The relatively short history of the Washington Nationals can essentially be broken into two ages. The age of darkness and the age of frustration. But now there might be hope for something new.
Darkness was MLB’s first impression of the team after its move south from Montreal, losing an average of 93.1 games from 2005 to 2010 and looking hopeless as scandal laid waste to the team's credibility. Frustration dawned essentially when Stephen Strasburg first took the mound for the team in 2010 and created a vision of a different, more hopeful future.
The future turned out to not be that much more enjoyable, and still quite consistent. The team won four division titles between 2012 and 2017 and lost in the NLDS four times, falling in three winner-take-all Game 5s. All four times, the Nationals had home field advantage. They were supposed to be the better team.
So it only makes sense in that house of mirrors baseball logic that Washington’s first playoff series win since the 1924 World Series came as a wild card, against a 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers team widely seen as the clear National League favorite.
Nationals win after reaching the brink again and again
Well past midnight back in D.C., Howie Kendrick hit an extra-innings grand slam and put the Nationals up 7-3 in the 10th inning, a lead that would hold as Sean Doolittle put the Dodgers’ top of the order down in order. The Nationals beat the Dodgers in the NLDS 3-2, and will face the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS.
That 10th inning ended a game that felt all too familiar to the Nationals, who have now won 12 games this year after falling behind three runs. With Strasburg on the mound and looking to finally end the age he had started, the Dodgers quickly opened a 3-0 lead in the first two innings.
At that point, Fangraphs put the odds of the Nationals’ season continuing after Wednesday at 17.1 percent. The Nationals were in a similar position back in May, when they held just a 22.2 percent chance of making the playoffs, per Fangraphs. And again on Oct. 1 in the NL wild-card game, holding a 16.3 percent chance at the start of a fateful eighth inning.
Comebacks followed all three times. The Nationals went 64-38 from May 24 on after a 19-31 start, bashing and dancing their way to the NL’s top wild-card spot to save a season previously thought to be lost. Once the eighth inning of that wild-card game started, the Nationals’ bats woke up to shock the Brewers thanks to a clutch hit and heartbreaking error.
“We were 19-31 at one point and turned this thing around,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez told reporters after the game. “So I've said this all year long, that these guys, this group is resilient, they won't quit until the last out, and they play hard every single day.”
Now in the NLDS for the fifth time in eight seasons and looking for their first playoff series win, it was only natural the Nationals fell behind in the series twice, avenged both losses, then found themselves down again by the first inning.
Howie Kendrick hits his way into Nationals history
The Nationals clawed back in the eighth inning when their two best position players, Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto, went deep off Clayton Kershaw and tied the game 3-3.
The Nationals’ patchwork bullpen kept it together for four shutout innings, turning to rookie Tanner Rainey, starter Patrick Corbin, new closer Daniel Hudson and past closer Sean Doolittle after Strasburg sat down.
The 10th inning set up perfectly for Kendrick, loading the bases with no outs for the former Dodger who —at age 36 — has enjoyed the best hitting of his career this season at .344/.395/.572. Kendrick was previously facing an awful game, going 0-for-4 with an ugly error in the third.
“Howie's been doing this all year so personally it was no surprise,” Rendon said. “He's the epitome of a professional hitter. He's what, he's like 45 years old and still doing this. But, man, I mean we're all going to make mistakes, we're all going to make errors, we're human, we're not perfect people, that's a part of the game. He's not going to give up, he's just going to continue to keep on trucking and that man can hit. So he did what he needed to do.”
Kendrick’s resulting homer to center field will go down, for now, as the biggest moment in Nationals history. It didn’t have much competition.
Strasburg’s 14-strikeout debut, Jayson Werth’s Game 4 walk-off homer in 2012, Max Scherzer’s 20-strikeout game, the team’s three no-hitters and Michael A. Taylor’s Game 4 grand slam in 2017 were all thrilling, but never advanced the Nationals to the next level.
The Nationals have finally reached what has eluded them for so long: the NLCS. The jokes about never winning a playoff series: gone forever. Ryan Zimmerman, the Virginia native whose career in the organization goes back to its first season in 2005, has finally experienced those three elusive wins.
“To get past the first round, everyone, that’s all they ever wanted to talk about,” Zimmerman said. “I’m really proud of what we’ve done even though we hadn’t gotten past that first round, but to beat a team like that, that’s a really good team over there. It really did take everyone all year long. Tonight was no different.”
Now they just have to win four more games, then four after that.
Can the Nationals reach even further?
The Nationals will now head to St. Louis to face the Cardinals, who completed a series comeback of their own against the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS. Their Game 5, of course, had far less drama.
Facing a 91-71 Cardinals team that actually had a worse record than the 93-69 Nationals figures to be much less of a challenge than the Dodgers for the Nationals, but history has shown that a supposedly easier challenge has always yielded pain in the playoffs for the Nationals.
The team has thrown everything it has at the postseason to make up for the bullpen; co-aces Strasburg, Scherzer and Patrick Corbin have all made three appearances through six games. The team might not have a higher gear to reach for over the remainder of the postseason.
However, the chance is still there to advance to the first World Series in Nationals/Expos history with just four wins. The team faces some enormous question marks this offseason — Rendon is an impending free agent and Strasburg can opt out of his contract — but the biggest one right now is if the new age has really begun.
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