by Jesse Dougherty

LOS ANGELES — It was a fastball that ran right into his bat, the kind of pitch you dream about in the backyard growing up, with the bases juiced and everything riding on what happens next. So Howie Kendrick used it to make Washington baseball history. He used it to hit a grand slam, shattering a tie in the 10th inning at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night, sending the Washington Nationals deeper into October than they’ve ever been before. That’s what he did.

It came at 9:23 p.m. in Los Angeles, on the ninth night of October, marking the exact moment that pushed the Nationals past the first round of the postseason. Finally. They beat the Los Angeles Dodgers, 7-3, in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, and this is what an exorcism looks like on a baseball field: Four players trotting slowly around the bases while Joe Kelly shook his head on the mound. Their teammates spilling out of the dugout, stumbling onto the dirt, smiling and screaming and soon smacking Kendrick on the back once he crossed the plate. Then Kendrick hugging Manager Dave Martinez, his helmet torn off his bald head, his fists clenched and his shoulders shaking because this run wasn’t going to end like all the others.

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And there was later that final sound, an eerie quiet inside the ballpark, ushering the Nationals into a cramped clubhouse that they’d soak with Campo Viejo champagne and cheap light beer. The offense did little against Dodgers starter Walker Buehler for 6 ⅔ innings. Then came back-to-back homers for Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto off Clayton Kershaw in the eighth, tying the game in two pitches, setting up Kendrick to change, well, everything with a single swing.

“I can’t ever describe that,” Kendrick said in the middle of the Nationals’ third clubhouse celebration in three weeks. “It’s just one of the greatest moments of my career. Being able to come through in that situation, it’s what we dream of.”

Before Kendrick discussed this, before he tried to say how it felt, General Manager Mike Rizzo yelled his name — drawing out a long “Hooooooowie! Are you kidding me?!”— while dumping champagne on his head. Max Scherzer, the team’s ace, the pitcher who threw seven innings in Game 4 to make this possible, walked out of the clubhouse with his face in his hands. His eyes were red and dripping with alcohol. He came back moments later wearing ski goggles.

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Closer Sean Doolittle held a Star Wars lightsaber. Shortstop Trea Turner wore an North Carolina State football helmet while he floated through the fray. Yan Gomes wound up shirtless with a cheeseburger in his hand. Fernando Rodney ate an ear of corn. Daniel Hudson stood by the door, a Bud Light in his hand, sipping it slowly because he’s flying to Phoenix on Thursday where his wife is expected to give birth to their third child.

This is what relief looked like. This was years of playoff heartbreak crumbled into an unchained celebration, another unchained celebration, each one stretching the concept of what’s possible for this team. The past wasn’t on the Nationals’ side until the end, even after momentum flipped, even after Rendon and Soto made it okay to believe that this year could offer a new script. It never is once the calendar turns to autumn. Not until now.

The Nationals had been to the playoffs in four of the last eight years — 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017 — but never punched past the division series. Three of those defeats came in a do-or-die Game 5. Each one strengthened the narrative that this club shrinks whenever the stakes grow. But this year was different. The Nationals weren’t favored against the 106-win Dodgers. They had house money and Stephen Strasburg on the mound. They’ve had to win for months now, or so they believed, ever since they sunk to 19-31 and chose to fight instead of fold.

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“For the fans who showed up through all those miserable days that we had early: Hey, thank you, appreciate it,” Martinez said after the win. “And, yeah, we’re playing for a National League championship. A lot of fun.”

The minor details will always be overshadowed by the finish: Strasburg gave up three early runs, on two homers, but settled in to finish six innings on 105 pitches. He gave the Nationals a chance at another comeback. It began with Soto and Rendon, like it so often has, once Rendon doubled in the sixth and Soto singled him in. Then the Nationals chased Buehler from the game. Then came Kershaw, one of the best pitchers of this generation, only to give up two homers and the lead.

Rendon lined his to left field. Soto hit a moonshot to right. He spread his arms out as he rounded first, looking like a human airplane, lurching his teammates into a frenzy in the dugout. Patrick Corbin entered out of the bullpen, just two days after a disastrous relief appearance, and recorded four outs. Daniel Hudson got the next three to force extra innings. And that’s when the Nationals lineup really clicked.

“To win these types of games against this type of team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, your stars have to be stars,” Rizzo said. “Our stars were stars tonight, and I think that carried us through.”

Adam Eaton worked a full-count walk against the erratic Kelly. Rendon smacked a double when Manager Dave Roberts chose to keep Kelly in. The Dodgers intentionally walked Soto, bringing Kendrick up, and that’s when the 36-year-old took it 410 feet over the center field fence. He had had a rough series to that point, with three errors in five games. He grounded into a double play to kill a rally in the sixth Wednesday night. But baseball has a way of offering another chance.

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These Nationals may know that better than anyone. They learned it when they turned their season around in late May. They learned it when they were four outs away from losing the wild-card game last week. And they learned it again right here, in the exact kind of night that has always slipped away from them, now tilted in their favor because Kendrick had the final swing.

