A sellout crowd of 43,675 can’t spontaneously yell words in unison without scripting. Souls, even baseball-loving souls, are not that tightly connected. But if a crowd of such size could articulate, with perfect diction and in unison, its deepest desire suddenly turned into a firm belief, those words would’ve been, “It’s finally going to happen!”
“It,” of course, has not happened yet — the return of a Washington baseball team to the World Series for the first time since 1933.
But the Nationals now lead this best-of-seven NLCS, 3-0. So far, St. Louis has been squashed flatter than a stack of 25 Cards. One more win is required to visit the World Series for the fourth time in Washington history, joining 1933, 1925 and 1924.
However, this old game has been holding postseason tournaments since 1903, and this is the number of times that a team trailing 3-0 in a seven-game series has come back to win: one.
So many people have waited so long for this. I don’t even think owner Ted Lerner remembers the 1933 World Series — he was only 8.
“He always talks about going to the 1937 All-Star Game at Griffith Stadium as an early memory,” said principal owner Mark Lerner, Ted’s son. “[Tuesday] is my father’s 94th birthday. I want it so bad for my dad. It’d bring us all to tears.”
This night had the feeling of a three-hour celebration more than a competition. The Nats beat not only the Cardinals but their ace Jack Flaherty, the pitcher with the best ERA in the NL in the second half of the season: 0.94. The Nats moved that decimal point one space, up to 9.00 for the night, with four runs in just four innings.
All night, the crowd, often standing on two-strike counts, implored pitcher Stephen Strasburg, a symbol of Nats power himself, to ring up another strikeout. He obliged, fanning 12 in seven innings without yielding an earned run.
However, it was the eruptions for Nats runs that had a visceral, utterly uninhibited, doubt-free sense of release like nothing before in the 15 years since big league ball returned to Washington. This is not the teams of 2012, or 2014, or 2016 or 2017 that, despite 95 to 98 wins, found ways to not get past the division series. This is the team that has already won three elimination games this October — over Milwaukee in the wild-card game and in Games 4 and 5 to shock the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team most believed to be far superior.
“We’ve been playing pressure games for months,” said Rendon, who’s hitting .379 in this postseason with an 1.109 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. “We just want to ride the wave as long as we can.”
In the fifth inning Monday, just as he had in the fourth, Kendrick rifled an identical-trajectory petrified rope of a double — this time off the left-center field wall — to drive in Rendon, who had a single, double and walk. Next, Ryan Zimmerman, the dignified old soldier of the bunch, drilled another double to score Kendrick for a 6-0 lead.
Victor Robles homered in the sixth for a 7-0 lead that sounded tantamount to a forfeit with Strasburg on the mound. The blast got the whole place standing — a posture the fans seldom abandoned for the rest of the evening.
If this night had a symbolic moment — not just for the present, but for the future — it came in the seventh inning. The Cardinals, on three singles and an outfield slip for an error by Juan Soto, finally scored a run off Strasburg. Manager Dave Martinez came to the mound.
“You grabbed your hamstring,” Martinez said.
“No, I cramped up. I want to stay,” Strasburg replied.
“I’m . . . in . . . the . . . game,” Strasburg said.
“Let him finish [the inning],” catcher Kurt Suzuki said.
Strasburg struck out the next two Cardinals, Nos. 11 and 12. His career postseason ERA is now back to 1.10 after allowing no earned runs in seven innings.
The respect and affection that Strasburg has earned in Washington is something it might take him another 10 seasons to capture in another town. After his 21 wins this season, including three so far in the playoffs, and the astronomical likelihood that he will have been the Nats’ No. 1 horse in reaching the World Series, it is almost unthinkable that the Lerner family, Strasburg and his agent will not be able to massage his deal enough to keep him in D.C., perhaps even beyond his current “final” year of 2023, much like the Dodgers extended Clayton Kershaw under similar circumstances after he had helped the Dodgers reach the World Series.
The Nats crowd also did its best “MVP! MVP!” chants for Rendon, who in addition to his hitting made one of his most amazing dive-left, reflex-stab, snag-it-after-it’s-past-you robberies at third base.
Rendon, who is in his walk year, is a trickier proposition. But it is a truism in baseball that the further a team goes in October, especially if it makes the World Series, owners suddenly find additional funds to keep stars because . . . they deserve it.
A franchise that has not been to a World Series within the memory of anybody younger than Ted Lerner can feed off that success at the box office for years. Whatever Rendon contract talks are at, just add 10 percent or so and make the whole Nats Nation jubilant.
You think, perhaps that there is no Nationals Nation? Wait until you wake up the morning after the Nats win one more game against the Cardinals. Immigration requests to that happy country, no longer plagued by playoff doubts, may be a long list indeed.
For the final memory of a night that sets the stage for unexpected glory, perhaps soon, for a team that was left for dead in late May, just recall the greeting for Strasburg as he returned to the dugout after his 12th and final strikeout.
Gerardo (Baby Shark) Parra, Aníbal Sánchez and Max Scherzer cornered him — as teammates also did after his final regular season game — and encircled him in the kind of group hug that, in earlier years, might have embarrassed the self-contained Strasburg in the extreme.
“Not much of a hugger,” Strasburg grinned afterward. “But they surrounded me.”
This time — again — he seemed to love it. Why wouldn’t he? After all, on Monday night, all 25 Nats, their coaches and manager, General Manager Mike Rizzo, anybody associated with this Stay in the Fight team, was encircled and trapped in an enormous hug — from 43,675 in attendance and hundreds of thousands more who would have if only their arms could stretch for miles.
One more win, never an easy one to get, and there will be champagne and citywide offers of appreciative kisses, too.