at their home-field. But for us to obviously steal two games from them at their home-field is great.

“But like you say, we still have a job to finish and we have two more to go.”

With all due respect to Scherzer and Strasburg—both of whom got the win in their respective starts—these first two games were won by the Nationals’ offense. It’s been the biggest surprise of the series, but the numbers suggest we could’ve seen this coming.

If any offense matches up well against Cole and Verlander, it’s the Nationals. The Astros’ pair of aces are both considered two of the premier power pitchers in the game, particularly Cole (97.2 mph average fastball). But Washington crushed power pitchers this year to the tune of a .797 OPS—the second-best mark in the league. The Nationals were especially effective at avoiding strikeouts against them, pacing the NL with only 326 all season.

“I’ve always said this: Strikeouts [are] not okay, regardless of what people say,” manager Davey Martinez said. “I don’t believe in it. There’s nothing comes from it when you strike out, you’re just going to walk back to the dugout. I believe in just putting the ball in play…And we’ve got better at that. And tonight was a perfect example.”

Although considered to be a fluky stat, the Nationals have also raked with runners in scoring position. Washington is 7-21 (.333) in such situations, and they drove in eight runs with two outs on the board. But this is also something the team has done all season, accruing an .887 OPS with RISP that led the NL and only trailed the Yankees’ .890 mark for the best in baseball.

Leading the way for the Nationals is Juan Soto, who became the first player to be intentionally walked by the Astros this season when he came up with two outs and runners on second and third. He’s slashing .571/.667/1.286, which is meaningless because it’s only been two games, but those numbers are just fun to look at.

But it’s truly been a team effort. Five different players have homered. As a team, the Nationals are hitting .307 in the series and every starting position player has reached base at least twice. It’s been a complete domination of the Astros’ pitching staff that couldn’t have been reasonably expected at the start of the series.

And yet, the Nationals were built to do exactly this.