WASHINGTON -- Howie Kendrick stood toward the back of the podium, off to one side, clapping and smiling in as much anonymity as one can achieve amidst a screaming stadium full of people. Like his Nationals teammates, Kendrick wore a gray “National League CHAMPS” T-shirt and hat, neither yet soaked in the beer and champagne that would come.
When his name was called, Kendrick shuffled to the front of the crowd and punched a fist into the air. He turned in all four directions, showing off a National League Championship Series MVP trophy as improbable as it was impactful.
At age 36, a year and a half removed from major surgery, Kendrick -- not Anthony Rendon, not Juan Soto, but Kendrick -- led the Nationals’ offense during their four-game sweep of the Cardinals. He hit .333, with four of his five hits going for extra bases. And so after Washington’s 7-4 victory in the clinching Game 4 at Nationals Park, Kendrick hoisted the trophy over his head and grinned.
“All the sweat, blood and tears and grinding, the losses, the wins, everything comes down to this moment right here,” Kendrick said. “I can truly say this is the best time of my career, the best moment of my career.”
Seventeen months ago, Kendrick was lying on an operating table, waiting for surgeons to repair his ruptured Achilles tendon. He was 34 then, at an age when even healthy baseball players start to decline. His season was over, and had Kendrick not signed a two-year deal at the start of it, he might have struggled to find another team willing to take a risk on him.
As it was, Kendrick was wedded to the Nationals, who used him initially as a bench player in his return from injury. That didn’t last long. It quickly ceased making sense for the Nats to sit Kendrick, considering he hit .314 in April, .333 in May and .344 in sum, clubbing 17 home runs in 370 plate appearances while alternating among first, second and third base.
By the time the Nationals clinched the playoffs, Kendrick had long since become an essential part of the starting lineup. He reached base safely in each of the Nats’ first seven postseason games, hitting a decisive, go-ahead grand slam in the 10th inning of NL Division Series Game 5.
“Howie’s got a big, strong bat because he carried us for three months, man,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “He’s had a magical season.”
Because Ryan Zimmerman was an original National, playing here from the franchise’s birth until the present day, his name is the one that surfaces most in conversations regarding those who have waited their turn. Zimmerman lasted 15 seasons and 1,689 games before making the World Series, while another National, Asdrúbal Cabrera, went 13 and 1,660 without reaching the Fall Classic. Among all big leaguers without Series experience, those two rank eighth and 11th in regular-season games played.
Kendrick is 14th on that list, appearing in 1,596 regular-season games and another 43 in the postseason before finally, on Tuesday, getting the chance to stand on a podium and lift a trophy and smile and grin as much as he wanted.
“I didn't really expect this coming back [from injury], but I know I love winning, man,” Kendrick said. “That's why we play this game, to be sitting here for this moment.”
Following NLDS Game 1, in which Kendrick committed two errors in a loss at Dodger Stadium, Nationals manager Dave Martinez took note of a photograph he saw of Kendrick, sitting miserable in the dugout, feeling he had hurt his team. Even if Kendrick wasn’t thinking it at the time, Martinez knew that resiliency comes natural for Kendrick, who is back now, healthy now, accomplishing things a decade and a half in the making.
“I feel like being around this long, I wouldn't change anything about the past,” Kendrick said. “Because this is just -- I mean, it’s unbelievable.”