by Jesse Dougherty

There was the crack of Howie Kendrick’s bat, of ball colliding with wood, before a double sizzled into grass and looked like the earliest of exclamation points. There was the resulting cheer, when some 43,675 fans find unison, when a four-run third inning is a reason to reach for a pitch-black sky and roar. Then there were Stephen Strasburg’s pitches, 117 of them, dancing toward the plate to find Kurt Suzuki’s mitt, or the comfort of dirt, producing clicks and clacks heard from the top of a swelling stadium.

And all of it sounded like belief.

Belief inside Nationals Park on Monday night — unleashed, unmeasured, almost unbelievable — came with the Washington Nationals’ 8-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. It came with seven dominant innings from Strasburg. It came with an offense that started and didn’t stop, not for any Cardinals pitcher, until it had scored eight runs between the third and seventh. And it came, in the end, with a promise: Take one more game from the Cardinals, just one in four tries, and go straight to the World Series. Only one team in history, the 2004 New York Yankees, had a 3-0 lead in a seven-game series and didn’t win.

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“We still have work to do. We’ve accomplished nothing yet,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “We’ll come in [Tuesday] like we have the last three, four months and try to win the game that day. That’s all we’re going to worry about.”

“Nothing is won yet,” right-hander Max Scherzer said in the middle of the clubhouse, about five minutes after Zimmerman did. “We have to bring the same kind of effort we’ve brought the whole time.”

This was, at the start, the ballpark’s first chance to host the National League Championship Series. A cool autumn day turned into a crisp autumn evening. News vans dotted the pavement around the park. Fans poured in off South Capitol Street, and Half Street, and every street leading here like a treasure map, finally solved, for a city to use as a guide to hoping in October. Their shirts and hats were a matching red. Their heads allowed the possibilities.

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And that’s because the Nationals, their team, have been on a tear since Sept. 23. They won eight straight games to close the regular season. They have won 15 of their past 17, with just two losses to the Los Angeles Dodgers, whom they would eventually upset in the NL Division Series. The Nationals have now directly eliminated the Philadelphia Phillies, Cleveland Indians, Milwaukee Brewers and Dodgers from postseason contention or the postseason itself. They have gone from fringe contenders to a full-on buzz saw.

So, yeah, Monday was different.

“We’re just riding a wave of a good time right now,” third baseman Anthony Rendon said. “We personally don’t want to get too high in our highs or too low in our lows and just kind of ride this wave as long as we can.”

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Only Cardinals starter Jack Flaherty stood between Washington rolling and slowing down. The 23-year-old had an MLB-best 0.91 ERA in the second half of the regular season. He attacks with a high-90s fastball and two breaking balls. But he was opposing Strasburg, who entered with a 1.32 ERA in 34 career postseason innings. Flaherty’s margin for error was minuscule when his outing began. Soon Strasburg made it disappear.

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Flaherty had not allowed four runs in a game since July 2. He had not allowed four runs in the same inning since June 25. Then he did, in the span of a blink, and the Cardinals stared straight up a mountain.

Flaherty yielded a leadoff single to Victor Robles in the third. Robles, in his first start since straining his hamstring Oct. 4, moved to second on Strasburg’s sacrifice bunt. Adam Eaton soon bounced a two-out single through the middle. Robles raced home and, with that, the fans jumped into a familiar routine: Nationals score. They scream. Then they waited to do it again, like a bag of popping kernels, until Rendon and Howie Kendrick delivered. Rendon spoiled a two-strike slider and one-handed it into shallow left. The Cardinals’ Marcell Ozuna couldn’t make a sliding catch, knocking the ball into foul territory, and Eaton sped in from first. Another scream. Juan Soto walked to extend the rally. Kendrick made the Cardinals pay for the mistake, whacking a two-run double to the wall into the right-center field gap, and that triggered the loudest scream yet.

