With one more comeback win, at the end of a comeback season for the ages, the Nationals were World Series champions. A 6-2 victory over the Houston Astros in Game 7 on Wednesday night sealed it, delivering the first baseball title for the nation’s capital since Walter Johnson’s Senators won their only one in 1924.
Having existed for the better part of five months as a decided underdog — their chances of winning the World Series on May 24, when they were 19-31, were 1.5 percent — the Nationals had come to live for the daily fight for their lives. And now, the fight was over.
Seventh-inning home runs by Anthony Rendon and Howie Kendrick, the former an MVP-caliber third baseman possibly playing his last game in a Nationals uniform, the latter a 36-year-old veteran in the deepest autumn of his career, turned a slim deficit into a slim lead for the Nationals. A tacked-on run in the eighth and two more in the ninth provided some breathing room.
The final out, delivered by reliever Daniel Hudson, settled into catcher Yan Gomes’s glove at 10:50 p.m. Central time, touching off the mad dash to the center of the diamond. A hushed crowd of 43,326 watched the visitors celebrate as the Astros slouched off the field.
And so ended the longest season in Washington baseball history — one that began on a chilly Thursday in late March, cratered in late May, caught fire in the summer months, tested hearts in September and careened through October like a wobble-wheeled wagon set free at the top of a steep hill. This Nationals season was a wild, screaming, impossibly long ride, one that carried them all the way to the doorstep of November.
Take a step back and consider what these Nationals accomplished: They notched all four of their wins in this series on the road, in the building where the Astros had the majors’ best home record in 2019, and became the first team since the 2016 Chicago Cubs to take the World Series by winning Games 6 and 7 on the road. They outhit an Astros offense that ranked among the most potent in history. They hung losses on the Astros’ twin aces — Gerrit Cole in Game 1, Justin Verlander in Games 2 and 6 — and outlasted yet another Houston ace, Zack Greinke, on Wednesday night.
“To win four games on the road in the World Series,” said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the longest-tenured National, “it’s almost fitting for us.”
On a makeshift stage moments after the final out, pitcher Stephen Strasburg, the overpowering victor of Games 2 and 6, was presented with the World Series MVP trophy. The Lerner family, which has owned the team since 2006, stood alongside General Manager Mike Rizzo and Manager Dave Martinez and lifted the Commissioner’s Trophy. Players hugged and waved to their families below. Pitcher Max Scherzer stood off to the side and cried openly.
“I’m speechless,” principal owner Mark Lerner said. “I’ve dreamed of this my entire life.”
There had never been an October like this in the nation’s capital, one so full of baseball and life. The last time a Washington team played in the World Series, the original Senators in 1933, it ended Oct. 7. But in the current, expanded playoff format, with 10 teams and four rounds, this October stretched on for week upon glorious week — an exhilarating ride that took them from Nationals Park on the first night of the month to Minute Maid Park the night before Halloween.
Those two bookend games, the win-or-go-home wild-card game that launched the Nationals’ October and the Game 7 on Wednesday night that ended it, had one thing in common: They were both started by Scherzer.
Three nights earlier, the Nationals’ ace could barely get himself out of bed and couldn’t raise his pitching arm, because of a severe bout of neck spasms that would force the team to scratch him from his Game 5 start at Nationals Park on Sunday. Getting him ready to pitch Wednesday night required a cortisone shot, ample rest and perhaps divine intervention.
Getting him past the Astros’ lineup, the best in baseball this season, would not be as easy.
Scherzer lived in near-constant danger throughout his five innings, allowing only a pair of runs but pitching with traffic on the base paths throughout. One of the great strikeout pitchers of his era, he didn’t record his first in Game 7 until his 17th batter of the night. It was Scherzer’s great fortune that the vast majority of the Astros’ line drives and deep smashes landed in the gloves of his teammates.
That Martinez had failed to get a reliever warmed up as a clearly diminished Scherzer was allowing the Astros’ second run to score in the fifth seemed to be either an egregious mistake or a staggering show of faith in his ace. By the time the fifth ended, the Astros led 2-0 but already had stranded nine base runners.
In other words, after a month of exquisite play and narrow escapes, Game 7 had carried the Nationals to a familiar place. They had spent so much of the past five months playing from behind — from the long slog of digging out of May’s 19-31 hole to the win-or-go-home games of early and mid-October — that it almost brought a perverse sense of comfort. They were at their best, they liked to say, when their backs were to the wall.
