Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in the National League

2019-10-16 WashingtonNationals
Max (the Knife) Scherzer (31) and Stephen Strasburg (far right) join up as the party starts with finishing reliever Daniel Hudson leaping in the arms of catcher Yan Gomes Tuesday night.

Let’s face it. Three pitching-dominant games are all well and good, for the Nationals and for anyone. But there’s nothing like a little hair-raising to make even a National League Championship Series sweep feel like an honest-to-God battle.

Even die-hard Nationals fans must have suspected it might take some doing, after all, to make it “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in the National League.” But make it the Nats did Tuesday night. And make it easy for them the otherwise overmatched Cardinals didn’t.

And somehow the Nats lived long enough to win 7-4 and sweep the Cardinals who never had even a single half-inning lead in the entire NLCS.

This time, there was no Book-damaged manager to hook a boy wonder an out away from a division series shutout and watch his team implode while leaving his best arm in the bullpen. This time, there was no stretch drive collapse. This time, there was no pair of catching errors (interference and throwing) to push the plunger deeper on a fifth-inning implosion. This time even their injuries couldn’t stop them.

This time, the Nats said nuts to all that.

After demolishing the Dodgers in a fifth division series game to get here in the first place, the Nats won the pennant in a sweep that felt more like they used vacuum cleaners instead of brooms. And had Nationals Park going nuts all Game Four long.

“I can truly say this is the best time of my career,” said series MVP Howie Kendrick, who’d been up and down with the Angels, the Dodgers, briefly with the Phillies, and then endured even a career-threatening Achilles tendon rupture as a Nat in 2018 before returning to hoist the best on-base percentage of his major league life as a role player this year.

“(I)t means a lot to be around those guys. I learn so much from them, and I love these guys just as much as they love me, and I know that 100%,” said Kendrick, who went 5-for-15 in the set and hit three doubles with three runs driven in in Game Three. “I think that’s the big reason why we have success, because we truly care about the next guy.”

Enough to land Washington’s first major league pennant since year one of the New Deal. Its first league championship of any kind since the Homestead Grays won the Negro National League pennant in 1948. Making this the second time a single-team city landed pennants in each league with separate teams.

Milwaukee can brag about two National League pennants and a World Series title with the Braves and one Brewers American League pennant. Washington has three Senators pennants and a World Series title in the American League and, now, one Nationals pennant in the National League.

And in the end it didn’t come quite as easily as reading of the four-game sweep on paper will make it look. “We still got work in front of us,” said Max Scherzer after the game, before diving back into the on-field party. The Nats re-learned about hard work Tuesday night without even trying. And they’d already learned about hard work starting in late May as it was.

A team that yanks itself up from a season-opening 19-31 to get to the postseason in the first place doesn’t reach the World Series without beyond-maximum effort in the end. And survival instincts. And baby sharking a la veteran pickup Gerardo Parra, who introduced it in honour of his little daughter who loves Baby Shark.” And Natitude enough.

“We knew where we were at one point, but we knew where we wanted to go,” said third baseman Anthony Rendon, who faces his first free agency after the postseason is finally over. “The season wasn’t over and back then we were upset, but it was still the first half of the season. You don’t win the division or the World Series in the first half of the season.”

Slice and dice Cardinals starter Dakota Hudson with a little help from momentarily caught-frozen Cardinal fielders? Yank another pair off Adam Wainwright coming in to rescue the poor guy but leave the Cardinals in a 7-0 hole after just one full inning? All well and good. The Cardinals escaped three runs shy of knowing exactly how the Braves felt in division series Game Five.

But don’t let Patrick Corbin spend most of his bullets in the first four innings, when he becomes baseball’s first to strike out double digits in four innings of any postseason games, ever. Even despite surrendering a sort-of excuse-me home run to Yadier Molina that rudely interrupted three more Cardinal strikeouts in the top of the fourth.

Because even pushed out of the boat early, these Cardinals weren’t allergic to the smell of blood in the water yet as they came to the top of the fifth.

A walk, a single, and a walk loaded Cardinals on the pond with nobody out. A ground out to second by Tommy Edman nudged a second Cardinal run home; a two-run double by Jose Martinez yanked the Cardinals back to within three. Then Corbin reached for reserves enough to nail Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna on back-to-back swinging strikeouts to end that uprising before it got genuinely poisonous.

