HOUSTON — In the seventh inning of the final baseball game of the 2019 season, a 36-year-old man, a decade and a half into a career marked by professionalism and consistency and reliable maturity, ran down the dugout stairs, bounced through a line of outstretched hands and danced. He danced and danced and danced. He hopped and spun as his colleagues followed. He sat and revved an invisible car into gear. And as he yelled, his teammates yelled, dancing with the rare joy that comes from watching what once felt impossible materialize just in time.

Howie Kendrick’s two-run homer, which came when the Washington Nationals were trailing and put them ahead in Game 7 of the World Series, changed the legacy of this franchise and everyone in it. And like his grand slam in the division series, it taught an eternally skeptical fan base trained by repeated October disappointment a refreshing new habit: belief.

Moments earlier, the Nationals were eight outs away from ending their season agonizingly close to a title, exhibiting no signs of the magic they had shown over and over when the end seemed near. And then, just like that, they stared down logic yet again, this time with a home run that somehow hung in there — just as they had done all season.

Zack Greinke was dominating the Nationals. They tried to square up his curve and failed. When they swung at his fastballs, they chopped them to the infield. For six innings, they simply had no chance.

Watch as fans celebrated the National’s first World Series title in franchise history on Oct. 30. (The Washington Post)

But then came the seventh, which began like the others — with a routine groundball to first. Then came Anthony Rendon, who had worked Greinke deep into counts in his earlier at-bats but had never gotten much further than that. This time, he homered. In the seventh inning or later of the five elimination games the Nationals played this October, Rendon has doubled three times and homered three times.

Then Soto walked. Greinke had pitched carefully to Soto before, so that he walked him didn’t necessarily signal that he was starting to tire. But Houston Astros Manager A.J. Hinch didn’t wait. He called on Will Harris to face Kendrick. Harris pitched to a 1.50 ERA in 68 appearances this year. He struck out more than a batter an inning. Kendrick had faced Harris three times this series. He was 0 for 3 against him. The matchup made sense.

Were this game being played in Washington, Kendrick might not have been next to bat. When the Nationals faced Greinke at home without a designated hitter, Manager Dave Martinez chose Asdrúbal Cabrera to start at second base instead of Kendrick. His career numbers against Greinke were far better than Kendrick’s. They were far better than most Nationals’ numbers actually.

The Nationals celebrate beating the Astros in Game 7 to win the 2019 World Series on Oct. 30. (The Washington Post)

But because the game was in Houston, Kendrick was hitting fifth. He swung through a curveball. Then Harris threw him a fastball, low and away and on the black — a pitcher’s pitch, the kind the best hitters in baseball hope to hit hard the opposite way. Kendrick, a .294 career hitter who never seems to get the credit he deserves for that statistical consistency, hit a line drive the opposite way. It began to sink and seemed destined to dive into the outfield wall or grass. It sliced toward the foul line and seemed destined to curl into foul territory.

But before it could fall or go foul, before the Nationals’ bench, willing and prodding it to stay fair, could exhale in disappointment, something unthinkable happened: The ball did exactly what the Nationals — and thousands of fans watching at rainy Nationals Park and who knows how many more yelling at televisions around the District — were willing it to do: It hit the foul pole.

The man whose unthinkable extra-inning grand slam pushed the Nationals past the division series for the first time, the man whose Game 5 swing against the Los Angeles Dodgers exorcised years of division series demons and launched the Nationals into an improbable October run, had given them the lead in Game 7 of the World Series.

“Stay fair!” Kendrick said, when asked for his thoughts, his sons next to him after the game.

“I knew it had a chance, but I thought it might have hit the wall. But I like Chick-fil-A a lot. I’m so happy it hit the pole.”

Kendrick wasn’t supposed to be the hero. The Nationals first acquired him from the Philadelphia Phillies, before the Phillies went all in, in a post-waiver deadline deal that cost them a minor league left-hander and nothing more. They signed him to a two-year deal before the 2018 season — figured he would be a nice bench piece to have around. When he ruptured his Achilles’ that season, his career looked as if it might be over. Men his age don’t always bounce back from injuries like that. Men his age don’t normally bounce around dugouts, either.

Asked later, Kendrick said his grand slam against the Dodgers was still the most memorable moment of his career. But that World Series homer will linger in the minds of everyone else, like his family, who yelled, “Dad made history!” when he found them in the mob. Or Harolyn Cardozo, Mike Rizzo’s longtime assistant, who walked over to him in tears and wrapped him in a hug.

“It was all worth it,” Kendrick told her, feet firmly on the ground again. Kendrick is normally the grounded one, the mature presence, the vet.

But he was also the one at the center of that celebration, which was all the more remarkable because it was orchestrated. Kendrick and the Nationals had done it all before. They had been celebrating remarkable turnarounds all season, enough that everyone in the dugout knew their place — enough that Kendrick, the grizzled veteran, knew when to hop and where to bounce, when to spin and when to yell. He and the Nationals spent so much of this season dancing, and thanks to that seventh-inning swing, they don’t ever have to stop.

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