by Jesse Dougherty

After 86 years, after losing a baseball team for decades, then getting it back, then wondering if it would ever win the big game — or ever stop breaking hearts — the city had one more wait.

It had to wait for a finish that seemed predetermined when the Washington Nationals stepped on the field Tuesday night. It had to wait because, in this sport, there’s nothing more dangerous than assumption. The Nationals were going to the World Series. That felt clear once they scored seven runs in a first inning that left little doubt. It felt clear long before the Nationals beat the St. Louis Cardinals, 7-4, to complete a four-game sweep in a National League Championship Series that was one-sided from the start. It felt a little less clear after Patrick Corbin wilted, giving four runs back, but the bullpen held strong, navigated the last 12 outs and, with that, turned waiting into sheer delirium.

Because it wasn’t until the contest was over — really, really over — that the Nationals could claim Washington’s first pennant since 1933. And when they did, when history collided with fate, when nothing could stand between them and the promise of a chance, they sprinted onto the field in celebration. They smiled through screams. Their relievers ran in from the bullpen, and gloves were thrown into the cool fall air, and fireworks smoke hung over a moment that was elusive no more.

“I can’t put this into words,” said Manager Dave Martinez, standing on a stage over second base, surrounded by ownership and the front office and the players that made this possible. Then Martinez reached for something his mother always told him. “I’ll say this: Often bumpy roads lead to beautiful places. And this is a beautiful place.”

That triggered one of the biggest cheers of the night. The Nationals will soon play either the Houston Astros or the New York Yankees for the title. They’ll arrive there having slipped to 19-31 in mid-May, surged through the final four months of a once-lost season and collected themselves for two dances with death in the earlier rounds. First, there was Juan Soto slapping a three-run single to oust the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL wild-card game. Then there were Anthony Rendon and Soto hitting back-to-back homers off Clayton Kershaw, on back-to-back pitches, before Howie Kendrick’s grand slam buried the Dodgers in Los Angeles. Next there were the Cardinals, a team that stood no chance, who were only in the way of a bulldozer without brakes.

Then came the fourth champagne celebration in the past three weeks.

“It’s kind of tough to say what’s going to happen in the playoffs,” said Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg, Budweiser dripping off his beard, a smile planted on his face. “You have a great year, and you can run into a buzz saw. Maybe this year we’re the buzz saw.”

They have been to this point. They buried the Cardinals by scoring seven runs in the bottom of the first Tuesday night. Corbin became the first pitcher to strike out 10 in the first four innings of a postseason game. It took the Cardinals 252/3 innings to score a run off a Nationals starter in the series. St. Louis nudged back into Game 4 and had a faint pulse, but Washington’s bullpen handled the rest. The chain was Tanner Rainey to Sean Doolittle to Daniel Hudson, the team’s unwilling closer, who notched the final out and tossed his mitt toward the sky. He planned the celebration, modeling Doolittle’s from the National League Division Series, and soon they were hugging friends and family on the field.

Most of the crowd stayed, close to 44,000 on their feet, craning their necks, lifting their cellphones, storing images for forever. They screamed themselves hoarse when the Nationals ducked into the dugout and out of sight, one after another, ready to grab a bottle and start spraying their clubhouse once again. They chugged light beer. They poured it on each other’s heads. They danced to all kinds of music — Mexican pop, rap, even slow country — and that’s when Max Scherzer stumbled into a quiet part of the room.

Scherzer, the team’s ace, its backbone, the pitcher who has lifted them to so many heights, drifted off by himself. He hopped up and down. He couldn’t stop grinning. Then he walked up to a row of plastic-lined lockers, stared right into them, and cried. They came and went, those tears, but they’d been suppressed by years of missed opportunity. He quickly wiped his red face, drops of alcohol flying off it, and did a light jog back in the mix. There was a team to party with. And, whenever it dissipated, there’d be one more to chase.

“It took the entire roster,” Scherzer said. “Everyone on the roster had a hand in it.”

This all began back in early February, in West Palm Beach, Fla., on a cool morning that signaled the return of familiar routine. That was 245 days ago. Martinez stood by his office and sipped coffee from a foam cup. Scherzer charged toward the batting cages with a fresh helmet pushed onto his head. And there those two words — World Series — blended into quiet conversations, bent into a new shape once superstar Bryce Harper departed for Philadelphia. They’re now a constant in Washington, at least in spring, when hope floats higher than the beating sun. This season was no different. It began with dreams.