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Strasburg didn’t tease at a no-hitter like the two Nationals starters before him. But he did collect 12 strikeouts, all with off-speed pitches, and had just an unearned run on his final line. It came on a Soto error in the seventh, giving the Cardinals a hint of life, but Strasburg finished by getting Matt Wieters and Dexter Fowler to swing through his change-up. Nationals starters had by then thrown 21 ⅔ innings in the NLCS without allowing an earned run. Strasburg’s teammates wrapped him in a group hug once he arrived in the dugout. He smiled while sandwiched by three pairs of arms.

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“You never know when it’s going to be your last game. You never know when it’s going to be your last run,” Zimmerman said. “That’s one of [Manager Dave Martinez’s] messages from the beginning: We’re going to have fun.”

They had piled on runs in a number of ways: another RBI double from Kendrick, yet another from Zimmerman, then a solo shot off Robles’s bat. They spent the night revving this town into delirium, suppressed by so many hollow years, and have spent three weeks checking teams off a lengthening list. Just ask the Phillies, Indians, Brewers and Dodgers how it feels. The Cardinals could be next.

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So could a World Series berth.

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Series overview

Inning-by-inning recap

by Sam Fortier

Ninth inning (Nationals 8, Cardinals 1)

Tanner Rainey locked down the save and delivered the Nationals a 3-0 lead in the NLCS.

Eighth inning (Nationals 8, Cardinals 1)

Fernando Rodney usually only does the bow-and-arrow after saves. He likely won’t get any saves this postseason, so he made a special exception for a 1-2-3 eighth inning that included a pair of strikeouts. See ya.

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The Nationals did nothing with a two-out walk from Trea Turner. No matter. They have Tanner Rainey coming in to protect a seven-run lead in the ninth. The Nationals are three outs away from a commanding 3-0 lead in this NLCS.

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Seventh inning (Nationals 8, Cardinals 1)

If the Cardinals had nine of José Martínez, maybe this series would be different. Martínez didn’t start the first two games — he’s a poor fielder — but finally, down 2-0 in the series, Cardinals Manager Mike Shildt decided enough was enough and started his best hitter. He singled off Strasburg to leadoff the inning and later scored on a bizarre play by Juan Soto. The left fielder fielded a Paul DeJong line drive and, while he kept it in front of him, he slipped making a throw and, after he recovered and rifled a bullet in, the throw went wide and Martínez sprinted home for the Cardinals’ first run.

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Strasburg escaped the inning with limited damage after that. He had a runner at first and second with one out and responded by striking out his old catcher, Matt Wieters, and then Dexter Fowler for the third time. He did not chirp at home-plate umpire Bill Miller running off the field. He let the cheers from Nationals Park do all the talking he needed.

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The Nationals got that run back. Ryan Zimmerman and Howie Kendrick, 35 and 36, respectively, have been the most productive one-two punch in the Nationals lineup. They’re 5-for-8 with four doubles and four RBI — about as prolific as the rest of the lineup combined. This is why Dave Martinez felt strongly about not changing his right side of the infield when he felt them going good.

Sixth inning (Nationals 7, Cardinals 0)

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Stephen Strasburg flat dominated the Cardinals in the sixth, striking out Paul Goldschmidt on three pitches and Marcell Ozuna on four. He dispatched the heart of the Cardinals and jogged back to the dugout as if this superlative performance in front of a raucous Nationals Park was easy.

Oh and if you had the Nationals’ only two home runs of the NLCS coming from their center fielders (Michael A. Taylor and Victor Robles), buy a lottery ticket right now. This is Robles’s first game back from injury, by the way, and he blasted an opposite-field homer in the sixth.

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Fifth inning (Nationals 6, Cardinals 0)

It didn’t matter who the Cardinals sent to the plate, Stephen Strasburg blew them away. He struck out Tommy Edman to start the inning, allowed a single to Paul DeJong but, when the Cardinals pinch-hit Matt Carpenter for Jack Flaherty — ending their ace’s night at four innings, four runs allowed — he blew Carpenter away too. The left-handed hitter watched a curveball drop in and headed straight to the dugout. Dexter Fowler flied out to end the inning and Strasburg, not done mowing down opponents, jawed with home-plate umpire Bill Miller as he walked off.

