HOUSTON – When these Washington Nationals are remembered – in books, on bar stools, in bedtime stories for decades – it will begin on a chalk-lined diamond in Texas, at the close of the baseball calendar, with flying gloves and full hearts, when eight months ended, at last, in the daze of a long-shot dream.
That came once the Nationals won their first World Series, at Minute Maid Park on Wednesday night, after beating the Houston Astros, 6-2, to reserve a very large spot in baseball history. They are the first team to win a title with four victories on the road. They needed five elimination games to do it, treating pressure like a practice drill, and their final comeback looked like this: Anthony Rendon revving a sleeping offense with a solo shot in the seventh. Then Howie Kendrick stepping up, a runner on, to lift a flyball that drifted, and drifted, until it dinged off the right field foul pole to give the Nationals a lead they’d never lose.
Then 27 outs were tallied up – 15 from Max Scherzer, nine from Patrick Corbin, the final three from Daniel Hudson – and the celebration began. Dozens of players sprinted onto the field to make sure it was real. And it was. And it will be forever.
“Now this is the most 2019 Nationals thing ever,” said closer Sean Doolittle, his teammates calling him for a photo on the mound, his red beard not yet soaked with alcohol that would drench another October night. “To win a Game 7 like this, an elimination game, we’ve played in every elimination this postseason. So very familiar territory for the boys right there.”
This was always about defying odds, about chance, about meeting expectations, then passing them, then shattering them into a million tiny pieces. That’s what the Nationals did this year. That’s what they did, starting in mid-May, once their record sunk to 19-31 and their season went on life support. That’s what they did in the postseason, stacking wins, surviving once against the Milwaukee Brewers, twice against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and on Tuesday here in Houston to hinge an eight-month season – to hinge everything – on one last game.
The Astros once grabbed ahold of it. Scherzer, starting just three days after he couldn’t move his right arm, was knocked around in the early innings. He missed a Game 5 start with neck spasms and nerve irritation below his throwing shoulder. He couldn’t get out of bed without falling down, couldn’t get dressed on his own, couldn’t turn to look at someone without shifting his whole body. Then he was back on the mound, with the help of a cortisone shot, and punched through the biggest start of his career.
Yuli Gurriel first tagged him with a solo homer in the second. He threw 55 pitches before finishing the third, a high total, and only two of them produced a swing and miss. The Astros’ first strikeout came in their 17th at-bat. But Nationals Manager Dave Martinez didn’t rush to the bullpen phone. Instead, in a test of patience and sanity and maybe pride, Martinez rode Scherzer through five roller-coaster frames.
And the Nationals trailed by only two runs when Scherzer exited. He gave them a chance. The offense couldn’t touch Zack Greinke to that point, through six dominant innings, but that took a sharp turn in the seventh. Rendon gave Washington its pulse with that solo homer. He had eight at-bats in elimination games this postseason, each one larger than the last, and collected a walk, double, homer, double, homer, double and finally, the homer off Greinke in those plate appearances. Greinke was gone after walking Juan Soto with one out. Then, after Will Harris entered in relief, Kendrick poked his two-run shot to put the Nationals ahead for good.
“I was just saying stay fair, stay fair, stay fair,” said Ryan Zimmerman, tears in his eyes during the on-field celebration, of Kendrick’s bending homer. “We got some breaks this year. That ball stayed fair.”
Corbin used 44 pitches to shove the Astros into winter. Soto added an insurance run by ripping an RBI single in the top of the eighth. Eaton tacked on two more with a single in the ninth. Then it became a countdown of outs. Then three became two, and two become one, and one became zero to unleash the Nationals into a bouncing crowd surrounding Hudson on the field. Their yells could be heard in the top decks of the stadium. Their faces stretched with the kind of joy that only comes when, finally, everything is exactly right.
Because now, very soon, is when those faces will go and change. At least some of them. Rendon becomes a free agent Thursday morning. Strasburg could, too, if he uses an opt-out clause in his contract. Ryan Zimmerman, with this club since it arrived in Washington, has an uncertain future with the team. Kendrick, Hudson, Matt Adams, Brian Dozier, Asdrúbal Cabrera and Gerardo Parra will hit the open market. But they will always be linked, from Scherzer on down to Javy Guerra, from ownership to the clubhouse staff, as the group that shocked everyone but themselves.
That’s what a championship does. It binds. It will make this team live on, and on, because it delivered what no other could. None of them will forget Scherzer, staring straight into trouble, sidestepping danger with his fastball and his change-up and a will to make the moment his. None of them will ever forget Rendon lifting that ball over left field, deep into the seats, pulling the Nationals off the brink of defeat and right back into the fight. None of them will forget Kendrick – because how could they? – his fists balled with excitement, rounding the bases in slow motion, looking as if he were still trying to process what just happened.
Everyone was. Kendrick’s teammates in the dugout. A quieted stadium that stood, stock-still, and begged for one more shift of luck. The thousands back at Nationals Park, sitting in rain-soaked seats, screaming themselves hoarse, staring at a giant video board that showed their team closing in on one last win. They braved the weather, and the years of autumn heartbreak, to watch what unfolded Wednesday night. They were joined by the loud living rooms in the District of Columbia, in Maryland, in Virginia, by the kids who stayed up too late, by those who will need an extra cup of coffee, or three, to make it through work without smiling themselves to sleep. And soon they’ll all see a parade.
“Some people think it’s a long time coming, because y’all had us picked for a long time,” Rendon said. “But that just shows baseball’s not easy.”
These Nationals took Washington to its first World Series in 86 years. They opened imaginations and let them run like a fire hose. They made it OK, for more than one moment, for weeks on end, for a weary city to believe in baseball. Then they turned that belief into something much bigger. Now a title is permanently theirs.