Wednesday night marked their fifth elimination game of the month, where a loss would end the season, following one at Nationals Park in the wild-card game, two against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the division series and Tuesday night’s Game 6 win over the Astros. They had trailed in all of them, storming back each time to win. Their reputation as the sport’s ultimate fighters was well earned.
The seventh inning homers by Rendon and Kendrick — the former a no-doubt blast into the stands in left, the latter a bending, twisting, opposite field drive that clanged off the right field foul pole — were merely confirmation. Suddenly, the Nationals’ 2-0 deficit was a 3-2 lead, and they were nine outs from winning the World Series.
By Wednesday night, the Nationals were running on a cocktail of fumes, painkillers, Red Bulls and dwindling supplies of adrenaline. Each player was reduced to his component parts and what each had left in it — how many pitches, how many innings, how many competitive at-bats.
After all the speculation about how the Nationals might piece together the necessary 27 outs for victory, it was as tidy of an affair as they could have dreamed. Scherzer went five, giving way to left-hander Patrick Corbin, their Game 4 starter, now pitching on short rest, who handled the next three innings without incident. And finally, Hudson entered for the ninth and set down the Astros.
“I kept counting down the outs in my head,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “Nine more outs. Eight ...”
Throughout this month, the Nationals left their fans a trove of memory-book moments: Soto’s eighth-inning, three-run single off Milwaukee Brewers relief ace Josh Hader to lift the Nationals to victory in the NL wild-card game, the back-to-back homers from Rendon and Soto off Dodgers icon Clayton Kershaw in the eighth inning to tie Game 5 of the division series and Howie Kendrick’s grand slam two innings later off Joe Kelly to push the Nationals ahead.
The World Series alone featured two excellent starts from Strasburg, the World Series MVP, three homers from Soto and Scherzer’s heroic effort just to get himself to the mound for Game 7.
The Astros may have been baseball’s best team in the regular season — a 107-win juggernaut out of the top-heavy American League, with an offense that ranks among the best in history and a rotation headed by a trio of aces — but they were outplayed across seven games by the Nationals, humble wild-card winners out of the National League.
To the very end, the Nationals played with a joy and camaraderie that is impossible to fake. They were an Internet meme come to life, with their dugout dance parties, “Baby Shark” singalongs, pink sunglasses, Soto Shuffles, champagne-soaked renditions of Latin pop hit “Calma” and their ubiquitous catchphrase: “Stay in the fight.”
The fight lasted as long as it possibly could, through the final date on the baseball calendar. Washington had waited 95 years for another World Series champion. But the wait is over. The next time anyone sees this team, it will be at the championship parade down Constitution Avenue on Saturday.
• Just when it seemed as though the Nationals offense might be done, that it might lean on the pitching once again to deliver the first title in franchise history, Adam Eaton came through again. The right fielder smacked a ball into center that, when Jake Marisnick bobbled it, allowed Victor Robles to sprint home as well. The Nationals suddenly had a commanding 6-2 lead.
• Daniel Hudson, the closer who hates closing, entered with a four-run lead and three outs to get. He was the one who delivered Washington the championship it craved.
• The Nationals added a crucial insurance run in the eighth. Adam Eaton walked and stole second base against Roberto Osuna, and he scampered home on Juan Soto’s huge single to right. The Nationals pushed their lead to 4-2, an invaluable cushion at this point in the game.
• Patrick Corbin, whether he stops now or pitches through the ninth inning, has validated his $140 million contract. The left-hander retired the bottom of the Astros lineup in order in the ninth — Carlos Correa, Robinson Chirino, Jake Marisnick — and pushed the Nationals within three outs of the franchise’s first World Series title.
• Anthony Rendon finally broke the dam against Astros starter Zack Greinke, who was doing his best Jose Urquidy impression to that point. Greinke missed a change-up low and Rendon didn’t. The Houston native put it in the seats in left field.
Zack Greinke was gone and the Nationals were not going to stop. Howie Kendrick waited all series to break out, and he welcomed Astros reliever Will Smith by crushing a two-run home run to right. It was a remarkable moment — unless you’d followed the Nationals all season. This is what they do, and how they do it.
• Patrick Corbin appeared for his second inning of relief four days after throwing 96 pitches in Game 4. He could have tired out. He could have looked less sharp. But he didn’t.
The Nationals left-hander, the starter paid $140 million this offseason, cruised through the inning against the heart of the Astros order. He got Michael Brantley to fly out, Alex Bregman to ground out and after one hiccup — a Yuli Gurriel single — came back to get Yordan Alvarez.