Two of the Nationals oldest players, 35-year-old Ryan Zimmerman and 36-year-old Howie Kendrick, smacked two-out doubles to expand the Nationals’ lead to 6-0 — as many runs as had been scored all series. Kendrick’s case for NLCS MVP is almost as strong as Adam Eaton’s, and for the Nationals, it’s a good problem to have.

Fourth inning (Nationals 4, Cardinals 0)

The Cardinals mounted a mini-rally with two two-out singles, but Stephen Strasburg quickly dispatched it. He got Yadier Molina to fly out to center and he trudged back to the dugout having hurled four scoreless at 66 pitches.

The Nationals squandered a leadoff single by Kurt Suzuki — the catcher’s first postseason hit in 18 at-bats — but it hardly felt like a big deal. The Nationals have already scored the most runs anyone has in one game this series (four) against the Cardinals ace who was supposed to be a stopper (Jack Flaherty). The Nationals boosted his pitch count to 78 and with his spot in the lineup due up in the fifth, might force him from the game.

Third inning (Nationals 4, Cardinals 0)

Anthony Rendon made the probable play of the night when he robbed the Cardinals of their second hit. Paul DeJong hit a rocket off Stephen Strasburg and Rendon, ranging to his left, dove to snag the ball as it went behind him. He scrambled to his feet and fired to first in time. Nationals Park got on its feet for the play and Rendon showed zero emotion. He spit sunflower seeds like he was sitting in the backyard on a lazy summer day.

Adam Eaton just furthered his candidacy for NLCS MVP. His run-scoring single off Jack Flaherty in the third gave him three RBI in three games and plated the Nationals first run of the night — Victor Robles, who fought back from 0-2 to single up the middle against one of baseball’s best pitchers in his first real at-bat in 10 days. Not bad. The Nationals have scored the first run in each of the three NLCS games so far.

Marcell Ozuna has had a tough night. He got caught between second and third in the second then dropped a tough catch (and made a poor throw home) in the third. Anthony Rendon’s double scored Eaton all the way from first.

Howie Kendrick drilled a two-run double to right-center off Flaherty and confirmed, indisputably, that the Nationals are currently a buzz-saw. The Nationals have as many hits in the third inning of Game 3 as the Cardinals had in Games 1 and 2 combined (four).

Second inning (Nationals 0, Cardinals 0)

Stephen Strasburg allowed a leadoff double to Marcell Ozuna, but he got out of it in a way any high school baseball coach would appreciate. He got a groundball from the next batter, Jose Martinez, and turned to catch Ozuna between the bases. He made a fundamental play by running directly at Ozuna, who froze and ran neither toward third or back to second. Strasburg tagged out Ozuna, got pop-outs from the next two hitters and headed back to the dugout at 29 pitches.

Bill Miller’s strike zone became an issue right away in the second when he punched out Howie Kendrick on this down-and-in two-seamer from Jack Flaherty. But now that the book is out there on the umpire, it’s up to the hitters to adjust.

First inning (Nationals 0, Cardinals 0)

Stephen Strasburg matched Nationals Park’s electricity in the first, striking out the first and last batter in a 1-2-3 inning. The right-hander did it on just 10 pitches and pounded the strike zone low and away, which will likely be a theme tonight with home-plate umpire Bill Miller’s large zone. Nationals Park was on its feet for the last out in what promises to be a memorable first NLCS game in the District.

Jack Flaherty, the 23-year-old Cardinals starter who reminds those around the league of Max Scherzer, retired the Nationals in order in the first. He walked Anthony Rendon but navigated around it by coming back from 3-0 to strike out Juan Soto. The Soto Shuffle returned tonight — he stalked forward, grabbed his cup, stared down Flaherty — but none of it stopped the young right-hander from fanning him anyway.

Pregame

Aníbal Sánchez got a big hand from Nationals Park. He carried a no-hitter through 7 2/3 in Game 1. Oh, to be a starter for the four days after a great outing.

D.C. Washington is not from D.C., but now he embodies it. The man stood behind a microphone at home plate and delivered the first words of the first NLCS game in Nationals Park history. He hit the notes. He went up and got “For the land of the FREEEEEE” and the crowd exploded. D.C. was ready.

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