And that seven-run Nats first started looking safe again even with the Cardinals somehow grinding their way back to within three runs. Until it wasn’t.

Until Daniel Hudson relieving Sean Doolittle with two out in the top of the eighth plunked Molina with a man on and walked Paul DeJong to load the Cardinals on the pond. And with Matt Carpenter pinch hitting, the Cardinals were suddenly one solid swing away from changing the game entirely.

But Hudson ran it to 2-2 before luring a ground out to second out of Carpenter to dodge maybe the biggest howitzer shell of the Nats’ season to date. You can’t say the Cardinals went down like canaries. They made the Nats fight for their right to party.

Among numerous sadnesses for the Cardinals is that their bullpen went on from the first inning disaster to throw seven and two-thirds shutout relief, not without some doing, with seven strikeouts, one walk and four hits against them. This is what’s called heroism in a lost cause in some quarters. And it’ll be forgotten against the Nats’ final stand.

Who knew that after Corbin struck out the side swinging to open Game Four that Rendon’s sacrifice fly with nobody out and two on in the bottom of the first would prove the first splash of a profound flood? The Cardinals couldn’t have known, no matter what they did to the Braves. The racket in Nationals Park probably masked that the crowd knew nothing but merely hoped it wouldn’t stop there.

Juan Soto promptly shot one the other way into the left field corner to send Adam Eaton (double) home. After the Cardinals put eventual NLCS MVP Howie Kendrick aboard on the house, the Cardinals’ normally skintight defense betrayed them yet again.

The Nats’ grand old man, Ryan Zimmerman, slashed one up the third base line that Cardinals third baseman Edman stopped with a racing dive, scrambling up to throw to second. And the throw ricocheted off the glove heel of Kolten Wong, the Cardinals’ Gold Glove-caliber second baseman, unusually and unfortunately.

Leaving the bases loaded for Victor Robles in his second game back from a hamstring tweak. He hit a tall opposite field pop fly to shallow right, not far from the line. Wong from second and Goldschmidt from first ran toward the ball. Right fielder Martinez ran in toward the ball. With the three converging it appeared Martinez snapped his glove a time or two indicating he’d have it.

Martinez held up as if thinking Wong would have the play. Except that Wong made one move suggesting he’d back off. The ball hit the grass off Martinez’s left. It might as well have been a bomb drop. And Soto hit the plate with the third Nats run and the sharks still on the docks. Goldschmidt looked like a robbery victim. Martinez looked skyward as if praying.

But Nats catcher Yan Gomes shot one just past a diving Cardinal shortstop Paul DeJong and Kendrick and Zimmerman scored runs three and four. Cardinal manager Mike Schildt pulled his starter for Wainwright, his veteran approaching the end, who’d been magnificent for him all postseason long so far.

After Corbin dropped the kind of sacrifice bunt that some people still think is sacrilege today, Wainwright ran right into Trea Turner, the Nats shortstop who’d started the merry-go-round with a leadoff single. And Turner continued obeying the Nats’ order of the first inning: jump on the first pitch if it looks meaty enough but swing on the second if you must.

Wainwright hung him a curve ball to open. Turner jumped on it, hitting a high liner to left for which Ozuna inexplicably slowed before playing it on the hop when he was a mere step and a half from a catch. Two more Nats runs. The last two Nats runs of the game as things turned out. The last two they’d need the rest of the night.

This is how pumped the Nats were in the first. Only two Nats—Turner leading off—saw third pitches in their plate appearances that inning. Turner smacked a 2-0 sinker without a lot of sink into right field to open; Robles’ bomb drop in almost the middle of Martinez, Goldschmidt, and Wong was a fifth-pitch loft on 1-2 off a sinker hitting the low inside corner. Eaton’s inning-ending line out was a third-pitch curve ball. His one on/no out double, Rendon’s sacrifice fly, Gomes’s two-run single, and Turner’s eventual two-run single, all came on the first pitch of the turns.

And just like the Cardinals against the Braves, the Nats did it without even one ball flying over the fence. Maybe the baseball that was a little hopped up during the regular season did get just a little deadened down this postseason. Maybe. The Nats bombed their way into the NLCS in the first place and surely didn’t mind settling for pistols, machine guns, bazookas, and mere cannons to win Game Four.