Corbin has been up and down this postseason, putting the season on the ropes in Game 3 of the NLDS against the Dodgers. But when the Nationals needed him most, he came through.
• Zack Greinke is on cruise control. He retired the side in order again — on seven pitches this time — and he’s at 67 total through six scoreless. He’s allowed as many base-runners total (two) as at least Max Scherzer did every inning except the first (one).
• Scherzer’s night is over. (Scherzer’s final line: Five innings pitched, seven hits, four walks, three strikeouts, two runs allowed.) Patrick Corbin took over in the sixth. The Astros roughed Corbin up in Game 4 — four runs in six innings — but the lefty returned to deliver the best Nationals’ inning of the night. He allowed a leadoff single to pinch-hitter Jake Marisnick but erased him two batters later when he got José Altuve to ground into an inning-ending double play. The Nationals stopgapped the 2-0 deficit for another inning.
• The Nationals finally put a runner in scoring position in the fifth inning — and they did in an unconventional way. Howie Kendrick worked a one-out walk and Asdrúbal Cabrera sacrifice-bunted him over. They had a runner, but Kendrick is not a speedster and there were two outs. They were playing for the tying run, but it didn’t work. Ryan Zimmerman popped out to first and Zack Greinke was through five innings on 59 pitches.
• It seemed inconceivable but it was happening. The Astros were warming up a reliever (Gerrit Cole) before the Nationals, even though Zack Greinke had allowed two base-runners total and Max Scherzer had allowed at least two in every inning but one so far.
Michael Brantley led off the fifth with a single through the right side and still the Nationals bullpen did not stir. Scherzer almost squashed all doubts by elevating a fastball to strike out Alex Bregman and getting Yuli Gurriel to ground into a fielder’s choice. Then he walked Yordan Alvarez and, with two on and two out again, it was another dangerous situation for the Nationals starter.
Just then, the Nationals started warming Patrick Corbin. It was too late. Carlos Correa singled down the line to drive in the Astros’ second run.
• Zack Greinke basically gives the Astros another infielder. The defensive prowess that won him five Gold Gloves has appeared all night — a double play in the second, another fielded ground out in the third — but hit another level in the fourth. He saved the defense behind him from having to make two difficult plays against Trea Turner and Adam Eaton and handling them himself anyway. He finished off his last batter, Anthony Rendon, with a strike out. No fielding needed.
• If anything illustrated Max Scherzer’s outing so far, it’s that the strikeout artist’s first strikeout came against his 17th batter of the game. It has to have been a while since it’s taken that long. The further Scherzer goes, the more it seemed like something he said earlier this season could be true.
In late August, when Scherzer returned off the injured list with his back troubles, the starter said he could hit his normal velocity but struggled to execute his off-speed. It looked as though that could be the case again. Or his breaking pitches — normally closer to the zone — aren’t close enough to get patient Astros hitters to nibble. Whatever it is, whatever is preventing Scherzer from his best self, it’s made each inning a minefield.
• The Nationals could not respond to the Astros bats in the third. Yan Gomes and Victor Robles stung balls into the outfield, but neither was a serious threat to land. The aggressive Nationals bats meant Zack Greinke finished the third averaging less than 10 pitches per inning (28 total). This is trouble for a Nationals lineup that looks the Washington version more than the Houston version right now.
• The pitch of the third inning was Max Scherzer’s second to Yordan Alvarez. The Nationals starter, struggling to locate, left a fastball middle-middle and belt-high. The left-handed slugger Alvarez, the one who had terrorized pitchers all season, hacked at the 96-mph fastball. It was the same pitch that’s been hit for homers several times already this series. But Alvarez missed it. He fouled it straight back.
Scherzer, perhaps sensing how lucky he was, battled back to get a fly out to center that was an out but too deep for comfort. Scherzer doesn’t look like himself, but no one warmed in the Nationals bullpen. Aníbal Sánchez is out there and seems like the logical next choice. The Nationals might try to get Scherzer through the bottom of the order in the fourth and then pull the plug if the ace still doesn’t look as though he has it.
Meanwhile, back in Washington:
• Juan Soto led off the second by roping a single to right that boosted his average in this World Series to .333 (8 for 24). The only problem with that, though, is Howie Kendrick grounded into a double play right after. Asdrúbal Cabrera grounded out to first and Zack Greinke had flown through a second straight inning — he’s at 20 total pitches.
