Yes, they did it again. The unbelievable, late-game-dancing, break-their-foes-hearts Nationals did it again.
Washington has a World Series champion for the first time in 95 years after a 6-2 Game 7 win over the utterly stunned, disbelieving 107-win Houston Astros here Wednesday night, and the only explanations seem to be baseball miracles or deals with the devil.
This time, as if to show that the deeds of these Nats truly are once-per-century stuff, the game-transforming blow was a two-run home run sliced off the right field foul pole
by Kendrick, the same 36-year-old gentleman whose grand slam extinguished the season of the 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers in the division series two weeks ago.
Two teams whose brilliant thinkers believe players of his age are dinosaurs on the edge of extinction have been pushed into a tar pit by Howie.
For the fifth time in an elimination game in this postseason, the Nats came from behind, thundering into the lead with home runs. No team has ever done such a thing. But then no team has had Adam Eaton, Rendon, Soto and Kendrick — every one of them touched with baseball magic — batting second through fifth in its order. All four were at it again in Game 7. In all, that quartet drove in 24 of the Nats’ 32 runs.
This time, the Astros led 2-0 entering the seventh inning behind Zack Greinke, who had allowed just one single at that point. Repeat: one single. The Nats seemed doomed, almost out of breath and baseball sleight-of-hand.
But the Nationals seemed similarly moribund when they trailed the Milwaukee Brewers 3-1 and the Dodgers 3-1 in the eighth inning of elimination games. And look who’s now standing as champs.
Suddenly, it was time for Rendon to do a reprise of his entire late-inning clutch hitting masterwork, unequaled in postseason history. To that point, he had come to bat seven times in the Nats’ five elimination games in the seventh inning or later. In what is several orders of magnitude beyond normal baseball possibility, Rendon produced in those situations a walk, a double, a home run, a double, a home run, a double and, this time in Game 7, another home run, into the seats in left field.
After more than two hours of silence, the Nats finally made a noise — and a loud one.
Next, Soto walked, and Greinke was removed from the game. Don’t ask why, after just 80 pitches, a former Cy Young Award winner with a 2.98 ERA this season would get the hook. But the Astros think they are smart — very, very smart — and that they have the mathematically perfect player for every situation and matchup. Somewhere amid their numbers and graphs, their conclusion was: Bring in Will Harris to neutralize Kendrick.
After a vicious swing and miss at a first-pitch curveball, Kendrick did what smart hitters do: He cut down on his swing and looked at the opposite field. When he got a perfectly placed fastball on the low-outside corner — an ideal pitcher’s pitch — he slapped it high down the right field line. In a few seconds of mounting disbelief, the Houston crowd felt as if it was seeing ghouls and horrors a day early. Surely, Kendrick’s humble effort would go foul — or even be short of the fence.
But Minute Maid Park is just 326 feet to the right-field foul pole, one of the shortest possible homers in major league baseball — and with a low wall, too. In Nationals Park, Kendrick’s ball might have reached the middle of the warning track. But here, in devastated Houston, it hit the foul pole six feet above the top of the wall.
Howie Do It had done it again.
This game had a hidden fulcrum, an inspiring player who made what happened in the final three innings possible: Scherzer.
Heroes can’t help themselves. They hear the call to battle, and they charge toward the sounds of danger. Sometimes, if that admired hero is a general, no one can tell him whether his ideas about the best plan of action are wise or simply brave. Sometimes only the field of battle gives the true answer. And you can’t know until you get there.
For more than three days, Scherzer has been 6-foot-3-inches and 215 pounds of adrenaline in spikes, pure kinetic energy barely contained in a Washington Nationals uniform. After feeling angry, disappointed and perhaps even mortified Sunday when he could not pitch in Game 5 of the World Series because of back and neck spasms, he made it clear that, with the help of a cortisone shot in his neck that day, he planned to pitch a Game 7, if there was one. It was not a point to be discussed.
On Sunday, when Scherzer couldn’t start, Annette Lerner, wife of team principal owner Ted Lerner, remarked what a tough break it was for the team but that, as in the lyrics from “Damn Yankees,” the 1958 Broadway play, “You’ve got to have heart, miles and miles and miles of heart.” That song is sung by the Washington Senators team to inspire itself to beat the New York Yankees.
But sometimes it is almost as important to have luck — and hard-hit outs, miles and miles and miles of outs.
That’s what Scherzer got in his first five jam-filled innings against an Astros lineup that seemed determined to break the speed limit for exit velocity for balls leaving their bats. Several times, Scherzer was one pitch from putting his team in a 4-0 hole or worse.
Sometimes the baseball gods seem to say, “You’ve done enough. You deserve this. So, here’s a little help.” That’s how it seemed for Scherzer, 35 and running out of time for his first World Series ring.
Merely middling Max completed a gallant and perfectly respectable 102-pitch five-inning two-run outing.
Could this Nationals strategy — just hanging within two runs of the Astros — possibly work? As it had all season as they recovered from a 19-31 start with little margin for error? As it worked in the wild-card game, when the Brewers handed the ball to all-star reliever Josh Hader? As it worked when the Dodgers handed the ball to future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw?
In 1914, another team was 12 games under .500 then rallied to get to the World Series. No other team in the 105 years since has come from so far below .500 to reach as many as the Nats 93 wins this year. That team was known then and is still known now by only a nickname since it went on to win the World Series: the Miracle Boston Braves.
But that team survived only one postseason series. These Nationals won four. And escaped five elimination games, in all of which they trailed.
What is the word above “miracle” in sports? Maybe, with the years, an amazing streak, weeks and weeks of defying odds and believing in each other, will just come to be known as “doing a Nationals.”
Presumably, the Nationals have not sold any of their souls this October, but they have certainly broken many wills — in Milwaukee, Los Angeles, St. Louis and now mighty Houston.
And when Eaton provided the coup de grace with a two-run bases-loaded single up the middle for a 6-2 lead in the ninth inning, hearts in Washington, supposedly interior organs unaccustomed to life outside the body, tried to escape their bounds and dance or do the shimmy with Soto or sit next to Kendrick and Eaton as they do a dual car-race home run celebration.
Of course, human hearts can’t do such things. But for many years, for decades and into future generations, when the doings of this team are recalled, hearts will dance and race and scream in joy.
This October has been an out-of-body experience for Washington baseball fans, who seem to levitate over their world, barely believing what they are seeing, game after game, series after series.
But they should, the entire sports world should, because this has been going on since May 24. Since then, including playoffs, the Nats have gone 86-43 — two wins for every loss — and have the best record in baseball.
What they have done this October is dazzling. But it is also in character. The 106-win Dodgers and 107-win Astros may find it hard to believe, even now. But the Nats, at this moment, are their peers.
And, now, their betters, baseball kings with brand new crowns.