Even if they didn’t suspect the Cardinals would put up four in the fourth and fifth. Even if they didn’t suspect three out of their now four-man flying bullpen—rookie Tanner Rainey and veterans Doolittle and Hudson—would have to perform feats of derring-do without nets over the final couple of innings. Derring-do, hell. Hudson had to plug the leak before the Hindenburg exploded in the top of the eighth. Then he got the three NLCS-ending air outs almost in a blink. Almost.

Once upon a time, just a couple of months ago, calls to the Nats bullpen caused Nats fans to reach for the nitroglycerin pills if not call for the crash carts. Now the only thing missing Tuesday night was Rodney not getting a chance to shoot another invisible arrow up, out, and maybe clear through the Capitol Dome.

Wait until the Nats get to tangle with either the Yankees or the Astros in the Serious. They may have to stop that nasty iceberg from hitting the Titanic. And they just might be able to do it. Only one team in baseball scored more runs over the regular season’s final 123 games than the Nats: the Yankees. And if the Astros can hoist Verlander, Cole, and Greinke, with Greinke not exactly a sure thing lately, the Nats can hoist Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Corbin. Plus Anibal Sanchez and his high enough-flying junkyard.

But World Series against either of those teams won’t be the walk in the park (Nationals or otherwise) they took against the Cardinals, and they did get close enough to being mugged near the end. Neither the Yankees nor the Astros are liable to let even the Nats’ stellar pitching do to them what they did so amazingly to the Cardinals, whom the Nats’ arms struck out 48 times in 123 at-bats.

The Cardinals hit .130 as a team with a team .195 on-base percentage; Goldschmidt, who shook off early season struggles to hit 37 home runs, had one hit in the NLCS while striking out nine times. Their best hitter turned out to be Martinez (.500/.500/.700 NLCS slash line) in a mostly part-time role; he went 3-for-8 as a starter in Games Three and Four.

“There’s not one thing you can point to,” said Goldschmidt, before doing just that in his own case. ”I didn’t play well enough to help us win. One hit in four games, that’s not going to cut it when you’re hitting third. It just came back to bite us.” So does being out-scored 20-6 in a four-game set. Oh, that shark bites.

The Nats’ pitching and depth made the difference. The Cardinals didn’t stand a chance against a pitching staff working to a 1.25 ERA and a 0.64 walks/hits per inning pitched rate in the NLCS, while theirs posted a 4.50 ERA/1.41 WHIP. Against Scherzer (eleven strikeouts in Game Two), Strasburg (twelve in Game Three) and Corbin (twelve in Game Four), the Cardinals looked like the victims of three Bob Gibsons.

These Nats aren’t exactly afraid to go the distance if they have to, either. But another kind of distance may yet be in their way: only one team that ever swept a best-of-seven League Championship Series (it was a best-of-five until 1986) went on to win the World Series, the 1995 Braves.

“You can’t simulate that type of emotion that you go through in an NLCS, nor when the World Series starts,” says Jimmy Rollins, now a TBS analyst but long the Phillies shortstop anchorage who was one key to their 2008 World Series winner after winning the NLCS in five.

“You try to use it as rest. Mentally, you’re on. You’re thinking about execution, you’re thinking about who you may face as you’re watching the games, and game planning,” Rollins continues. “You have to do something mentally. Physically, you’re body’s naturally going to shut down for a day or two, then you have to get on the field, get on a treadmill, start throwing and get it revved back up . . . usually this long of a break is the only thing that stops momentum. Hopefully that’s not the case.”

Are you kidding? These Nats aren’t exactly afraid of any worst-case scenario. They survived the worst of all starting in late May. The pitching coach was executed. The team was going to be broken up or at least partially shaved down by the new single mid-season trade deadline. Manager Dave Martinez was going to the guillotine, the lethal injection chamber, the firing squad, or the electric chair. Whichever came first.

A measly week off to keep their minds calibrated, their bodies in tune, and their hearts well enough massaged shouldn’t be that problematic. Should it? Don’t ask now. The Nats are probably still in party mode today. And considering their franchise drought plus their city not having seen a World Series since the year Franklin D. Roosevelt first threw out a first pitch from the boxes at old Griffith Stadium, you can’t blame them.

On Tuesday night, hoisting the National League championship trophy from a podium set up post-game on the infield, Martinez could afford to channel his inner Ecclesiastian. “Often bumpy roads lead to beautiful places,” he told the Nationals Park throng who refused to leave just yet. “And this is a beautiful place.”

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