• Yuli Gurriel delivered the first run of Game 7 with a rocket into the left-field seats off Max Scherzer. The Nationals starter sneaked a fastball over the plate and at his knees on the third pitch of the at-bat, but then his slider in almost the exact same spot caught too much of the plate. Gurriel put it out.
The threat mounted. Yordan Alvarez and Carlos Correa smacked singles to right through the shift off Scherzer’s fastball. The Astros had runners on first and second with no outs. But then Robinson Chirinos, the No. 8 hitter for the most analytics-driven team in the league, popped out a bunt attempt. It was a surprising move, but Houston got its sacrifice from Josh Reddick when he grounded out to first to move the runners up. George Springer lined out to left on a play that was not routine for Juan Soto. He fell forward and it looked more difficult than it should have been, but he secured the out.
• Zack Greinke only threw eight pitches in the first inning. The ball never left the infield — though against the first batter of the game, Trea Turner, it was because Astros third baseman Alex Bregman made a snare on a hard-hit line drive destined for left field. Adam Eaton and Anthony Rendon made weak contact on their ways out.
Here’s a stat that doesn’t bode well for the Nationals but also could be totally meaningless: The Nationals are 0-3 when Turner doesn’t reach in his first at-bat.
• Max Scherzer hit 96 mph on his first pitch of the game. He had, earlier in this postseason, touched 98 or 99 mph early and worn himself out early in the ballgame. But, in returning from the muscle spasms in his neck and back, he looked under control as opposed to limited.
Scherzer struggled with command, falling behind George Springer 2-0 and Michael Brantley 3-0, but he battled back to escape the inning unscathed. Alex Bregman flied out to right to end it. He looked like himself, and he had his velocity. The biggest question now: How long can he go?
• Two hundred forty-nine days ago, the Astros and Nationals played their first game of spring training with an exhibition in West Palm Beach, Fla. Now they’re playing in Game 7 of the World Series on the last day of the baseball calendar.
• Actor/bro icon/Texas legend Matthew McConaughey asked “Houston, Texas? Are you ready?” and he called out “Let’s play ball!” and the Minute Maid Park crowd went up.
• The Astros, without a win at home in this series, decided to shake things up and play Game 7 in their orange tops. The Nationals countered with their once-unbeatable navy blues. The navy blues lost a bit of luster during the three games in Washington, but the duds still hold clout this postseason (10-3 record). In Game 7, when all superstitions are in full effect, it’s a baseball players’ dream: Best vs. Best (dressed).
• There is no tomorrow. In Game 7, both Astros Manager A.J. Hinch and Nationals Manager Dave Martinez are treating it as such and declared almost all their players available.
The only player from the 50 total active tabbed as unavailable was Astros pitcher Justin Verlander, who started on Tuesday. Martinez did not rule out his Game 6 starter, Stephen Strasburg, who indicated last night he felt gassed.
“If you have a Nats uniform on today and you’re part of 25, I’m going to ask you if you can go,” said Martinez, who added, “I’m going to talk to [Strasburg] later on. Hey, there’s no tomorrow.”
Martinez added catcher Kurt Suzuki, scratched from the starting lineup, could still appear. He talked to the catcher early Wednesday morning and “felt it would be best to just keep him on the bench.” The lineup shake-up was precautionary.
“I like Suzuki coming off the bench if need be, to pinch-hit or even to catch,” Martinez said.
Everyone else is apparently good to go. It’s Game 7 and, in the words of Max Scherzer, let’s go.
• The commissioner discussed the Trea Turner call, the bat-carrying controversy and more.
• Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki was supposed to be back in the starting lineup after missing the last two games with a right hip flexor strain. The 36-year-old hurt himself in Game 4 while blocking a Fernando Rodney change-up in the dirt. He was available in an emergency pinch-hit situation in Game 6, but the team never needed him and elected to let him rest up for a Game 7 start. Instead, Suzuki will not start Game 7 and Yan Gomes will catch for Max Scherzer.
Suzuki and Scherzer formed one of the Nationals’ best batteries this season. His numbers with Scherzer this season: 2.08 ERA in 99 ⅔ innings pitched. Scherzer’s performance when paired with Gomes, however, has been less productive: 4.09 ERA in 72 ⅔ innings.
• The Wizards — led by Juan Soto mega-fan Bradley Beal — continue to show love to the local baseball team. In an odd twist, Houston’s NBA team is in Washington for a game at the same time that Washington’s MLB team is in Houston for Game 7.
Game 7 reading
World Series overview
· Game 7 at Houston — Nationals 6, Astros 2