Yet they were dimmed, considerably, by a start that put the Nationals on life support. Martinez’s job was in jeopardy. There seemed to be good, logical reasons to trade cornerstone veterans. There was no reason to believe the remaining season, let alone autumn, would ever count. But Martinez didn’t panic. Neither did the team around him. Mark Lerner, the managing principal owner, says now that he never considered firing Martinez. He didn’t know if the season would turn around — he even admits wondering how it could — but trusted the coaches and players to try. Trust is a common word around here. So they turned a final chance into a whole lot more.

They first woke up on the doorstep of summer. Then they went into overdrive, going on the best 80-game stretch in club history, later tossing the Brewers and Dodgers off their postseason path. Then there they were Tuesday night, bashing the Cardinals one last time, earning baseball’s right to play on.

Only two teams get a shot in the World Series each October. The Washington Nationals will be one of them.

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Inning-by-inning recap

by Sam Fortier

Ninth inning (Nationals 7, Cardinals 4)

Daniel Hudson threw 15 pitches in the eighth, but he returned for the ninth because the only other work he’d had this series was five pitches in Game 2. Plus, he’d have six days off before the World Series if he got through it. So, here he came, with Nationals Park on its feet, waiting for something this city hadn’t seen in 86 years. Then, suddenly, he’d done it. He’d secured the most important save in team history. Players poured from the dugout and the stadium, in one voice, screamed. This team had really, finally, done it.

Eighth inning (Nationals 7, Cardinals 4)

Sean Doolittle returned to the mound in the eighth to face the heart of the Cardinals lineup. He got their hottest hitter, Jose Martinez, to ground out to short. He got their struggling No. 3 hitter, Paul Goldschmidt, to fly to center. The cleanup hitter, Marcell Ozuna, poked a single to right, and Manager Dave Martinez marched to the mound. The closer, Daniel Hudson, jogged in.

Hudson hit his first batter, Yadier Molina, and brought the Cardinals’ potential winning run to the plate. Then Hudson put that runner on base by walking Paul DeJong. The Cardinals pinch-hit Matt Carpenter for center fielder Harrison Bader. Carpenter was 0-for-7 in his career against Hudson with one walk and one strikeout. The Nationals’ right-hander dug in, got Carpenter to ground out to second and they escaped back to the dugout with the three-run lead intact.

The Nationals did nothing in the eighth. It didn’t matter. All anyone cared about was Daniel Hudson getting back to the mound because he was the one who could deliver this crowd what it wanted more than anything.

Seventh inning (Nationals 7, Cardinals 4)

Dave Martinez managed aggressively in the seventh. He deployed his high-leverage left-hander Sean Doolittle against the bottom of the order and he retired the Cardinals order on nine pitches. He should be available again in the eighth.

Juan Soto looks back back. He followed up a rocket double in the first with a single up the middle against tough left-hander Andrew Miller in the eighth. He flied out twice in between but, after his struggles earlier this series, it was a significant development. Still, it did the Nationals no good otherwise because Howie Kendrick struck out. The Nationals have six outs to go.

Sixth inning (Nationals 7, Cardinals 4)

Tanner Rainey has quickly become one of the Nationals’ most important relievers. The rookie right-hander acquired from the Cincinnati Reds last December in the Tanner Roark trade consistently hit 100 mph on his fastball for a 1-2-3 inning in sixth. He figures to be a big character in the World Series. Meanwhile, Trea Turner had an unbelievable snag.

Finally, Dave Martinez gave Nationals Park what it wanted. He gave them “Baby Shark.” The Nationals pinch-hit Gerardo Parra in the pitcher’s spot in the seventh inning and, suddenly, more than 43,000 people were on their feet chomping along to the child’s song that the outfielder once used on a whim during a slump months ago. His single did not propel the offense, Trea Turner struck out to end the inning, but it gave Nationals Park a moment it had waited for all season.

Fifth inning (Nationals 7, Cardinals 4)

The Cardinals offense finally made Patrick Corbin work. The left-hander got the leadoff hitter, Harrison Bader, down 0-2, but then his command waved. He walked Bader, allowed a single to Kolten Wong and walked Dexter Fowler. Tommy Edman’s soft groundball to second base plated Bader and the Cardinals had drawn to 7-2 — and Corbin’s command looked no better.

Nationals Park hushed for a second after José Martínez, the Cardinals’ most dangerous hitter all series, smashed a double to right-center. Fowler and Edman sprinted around, and they drew the Cardinals to within three. The Nationals left Corbin in, but they have Tanner Rainey warming in the bullpen.

Corbin finally escaped the jam by striking out the Cardinals’ Nos. 3 and 4 hitters, Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna, but the inning cost him. He threw 39 pitches and, now, the Nationals would need their bullpen to possibly carry them the rest of the way.