“As a hitter, you’re like, 'Man, they’re really going to do that?’ ” Kendrick said of the Dodgers walking Soto to get to him. “You want to go out and try to make them pay.”

The party wound down eventually. They always do. Doolittle had leaped off the mound when the last out found Michael A. Taylor’s mitt. The Nationals had mobbed each other on another team’s field. They danced and drank until the plastic tore off their lockers, then fell to the floor, then became something to wipe their sandals on as they packed up for a trip to St. Louis. “Closing Time” blared over the speakers. Word spread that it was time to go.

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Now they head to play the Cardinals and see what magic is left. Now they’ll test their fate all over again.

“It’s just the start,” Soto said, his face cracking into a smile, his voice cracking below the thump of the music, his prediction really not so hard to believe. “We’re just starting right now.”

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Inning-by-inning recap

by Sam Fortier

Tenth inning (Nationals 7, Dodgers 3):

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Howie Kendrick delivered the greatest hit in Nationals history in the 10th inning. His teammates set it up — Adam Eaton walk, Anthony Rendon double, Juan Soto intentional walk — and he brought them all the to plate. Kendrick faced Joe Kelly, in his second inning of relief for the Dodgers, and blasted a 97-mph fastball which caught just a little too much of the plate over the wall in center. Kendrick single-handedly pushed this team as close as its ever been to where it’s never gone before: the National League Championship Series. Sean Doolittle secured three more outs.

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Ninth inning (Dodgers 3, Nationals 3):

Dave Roberts turned over the ninth to Joe Kelly, the Dodgers’ erratic reliever with a 4.56 ERA who nearly let the Nationals back into Game 3. If this decision was reverse thinking from his Clayton Kershaw approach, it paid off. Kelly struck out the first two hitters and got Trea Turner to fly out to right.

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Dave Martinez went to Daniel Hudson for the most important inning of the Nationals season. The right-hander acquired at the trade deadline for moments just like this delivered. He had traffic (Enrique Hernández singled with one out), and he had scares (Will Smith’s flyball to the warning track in right). But he held the line (Chris Taylor lined out center).

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Eighth inning (Dodgers 3, Nationals 3):

The Nationals aren’t done yet. Anthony Rendon homered off Clayton Kershaw to lead off the eighth inning. Juan Soto took the next pitch back-to-back and the 2019 Nationals continued doing the least likely things at the least likely moments.

The dagger for Dodgers fans: Dave Roberts left Kenta Maeda and the right-hander’s ridiculous splits against right-handed hitters in the bullpen. Roberts finally went to Maeda after Kershaw’s second homer. Maeda carved up the Nationals for three strikeouts, all on sliders.

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Patrick Corbin hit Justin Turner to put a runner on but limited the threat there. He struck out Cody Bellinger and pinch-hitter David Freese to escape the eighth with the tie intact, something he couldn’t do in Game 3. The question now is how long Corbin can go (if Manager Dave Martinez wants him to pitch the ninth). He threw 35 pitches in Game 3 on Sunday. It’s unclear if he has many more than the 22 he’s already thrown. The Nationals would like to go to one of their top relievers, Sean Doolittle or Daniel Hudson, with a lead in the ninth, but that is up to the team’s bats.

Seventh inning (Dodgers 3, Nationals 1):

The Nationals had what was their best chance yet. It was painful — a ball hit Kurt Suzuki, ricocheted off his face and forced him to leave the game — but Trea Turner later worked a walk and finally forced Walker Buehler from the game. The young, right-handed starter departed with two on and two out in the top of the seventh having thrown 117 pitches. The Dodgers replaced him with future Hall-of-Famer Clayton Kershaw, who struck out Adam Eaton on three pitches.

Dave Martinez gambled in the seventh. The first pitcher he went to out of the bullpen was right-hander Tanner Rainey, not one of the three relievers who’d pitch in an ideal scenario (Patrick Corbin, Sean Doolittle or Daniel Hudson). The bet paid off; Rainey retired the only two batters he faced, both right-handers, and then Martinez went to the left-handed Corbin for the top of the Dodgers lineup. Corbin struck out Joc Pederson. The Nationals have six outs to go.

Sixth inning (Dodgers 3, Nationals 1):

The Nationals lineup finally broke through in its third chance against Walker Buehler. Anthony Rendon led off with a double and Juan Soto drove him in with a single. They snapped Buehler’s scoreless postseason innings streak at 21 2/3, and the Nationals dugout was amped. Unfortunately for them, Howie Kendrick grounded into a killer double play and, when Ryan Zimmerman struck out, the second straight inning with a real chance was left unrealized to its full potential.

Stephen Strasburg allowed a leadoff double, but he didn’t allow it to hurt him any further. He struck out Matt Beaty (on a change-up), Corey Seager (on a curveball) and Enrique Hernández (on a change-up) to end his empty-the-tank inning. The Nationals bullpen is on deck.

