LOS ANGELES -- With one swing, Howie Kendrick erased so much pain and disappointment associated with the words “Game 5” in D.C. When he launched a go-ahead grand slam in the 10th inning on Wednesday night, it sent the Nationals' dugout into a frenzy, stunned a sold-out crowd at Dodger Stadium, made up for Kendrick's own forgettable series and finally gave the Nationals something to celebrate after so many years waiting for this moment.
The Washington Nationals have won a playoff series. Go ahead. Let that sink in. The Nats have only been around 14 years, so baseball fans in D.C. can hardly claim to be long-suffering, but four Nationals teams in the past eight years advanced to this point without going further. Some of them probably should have advanced. But sometimes baseball happens. Sometimes you run into a team starting a memorable run.
The Nationals are going to the National League Championship Series for the first time since the franchise moved to Washington from Montreal prior to the 2005 season. They did it by knocking off the top-seeded, 106-win Dodgers -- a team that by some measures was one of the best of all-time -- in the NLDS, securing the decisive game with a 7-3 win in 10 innings on Wednesday night. The Nats became just the fourth team in MLB history to win a winner-take-all game in extra innings on the road. After coming up short in this round four times, losing in three Game 5s (2012, '16 and '17), they finally left another team to answer questions about a disappointing exit.
“We've never done it before,” said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who has been with the Nationals since he was drafted in 2005. “A lot's been made out of that. I think I'm really proud of what we've done, even though we haven't gotten out of the first round before. But to do it, to beat a team like that, a really good team over there, it really did take everyone.”
The Nationals sprayed champagne, danced and threw beer around and on each other again. Sean Doolittle grabbed his lightsaber. Trea Turner put on his N.C. State football helmet. Brian Dozier lost his shirt. Fernando Rodney ate corn on the cob. After the celebration, the Nationals in the morning will head to St. Louis, where the NLCS begins Friday night at Busch Stadium. Despite Washington winning more regular-season games, the Cardinals have home-field advantage in the best-of-seven series by virtue of having won their division, while the Nationals got into the postseason as a Wild Card team.
"There's nothing any more emotional than just getting past the Division Series,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “We do want to get where we want to get. We've been aiming for that since 2012. We haven't reached our goals yet, but we're gonna keep fighting, battling, until we get it."
Even the leadup to this year's Game 5 felt different, for a couple reasons.
It started with who was on the mound. Stephen Strasburg carried the lowest ERA (0.64) for any starting pitcher with at least 25 postseason innings into Wednesday. Much like they did with Max Scherzer in Game 4, the Nats planned to ride his arm to victory. Except, Strasburg was not at his sharpest at the start of the game. The first batter he faced, Joc Pederson, hammered a ground-rule double that went through the left-field wall. The next batter, Max Muncy, swatted a ball over the right-field wall. The Dodgers got another run in the second inning, on a homer from Enrique Hernández, and right away the Nats were down 3-0.
These Nationals have proven by now, however, that they should never be counted out. Perhaps you doubted them in May when they were 19-31. You definitely doubted them on Sept. 3 when they were down six runs to the Mets in the ninth inning. Or when they trailed 3-1 in the eighth inning of the NL Wild Card Game, facing baseball's most unhittable reliever, Josh Hader, and the possibility of a postseason run ending before it ever really began. They trailed in this series, two games to one, after losing Game 3. On Wednesday night, they were down in the eighth inning, 3-1, once again, but this time with Clayton Kershaw, arguably the best pitcher of his generation, on the mound at Dodger Stadium.
No team in MLB history had ever come back from down at least three runs when facing elimination twice in the same postseason. The Nats trailed by three in the Wild Card Game and again on Wednesday, and they're still in contention.
“We've been going with 'stay in the fight' all year, so it's not something that’s new to us,” Kendrick said. “It’s been kind of been one of our mottos all year long, and we just stuck with it. Guys have kind of adopted it.”
And on two pitches in the eighth inning, the Nationals changed the complexion of the night. Anthony Rendon launched Kershaw's second pitch of the inning into the seats in left field. Juan Soto put the next pitch into the seats in center field, a 449-foot homer that was projected by Statcast as the longest of his career. Those back-to-back home runs will be added to the growing list of Kershaw’s postseason nightmares, while the Nationals finally found some good October fortune.
“To win these type of games against this type of team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, your stars have to be stars,” Rizzo said amid a champagne-soaked clubhouse. “Our stars were stars tonight, and I think that's what carried us through.”
Maybe because these Nationals also believed they weren't the team with expectations this time. The Dodgers had won back-to-back NL pennants. Their third-order winning percentage, a projected winning percentage by Baseball Prospectus measuring a team's underlying statistics and quality of opponents, had them pegged as a 114-win team. They were deeper, more talented, armed with the likely league MVP and have bulldozed through the rest of the NL.
“We had talked about maybe flipping the script and maybe having to win Game 5 on the road,” Doolittle said. “We felt like the pressure was on them and we came in here really just looking to play spoiler.”
So the Nationals approached the series almost as if they were playing with house money.
Given an unusable bullpen, manager Dave Martinez, who would've been the favorite to be the first manager fired on the train back from New York on May 23, showed his ability to improvise and innovate. He had three studs in his rotation (four counting Aníbal Sánchez, as Martinez will certainly remind you), and he decided he would rather go down swinging with them.
Strasburg pitched out of the bullpen in the Wild Card Game and then returned to start Game 2 three days later. Scherzer helped pitch an inning out of the bullpen in Game 2. Patrick Corbin made relief appearances in Games 3 and 5. Scherzer willed the Nationals to a win in Game 4 and set the stage so that perhaps Strasburg could do the same.
“It hasn't really hit me yet,” said Martinez, who brought camels to his first Spring Training as a nod to a team trying to get over the proverbial “hump.” “I'm stuck right now in the moment. I'm so proud of these guys and what they've done.”
And now this Nationals team has gone further than any other Nationals team in history. They were built on star power and relied on the bats of Rendon and Soto and the arms of Strasburg and Scherzer to carry them to the NLCS. Getting past this round was never their only goal, and there are more hurdles to clear, but first they needed to cross this one off -- vanquishing their demons in Game 5 at long last.
“I feel like we got that monkey off our back when we won the Wild Card Game,” Scherzer said. “Just the way we came back and showed the resiliency, the way we continued to fight the whole series and take every last guy to get this win. We faced a really good team, the Dodgers are a great team, we knew how good they were and it took all the way till the 10th inning of Game 5, man what a moment.”