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For heroic Nationals, ghosts of playoffs past are busted in Game 5

Juan Soto circled the bases ahead of Howie Kendrick after Kendrick’s decisive slam in the 10th inning.
Juan Soto circled the bases ahead of Howie Kendrick after Kendrick’s decisive slam in the 10th inning. (Adam Davis/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

LOS ANGELES — In some way, this entire season was about how it started and how they responded. The Washington Nationals were 19-31 on May 23, dead and done — then played the rest of the season on a 107-win pace to make the postseason. They were down two runs with four outs to give in the National League wild-card game — and won.

And here they were Wednesday night, somehow in a tempest in Southern California. The Los Angeles Dodgers had milked 117 pitches from their star on the rise, right-hander Walker Buehler. The Nats had mostly flailed. They trailed by two runs. They had six outs remaining. And they faced the generational left-hander, Clayton Kershaw.

Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Howie Kendrick — ready for your capes?

“This team, man,” Max Scherzer said. “This team.”

We’re in new territory, Washington, because the Nats on Wednesday night embodied the Nats in 2019, and they have now busted open this postseason with a mind-bending 7-3 victory in Game 5 of their National League Division Series that wasn’t decided until Kendrick’s grand slam in the top of the 10th.

Finally, someone else felt the heat. For once, the Nats forced a fold, one that will be felt for years around here. And for the first time, Washington will appear in a National League Championship Series because of all of it — performance, for sure, but personality and perseverance, too. The situation — in the season, or in a game — didn’t matter. The Nats entered the sixth inning Wednesday trailing 3-0, entered the eighth trailing 3-1 — and won going away.

“A lot of teams would have folded,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “A lot of teams would have pointed fingers. This team is resilient.”

Nationals finally break through to NLCS on Howie Kendrick’s 10th-inning grand slam

Nationally, the result will hang on Kershaw, because as great as he is (or was), he failed — and epically — in the postseason again. The Dodgers’ World Series drought now reaches 31 years, and that one fact will haunt Kershaw through the holidays. Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts might not enjoy his egg nog given he set up the legend to fail, and he was booed roundly by a rapidly exiting Dodger Stadium crowd when he appeared on the field in the 10th. Yet it’s on Kershaw, a tragic figure.

But in the District, why not make this about heroes rather than goats? That’s what, for the first time in a postseason history riddled with gut punches and gray hairs, we have now.

Oh, and make it about ghosts, too. Because they’ve suddenly vanished.

“We’ve been battling so many years to be able to push through,” Scherzer said in a raucous and sopping visitors’ clubhouse. “And we’ve been in some tough, tough losses. To finally come through with a huge win, man. Man. I can’t. . . . That’s it.”

The emotions are hard to describe. The heroes aren’t. Get to them pronto.

We have Rendon, the Nats’ best player, with a double to start the Nationals’ first rally in the sixth, then an absolute blast off Kershaw to open the eighth, pulling them within a run, creating hope in the first base dugout and doubt on the third base side. That would have been enough. But Tony Two-Bags added one more pure stroke, a double to put runners on second and third in the 10th.

We have Soto, the wunderkind who struts, of all things, his takes, and finally admitted Wednesday he does it to rattle opposing pitchers. The thing about his eighth-inning at-bat against Kershaw, already wounded by Rendon: Soto didn’t have a take about which to strut. Instead, he welcomed the only pitch he saw, an 89-mph slider, into his kitchen and immediately sent it back from whence it came, a missile out to right-center. One more nugget: Soto is so dangerous that Roberts ordered him intentionally walked by Joe Kelly to load the bases in that fateful 10th.

And we have Kendrick, once a Dodger, in the lineup because of his bat despite his questionable defense. These Nats were the first contending team without Bryce Harper, the departed free agent who left them not only with less star power but without a key left-handed bat. And yet, Roberts froze when tasked with navigating Rendon-to-Soto-to-Kendrick, right-to-left-to-right.

“That’s the gauntlet that teams have to run through,” Rizzo said. “When we go our top five, six hitters, we’re as good as anybody. And in those situations, I feel good that they’re going to make something happen.”

When Kendrick came up to face Kelly, he had contributed the following: an error, two strikeouts, a grounder that turned into a double play and a flyball on which Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger made an acrobatic catch. But the acceptable results here included a squibber off the end of the bat that found a hole. Or a medium-deep flyball that could score Adam Eaton from third.

He fouled off a curveball but had a notion. The 0-1 pitch would be heat.

“I was sitting fastball,” Kendrick said.

Boswell: Howie Kendrick keeps the party going, and the Nats are dancing into the NLCS

What moments, in the relatively brief history of this franchise’s existence in the District, stand out? There will always be something about Liván Hernández on the mound at RFK Stadium, because baseball returned in April 2005 after a three-decade drought. Ryan Zimmerman christened the new yard with a walk-off homer on national television three years later, but that team lost 100 games. Harper wrapped his head in a District flag and won the Home Run Derby last summer, but that was an exhibition, and then Bryce bolted.

For years, the best postseason memory to which the Nats could point was Jayson Werth’s walk-off homer in Game 4 of the 2012 Division Series against St. Louis. It was an indelible moment, and it created the first Game 5 at Nationals Park. But in the end, the series was lost in a manner that will make you double over still.

Nice moment. Didn’t matter. Ultimately, it didn’t matter.

Now, though, we have Kendrick turning around 97 mph from Kelly. Grand slam. Ballgame.

“You couldn’t dream of something like that,” Kendrick said.

When are those flights to St. Louis? The Nats now have their moments that matter.

They also have more baseball to play, and because of that, we can further buy in to who they are. Five years ago, when the underdog San Francisco Giants won the wild-card game to win the right to take on the best-in-the-NL Nats, veteran pitcher Tim Hudson asked the question that would define the series: “What do you have between your legs?”

Howie Kendrick’s grand slam sent euphoria from Dodger Stadium all the way to Nats Park

These Nats have, um, a spine — and more. Baby Shark. Stay in the Fight. Go 1-0 today. Home run dances. Gimmicks? Fine. Don’t go questioning them now, because we have evidence — hard-earned evidence — of the results.

Kurt Suzuki completing a seven-run, ninth-inning comeback against the Mets. Stephen Strasburg coming out of the bullpen against the Brewers. Soto with the hit that won that game. Scherzer out of the ’pen in Game 2 to strike out the side. Zim with the three-run bomb and Max with an empty-the-tank 109 pitches in Game 4, forcing the flight here.

And now, Howie Kendrick against Joe Kelly.

There were more heroes Wednesday night. There could be more heroes still. What’s important: This game had a different flavor. This team has a different flavor. So it’s fair to say the end will have a different flavor. You could have said that had they lost Wednesday night. But they didn’t. They won.

Let’s see what that tastes like for another week — or more.

Read more on the Washington Nationals:

NLCS preview: Nationals’ new kids on the block meet the Cardinals’ old guard

Clayton Kershaw, of all people, let the Nationals back into Game 5

How Stephen Strasburg became virtually unhittable at the perfect time

Juan Soto is a very quick learner. Just listen to his English.

Max Scherzer’s catchers have a story to tell

Ovechkin and Zimmerman, D.C.’s longest-running bromance, stole the show at Nationals Park