- - Thursday, October 10, 2019

Thanks to the surprising Washington Nationals, baseball fans in the nation’s capital are finding out what fans in other cities have known for years: The game is a heck of a lot more fun when your team is winning in October.

The Nationals knocked off the heavily favored Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 5 of the NL Division Series on Wednesday night with Howie Kendrick’s slump-busting, 10th-inning grand slam. Washington now advances to the best-of-seven NL Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals with Game 1 at Busch Stadium on Friday night. The NLCS winner gets the right to play in the World Series.

Kendrick’s epic hit launched the Nationals into the team’s deepest foray into the postseason since coming to Washington — and sent fans back home into a frenzy.

“Probably the biggest moment in my career,” Kendrick said. “It is definitely a dream come true.”

There were scenes of bedlam at the watch party at Nationals Park, with fans crying out in joy amid hugs and high fives. Twitter and social media erupted with congratulatory messages and videos of impromptu living-room celebrations.

On sports talk shows the next day, the woeful 0-5 Washington Redskins were an afterthought as the upstart Nationals got top billing for a change. Then, before the afterglow of Wednesday’s heroics could subside, attention shifted to the Cardinals who were already trash-talking about the NLCS, even before finding out who their opponent in the next round would be.

“I don’t give a [expletive] who we play,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt told his team after they advanced Wednesday by crushing the Atlanta Braves. “We’re going to [expletive] them up.”

Shildt apologized on Thursday, after his fiery clubhouse speech went viral.

The Nationals may have something to say about Shildt’s boast. The Nationals had losing records in the regular season against both the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers, only to send them packing into the winter. Along the way, the Nationals became the first team in major league history to win two elimination games after trailing 3-1 in the eighth inning both times.

The Nationals’ NLCS appearance is the furthest a Washington baseball team has advanced in the postseason since the Senators lost in the 1933 World Series.

The Nationals had reached the NLDS four previous times, but lost each one, with three of the losses coming in Game 5.

Many fans wanted the Nationals to fire second-year manager Dave Martinez in late May when the team got off to a dreadful start. But the team earned a wild card spot, came back to beat the Brewers at home in that game, and then slayed a Dodgers team that won 106 games in regular-season play and had appeared in the past two World Series.

Now the Nationals face a Cardinals team that won five of their seven meetings this year. Washington is 9-21 this decade in St. Louis and has won just two series there since 2005.

The Cardinals have won the World Series 11 times, most recently in 2011, and have appeared in the playoffs six times this decade. St. Louis beat Washington in the 2012 NLDS despite a walk-off homer in Game 4 by Jayson Werth. The walkoff was the most iconic homer in Nationals’ history until Kendrick inserted himself into local baseball lore with his grand slam.

St. Louis is expected to start veteran right-handed pitcher Adam Wainwright (14-10, 4.19 ERA) on Friday at 8:08 p.m. The Nationals announced they will go with right-hander Anibal Sanchez (11-8, 3.85 ERA).

Washington ace Max Scherzer is on track to start Game 2 Saturday at 4:08 p.m. with the series moving to Washington for Games 3, 4 and (if necessary) 5 from Monday through Wednesday.

The Cardinals get the home-field edge since they won a division title, while the Nationals were a wild-card qualifier.

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