The Nationals offense has one hit since its seven-run outburst in the first inning — and that was to lead off the second. The bats have gone cold, and that’s concerning because the Nationals’ lead has been trimmed to three. Tanner Rainey is coming in to pitch the sixth.

Fourth inning (Nationals 7, Cardinals 1)

Patrick Corbin was cruising, having struck out the first two Cardinals he faced, until he ran into Yadier Molina. The Cardinals catcher smacked the first pitch he saw, a sinker, into the center field seats. It was the first Cardinals run of the series without an accompanying Nationals defensive miscue.

Corbin bounced back to fan Paul DeJong for the second time to reach 10 strikeouts. The left-hander’s season high is 11, which he did four times, and he’s almost there after only four innings and 55 pitches.

The Nationals made nothing of a two-out Adam Eaton walk. No matter. There are 15 outs between them and the World Series.

Third inning (Nationals 7, Cardinals 0)

Patrick Corbin may not push a no-hitter as far as his teammates in Games 1 or 2 — he allowed a one-out single to Kolten Wong — but he seems determined to deliver the most dominant starting pitching performance. His first trip through the order ended with the Cardinals 1-for-9 with seven strikeouts. Max Scherzer struck out 11 in Game 2, and Stephen Strasburg fanned 12 in Game 3, and Corbin’s already more than halfway there after three innings. He could be coming for that mantle.

Cardinals reliever Ryan Helsley retired the Nationals in order but, with a 7-0 lead, the focus remains on the number of outs. The Nationals have 18 left.

Second inning (Nationals 7, Cardinals 0)

Well, Patrick Corbin struck out the leadoff hitter to make it four in a row. He allowed contact to Yadier Molina, but it zipped straight into the glove of first baseman Ryan Zimmerman. He struck out the next hitter, Paul DeJong, too. The Nationals starter has a no-hitter; the Cardinals starter didn’t make it out of the first inning.

The Nationals kept the hits rolling — Anthony Rendon led off with a single — but couldn’t do much more with it. Juan Soto flied out to deep left and Howie Kendrick grounded into an inning-ending double play. Nationals Park seemed affronted that an inning could end after just three batters.

First inning (Nationals 7, Cardinals 0)

New boss, same as the old boss. Nationals starting pitcher Patrick Corbin came out amped up — his fastball touched 95 mph, two mph faster than normal — and he blew away three straight Cardinals hitters. Tommy Edman, José Martínez and Paul Goldschmidt struck out swinging on fastballs, which spelled trouble, because that’s not even Corbin’s best pitch. Watch out for the slider.

Anthony Rendon had nine sacrifice flies this season and at least half of them drove in Trea Turner. They apparently kept the formula going for the postseason, and Rendon drove a fly deep to center to score Turner in the first.

Juan Soto had struggled this series and looked the part, pulling his front side often at the plate. He put a perfect swing on a Dakota Hudson sinker low and away this time, flicking it down the left-field line to drive in Adam Eaton from second. The Cardinals have one out and even that scored a run.

Victor Robles popped a ball down the right field line that someone, anyone, should have caught. The Cardinals first baseman, second baseman and right fielder were right there. No one did. The ball dropped, the Nationals carouseled around the bases again and Nationals Park exploded. The Cardinals are doing none of the little things right.

Yan Gomes, hitting out of the dreaded catcher’s position (one which has contributed almost nothing to the Nationals offense this postseason), delivered too. His two-run single to left knocked Cardinals starter Dakota Hudson from the game. He threw 15 pitches, faced eight batters and recorded one out. That out was a sacrifice fly from Anthony Rendon which scored a run. It was that kind of night.

Trea Turner singled to left field and drove in Yan Gomes and Victor Robles to continue an absurd first inning. The Cardinals scored 10 runs in the first inning of Game 5 in the NLDS against the Atlanta Braves, so it’s probably best the Nationals stopped short of that.

What Cardinals starter Dakota Hudson did tonight, allowing seven runs on 15 pitches, has only been done once before in baseball pitch-count era (since 1988), regular season or postseason, according to The Athletic. Terry Adams did it on May 5, 2001; he allowed seven runs on 12 pitches.

Pregame

The WNBA champion Washington Mystics led the pregame festivities for what could be the last NLCS game at Nationals Park. The team’s MVP, Elena Delle Donne, threw out the first pitch and threw heat, even though it just missed the strike zone. Mystics Coach Mike Thibault said the two words Nationals Park was ready to hear — “Play ball!” — and the game was off. A win puts the Nationals in the team’s first World Series.

Series overview

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