LOS ANGELES -- The Nationals have had a couple of big eighth innings this postseason, starting with their go-ahead, three-run rally in the National League Wild Card Game against the Brewers on Oct. 1.
Facing elimination in Game 5 of the NL Division Series on Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium, the Nats conjured some eighth-inning magic once again to propel them to a 7-3 victory over the Dodgers in 10 innings, earning a trip to the NL Championship Series presented by GEICO against the Cardinals. Entering the frame down by two, Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto took Clayton Kershaw -- pitching in relief -- deep on back-to-back pitches to make it a tie game, 3-3.
“I liked that part of the lineup coming up,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “Back-to-back home runs in this ballpark is tough. Against Clayton Kershaw, it’s even tougher. But you got two terrific players. To win these type of games against this type of team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, your stars have to be stars.
“Our stars were stars tonight, and I think that carried us through.”
According to Elias Sports Bureau, it was the second time Kershaw has allowed homers on back-to-back pitches in the postseason, something he has never done in the regular season. Knowing he needed an aggressive approach against the left-hander, Rendon reached for a 1-0 fastball below the strike zone and drove it over the left-center-field wall, his first homer of the 2019 postseason.
“[Kershaw has] been doing this for so long, he's been great for so long, but I think we just maybe want to say we got lucky tonight or we just wanted to be aggressive,” said Rendon. “We knew that -- well, I personally knew that he's always going to be around the zone, he's always going to be a strike thrower. And we wanted to be aggressive and just try to put the barrel on it, and we just happened to get him tonight.”
Kershaw’s first pitch to Soto was a slider that missed up, and Soto did not miss it, sending it out to center field for his second home run of the series. The 20-year-old claims seeing Rendon hit his homer pumped him up for his own at-bat.
“It made me feel good,” said Soto, who became the fifth player with multiple homers in a single postseason at age 20 or younger. “Made me feel ready to go. He hit the homer, and I said, ‘Now it's in my hands, let's go.’”
According to STATS Inc., the Nationals are the second team in Major League postseason history to hit back-to-back home runs to tie the game in the eighth inning or later. George Foster and Johnny Bench did it for the Reds in the 1976 NLCS. As far as Rendon was concerned, that was the game’s turning point.
“I'm not sure if it was the crowd or the energy in the dugout, whatever it might have been,” said Rendon. “But I tried to stay [by the dugout ledge] the whole time -- you guys know -- so I kind of just can see the energy get a little bit higher in our dugout. And you could see the Dodgers and their morale [decrease], and even the crowd, people started trickling out. And so, man, we just tried to pounce on that and try to take advantage of it.”
Howie Kendrick’s 10th-inning grand slam was the decisive blow, but Rendon and Soto were crucial in setting up the comeback. The pair also combined for the Nationals’ first run of the game, when Soto singled in Rendon in the sixth. It was a continuation of the sort of work they did for the Nationals during the regular season, but this time, it came with the benefit of Washington’s first-ever trip to the NLCS.
“It's amazing,” said Soto. “It's just the start. We're just starting right now. We're going to get more.”