Fifth inning (Dodgers 3, Nationals 0):

Dave Martinez had a difficult choice in the fifth. He had his starter, Stephen Strasburg, finally looking like himself but due up third. Kurt Suzuki led off with a walk and Michael A. Taylor singled, setting up the manager’s most difficult choice of the night. Martinez let Strasburg hit for himself and he fouled off a bunt with strike three. The Nationals failed to drive in Suzuki and Taylor and, when you look back, that might be Strasburg’s most significant strikeout of the season.

Stephen Strasburg sailed through the fifth inning, retiring the Dodgers in order. He’s almost mirrored Max Scherzer’s wild-card game with five innings and the way the Dodgers scored those three runs (two-run homer to the No. 2 hitter, leadoff homer in the second). The difference in that game was the Nationals offense coming alive late. The question is whether they can replicate that magic tonight.

Fourth inning (Dodgers 3, Nationals 0):

The Nationals looked like they got the break they needed on a defensive miscue by the Dodgers. Then the Nationals got robbed of the second break they needed on an unreal defensive play by the Dodgers. After Juan Soto reached second on a fielding error by Corey Seager, Howie Kendrick hit a line drive to center which looked destined for extra bases. Instead, Gold Glove-caliber center fielder Cody Bellinger made a leaping catch and tamped down a possible Nationals rally. It was the story of the Nationals offense so far.

Stephen Strasburg finally started to capture his curveball command, but the question is whether it’s too late. The right-hander struck out Will Smith and Walker Buehler with the pitch, but he jogged back to the dugout with his team trailing 3-0. The onus is now not on him as much as it is on the bats.

Third inning (Dodgers 3, Nationals 0):

The Nationals squandered Walker Buehler’s walk of Stephen Strasburg and they failed to advance a runner past first for the second straight inning. One of the biggest talking points after Game 1 was the Nationals expanding the strike zone and chasing pitches. That doesn’t appear to be the case this time, as they’ve mostly stayed in the zone except Adam Eaton’s groundout in the first or Trea Turner’s fielder’s choice in the third.

Even when Stephen Strasburg escapes an inning unscathed, it’s hard. Howie Kendrick made his third error of the series when he booted an easy groundball from Cody Bellinger to let the NL MVP candidate to reach first. That didn’t ultimately hurt, Strasburg stranded him at third, but it did extend the starter’s frame and made him throw additional pitches.

Second inning (Dodgers 3, Nationals 0):

The Nationals couldn’t do much against Walker Buehler in the second, managing a Ryan Zimmerman single and not much else. Kurt Suzuki grounded out to third and pushed the offensive contributions from the Nationals catching position this postseason to 0 for 16 with six strikeouts and three walks.

Stephen Strasburg cannot locate his curveball, so the Dodgers are waiting it out and sitting heat. That’s how Enrique Hernández hit the game’s second home run. He watched a change-up flyball in the dirt and then crushed a dead shot to center field on a 94-mph fastball which sat in the middle of the zone. The only encouraging stat for the Nationals was that Max Scherzer did the exact same thing in the wild-card game (two-run homer to the No. 2 hitter, solo homer to lead off the second). The Nationals’ offense, though, needs to flip the script earlier than they did against the Milwaukee Brewers to have any sort of chance.

First inning (Dodgers 2, Nationals 0):

The Nationals couldn’t get anything going in the first inning of a win-or-home Game 5. Trea Turner struck out, Adam Eaton grounded out, Anthony Rendon flied out to the warning track. It wasn’t productive, but it wasn’t expanding the zone and helping Walker Buehler as they did in Game 1.

Game 5 started as weird as anyone who’s ever watched the Nationals play in one might expect. Joc Pederson hit an opposite field double which at first looked like a home run because it bounced into the bullpen, but on review it actually hit the mesh netting of the bullpen door and bounced through. The next hitter, Max Muncy, left no doubt. He crushed a two-run homer to right-center for Stephen Strasburg’s first postseason home run allowed of his career.

Strasburg, for his part, looked off. He struggled to locate his off-speed stuff and, perhaps anticipating the Dodgers adjusting to his curveball (which he threw 40 percent of the time in Game 1), he relied on his fastball. It didn’t pan out as he allowed the double and the home run — and a walk and a single — in a rocky first inning. He did not look at his best.

Pregame:

The St. Louis Cardinals are waiting. The Red Birds exploded in a 10-run first inning, and they never looked back in a 13-1 victory over the NL East-champion Atlanta Braves which secured them a spot in the National League Championship Series. Now, the Cardinals wait to see the winner of the late game, the Washington Nationals and the Los Angeles Dodgers, in their own crucial Game 5. If the Dodgers win, the Cardinals fly to the west coast for Game 1 on Friday; if the Nationals win, they fly to St. Louis.

The Nationals hope they’re flying to St. Louis on Thursday morning because, if they beat the Dodgers, the Cardinals would give them another chance to exorcise playoffs demons. The Cardinals were one of the four teams to beat them in an NLDS before this (2012).